suffering

STEPS BY JERZY KOSINSKI

A friend suggested to me the other day that I might be suffering from some form of PTSD. I actively avoid the tv news and newspapers. I’m reticent to open letters. I flinch when someone knocks at the door. I came to believe, an early age, that the world is a grotesque place, and my behaviour, she said, is that of someone who does not wish to have his judgement backed up with further evidence. I withdraw into books, she said, because I’m wary of what exists outside of them. I withdraw into books that, in most cases, contain fictional worlds far removed from the grotesque one in which I live. Indeed, I once abandoned Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird after reading only a few pages. I was unwilling to take the weight of the child’s suffering upon my shoulders.

“Had it been possible for me to fix the plane permanently in the sky, to defy the winds and clouds and all the forces pushing it upward and pulling it earthward, I would have willingly done so. I would have stayed in my seat with my eyes closed, all strength and passion gone, my mind as quiescent as a coat rack under a forgotten hat, and I would have remained there, timeless, unmeasured, unjudged, bothering no one, suspended forever between my past and my future.”

I do not know, therefore, what compelled me to pick up Steps  – which is often described as disturbing and brutal – by the same author. It wasn’t, as I know it is for some, the recommendation of David Foster Wallace, whose work I have only a begrudging admiration for. Perhaps it was the comparisons to Kafka and Celine, two writers I count amongst my favourites, even though these kind of comparisons are often wide of the mark. Certainly, I did not see much of either in Steps, but there is a compellingly odd, almost weightless atmosphere, which reminded me not of Kafka but Ice by Anna Kavan. As with that book, there is a lack of basic, concrete information. Everything is vague. No character is named. At most they are given a title, such as the ski instructor. Places are not identified either, except in terms like ‘the island’ or ‘the village.’ The settings could be anywhere, at any time. The only real reference points are mentions of ‘the war’ and concentration camps.

What this creates is a sense of unreality, and, consequently, a feeling that anything is possible. And when it does occur, this anything is, as promised, almost without exception violent and/or unpleasant. There is, for example, one scene, or entry, in which a ‘demented’ woman is found by the narrator in a cage in a barn in a village. She had been, it is told, repeatedly raped. In another, a man feeds bread with broken glass in it to children. Often the violence is random, almost motiveless, and sadistic. A nightwatchman is killed with a glass bottle. A army sniper takes out unarmed passersby. The violence is not, however, disturbing, not even for someone who is as sensitive to it as I am, precisely because it takes place in a world that is not, except in superficial ways, recognisably ours; it is Kosinski’s own dream-like alternate reality. It also helps, in this regard, that his style is not voyeuristic or pornographic. He does not linger over the particulars, so that, for example, one does not witness the witless woman’s rapes.

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As one or two of the previous examples suggest sex plays a significant role in a number of the entries. Even the first, in which there is no sexual activity at all, but in which the narrator convinces a young girl to run away with him by flashing his credit cards, sex could be said to be the motivating factor. Indeed, this entry introduces one of the book’s primary preoccupations, which is the human predatory, often sexually predatory, instinct. In one piece, the narrator is called a ‘hyena’ for preying on a dying woman in order to gratify himself; in another he is himself preyed upon by two overweight women, when he finds himself trapped on an island without money or food or any means of escape; in yet another the narrator cold-heartedly hopes a gang-rape victim will recover soon so that they can begin to ‘make love’ again, while reminding himself that he would have to be gentle [a thought he finds ‘unwelcome.’]

What is interesting about the book, however, is that, although women are sometimes abused – the worst being the bestiality incident – they are, on numerous occasions, shown to be both strong and independent. When the narrator is photographing patients within a mental institution, a women working there is said to be able to ‘endure for years an environment I found unbearable even for a few days.’ Moreover, the women are most often less emotionally needy, more mature in their outlook than the men in the book. One, who is unfaithful, states that ‘intercourse is not a commitment unless it stems from a particular emotion and a certain frame of mind.’ Another is said to refuse to have a steady companion. Of course, this could be seen as some sort of literary wish fulfilment on the part of the author, but it did not strike me that way. One of my favourite passages in the book is when a woman is describing the unique appeal of oral sex, and her power over the man is emphasised:

“It’s a weird sensation having it in one’s mouth. It’s as if the entire body of the man, everything, had suddenly shrunk into this one thing. And then it grows and fills the mouth. It becomes forceful, but at the same time remains frail and vulnerable. It could choke me — or I might bite it off. And as it grows, it is I who give it life; my breathing sustains it, and it uncoils like an enormous tongue.”

I mentioned the war previously, but Steps is not a war novel. In fact, most do not call it a novel at all, but, rather, a collection of short stories. However, I am reticent to describe it as such myself, and I certainly did not read it as a number of standalone pieces put together in one volume. There is, admittedly, limited continuity or consistency. At times the narrator is a soldier, at others he is a vagrant, or an archeologist assistant, and yet I think Steps works as a whole in more significant ways than the occupation of the person relating the action. I return again to atmosphere of unreality that dominates the book. If our ideas about what is possible are suspended, then it is ok for a narrator to take on multiple, conflicting, roles, especially when, in terms of style and tone, it seems clear that it is the same man narrating each entry, much like how the girl in Ice can die multiple times and still be alive on the following page.

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 LONG VOYAGE BY JORGE SEMPRUN

Whenever something terrible happens – the Paris attacks, a school shooting, or whatever – people invariably express their shock and surprise, and I always feel slightly bewildered by this kind of reaction, because, although I could not possibly have foreseen these specific events, I am nevertheless profoundly not shocked nor surprised [although I am, of course, deeply saddened by them]. Human history, and my own experiences to a lesser extent, has taught me that we are capable of, that we actively and regularly engage in, every kind of baseness, brutality or infamy. In a way, I feel as though, at some unspecified point in my life, I have lost something precious, some necessary faith or belief in the inherent goodness of our species, because that is what it comes down to, my anguished shrug of the shoulders: I simply don’t believe that we are, or more specifically that we will consistently prove ourselves to be, better than this.

“She’s trying to make me believe that all suffering is the same, that all the dead weigh the same. As counterbalance for the weight of my dead friends, for all their ashes, she’s offering  the weight of her own suffering. But the dead don’t all weigh the same, of course.”

Jorge Semprun was a Spanish writer and politician, who spent most of his life in France. He lived through WW2, becoming a member of the French resistance, before being arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. He wrote more than one book about his experiences, the most well-known of which is Le grand voyage [The Long Voyage, in English]. I have read many novels about the Holocaust, and of course each of them are different, and certainly each of them has moved me, but this is the first time that I have encountered a narrative voice that truly spoke to me. Now, obviously that isn’t necessary, it is not important to be able to find oneself in this kind of book, but when it does happen I want to acknowledge it, especially as it – the voice – is one of the most striking things about Semprun’s work. It is a voice characterised by a lack of disbelief, it is always logical or rational, tough but understanding. ‘I never imagined such a thing was possible’, says the guy from Semur. ‘Anything is possible’, the narrator replies.

Yes, anything is possible. Death camps. Incinerators. Lampshades made out of human skin. All possible. All, and more. Semprun’s narrator is not shocked, not by what is happening to him, nor by what happens to other people. How can you be shocked if you refuse to close your eyes? And that is what I got from The Long Voyage, a sense that here is an author who felt it important not to shy away from the truth. For example, the thing that the guy from Semur ‘never imagined’ was possible was that a man could be in a prison or camp and not share his provisions. The narrator explains that this isn’t, by any means, the most gratuitously selfish behaviour he has witnessed. Men will, he says, steal from someone their last piece of black bread, thereby choosing their own life, their own continued existence, over the life of someone else, who is, by virtue of that theft, being condemned to death.

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[Jewish prisoners being deported to concentration camps]

Having said all that, the camps are not the true focus of the story. The Long Voyage begins with the ‘cramming of the bodies’ into a boxcar, and with a ‘throbbing pain in the right knee.’ There are 120 men and women on a train bound for Weimar, bound for extermination. In Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate there is a passage in which a bunch of people are loaded onto trucks and driven to a concentration camp and straight into the showers. It is written with great sensitivity and empathy. Yet, while Semprun puts the reader in a similar situation, which is to say that he forces you to ride along with his characters, his approach is different. Indeed, the train sections of The Long Voyage have much in common with the work of Samuel Beckett, especially How It Is and The Unnameable.

In How it Is, for example, the narrator is lying in the mud murmuring to himself, and attempting to crawl along the ground. He is constrained, and haunted by voices. In Semprun’s novel, the narrator is trapped in a dark boxcar, squashed up against a large number of people who he cannot see but can, of course, hear. And what he frequently hears are screams and murmurs, complaints and threats. It is a nightmarish and absurd situation. To Semprun’s credit, he acknowledges the absurdity, he plays upon it, such that the book is, miraculously, at times [intentionally] very funny. ‘Breathing is the main thing’, the guy from Semur says, as he clears a path to the small window, which is covered in barbed wire. Ha. Well, of course. Breathing is vital, if you want to live. And these people, who are hurtling towards their death, would like to live, at least a little bit longer, thanks very much.

“Four days, five nights. But I must have counted wrong, or else some of the days must have turned into nights. I have a surplus of nights, more nights than I can use.”

However, The Long Voyage is not all grim humour, there are beautiful moments too. While on the train the narrator spends some of his time looking out of the window, and at one stage he passes through the Moselle Valley. At this precise moment, he says, the world was reborn within him. What he means by this is that in the boxcar he has been cut off from the world, literally and spiritually. It is only when he passes through the Moselle Valley, when he recognises it, that he reconnects with the world, with what is outside, with a real place. The word ‘real’ is important here, because the situation in the boxcar is, of course, unreal. Indeed, the nature of reality, or unreality, plays a major role in the text.

In the boxcar, or in a death camp, one’s understanding of, or relationship with, reality changes. In other words, the unreal becomes real. You become accustomed to the bizarre, the grotesque, the appalling, such that a sudden revealing of the existence of, or a confrontation with, the normal is a kind of spiritual shock. On this, there is a wonderful scene in the book when the narrator leaves the camp and comes upon a group of women. Not women with shaved heads, starved to death, beaten and gassed, but women, real women, with stockings and lips and thigh-hugging skirts. And these creatures seem unreal to him, in the same way that the camp corpses, that he shows them, do to the women. I found this so engaging, for I had thought about our ability to adapt to horrendous circumstances, and our ability to normalise the not-normal, but I had never considered that it might work the other way around.

As always with these reviews, there is more that I want to discuss, but I fear writing too much and alienating the few people with the necessary patience to read my work. So I won’t talk about freedom, about how freedom is what people in prison have in common with each other. No, I will finish with something about memory. Structurally, The Long Voyage is essentially a kind of Proustian Arabian Nights, if you will allow me this ridiculous phrase, where, instead of stories-within-stories, we encounter memories-within-memories, memories, like bodies in a boxcar, stacked on top of each other. Yet instead of a madeleine, it is a taste of black bread, years after release, that ‘brought back, with shocking suddenness, the marvellous moments when we used to eat our rations of bread, when, with Indian-like stealth, we used to stretch it out, so that the tiny squares of wet, sandy bread which we cut out of our daily ration would last as long as possible.’

THE SKIN BY CURZIO MALAPARTE

Curzio Malaparte and I have a strained and complicated relationship. It is natural, of course, to have a number of different emotional responses when reading, but Kaputt, the most well-known work by the oddball Italian journalist and novelist, is the only one to ever make me angry. This was not because I thought the novel bad, but because I found it to be, in places, unpleasantly smug. One passage sticks out in this regard, which is when Curzio [fictional or not, the main character shares the author’s pseudonym] takes a walk around a Jewish ghetto in the 1940’s, commiserating with and comforting the inhabitants.

To understand why this upset me you have to bear in mind that Malaparte wrote the novel while all this stuff [i.e the Holocaust] was actually going on, that he did meet and travel with high-ranking Nazis, and that his own stance was at the very least questionable. So that he positioned himself in his work as some kind of Mother Teresa figure was a bit hard to take; at best it is insensitive, at worst exploitative and horribly self-serving. As a result of this previous experience, I have long been putting off reading The Skin, even though there is much about it that appeals to me, so much, in fact, that I actually bought it on the day of its release. I finally picked it up a few days ago, more in hope, the hope that it would contain the things I liked about Kaputt without featuring the things I didn’t, than the expectation that I would enjoy it in its entirety.

The Skin is set in war-ruined Naples, in late 1943, at a time when Allied soldiers have entered the city. These days we tend to talk of liberators, but Malaparte is keen to stress that the American and British troops are conquerers. Italy, which fought on the side of the Germans, has lost the war, and the people now in control, now being welcomed, were previously its enemies, were the people they were, until recently, trying to kill. Malaparte emphasises the absurdity of this situation by reporting that he and other Italian soldiers are dressed in the uniforms of dead Brits, which are still blood-stained. This perspective is one of the things that makes The Skin so attractive, for there aren’t many novels that deal with the experience of, and consequences for, the defeated; indeed, the author states that anyone can win a war, but not everyone can lose one.

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[Priests inside the ruined church at Benevento, Naples, October 24, 1943]

Malaparte’s Naples is a re-born, or re-enacted, Sodom and Gomorrah, it is a Boschean hell, where starvation, death, slavery, cruelty, suffering, prostitution, and, well, all forms of deviancy are rife; it is, in the author’s own words, ‘in the throes of the plague.’ This plague is a moral one, with an emphasis upon the sexual [he doesn’t use the term syphilis, but it is clear that he is referring to that disease]. Indeed, sex plays a central role in the novel, in Malaparte’s vision of a world going to shit, presumably because promiscuity is, generally speaking, seen to be [more so then, than now] an explicit sign of moral degradation. In the opening couple of chapters alone there are dwarf whores, a teenage virgin who, for a dollar or two, will let you ascertain if she is legit, and both male and female children, aged 8-10, who are offered up to soldiers by their parents.

One of the questions that the book inspires you to ask is why has this happened, why is Naples like this? First of all, if you are defeated or conquered then you have, in a sense, been shamed, and so one could understand the disreputable behaviour as being a consequence of this feeling of national shame. More significantly, and more interestingly, the author argues that there is a difference between fighting to avoid death, which is a war situation, and fighting to stay alive. If you are engaged in a war, in an effort to avoid being killed, then, he states, qualities such as honour and justice and nobility and so on are possible, even likely. However, if you are fighting simply to stay alive, i.e. if you are starving, which the people of Naples are, then one becomes capable of every kind of infamy.

“The price of freedom is high — far higher than that of slavery. And it is not paid in gold, nor in blood, nor in the most noble sacrifices, but in cowardice, in prostitution, in treachery, and in everything that is rotten in the human soul.”

It is necessary to point out that Malaparte appears to blame the Allied troops, particularly the Americans, rather than the ‘dreadful Neopolitan mob’ themselves. One knows this because throughout the book he relentlessly, sarcastically, mocks them, calling them things such as the ‘loveliest, kindest army in the world’ and making statements like ‘only Americans can move with such easy smiling grace through crowds of starving people.’ He talks repeatedly about their child-like simplicity, their goodness, their purity. He also points out that Naples, prior to the arrival of these tall and handsome victors, was not what it has become, suggesting, in a not-so-subtle fashion, that they are, therefore, responsible. I imagine that if you are American some of this stuff might sting or rankle, although I have to admit that I was, at least in the early stages, rather amused by it, as I tend to enjoy unsophisticated sarcasm and bitter pissiness, if not lazy stereotyping.

There is no question that Malaparte is fond of generalisations and stereotypes and that this does present problems for the text as a whole. Indeed, at the beginning of this review I touched upon the aspects of Malaparte’s previous work that I objected to, and wrote that I had hoped that The Skin would be free of similar unpleasantness. In this regard, it would be remiss of me not to mention that this particular book is frequently criticised for its homophobia and racism, amongst other things. However, while I felt no desire to defend the Italian previously I do think one can do so with a clear conscience in terms of some of what we encounter here.

I imagine that one of the passages that most upsets readers is that in which Malaparte describes black soldiers as being enslaved by the locals. At first glance what this seems to suggest is that the author believes black people to be born slaves or easily enslaved due to their own stupidity. However, I would argue that this is not the case, that he is mocking the stereotype, not the race, and that, if anything, the objects of his disdain are the Italians, or more specifically the corrupt and degraded state of Naples, a city where morality has broken down to the extent that people are engaged in buying and selling other human beings. What one finds is that throughout the novel it is the group that he showers with the most exuberant praise – i.e. the Americans – that he is most opposed to, and that those who he openly appears to criticise or make fun of are invariably the ones with whom he sympathises.

Having said that, there is a significant section of the novel, including The Rose of Flesh chapter, that left a bad taste in my mouth, what with the repeated use of the words ‘mincing,’ ‘inverts’ and ‘fairies’, but that is not to say that the ideas previously discussed cannot be applied to it. Malaparte initially presents homosexuals as predators and pederasts, yet later explains that it is the men who pose as homosexuals, the ones whose response to war is to reject heroism and resort to decadence, not only sexual but political also, that he has a problem with. So, once again, he appears to be using a stereotype in order to make a critical point about some other group or type of people [in this case leftist-Communist bohemians, who are using the state of the world as justification for indulging themselves].

Of course, this defence of Malaparte can only be taken so far, it is only a theory. You might think that my argument does not hold up; and I certainly would not sneer at any reader for abandoning the book on the grounds of it being intolerant and offensive. What I would say, however, is that this, a lack of common decency, and compassion and tolerance, is one of the book’s major themes. In any case, although at times this stuff acts like speed bumps, which is to say that it slowed me down and took some of the energy and enthusiasm out of my reading, it is not, in my opinion, the book’s biggest flaw.

For me, the biggest problem with The Skin is the repetition. Despite some reservations, I flew through the opening 60-70 pages, enjoying them immensely, but what I found as I made my way through the rest of the text is that Malaparte often makes the same points, sometimes in almost the same words, again and again. For example, the whole thing with the American soldiers, and how much he loves their apple-pie awesomeness, becomes tiresome the 7th, 8th, 9th, 20th time around.

I feel as though I have dedicated more of this review to the negative or questionable aspects of the book than I intended. On this basis, I want to finish with something positive. The Skin is full of memorable lines, and memorable scenes, and is worth reading for those things alone. But that is not all. As a portrait of a city, a country, a civilisation collapsing under the weight of its own faeces, it is as powerful, challenging and moving as any I have encountered. Yes, read it for that reason.

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.

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.”

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* 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.

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.