Into the Dark Chamber (220/415/485)


Date: January 12, 1986, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 13, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By J. M. Coetzee; J. M. Coetzee, whose most recent novel is ”Life & Times of Michael K,” teaches at the University of Cape Town.

WHEN a colony is founded, wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in ”The Scarlet Letter,” ”among [ the ] earliest practical necessities [ is ] to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Prisons – Hawthorne called them the black flowers of civilized society – burgeon all over the face of South Africa. They may not be sketched or photographed, under threat of severe penalty. I have no idea whether laws against visual representations of prisons exist in other countries. Very likely they do. But in South Africa such laws have a particular symbolic appropriateness, as though it were decreed that the camera lens must shatter at the moment it is trained on certain sites; as though the passer-by shall have no means of confirming that what he saw – those buildings rising out of the sands in all their sprawl of gray monotony – was not a mirage or a bad dream.


The true explanation is, of course, simpler. The response of South Africa’s legislators to what disturbs their white electorate is usually to order it out of sight. If people are starving, let them starve far away in the bush, where their thin bodies will not be a reproach. If they have no work, if they migrate to the cities, let there be roadblocks, let there be curfews, let there be laws against vagrancy, begging, squatting, and let offenders be locked away so that no one has to hear or see them. If the black townships are in flames, let cameras be banned from them. (At which the great white electorate heaves a sigh of relief – how much more bearable the newscasts have become!) The headquarters of the security police in Johannesburg, in a square fittingly named after Balthazar Johannes Vorster (1915-1983), a former Prime Minister of the republic and the patron under whom the security police grew to their present bad eminence, is another site that may not be photographed. Into this building untold scores of political prisoners have been taken for interrogation. Not all have returned alive. In a poem titled ”In Detention,”* Christopher van Wyk has written as follows:

He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing.

Behind the so-called suicides and accidental deaths to which Mr. van Wyk alludes here, behind the cursory post-mortems by Government functionaries, the bland, unlikely inquest findings, lie the realities of fear, exhaustion, pain, cruelty. Mr. van Wyk’s poem plays with fire, tap-dances at the portals of hell. It comes off because it is not a poem about death but a parody of the barely serious stock of explanations that the security police keep on hand for the news media.

Some years ago I wrote a novel, ”Waiting for the Barbarians,” about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience. Torture has exerted a dark fascination on many other South African writers. Why should this be so? There are, it seems to me, two reasons. The first is that relations in the torture room provide a metaphor, bare and extreme, for relations between authoritarianism and its victims. In the torture room, unlimited force is exerted upon the physical being of an individual in a twilight of legal illegality, with the purpose, if not of destroying him, then at least of destroying the kernel of resistance within him.

Let us be clear about the situation of the prisoner who falls under suspicion of a crime against the state. What happens in Vorster Square is nominally illegal. Articles of the law forbid the police from exercising violence upon the bodies of detainees except in self-defense. But other articles of the law, invoking reasons of state, place a protective ring around the activities of the security police. The rigmarole of due process, which requires the prisoner to accuse his torturers and produce witnesses, makes it futile to proceed against the police unless the latter have been exceptionally careless. What the prisoner knows, what the police know he knows, is that he is helpless against whatever they choose to do to him. The torture room thus becomes like the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.

The fact that the torture room is a site of extreme human experience, accessible to no one save the participants, is a second reason why the novelist in particular should be fascinated by it. Of the character of the novelist, John T. Irwin writes in ”Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner”: ”It is precisely because [ he ] stands outside the dark door, wanting to enter the dark room but unable to, that he is a novelist, that he must imagine what takes place beyond the door. Indeed, it is just that tension toward the dark room that he cannot enter that makes that room the source of all his imaginings – the womb of art.”

To Mr. Irwin (following Freud but also Henry James), the novelist is a person who, camped before a closed door, facing an insufferable ban, creates, in place of the scene he is forbidden to see, a representation of that scene and a story of the actors in it and how they come to be there. Therefore my question should not have been phrased, Why are writers in South Africa drawn to the torture room? The dark, forbidden chamber is the origin of novelistic fantasy per se; in creating an obscenity, in enveloping it in mystery, the state creates the preconditions for the novel to set about its work of representation.

Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.

The writer faces a second dilemma, of a no less subtle nature, concerning the person of the torturer. The Nuremberg trials, and later the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, presented us with a paradox in morality. There was a stupefying disproportion between the pygmy stature of the men on trial and the enormity of the crimes they had committed.

Hints of the same paradox surfaced at two inquests in South Africa – the one on Steve Biko, the black activist who died while in police custody in 1977, and the one on Neil Aggett, a white officer of a black trade union who committed suicide in detention in 1982. During these proceedings the security policemen briefly emerged from their native darkness into the public gaze.

How is the writer to represent the torturer? If he intends to avoid the cliches of spy fiction – to make the torturer neither a figure of satanic evil, nor an actor in a black comedy, nor a faceless functionary, nor a tragically divided man doing a job he does not believe in – what openings are left?

The approaches to the torture chamber are thus riddled with pitfalls, and more than one writer has fallen into them. Let me give an example. In ”A Ride on the Whirlwind” (1981), a novel dealing with the 1976 uprisings, Sipho Sepamla writes: ”Bongi’s frayed bodice was ripped off exposing the fullness of her turgid breasts and pointed teats to the beastliness of the two cops. . . . Cold-bloodedly, the cop undid the pliers on the one nipple and placed it on the other. Bongi screamed, tears pouring down her soft brown skin.” Mr. Sepamla succumbs here to erotic fascination. He also makes his torturers both all too satanic (”demonic” is his word) and all too easily human: ”The young cop was sick. . . . He lived with subterranean streams in his makeup. . . . He suffered from dual personality. The nature of his work was such that to survive he developed a split personality.”

A considerably stronger book about the same historical events is Mongane Serote’s ”To Every Birth Its Blood” (1981). Mr. Serote declines the false issue of whether the torturer is man or devil. He limits himself to the physical experience of torture, and, more important, takes on the challenge of finding words adequate to represent the terrible space of the torture chamber itself: ”A mixture of deodorant smells and paper, tobacco, old furniture, turned into a single smell, which characterizes all the places whose functions are proclaimed by notices, where warnings burden walls, counters and filing cabinets, where the sweat, tears, vomit and blood of many many people, who came and went, who never made it out of the doors, leave their spirits hanging in the air, which can never be cleaned.”

There is a certain dark lyricism to this writing, a lyricism even more strongly evident in Alex La Guma’s ”In the Fog of the Season’s End” (1972), another novel about resistance and torture. Since the time of Flaubert, the novel of realism has been vulnerable to criticism of the motives behind its preoccupation with the mean, the low, the ugly. If the novelist finds in squalor the occasion for his most soaring poetic eloquence, might he not be guilty of seeking out his squalid subject matter for perversely literary reasons? From the beginning of his career, La Guma – a neglected writer who died recently in exile in Cuba – ran the risk of immortalizing a Cape Town of seedy slums and dripping rain in a prose of somewhat lugubrious grandeur. In his presentation of the world of the security police, no matter how much he insists on its banality, its lack of depth, there is a tendency to lyrical inflation. It is as though, in avoiding the trap of ascribing an evil grandeur to the police, La Guma displaces that grandeur, in an equivalent but negative form, onto their surroundings, lending to the very flatness of their world hints of a metaphysical depth: ”Behind the polished windows, the gratings and the Government paintwork, was another dimension of terror. . . . Behind the picture of normality the cobwebs and grime of a spider reality lay hidden.”

Presenting the world of the interrogator with a false portentousness, a questionable dark lyricism, is not a fault limited to South African novelists. The torture scenes in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film ”The Battle of Algiers” are subject to the same criticism. I

* AM not arguing that the world of the torturer should be ignored or minimized. I would not wish away Breyten Breytenbach’s ”True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist” (1985), which contains some searching explorations, based on personal experience, of the spiritual sphere in which the police live. They are human beings who find it possible to leave the breakfast table in the morning, kiss their children goodbye and drive off to the office to commit obscenities. But the book is a memoir. It does not matter if at one moment Mr. Breytenbach exhibits a canny suspiciousness about the wish to get behind the security police (get behind the walls, get behind the dark glasses, find out their innermost secrets), yet at other times lets his poetic imagination go, to fly deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of the security system, toward ”the inner sanctum . . . where the altar of the State [ the scaffold ] is erected [ in ] the final heart of loneliness.” Because it is an interim report, a partial biography of a phase of Mr. Breytenbach’s life, ”True Confessions” does not have to solve the problem that troubles the novelist – how to justify a concern with morally dubious people involved in a contemptible activity; how to find an appropriately minor place for the petty secrets of the security system; how to treat something that, in truth, because it is offered like the Gorgon’s head to terrorize the populace and paralyze resistance, deserves to be ignored.

Although the work of Nadine Gordimer is never without a political dimension, it contains no direct treatment of the secret world of security. But there is one episode in particular that, in an indirect way, addresses the same moral problems I have been trying to put my finger on. I refer to the episode of the flogging in ”Burger’s Daughter” (1979), which harks back to the flogging of the horse in Dostoyevsky’s ”Crime and Punishment.”

Rosa Burger is driving around, half lost, on the outskirts of the black townships of Johannesburg when she comes upon a family of three in a donkey cart, the man flogging the donkey in a drunken fury. In a frozen instant she beholds ”the infliction of pain broken away from the will that creates it; broken loose, a force existing of itself, ravishment without the ravisher, torture without the torturer, rampage, pure cruelty gone beyond the control of the humans who have spent thousands of years devising it. The entire ingenuity from thumbscrew and rack to electric shock, the infinite variety and gradation of suffering, by lash, by fear, by hunger, by solitary confinement – the camps, concentration, labour, resettlement, the Siberias of snow or sun, the lives of Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada, Kgosana, gull-picked on the Island.”

How is Rosa Burger to react? She can put a halt to the beating, bring her authority to bear on the driver, even have him arrested and prosecuted. But does this man – ”black, poor, brutalized” – know how to live other than by brutality, doing unto others as has been done unto him? On the other hand she can drive past, allowing the torture to continue. But then she may have to live with the suspicion that she passed by out of no better motive than a self-regarding reluctance to be thought ”one of those whites who care more for animals than people.” She drives on. And a few days later leaves South Africa, unable to live in a country that poses such impossible problems in day-to-day living. I T is important not to read the episode in a narrowly symbolic way. The driver and the donkey do not respectively stand for torturer and tortured. ”Torture without the torturer” is the key phrase. Forever and ever in Rosa’s memory the blows will rain down and the beast shudder in pain. The spectacle comes from the inner reaches of Dante’s hell, beyond the scope of morality. For morality is human, whereas the two figures locked to the cart belong to a damned, dehumanized world. They put Rosa Burger in her place: they define her as within the sphere of humanity. What she flees from in fleeing South Africa is the negative illumination that there exists another world parallel to hers, no farther away than a half-hour’s drive, a world of blind force and mute suffering, debased, beneath good and evil.

How to proceed beyond this dark moment of the soul is the question Miss Gordimer tackles in the second half of her novel. Rosa Burger returns to the land of her birth to join in its suffering and await the day of liberation. There is no false optimism, on her part or on Miss Gordimer’s. Revolution will put an end neither to cruelty and suffering, nor perhaps even to torture. What Rosa suffers and waits for is a time when humanity will be restored across the face of society, and therefore when all human acts, including the flogging of an animal, will be returned to the ambit of moral judgment. In such a society it will once again be meaningful for the gaze of the author, the gaze of authority and authoritative judgment, to be turned upon scenes of torture. When the choice is no longer limited to either looking on in horrified fascination as the blows fall or turning one’s eyes away, then the novel can once again take as its province the whole of life, and even the torture chamber can be accorded a place in the design.

*”In Detention” c Christopher van Wyk. Quoted with the author’s permission.