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'Mouroir' and 'Voice Over,' both by Breyten Breytenbach

Two books about the mournful, yet optimistic search for human solidarity across cultures, distances and time.

August 02, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds | Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.


Mirrornotes of a Novel

Breyten Breytenbach

Archipelago Books: 280 pp., $15 paper

Voice Over

A Nomadic Conversation With

Mahmoud Darwish

Breyten Breytenbach

Archipelago Books: 46 pp., $9 paper


After all, the past is not personal. The word "mouroir," a combination of the French "mourir" (to die) and "miroir" (mirror), describes a journey beyond the prison of the self, the frame of the mirror. Breyten Breytenbach -- poet, painter, translator, writer -- dreamed this novel while in prison. Its very creation turned the notion of prison inside out -- as well as, along the way, the notion of self.

Leaping high boundaries in a single bound is Breytenbach's life work. He was born in South Africa (what finer landscape to inspire thought on boundaries?). An early and outspoken opponent of apartheid, he left in the 1960s for Paris, where he continued his work. He married a French woman of Vietnamese descent and was promptly prohibited from returning to South Africa. Marriage or sexual relations between whites and non-whites was, according to that country's Immorality and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages acts, a criminal offense. He returned, illegally, in 1975 and was arrested for high treason. He spent several years in prison and upon his release, in 1982, returned to France. "As you all know," he addresses his readers, "I spent a long stretch in prison. You learn more about measuring there than may be good for your spiritual equilibrium. However it may be, much of that time passed me by. Our word agreements, as you will notice, constitute the structure for our way of seeing itself, so that I must speak of a time-- like a thing or a dimension for instance -- which moves, which is deployed; of an 'earlier' and an 'afterwards' and a 'then.' Never mind."

This is the short version of a fascinating, important life. After reading "Mouroir," the specifics of this life seem like mere facts. It is a book he could have written anywhere, in any field, any cafe, any coffin. "There also, look, was the bluegum tree full of dust -- and without monkeys!" This observation, and many, many others, are part of his memory -- of his childhood, a source of joy, his life. It cannot be taken away. Even more wonderful, these are also our memories, in the tribal sense; human memories. The dreams, the symbols have the DNA of communal memory. They are drawn from the same fountain that inspired "The Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter," "Alice in Wonderland" and, yes, the Greek myths. Breytenbach has traveled to the place where stories are made and returned with a great big bag full.

His descriptions of the South African landscape have a yellow-brick-road quality: "The bridges are the skeletons of rotted-away hills." And this: "On the land flamboyant trees grow, trees with shiny green fleshy leaves and violent outbursts of flowers: banana, palm, mango, the blossomy downpour of the bougainvillea, the star-wounds of the poinsettia, the hibiscus with hairy dark ants." From where he sits, the writer watches the decline of civilization: Cities decay, the highest ideals of humanity are trampled on. He remembers what it was like before. Isn't that what childhood is -- "what it was like before"? A character in the book was his old friend Alberto Giacometti: "Evenings, at dinnertime, he sat sketching figures around a glass of red wine . . . the more lines he added, the more elongated they became, disappearing into the paper napkin over the table. And then he went away with the cancer."

Time doesn't stand a chance against Breytenbach. It has "no skin or cells or pattern or feeling. Time was a cold crystal, transparent, a spectrum, a stalactite or a growth with every century a single drop. My realization of time silted up," he writes of being under constant surveillance. "But now, much later, it is a physical pleasure to fetch it from somewhere within the unknown folds of the self, to find the thread and to start reading, to dredge the self's receptacles."

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