When you begin a book, there’s a general understanding about what you are going to be reading, as far as a novel, short stories, poetry. When you are introduced on the front flap of Breyten Breytenbach’s Mouroir to a sequence of pieces described as a ‘docu-dream’, that understanding is erased, and a good part of the reading experience is centered on a wobbling attempt to place one foot in front of the other down the path of the book.
One story, “The Other Ship” begins, “He expected death to be a newsflash of coded images…but with the awakening he heard just a rhythmic thumping.” This layered backbeat, one part slow drum and the other scattered tapping, sets the pace for most of the stories in Mouroir, a collection of pieces Breytenbach wrote during seven years he spent in a South African prison for violating interracial-relationship laws with his marriage, while in France, to a Vietnamese woman. His imprisonment, other writings, and lifelong campaign against apartheid and racial inequality color one’s perception of this book, so that Mouroir, a combination of the French words “to die” and “mirror” (and also used to mean “hospice” or “sanatorium”) reads as a set of meditations drawn from and upon himself, as well as a view of the South Africa’s ills.
It is unclear at first what connection, if any, exists between the stories (which occasionally read like prose poems), though one is led to search for some connection through the recurring imagery and reappearing characters that populate the pages. As a classifier, ‘docu-dream’ seems to be the most appropriate description for the type of work the reader finds himself in. The stories are demanding. Lyrically crafted out of controlled jumbles of prose, the narratives begin and end without warning. In one story a man entering a country into which he is unsure he will be allowed to pass is taken by bus to a bridge that has collapsed. It is not that Breytenbach’s bridges have collapsed but that he has, in places, chosen not to erect them, forcing the reader to turn around and around looking for another way forward. When you can find the way you often end up at an unmarked door that opens into a shimmering room… filled with thousands of moths. These scenes, of barren landscapes and dark city streets, and traditional imagery reworked from standard connotations, glow with some humming energy that keeps them together, however disconnected on the surface they seem to be.
The book doesn’t seem to lend itself to ‘high’ and ‘low’ points. Some stories leave you silent, some leave you confused, others grinning, and others almost indifferent, or wondering what just happened. But each is a worthwhile experience, and ultimately you will feel familiar, as the set of recurring dreams provides something new alongside a shade of something you might recognize, perhaps, if you saw it reflected in a mirror. Breytenbach explores that space (created by the eye) between the mirror and its image. It is a space that is perceived but elusive, and ultimately non-existent: the space in life created by (or reserved for) death. It is as if he has taken a small hammer to his mirror and tapped gently, inviting us to look into each shard he’s left scattering the floor.