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Living in the Night

Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel

by Breyten Breytenbach
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 257 pp., $13.95

A few months ago I talked to a man who is a senior cabinet minister in an African state that recently fought its way to independence. We were supposed, I think, to talk about politics. On that subject, there was plenty waiting to be discussed: a third year of drought, a feverish shuffling for position in the party local elections, a dirty little war against “dissidents” far away from the capital. This man had the reputation of being harsh in office, of using personal power like a hammer against his rivals. But when he began to talk, the subject was his time in prison.

He had served some eight, perhaps nine years, until the white colonial regime let him go. He had passed through the early phase of hatred and panic and sexual despair, and had “adjusted.” When he was unexpectedly freed, he was approaching a second crisis well known to veteran political prisoners: the season after ten years or so when the possibility that one may die in jail insists on being confronted. He was ready for this “mid-life crisis” of the convict, for he had learned how to muster and use his resources. Others had disintegrated, losing or never mastering the difficult skill of mental survival; they killed themselves, or went mad. In his view, it was hardest on the young and poor among his comrades, who had little education and only narrow experience. The most precious physic and comforter was, after all, to have traveled. “You learn to travel in your cell. I returned to Paris, for instance. This took months, this visit. I would say: next week, I promise you, we will enter the Louvre once more. We will move through it very slowly, losing ourselves perhaps for a day in each picture.”

Breyten Breytenbach, South Africa’s most famous Afrikaner poet, went to prison for seven years, the first two in solitary confinement. He had returned to his country disguised, on a secret mission. But the secret police followed him from the first moment, and he was arrested as he prepared to board the Air France plane back to Europe. The sentence was for nine years: the Afrikaner fatherland loves its children and brings the rod of punishment down upon them with a special, intimate force. He was meant, this fallen star, to be extinguished, and his blackened cinders to be crushed. But this writer, like the black cabinet minister, could travel. He became the prison scribe, writing for men appealing to their judges or for men on their way to the gallows or even, on one occasion, for the prison governor. And on his own, the Afrikaner intellectual, the flower that had blossomed in Paris and Germany and kept its roots in the most backward and introverted of all cultures that are formally literate, traveled across paper. He was allowed to write, although not to practice his second art, painting. He was allowed to make only one version of his work, no copies or notes; the text was handed to the prison authorities and released to him only at his release. Mouroir consists of these texts, with the addition of a few that were smuggled out of prison and therefore have a more direct, less refracted manner of statement.

So it was no dead cinder that came out of prison in 1982 but a creator, still in working order but burdened with the gigantic weight of his experiences. It is fatuous to talk about “enrichment” or “annealing” when discussing what happens to a writer exposed to state ferocity. Terror amputates. Dostoevsky did not need to inhabit the house of the dead; Tadeusz Borowski wrote in spite of his time in Auschwitz; Breytenbach has clearly been torn far out of his “natural” course of development by what happened to him in those seven years, and nobody can yet say with certainty what “sort of writer” he will now become. The forth-coming The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, written after his release, will provide evidence.*

Breytenbach’s own words about his novels suggest serenely that the organic growth of his prose work has scarcely been interrupted by the seven years in prison, that Mouroir continues the themes of earlier books in Afrikaans (not yet translated), that—more precisely—the book is slotted between A Season in Paradise (the account of his first return home to South Africa in the company of his Vietnamese wife) and the new True Confessions. It is hard to judge how well founded this display of nonchalance may be until the first novels are translated or the last published. But it reminds me, at least, of the British newspaper columnist Cassandra who, drafted into the army to fight Hitler, resumed his column four years later with the words, “As I was saying, when I was so rudely interrupted….” It is safe to assume that, all flourishes apart, Breytenbach does not yet know what prison has done to him.

Mouroir is exceedingly difficult to read. The author calls it “the inner exteriorization of disintegration,” and reminds us that while his title is a confounding of the French for “mirror” and “to die,” a “mouroir” is a dying place “referring to, say, an ancient hospital where people go simply to finish their sentence.” These explanations, with their ornamental backstitching of multiple meanings, promise an elusive kind of fiction, and the promise is kept. There are just under forty short prose works in the book. A few, mostly those that were not written for the eye of the prison censor, are comparatively open. “The Double Dying of an Ordinary Criminal,” which is about a hanging (Breytenbach’s prison included a much-used gallows), is both horrible and direct. But most of the rest are, at first, puzzling. Again, they require the author himself to explain what is going on. “The texts have no symbolic intent; they only mirror and establish situations and images, situations made up of images.” In a way, Mouroir is a writer’s book of prose exercises, or a sculptor’s yard full of seasoned blocks of old night-mare ready to be carved.

In most of these pieces, which are not quite chapters, not short stories, not what used to be described nervously as “prose poems,” nothing much linear or consecutive happens. Scenes emerge, detailed in the strong moonlight of Breytenbach’s imagination, which then dissolve into other, disconnected scenes in a way that is literally dreamlike. Human figures loom up and are powerfully established, but do not then remain on stage to conduct a narrative but retire and lose themselves. Breytenbach has a queer cast of characters of his own, a troupe of names that come and go through this and other books. There is Don Espejuelo, Angelo and Giovanna Cenami, Gregor Samsa, even a somebody named Braytenbach, Galgenvogel (gallows bird), Tuchverderber, Nefesj, and many others.

Landscapes are very important. Breytenbach comes from the Cape, where there are not just rich vineyards and inviting beaches but also jagged wildernesses, dead shores, desert. Across these landscapes there is always movement: bands of nomads, funeral processions, refugees speeding through the night to escape some distant catastrophe, images haunting and inconsequent.

Occasionally, a more conventional or “finished” piece turns up in Mouroir. In “The Temptation in Rome” Pope Giovanni XXXV is consumed by terror that he may die before tasting pangolin’s tail marinated à l’azanienne. The beautiful “Day of the Falling of the Stars and Searching for the Original Face” is about the seizing of a wild boy, who has been raised with a herd of deer and is now hunted by an inquisitive Academy. The Academicians trap him in a manner that suggests a recurrent theme of the book. They flash mirrors in which the wild boy for the first time perceives himself. He “advanced towards the pools of water held aloft as if by magic. He didn’t realize that he was looking behind reality. He didn’t know that these tongues could never be lapped up or integrated. He was not aware that he was to forgo for ever the taste of water.”

The mouroir–mirror flashes again even more significantly in another text concerned with proposals for establishing (at Rotterdam, for no evident reason) the grave of the unknown poet. This public grave would be

a place of integration—the coming together of shadow and flesh. Centre of pilgrimage, of offerings. We go there to rededicate ourselves. We go there to look at the hole in the mirror. We go there for the inspiration which is whole because edged by the sense of time keeping a ticking watch in every cell—rhythm, rhyme, reason!…and sweet despair. We go there with flowers for him or for her who has fallen on the battlefield of the white page whilst safeguarding a prized territory or extending a frontier. And there we put our ears to feel the wind darkly blowing through us, rejoicing that there’s still something—an I—to lend sound to the wind.

Breytenbach’s writing, as passages like that demonstrate, is astonishingly vigorous and agile. It can also become lush, indigestible. The dazzle of broken mirror fragments is tiring to the mind; if this is indeed a writer’s book of exercises, then many of them are like those acrobatic, self-congratulatory feats that violinists call “fireworks.” Still, this man lived in a night that only fireworks could illuminate. By writing Mouroir he ensured that, while he listened in reverence to the “wind darkly blowing” through the hole broken in his mouroir, he did not fall through that hole and disappear into silence.

  1. *

    To be published in January

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