Saturday, January 24, 2009

Unforgiving Years (A Review)

"Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us, and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts. . ." - Heinrich Heine

Victor Serge was the pen name of Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, born in 1890 in Brussels to impoverished anti-Czarist Russian exiles. He began living on his own at 15 following his parents' divorce. After deciding that the Belgian Socialist Party wasn't radical enough, he became increasingly involved in anarchism, resulting in his expulsion from Belgium in 1909. He then became a journalist in Paris, publishing articles for Le Révolté and Albert Libertad's L'Anarchie. A highly vocal supporter of individualist anarchism and illegalism, Serge clashed frequently with L'Anarchie editor André Roulot, resulting in a schism that ended with Serge assuming Roulot's position. Imprisoned in 1912 on charges of terrorism, Serge was incarcerated when World War I broke out, but nevertheless predicted accurately that the conflict would lead to revolution in Russia. He traveled to Spain in 1917 and participated in an attempted syndicalist uprising. By the time he finally arrived in Russia in 1919, Serge had become disenchanted with anarchism and joined the Bolsheviks, although he disagreed with their desire to spread worldwide rebellion. Despite working for the Soviet government, he became increasingly concerned with its draconian codes against free speech and crackdowns on dissenters. As a libertarian socialist, he also spoke out against the Red Terror, which led him to withdraw from Soviet politics and briefly lead a commune on an abandoned estate near Petrograd. After that failed, he went on a 1922 Comintern mission to Germany, which restored his battered pride in Russia's accomplishments. Yet he still felt that the Comintern was dogmatic, overly bureaucratic, and excessively ideological, and subsequently joined Leon Trotsky's anti-Stalinist United Opposition in 1923, which resulted in his expulsion from the Communist Party and imprisonment in 1928. Upon his release, he published three novels in Paris, only to be arrested again in Russia in 1933. He was allowed to leave in 1936 only after international protests from other prominent radicals. Now living in France, he corresponded with other anti-Stalinists, including Trotsky, and began publishing heated exposés on Stalin's regime. After Germany's invasion in 1940, he fled with his son to Mexico. He had difficulty adjusting to his new life, and his problems were only compounded when the USA-USSR alliance in 1942 made it difficult for him to publish his articles. He wrote two novels during this time, The Case of Comrade Tulayev and Unforgiving Years, as well as Memoirs of a Revolutionary. His years of imprisonment had damaged his health, however, and the several assassination attempts by Mexican Stalinists didn't exactly help. Broke and harassed Soviet agents, Victor Serge died in 1947 in Mexico City of a heart attack.

Wow. And you thought David Morrell had one helluva of a background.

While no author's works exist in a vacuum, it is especially vital to know who Victor Serge was before commencing his masterpiece novel, Unforgiving Years, first published in English only in 2008 (by NYRB Classics) and currently on Open Letter Press's longlist for Best Translated Book of 2008. Seriously, I cannot praise this book enough. It is epic in every last sense of the word. Originally written in French as Les Années sans pardon and released posthumously in 1971, Unforgiving Years (translated by Richard Greeman) is divided into four parts, the first three, like the panels in a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, altogether composing a panoramic view of the "disastrous, blazing core of the twentieth century" (publisher's copy – I couldn't have said it better myself). The overall plot centers on two Russian comrades named D and Daria, yet the true subject is the madness, destruction, and ultimate disillusionment of Europe in the 1930s and '40s.

Part I, The Secret Agent, follows a paranoid D as he races through pre-war Paris, having abandoned the Party and expecting reprisal at every turn. He knows that global catastrophe is on the horizon and seeks nothing more than freedom, beholden to nothing and no one: "No longer to be that thinking molecule within a formidable, relentless, clear-sighted collective, held taut by so much willpower, that it no longer knew what it was doing." Serge illustrates brilliantly the mood of a city on the edge, in all of its Old World bourgeoisie decadence even as calamity looms. There is more fuss over the murder of gay sculptor than the ominous signs coming out of Germany. Except for his wife Nadine, D is a man alone, like the classical figure of Cassandra, a prophetess cursed by Apollo so that nobody would ever believe her predictions. D wonders,
What is conscience? A residue of beliefs inculcated in us from the time of primitive taboos until today's mass press? Psychologists have come up with an appropriate term for these imprints deep within us: the superego, they say. I have nothing left to invoke but conscience, and I don't even know what it is. I feel an ineffectual protest surging up from within a deep and unknown part of me to challenge destructive expediency, power, the whole of material reality, and in the name of what? Inner enlightenment? I'm behaving almost like a believer. I cannot do otherwise: Luther's words. Except that the German visionary who flung his inkwell at the devil went on to add, "God help me!" What will come to help me?
Through D's internal struggles, Serge establishes what will become one of the novel's central motifs: the new conflict between humanity and what I would call "the machine," a Protean development of the modern era that often takes the form of psychology, technology, ideology, bureaucracy, and all other "rational" attempts at social control and cohesion. "The planned, centralized, rationally administered economy is still superior to any other model," D reflects with Daria during a secret meeting. ". . . But a rational administration must be humane. Can inhumanity ever be rational?" Both agree that the essence of man has been forgotten, because they first forgot their own selves – not individually, but in terms of the soul, now mistakenly seen as "no more than a projection of the old superseded egoism." (That is, a psychological product of Marx's "dead hand of the past" that continues to hinder and oppress the present.) The section ends with D and Nadine on a ship bound to Mexico.

Part II, The Flame Beneath the Snow, follows Daria through the siege of Leningrad, in all of its desperate, indomitable heroism. Once again, Serge is a master of evocation, easily bringing to life another city, this one barely holding out under both the Nazis and a brutal Russian winter. The reader is there when Daria enters in pitch black in the back of a truck, when she walks the bleak streets, when she witnesses the glare of rockets on the periphery. I wrote about a history book a few months ago called For the Soul of Mankind by Melvin P. Leffler, which discussed how the horrors of World War II were felt for decades in Russia, affecting both its foreign policy and view of itself as perpetually under siege by the capitalist West. On the other hand, for all his concern with history and collective memory, W.G. Sebald, author of Austerlitz, chose instead to write fiction in order to truly illuminate the humanity behind objective fact. Serge's own fictional work Unforgiving Years likewise brings to life the suffering of the Russians far more eloquently than either Leffler or any other academic historian working under the rules of scholarly detachment; Unforgiving Years is very similar to Austerlitz in that respect. Here, the foreshadowing of the previous section is also brought out in full force: both the war and Daria's inevitable disillusionment with the regime, even she stands by its people.
Everything is kept secret. The death of a fighter in action. . . Arrest. . . Execution. . . War work, any combat mission. . . Thought, because it is an indomitable force that never knows where it is going or what it will demand, may suddenly find itself mired in a maze of doubts, scruples, questions, inventions, dreams. We want efficient, disciplined thinking, technical thinking – but how is that to be separated from the other, which is anarchic, ungovernable, obsessive, and unpredictable? How to silence the mischievous twin beneath a cloak of reproof and secrecy?
Strangely enough, however, a general's monologue argues that Russia will eventually overwhelm Germany's technical dominance with only the sheer passion and fury of a citizenry defending their homeland, but Daria has had it with military intelligence and its precise mathematical calculations of death and destruction. She requests an undercover foreign assignment.

Part III, entitled Brigitte, Lightning, Lilacs, is surprising. After describing so vividly the ordeal of Leningrad, Serge's humanizing depiction of Germans is simply astonishing. Individual characters – particularly despondent Brigitte, demoralized Gunther, and Franz Minus-Two, sarcastic double amputee – are complex and fully realized human beings written with an unflinching realism. Nor does Serge falter as we are taken on a tour of yet a third city, this one wearily facing final defeat even as some cling tenaciously to the ideals of the Third Reich. Interesting that each of the first three sections occupies an urban setting in crisis. Serge seems to be demonstrating the disparity between the heights of civilization and man's continuing inhumanity to man. "She's insane. Shock, schizophrenia? Whole continents have gone insane, civilization is a form of schizophrenia." Despite the jacket copy, Daria does not actually appear until two-thirds of the way through, along with another character from earlier in the story. The focus here is wartime Germany in all its indignation, resignation, and societal shock.

Part IV is Journey's End. Part IV is rest and relief and, finally, light. Part IV is so shattering it will leave you breathless.


Please, read this. If you never read anything else this year, read this. Serge, lifelong revolutionary, captures both the zeal of the true believer and the hollowness of the political apostate in dark, dense prose reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Like Conrad, Serge delves deep into the human psyche, confronts head-on the brutality that lives there, and takes the reader on a corresponding physical journey through a threatening landscape that mirrors the chaos within. In other words, Unforgiving Years is not an uplifting book. It is bitter in tone and prone to lyrical flights of surrealism. Throughout, Serge emphasizes revolutionary fanaticism and world-weary disillusionment as only one who has experienced them possibly can. He writes with a fully authentic voice that effectively explores the full range of human emotions under conditions wholly foreign to the average American reader, today and yesterday: his characters persist through war, poverty, prison, undercover behind enemy lines, and on the run from Communist militants. (In For the Soul of Mankind, when talking about the American home front in World War II, Leffler notes that never has there been so much talk about sacrifice, yet so little actual sacrifice, compared to everyone else.) Again, it is not a pleasant tale, but it is an important one, for it is, above all, an eloquent testimony to both the perils of political fanaticism and the dark rivers of the human heart.

So, needless to say, Unforgiving Years comes highly recommended. It is well-written and evocative; educational and instructive without being pedagogical. It is a work of art composed by someone who lived a turbulent life intrinsically bound to a history's most tumultuous era.


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