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THE ENGINEER OF HUMAN SOULS BY JOSEF SKVORECKY

I have long fantasised about leaving the UK, but it wasn’t until recently that I seriously considered the prospect. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Prague, my favourite city, in order to feel the place as someone looking to live there [which obviously involves a different mind-set from that of someone going there on holiday]. To this end, I made an effort to speak to locals, of course, but focussed my attention on those who had moved from elsewhere. As you would expect, there is a healthy ex-pat community; and what I found is that many of these people were damaged in some way, were running from something [even if only themselves], just as I am and would be. Yet many of them still seemed to yearn for ‘the old country,’ without, it seemed, having any intention of actually returning there. And as I sat in various bars talking to these people, I started to wonder how I would feel, years from now, as an ex-pat myself. Would I begin to view the place of my birth romantically? Would a snatch of British accent on a street corner send me into sentimental reverie?

“All of my thoughts are memories.”

The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Škvorecký begins with mention of a ‘wilderness’, which is, for the narrator, the grounds of Edenvale College in snowy Toronto. The use of this word is, of course, intended to emphasise that Danny Smiricky, a Czech by birth, has in a sense been cast out, or, more accurately, has cast himself out, from his home country. Czechoslovakia, as it was known at the time, was first invaded by the Nazis, and then, after the war, became one of the Soviet Communist satellite states; and so it was, without question, a dangerous, unstable place for quite some time. Therefore, Danny is, in essence, a refugee; his decision to move was not made in search of adventure, as is the case with many novels dealing with the émigré experience, but in order to live without being in a constant state of anxiety or uneasiness. Indeed, he calls Canada ‘wonderful’, because ‘there is nothing to be afraid of.’

As you would expect then, oppression plays a major role in the novel, although it is often dealt with in a lighthearted, almost good-natured way consistent with the narrator’s personality and outlook on life. For example, the father of Nadia, the girl who a young Danny spends much of his time trying to lay, is sent to a concentration camp, and is presumed dead. Danny himself, meanwhile, is, as are many of the inhabitants of Kostelec, forced by the Nazis to work in a Messerschmitt factory, and subsequently becomes embroiled in a sabotage caper that he believes may cost him his life. Likewise, the evils of communism are frequently alluded to: Veronika, one of Smiricky’s students, was, we’re told, thrown out of a Prague theatre group for having Jewish blood; and, in one of the old letters that pepper the text, letters from Danny’s friends and fellow artists, a playwright informs him that his work has been suppressed, including a play that seems to have involved little more than a bunch of people shitting.

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[“Memorial to the Victims of Communism” – Prague, Czech Republic]

Yet even in present day Canada Danny and the Czech community he regularly interacts with are not entirely safe from what he describes as ‘the many horrors of our life.’ There are numerous amusing chapters devoted to Czech informers and secret police officers and their attempts to entrap or, in the case of Magister Maslo, take out, these enemies of the state. However, even when recounting the most obviously comedic episodes – such as the female informer who Danny manages to get so horrendously drunk that she cannot keep her cover story straight – Škvorecký has a serious point to make, about freedom, the kinds of freedom that people like me often take for granted. For example, he notes Dotty’s crude t-shirt, which depicts a naked couple in the act of copulation, and for which she would have been arrested ‘back home.’ And one gets the sense that this is why she is wearing it: because she can, and because at one time she could not. One also sees something of this in Mrs. Santner’s passionate defence of a Czech author and his right to be as blasphemous or inappropriate in his work as he sees fit.

It is worth saying a little more about the Czech community, and indeed all of the minor characters in the novel, for they are so lovingly, finely drawn: autumn-eyed Veronika, who misses Czechoslovakia so much and feels out of place in Canada; skinny Nadia with the big appetite, who displays more genuine heroism than anyone else in the novel, and who, I have to admit, made my poor heart ache; Novak, who brings Danny a replacement for a record he had played a part, a long time ago, in losing; and many many others. But this, as noted previously, is due to Danny and the way that he sees the world. He describes himself as ‘a sadist with a soft heart,’ and that is a nice phrase, but I would lose the sadist bit, for he is a pure sentimentalist; indeed, he is the best kind of sentimentalist, which is to say that he isn’t naive, he merely tries to see the best in people. Even the informers and secret police officers are given something of the benefit of the doubt, and he treats them all with warmth. Moreover, he understands that if something bad happens, something much worse could have happened instead, and does happen, and is happening somewhere else in the world. Make no mistake, The Engineer of Human Souls is a relentlessly moving and beautiful book, written in the loveliest blue-eyed style.

“The writer is the engineer of the human soul.” – Joseph Stalin

In my introduction I wrote about yearning for ‘the old country’, and have mentioned how Veronika does just that, yet it is Danny who lives in his memories the most. Everything reminds him of Czechoslovakia, everything transports him back home, everything is a madeleine. So, for example, when his English is praised in the present, this instantly brings to mind for him a story from his youth, an incident whereby he spoke English to a German officer, and of course immediately regretted it. Indeed, while watching a film at the Svenssons’, as he experiences another of his flashbacks, he states that ‘associations’ are ‘the essence of everything.’ And, if you have read a number of my reviews, you will know that I agree with him, that, without question, were I to emigrate to Prague, that beautiful city that Danny left behind with such a heavy heart, I would still spend much of my time here.

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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.

EVERYTHING FLOWS BY VASILY GROSSMAN

It was with trepidation that I picked this up. As I wrote in my review, Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate is the only book I have ever snapped shut, not out of boredom or irritation or a desire to read something else, but out of fear, a fear of what I would be exposed to and how it would affect me. More than once – as I carried it around with me during the day, fitting in a few pages here and there – I made a fool of myself in public, especially at work, during breaks, sitting there damp about the eyes, with a pained expression on my face, and a lower lip starting to tremble. I had visions, as I came to read Everything Flows, of being solemnly escorted out of the building, a broken man, my head resting on the ample bosom of a stout motherly woman…’what’s wrong with him?’ my colleagues will ask her. ‘I have no idea! He was just reading a book.’

As one would expect of a book that only just breaches 200 pages, Everything Flows is much narrower in focus [in terms of its basic storyline], and less epic and panoramic, than Grossman’s masterpiece; it was, moreover, unfinished at the time of the author’s death, which perhaps accounts for how episodic it is. The man tying these episodes together is Ivan Grigoryevich, who has just been released from prison [after a total of 29 years] following the death of Joseph Stalin. The passing of Uncle Joe is significant, because it led to the overturning of many unsound convictions – including, in this instance, Ivan’s – and this, this acceptance by the State that people had been locked up, and murdered, on trumped up charges, meant that ordinary Russians had some uncomfortable truths to confront, not only about how their government had behaved but in terms of their own guilt or culpability also.

“The sea was not freedom; it was a likeness of freedom, a symbol of freedom…How splendid freedom must be if a mere likeness of it, a mere reminder of it, is enough to fill a man with happiness.”

What is most striking about Ivan is that, although he is so central to the plot, he is, as a character, almost non-existent. He is described as a once sensitive, timid and shy child, and, despite his experiences in labour camps, he has maintained a reserved bearing, calmness and politeness, so much so that other characters think him odd, or naïve, or simply stupid. Much like Prince Myshkin, in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, it is through this meek man, through their interactions with him, that others reveal their baser tendencies, or weaknesses or flaws. Take his cousin, Nikolay, a scientist who Ivan first visits upon his release. Nikolay has a guilty conscience, for he had not been denounced or arrested; he had, in fact, prospered under Stalin. He could not be said to have been entirely in favour of what went down, in fact he was much troubled by what happened to Jews and other prominent intellectuals, but he didn’t openly oppose it either; he didn’t speak out when they were relieved of their posts, when they were ostracised, etc.

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[Workers in a Soviet Gulag]

Throughout the opening stages of the book Grossman explores complicity in its different forms. He suggests that Nikolay was complicit in his inaction, in his reluctance to question the Party line, but most of all in his attempts to justify himself, or lie to himself, in order to have some peace of mind. It is a familiar story that those caught up in such large-scale abuses of power find it difficult to believe, or accept, what is actually happening; they doubt what they see or make excuses for it, because the truth is so awful, and, if accepted, the truth of things – that entirely innocent people are being systematically brutalised and murdered – necessitates action – because only a bad person could do nothing in the face of such horror – which is the last thing that most people want; they do not want to have to fight or oppose.

If challenged, those guilty of the complicity of inaction are likely to argue that they are but one man, so what can or could they do or have done? They also abdicate responsibility to the State or to authority. ‘It was not I, it was them; I trusted them to do the right thing…and so when they told me that such-and-such was guilty of a crime I believed them.’ I see this kind of passivity, this passing on of responsibility in the face of disgraceful authoritarian action, this moral weakness, all the time. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ applied to criminal cases? The idea is that if someone is accused of something there must be a reason for it, even if we cannot see it ourselves. It isn’t that people really believe the State is infallible, it is simply that it is easier to think so, to tell yourself so.

“The criminals had, after all, confessed during the trials[…]they had been questioned in public by a man with a university degree[…]there had been no doubt about their guilt, not a shadow of a doubt.”

After leaving Nikolay’s house, Ivan crosses paths with Pinegin, who is the man responsible for denouncing him. Pinegin worries that Ivan knows that it was him, but assures himself that he is imagining it. Here the emphasis is not on what people will allow to happen, what they passively sanction, but what ordinary human beings are actually capable of. I wrote in my review of Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen that we comfort ourselves with the thought that we would never actively participate in mass oppression but normal people did and do. Grossman explores in detail why that is the case. Why do ordinary people condemn or murder for their governments? Are they evil? No, unfortunately not. Evil as a concept is, I’m afraid, simply another comfort blanket.

Some participate in order to get ahead, in order to prosper. If you help to oppress another group, not only can you take what is theirs, but there is less competition for what is not, for jobs, etc. There is also the pleasant feeling of being useful to the State, of being valued by the State. People like to be praised, they like to think that they are important or necessary. In Russia at the time, people wanted to serve Stalin, they admired him, loved him even. In terms of Pinegin, he denounced Ivan not because he hated him, but because that is what the State asked of him; he was, Grossman suggests, simply following orders or doing his duty. It isn’t, one could argue, for the common man to make these kinds of decisions, about what is right and wrong and fair or unfair, that is the responsibility of the State.* For me, there is an interesting subtext to all this, which is that morality is changeable, is malleable, and so if a State or an authority decide that someone is guilty, then they become guilty. It does not matter if another authority would declare them innocent. Therefore, those who participated in the functioning and application of that authority were also innocent, were in fact in the right, because they were behaving in accordance with the laws, rules and culture of their society.

Most of what I have discussed so far is found in the first fifty or so pages. For me, this was the strongest section of the book. Beyond those first fifty pages the storyline disappears somewhat, and Ivan gets lost among a series of [admittedly, very engaging] essays, ranging from the nature of freedom and hope, to collectivisation and a number of chapters dedicated to understanding Lenin and his role in what followed him. Therefore, as a novel, as a work of fiction, Everything Flows is a bit of a mess, is, in all honesty, not successful at all. Life & Fate also includes philosophical essays but they ride alongside a well-crafted narrative, are fully integrated into the text. This is not, however, too serious a criticism, especially when one remembers that the book was unfinished at the time of Grossman’s death; one assumes that, if he had had more time, he might have developed Ivan’s story so that it would not simply trail-off.

More of an issue is that Grossman’s treatment of the Russian peasantry and the oppressed is romanticised, so that it has almost a propagandistic flavour; indeed, I felt as though I, as the reader, was being manipulated somewhat. For example, during the chapter on collectivisation – which is, I might add, possibly the most harrowing and upsetting thing I have ever read – Grossman writes about one mother reading fairy-tales to her starving, dying children in an effort to distract them from their pain. All the oppressed people throughout the book are so lovingly described, they are all so gentle, so noble, so kind and patient and forbearing in their suffering that it just does not ring true. They are, like Ivan, like Prince Myshkin, christ-like, they are representations of The Russian Soul. For the record, I want to point out that my sympathy is entirely with them, with the ill-treated, with the genuine, real victims of Stalinism; in fact, there is a certain level of guilt accompanying my words here, but I am trying to approach the book as literature; and, as such, Everything Flows is a failure. But, then, I guess that a believable, successful novel was never really Grossman’s aim; what he wanted to do was try to understand what had happened to his beautiful country, his beautiful people, and so one can overlook, even admire, a touch of sentimentality.

For a book that had such a powerful emotional and intellectual hold on me, I do not want to end on a criticism. I said to someone the other day that Vasily Grossman had a simple, direct way of getting to the heart of everything, that I find very moving. And on that note I’ll finish up with something from the text, something simple and direct, and pretty fucking devastating…

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*these arguments, where it appears as though one is trying to absolve those who participate in tyrannical regimes, are Grossman’s not mine.

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA BY MIKHAIL BULGAKOV

I’ve written before about how I often lament the fact that I can no longer read with an open heart, without judging and analysing every aspect of what I am reading. I’ve become ultra-sensitive, overly-critical, and, I worry, perhaps somewhat joyless. I wish, sometimes, that I could somehow go back to being sixteen years old, when I enjoyed pretty much any book I picked up on its own terms, without thinking too much about why and certainly without mercilessly probing the text for weaknesses. However, after rereading The Master and Margarita  – Mikhail Bulgakov’s famous novel about Satan’s visit to Moscow – I have been reminded that being an older [relatively speaking] and more experienced reader can have its benefits too.

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[One of the sketches for an unrealised animated feature based on Bulgakov’s novel by Sergei Alimov]

The first time I read this novel I liked it, but I did not get as much from it as I did on this occasion. That is, of course, on me. More specifically, it is due to the age I was and, consequently, how unsophisticated my reading was at that point in my life. I’ve always loved Russian literature, but my knowledge of Russian culture and history, particularly the period during which Joseph Stalin was in power, is much more comprehensive these days. And so there are things in the text that, yes, as a teenager I may have simply taken on face value, but which, due to my ignorance, may therefore have struck me as frivolous or meaningless. However, what I found as I came to reread the book is that, with more experience and with more knowledge, the things that I would have smiled gormlessly at before I am now able to properly appreciate.

For example, The Master and Margarita begins with two men, two literary types, at Patriarch’s Ponds. While having a conversation about the non-existence of Jesus, they are approached by a peculiar gentleman [Woland-Satan] whom they take to be ‘a foreigner’ and perhaps a ‘spy.’ This isn’t, of course, mere silliness, but is a sardonic wink at Soviet paranoia and the very real fear that one might, by talking to someone one shouldn’t, end up being arrested. Likewise, the conversation about Jesus, the pride the two men take in their atheism, is a reference to Communism’s drive to discredit religious belief [the rationale, I imagine, being that one cannot have something  – a belief in a divinity – that in a sense supersedes the authority of the dictator].

If you are at all interested in Communism and Stalin, one will be aware of what were the consequences of not toeing the Party line, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or saying what could be construed as the wrong thing i.e. you were arrested, interrogated, maybe killed, or shipped off to Siberia. In relation to this, it was apparent to me this time that The Master and Margarita, especially in the early chapters, is full of denunciations and sudden disappearances [it is worth noting that when someone suddenly disappears we often say that it was ‘as if by magic,’ while the disappearances in the text are, of course, literally the result of magic].

“And it was two years ago that inexplicable things started happening in the apartment: people started disappearing without a trace.”

The book is, then, very obviously a political satire, one that trades in often complex allegory. Perhaps the most well developed example is the second chapter dealing with Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Bulgakov’s Jesus is also arrested for saying the wrong thing[s], is, in effect, denounced by various people, and therefore ends up being interrogated and executed. Likewise, in the opening chapter, Berlioz wants to inform on Woland; and another character, Styopa, is essentially exiled to Yalta.

Of course, fear and paranoia, exile and denunciation, were only part of the Soviet experience during the period that Bulgakov was working on the novel [1928-1940]. Throughout, he touches on a variety of other subjects [the housing crisis, being one], and attacks various types, or sections of society, that he considered to be avaricious or corrupt.

“Everyone knows how hard it is to acquire money; obstacles to that can always be found. But not once in his thirty years of experience had the bookkeeper ever found anyone, whether an official or a private citizen, who had difficulty accepting money.”

However, he seems to reserve a special kind of antipathy for artists or those involved in the artistic industry. For instance, poets, editors, and writers are routinely mocked, and, at the hands of Woland and his retinue, suffer the worst fates. One might wonder just what it was about this apparently harmless group that ground Bulgakov’s gears. If one was being uncharitable one could put it down to a kind of professional jealousy, but it would be extraordinarily petty to compose a whole novel in that frame of mind. If I had to guess at the main source of Bulgakov’s ire I would say that he disliked them for what he saw as their complicity. Consider how to be an artist in Russia at that time it was probably in your interests to self-censor, but that it was almost impossible to create something that could not be deemed controversial, and so one was always likely to face rejection or condemnation from cowardly editors and publishers and theatre managers etc. Moreover, some artists went even further and willingly produced or backed State propaganda, this despite knowing that it was, well, not only not in the public’s interest [because they deserved the truth] but that it was also bad art [it’s telling that Bezdomny admits that his poems are terrible]. Of course, you can’t ask everyone to openly and aggressively fight against the machine, some are just not up to it, but, on the other hand, one doesn’t have to oil its wheels either.

On one level, the book is a kind of revenge fantasy. If you know anything about the author’s life you will be aware that he had a personal bone to pick with many of his targets. A number of Bulgakov’s works were banned, and he struggled in vain to get this novel into print, and so having the Devil descend upon Moscow to wreak havoc and cause chaos amongst the kind of people who rejected him must have been incredibly satisfying. Indeed, an important storyline in the novel is about a failed writer, the Master, who too cannot get his manuscript published, who is denounced [there’s that word again] in the press, and who ultimately burns the script [which is also something that Bulgakov himself did with an earlier draft]. For me, one of the major themes in The Master and Margarita is freedom, both personal and creative. In this way, perhaps the most moving scene in the whole novel is Margarita’s flight through Moscow on a broomstick; there she is, naked, high above the city, absolutely free, and having the fucking time of her life.

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One of the surprises for me this time was that I found the book much funnier. Everyone always comments on the humour, and I must admit that previously it had almost completely passed me by. Again, I think some of that has to do with increased knowledge. For example, Berlioz wanting to inform on Satan is not really funny unless you understand something about the climate of the time; likewise, with the immediate designation of Woland as a foreigner, and all the suspicion that this entails, and the experience of Berlioz’s uncle when he tries to appropriate the deceased’s apartment. However, there are also some scenes that don’t rely on a political subtext to amuse. My favourites were the dancing sparrow in the doctor’s office and Ivan turning up at the Greboyedov restaurant in his underwear and Behemoth gilding his whiskers. Yet, having said all that, I must admit that some of the comedy is a little tiresome. There are passages, or episodes, in the text that I felt were sloppy, or lazy, or certainly unsophisticated, where I got the impression that Bulgakov thought that the mere presence of Satan and his retinue was enough to hold your attention and provide laughs, because, let’s face it, any set-up, or situation, becomes more engrossing and amusing if you plonk the Devil or a walking and talking cat into it. A walking cat! And, uh, y’know, that’s surprising…look at how surprised that character is…his eyes all popping out of his head…and, yes, I’d smirk and keep turning the pages, but it was a guilty kind of smirk, such as one might produce if one sees someone fall over.

This also leads me onto a more serious criticism, which is that the novel, at least in the first part, is repetitive; it is pretty much the same thing over and over again. Satan or one of his retinue will befuddle some dude, who, as a result, starts to question his sanity, before disappearing or ending up in the insane asylum. It struck me that this is why I remembered so little of the book after first reading it. You will, I’m sure, have your own tolerance level where this kind of thing is concerned. Mine is pretty high; I’ve read the similarly episodic, and much longer, Don Quixote twice; but unlike Don Quixote, or Tom Jones, The Master and Margarita does not really have a central character upon which to hang these episodes, and so it does at times seem unfocussed and even more rambling. It is worth remembering, however, that Bulgakov did not finish his novel; and so, as with Kafka’s work, these criticisms seem a little mean-spirited. Besides, what saves the book, even during the longueurs, is the author’s compassion and sensitivity and way with a memorable epigram; you’ll be reading a chapter and thinking ‘Christ, this is a drag’ and then he’ll hit you with a line like:

“Punch a man on the nose, kick an old man downstairs, shoot somebody or any old thing like that, that’s my job. But argue with women in love—no thank you!”

And you’ll immediately repent. Ah, I didn’t mean it, Mikhail, you’re a wonderful fucker!

Before I finish I want to say something about translation. I have it on good authority, from a number of Russian speakers/readers, that The Master and Margarita has never been successfully rendered into English. Recently an acquaintance of mine called it, in Russian, profound, and, well, I was quite shocked by that. Profound? As much as I have enjoyed the book that, profound, was one of the words furthest from my mind while I turned the pages. Now, I certainly am not scoffing at this description of the novel; in fact, I cannot even challenge it. Regardless of how we speak about translated literature – i.e. we instinctively want to say that we have read Proust, or Mann or whoever – the reality is that, unless we have access to it in its original form, we have only ever read someone’s idea of a writer or a book, and this someone is, in most cases, not a talented writer themselves.

That I am in no position to accurately judge Bulgakov, or any other foreign writer, is a source of extreme frustration to me. This frustration is made even greater by the possibility, the likelihood even, that I am missing out on something amazing, or, well, yes, profound; but, what, other than learning Russian, can you do about it? Sweet f.a., I’m afraid. Yet one has to wonder why is it not possible to capture that profundity in English, at least to some extent? One of the problems is that it is difficult to translate humour or satire, especially puns, plays on words, or words that have a double meaning, so that the richer, the more layered a work is the more likely it is that it will seem flat in English. Just consider how Ulysses might read in, say, French and how much would necessarily be lost and how, once stripped of certain layers, it might strike a French reader as no more than a tedious trawl around Dublin in the company of an ordinary bloke.

You might wonder where I am going with all this. To be honest, I’m starting to wonder myself. Am I saying that you should not read The Master and Margarita except in Russian? No, of course not; why deny yourself what is a tremendous work of fiction. I guess, more than anything, I am saying that choosing the best translation is vital, that one should always put some effort into it, because while one cannot access the real thing, or have the full experience, one should endeavour to get as close to it as possible. So which translation should you read? Ah, even this question is a tough one. Those best able to answer it will be those who have read the original and several translations. However, as this is my review I’m going to go ahead and give my opinion anyway. It is well-known by now, I imagine, that I have reservations, to say the least, about modern translations in general and the cult of the super-celebrity translator[s] in particular. This group of super-celebrity translators, which includes Michael Hofmann and Pevear and Volokhonsky, in my opinion, allow their ego to dictate how they render a work, by which I mean that each one of their translations will bear their own particular stamp, so that you, or I anyway, would be able to recognise their hand in something even without knowing who translated it. On this basis, I have never, and would never, read P&V’s version of The Master and Margarita. There are, however, numerous other versions, including the much criticised Michael Glenny, the acclaimed Mirra Ginsberg, and Burgin and O’Connor.

I first time I read the book I went for Burgin and O’Connor. My choice, at that time, was dictated by numerous reviews labelling their version the most satisfying. These days, in light of the critical success of P&V, I won’t blindly accept the prevailing opinion. For my re-read, I considered Glenny, who is thought to be the least accurate of all the translators to tackle the book, but whose version, for me, flows best in English; but he was not working from the complete text. I was drawn to the Ginsberg translation, but found, when comparing it to Burgin and O’Connor, that the differences were superficial, so, bearing in mind that Ginsberg was also working from an incomplete text, I decided to stick with my original choice. As with my first read, I found the style somewhat flat and laboured, which I am assured is not the case in Russian. In their introduction the duo claim that they tried to preserve the original word order and the length of Bulgakov’s sentences; and this, I think, explains a lot. If you try to be too literal what you end up with is inelegant, sometimes confusing English, because no two languages follow the same rules, of course. In my humble opinion, rather than pat themselves on the back for sticking so closely to the original, some translators would do better to concern themselves with the soul of the sentences. In conclusion then, the most I can say about Burgin and O’Connor’s version is that it is workman-like and readable and probably, if you want the complete text at least, the best we have at the moment.

KOLYMA TALES BY VARLAM SHALAMOV

I’ve written before about the idea of an ‘irrational attachment to life,’ which means that no matter how awful, how painful and degrading existence is one cannot forsake it. Not only that but, with a miser’s spirit, one actively clings to it. Of course it is not true of all – otherwise there would never be any suicide – but it is certainly true of many, including me. I had a very difficult childhood, and I would fantasise a lot about getting away, but at no point did I ever not want to be here. Quite the opposite: I would often cry in bed at night because I was so scared of dying. There’s something very funny about that, in a way…some kid weeping…begging…please give me more of this excruciating, this horrible life!

Why do some of us cling to life, no matter how awful that life may be? You could argue that it is the masochistic impulse. I believe in that, certainly. I think we have both a sadistic and masochistic impulse [one of which may be more pronounced in some], and that these influence many of our behaviours. I’m not convinced, however, that the masochistic impulse is responsible in this case, because an attachment to life in awful circumstances need not involve actively seeking out those circumstances [which would be necessary for me to consider it masochistic]. I think the desire to stay alive is a more basic, primordial impulse. A few years ago my cat fell out of a window and smashed his legs and split the palette in his mouth in two, but rather than lie down and succumb to what must have been a strong desire to give in he actually managed to drag himself out of the way of immediate danger and under a car. His instinct for survival was, you might say, absurdly strong, but there it was, urging him to protect what was left of his pain-wracked body. It’s an extraordinary thing, although It’s not necessarily admirable.

Varlam Shalamov spent, in total, seventeen years in prison and labour camps or Gulags. After his final release he commenced work upon a collection of short stories that dealt with camp and prison life. This collection came to be called Kolyma Tales. Kolyma is the name of the region where the camp was located in which the author served ten years. As this book, and others, attest life in the Russian labour camps was extraordinarily grim, with arctic conditions, beatings, scurvy, meagre rations, and near-unendurable work being the norm; the prisons weren’t much better.

“We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don’t need him anymore.” – Naftaly Frenkel, Camp commander [from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago].

конченый
Translation: ‘goner’ or ‘doomed.’

If there is a philosophical idea behind Shalamov’s work it is what I wrote about in the opening paragraphs. Most of his characters are survivors, as was the man himself, even though the desire to survive seems absurd. Another day of this? Of starvation, misery, exhaustion? Yes. Because what else is there but another day?

On numerous occasions the author is at pains to impress upon the reader that suffering, true suffering, does not engender camaraderie or ennoble the spirit. The consequence of life in the camps is that the prisoners become animalistic, their engagement with life is reduced to that of instinct. In many of his stories the most important thing to the characters is to get warm, or attempt to; many also steal from the dead in order to give themselves a better chance of survival. However, it is, once again, important to point out that for Shalamov this survival is absolutely not heroic, it just is. This is emphasised by the author’s dispassionate or matter-of-fact style. It is a style that is reminiscent of Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, yet lacks the Hungarian’s subtle irony. Shalamov plays it straight, without the hint of an upraised eyebrow.

I do not want to give the impression, however, that the Russian’s stories are thinly disguised autobiography, or that they are essentially a form of documentary or reportage. To see them in this way does the writer a huge disservice. What was most impressive, for me, aside from the incredible consistency, was the literary quality of each of Shalamov’s short tales. The structure and pacing, for example, are immaculate. There is one story, In the Night, in which two men set out along a path leading to a pile of rocks. One thinks, of course, that they have been put to work, especially when they start to move the rocks. Yet the conclusion of the story reveals that what they are actually doing is digging up a deceased comrade, in order to steal his clothes. There is no unnecessary exposition, no melodrama, just a great deal of control and a sharp, quick punch in the guts at the end. In the Night is one of the earliest stories in the collection, and I knew after reading it that Shalamov was a master of the form.

In the very best short stories there is a world both inside and outside of the narrative. This is true also of Shalamov’s work. Take In the Night again where there is the actual narrated action, but also a host of unanswered questions about who the dead man is, how he died, who the two men digging him up are, how they came to be incarcerated, and so on. In this way I was reminded strongly of Raymond Carver, whose snapshots are similarly restrained and yet suggestive of a more detailed narrative that is ultimately left to your imagination. Also like Carver, and Chekhov too, Shalamov is essentially apolitical and totally non-judgemental. For Carver and Chekhov that would have would been, one imagines, an easier feat than for this writer, whose tales all deal with people arrested [often on trumped up charges] under Stalin’s government. This refusal to fully engage with politics, the distance Shalamov maintains from the political climate of the time, serves to emphasise just how isolated, how cut off, his characters are from the outside world.

Shalamov does, however, make frequent references to literature. In certain stories he writes about Pushkin and Chekhov; in others he mentions a deck of playing cards that are made out of a Victor Hugo novel and discusses how inmates who can retell well-known or published stories are called novelists. More interestingly, some of the prisoners are named after famous Russian characters, such as Tolstoy’s Vronsky; and Andrei Platonov, a real life figure, and fellow writer, also makes an appearance, even though we know, of course, that he never served time in a prison. Russian writers, it has always struck me, are the most self-referential, but Shalamov, I imagine, wasn’t merely giving shout-outs. If you take Platonov as an example, he himself was a controversial figure, who Stalin apparently disliked, and so one might argue that he could easily, on this basis, have ended up in a camp, which were full of intellectuals anyway. I think in using Platonov and Vronsky and so on, he is saying that this could literally happen to anyone, that anyone, no matter what their status is, could find themselves in this horrific situation. Furthermore, by populating his tales with well-known Russians, in pointing to the country’s golden past or literary heritage, one might argue that Shalamov, whether intentionally or not, is subtly saying: look how we have come from that to this.

I’d like to have my arms and legs cut off and become a human stump – no arms or legs. Then I’d be strong enough to spit in their faces for everything they’re doing to us.

gulag-russi

THE CASE OF COMRADE TULAYEV BY VICTOR SERGE

If you’ve read any of my reviews you may have come across me rambling on about interconnectedness; in fact, i think I last wrote about it only a few days ago. I always, by way of justifying it perhaps, preface this rambling by admitting that interconnectedness is an obsession of mine; of course, it being a genuine obsession, it is very often on my mind and it does, therefore, colour the way that I see and approach the world, including the way that I read things. So, uh, although I fear I am in danger of being as much of a bore as Charlie Citrine [whose theosophy twaddle mars Humboldt’s Gift], I cannot promise that this is the last time I’m going to chat about this shit. Fair warning, and all that. In any case, what, for me, is interconnectedness? I believe [not uniquely] that everything, my entire experience of the world, my entire existence, is connected to the experience and existence of every person and thing on this planet, both in the present day and historically, in an infinite and complex number of ways.

While I said that I cannot promise that this is the last time I will write about interconnectedness, I can promise that it is especially relevant in terms of the book under review here, because Serge’s novel is not merely an example of interconnectedness [all things are examples of it, to my mind], but is, on one level, actually about it. The Case of Comrade Tulayev starts from the arbitrary point at which the man of the title is shot and killed. This event, with a grand flap of butterfly wings, sets in motion a seemingly unending, subsequent, series of events, spreading out in numerous directions like an insane spider-diagram. Each chapter of the novel deals with a different consequence of that initial act; Tulayev’s murder begats Erchov’s dismissal, it begats Rublev’s arrest, and so on. These people, none of whom were involved in the man’s death, are all drawn into the cyclone created by it.

Of course, in terms of plot, this is actually a novel about the Stalinist purges. The Party, desirous of being seen to be strong and impervious to random acts of terrorism, need to pin the crime on someone, need to give the impression of being in control of the situation, and so have no qualms about punishing innocent men. There is a temptation to say that The Party reacts with paranoia, but this is not so; far from exhibiting psychological distress, it cynically goes about its business, offering sacrificial lambs to the great God of Communism.

Aside from the sophisticated construction, and the engaging exploration of political ideology, the novel interested me in one or two other ways. Firstly, there is an extraordinary amount of detail here, bureaucratic detail, and it has a disorientating, mind-spinning, effect on the reader. While this isn’t so interesting in-and-of-itself, it is when one considers that many of the characters themselves feel burdened or confused by all the dossiers, meaningless memorandum, and organisations. One is put, as a reader, in the same position as the people in the novel and I found that especially impressive. The second point of interest, for me, is in the way that Serge managed to create a novel that runs to only 400 pages and yet feels like a grand epic. At every point, in almost every sentence, there is a hint of something, some tossed off anecdote, some potential back-story, that other novelists would have spent at least 50 pages detailing. This makes the novel incredibly rich.

While all this may seem insufferably dry there are, trust me, also moments of great beauty in the text. One scene in particular will always stay with me: Erchov and his wife hunting ibex, and the similarly-hunted Erchov whispers in his wife’s ear as she lines up her shot “above all, darling, miss him.” Don’t miss this brilliant book though.

ANIMAL FARM BY GEORGE ORWELL

Hello children. It is time for sing-along with [P]! Let me just strap on my guitar here. Just a moment. Ok. Can someone count me in? No. Right, and 1-2-1-2-3-4…

Old man Orwell had a farm

ee-i-ee-i-o

And on that farm he had some…?

Pigs!

ee-i-ee-i-o

And they represent famous Russian socialists, leaders, and revolutionaries

ee-i-ee-i-o

With a Stalin here, and Trotsky there, here a Marx, there a Marx,

Everywhere a bit of Marx

Old man Orwell had a farm

ee-i-ee-i-o

Old man Orwell had a farm

ee-i-ee-i-o

And on that farm he had a…?

Horse!

ee-i-ee-i-o

And he symbolises the low intelligence working man

ee-i-ee-i-o

Oh he must work hard, even though he’s tired; here some work, there some work,

Until he *sniff* drops down dead

Old man Orwell had a farm

ee-i-ee-i-o

Old man Orwell had a farm

ee-i-ee-i-o

And on that farm he had some…?

Dogs!

ee-i-ee-i-o

And they act as a fierce military-police presence

ee-i-ee-i-o

Trained by a pig, to serve the cause; enforce here, enforce there.

Get out of line and they’ll eat your face

Old man Orwell had a farm

ee-i-ee-i-o

Old man Orwell had a farm

ee-i-ee-i-o

And on and around that farm there were some…?

Humans

ee-i-ee-i-o

And I’m pretty sure one is the Tsar, another might be Hitler

ee-i-ee-i-o

With a coup here, an alliance there; I can’t remember the rest

Because I read this years ago as an impressionable teenager

And I thought it was brilliant and moving then,

But now it strikes me as heavy-handed…

Old man Orwell had a farm

EE-I-EE-I-OOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

Phew. Ok. Wasn’t that fun? Any questions? Boy at the back! Yes, yes I am aware that this is A-level Physics. What? No, this won’t be on the exam. So, anyway, who wants to hear Itsy Bitsy Old & Beardy Aleksander Solzhenitsyn?