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Paradise and loss in the mirror vision of Breyten Breytenbach.

The doubled name - Breyten Breytenbach - is appropriate for this poet of the mirror, this theorist of the double. His split identity is a birthright. As an Afrikaner of conscience, seeing past the screen of justice in the formerly pro-apartheid South African government, Breytenbach's call for equality in social affairs may also have hastened the demise of his tribe's implacably powerful presence in Africa. For Breytenbach, international fame began with the national recognition of his poems in his first language, Afrikaans. Yet he came to renounce both that heritage - saying "I am not an Afrikaner any more" - and the language, calling it a "language for inscription on gravestones" ("Breyten Breytenbach" 6). Family relations suffered from this splitting; his parents gave birth to Breyten the dissident, but more faithful to their Afrikaner heritage were his brothers, Jan, famous in South Africa as the head of a security unit commando squad, and Cloete, a photojournalist whose work reflected the conservative party line in political matters.

There is, as well, a split between the Breytenbach who entered South African prisons in 1975, convicted for treason against the state, and the Breytenbach who emerged seven years later.(1) "I did not survive," he asserts in his prison memoir The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. This nonsurvival is a self-proclaimed dehiscence, an avowed diachronic splitting of the subject "Breytenbach" before and after incarceration. I read Breytenbach's strategic divestiture of the "I" against the resonance of the political "I," the "we" of collective resistance, and the nationalist group self. In the oppressive atmosphere of apartheid South Africa, one survival strategy for blacks was a fierce insistence on identity, on fixing a subject position, the collective strength of which would eventually demand recognition by the powerful white minority.

Foreseeing the ascension to power of the South African majority black population, Breytenbach's later writings are, in part, cautionary notes against repeating the mistakes of Afrikaner nationalism, or the bloody reprisals of other African revolutionary powers. The months preceding the historic vote in April 1994, when national, ethnic, and political groups fought pitched street battles and waged campaigns of terror to disrupt progress toward democracy, seemed to confirm the worst of Breytenbach's fears.(2) Yet in the aftermath of the surprisingly peaceful election process, and in Nelson Mandela's pledge to share power in that country, there is also much to be optimistic about.

Breytenbach's residence in the "de-centered self," his celebration of the "chameleon" as a metaphor of nomadology, allows speculation about the potential value of the unfixed identity in a transforming world. His is a position whose terms seem to be borrowed from French deconstruction and poststructuralism, yet in various forums he takes his distance from what he generically calls "french thinking." His critique of French intellectuals centers on issues of absence - "jargon junkies who cannot see that they take and mistake the progression of logic for a lived reality, a description of flight for the realness of the pigeon" (Memory 75) - yet he utilizes the trope of absence to develop a personal text of an "in process" subjectivity.

My appraisal of Breytenbach's strategies of self-presentation views him, through his own writing, in what I call his mirror's blind spots: that of black African collective consciousness and that of poststructuralist thought. Inherent to both facets of the analysis is the category of risk, which for my purposes is defined within a Hegelian structure of emergent subjectivity, most notably in the master-slave dialectic. A theoretical poststructural examination of risk is offered by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, for whom the social deferral of risk creates the bar to the Real. In the defiant consciousness of the South African freedom fighter, the acceptance of risk as the possible price for freedom is epitomized in Nelson Mandela's often quoted concluding words from the sentencing dock at Rivonia in 1964, where he said, "I am prepared to die."(3)

Facial Politics/The Panoptic Prism

The mirror abounds in Breytenbach's oeuvre, gaining an agency beyond the passive role of mere reflection. This may be a product of Breytenbach's practice as a painter, where in his many self-portraits the reflected image becomes, in its transport to canvas, transformed into a dreamscape of self-presentation. The cover of a volume entitled Judas Eye and Self-Portrait/Deathwatch is illustrated with a self-portrait of a child Breytenbach astride a bird and in a jail cell, looking at the adult Breytenbach's eye as it scrutinizes him through a keyhole. The same sense of the inescapable judgment of the gaze is forecast in the prison poem "Mirror-fresh Reflection" when he compares his image to the South African security forces, calling it "my very own intelligence spook," of whose eternal vigilance he says, "I'll be yours till the end of time / and you are / mine, mine, mine" (Judas 41). The sense of constant and inevitable surveillance is intensified in prison as Breytenbach writes under the eye of the censor and as he theorizes the relationship between the detainee and interrogator. It multiplies when he assesses his role in the structural relation to his "dark mirror brother," the black South African.

The struggle in the mirror is for Breytenbach a perpetual quest for a presentable sell one that will be respected and admired by the worthy "object-choice."(4) This desire is complicated for Breytenbach by his willed separation from his Afrikaner heritage. Against the "tribe" (the prevailing and recurrent label given to the Afrikaner people), the individual with a strong ego seeking an outside audience is a priori an outcast. The collective self is imprinted on the Afrikaner in the history and lore of its development, in the narrative of the heroic struggle by which it separated from those who would deny it existence and deny it its unique character. The inclusion of each member in a race of people who is under siege strengthens loyalty, increases dependence on the collective unit for safety and for force against its enemies. The characteristics of "cruelty and intolerance towards those who do not belong" to the group is well observed in South Africa (Freud, Group Psychology 30). The narrative of the Afrikaner is designed to "equip the group with the attributes of the individual" (19), which for Freud is a necessary step in the evolution of the group self.

For the artistically tempered Breytenbach, however, differentiation was valued over identification. His choice of the "English" University of Cape Town and its Michaelis School of Art over the Afrikaans University of Stellenbosch, his departure to bohemian exile in Paris, and his marriage to the Vietnamese-born Yolande could all be considered betrayals by the Afrikaner elite.(5) Despite the distance he puts between himself and his countrymen, it is the Afrikaans-speaking community who honor Breytenbach as a poet. Subsequently, it is the international liberal community who solicits Breytenbach as a spokesman for South African oppositional politics. This reflection of Breytenbach's worth in the public sphere is a primary narcissism, a necessary self-validation which creates the strength of the ego. For Breytenbach the artist, however, this kind of approval threatens to subsume him into the collective self of the tribe, when what he values is separation, difference. Differentiation from the group self hinges on approval from a radical Other.

In Lacan's mirror of self-construction, the last phase of fixing one's self in the mirror is "the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development" (Ecrits 4). For Breytenbach the artist, for whom images are altered and rearranged to create new realities, alienating identity is maintained within a pliable structure. His manifesto for survival, harbinger of the chameleon, is announced in the "Pretext" to End Papers:

To survive you will have to let yourself go - the right way: the attachment to an unchangeable and perhaps immortal ego is necessarily disposed of. . . .

. . . to survive, to create the vital living space, to keep optional the perspective of self as something unique - and thus the possibility to live with the self even if you don't much respect it - you will have to keep on inventing yourself.


Thus Breytenbach's reinventions lead him to perceive many faces in the mirror, adaptations which are the chameleon's defensive strategies for survival. It is the desire to be recognized as a revolutionary and activist that led him to adopt the mask of "albino terrorist" and the nom de guerre of Christian Galaska. It is in this manifestation that Breytenbach, quite possibly detected on the plane into South Africa, arrived to work as a liaison between labor organizers outside South Africa and potential operatives inside the country. After almost certainly being tailed by security agents throughout his stay, he was eventually apprehended at Jan Smuts International Airport. Upon detention, his romantic image was easily shattered.

Narrowing the Gaze: Public Eye to Judas Eye

The self-disgust of the prisoner comes from the alienation he has been brought to.

Breytenbach, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist

After the spectacular success of a 1973 trip through South Africa, including an overtly political speech at Stellenbosch University, Breytenbach, determined to demonstrate the capacity to assume the risk involved in activism, was, according to South African novelist Andre Brink, anxious "to prove that there was more to him than words, words, words" (qtd. in Cope 177).(6) Having gone on record saying that the fate of the revolution was in the hands of the blacks, he was nevertheless drawn to the principles of the underground organization Okhela, whose "supposed aim was, by sabotage and other guerilla action, to convince the black resistance movements that freedom-loving whites were also prepared to fight for the overthrow of apartheid" (Cope 178). Establishing a self-image of the white activist prepared to face the same consequences confronting black dissenters in their struggle for recognition flew in the face of Breytenbach's confessed fears. Ten years earlier in a volume of poetry entitled Die ysterkoei moet sweet (The iron cow must sweat) he had written:

But keep Pain far from Me o Lord That others may bear it Be taken into custody, Shattered Stoned Suspended Lashed Used Tortured Crucified Cross-examined Placed under house arrest Given hard labour Banished to obscure islands till the end of their days.

(And Death as White as Words 9)

And in 1973, after being summoned to the police office for minor infractions connected to a visit with African National Congress leader Robert Sobukwe, Breytenbach found himself ill-prepared to face the Security Branch: "Well, B. was shaking in his boots. In spite of his big mouth, he had but little experience at this kind of game" (Breytenbach, Season 201).

By 1970 Breytenbach's concerns about the futility of literature standing against brutality were announced in poem titles like "Not with the Pen but with the Machine-Gun." In a blatant example of what South African writer J. M. Coetzee calls Breytenbach's attempt "to turn transgressive speech into transgressive act" (62), in 1972 he published the famous "Letter to Butcher from Abroad," addressed to South African prime minister Balthazar John Vorster. But despite testimony from South African critics about the political value of Breytenbach's writing, the romantic appeal of the underground operator taking action to overthrow the government won Breytenbach over. When the romantic image disintegrated, it was the "writer's" task to replace it.

Aphanisis: "I did not survive."

The image of Breyten Breytenbach as the embodiment of dissent against apartheid suffered greatly in the transition from poet, painter, and writer to Breytenbach the detainee on trial. Fellow South African writers, witnesses to the widely publicized trial of Breytenbach, recount that "Breyten descended to the bathos of making a cringing apology for his sins and errors" (Cope 179); that "Breytenbach's friends were stunned by this torrent of apology" (Dreyer 47); that "during his trial he was abject: he apologized to the judge, to Prime Minister Vorster, and even to the policemen who had arrested him" (Roberts 307). Breytenbach solicits the reader's understanding when he makes an exculpatory entreaty to his confessor in The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, Mr. Investigator. "Extend only one measure of grace to all prisoners," he beseeches, universalizing his plight: "You must admit that whatever the detainee does or doesn't do whilst in prison is done under pressure" (23). Despite this plea, he is judged by other South African writers and activists against the standards set by iconographic South African political prisoners. There is, for instance, precedence for resounding denunciations of South Africa's racial policies from the sentencing dock by Nelson Mandela and Bram Fischer. The prison memoirs of black detainees such as Indres Naidoo and Molefe Pheto are as much as anything else primers for surviving interrogation and torture, guidebooks to living with poise under detention. A white activist, Hugh Lewin, in his memoir Bandiet, admits to informing on some of his fellows, but explains in detail his strategy of giving information incrementally, and then only when he was assured that those he could name were safe. Breytenbach's Confessions never explicitly documents his role in giving information to the authorities, nor does it detail the consequences of the confessions he makes in the interrogation room. He merely asks pardon and says, "I wrote."(7)

In The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist Breytenbach describes the "permanent state of unbalance" (24) in which the prisoner is kept, his fantasies that he will be pronounced a harmless romantic and released, the uselessness of trying to resist. He describes, amidst the disorientation and rigor of interrogation, the act of confession:

They let you sit down, they do not ask you any questions; they simply say, "Write"; and I've written volumes, volumes. My life is eaten up by words. Words have replaced my life.


The audience for this series of writings, replacing the avid and approving readership of his Afrikaans poetry and prose, was the South African security police. The success of this literary output is acknowledged by Breytenbach when he recalls that during his trial, "to my everlasting shame Huntington [his interrogator] went up to testify to my cooperation" (76). The freedom fighter, the artist ill content to "do nothing" about real politics, had been deromanticized, had proven to be a paper tiger when confronted with the risk of negation embodied in the threats of the Security Branch.

It is this contradiction between the terrorist manque and the abject confessor that Breytenbach attempts to adjudicate in Albino Terrorist, adapting a shifting subjectivity that allows multiple self-presentations.

The subject (Breytenbach) finds its way to alienation; he perceives his old version of himself as a fiction. He has been offered the opportunity to experience firsthand the splitting function of the master-slave dialectic. Jacques Lacan (whom Breytenbach calls "the charlatan") uses this dialectic as the pivot upon which alienation and aphanisis (the fading of the subject) turns: "Your freedom or your life! If he chooses freedom, he loses both immediately - if he chooses life, he has life deprived of freedom" (Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts 212).(8) Striving to retain freedom, Breytenbach renounces the risk of death, hands the terms of his freedom over to the South African authorities. Abdicating even the guise of the master, he embraces life deprived of freedom, which is all too literally granted him for the next seven years.

"No freedom without life" is the quandary of the subject, with the mirroring premise "There is no subject without, somewhere, aphanisis of the subject, and it is in this alienation, in this fundamental division, that the dialectic of the subject is established" (Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts 219, 221). Agency, control over self-signification, is lost in establishing the subject in the field of the Other's desire. What Breytenbach faces in the post-trial shame at his public performance is the full impact of his own alienation; it is alienation from his ego ideal, alienation of the Breytenbach who had been poised in the public eye. Fully aware that he has become the embodiment of the deconstructed self ("he is utterly deconstructed to stuttering utterances" [Albino Terrorist 411]), he resurrects himself textually, as a shifting signifier, as a subject-in-process, culminating in the figure of the chameleon.(9)

The Mouroir Stage

The portmanteau title of Breytenbach's prose poems, written under the eye of the prison censor, combines the word "mirror" with the French word for death. "Mouroir" is a condensation of Lacan's formula "no subject without, somewhere, aphanisis of the subject." Breytenbach's modeling of his own selfhood, and his prescription for activism in his later works, is built upon a strain of deconstructive thought that reveals the constructed nature of subjectivity. His abundant use of mirrors in these works is an intentional depiction of the fictitious image of the ego ideal, of the desire for recognition by the Other that calls the subject into being - in short, the doubling nature of desire.

A parable in Mouroir repeats Lacan's mirror stage as a fall from grace, as a kind of fading of an originary, authentic self into the subjection of the Symbolic. It is the story of the historyless "Boy" who lives among the gazelles, as a gazelle. His animal existence, "unburdened by any knowing" (84), threatens "the Academy," which "by its very nature decided the need to know to be paramount" (85). What the academicians discover after they "had looked into the labyrinths of themselves" is that the way to wrench Boy from his state of innocence "was for Boy to see himself and in this way to see the relatedness between himself and those wishing to capture him. And in this way to become alienated from his mates. The whole must be shattered" (87). Armed with large mirrors, they set out to capture Boy in his reflection. The containment of Boy in the mirrors, "instruments of demise" (88), is couched in the language of a fall from grace, of a lost state of unregulated pure being. Entry into the Symbolic, into language and knowledge of the sell is a loss of an imagined wholeness present in the Imaginary, the aphanisis that must accompany any subjectivity.

The writing of Mouroir is concurrent with Breytenbach's own fall from grace, with his own entry into a symbolic realm which trammels his innocence. Instead of the academy's desire to impose knowledge on Boy, there is the desire of the state to show Breytenbach that he is inseparable from the state, that they are "en-twined and related, parasite and prey" (Albino Terrorist 63). In his Confessions, Breytenbach sees the mirror as a frame for recognizing shared desires, shared violence, shared guilt. The mirror becomes an instrument within which one is able to realize that the self is presented according to the desire of the Other. At the same time, the recognition that the self is adaptable, revisable, liberates Breytenbach from the accountability he demanded of himself when he scripted his role of writer-activist. He seizes the mirror as the writer's blank page, upon which he will be able to create an evolving and adapting self.


Breytenbach's addressees in Albino Terrorist signify the split nature of his identity and of the South African society from which it emerges. They reflect as well the doubling of desire, the need for recognition by the Other. "I must plead with you, Mr. Investigator," says Breytenbach, "to not stop asking me questions" (21). Each addressee is called by a variation of the first-person singular "I," which denotes subjectivity and containment. Because his wife, Yolande, addressed in the text as "Lady One" (suggesting sexual or filial plenitude), is the first to hear his account, which she transcribes from audiotapes, Breytenbach insists that he "was, in the first instance, in all intimacy, talking to her" (452).

Yet for the prisoner and confessor Breytenbach, there seems to be a greater intimacy between him and "Mr. Investigator," "Mr. I," and "Mr. Eye." The role of Mr. Investigator, which seems to be the voice of the kind of authoritarian and single-minded identity that imprisoned Breytenbach, is gradually revealed to be the voice of future authority in South Africa, of a black political group questioning Breytenbach about his behavior in prison. This multiple selving of the "I" allows the black forces to be drawn into the mirror which Breytenbach insists that he and his interrogators inhabit. "I see you now as my dark mirror brother," he tells "Mr. Investigator" (343). "We are forever united by an intimate knowledge of the depravity men will stoop to," he continues, as "albino in a white land," who now occupies the position of the oppressed. "I know what it's like to be a black in a white country," he claims, in a more overt declaration of his own right to speak to and for black militants.

His claims to intersubjectivity with black victims of apartheid allow Breytenbach to traverse the caveat he made to white activists in his political declaration at the conference on the 1960s writers called the sestigers. "Just as I respect the black man trying to improve the dispensation of his own people," he had said, "just so, I believe, will the black man respect me only to the extent that I am prepared to work for the transformation of my own community - and not if I attempt to tell him what he ought to do" (Season 154). As albino terrorist, he begins to find it easier to prescribe what should and shouldn't be done to fight the South African government, easier to critique the structures upon which black liberation movements rely.

Having suffered the loss of control of self-definition at the hands of the South African security police, having bowed in the face of the risk inherent in the challenges of the master-slave dialectic, Breytenbach the writer seizes control of his self once again, this time in a domain beyond the structural containment of the subject. His professed poststructural subjectivity, struck in the language of a decentered politics, belies his eventual scornful dismissal of French theory:

Breytenbach. . . . He is utterly deconstructed to stuttering utterances. . . . It is important that you consciously assist at the putting down of the I. That is if you want to parry destruction and unsurvive. . . . The I not only as a concept of (para) physicality, as a screen of illusions, as a hole-ness - but in its most mundane manifestations.


The denial of the "I" is for Breytenbach a denial of illusory structure, not only of the personal, but of the political forms imposed on the individual. When "the I which blocks the view" is eliminated, consciousness is free to experience unmediated "the living structure of that which is constantly doing itself" (411). The denial of forms and the exchange of fixed knowledge for processes of knowing, or intuition, reterritorializes Breytenbach's locus of identity, from the hierarchy of patriarchy and state power to a Deleuzian smooth space of free-floating desire.

In this turning away from the "I," "beyond the hindrance of oppositions" (412), Breytenbach distances himself from the oppositional practices of activist groups struggling against apartheid; he imagines the real scene of struggle to be less binary, less controlled by the I/Other dichotomy. It seems on this point that Breytenbach misrecognizes the impasse faced by his "dark mirror brother," conferring upon him capacities which actually elude him in the striated space of South African politics. Breytenbach, the self-styled "albino in a white land," the "white kaffir," renounces his patriarchal allegiance by asserting, "I am not an Afrikaner any more" ("Breyten Breytenbach" 6).(10) The power of this speech act is not lost in as patrilinear a society as South Africa; yet when its echoes are heard in the formula Breytenbach proposes for Mr. Investigator's liberation - saying "You must dispossess yourself of the I" (411) - the position from which it is made becomes clear. Advocating an evacuation of the "I" in this fashion fails to account for the juridical status of blacks in South Africa, who were neither fully realized selves under the law nor in control of their self-definition. Translating the "I"'s dispossession into the speech act "I am no longer a black" is as unavailable as it is undesirable in black South Africa.

Prison memoirs from black political prisoners detained at the same time as Breytenbach suggest that survival under more physically brutal conditions than those suffered by Breytenbach depended on a strength of identity, on the resolve to seize control of the self from the government. Manifestation of this resolve is centered in the "we" of a shared consciousness, of a shared goal of the recognition of the black identity as equal to that of any other for the future generations of South Africa. Rather than the synchronically doubling mirror of Breytenbach, the mirror in a Molefe Pheto's account is a diachronic reflection of historical oppression and struggle: "my own particular circumstances are a mirror of the sufferings of others before me and - I hope not for long - after me" (Pheto 7). Jeremy Cronin, like Breytenbach a white prisoner in solitary confinement, writes a poem in Inside about manipulating his mirror to extend outward from his cell. By doing so he is able to capture the hand signals of solidarity ("In my mirror / A black fist" [18]) that a black warder sends.

The strength of the black political prisoner's sense of being (manifest in the writings of Pheto, Naidoo, La Guma, Dlamini, and others) may be a reaction to the kind of desubjectivation that Breytenbach experiences as a prisoner (and which may be the basis for his saying "I know what it is to be black").(11) This nonself doesn't desire to transcend "the hindrances of opposition" but is intimately concerned with the struggles of negation and affirmation. By accepting the risks of negation - torture, imprisonment, death, banning - the oppositional activist is able to subvert the either/or of freedom or life, is able to construct the self without ceding agency.

Frantz Fanon describes the psychic composition of the black African: "There is a zone of non-being, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, a naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born" (8). This nonbeing that Fanon describes for the black man is formulated in relation to the white man, in a colonial context in which the imperial other is regarded by colonial subjects as the only agent with sufficient power to recognize being, but who withholds that recognition, or grants it without struggle. The resistance community of South Africa's blacks has evolved to the point where there is recognition of being that comes from others within their own ranks; the negating gaze of the white South African is impotent. And yet the denial of subjectivity by the white government which exercised control of power in that country enforced an alienating condition, against which, to use Fanon's words, "there will be an authentic dis-alienation only to the degree to which things, in the most materialistic meaning of the word, will be restored to their proper places" (11-12).

Breytenbach's assumption of blackness is a meconnaissance, a projection rather than a transference. By assuming the name of the oppressed (black) and disinheriting the name of the Father (Afrikaner) he attempts to move outside of the control of the Symbolic, of the Law, and into an imaginary where the nonsubject can be formulated according to a shifting itinerary which eludes subjection. In his poststructural assessment of the textual (he would say fictive) nature of the self, Breytenbach the writer controls the itinerary. His most ambitious literary work, the novel Memory of Snow and of Dust, is a consciously fictive articulation of his decentered self, one which doubles back on autobiographical concerns and issues of political struggle.

The Death Instinct

The fictional nature of identity that is central to Breytenbach's novel is presaged in his (true) Confessions. He describes his existence among other convicts in his final prison days, saying, "I was the writer, but I was also the scribe" (211). Illiterate convicts would entreat Breytenbach to adjudicate various personal or judicial matters for them by fashioning the textual self they would present to family or lovers or the courts. The veracity of the accounts written by Breytenbach was never at issue; as Breytenbach recalls, "they were quite convinced that whatever life I could invent for them would be far better than the one they had" (213; emphasis added). The arbiters of the value of the various accounts were to be the intended audience.

The state, with its agents of interrogation - the courts, the police, and the press - uses discourse of terror and threat, and promises of leniency, to elicit the prisoner Breytenbach's confessional narrative, which will in turn validate the need for the state's security apparatus. It is as a consequence of the state's paranoia that Breytenbach is named a "terrorist," for his admittedly illegal infiltration into his homeland produced no palpable terrorist act, no effective organizing against the state.(12) In Albino Terrorist, representing himself to the outside, Breytenbach co-opts the label "terrorist" and regains control over the signs that are put into play, over the questions and answers, over the inclusions and omissions in this autobiographical account.

In the compendious patchwork novel Memory of Snore and of Dust, it is the white South African, former political detainee Barnum, avatar of Breytenbach, who wields control over the signs. It is he who is "the scribe," inventor of the lives of the other characters. The book's reiterated insistence on the reality of existence being "ink and paper" is not unparadoxical. Barnum reviles opponents of apartheid in exile, saying from France that "to be screaming against apartheid from here is only immoral moral posturing" (87). Criticizing the character of Mano, the actor who studies Barnum in preparation for a film role, for "wasting his time sitting on park benches with blind old philosophical dancers," Barnum reveals that "I for my part haven't been idle - I have been working on a screenplay" (87).

The screenplay, "a simple, straightforward story" of a particularly blatant example of police abuse of power (the "unlawful" arrest and torturing to death of a black woman whose brother is a feared saboteur) is unremarkable against the many testimonial accounts of police atrocities emanating from South Africa. Presented as a palpable intervention in the South African political consciousness, what does distinguish the piece is its lingering attention to two nonprisoners, security agents named Wilberforce and Gladstone, black toadies of the chief interrogating officers.(13) Their complicity with the beatings and humiliation of the woman is meant to be one way of understanding the Other, meant to refocus the question Breytenbach asks in Albino Terrorist, repeated in Memory: "Are we not separated, all of us, only by the thickness of a mirror from the monster in us?"

The monstrous mirror double remains a concern to Breytenbach in Memory, but the text itself, the fictive life, words as masks, acting, and the changeable skin of the chameleon rescue the "I" from becoming trapped, fixed in the mirror image. Barnum himself is introduced by Meheret, the female character who writes the first part of the novel as a missive to her unborn child. Barnum is Breytenbach become fiction ("Many people seem to spend time in captivity and they all want to write books about it"), who is play-acting ("Ostensibly he is flaying the liberal sentiments in the hall, and they are lapping it up" [21]). The main characters in the novel are meant to be representative of vital, important strains of African history that are manifested in the present. Meheret recalls for her unborn child the mythical legacy of her family's "rich past robed in the security of a pastoral African setting," and the biracial South African exile Mano is presented as "somebody imperfectly hiding the volcano of revolutionary ardor under the cold ashes of a cold actor" (63). But whatever affect, pain of loss, or commitment to the struggle that accrues in the narration of their lives dissipates in the knowledge that it is Barnum, "the writer on stage" (64), who fleshes out the narration.

The novel moves through the events of an international conference on African cinema, to the palace of a brutal dictator, in and out of the cultural history of Meheret's Ethiopia, into Paris, and elsewhere. But the privileged place for confronting the real is prison. Mano, on an underground mission to South Africa that is vague in its purpose, is arrested on false charges of murdering an old woman. Subjected to the impervious law, Mano is introduced to an institutional presence behind the constructed facade: "This was no play. These people, although they were dressed up in theatrical robes and using the studied gestures and theatrical inflections of the stage, were not play-acting" (266). In the face of the real of the juridical, the subject doesn't insist on recognition by the state by taking a stand, by accepting the death that will, in the master-slave dialectic, impart to the subject its freedom. Instead, the barrenness of life in prison enables a divestiture, a stripping away of the layers of self through which the subject presents itself to the other:

when your craft of actor is taken away from you and you are left naked - then, strangely, you don't know who you are. You are only yourself completely in being someone else. . . . The mirror is shattered. . . . This dissolution and scattering, this way of not being anybody, is a true liberation.


There remains, however, even in this zero degree of signification, in this apparent absolute lack of cathexis to a self-image that signals for psychoanalysis the culminating moment of the death instinct, a survival instinct. Even after the dissipation of the self which paves the way for "the feel of the transcendental," there remains a slavish adherence to life at any cost. "I would have betrayed all my friends and comrades and enemies had the masters but asked me to. Anything as a trade-off for breath," insists Mano, contemplating the hangman's rope.

Breytenbach Survives

Return to Paradise, like A Season in Paradise and The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, is a return from exile to South Africa. In this book Breytenbach returns to the paradise of being recognized in the public eye; on at least a half-dozen occasions he informs the reader of a stranger's query "Are you Mr. B?" and the enigmatic silence with which he replies. His public self is bolstered by the many entreaties to speak to various groups on national and international affairs, and by the roll call of prominent activists and writers Breytenbach visits along the way.

It is a claim to the paradise of belonging to Africa as well. His claim is staked on both a kind of patriarchy and on an understanding of "naturalness" that's been bred into Afrikaner blood. The poem "My Heritage," written in prison, is the father's account of his impoverished grandfather's bequeathal to the grandson:

"but this - er - and this he left to you":

with his voice my father reaches for and caresses the heavenly spheres and the sun a hill on fire mountains with their rumpled cheeks clean acres flowers humankind even canes wound with snakes:

"all this priceless dictionary!"

(qtd. in Weschler 82)

In Return, Breytenbach's totalizing propensity inserts "Africa" into the Imaginary: "the essence of Africa is in its clarity, its bareness, its horizons burned clean of history and of time. It is so clear, so natural, that it becomes incomprehensible" (115).(14)

The existence of another Africa belies the essential, however, attests to the disruptions of colonialism and industrialization. An evocative description of the wonders of Table Mountain near Cape Town is grounded by a view of "the multitudes squatting in tin shacks and plastic shelters" (135) at its base, impervious to the natural beauty. Breytenbach clearly recognizes that other Africa, describes it as an observer, but is unable to evoke its reality. In 1992, Breytenbach, who is given to announcing "the task of the writer," wrote disparagingly of writers who work to depict this "other" reality: "Most black-like writers spend their waking words polishing the contours of victimhood, staking out their claim to self-pitying 'naturalism.'"(15)

For Breytenbach, there seems to be a kind of return to paradise in exonerating the writer from responsibility for the real, or, as in his character Barnum's method, of turning the real into a fiction. Visiting his commando brother Jan during the course of Return, he compares their remembered pasts: "Maybe the atrocities which I and he witnessed or perpetrated ultimately constitute only a cloth of stories, of heroism and cowardice, despair and lies, fabulations and jokes" (121). Throughout the book, his wife Yolande exists to remind him of the folly of the writer in politics; when he announces literary projects, she responds, "I hope it won't be political" (111).

In the early 1970s, during a time when he felt a growing sense of disgust at purely literary challenges to apartheid (a feeling that would later lead him to Okhela), Breytenbach issued this edict to writers:

The duty of the artist is to overthrow his government. . . . Can't you see that the poem is a curse of protest, that it must reflect the smell of spilled blood, of inhumanity, the bestiality of suppression; that it cannot and may not be an aesthetic cocoon, a watered-down and scented European-derived dribble of piss!

("The Ant-Nest Swells Up," qtd. in Coetzee 65)

Two decades later, in the aftermath of prison and continued exile, with the idealized organic revolution failing to materialize, Breytenbach adopts a sardonic voice of disillusionment:

I believed man to be genetically programmed to move on from the purely animal, that clearness of purpose could lead to taking note, and consciousness to ethical positioning which could be fastened to an aesthetical surface reflecting creative action. No, there is no dream. . . .

Now I know that the first and essential usefulness of the writer is to think up beautiful stories. I must try.

(Return 132)

In whatever manifestation of "the writer" taken by Breytenbach's shifting sell there is always "the I as prism" (End Papers 31), with the sense of "the writer on stage."(16)

Claiming Alterity

Breytenbach's international reputation, initially gained by his expose of the abuses of human rights in apartheid South Africa, is now equally indebted to his condemnation of the future wielders of power in his native country. Touted as "South Africa's Solzhenitsyn" on the book jacket of the American edition of Albino Terrorist, Breytenbach shares with his Soviet counterpart not only the function of witness against the abuses of power of a totalitarian system, but also that of the documenter of the desires of international communism. The testimony about the cruelties inflicted by his warders, about the atrocities committed by racially segregated South Africa, is issued with the caveat that the "dark mirror double" waiting to supplant the Afrikaner will all too predictably renew the abuses of power.(17)

Breytenbach's claim to speak to/for the other of South Africa stems from his own experience as other in his country's prisons. The conditions of his own incarceration, however, were most atypical. He arrived in the courts of South Africa marked as "the premier poet in Afrikaans of his generation." As such, he was treated by the official judicial branch with an admixture of contempt (for as Afrikaner, Breytenbach's treason was almost beyond imagining for his countrymen) and pride (as poet, he had made the beloved Afrikaans language a powerful vehicle of praise to the land, of revealing vistas of feeling). His proselytizing power was so feared by prison officials that he was kept in solitary confinement for a full two years and isolated from his fellow inmates in other ways for much of the remainder of his prison life.

It is this isolation through which Breytenbach's meditations on identity and the self are filtered in Albino Terrorist, meditations which structure his periodic essays written in the years following his release, and which structure the politics and aesthetics of Memory of Snow and of Dust. But it is an isolation which casts doubts on his claim that "I know what it is to be black in a white country" (Albino Terrorist 22).

Two images endure from Albino Terrorist, images in which the mirror reflection of Breytenbach does not appear. The first is the recollection of "how the Black 'condemns' would regroup in the corridor after those last visits to return singing to the 'pot,' the cell of the condemned ones, stamping their feet, rattling their chains and raising their voices in a rhythm of life and of sorrow so intimately intertwined that it could only be a dislocation of the very notion of the body of God" (282). This figuration of the strength of the black prisoner facing death in the company of his fellows' voices imparting unity and solidarity in the struggle is often repeated in the prison narrative from South Africa. For Breytenbach, outside the black community of shared voices, outside of the African languages which construct the subject beyond the borders of white South Africa, the singing exists as a mysterious, unknowable force. His character Mano, condemned to be hanged, must be content with a solo effort. His singing of the liberation hymn "Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika" produces a profound effect:

What a fury of freedom I felt surging through my whole body! No, I was not a common murderer of old women - my life had a political meaning - my death would be seeding the future! For the first time in my life I could weep and sing without it being an act.

(Memory 284)

Yet this elation is unshared by any community, it is short-lived, and Mano dies alone in the full fear of the unknown of death.

A second image endures from Breytenbach's prison memoir. While being transported, Breytenbach is able to view a police truck filled to capacity with black politicals. He notices that "all the way, right across the town, one hand struck out through a hole in the mesh and a defiantly clenched fist was held out as a gesture and as a salute to the Black people quietly watching from the sidewalks" (324). This act of pride and the resolute insistence on the "I," the "we" of the struggle persists in the face of the threat of death offered by the officials of the state. It is a gesture of the willingness to risk, to die for the right to be, an insistence on subjectivity. In the absence of the necessity to risk all in order that one be recognized as subject, this gesture of desire may be unknowable.

University of Texas-Austin

1. Details of Breytenbach's arrest on dubious charges (which were prosecuted so relentlessly partially to boost South Africa's antiterrorist campaign) are related in Albino Terrorist. Other accounts, some of which call Breytenbach's version of events into question, are available in Cope, Dreyer, Hope, and Weschler.

2. See, for example, Agence France Presse, "Breyten Breytenbach Sees Little Hope for Peace and Democracy in South Africa," Agence France Presse 2 June 1991.

3. Quoted in, for example, Fatima Meer's Higher Than Hope (258).

4. The term is Freud's, from "On Narcissism" (98).

5. David Schalkwyk, who was a student at an Afrikaans university at the time of Breytenbach's arrest in 1975, notes that "Breytenbach's marriage to a Vietnamese woman was . . . not only illegal but a grotesque affront in the eyes of most [of] his fellow Afrikaners, who regarded both his political and sexual inclinations as inexcusable acts of treachery" (44).

6. In 1965, Breytenbach's application for a visa for Yolande was turned down due to their violation of South African laws banning "mixed" marriages. The 1972 visa for the couple was granted with the proviso that the trip was to be "strictly private and nonpolitical" (Dreyer 33). The overtly political nature of Breytenbach's speech violated the terms of his agreement, as did some of his other actions and appearances (see A Season in Paradise).

7. The experience of interrogation described by Ruth First in her prison memoir 117 Days is perhaps most closely related to Breytenbach's experience. Both were kept in the strictest isolation, their only outside contact being their respective amiable interrogators. First differed from Breytenbach in being a trained activist with a longtime involvement in Communist party politics. Her own attempt to "pit [herself] against the Security Branch in their own lair" (136) had resulted in such a powerful sense of isolation and helplessness that she had made an attempt on her life. Unlike Breytenbach and First, black prisoners who faced interrogation and torture were able to draw strength and resolve from the community of prisoners with whom they were housed.

8. The context of Breytenbach's accusation of Lacan was a review ([London] Guardian 1 Oct. 1992) of David Attwell's Doubling the Point, which is a series of interviews with J. M. Coetzee interspersed with Coetzee's prose writing. In the review Breytenbach cites Coetzee's admiration for Barthes and Foucault and what for Breytenbach is a baffling "affinity with the charlatan Lacan."

9. Lazarus is one of the many names Breytenbach assigns himself in his writings.

10. Breytenbach identities himself as a "white kaffir" in a historical analysis of the political situation in South Africa in the London Guardian 14 June 1991.

11. For examples of an intractable solidarity among black prisoners, see, among others, Moses Dlamini, Robben Island: Hell Hole; Indres Naidoo, Robben Island; Alex La Guma, The Stone Country and In the Fog of the Season's End. There are incidents of black prisoners' complicity with the jailers depicted in these works, but these are usually "criminal," not "political," inmates.

12. It is not until Return to Paradise that Breytenbach details clandestine operations beyond being sent to organize trade union liaisons. In Return, he speaks of transporting cash in double-bottomed suitcases (123) and about the bridge Okhela had planned to blow up.

13. A "real" Gladstone made an appearance in Albino Terrorist. He was described as one of "the sad traitors, having to live in armed compounds among their own, trotted out for the dirty work, humiliated by the white baas" (46).

14. Breytenbach makes the same overarching claims for "Africa" in "Thinking Fire (Around Nature and Culture)." He writes: "to the African the world is a complex but unchanging environment into which you are born and where you adapt, a world posited on metamorphosis, because we are interchangeable with the land and vegetation and animals and spirits. To the European the world is a given that must be transformed" (179).

15. (London) Guardian 1 Oct. 1992.

16. Breytenbach's pronouncements on "the task of the writer," issued variously over the past several decades, address themselves to a singular, essential agency, seeming to ignore the diversity of subject positions from and voices in which writers work. See, for example, his "Why Are Writers Always the Last to Know?" with its all-inclusive pronouncements on "writing" and "politics." Or his many observations on "writing" in End Papers.

17. These predictions are alarmingly backed up in the revelations that the ANC had, throughout the 1980s, maintained military prison camps of their own in neighboring Angola. In these camps, torture and ill-treatment were common, and some prisoners may have died. Some view with optimism the fact that the ANC promptly commissioned an independent investigation of the abuses once they were publicly exposed.


Breytenbach, Breyten. And Death as White as Words: An Anthology of the Poetry of Breyten Breytenbach. Ed. A. J. Coetzee. London: Rex Collings, 1978.

-----. "Breyten Breytenbach: 'I am Not an Afrikaner Any More.'" Interview. With Adriaan van Dis. Index on Censorship 12.3 (1983): 3-6.

-----. End Papers: Essays, Letters, Articles of Faith, Workbook Notes. New York: McGraw, 1986.

-----. Judas Eye and Self-Portrait/Deathwatch. New York: Farrar, 1988.

-----. Memory of Snow and of Dust. New York: Farrar, 1989.

-----. Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel. New York: Farrar, 1984.

-----. Return to Paradise. New York: Harcourt, 1993.

-----. Rev. of Doubling the Point, by David Attwell. (London) Guardian 1 Oct. 1993.

-----. A Season in Paradise. New York: Farrar, 1972.

-----. "South Africa: A Nation Forged from Migrations." (London) Guardian 14 June 1991: 29.

-----. "Thinking Fire (Around Nature and Culture)." Grand Street 43 (1992): 176-83.

-----. The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. New York: McGraw, 1983.

-----. "Why Are Writers Always the Last to Know?" New York Times Book Review 28 Mar. 1993: 1, 15-17.

Coetzee, J. M. "Breytenbach and the Censor." Raritan 10 (1991): 58-84.

Cope, Jack. The Adversary Within: Dissident Writers in Afrikaans. Cape Town: David Philip, 1982.

Cronin, Jeremy. Inside. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1983.

Dlamini, Moses. Robben Island: Hell Hole. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, n.d.

Dreyer, Peter. Martyrs and Fanatics: South Africa and Human Destiny. New York: Simon, 1980.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. 1952. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

First, Ruth. 117 Days. New York: Monthly Review, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. 1921. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1959.

-----. "On Narcissism." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. Vol. 14. London: Hogarth, 1957. 67-102.

Hope, Christopher. "Double-Dealer." London Magazine Jan. 1981: 63-66.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. 1966. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

-----. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. 1973. New York: Norton, 1977.

La Guma, Alex. In the Fog of the Season's End. London: Heinemann, 1972.

-----. The Stone Country. 1967. London: Heinemann, 1974.

Meer, Fatima. Higher Than Hope: The Authorized Biography of Nelson Mandela. New York: Harper, 1988.

Naidoo, Indres. Robben Island: Ten Years as a Political Prisoner in South Africa's Most Notorious Penitentiary. With Albie Sachs. New York: Vintage, 1983.

Pheto, Molefe. And Night Fell: Memoirs of a Political Prisoner in South Africa. 1983. London: Heinemann, 1985.

Roberts, Sheila. "Breyten Breytenbach's Prison Literature." Centennial Review 30 (1986): 304-13.

Schalkwyk, David. "Confession and Solidarity in the Prison Writing of Breyten Breytenbach and Jeremy Cronin." Research in African Literatures 25 (1994): 23-45.

Weschler, Lawrence. "An Afrikaner Dante." New Yorker 8 Nov. 1993: 78-100.

BRIAN DOHERTY is a lecturer in English at the University of Texas-Austin. He is completing a dissertation entitled "Prison Writers/Escape Artists: The Incarcerated Self in Twentieth-Century Literature."
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Author:Doherty, Brian F.
Publication:Contemporary Literature
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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