Friday, December 11, 2009

Kafka on the Wall

The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain
Various Authors
Various Translators
Open Letter Press
Words Without Borders

231 pages
November 30, 2009

Communist dictatorship . . . had its own rationality and motives, its own aims and purposes, except that these had nothing in common with normalcy, logic as we know it, or everyday life.
(Judith Sollosy, "Reflections on Péter Esterházy's Revised Edition")

The Wall in My Head is an anthology of essays, poetry, short stories, images and historical documents from former citizens of the Soviet bloc, all relating to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of Soviet Communism. The release of both The Wall in My Head and Season of Ash, also from Open Letter Press, commemorates the twentieth anniversary of these historic events, and also, as Keith Gessen notes in his introduction, seeks to capture the tumultuous, upturned atmosphere of post-Communism, an era recently ended. "You can tell it's over because nobody wants to hear anymore about how terrible Communism was. Russians sure don't, and not just because Communism was all their fault." Like Season of Ash, The Wall in My Head depicts very recent history which nevertheless already feels distant, thanks to the radical changes that occurred in Eastern and Central Europe in the early 1990s.

The writers featured in the anthology, though they come from different national, cultural, and ethnic perspectives, share many common experiences. But what I focused on the most as I read through book was the theme set up by the opening piece, a selection from Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel. Kundera argues that life under Communism resembled a Kafka story, in which hapless humans are caught up in the mechanisms of a towering bureaucracy that operates under its own incomprehensible laws of unknown origin. Thus, a file buried in an office somewhere, Kundera explains, "takes on the role of a Platonic idea. It represents true reality, whereas man's physical existence is only a shadow cast upon the screen of illusion." Land-Surveyor K. from Kafka's novel The Castle, for instance, exists only because of an obsolete, mistakenly-filed order; indeed, Kundera goes on, K. is actually the shadow of an error in the file, and therefore has no right to exist even as a shadow.

K.'s absurd situation is highly comparable to the protagonist of the allegedly true story of an engineer in Communist Prague, who is reported as having made a slanderous remark about Czechoslovakia while in London and having further stated a desire to remain in the West. No one seems willing or able to retract the false report and the poor engineer is continuously referred to one department after another. The engineer then starts to wonder if his phones are being tapped and starts to fear for his safety until he finally can't take it anymore and actually does flee the country.

But while the engineer's tale may or may not be an urban legend - a bit of sensationalized modern folklore whose seeming veracity arises from shared societal fears and anxieties - many of the collected works of The Wall in My Head deal, each in their own way, with the institutionalized irrationalities of life under Communism. Beginning with Communism's basic premise: that it represents an evolutionary endpoint, the Utopian culmination of centuries of the worker's struggle for a just society. And so, as Rousseau once put it, the oppressed proletariat must be "forced to be free." In "The Road to Bornholm," German poet Durs Grünbein describes East Berlin's atmosphere leading to the fall of the Wall:
The reason for the upsurge was a bundle of unsolvable contradictions, from the miserable future prospects for most citizens (despite their undiminished historical mission), to the stagnation of an entire society (which knew progress only as an ideology) due to the erosion of all their members' self-confidence (lauded as the development of a mature socialist personality), down to lifelong imprisonment (in order to protect the people from themselves and their misguided wants). . .

. . . The sickness hidden behind it [the Wall], a deep identity crisis, was initially masked and later, denied. Since that time, a deceptively schizoid jargon, DDR language, had been escaping through the cracks in their rigid, inbred logic. The Soviet idea was so attractive that only prison architecture could preserve it. One day Rufus stumbed on two lines by Robert Frost, which to him summed up the whole paradox of the Wall in a nutshell: Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out . . .
Most organized societies, of course, have their own incongruities and aspects that seem to deviate from common sense. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is a brilliant exploration of this; Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night is another. But Vonnegut and Heller were obviously writing hyperbolic satire, whereas The Wall in My Head is equal parts realism (in the fictionalized pieces) and historical documentary. Absurdity stands out even more.

In a selection from his novel Imperium, we learn from Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński (with some exaggeration, naturally) that the Soviet Union was so obsessed with marking its borders that factories seemed to manufacture nothing but reams and reams of barbed wire, which deteriorated quickly under the elements and was in perpetual need of replacement. As such, it was virtually impossible to find in a Soviet shop any useful metal item such as a hoe, hammer, or eating utensil. And that's not even taking into account the logistics required in constructing and maintaining these barbed wire fences, from telephone calls and telegrams, to the orders constantly coming in, to the transportation of said wire, the bureaucracy involved, and the consequent neglect of other areas of Soviet infrastructure.

Though not everything that stood out to me was literally Kafkaesque, the very dissonance often felt closely related. East German activist Peter Schneider, in his novel The Wall Jumper, tells of the family of an influential Berlin Party member who were allowed to maintain their living conditions when the Wall was built. So the otherwise straight, monolithic Wall made a sudden zigzag around their house but abutted it so closely that the children were able to jump over and enter West Berlin whenever they pleased. In "My Grandmother the Censor" Marsha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and novelist, interviews her grandmother about her post-WWII job at the Soviet Department of Control over Foreign Media, in which she was basically responsible for reading all printed materials that came into the Soviet Union from abroad and determining whether or not a given book or magazine should be banned. Sometimes, the grandmother recalled, she found that she admired certain writers, such as Harrison Salisbury from the New York Times. But to make a simple error in translation (in documents being forwarded to Stalin's office) or allow in anything deemed even the slightest bit subversive could be deadly.

I found myself wondering how these Communist Era officials thought they could possibly maintain control over such a stack of cards: an unstable structure built upon an unstable foundation. But then, according to Croatian journalist and essayist Dubravka Urgesic in "The Souvenirs of Communism," the character of life under these regimes is essentially inaccessible to the West, and for that reason, truly authentic Soviet authors never gained a foothold abroad. "Western readers did not have the feel for communist everyday life, the author's humor was not understood, the linguistic subversion left them cold, and the absurd and grotesque aspects of the totalitarian world remained opaque to them." If that is indeed the case, then I think The Wall in My Head actually comes close to recreating, in elegant and intimate detail for the Western reader, a world that literally collapsed overnight and has wholly transformed itself since.

Obviously The Wall in My Head is a very valuable primary source (I didn't even talk about the photographs and government documents embedded throughout the text) but, despite my love of history, I saw it in more literary terms. But the beauty of a multi-author work is that multiple viewpoints are presented, and I think every reader is likely to see something very different. And really, that's how reality is: everyone's perspective is unique, even when viewing basically the same thing.

Also recommended: Jáchym Topol's City Sister Silver

Click here for The Front Table's review.

This is Part I of the Vice Guide to North Korea. While certainly a far more extreme example of Communism than most of the Eastern Bloc ever was, this three-part video series is nevertheless a striking example of the Kafkaesque dictatorship. My favorite part was when the hotel staff tries to demonstrate to the host that there is indeed food in North Korea - by setting an entire empty dining room with sumptuous meals no one will ever eat. The host suspected that the same food was just brought out evening after evening. *Cue "Hotel California."*


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