/ 28 June 2011

A life of constant reckoning

Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship in the time of the South African Struggle by Hugh Lewin (Umuzi)

What does it mean to crack open a painful story that has shaped one’s entire life? What are the places in the story that yield and unfold, allowing you and your reader to see things anew? And what are the points of resistance, the stubborn traumas of the past that will not be defused in the present? Stones against the Mirror is Hugh Lewin’s second autobiographical work and it is worth reading alongside his earlier book, Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison (first published in 1974 and re-issued by Random House in 2002 as Bandiet Out of Jail).

In 1964 Lewin was convicted of sabotage for his role in the anti-apartheid African Resistance ­Movement. He was 25 years old. Lewin chronicled the deep undoing of the self that imprisonment wrought in Bandiet and detailed his often ingenious strategies for self-­preservation. These included a tiny diary fashioned from a toothpaste box, a chessboard pricked out with a pinhead but which he claimed never brought any real pleasure, and the stolen cigarettes and matches and the carefully concealed “slatch” torn from a match box for illicit late-night smoking in his cell.

Lewin was interrogated in prison and was subject to both physical and psychological torture. More than anything, it was his friendships with the other jailed “politicals” that sustained him while inside.

The bitterness of betrayal

His latest work is a memoir told in fragments, through “shards” of memory that connect the present and the past. At the centre of the narrative is Lewin’s relationship with Adrian Leftwich, his one-time best friend and the person who gave his name to the security police and then testified against him in court. Leftwich was the friend who did not accompany Lewin into prison and came to signify everything that Lewin imagined he was not.

Stones against the Mirror documents 40 years of holding on to the loss of that friendship and the bitterness of betrayal. It also maps the long journey towards a certain kind of peace. Lewin writes: “Bitterness has clung to me like armour. I do not know how I will feel without it, but I can no longer be the guardian of my friend’s guilt.” Stones against the Mirror does not offer a grand ­narrative of reconciliation that lays the past to rest, but testifies to a life of constant reckoning.

In a life that includes such experiences, writing, testifying and confessing take on a particular valence that is not the same for all of us. I was struck by this while reading a recent interview conducted with Lewin and published in the Sunday Times. The interview is ostensibly about Stones against the Mirror but the questions concern Lewin’s position regarding the use of violence and the responsibility he bears for recruiting John Harris, the person who planted a bomb at Johannesburg’s Park Station, into the resistance movement.

In a cunning rhetorical ­manoeuvre that closely mimics the strategies of apartheid-era interrogators, the interviewer argues that Lewin, and by extension other anti-apartheid activists, can be understood as responsible for the injustices of apartheid (they brought it on themselves) and were just plain wrong for advocating armed resistance in the first place.

High stakes

Such a response marks just how high the stakes were for Lewin, and also for others who figure in his book, and certainly does not do justice to the complexity of the text or the history it relates. For Stones against the Mirror raises a series of questions about resistance, responsibility and betrayal that remain ­difficult to answer. In opening these questions with us, for us, this book invites us to reflect on our own ­positions and to seek answers for ourselves.

In several places the book ­revisits events documented in Bandiet, and the precise repetition of these ­episodes can be read in at least two ways. Such moments signal the ways in which traumatic memories threaten to interrupt narrative coherence and make a straight-­forward telling impossible. They also mark Lewin’s anxiety that what he writes will be subject to interrogation, taken apart and considered untrue.

Much as witnesses must recite the same evidence over and over if they are to be believed, Lewin clearly feels the weight of having to provide a “true” account of the past. His careful descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life in Bandiet are remarkable — a skill which his experiences and environment honed in prison and nurtured as a means of survival. But can there be too much remembering? Stones against the Mirror is, at least in part, about loosening the stranglehold of the past.

Kylie Thomas teaches in the department of English at the University of Cape Town