‘Mouroir’ and ‘Voice Over,’ both by Breyten Breytenbach


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 café, 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.”

He writes about the death-defying properties of memory: “time/life is a lighting up of death, the spotlight picking out a grain of sand -- and everything occurs in that grainy look -- if the universe were a beach. Try to imagine what lies beyond the universe: you on the thrumming, eroding edge; to one side the sea with what it contains, its watery secrets, its sunken civilizations, its shells carrying the echo of absence on the dry land; on the other side the interior which had to come from the sea via the beach, with its wounds, its journeys and its trips, its spotted animals, its mountain roads, cities and deserts. . . . No wonder then that the mind is so fertile. And it is clear why it should have such a bad smell when opened. Here and there, selectively, we cling to something in that memory, small mirrors mostly, thinking (as if thinking isn’t dissolution!) that these are immutable. . . . We live . . . based on the images in departing mirrors without being able to observe the measure of deformation. . . . Thus we live in death. The black traces in the glass. And in this way life is a growing death. There is only one tense. The dead season. Isolated in the temporal.”

Memory, for Breytenbach, is a form of betrayal. He was (probably more than once) betrayed and that betrayal landed him in prison. Betrayal has caused Breytenbach to look over his shoulder; this is his stance. What would he see if he looked toward the future?

“Voice Over” is the writer’s conversation across several languages -- Arabic, Afrikaans, English -- with his friend, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died in 2008 of complications from heart surgery. It is a collage of both poets: landscape seen from the eyes of desert animals; a poet’s hope for humanity. It is as close, this friendship in words, as Breytenbach has come to feeling hope again: “I say: I will protect our dreams like mirrors / for we have seen the faces of those / who will throw our children / from the windows of this final room.” Or else he declares: “we shall be a people, if we will, when we know / we’re neither angel black nor white and that evil / is not the exclusive dominion of the other. . . . we shall be a people once we forget the dictates / of the tribe so the citizen on his knees may enter / the private kingdom of everyday lovemaking life.”

In these sentences we hear the voice of the old activist, in love with life and human potential. We could wish for nothing finer for him.

Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.