Breyten Breytenbach is a South African poet, painter and political activist. An Afrikaner by birth (though he refuses to be identified with the Afrikaners because of the political implications of such an identification), Breytenbach committed, in his people's eyes, the unpardonable crime: He sought to overthrow, violently if necessary, the South African government and the monstrous edifice of apartheid it had constructed. Breytenbach was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for seven years--two in solitary confinement--before he was released in 1982. (He has described these years of imprisonment in two books, "Mouroir" and "The Confessions of an Albino Terrorist.") The miscellaneous writings collected in "End Papers" were written before and after his imprisonment. They address dissidence, exile, imprisonment, the responsibility of the writer, political commitment, the artifice of culture, and above all South Africa and its apartheid. Although some essays are about travel (Palermo, Los Angeles and Berlin), and others about writers (Jorge Luis Borges) and cultural events (Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Tanztheater), they are also confined by Breytenbach's experience of South Africa. "For the White man," he tells us, "apartheid is a distance of mind, a state of being, the state of apartness."
"South Africa is a symbol. South Africa is a reality," Breytenbach writes. "These two truths are intimately linked, as are the mirror and memory, and both operate simultaneously." Like other white South Africans, those who think, at any rate, Breytenbach is caught between the symbol and reality, between the mirror and memory. Writing is a form of combat, he says. He is morally outraged. He decries the inhumanity of apartheid. He demands real change--majority rule--and envisions, sometimes naively, especially in his pre-prison writings, some sort of socialist society. But these positions do not give him a secure vantage point. His vision is fractured. "Can any of us see South Africa whole?," he asks, and he answers no. "We are institutionally (historically?) incapacitated. And we have to accept the maiming, the limitation." He refuses the easy--the European--vantage point, adopted, despite their anguish, by such writers as Nadine Gordimer and John Coetzee. He writes letters to, and converse with, figures who seem to be his critical alter ego. He asks: What happens if the Other--the Odder--is the I?
This question cannot be answered--certainly not in a society as divided as South Africa. Given the existential and political separation legislated by apartheid, the self's other remains always wooden, opaque, mechanical, of mythological proportion. In such a world, Breytenbach never tires of telling us, there can be no real cultural creativity. "Nearly all South African writing reflects varying stages of exile and alienation." (Breytenbach's own exile in France becomes a metaphor for the South African writer's condition.) Exile cuts the writer from that close and continuous contact with his people that keeps him alert and his language alive.
The real language of the writer consists of two components:
the sounds that disturb him from within, that push from in-
side--and the people who speak his language. Language is
people. When you are deprived of one of these it is as if
you have only one leg, which keeps getting weaker because
you use it too much.
Such a position is particularly painful for a writer like Breytenbach who considers the distance we create between the writer and his public an artifact of Western culture.
The exile is marginal. He is lonely and awkward. Like the prisoner, he has to depend upon his own resources, and he risks inventing a self which can have no contact with those with whom he wishes to communicate.
In the slammer you invented a you in order to make life bearable,
to breastplate yourself with a certain dignity. Outside you will
invent yourself as a re-creation, a reincarnation. The invention
will no longer be a go-between but an aperture, a cycle of hope,
a verse embodied with stresses.
Transitions are particularly difficult.
After seven years in prison, Breytenbach finds the world he returns to "becoming greyer, smoother, less textured." All over the world, he observes in a grand cliche, you can stay in identical, air-conditioned rooms, eating the same "continental" breakfast and finding on the same concave screen "not a glimmer of difference between the ad and assassination." All is image. You have to go to the Third World, he says, forgetting that the same hotels exist there (or are longed for) "to meet stench and crying and colour and the laughter of people laughing in the pre-air-conditioned-period way."
With bodyshakes. To experience the deadline and the death of your
adaptation. The deafness of your glib skin. Also the vague unease,
the raspy breath and the guilty gut.
Would not such a visit be tourism for the alienated?
There is something deeply troubling about Breytenbach's writing. There is a bit too much of him in it all. One is tempted to read "End Papers" as symptom rather than as message. Maimed by his people, by his imprisonment, his exile, by all the injustices he sees around him, he indulges his pain. He gives way to an intolerance, an impatience, a rebelliousness, a violence, that lacks humanity. He reminds us: "There is a broken mirror, the wooden object with shards of sun-spewing and image-scattering glass, used to lure larks down to earth, to kill them." Such is one use of the mirror, but need it be the South Africans?