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…

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