Breyten Breytenbach's prison narrative The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist provides an interesting response to life in prison. Breytenbach, one of South Africa's best-known Afrikaner poets,was sentenced to nine years in prison under the Terrorism Act after being arrested in 1975 while trying to recruit members to the Okhela resistance group.
The Confessions covers his imprisonment and release in 1983. In an afterword to the text, he states that the work "took shape from the obsessive urge I experienced during the first weeks and months of my release to talk, talk, talk, to tell my story and all the other stories". The book shows, in part, how someone who is passively complicit in the power structure represented by the prison can use that complicity to undermine the oppressive force.
As many critics have noted, Breytenbach exists in the blind spot of apartheid South African society: the anti-apartheid Afrikaner, the "albino terrorist". The Confessions are addressed to an ephemeral figure who is named, variously, "Mr Investigator", "Mr Interrogator", "Mr Investerrogator", "Mr Confessor", "Mr Eye", and "Mr I". This multiple naming reflects the multiple identities ascribed to the confessor figure, who shifts between races, political allegiances, and genders. In part, he or she represents Breytenbach's unseen reader. That the Confessions is addressed to this figure functions both to undermine and reproduce the interrogator/ interrogated relationship that structures Breytenbach's life in prison.
The name of the Mr I figure allows all participants to engage in both complicity and rebellion. Breytenbach thus outlines the need for a constant evaluation of positions, what he described in a recent interview as a "permanent revolution".
However, this could be seen as a romanticising of the complicity depicted in the Confessions , especially if the identification with Mr I is compared with other black South African prisoners' accounts, many of whom see cooperation with interrogators as a betrayal of their cause or as the inevitable result of the brutal violence used against them. Breytenbach indeed recognises and writes against such violence, but leaves his most direct statements for an appendix to the central text.
Whether or not Breytenbach's text or his personal battle are successful is not the central question. Instead, we can take from his text a recognition of the need to constantly examine and question positions - not just those of others, but also our own. This is a theme that is central to much prison writing.
Jason Haslam of the Department of English, University of Waterloo, Canada, is speaking at the "Writing from Prison: International Perspectives" session.