Showing posts with label Central European Literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Central European Literature. Show all posts

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"The bicycle is a vertical vehicle. . ."

The Cyclist Conspiracy
By Svetislav Basara
Translated from Serbian by Randall A. Major
280 pages
Open Letter Books
March 20, 2012

. . . If we look at a simplified graphic representation of the bicycle, we can see that the device has an abundance of religious symbols; two wheels, two circles, symbolizing the two faulty infinities (time and space) connected by the true eternity of the Trinity, represented by the triangle of the frame. At the same time, when represented like this, the bicycle has the shape of metaphysical glasses with which it is possible to correct spiritual myopia. But that is not all. If we take a birds-eye perspective (which is the viewpoint of the Holy Ghost), the bicycle has the shape of a cross, where the handlebars are the crossbars of the cross. A man who rides a bicycle is, in fact, crucifying himself. (214-215)

Svetislav Basara (1953-), former Serbian ambassador to Cyprus, is also a major figure in contemporary Serbian literature, having authored dozens of novels, essays, plays, and short stories. In 2006 he received the NIN Award for his novel The Rise and Fall of Parkinson’s Disease. At this time, only two of Basara's works are available in English: the novels Chinese Letter (1985) and The Cyclist Conspiracy (1988).

Fama o biciklistima (The Cyclist Conspiracy) is a patchwork compilation of historical documents, scholarly papers, photographs, short stories, and poetry concerning the Order of the Evangelical Bicyclists, an esoteric, transhistorical cabal that meets secretly in dreams. Psychoanalysis combines with Plato and Augustine's City of God in a theology that knows no temporal restraints, manipulating history from the future in a plot to reunite humanity and the heavens. Chronological time figures prominently as a social construct that locks the unenlightened into regimented rigidity; a favorite recurring activity of the Little Brothers is the smashing of public clocks as they speed through European capitals on their sacred vehicles. To the Little Brothers, as the cyclists call themselves, the waking world as essentially broken, an invisible prison that enslaves human souls to corrupt worldly institutions. To consolidate and subsequently purge the evil plaguing the City of Man, the Evangelical Bicyclists are seeking to construct a Grand Insane Asylum for some 20,000,000 patients - an inverted Tower of Babel that lies partly underground.

Though largely metaphysical, The Cyclist Conspiracy also bears the influence of twentieth-century Yugoslavian and Eastern European history, with Stalin as the emblem of ultimate capitulation to the world of "technology": the brutish social order of government, institutions, and science that "lies in opposition to the real world" as "nothing other than a false world, the world of deception" (92). Basara is quite satirical on this subject. The exalted goals of the Evangelical Bicyclists are at times expressed in terms of violence and destruction, as seen in the fictional Serbian journals Vidici and Student (which appear as the subjects of an academic article). As parodies of those underground political rags put out by angry radicals, Vidici and Student, despite their Nietzschean overtones, seem to recall the promises of communism that culminated in Soviet totalitarianism. Rich irony lies in the disparity between utopianism and its means. The Grand Insane Asylum is, after all, a "hospital . . . structured like a country and all its citizens are only potentially crazy" (260). One is reminded of the internment of Soviet political prisoners in mental hospitals under contrived diagnoses (such as "sluggishly progressing schizophrenia") that began under Stalin's regime.

That the world of technology (or Augustine's City of Man) is one of chaos is probably Basara's point, as a contrasted to the perfected realm of God that we glimpse only through the lens of our fallen nature. As one high-ranking Little Brother explains to a neophyte:
"I can't help you get rid of your prejudices because even what I know belongs to the sphere of prejudice. Actually, they are at a higher level, but that doesn't change anything, if you're climbing the stairs leading to eternity, it is absolutely the same if you are at n + 1 or n + 25. No one knows the real purpose of our Order. No one can tell you whether we are doing good or evil. We're simply doing what we have to. You should know that the Order is more of an interesting hypothesis than an organized institution or power. That's good, too. That is the power of our community that has been maintained for a thousand years, due to the fact that it has never been constituted and, let's say, it hardly exists at all; it was created to not exist, but to disappear. A rigid organization only offers the illusion of strength, but it is not strength." (136-137)
The Order is nebulous because it is a manifestation of humanity's perpetual search for transcendence. The bicycle is essentially a dadaist symbol (dada originally being French for "hobbyhorse") reflecting the absurdity of trying to conceptualize the divine in tangible form, an undertaking that is never anything but subjective and prone to acrimonious debate. The Cyclist Conspiracy broaches such lofty regions and builds itself a labyrinth of possibilities surrounding unknowable things. It is a difficult, Borgesian work overall, and not one likely to have broad appeal. Still, its thought-provoking creativity is rewarding and every reader is guaranteed a different interpretation.

Review Copy

Friday, June 4, 2010

"a time to live and a time to sleep"

A Thousand Peaceful Cities
By Jerzy Pilch
Translated by David Frick
143 pages
Open Letter Press
July 4, 2010

"As a Protestant who doesn't exist, I can kill without hesitation, since the act will remain in the realm of nothingness. If, as some say, Poland is a Catholic country, then, there you have it! It follows clearly from this that, if
lèse-majesté is perpetuated in a Catholic country by a non-Catholic, that is by nobody, or by a foreigner, then the good name of our holy fatherland, the holy mother of all fatherlands, to whom the tradition of assassinating kings is foreign, will remain unsullied, and at the same time she will gain the name of the one who, as the first of the oppressed, raised her hand against the usurper. You don't appreciate the precipitous dialectic of my patriotism."

Jerzy Pilch is one of Poland's top contemporary writers, known for his novels and long-running humor column. He has been nominated four times for the prestigious NIKE Literary Award and finally won in 2002 for The Mighty Angel. Despite Pilch's international reputation, A Thousand Peaceful Cities is only his second novel to be published in English, following His Current Woman from Northwestern University Press.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a satirical comedy that takes place during the post-Stalinist thaw of 1963. Young Jerzyk shares a house with his parents and a pair of female "morphinistes" who occupy the attic and are notorious around the neighborhood for their "Babylonian" beach blanket. His father's best friend is one Mr. Trąba, an eloquent and well-mannered alcoholic who believes that his end is imminent. But before that happens, he has resolved to kill someone whose death will surely be of benefit to all mankind. Since Chairman Mao is out of the question, Mr. Trąba has set his murderous sights on Władysław Gomułka, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party and de facto head of state. Jerzyk, meanwhile, faces the universal trials and travails of adolescence and entering adulthood.

Nearly all characters, including Mr. Trąba and Jerzyk's family, are members of a small Lutheran community in a deeply Catholic society. It is a consequent feeling of invisibility that also propels Mr. Trąba's assassination plot. He explains that, due to his physical appearance,
"Always, everywhere, and everybody, Chief [Jerzyk's father], everybody took me for a Jew. I never regretted this. On the contrary, I was happy about it. Although we both know that being a Lutheran in Poland means having an even more subtle existence than being a Jew in Poland. There were once Jews in Poland, and now there are none; but once there were no Lutherans, and now there are none of us too."
Despite communism's association with atheism and materialism, A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a very religious book. Not in terms of traditionalism, but in the characters' cultural identification with their minority faith. Plans, ideas, and observances are often articulated in biblical terms. Jerzyk and Mr. Trąba's neighborhood is centered on religious observance and the local Lutheran church in such a way that recalls Poland's pre-WWII Jewish population. In this context, Mr. Trąba's semi-identification with the Jews, despite Poland's long history of anti-Semitism, is perhaps not surprising. According to a convoluted lecture given to Commandant Jeremiah (a Jewish supporter of Mr. Trąba's seditious goal), Mr. Trąba firmly believes in the superiority of an alliance between their two peoples. And furthermore, he adds, it has been foretold the Jews will eventually convert to Catholicism but will become disgusted with Rome and end up switching to Lutheranism. Hence, they are virtually the same people!

With Jerzyk as the narrator, A Thousand Peaceful Cities is also a coming-of-age story. In addition to political and religious matters, Jerzyk's narrative is deeply concerned with the women he is in love with and his intermittent frustration with being seen as a kid. For all the ridiculousness of Mr. Trąba's plan, which involves a Chinese crossbow and Jerzyk going around Warsaw in a feathered headdress, the very fact that Jerzyk has been invited to participate and given an important role is very exciting to him. It turns out that the significance of Mr. Trąba's plot is not the singular act of assassination but something more holistic than that. It is a declaration, an assertive, decisive gesture from an obscure alcoholic and an overlooked minority group that also marks one boy's entry into manhood. (Jerzyk loses his virginity immediately afterwards.) Naturally, the whole affair is too absurd to be anything other than an anticlimactic failure but the honor is in the attempt.

My experience with Vonnegut has taught me that satire is either a hit or a miss. A Thousand Peaceful Cities falls in the former category as a great Vonnegut-style novel set in communist-era Poland. Although not laugh-out-loud funny, the humor has a light, witty touch that never takes itself too seriously. The story as a whole is tightly controlled despite its many layers, occasionally digressing but always knowing when to reign itself in. And I actually had no idea there were Protestants in Poland, which certainly testifies to their inconspicuousness. Overall, I felt that I had a great introduction to Jerzy Pilch and look forward to one day checking out His Current Woman.

Review Copy

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."*

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Metropole (A Review)

Ferenc Karinthy (1921-1992), a trained linguist, was the son of famed Hungarian writer playwright Frigyes Karinthy. Not surprisingly, then, the complexity and confusion of language is the central theme of Karinthy's 1970 novel Metropole (originally entitled Epépé), the Kafkaesque tale of a hapless narrator stranded on the top floor of the figurative Tower of Babel.

The plot builds upon a basic but very ironic premise: Budai, a linguist, seems to have boarded the wrong plane on his way to a conference in Helsinki and has now ended up in a mysterious city in an unknown country with a singularly incomprehensible language. It is packed to overflowing: human congestion spills from the lobbies out into the streets and Budai is rudely rushed down sidewalks and through lines. Even the solitude of the hotel room he manages to acquire is afflicted by the alien alphabet he encounters in a framed printout presumably of hotel regulations. The overwhelming effect is one of claustrophobia reinforced by a rambling syntax that pushes headlong from page to page in lengthy paragraphs. A harried Budai roams from place to place in time with the narrative rhythm, attempting unsuccessfully to find . . . a way . . . out . . . OF . . . HERE! The very density of the urban dreamscape – its unyielding masses of humanity and mazes of streets, alleys, passageways, myriads of neighborhoods – seems to compress into a solid wall, entrapping Budai as effectively as any stone-and-mortar fortification. The mounting tension is palpable, even as it superficially plateaus when Budai settles into his hotel room, finds some work, and even acquires a sort of girlfriend. Obviously such fragile comfort cannot possibly last: it must prelude some catastrophe, which, when it comes, seems naturally inevitable as the expected fate of a stranger in a wholly strange land.

Yet strangely enough, however, Budai's demeanor throughout his ordeal is not one of panic or outright desperation; on the contrast, he is more perturbed than anything else. He is similar in that respect to many of Kafka's protagonists, particularly Gregor Samsa the giant bug, as an individual whose reaction to a grotesque or extraordinary situation is one of bemusement or annoyance rather than shock or terror. This lends a greater element of realism to Metropole that might have been otherwise submerged in emotional bombast. Metropole is frightening because it comes across as a probable scenario – not because it is a horror novel in the Stephen King or Dean Koontz sense of the term. In fact, it reminded me, oddly enough, of Johnny Got His Gun, as a tale of a man locked in a nightmarish scenario and desperate make himself understood. What Metropole also does quite effectively is to unearth the subliminal fears of anonymity and invisibility in contemporary society (a topic Dubravka Ugresic also explores in her essay "Opium" in Nobody's Home). Indeed, it is a story of individuality and subjectivity taken to their greatest extreme: if each citizen of Metropole is actually uttering a verbal articulation of their own private language, as Budai comes to suspect, then maybe the driving force behind modern isolation is precisely this teeming urban obscurity, in addition to Western culture's emphasis on personal independence, personal ambition, personal expression, personal gratification, and ad infinitum. If Budai is jarringly cool about his predicament, then perhaps that is because his situation is merely a farcical extension of the realities of modern life.

Despite its relatively unknown status in the United States, Metropole, 236 pages long and translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes, is actually considered a modern classic. Its unspecified setting and multilingual protagonist contribute to a greater international, cross-cultural appeal, especially as the nameless city is described as a place that is simultaneously generic and strikingly diverse, which any reader anywhere can envision for themselves. The bizarre nature of the story is itself an attraction, since one cannot help but wonder where all this could possibly lead to. Metropole, therefore, comes highly recommended.
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