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Review of Mouroir from Jim Feast in the Evergreen Review

Much is made, and rightly so, of the fact that Breyten Breytenbach, author of the reissued book of short stories Mouroir, was a white anti-apartheid activist, who spent seven years in jail in South Africa, after being convicted of being a “terrorist.” (By now, we all know how slippery and all-inclusive this last term is.)  Mouroir was written while he was in prison.

However, Breytenbach’s exemplary and courageous life is not transmuted in any documentary way into this work of fiction. Certainly there are tales here of prisons and refugees and police states, but everything is retailed in dream format. Like our night visions, his narratives suddenly, inexplicably shift directions. A character involved in one plot, for example, is reminded of something that happened long ago, and the first plot is abruptly dropped (and never returned to) so the character can relive the (unrelated) events of that past time. Or a piece that starts with a many-paged speculation on the essence of humanity suddenly morphs into a flashy narrative, which in no easily discernible way connects to the earlier musings. Or, in “The Collapse,” a long, circumstantial account of how a group of friends used to gather in a kind of salon segues into one of the participants’ story, which is itself is two-parted, referring to widely separated episodes that the teller presents in this way, “I want to describe two incidents for you and at first sight it may well seem that there is no relationship between the two.” The only link, it turns out, is that in both cases he thought he heard someone call his name in the distance while the otherwise widely variable happenings took place.

Moreover, what goes on is also dream-like. In “The Execution,” a man is flying abroad and wonders (because of his dubious credentials) if he will be allowed to enter the foreign nation. However, he is surprised that, when he and other passengers debark from the plane, instead of immediately being taken through Customs, they are put on a bus, which, even more surprising, drives for hundreds of miles till it reaches a collapsed bridge. They are told their destination was across that bridge. The separating water reminds the protagonist of various places he has visited, and then its ruffling waves make him think about the mind. “What is a ‘thought’ after all? Isn’t it the incredibly complicated combination of partially body-own memories … and partly of the experiences and remembrances and projections of other creatures … of which you yourself are only a miniscule particle?” The story goes on meandering from there in new directions and dimensions.

It might be said that working with such disconnected, rudderless tales, it would be quite a challenge for the author to capture, let alone rivet, the reader’s attention, but this is not a problem for this prose master. The book, much more than most science fiction, creates a compelling alternative universe, a spooky, murky one, filled with tactilely vivid rendering of bleak desert or urban landscapes peopled by the marginalized and their marginalizers.

To give one suggestion of Breytenbach’s descriptive flair, note this grim and arresting passage from “The Break:”

The “Terminus” … is housed in a tent of enormous proportions. The roof of this tent, one can call it a circus tent, is very high. From up top banners descend, long dark-dyed flags, trapezes on oily ropes, and tatters of another material. The inside space is entirely occupied by cages made of steel bars in which the prisoners are held, two storeys high but without solid floors … so that people can spy on each other from every angle.

Often stories break off midpoint, but the fragments given frequently have an entrancing power. In “A Pattern of Bullets,” for example, a smuggler/human trafficker buys a pistol from a fellow criminal. Subsequently, he feels that he is being followed and menaced by an always-out-of-sight stranger. One night, thinking himself entrapped, he fires a warning shot and runs home. Safe in his room, he checks the magazine. It’s empty. Years later, he discovers he had purchased a haunted gun!

I’ve given you some idea of the shape and contents of Breytenbach’s offerings though I doubt if I’ve been able to convey strongly enough how deeply expressive this alternative vision is. It resembles, I imagine, the incarceration experience in being downbeat, inky and gloomy, yet being a place, judging by the incandescence of the author’s prose, where the imagination can soar on untrammeled flights.

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