IT IS A TERRIBLE indictment of the times we live in that so much of its great literature is prison literature. And yet it is our good fortune that men like Breyten Breytenbach can return from hell with a masterpiece.
Breytenbach, like Solzhenitsyn, survived incarceration by standing siege in the castle of his mind against evil. The comparison between the two men is inevitable, because, despite their apparent political divergence, both writers are like erupting volcanoes, their prose swirling up from the depths, majestic to behold but almost too sulphurous to breathe.
The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist vindicates the life of the mind. Seven years as a political prisoner in South Africa -- two of them in solitary confinement -- produced a testament of both love and loathing for humanity. In the end it is love that overcomes loathing, as Breytenbach rises above the horrors of an underworld. With this book Breytenbach, variously described in the publisher's blurbs as "the leading Afrikaner poet of his generation" and "one of South Africa's finest contemporary writers," also says farewell to Afrikanerdom and regionalism by choosing to write directly in English.
Towards the end of The True Confessions, when Breytenbach has purged his mind of the filth and degradation of prison life, he describes how the book was written: "The document itself took shape from the obsessive urge I experienced during the first weeks and months of my release to talk talk talk, to tell my story and all the other stories. It must have been rather horrible for him or her who happened to be victim to my vomiting. So I was advised to talk it into a tape." Breytenbach's wife then transcribed the tapes and Breytenbach went to work defining, deleting and shaping the texts. It was perhaps, the only way to get a seven-year nightmare between covers. It would surely have been too painful to write in cold blood.
THE RESULT is a testament of suffering and exultation -- a powerful document, full of humanity, expressing a limitless love for life. He writes on one occasion that while he was in prison ordinary things took on an importance they never had before: "Birds and words and other forms of life may be striking one so forcefully because they are seen separately, in isolation and therefore imbued with far more penetrating importance." He also observes that, "You grow rich with the richness of the very poor; the smallest sign of life from outside becomes a gift from heaven, to be cherished. You relish these things for what they are, stripped of your own overbearing presence. A blanket really is a blanket, and though it is grey, it has a million colurs in it. A bird, when it comes to rest at night in the gutter running round the outside of the roof, really does make a range of comments and it has a rich relationship with its partner. You roll and smoke a cigarette and its aroma is worth all the valleys of Turkey. You find a brown chrysalis in the small courtyard. . . . You take it inside and you watch the fascinating birth of a death's head moth. . . . No king was ever as blessed as you are. The days aren't long enough!"
Terrorist? What kind of terrorist was Breyten Breytenbach? He was arrested by the South African security forces when he was about to leave the country after a clandestine visit under a false name. He was convicted of "terrorism" after two trials, the second rigged while he was serving a prison term. The fuss was over the Okhela Manifesto, a document outlining strategies for the South African liberation struggle, which he had taken to his native South Africa to discuss with the resistance movement there. He had also taken on the task of coordinating groups in opposition to the South African government and linking them with his own exile organization. The manifesto, an earnest Fabian-like document, is printed at the end of the book. It is preceded with some advice to would-be revolutionaries:
"Do yourself a selfish favour: if you want to remain whole, recognize the humanity of your enemy. . . . Don't make a fool of yourself by killing him. No cause can justify the destruction of life.
"After all, we are all blood brothers and sisters."
This comes at the end of "A Note for Azania" the last in a series of postcripts which conclude his jail memoir.
Earlier in the same passage he muses on the future: "How can we advance unless we destroy racism? I don't believe that enough Whites of the ruling caste can be influenced to become humane and thus obviate a dragged out civil war. They are captives of the system they still create and maintain. Racism and corruption have alienated them too profoundly. (And their White critics are just dogs yapping behind the hill.)"
It is not easy to say whether Breytenbach's political forecasts are accurate. He admits that he set out to write a political document and failed; and he acknowledges that as a political agent he was merely "a foolish fellow." But his literary achievement is so considerable that the political impact of The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist is like the blast of a truck bomb. He holds up a mirror to the South African penal system, which in turn reflects the self-destructive madness of apartheid. Yet Breytenbach does not forget to offer "a kind thought to some of the poor bastards who lead their twisted lives defiling mankind by extorting and oppressing and punishing and ruling in the name of 'security'." A remarkable man. A magnificent book.