Essay 13: Crime and the Technique of Crime

by rosalyster

I spend a lot of my week in the archives. These are the provincial archives on Roeland Street, housed in the big stone building where a prison used to be. I say this to myself a lot when I go there: “This place used to have prisoners in it.” It is the kind of compelling fact that lends itself easily to metaphor, like: I spend a lot of time in a building that was once a prison, and indeed it is a prison to me, still. Is not work a punishment for being alive, and does not the hammer of justice fall with especial force on those in the archives? There are some people who feel that way about it. I know because they tell me.

Last year, I spoke to a girl who had been sitting in the reading room for a month, doing research for a History professor. Her job, as far as I could make out, was to shuffle helplessly through piles of documents relating to the colonial management of South Africa’s forests. King William’s Town, to be specific. 1903-1918, if we are getting real about it. She told me that the head of the forestry department used to be called The Conservator of Forests. We both thought that sounded nice and heroic, like an old-fashioned king.  That was about it, though, as far as interest went. That about sucked the marrow out of it. I have never seen anyone so hysterically bored by what they were doing as that forestry girl. I thought she was going to die.

One day, we were outside in the courtyard at the same time. I was there drinking a Diet Coke in big, frantic gulps. If you do it fast enough you can make your throat feel like a book has opened inside it. This works especially well if the Coke is for some reason bitterly cold, as the drinks from the vending machines at the archives always are. The forestry girl was smoking a cigarette with the same inappropriate intensity. I paced back and forth with my Coke, gasping away, and the forestry girl stared wretchedly into the grass. We hadn’t spoken for a bit, and then she said I hate it in there. She gestured toward the reading room, to all the sweet old people bent over the birth certificates of their long-dead relatives. They all looked so happy and industrious, so filled with purpose. What are all those people even doing? They don’t even have to be here. They just like it. She shook her head in full disgust. I am bendy and eager to please, and so I nodded my head, agreeing. I see now that I was scared of her. I said, This place used to be a prison, you know. She drove her cigarette into the grass. She stomped on it til she dislodged some roots. Of course it was, she said.

The forestry girl left soon after that. I was pleased to see her go. The longer she stayed, the more likely it was that she would size me up correctly as the kind of person who actually liked being there.  She would have thought I was such a loser. My problem with the archives isn’t that it feels like a prison. It’s more that you could not pay me to leave.

My official reason for being there is my doctoral thesis, the topic of which is state censorship in apartheid South Africa. Does that sound boring to you? Allow me to retort. The South African censors were allowed a great deal of discretion. Bureaucracy works this way. The laws are made, the Acts are created, the very specific rules are set in place. But ultimately these rules must be applied by someone, and that someone usually turns out to be a maniac. Or else he is bored, or else he thinks he has a better way of doing it, or else he has a chip on his shoulder like you would not believe. What looks good on paper will end up in some desperate government office, and there is a man wearing a stained tie, and he is threatening to go off-piste at any moment.

Despite all the legislation, and the detailed and instructive forms they were required to fill in, with spaces provided for different categories of offense (see: “white slavery”; “crime and the technique of crime”; “the drug habit”; “offensive intermigling” (sic); “white slave traffic”; “subversive propaganda”, just for starters), despite the instructions they were given, and the laboured pretence that they were answerable to a higher administrative body, the censors persisted in saying whatever the hell they felt like. They just did whatever. They banned books because they were boring, and they passed them for the same reason. They decided that a book was “sexy but not pornographic”, and that another kind of book would “certainly lead to strip sessions.” Both books have a young woman caring for her ailing, and much older, husband. He is dying. She takes off all her clothes, possibly in an attempt to heal him. The censors do not go into these sorts of details, in their synopses. The main thing for them is that she is getting naked. They said that both books had no literary merit whatsoever. None.

They banned one book because it was likely to reach a wide audience, and they passed another book for the same reason. They said that a book by Elizabeth Bowen couldn’t be indecent, because it was by Elizabeth Bowen. They said that On the Road, while indecent, was critical of the “hippyesque” lifestyle it attempted to portray. They passed it because they said that everyone in that book ends up sad.

They were never consistent, ever.  In administrative terms, this means that they were never able to create any sort of precedent for their decisions. Every book that passed before them, every comedy birthday card printed with the words ON YOUR BIRTHDAY REMEMBER THAT SEX IS THE ANSWER?!, was treated with the same robust and dogged suspicion, the same What’s All This, Then? With every book, they were starting afresh.

In terms of my own ability to have a great time reading these reports, the inconsistency and unreliability of the censors’ decisions means that it is impossible to ever get bored. You can’t. They are always saying something new. There is always some shit on the go, in the censor’s reports. The other day I found a report on Justine. Not Durrell, de Sade. The censor recommended passing, on the grounds that “A really innocent person would hardly follow what was happening.” What a world!

The same day, I found the following summary:

“Young divorcee is dissatisfied with life. Joins an underground movement to help people overcome having middle-class souls. Meets fine upstanding man from lower social group who is longing to be middle class. He wants to marry, she just wants to live together. Much talk. In the end he wins.”

What kind of a person writes this stuff? The best part of reading these reports is that it’s not just one kind of person. There is every sort of lunatic in here. I cannot get enough of it. It’s got so I can recognise a good report just by glancing at it. I know the handwriting of individual censors, of course, and I know by now which ones are most likely to have written something designed to make me squeal with joy. It’s more than that, though. It’s getting so I believe that I can sense the aura of a report. I can just hover my hand over it and feel that this one is worth a read.

Does that still sound boring to you? You and the forestry girl know where the door is, then. Come back when you want to know what the censors said about Tolstoy. You wouldn’t believe it.