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In Cold Stone Jug, a work that remains the classic of South African prison writing, despite the massive extension of the genre under Apartheid,(1) Herman Charles Bosman uses the occasion of his being moved from the printer's shop to the stone-breaking gang to reflect, with pointed irony, on general assumptions about the natural character and appearance of the common convict. "Because he is, in the first place, abnormal, the average convict is less good-looking than the average healthy-minded citizen who," Bosman reminds us, "is too clever to manifest his criminal tendencies to the point where he gets landed behind bars. Then, you've just got to think how a convict is dressed." There follows a catalogue of standard prison garb until Bosman reminds himself of an item that had slipped his mind, a "funny white linen towel" which has to be carried at all times, folded and tucked into the back of the breeches. He forgets it because, an essential part of the convict's person, it could be seen only by others: "how can you remember something that you don't see, because it hangs out from the back of your breeches, underneath your jacket? But you can see the other man's towel, of course--whenever he turns his back on you" (46-47).
This essay takes its cue from this small but telling lapse which reminds us not to take the manifest circumstances of prison writing at face value. The small white towel which can be seen only by someone else suggests that the autobiography of incarceration is not simply an encounter of a single consciousness with a given but ungiving environment. It is shaped by what, in strictly empirical terms, is both other to the prisoner and concealed from him or her, although it continues to constitute the prisoner's identity: an "outside" which includes not only fellow prisoners but also warders and interrogators, not only yearned-for family and friends but also the whole network of the past, of social relations and conflicts out of which individuals are made, and which inform their singularity.
This paper therefore questions the empiricist claim, made in a recent article on South African prison writing, that the
homogeneity of substance, tone, and mood [of prison writing]--no
matter the form--comes from the physical conditions out of which
prison literature springs being always similar. It makes little difference
whether the author or protagonist be a felon, political dissenter or
Joseph K: a prison is a prison. (Roberts 61) I shall argue that even in the case of writers who are close to each other in terms of race, culture, political stance, and time and place of imprisonment, it is a mistake to project homogeneity into South African prison writing. To write from "inside" is not simply to reflect the four walls of universal confinement, nor even to reflect on what is beyond those walls, but also to refract the complex of social and historical relations that constitute the self both within and outside its conditions of incarceration.
It is for this reason that we need to took more critically at the statement, made in a different article, that Breyten Breytenbach's The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist "can be seen as the culmination of the entire tradition of South African prison literature--autobiography, fiction, poetry, and drama..." (Jacobs 98). This is a sweeping claim insofar as it dismisses or, at best, disregards, the discursive, ideological, and material varieties of South African prison writing. It would require a book-length study to examine the relationships of style, genre, form, and individual and social consciousness that constitute South African prison writing as a whole. In this essay I shall confine myself to a brief comparison of only two recent texts, Breyten Breytenbach's The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1984) and Jeremy Cronin's Inside (1983), whose shared historical and empirical circumstances are more than offset by their marked differences in genre, style, mood, modes of representation, and degrees of representativeness and authority.
In terms of their imprisonment, Breytenbach and Cronin are almost exact contemporaries, each having spent seven years in South African prisons from about 1975 to 1983. Both were jailed for their active opposition to Apartheid. Both are white; one is English-speaking, the other a sometime Afrikaner. Both wrote from and of their prison experiences. Yet the differences between their writings are more striking than the similarities. I shall first examine some of those differences, before concluding with what are nonetheless significant and symptomatic similarities.
1 "The road to prison is paved with social consciousness" --Breyten Breytenbach
The representation of incarceration in Breytenbach's The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist is concerned more with the non-physical conditions of imprisonment than with concrete and steel. This is not to deny that Breytenbach's meditations were produced out Of, and are at all times informed by, his confinement in Pretoria Maximum Security and Pollsmoor Prisons. It is rather to insist that such physical conditions do not automatically produce any standard "human" response. Confessions is such a telling example of the genre in South Africa precisely because of the particular intersection of cultural, political, and intellectual forms of consciousness which constitute the "albino terrorist" of the title. Vacillating between seriousness and irony, the title proclaims Breytenbach's entrapment in and struggle to escape from the confines of a particular political discourse and the ramifications of personal and social memory. It thus promises a revelation of the distinctive quality of prison life in South Africa and at the same time announces the dissolution of the identity which such a revelation is usually thought to affirm. To be a self-acknowledged "terrorist" is both to distance oneself from the values of white South Africa and to accept its pejorative categorizations: to call oneself an "albino" terrorist is to forgo inclusion within the affirmative community of struggle politics, to insist on an intrinsic abnormality that Bosman, in the extract quoted above, in fact parodies.
In addition, the submissive veracity promised by the phrase "true confessions" is ambiguous. Referring primarily in this context to the police confession, it is both subverted by the no-doubt intentional evocation of the world of lurid pulp romance and by the text's problematic relationship to religious confession and its "literary" avatars such as Rousseau's Confessions and Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground.(2) It raises, therefore, not merely the question of the truth but also the occasion of the confession. Who is confessing to whom? And in what spirit?
"The name you will see under this document," writes the author/narrator of Confessions,
is Breyten Breytenbach. That is my name. It's not the only one; after
all, what's in a name? I used to be called Dick; sometimes I was called
Antoine; some knew me as Herve; at one point I was called Christian
Galaska; then I was the Professor; later I was Mr. Bird: all these names
with different meanings being the labels attached to different people.
(Confessions 3) But of course there is no "Breyten Breytenbach" at the foot of the document we read: the allusion to an authenticating autograph is a fiction. This has led at least one critic to suggest that the self of these memoirs is itself a fiction, or at least the fictionalization of the self (Jacobs 98-99). This is a promising move, but on reflection it is difficult to make precise sense of its distinction between factual and fictional selves. What would a non-fictional self be: an author who simply recorded experience without recourse to linguistically constituted narrative masks? And how is the fictionalized self of the narrator to be related to the historical self which has spent seven years in prison, publishes books, organizes political meetings, returns to South Africa to receive prizes, and speaks on contemporary issues to the students of Stellenbosch and the Cape Town Press Club? Perhaps it is more useful to assume that there is no logical difference between the masks that constitute the self outside books and those which are constituted within texts. Confessions could then be seen to deconstruct the "real" self of empiricism (for which "a prison is a prison"), exploring instead the no less real subject which is bound by the manifold "others" of language, family, nationality, race, cultural and political history, and what Bakhtin calls the "event" of the utterance.(3) It is its reflexive focussing upon this "event," through the omnipresent persona to which the confessions are addressed, that marks the distinctive mood and substance of The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. The masks of this faceless addressee, shifting from "Mr. Investigator" through "Mr. Investerrogator," "Mr. Interrogator," "Mr. Confessor," and "Mr. Eye" to the initialized "Mr. I"--the shifter of the first person singular--suggest not only the constitution of the authorial self through the other, but by being in the final analysis the logical place of the reader, they position us as accomplices in the master-slave dialectic writ large in South African society, and exemplified in the relationship between detainee and interrogator, the latter itself concealing and containing the "terrorist" of the title.(4)
It is precisely the shifting place of the confessor that constitutes both the form and content of the confession. It is not so much that the possibility of a transcendental truth is considerably problematized, as Breytenbach is at pains to emphasize at every point, but rather that confession as a road to expiation and rehabilitation is rendered impossible by the framing structure of a continually displaced confessor, who is constituted variously (if we follow the grammar of the address where it leads) as the reader, Breytenbach's wife, his alter ego, his Security Police interrogators, a Supreme Court Judge, and the …