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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

January 02, 1994|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

RETURN TO PARADISE by Breyten Breytenbach. (Harcourt Brace: $22.95; 224 pp.) Breytenbach, poet first, ANC activist second, spent seven years, from 1975 to 1982, in prison in his native South Africa. Afrikaner-born, his marriage to Yolande, a Vietnamese woman living in Paris, did not meet with the approval of the South African government, and from 1960 to 1973, he was not allowed even a visit to his homeland. In 1973, a famous poet, he was allowed to return for a three-month visit, but was arrested and convicted of terrorism for a clandestine trip in 1975. "A Season in Paradise" and "True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist" were written after these visits, respectively. "This book was written on the wing," writes Breytenbach in the Preface, and that is how it reads as well. He is on the balls of his feet like a street kid, looking over his shoulder, jabbing the air, giving us partial information about his friends and enemies and his role in their lives. He writes at one point that words in Africa are used "to ensnare time, to delay it, to annul it, to perpetuate it," and again, this is how it feels to read his prose. A poet-friend explains that "one should use illusion to pin down reality," advice he probably took, but that's just shadow-boxing.In the end, we don't really know who or what Breytenbach is running from. He cannot, however, obscure his Afrikaner "respect for nature and animals." As in his poetry, the beauty and the fury are plain and raw. Everything else is language and flight.

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