Sunday, August 14, 2011

the last book I read

Memory Of Snow And Of Dust by Breyten Breytenbach.

Meheret, an Ethiopian journalist and writer, is introduced to Mano, a mixed-race South African actor, at a writers' conference in Switzerland, the introduction being engineered by Barnum, a South African writer living in exile in Paris.

Mano and Meheret begin a relationship which takes them from Paris to Burkina Faso and back again; while in Africa Mano becomes involved with revolutionary politics. Soon an opportunity arises for Mano to travel to South Africa on the pretext of doing some preliminary research for a film based on Barnum's life, but with the ulterior motive of meeting with some revolutionary contacts within South Africa. However, someone has betrayed him and he is arrested, charged with the murder of a woman, and sentenced to death.

That's really about it for what you might call orthodox narrative. The remainder of the novel is a series of fragmented recollections of Meheret's Ethiopian childhood and remembered stories of her ancestors, letters from Meheret to her and Mano's unborn child, imagined reconstructions of conversations between Mano and his political colleagues, brief interludes depicting South African police brutality, and towards the end a series of letters written by Mano in his prison cell in the certain knowledge of his impending execution.

It's all very complex and allusive and, to be honest, rather opaque in places, perhaps for the same reasons that Falling Man was, i.e. a commendable desire not to be banal and clichéd and obvious in tackling a big and traumatic subject that most people know quite a bit about already (the arrest and imprisonment of political dissidents on trumped-up charges in apartheid-era South Africa). It's also impossible to separate the events depicted in the novel from real life, since Breytenbach lived in exile in Paris in the 1970s (he was unable to return to South Africa after marrying a non-white woman, in contravention of South African law at the time), returned clandestinely to South Africa in 1975 on a political mission, was betrayed, arrested, and imprisoned for seven years, returning to Paris on his release in 1982.

If you're like me, then you'll perhaps not be particularly familiar with Breytenbach's work (he's primarily a poet rather than a novelist), but the distinctive name will have you scratching your head wondering where you've heard it before. Well, I'll help you out: it was probably in the Spitting Image song I've Never Met A Nice South African - Breytenbach gets a mention at the end (at around 2:05).

Anyway, this is powerfully written and occasionally gripping, but to be honest there are probably better (or at least more linear, if linearity is the kind of bag you're into) novels about apartheid-era South Africa available, probably by either Nadine Gordimer or André Brink. Brink's A Dry White Season (later filmed), which, by an odd coincidence, sits right next to this book on my bookshelves, might be a good place to start.

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