Review of Island in Chains by Indres Naidoo. Penguin Books. 278 pages, $4.50.
Prison literature is by now a well-stocked genre, with its own great names -- Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky, Gramsci -- as well as its minor classics by Jacobo Timerman, Henri Charriere and others. Island in Chains has much in common with the shelves of prison books that precede it. In its pages are accounts of humiliating searches, brutal warders, ingenious smugglers, political discussions and factional infighting, grinding labor in stone quarries, daring escape attempts, hunger strikes, and the continuing struggle to stay strong and sane and informed through years of boredom, isolation and cruelty.
It requires a sharp observer to bring freshness to such familiar ingredients, and fortunately Indres Naidoo is such an observer. This is a man who remembers the brand name of the Robben Island razor blades (Solingham), the number of days it takes for seal meat to go bad (three), and the names of dozens of guards, prison doctors, security police and fellow convicts. As a result, his book is packed with anecdotes funny, chilling, angry and heartwarming. We see the prisoners cheering the Viet Cong at a rare showing of The Green Berets, the patient efforts of one man to make a saxophone out of cork, scrap tin and seaweed, and Naidoo's own struggle for the humble right to blow his nose. There are glimpses of celebrities too: Helen Suzman, Dennis Brutus, and Prime Minister Verwoerd's assassin, as well as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu -- constant sources of inspiration despite their confinement to the Island's isolation block. Kicked, whipped, beaten or insulted, the Islanders continue to fight for better conditions and even sometimes to relieve the general ugliness by organizing a choir or building a rock garden.
"This is the Island -- Here you will die." These words, shouted in Afrikaans, were the first to greet Naidoo's boatload of convicts on their arrival. That Naidoo and some others did not in fact die but survived, served out their sentences and reentered a South Africa changed by ten or twenty years of absence, is a testament to a physical and moral resistance honed by years of practice. Even on the brute physical level, Robben Islanders emerge as a tough lot. Naidoo tells of more than one murder attempt in which a prisoner was bludgeoned unconscious and left for dead, only to turn up alive and well the next day. Another prisoner, caught atop a slab of rock as it fell from a quarry wall, kept his balance and his nerve, jumping away at just the right instant so that the stone crashed to earth inches behind him. Mental discipline grew along with physical strength. The "politicals" would memorize the news items they were able to glean from hidden radios or stolen newspapers so as to pass them on in later conferences. Politics, history, current events were all passionately discussed and disputed. Only occasionally, as when a Bible was sacrificed to provide cigarette papers, did baser desires win out over the mind.
To judge from the kinds of stories he tells, from the number of conversations he recounts and the number of unofficial sports and political offices he held on the Island, Naidoo is a gregarious and optimistic man. He clearly relishes every instance of his comrades getting the better of their captors. But even allowing for this, and for the darker scenes he paints, it is obvious that Robben Island often failed in its intended purpose. Rather than breaking its prisoners, it was building them, concentrating their strength and fury. When Naidoo left the Island he was very likely a physically stronger man than when he arrived. Certainly he had received an unrivaled political education. The Island's guards probably knew this, and some may have recognized the danger this process posed to the regime. But Robben Island guards were the dregs of the South African prison system, and their warnings, if any, were unlikely to carry much weight with their superiors. If those superiors read this book they will know. The Island is a furnace, but those men it does not kill will emerge one day, like Shadrach in the Book of Daniel, inspired with a purpose from which all dross has been seared away.
Published in IDAF News Notes, February 1983.