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I BURN PARIS BY BRUNO JASIENSKI

Her name is Laure. And the place is Paris. Her name, which she dislikes because of its ubiquity in that city, was given to her by her parents precisely for that reason: so that she would fit in. I met her in Le Piano Vache, a bar on Rue Laplace. With a typical male predatory instinct, I waited until her friend had gone to the toilet before approaching her. When I introduced myself she laughed at l’englishman ivre. Her voice was like the tinkling of small bells; when I heard it I felt as though I was being called to worship. I told her she was beautiful; she told me she was Algerian. I did not understand.

In Paris, she said, there is no solidarity. You would not love me; and I could not love you. I am not French here; not Parisian. Only to you I am. She sounded gay; I suspected that she could not sound anything but gay. They are obsessed and now I am obsessed too, and it is because we are all scared. The way she told it there was no Paris at all, only a number of independent communities or small states eyeing each other suspiciously, each convinced that the others are intent on killing them. She made it sound like a large-scale Mexican stand-off, one that would inevitably descend into bloody chaos when the strain of inaction became too much to bear.

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I took Laure out once. She was right, we were destined not to love each other; but not for the reason she had envisioned. I had to return to England, of course; and, although we stayed in touch for a while, eventually she became just another in a series of my life’s small, but still painful endings. However, what she said to me that first night still plays on my mind; it troubled me that someone could feel that way, could live feeling despised and dispossessed in the city that they ought to be able to call home. Motivated by a desire to explore, or indulge, these thoughts and feelings, I initially picked up Philippe Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris, but, for all its virtues, its light and airy tone was like eating candyfloss; it upset my stomach with its sugary sweetness.

Yet with literature, much like with music, there is, if you look long enough, or know where to look, always something out there to suit your mood; whatever your feelings, whatever your ideas, someone else will have had them before you and fixed them on paper. It was, therefore, only a matter of time before I came upon Bruno Jasieński’s I Burn Paris. First published in 1928, the novel, which was apparently met with a fair amount of controversy when it saw the light of day, ostensibly deals with an outbreak of plague in the French capital. As one would expect, the spread of the disease results in Paris being essentially quarantined by the authorities. But more interesting than this is the effect it has on the general population, not physically but psychologically.

“Left to their own devices, the police found themselves for the first time in a troublesome quandary. Suddenly stripped of the compass of the law, unable to decide which of the emergent governments should be considered lawful, and realizing the fictitiousness of any government outside the ring of the cordon, the unemployed blue people swiftly came to realize that they were less real creatures with every passing day, becoming metaphysical fiction.”

We are, of course, all aware that one day we will cease to exist, but for many of us this knowledge is stored away in one of the least accessible corners of our minds as we carry on with our mundane lives. A tragedy such as a plague epidemic, however, makes this impossible, and Jasieński’s novel includes some impressive writing about what it is like to make sustained eye contact with almost certain death. My favourite passage in this regard involves the rich American David Lingslay who is said to safeguard the ‘wretched formulation of hope, that one percent chance of salvation, somewhere deep inside him, like a nestling coddled in his bosom.’ There is, moreover, also the suggestion that some of the inhabitants of Paris consider themselves to be, in a sense, superior to the disease. The Jews, for example, believe it to be a punishment that has ‘descended upon Aryan Paris for their centuries of oppressing the Jewish nation’, and, as such, they – the Jews – will naturally be ‘spared’.

While for the Jews the catastrophe is arrogantly deemed to be a sign of favour, others actively seek to use it to their advantage. Indeed, according to the author, the plague ‘levelled social stratification,’ such that Lingslay cannot, despite the ‘gravity of his surname’, arrange to leave the city. As a consequence of this levelling, this shuffling of the cards, men like Captain Solomin, an emigre Russian, who had been working as a taxi driver prior to the outbreak, are able to gain power and prestige. Similarly, the communists view the plague, not necessarily as a punishment for certain groups, but as a convenient, welcome, event that will eradicate, or at least weaken, their enemies  – the bourgeoisie – and give them a chance to create a proletariat, communist Paris.

What ought to be clear at this point is that Jasieński’s vision, his take on humanity and its impulses and behaviour, has much in common with Laure’s. When faced with this hardship, these difficulties, the people of Paris, in both the novel and the experience of my friend, do not come together, they move even further apart. In fact, in I Burn Paris there is an organised division, i.e recognised independent city-states are created, some along racial  or national lines – Jewish, Chinese, Russian, Anglo-American, etc – and others social. Once this separation takes place, these groups indulge their prejudices or biases; the opposing city-states become other and therefore something to be feared, denigrated, ridiculed and ultimately eradicated. ‘Russians are savages’, one character thinks to himself, and one cannot but see in this the similarly absolute, and similarly misguided, belief that ‘Muslims are terrorists.’

“Your science, of which you are so proud and which we travel here to study, is not a system of tools to help man conquer nature, but rather to help Europe conquer non-Europe, to exploit weaker continents. This is why we despise your Europe and why we come here to study you so fervently. Only by mastering the achievements of your science will we be able to shed the yoke of your oppression.”

In the small number of reviews of that I have encountered there seemed to be an emphasis upon the important role of socialist politics in the book, even to the point of suggesting that it is a kind of [sometimes morally dubious] anti-capitalist manifesto. However, I find it difficult to reconcile this view with what I read. Certainly, there is discussion of socialist politics and concerns, and Pierre, who sets the story in motion, is made redundant as a result of France’s ‘lousy economic condition.’ Yet while you might argue that unemployment is responsible for the plague, that it motivates Pierre to act, Jasieński makes it clear that, to quote his own first line, things that are ‘private in nature’ are equally or more significant. For me, the first section of I Burn Paris is, at heart, about jealousy. Yes, Pierre loses his job, but he also loses Jeanette, and, for the remainder of his life, sees her, or imagines her, in the company of other men everywhere he goes.

To his credit, the author avoids lazy moralising by giving depth to, or breathing some life into, his characters. For example, the adult P’an Tsiang-kuei is a psychopathic communist, who thinks nothing of killing for the greater good [where have we heard that before?]; but we are also allowed access to his backstory, his history, as a mistreated orphan. We come to see how he became what he is, and it felt kosher to me. I believed it, and I believed in P’an. In Jasieński’s world, as in the real world, there are no absolute villains [or heroes]. People frequently do bad things, but in most cases one understands their motivations, even if one does not agree with the resulting act or behaviour. Another example of this is when a Japanese deliberately infects the man who ordered the death of his wife. Indeed, I Burn Paris is full of wonderful, often moving, minor portraits; and this is, I believe, its greatest strength. ‘You cannot feel concern for everyone,’ Jasieński writes at one point, and yet his own work goes some way to disproving this statement.

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VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL BY SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH

Voices from Chernobyl has been sitting on my bedside table for months, and numerous times I have approached it cautiously as though it were a wild animal. There necessarily exists, between the reader and any given book, a one-sided relationship; I knew that if I were to read Voices I would be taking something from it, without giving anything back, except perhaps a review. It was, however, the something that concerned me. There are, for me at least, certain books that ask of you: do you need this? It is a genuine question. Do I need whatever I am going to take from this? I am aware that there is tremendous suffering in the world, and I can quite easily imagine what the contents of a book such as this will be, so why put myself through it? What, if you frame the question selfishly, is in it for me?

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[The ferris wheel is part of an amusement park that was scheduled to open on May 1 1986, in Pripya, near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Of course, it never did.]

On April 28th 1986, there were a series of explosions at a nuclear power plant in the city of Pripyat, Ukraine. As a result of this accident, the worst nuclear accident in history, a large part of Europe was contaminated by radiation. Voices from Chernobyl is not, however, a truncated history of the event, nor is it strictly a record of it. It is, instead, a collection of transcribed interviews, mostly monologues. These interviews were conducted by Svetlana Alexievich; the interviewees are people who were in some way affected by the disaster. Therefore, as one would expect, there are many disturbing, often gruesome, details or anecdotes. There are faces ‘all puffed up and swollen’; there are bodies covered in ‘black spots’; there are sheets covered in blood; there is cracking skin, flaking skin; and there are, of course, deaths, many, many deaths.

Yet, as hinted at in my introduction, this sort of thing holds little interest for me. I am not, to quote my own phrase, a literary ambulance chaser. I do not get my reading kicks gorging myself on death, distress and destruction; I don’t need the grisly particulars; I don’t want them in my head. That being exposed to radiation results in disfigurement and pain is not something of which I require proof. I get it; I already got it long before opening this book. This is not to say that I do not understand why the people involved want to share this information. They, as a number of interviewees themselves declare, ‘want to bear witness’; they want, I imagine, to put on record the truth, the unadulterated truth as they witnessed it and experienced it, especially as some of them believe that the Soviet government have tried to cover up the full horror of the event. Their loved ones didn’t just die, they suffered, and they – the government – ‘want us to forget about it.’ And so it is of course important to them that this suffering is acknowledged, in their own minds and memories, and by the world-at-large.

“Death is the fairest thing in the world. No one’s ever gotten out of it. The earth takes everyone – the kind, the cruel, the sinners. Aside from that, there’s no fairness on earth.”

Voices from Chernobyl‘s longest section, or interview, is the opener; told by Lyudmilla Ignatenko, it details the last days of one of the first-response fireman, Vasily. Yet the real focus is on Lyudmilla herself, and her dedication and bravery in refusing to be put off by the authorities from caring for and visiting her husband. It is, in essence, a love story. However, while I certainly do not wish to underplay how emotionally affecting her account is, her actions and her love for her husband are not what make it compelling. She says at the beginning that she doesn’t know what she ought to talk about – ‘about death or about love? Or are they the same?’ And then goes on to show how she came to believe in a connection between these two things.

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What I found fascinating about Lyudmilla’s account – and I write this with the utmost respect – is that it reads like fiction, not so much in terms of the content, but the structure. Perhaps it is a consequence of having thought so much about these events, or of having retold them so many times, but one gets the impression that the details have been worked, or moulded, into a narrative, a story, that most satisfies. This is something that I think about a lot, about how we – unintentionally or unconsciously – shape and refine our experiences, internally, i.e. in our own heads, and then often via our sharing them with others.

I have noticed myself doing this, as I have worked on my own life stories or memories, and how, over time, I have left bits out, have edited, rewritten etc, have streamlined, until they have maximum impact. I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not accusing Lyudmilla, or Alexievich, of cynical manipulation or untruths; I am merely stating that many of the stories in this book impressed me, moved me, by virtue of what they communicated to me about the way that we engage with our memories or experiences, which is to say that we perfect them.

“Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There’s nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air.”

Yet most moving, for me, was the realisation, or the continued proof, of the fact that ‘ordinary people’ are capable of such relentless compassionate wisdom and insight. Hardly a page went by without some line, or image, or idea that almost took my breath away. Pytor S. says: ‘the future is destroying me, not the past’; Nikolai Fomich Kalugin says: ‘Chernobyl is a signal. Everyone turns their head to look at you’; Nadezhda Petrovna Yygovskaya  says: ‘we didn’t understand then that the peaceful atom could kill, that man was helpless before the laws of physics.’ These are examples that I picked out by opening the book at random. When I selfishly asked at the beginning of this review: what is in it for me? Why, in other words, should I read Voices from Chernobyl? It is in these lines, these words, and others like them, that I found the answer.

THE POLISH COMPLEX BY TADEUSZ KONWICKI

Dear aliens,

It is Christmas day, and I write this while at my parents’ house. A few moments ago, I was sitting by the window, which I had opened in an effort to tempt a Bengal kitten into joining the forces of evil, when above me I saw a bright light, and I thought of you. Or should I say, I thought of you in the hope that you would think of me. Which means that I, and this is typical of our species, acknowledged your potential existence only in so much as I would like you to acknowledge my actual existence. In short, I wondered what you would make of me, of us, down here. Normally, I write these reviews for my fellow human beings, and it is often the case that I will start with an anecdote, one that relates to me and my life or past life; and I think that more often than not I give the impression of being haunted by the experiences I relive. Which is not really the case. I am simply trying to understand myself.

When I was a kid I did not identify myself as working class, or northern, or even English. I was, I thought, a child of the world, not of one small part of it. I considered myself wonderfully cosmopolitan. And then I moved away from the north, away from a true working class environment, first to university and then into various jobs, and I realised that I am absolutely, terminally all those things that I thought I was not. Let me provide you with an example. While I was at college I won an award for something I wrote, a little piece, and the award was to be presented to me by some semi-famous poet. But I didn’t go. And the reason I didn’t go, although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, is because people like me don’t pick up awards, they don’t go schmoozing and smiling at award ceremonies.

And the thing is, no one really understands that, unless they too are one of my kind; they don’t see how it would have been impossible to go. How silly! I hear that a lot. You are being silly. Usually, it is my girlfriends who say this to me, lovely lighthearted, upper middle-class women. They cannot comprehend why I find it uncomfortable to sit around a table for family meals, either. Or why if someone buys me something, or pays for something for me, I can barely speak for shame. My being is as alien to them as it probably is to you, my intergalactic peeping toms.

I’ve written before that one of the joys of reading literature is that it makes the world seem simultaneously smaller and larger. This is another reason why I share my experiences, in order to be part of this phenomena. Anyway, I recently read The Polish Complex by Tadeusz Konwicki, and I was again so pleasantly surprised that I was able to find myself in a book that, one would think, would have nothing to do with me, for it is ostensibly about Poland and being Polish. Yes, the action takes place on Christmas Eve, in line at a jewellery store, and, sure, there are many people who can relate to an experience like that. But that isn’t what I am referring to. What I found surprising, and engaging, about The Polish Complex is what the narrator, who is essentially Konwicki [the narrator is called Tadeusz Konwicki and shares many biographical details with the author], says about the way that he is perceived.

Konwicki states that he always attempted to steer himself towards universalities in his work, that he would actively avoid criticising other nations. And, yet, despite this approach, this literary liberalism, he found that he was always described as a Polish writer, as, in fact, the most Polish of Polish writers. He found, like I have done, that he cannot escape who he is, that it infects everything he does, even when he believes himself to be turning away from it and opening his arms to humanity-at-large. Moreover, it is telling that he, as I am also doing here, is writing for aliens, for you. He claims that this is because he is bored with ‘communication with my fellow men’, and that might be true, but what is at the heart of this boredom is that he considers himself to be, or others consider him to be, incomprehensible to them. They – readers, critics, etc. – cannot understand him unless they have had his experiences, unless, specifically, they are Polish. Indeed, Konwicki shares an anecdote too, about being in New York and meeting there a ‘sickly old man with heartbreaking eyes’, a Polish man, who was unable to die at home in Long Island, because he was ‘constantly thinking of his distant Poland’ and the war in which the author also participated.

“I no longer strive to be understood. I no longer depend on your approval, your sympathy. Now I write only because I must. I do not believe that anyone will read what I write and understand it as fully as I did while struggling with the resistant, constricted, ephemeral words. I write because some strange sense of duty impels me to this paper, which in ten years will turn to dust. I write because in my subconscious there stirs a spark of hope that there is something, that something endures somewhere, that, in my last instant, Great Meaning will take notice of me and save me from a universe without meaning.”

So, The Polish Complex is about identity and communication, about the essential, regrettable differences between people, between nations. Yes, most countries have their own language, which makes communication problematic, but for Konwicki it goes deeper than that, it is about the difficulty of communicating ‘in the sphere of experience and the consciousness that comes from experience.’ In this way, writing the book for aliens is a kind of grim joke. If the majority of his fellow men and women don’t or can’t understand Konwicki, then of course you, my goggle-eyed, grey-skinned friends, sure won’t be able to. Indeed, it is amusing, and ironic, that almost every review of The Polish Complex that I have read has stated how alienating parts of it are, how these parts won’t mean anything to a potential reader unless they are Polish themselves or are a scholar or expert on Polish history. Yet, it is necessary to point out that the author is lamenting all this, this distance between us; he wants to be part of a brotherhood of man, so to speak, he wants us to commune with each other, to be able to relate to each other appropriately and fully.

In terms of communication it is, of course, significant that Konwicki is a writer. I am sure that people write for many reasons, quite often for money it seems, but certainly when I think about the act of writing what it suggests to me is a desire to communicate, to reach out to people. Therefore, the existence of the book, and the time and effort put into writing it, is almost another joke, one Konwicki played upon himself, i.e. he is attempting to speak, via his novel, with a world that he knows, in the main, finds him incomprehensible. Throughout The Polish Complex the narrator references his work, or other characters do, and on each occasion these comments are critical. His writing, he is told by Kojran, is ‘more poison than passion.’ It is bitter, defeatist, sad, sarcastic. Kojran also asks why Konwicki doesn’t write something to give the Polish people strength, rather than make them sadder than they already are. Kojran is an interesting character because he is, in a sense, Konwicki’s conscience, in fact, most of the characters play this role in the text. Their function is to allow the author to explore his feelings, and what he thinks are the public’s feelings, about his books. Of course, you might label this rather self-indulgent or egotistical, but it is clear to me that Konwicki took his responsibility, as someone for whom the rest of the world might view as representative of Poles-in-general, seriously.

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[A queue in Poland, a common sight in the shortage economy in the 1970s and 1980s]

The Polish coat of arms features a white eagle on a red background. Apparently, this is because the founder of the country saw a white eagle’s nest and decided to settle in that place. However, the eagle is or has become also representative of freedom, and certainly this, the notion of freedom, plays an important role in the book and, in fact, in the history of Poland. First of all, when Konwicki states that he no longer wishes to be understood he is appealing to just that, the freedom to do as he likes and not worry about other people’s reactions; to be creative one has to feel free. More importantly, Poland was for a long time under the control of Russia. There were, during this period, attempts to gain independence, including The January Uprising of 1863, to which Konwicki devotes around forty pages of The Polish Complex. After WW2 Poland was forced to join the Eastern Bloc, to become a kind of Soviet satellite state, under the control of Joseph Stalin. It wasn’t until 1989, years after this book was published, that Soviet control over Poland ceased. Therefore, it is no surprise that, as previously mentioned, Konwicki gives over so many pages of his book to The January Uprising, because the fight, or the desire, for freedom or independence is, of course, part of the Polish identity, or was in 1977 at least. It is also no surprise that he takes frequent, and not so subtle, digs at the Russians, or the Russian presence in Poland, most notably when, instead of jewellery, it is samovars that are delivered to the store. Indeed, one lucky person wins a trip to Russia with his purchase.

As with many novels written by earth men of a certain generation, the worst aspect of The Polish Complex is the ludicrous sex scene that takes place between the narrator and a much younger [they are always much younger!] woman. I don’t know how you would feel about it, my space pals, but I had a hard time getting on board with the inter-generational nookie. It just seemed incongruous, or out of place, in a novel so impassioned and intelligent. I do not want an author to be making my chest beat with sardonic rants about national identity one moment, and then waffling on about nipples the next. This is not to say, however, that this scene cannot be justified. One must bear in mind that Konwicki the narrator is old, very ill, and eager to die, and that he has admitted to feeling a kind of sentimentality for his homeland and for his youth. So, this young woman is, in a sense, a kind of memory, a living memory, is a last taste of his own youth or of the purest joys that life can throw up. Moreover, as noted, the action takes place on Christmas Eve, a time of miracles [Konwicki openly declares that he is looking for a miracle], and, taking that into account, one might even doubt whether the liaison is meant to have actually taken place; or, if it did, then the author is at least acknowledging that it is a unlikely, miraculous event.

And…well, that’s it. Oh sure, I could write more, it is always possible to write more, but I feel as though it is unnecessary. I am done. I hope this has been instructional, or entertaining, my bulb-headed amigos. Certainly, I feel better. Because, that’s the thing, even if someone doesn’t understand you, it is still good to get things off your chest, to at least try to make sense of yourself and to at least try to make a connection, no matter how tenuous or doomed to failure it is.

Yours sincerely,

[P]

P.s.

Merry Christmas. Or Alienmas. Or whatever.

SOUL BY ANDREY PLATONOV

The heating has never worked in my apartment. I’ve flipped switches, I’ve read manuals, I’ve turned dials, I’ve struck out petulantly at inanimate objects…nothing. Have you ever experienced the callous winters of northern England? Occasionally, I’ll sit on the sofa in the living room, attempting to behave like a civilised human being. And I’ll fantasise about chipping the frozen skin off my face, like restructuring an ice sculpture. I never do it, of course, because my fingers are so cold I can’t move them. So most of the time I hide away in my bedroom. I’ll wrap a thick quilt around myself, smoke warm cigarettes, and survive in relative comfort. However, a few days ago I became ill. I have a good immune system, but it failed me this time. Something got in, and it hated me. It started in the evening, when I realised I could stand, but I couldn’t walk. No big loss, I thought. But then thin water started to pour ceaselessly from my eyes and my nose. And I shook, rattling my teeth like a tin can full of coins.

The following day I found it difficult to remain conscious. I’d open my eyes and immediately they’d start to close again, despite my will. In the one or two periods when I was awake, I found that people were attempting to communicate with me. My phone lit up. My brother entered my room. I watched it all impassively. Nothing mattered to me – not food, not human beings – except heat. I glared at the radiator. It ignored me. In the midst of the demoralising cold and the illness, my consciousness had been reduced to some kind of Neanderthal state, whereby I was only dimly aware of myself as myself. I was no longer complex. I was basic. I was mentally rubbing two sticks together. The cat must have sensed something. He would prowl around the bed, making horrible mewling sounds, before jumping on my chest and laying down. I was sure he was going to eat me, or suck what little life I had left out of me. If I shooed him off he would skulk away, only to return mere moments later, in the hope that I was now too weak to resist or defend myself.

By the third day I had started to come back to myself. The most compelling sign of recovery is that I picked up a book from the bedside table. It was Soul by Andrey Platonov. I usually choose meticulously, but this choice was about what was closest to hand. In any case, as I read a strange thing happened. I started to enjoy myself. Joy had crept back into my heart, like a teenager stealing home long after curfew. It was only with strength or health that I could experience joy, or interest in anything outside of warmth. I did not forget about the cold completely, but it stepped off, and hid away at the back of my mind as I focussed on Nazar Chagataev, and the trials of the Dzhan nation somewhere in the desert. Indeed, the further I penetrated into the story, the more I realised that, while I had been laying in bed, ignorant of the world, a novel had laid beside me, so to speak, that was itself about overcoming suffering [albeit a much greater suffering than mine, of course] and embracing life. And being happy again, I could smile at one of the little miracles of coincidence that life throws up every now and again.

“Everything in the existing world seemed strange to him; it was as if the world had been created for some brief, mocking game. But this game of make-believe had dragged on for a long time,for eternity, and nobody felt like laughing anymore.”

The novel begins in Russia, with Chagataev attending a party, having finished his studies at the local university. The tone is melancholic, with the emphasis being on leaving familiar things behind. Nazar is a melancholy sort himself; he is, we’re told, a young man with ‘pure eyes,’ which communicate a kind of ‘gloomy kindness.’ This kindness, this sensitivity, leads him to approaching and attempting to comfort a middle aged woman called Vera, whom no one else is paying attention to. One sees in this one of the defining aspects of his character, and one of the novel’s major themes, which is an interest in ‘unneeded’ or neglected things. For example, as a child, Chagataev’s mother left him to fend for himself, which led to him being given refuge in Russia; Vera also has a daughter, Ksenya, whose father has taken off; and once Chagataev returns to his home land, in the desert, he comes across all manner of  abandoned things, including a camel, flocks of sheep, and the Dzhan people, of course.

It is Chagataev’s aim to ‘build happiness,’ to, as noted in my melodramatic introduction, make the nomadic Dzhan tribe, to which he belongs, embrace life. The only problem with this is that they are, I would say, the most wretched group of people I have ever encountered in a novel. And I’ve read almost the entirety of Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre. Drawn from runaways, exhausted slaves and orphans; fed and given employment for only a few weeks of the year; and, the rest of the time, left to wander in extreme poverty. I say wander, but most are too sick to move. They are thoroughly destitute, having nothing, not even madness, because madness requires energy, as does happiness. At one point Chagataev comes across his worn-out mother, who is doubled up, her face almost to the ground. She doesn’t recognise her son, and doesn’t experience love or relief, or even shock or surprise, when he introduces himself. She, like the rest of the Dzhan, has entered a state of being that is almost animalistic. Just like me[!] hibernating in my fever, they have no internal life. They exist, and that is it; they, to paraphrase Platonov, are not living, they just haven’t died yet.

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The word Dzhan means, we’re told, soul or dear life. As with many Russian novels, the state and importance of the human soul, and what indeed constitutes the soul, plays a central role in Platonov’s work. Chagataev is eager for his people to accept life, to begin to live a meaningful existence, and he is dismayed that the Dzhan can’t or won’t do this. Indeed, he all but charges them with laziness. Sorrow is easy, he thinks. But he comes to realise that the body needs nourishment, so that the soul can function and happiness blossom. The middle section of the book is, therefore, given over to his attempts to feed the tribe, resulting in one of the most extraordinary passages in literature, where he lays on the ground, encouraging vicious birds to peck at and try and kill him, so that he can shoot them for food. Once nourished, however, the Dhzan scatter. Renewed strength and vitality has given them optimism, hopes and dreams and desires, but these dreams etc do not fit in with Chagataev’s vision for the people. They have embraced life, certainly, but they have done so in a kind of selfish, in some ways hedonistic manner.

Yet eventually the tribe return, and it is here that I think the reader comes to understand what Platonov, or Chagataev at least, means by soul. There is a lot of stuff in the novel about displacement and exile – most notably the central character being forced to leave his home country  – which all, of course, fits in with the aforementioned abandonment theme, but which also suggests the importance of human interaction, family and community. Chagataev enjoyed the benefits of community in Russia, he was allowed to live and study and work; alone, in the desert, these things would have been impossible. Moreover, one sees in his desire to marry Vera, who is pregnant with another man’s child when he meets her, how much significance he places upon building relationships, looking out for each other, working together, making sacrifices for each other, and so on. This is, then, a healthy soul, one that looks outside of itself, one that wants to live and engage and work with other people. This is happiness…a, if you will, communistic happiness. [One could, in fact, see Soul as a kind of parable about right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy ways of living, whereby the suffering that Platonov is referring to isn’t literal or physical, but, so to speak, spiritual]. Indeed, the novel ends: Chagataev knew that help could come to him only from another human being.

You will, I’m sure, have paid special attention to a particular word in the preceding paragraph. A dirty word. Communism. I’m always surprised when Platonov’s work is called pro-Stalin. If you have read The Foundation Pit, which is concerned with collectivisation and the starvation of the Russian peasantry, you will understand how ridiculous that claim is. But that is not to say that the author wasn’t pro-Communism. The two – Stalinism and Communism – are not the same thing. I may be wrong, but Soul did strike me as advocating Communistic principles, i.e. the sharing of labour, the ownership of one’s own labour, the importance of the community over the individual, etc. Yet what is quite clear is that Platonov did not advocate brutality or dictatorship. Indeed, there is a tyrant in the novel, the Khan of Khiva, who the Dzhan rise up against, and who struck me as perhaps a stand-in for Stalin. Moreover, Stalin once said that death is the solution to all problems, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most villainous character in the novel, Nur Mohammed, appears to live by that principle, gleefully counting off the Dzhan as they die, hoping for their death, because it would mean more for him. So, yes, Joseph Stalin is frequently referred to by name in Soul and is described as a loving father, as the father of all abandoned people, but I would suggest that there is more than a hint of irony about all that, especially when you consider that the Russian leader had such a low opinion of Platonov. Scum, is what he called him.

HADJI MURAT BY LEO TOLSTOY

As I made my way through this short book I told myself that I wasn’t going to review it, that I just didn’t have the mental or emotional energy. This is partly due to having written a lot of reviews this month, and partly due to what has happened recently in the world. I am not asking anyone to take pity on me, of course, but I feel horribly deflated right now, and I was wary of this filtering into my approach to Tolstoy’s work. But then I came towards the end of Hadji Murat, and I read about how “the militiamen gathered over the bodies/like hunters over a dead beast, standing among the bushes in the gunsmoke, gaily chatting and celebrating their victory.” And I heard Marya Dmitrievna’s cry, actually heard it, filling my room: ‘What’s war? You are butchers, and that’s all there is to it.” And I changed my mind. I decided that I had to write something, even though I worry that it will be confusing, ill-thought out, and, at times, completely off the point.

I’m sure I’ll have to take some flak for this, but as far as I am concerned there is no victory in war, there are no heroes. I refuse to celebrate the taking of life, any life. Immediately after the Paris attacks, in fact while they were still ongoing, I started coming across comments such as ‘kill them all, no trial necessary.’ All? Terrorists? Muslims?! You may say I am being dramatic, and yet thousands of people want borders closing, immigrants thrown out. They are, let’s face it, itching for war; they are, I can’t shake the feeling, enjoying this. Don’t get me wrong, what happened in Paris is a tragedy, a disgrace; my thoughts, as they always are, are with the victims, with all innocent, oppressed people around the world, but there is no blood lust in me, there is no hate, only sadness. Yes, those responsible for the Paris attacks are butchers. I just don’t want to be a butcher too.

Daghestan.Ghimeri,_portrait_de_Hadji-Mourad._(1847)

The story of Hadji Murat is, Tolstoy [or his narrator] claims, one that he part saw, part heard, and part imagined. Murat is a Muslim, and a Chechen rebel commander, famous for his exploits. He presents Murat as a well-mannered, generous, friendly man with ‘kindly eyes’, who charms almost everyone he meets. Having made an enemy of another powerful Chechen, Shamil, he has defected over to the Russians, with whom the Chechens are at war. In contrast to Shamil, and the Russian soldiers, leaders, etc, Murat’s goals are honourable. He does not desire glory, riches, awards, or power, rather he wants to avenge himself and his family, and he wants his wife and children to be rescued. The idea appears to be that he has to fight, not that he wants to, but one must not forget, as I sometimes felt the author did, that he is a murderer too. In any case, it is clear that Tolstoy admired the man, for his humility, his independent spirit [he rejects both the Russians and Shamil], but perhaps most of all for his commitment to his religion and religious principles.

So, of course, one feels as though Tolstoy is holding Murat up as a kind of example, but it is equally apparent that he was also using him in order to take shots at his own people.* Indeed, he sees them as Murat sees them. Once the rebel has put himself into Russian hands, he is given access to their homes, and their activities. In one scene he attends the theatre, but, obviously not having enjoyed the experience, leaves early; in another he attends a ball, and again haughtily takes off at the earliest opportunity. This isn’t, as he himself says, about acceptable cultural differences, as he negatively judges these people [as one imagines the author does too] for their frivolous pastimes and revealing dresses. In fact, the most positive thing you could say about any Russian in the novel [aside from Marya Dmitrievna who all but falls in love with Murat, and Avdeev, who I will return to] is that they are, like Butler, affable buffoons. Yet, for the most part, Russians are shown to be gamblers, drinkers; they are idle, lascivious, and dishonourable.

“War presented itself to him as consisting only in his exposing himself to danger and to possible death, thereby gaining rewards and the respect of his comrades here, as well as of his friends in Russia. Strange to say, his imagination never pictured the other aspect of war: the death and wounds of the soldiers, officers, and mountaineers. To retain his poetic conception he even unconsciously avoided looking at the dead and wounded.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Hadji Murat is a bad book, or even that it is overtly mean-spirited, or preachy. It seems that way when you write all this down, but, and I am aware of the contradiction here, it doesn’t really read like that [except in the case of the Tsar who is – rightly or wrongly – torn to shreds]. This is Tolstoy, which means that any complaints one might have about elements of his work are rendered petty by his great genius. Butler, for example, is a nincompoop, but one can’t help but be charmed by him regardless. It always strikes me, when I read him, that Tolstoy often started out with rather pompous, unpleasant ideas, and yet could never quite see them through, that his love of humanity always took over or compromised his initial vision. And so we get someone like Avdeev, the soldier who agreed to go to war in his brother’s place, a man who, at home, was hardworking, and who feels, in his current predicament, ‘heartsick.’ He is the one Russian soldier in the novel with a conscience, who feels as though this isn’t a right or good life. He, predictably, is killed in battle, just as his mother is sending him a touching, emotional letter, with a Ruble enclosed. Hadji Murat is full of wonderful minor portraits like this, and memorable scenes, such as the servant Vavilo, or the pipe smoking in the forest, or Murat’s dreams merging with the sounds of the jackals….or the head. My God, the head. That will stay with me for years. And, finally, there is Marya Dmitrievna’s cry, a cry not for one man, not just for Murat, but for all men who have fallen, and continue to fall, in these senseless power games.

*it is worth noting that Tolstoy was, of course, writing with the Russian public in mind, one that, you’d assume, wasn’t entirely positively disposed towards Chechens. If you bear that in mind, then Hadji Murat might be interpreted as a call for compassion, or tolerance, towards those you perceive as your enemies, or simply those who are different from you. There is always a temptation to demonise other cultures – you might think they look weird, smell weird, eat weird, that their customs are barbaric, that they are prone to violence, etc. – without truly understanding them, or even taking account of what is under your own nose i.e. your own culture or practices, which may be just as baffling or appalling to the people you criticise. Therefore, that the author shows Murat – the other – to be caring, and considerate, and so on, was, and still is, an important message. My one issue with this would be that Tolstoy takes it too far, so that he comes across as a prince among swine.

HARD TO BE A GOD BY ARKADY & BORIS STRUGATSKY

One of the things that makes alien contact attractive is the possibility of interacting with a species more advanced than our own. Outside of films, whenever we think of aliens we tend to see them as superior beings, with great knowledge to impart, more sophisticated technology, etc. In the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic the Russian brothers cleverly played on this idea, with the visitors being completely disinterested in human beings, suggesting, you might argue, a kind of haughtiness in their attitude towards us. But what if it is not the case? What if contact was made and it turned out that we are actually the more advanced species? Looking around me, that strikes me as really quite a depressing thought.

In any case, this is the situation in Hard to be a God, only the alien planet is not simply primitive, relative to earth, but is essentially earth with the clock turned back thousands of years to the middle ages. Upon discovery of this planet human beings have taken to sending observers to live amongst the natives. The reason for this never seems particularly clear, but it is stressed to these people that their task is limited to observation, that they must not interfere or intervene, and they certainly should not reveal their purpose or real identity. Most of the agents find these rules easy enough to stick to, with the notable exception being Rumata [earth name Anton].

For me, this is one of the great existential novels, with Rumata’s emotional and intellectual crisis being as intense, and unrelenting, as any of Dostoevsky’s antiheroes. His role, or part, is as a womanising nobleman and dangerous, expert swordsman. In this he fails, not only because he isn’t allowed to kill anyone, but also because he cannot bear to sleep with any of the native women, who are not prone to bathing. More interestingly, he is a superior, more evolved being, who every day is forced to live amongst, to confront, the barbarous, drunken, and primitive. Moreover, the city is run by the tyrannical Don Reba, who plots and kills, and generally brutalises the locals, paying particular attention to the literate, who are captured and hung. It is in relation to this that one begins to understand the significance of the title.

Hard-to-Be-A-God

[From Aleksei German’s film adaptation of the book]

Rumata is the God [in fact numerous characters believe him to be divine] who has the power and knowledge to alter what is happening, even put a stop to it altogether. The dilemma that he faces is a theological one, is one that is generally thought to be God’s. Think about how often you hear people cussing God, criticising Him for not doing something to prevent or put a stop to certain tragedies. When bad things happen He is charged with not caring, with abandoning his children. The counter argument is that if you force people to be good, then goodness essentially becomes meaningless, and if you stop all disasters, if only positive things ever happen, you prevent people from learning through adversity. God, it is said, created free will, and created the world, and then left us all to it, come what may, and this is the best thing for us. These are some of the issues Hard to be a God asks you to consider.

Furthermore, Rumata is aware that he cannot make people enlightened. He could remove Don Reba, he could save individual lives [and he does], but this will actually change nothing, or very little, because the people will still be primitive. On this, I was put in mind of certain conflicts, which are deemed humanitarian, whereby the UK and/or US government has invaded countries and sought to remove a tyrannical regime, with Iraq being the most obvious example. I’m not, I ought to point out, calling Iraqis primitive, but there are parallels between that situation and Hard to be a God, as both raise questions about how much of a responsibility do we have to protect other nations, and how worthwhile is it if you cannot guarantee that the people will accept the new conditions and way of living? There is, moreover, something of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about the Strugatsky’s book, in that there is a certain arrogance in going into another country [or planet, in this instance] and negatively judging it against your own. In fact, Hard to be a God could be interpreted as a comment on colonial arrogance, because it suggests that perhaps ‘uncivilised’ countries ought to be left alone, be allowed to develop and work things out on their own.

“And no matter how much the gray people in power despise knowledge, they can’t do anything about historical objectivity; they can slow it down, but they can’t stop it.”

It ought to be clear by now that this is a weighty, complex book. I have in this review really only tentatively jabbed at all the fascinating themes and ideas contained within it [I haven’t, for example, discussed the cyclical nature of history]. However, one thing that does demand some attention is the theory that Hard to be a God is political allegory, that the world it describes is really Russia in the 1960’s, the decade in which it was written. This is given weight by the Strugatsky’s themselves, who claimed to have started the book as a kind of Three Musketeers in Space historical romp, only to change their minds. They did so, it is said, due to fears that the death of Stalin, and the thaw that followed, had done little to change the climate of the country, that artists and their art were still under attack, would be suppressed etc. Yet while there is clearly some of this in the book – specifically Don Reba’s hatred for writers and the literate –  I feel it is reaching somewhat to suggest that this is the real or primary focus.

Before finishing I want to briefly touch upon a couple of negatives, one more serious than the other. The first is that Hard to be a God is essentially plotless, and pretty repetitive. You will, I’m sure, have your own tolerance levels where this sort of thing is concerned, but it didn’t particularly bother me. More of an issue was the ending, which felt rushed to me. It was as though the Strugatsky’s had simply taken on too much, too many big questions, and couldn’t figure out how to neatly tie up their narrative, and so it ends at an arbitrary point. Yet while this is a criticism it is, in a way, also a kind of compliment too, because I wanted the book to be longer, I wanted another couple of hundred pages so that we [the reader and the authors] could really, fully ride this engrossing and challenging story out and so achieve a more natural and rewarding conclusion.

A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVICH BY DANILO KIS

A Basement in Yekaterinburg

On the 17th of July 1918, the Russian Imperial Romanov family, including Tsar Nicholas II [nicknamed Nicholas the Bloody], were murdered in a basement in Yekaterinburg. There are numerous rumours surrounding the deaths, with perhaps the most lurid being that the princesses had to be finished off with bayonets, as the bullets intended for their flesh had been deflected away by the jewels hidden in their blouses. Although the Russian empire had collapsed with Nicholas’ forced abdication, the deaths of the family put something of a seal upon it, as there was always the threat of an attempt to reinstate the Tsar.

“In light of the approach of counterrevolutionary bands toward the Red capital of the Urals and the possibility of the crowned executioner escaping trial by the people (a plot among the White Guards to try to abduct him and his family was exposed and the compromising documents will be published), the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet, fulfilling the will of the Revolution, resolved to shoot the former Tsar, Nikolai Romanov, who is guilty of countless, bloody, violent acts against the Russian people.” – An announcement from the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government.

I often ask myself why I am drawn to books about the Russian Revolution and what followed it [specifically Stalinism]. These two subjects make up a considerable proportion of my reading, and I supplement that reading with just as many documentaries. There is, of course, something quixotic about revolution, certainly a socialist revolution, something attractive about the idea of people fighting for a better and more just world [as they see it]. And so it seems extraordinarily tragic that the Russian Communist revolution, which promised great things, and claimed to oppose tyranny, could succeed, yet ultimately only to lead to the reign of one of the most brutal dictators in history, Joseph Stalin.* It’s like the plot of a particularly bleak Thomas Hardy novel; it is life caning the back of your knees and telling you, ‘don’t ever hope to improve the world, or fight the established order.’

The Liquidation of B.D. Novsky  

While I wouldn’t want to speculate as to the reasons behind Danilo Kiš’ interests and inspirations, it is nevertheless the case that his short story collection, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, could have been written with me in mind, in that almost every entry is concerned with revolutionaries, dreamers, murderers, exile, torture, tyranny, Eastern Europe [mostly Russia], Communism, and so on. I do not intend to to write about each story individually, for what I would end up with would be either a review so long that no one would read it in its entirety or a summary review that would not be worth reading at all, and so I will focus on the two most significant [and enjoyable] stories instead.

The longest in the collection is the title story. It is concerned with the mysterious B.D. Novsky, which is only one of many aliases used by Boris Davidovich. Boris was the son of a soldier, David Abramovich, who was one day flogged by his colleagues, either for not taking part in their drinking or for being a Jew or both, and a young girl who nursed the soldier’s wounds. All of the stories in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich are presented as a kind of summarised biography, almost like a wikipedia entry, focussing on an important period or periods of each subject’s life. However, in this instance, Kiš charts Boris’ progress from childhood to death, giving it a breadth and depth that some of the others perhaps lack.

It is not necessary to follow in Kiš’ footsteps and give all the [available] details of Boris’ life, except to say that he becomes a career revolutionary and bomb maker [he was, we’re told, obsessed with the idea of making a wallnut sized bomb]. All that is engrossing stuff, but the real meat of the story is in his arrest and interrogation. If you know anything about Russia under Stalin, you will know that it wasn’t exactly a rare occurrence for old revolutionaries to be denounced, arrested, tortured, made to confess to crimes they had not committed, before being murdered. The idea behind this was to eliminate dangerous people; these men [and women] had already proved that they were capable of working to remove a sovereign, and so it makes sense that Stalin would fear or mistrust them.

In his story, Kiš pitches Novsky against Fedukin; it is a battle between two highly capable [one might say great] and strong-willed [there’s an almost amusing scene in which they fight over the wording of the confession] men, one a revolutionary and one an interrogator. Yet despite Fedukin’s best efforts, and most brutal treatment, Novsky will not confess. The reason for this is that he does not fear death so much as he fears that the integrity of his biography will be compromised. Novsky wants his life to have meant something, and so it is paramount that his story not be sullied by lies, or be re-imagined or reframed; as a revolutionary, a patriotic Russian, he does not want to become [for in confessing he would become] an enemy of the State. The problem that Fedukin faces now is, ‘how do you get someone who is more concerned with how they are remembered, than they are scared of pain or death, to confess to a terrible crime?’ It is, for the philosophically minded among us, certainly something to chew on.

Fedukin’s solution is to take Novsky into a room containing a young man, who, he states, will be instantly shot if Novsky does not confess. What is clever about this is that while a man might be reconciled to his own suffering it is perhaps not the case that he is reconciled to the suffering of others. Moreover, it forces Novsky to weigh up whether allowing people to die for him will ruin his reputation, will taint his biography, more than confessing would. For the reader, it is worth considering in a different light, in terms of two questions. Firstly, is preserving the integrity of one’s life, the truth of who you are/were and what you did, more important than someone’s actual existence? We would automatically want to say no, and yet one would have to bear in mind that these people would, in all likelihood, be killed anyway. Secondly, if someone kills in your name, how responsible are you? You do not, of course, pull the trigger yourself, but equally we do not want to accept that it is a morally neutral action to stand by and do nothing to attempt to save someone.

“I wish to live in peace with myself and not with the world.”

I mentioned in an earlier paragraph that each story in this collection is presented as a biography. What elevates A Tomb for Boris Davidovich above most of the others is that biography plays such an important part in it, for what we have is a fictional biography about a man for whom the details of his life, the truth of his existence, was so important. For me, it is this kind of thing that distinguishes great short story writers from ordinary or average ones. Furthermore, I think the title story is the best example here of something that Kiš does frequently throughout the book: which is to present characters and situations that are entirely believable, so that one [or certainly I, anyway] will be putting the names into google in order to check that they were not in fact real people. In this way, his work reminds me of the marvellous German writer W.G Sebald.

Up to the Elbows in Blood

Another notable story is the opener, The Knife with the Rosewood Handle. It is set primarily in the Czech Republic and features Miksha, who is described as a man with potential, someone who could be a kind of master craftsman. In the early stages of the story he is working for Reb Mendel, a Jew, whose chickens are being stolen. In the book’s most memorable, and terrible, scene Miksha captures the culprit, a skunk, and expertly skins it alive. There is, Kiš suggests, a kind of anti-semitism in the act, or certainly an eagerness to make a mockery of Mendel’s faith and belief in ‘the Talmudic prattle about the equality of all God’s creatures.’ The longer we spend with Miksha the more we come to realise that violence defines his existence. For example, once Mendel dismisses him he gets a job slaughtering lambs and is said to spend his time up to his elbows in blood.

However, killing animals is obviously not Kiš’ real focus. He uses it as a way of foreshadowing Miksha’s later behaviour, and as a way of making a point about the brutality of Stalin’s Communism. While working for a rich landowner Miksha becomes involved in revolutionary activity, which results in him murdering an innocent young woman, Hanna Krzyzewska, who had been denounced as a traitor. As previously noted, denunciations were not rare in Communist states, and the result was often the same as it is for Hanna i.e. death. So what we see here is a mirroring of Miksha’s professional life with the political, whereby Hanna is another one of his sacrificial lambs. Moreover, one of the aspects of tyrannical Communistic thinking is the belief in the unimportance of the individual, in the idea that there is nothing sacred about a single life, that it can and will be taken in order to serve the greater good, and this is also Miksha’s attitude, both, one could argue, in terms of Hanna and the animals.

To return to the idea of mirroring, it is also interesting to note that Miksha doesn’t merely kill the skunk, he tortures it, and that he too comes to be tortured towards the end of the story. This is a reminder of another aspect of Stalinism, which was people being brutalised by the very regime they believed in, and worked to bring about. Tellingly, when Miksha moves to Russia he doesn’t find empathy, understanding, and community, he finds cruelty. He was exploited by the bourgeoisie, and made to kill their lambs, and exploited by the Communists, and made to kill Hanna. As with almost every story in the collection, Kiš concludes The Knife with the Rosewood Handle matter-of-factly, with a brief paragraph full of unpleasantness.

You Cannot Hide from History

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[Left: Boris Nikolayevich Rozenfeld: Russian Jew; born 1908 in St. Petersburg; higher education; no party affiliation; engineer of the Mosenergo company; lived in Moscow. Arrested on January 31, 1935. Sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Prisoner of Byelomoro-Baltisky complex of camps in Karelia. Transported from the camp to Moscow on April 12, 1937. Sentenced to death and executed on July 13, 1937. Rehabilitated in 1990.]

As one begins each story in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich one knows how it will end – with suffering, with torture, with death – because not even fiction can hide from history. There may never have been a Boris Davidovich, but there were, all the same, thousands upon thousands of Boris Davidovich’s. With that in mind, I want to conclude with a quote from a man called Victor Serge, a real man, a real revolutionary, whose life seems as fabled and extraordinary as anyone in this book, and whose fate, by some accounts, was to be another Boris Davidovich.**

“I have outlived three generations of brave men, mistaken as they may have been, to whom I was deeply attached, and whose memory remains dear to me. And here again, I have discovered that it is nearly impossible to live a life devoted wholly to a cause which one believes to be just; a life, that is, where one refuses to separate thought from daily action. The young French and Belgian rebels of my twenties have all perished; my syndicalist comrades of Barcelona in 1917 were nearly all massacred; my comrades and friends of the Russian Revolution are probably all dead — any exceptions are only by a miracle. All were brave, all sought a principle of life nobler and juster than that of surrender to the bourgeois order; except perhaps for certain young men, disillusioned and crushed before their consciousness had crystallized, all were engaged in movements for progress. I must confess that the feeling of having so many dead men at my back, many of them my betters in energy, talent, and historical character, has often overwhelmed me; and that this feeling has been for me also the source of a certain courage, if that is the right word for it.”

♥♥♥

* During the peak period of Stalin’s purges his secret police were estimated to have killed 1000 people per day.

** It is suggested by some that Serge was poisoned on Stalin’s orders on 17th November 1947.