Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Pushed Into a Kind of Nightmare"

The Black Envelope by Norman Manea

“I never wished to be a ‘political’ writer, and I hope I wasn’t only that, even when I was forced to write about a nightmarish politicized reality.”

The opacity of parts of The Black Envelope may be attributable to the reality about which Norman Manea writes--the reality, or rather the unreality, of the Ceausescu years, the farcical (one is tempted to say 'Kafkaesque,' but the dictatorships installed in Eastern Europe after World War II lacked the wit of Kafka's fictional world) injustices, petty indignities, and unremitting terror of an arbitrary political system.  I remember the stories that were circulating in the early 1990's, right after  Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed by firing squad, stories about Ceausescu's mad version of "democratic socialism," his discredited claims that, unlike his predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a die-hard Stalinist, he, Ceausescu, had brought justice, peace, and democracy to Romania. The reality was that Ceausescu's secret police maintained rigid controls over political and artistic speech and tolerated no dissent or opposition. Opponents of the regime were arrested, tortured, and executed in a manner that had become commonplace in Eastern Europe, especially beginning with the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.

Manea has been mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize winner; his books are, if not overtly political, a reflection of a life engaged, or perhaps victimized, by the tragedies of his country.  As a Romanian Jew, Manea was deported, along with most other Romanian Jews, to a concentration camp at Transnistria, in the Ukraine, when he five years old.  After his repatriation in 1945, Manea attended school and university, trained as a hydro-engineer, and began  to write fiction in the early 70's.  All of  his books were banned and he was forced into exile in 1986. 


Manea describes his own youthful deportation as being "pushed into a kind of nightmare," into a terrible Russian winter during which his grandparents and many of his family's friends and neighbors died and his father was reduced to believing that life was no longer worth living.  In his autobiographical statements and his memoir-novel The Hooligan's Return, Manea attributes to his 'iron-willed' mother his own and his father's survival. 

 In The Black Envelope, Tolea, a high school teacher, who has apparently lost his job for an ill-defined sexual transgression, seeks to unravel the story of his father's mysterious death, but not with much diligence.  In fact, the novel is a patchwork of enigmatic and truncated scenes--a loosely constructed amalgam of fragmented action and broken bits of internal monologue--including an account of Tolea's ill-fated job as a hotel clerk, his encounters with characters from across the social spectrum of 1980's Bucharest, and  his mockery of a corrupt society which he seeks to escape through ironic critique and dreamy disengagement.  The novel is populated with black marketers, sycophants, political operatives, fools and fiends--in other words, part of The Black Envelope's  purpose is to offer a  'General Prologue' to the sordid tales of Communist Romania's dupes and crooks. It struck me halfway through the novel that Tolea's musings, which are often disjointed and difficult to follow, have the feeling of an interrogation--they circle implicit questions and offer only evasive answers.  It is as if the book were written to fool the censors--as it was.

It also struck me that one could write such a book today, about this country, my beloved America--increasingly a sham "peoples' republic" dominated by dupes and crooks, lobbyists and PACS, with a government controlled by a corrupt ruling class, with its ideals perverted by greed and with propaganda having replaced reasoned civil discourse.  Of course, I'm exaggerating, but The Black Envelope felt especially poignant as its sordid tales of moral corruption unfolded against the background of Congressional 'debates' about the budget, gun control, and sequestration--a  newspeak term if ever there were one.  It is unfair to Manea's history of suffering and persecution to make this comparison, but one cannot help but do so; this is the power of incisive political fiction--it evokes sympathetic comparisons to one's own situation.

I spent two months slowly making my way through The Black Envelope--it is, to say the least, a challenging book, not one that I could say I "liked" in the way I often like a book--it is full of malaise and bitterness, a rather hopeless vision of a lost era in a benighted country.  But Manea is a great writer, a passionate intellectual witness to his own and his country's tragedy, and perhaps to ours as well.

The Black Envelope is translated by Patrick Camiller and published by Yale University Press in their Margellos World Republic of Letters series.
There is a fine interview with Manea, produced by Bard College, available here

George Ovitt (4/28/13)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Art of Nostalgia: Di Lampedusa and Tanizaki

The Leopard (Il Gatttopardo)by Guiseppe di Lampedusa and The Makioka Sisters (細雪 Sasameyuki)by Junichiro Tanizaki

Oh call back yesterday…bid time return.
                                                                 William Shakespeare, Richard II, 3.2

It has been said that nostalgia is memory with the pain removed. If that is true, it is only true in part, for real nostalgia is nothing if not painful, involving as it does the haunting, sometimes exquisite disjunction between the world one knows and the world beating daily at one’s door. In fact nostalgia—a catch-all term coined by medical student Johannes Hofer in 1668 to describe the anxiety disorders displayed by Swiss mercenaries far from home—is a Greek compound comprised of νόστος, meaning ‘return home’ and λγος, meaning ‘pain’. While it is clear that nostalgia can be abused, manipulated for profit or nurtured jealously as a hedge against change, what seems less clear, what is perhaps more difficult to grasp, is that we—as people, cultures, religions, and nations—would be helpless without it.

At its best, and for all its obvious conceit, nostalgia is one of the essential means by which we, as individuals, reckon with our own mortality—with the weakening of our eyes and limbs, with the growth of our children, with the fading of hope and love. It is how we shore up and safeguard our position in a world now promiscuous with change, a sort of homing instinct for the heart and mind, so that in the end nostalgia is less about persuading others that life was better in the past (even if it was)—that children had manners, that everyone pulled his own weight—than about consoling oneself in times of struggle and pain. For nostalgia, like death itself, is an expressly lonely, deeply personal thing, best savored in private or in the dusty, shuttered worlds of novels, poems, and plays. I myself have always had a weakness for works of loss and remembrance; deeply sentimental, I have always had “eyes in the back of my head.” 

 “This is one of the great lonely books,” wrote E.M. Forster in an early review of Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard. I think I know what he meant, for I have returned to this novel again and again over the past twenty years, often when I’m feeling out of sorts with the world, its particular sadness as fine, as affecting as any sadness I know.

First published by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore in 1958, one year after the author’s death in Rome from lung cancer, the novel centers upon Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, one of the last scions of a decadent Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the forces of democracy and revolution known as the Risorgimento (Italian: “Rising Again”). Beginning in the year 1860, as Garibaldi and his Red Shirts (known as the “Piedmontese” or, more derisively, the “Garibaldeschi”), are laying siege to Palermo, the story of Prince Fabrizio—an elegy at heart—describes, in elegant, sometimes sumptuous detail, the passing of a corrupt, if exquisitely cultured man and his age.

With the unification of Italy in 1861, under King Victor Emmanuel II, the eight autonomous states by which the peninsula was then divided (including the Bourbon states of Naples and Sicily called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) were united as one, much to the outrage and consternation of the Pope and his conservative allies. Often lauded as a triumph of liberalism, as propagated by the writings of philosopher Benedetto Croce, the Risorgimento is understood by others today—the unification of Italy notwithstanding—as an aristocratic and bourgeois revolution that failed.  

Even to Don Fabrizio, whose own future and that of the illustrious House of Salinas is gravely imperiled by the democratic militancy of Garibaldi and Mazzini, it is plain that, for all of the revolution’s smoke and fire, for all its egalitarian rhetoric, nothing for the peasants of Sicily will change. “Much would happen,” he reflects, near the start of the novel, in thinking about his beloved if wayward nephew, Tancredi, and about the rebels gathering force in the hills around Palermo, “but all would be playacting; a noisy, romantic play with a few spots of blood on the comic costumes…”  Indeed, while predictably reactionary in his politics and values, the Prince is as deeply scored by the fatalism of that parched and subject land as any goatherd, nursemaid, or priest. “Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jovelike frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.”

It is partly this, the Prince’s quiet resignation to the change then sweeping over the peninsula—his fine and melancholy wisdom, his love of the cosmos, his long and philosophical view of life—that makes him such an appealing character. Effete, surely, the occasional tyrant and womanizer, no doubt, he, like a priest, like a poet, redeems himself as a man and character by the gentle grandeur of his vision, his eyes (with the aid of his precious telescopes) searching the heavens for solace each night, patiently charting the movements of the stars.

“Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfect,” writes novelist Junichiro Tanizaki in his lovely, sometimes surprising 1933 meditation on traditional Japanese arts and architecture, In Praise of Shadows. On the matter of toilets he waxes poetic: “…the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss… there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss and the stepping stones… the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping  of insects or the songs of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons.” This, to anyone familiar with the author, is classic Tanizaki, embracing as it does a somber affection for traditions past, an aesthetic—according to translator, Thomas J. Harper—not of a celebrant but a mourner. For Tanizaki, much of what he describes in this short book, and in his many novels that followed, “had either perished or was preserved, fossil-like, in surroundings that betrayed its true beauty.”

The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki’s longest novel, begun in serial form in 1943 and not completed until 1948, tells the poignant, exquisitely detailed story of the aristocratic Makioka sisters and their struggle to preserve their dignity and traditions in the face of rampant modernization and war.

Set in the mercantile city of Osaka in the years just prior to World War II, a period of intense militarism and international aggression under Shōwa emperor, Hirohito, the novel traces, with nearly seismographic precision, the quakes and tremors of this new Japan. It is a cultural transformation writ small within the once-great Makioka family itself, with the eldest sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko, representing the subtle forms and aesthetic of old Japan and the youngest, Taeko, with her doll-making business, her boyfriends, and her smart Western clothes, the foreign and flagrant and new. Focused primarily upon securing a suitable marriage for the third sister, the humble Yukiko, this fine and patient novel retails the daily lives of these four women and the painful compromises they are forced to make. Originally entitled Sasameyuki, meaning “lightly falling snow,” it is a story of great beauty that explores the timeless Japanese obsession with the transience and fragility of life.

As is the case with most great fiction, the illusion of eavesdropping on the action of these kindred novels is, for readers, the key to their success, indeed instrumental to the triumph of these wistful, nostalgic tales. For in both cases, and for all of their more public scenes, what we as readers are ultimately made witness to is the private grief of the authors themselves, through the characters, the proxies, they’ve made. 

Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was born 23rd December 1896 in Palermo, from an aristocratic family (of the Princes of Lampedusa, Dukes of Palma and Montechiaro). At the end of 1954, he began writing  Il Garropardo; in June of the following year, he interrupted the novel in order to concentrate on another work Places of my Infancy: A Memory, only to take the novel up again in November. Later, he was to work on other books (Joy and Law, The Siren, the first chapter of his new novel The Blind Kittens): but in April 1957 he was diagnosed as having a tumour on his right lung, a condition that led to his death on 23 July of the same year (his body was buried 28th July in the family burial ground in the Capuchin brothers' cemetery). Rejected for publication by Mondadori, The Leopard was finally published in 1958 by Feltrinelli, thanks to the active interest and determination of Giorgio Bassani. Instantly a huge success, the book won the Strega Prize in 1959. (Italica)

Junichiro Tanizaki was born in Tokyo in 1886 and lived there until the earthquake of 1923, when he moved to the Kyoto-Osaka region, the scene of his novel The Makioka Sisters (1943-48). Among his works are Naomi (1924), Some Prefer Nettles (1928), Quicksand (1930), Arrowroot (1931), A Portrait of Shunkin (1933), The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi (1935), modern versions of The Tale of Genji (1941, 1954, and 1965), Captain Shigemoto's Mother (1949), The Key (1956), and Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961). By 1930 he had gained such renown that an edition of his complete works was published, and he was awarded Japan's Imperial Prize in Literature in 1949. Tanizaki died in 1965. (Random House)

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fate Must Bend to Desire

Mohamed Choukri--For Bread Alone

Years ago, in college, when someone put a copy of Naked Lunch into my hands and (reluctantly) I read it, I thought that Burroughs had lived the most depressing life I could imagine.  I'd read Sartre on Genet and all of Rimbaud's works in French, and made my way through a couple of Kerouac's drug-addled books (I found them tedious, but no one else did, so I wondered at my tastes), but no life I had read until Burroughs' ever seemed unimaginably painful and pointless--the willful acts of self-degradation depicted in his hallucinatory and often arresting prose never appealed to me; my rebellions were tame and mostly wholesome compared to those of the poètes maudits who were so popular in certain American intellectual circles in the 1960's.  Though I did have a picture of Rimbaud above my desk in my college dorm, it was Henry Miller's Rimbaud I admired--Time of the Assassins was a favorite book--Rimbaud as outlaw poet rather than criminal and drug addict and hustler.

Though I am seldom drawn to wholesome books--cheery stories of family life and triumphs over adversity don't constitute my regular fare--I haven't read anything in years that compares for sheer horror to Mohamed Choukri's For Bread Alone, first published in 1972 as Al Khubz al-Hafi.

This autobiographical novel kept me awake for a couple of nights, not the reading of it, but mulling over the miracle of Choukri's life, the fact that he endured miseries almost unimaginable--endured them and overcame them, insofar as one can ever truly overcome suffering. Told in dispassionate, flat, non-judgmental, and stoical style, For Bread Alone can hardly be thought of as a story of "overcoming adversity"--the ending is neutral, even pessimistic ("What shall I become? A devil most likely.")  I'd call the book a novel of "provisional survival" at best, or a story of the dogged desire to live as told by one of North Africa's most esteemed writers.

Choukri was born into almost unimaginable poverty in Morocco.  Eight of his brothers and sisters died of malnutrition.  In a harrowing scene that I haven't been able to forget, Choukri's father strangles one of Mohamed's brothers to death--"He twists the small head furiously." Dysfunctional hardly fits the case here--Mohamed's father is a sadist and a madman, someone Mohamed must avoid at all costs.

Mohamed does what he must to survive soul-crushing poverty--"I can steal from anyone who uses me"--he becomes a thief, a street prostitute, a kif smoker, a drunk, a criminal, an "outlaw," though the term makes no sense in a world in which there are no laws except the struggle for life.  Mohamed works when he can, but there is seldom work; he drifts from one desperate situation to another--it is as if his life is lived entirely in terms of "bread alone" and without any of the volition we ordinarily associate with human existence.  Here is a taste of Mohamed's world--he is sixteen or seventeen years old at this moment in the story:

  "My mother now gave birth to another girl, whom she named Zoha, after the one who had just died. A rat bit her on the hand one  night and she died too.
   My father had a habit of stealing up behind me in the street and seizing my shirt collar. Then with one hand he would twist my arm behind my back, while with the other he would beat me until the blood ran.....One morning I sat in a café smoking kif with two pickpockets. We decided to work together that day in order to spend a night of debauchery at the brothel. We went to the Plaza Nueva where the crowd was densest. It was not long before I felt the furious grip of my father's hand on the back of my neck...."

One would not think of For Bread Alone as a "political" book, but it is that.  Mohamed comes to politics in the way that poor people most often do, through direct experience of injustice.  Imprisoned during the independence riots of 1952, Mohamed is introduced to classic literature in Arabic, and to a vocabulary that will eventually allow him to begin to take control of his life:

   "Zailachi [a fellow inmate] took out a small pencil and set to work writing on the wall.
   'What are you writing?' I asked him.
   'I'm writing two lines of a poem by Abou el Qacem Chabbi. He was from Tunis.'
   'And what did he say?'
   'Here's what he says:
   If some day the people decide to live, fate must bend to that desire
   There will be no more night when the chains have broken.
   'Do you understand?'
   'No, but it's magnificent. What does it mean?'
   'It means that if a man or a country is enslaved and decides to tray and get free, Allah will help. He says: the dawn will respond and the chains will break because men will make it happen.'"

Zailachi opens Mohamed's eyes to the plight of colonized North Africa; but more importantly, he shows Mohamed the way to free himself from his past. 

Mohamed Choukri (1935-2003) was born in the Rif mountains near Nador in Morocco.  His life until age twenty is described in For Bread Alone, (1972) a book Choukri wrote with the encouragement of Paul Bowles, who became a supporter and translator of Choukri's work.  Choukri wrote in classic Arabic rather than in darija, the dialect of Tangier.  He became friends with Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs and other western writers resident in Morocco.  He wrote another volume of his life's story, translated as Streetwise, as well as stories and plays.

For Bread Alone is published by Telegram Books, trans. by Paul Bowles, with the brief introduction by the translator.

George Ovitt (4/21/13)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

At Church with Larkin

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence...

So begins Philip Larkin’s “Church Going,” unquestionably my favorite of all his poems. No matter how often I read it, no matter what my state of mind, I never cease to be amazed by the wryness and precision of the language, and by the speaker’s bumbling discomfort as an atheist in the House of God.  “I step inside, letting the door thud shut,”  “…some brass and stuff/Up at the holy end..”, “…a tense, musty, unignorable silence,/Brewed God knows how long…”  Such brilliant, witty stuff.

As a skeptic I have always felt this way in churches, especially those in Europe, at once repelled by their somber pomp (by the nagging inadequacy it makes me feel) and struck dumb by their artifactual beauty, these intimations of Paradise in wood and stone and glass.  It is the sort of attraction-repulsion I feel standing at the edge of a cliff.   
Here then is the poem in its entirety.  Enjoy.    
Church Going

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.


Here—incomparable—is Larkin himself:

Philip Larkin was born in 1922 in Coventry, England. He attended St. John's College, Oxford. His first book of poetry, The North Ship, was published in 1945 and, though not particularly strong on its own, is notable insofar as certain passages foreshadow the unique sensibility and maturity that characterizes his later work. In 1946, Larkin discovered the poetry of Thomas Hardy and became a great admirer of his poetry, learning from Hardy how to make the commonplace and often dreary details of his life the basis for extremely tough, unsparing, and memorable poems. With his second volume of poetry, The Less Deceived (1955), Larkin became the preeminent poet of his generation, and a leading voice of what came to be called 'The Movement', a group of young English writers who rejected the prevailing fashion for neo-Romantic writing in the style of Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Like Hardy, Larkin focused on intense personal emotion but strictly avoided sentimentality or self-pity.

In 1964, he confirmed his reputation as a major poet with the publication of The Whitsun Weddings, and again in 1974 with High Windows: collections whose searing, often mocking, wit does not conceal the poet's dark vision and underlying obsession with universal themes of mortality, love, and solitude. Deeply anti-social, a great lover (and published critic) of American jazz, Larkin never married and lived an uneventful life as a librarian in the provincial city of Hull, where he died in 1985.*

Peter Adam Nash

“Minha Terra”: Ivo’s Brazil

Snakes’ Nest or A Tale Badly Told

But sometimes, it was as if the sea did not exist, and he lived among stones, in a nest of snakes.

“During a dictatorship, all narratives are poorly told…” writes Lêdo Ivo in reference to the rambling, unreliable narration of this short novel. Indeed, as University of New Mexico professor Jon Tolman explains in his helpful introduction, Snakes’ Nest is a set in Brazil in the 1940’s, during what was known as the “New State,” a semi-fascist experiment in caudillismo, a cult of personality around the charismatic leader, Getúlio Vargas, that lasted from 1930-1945.  At heart an allegory of good and evil, this “sunny nightmare” rises like a miasma from the streets of Maceió—from the bars and brothels and sugar depots that distinguish this seedy port city in  northeastern Brazil that even today is renowned for its rampant corruption and violence.  As described in a 2011 article in The Economist, “The road from Maceió, the capital of Alagoas state, to its airport passes luxury-car showrooms and shops selling outsize Jacuzzis. In the central reservation, indigent families live under plastic sheeting. Even by the standards of Brazil's north-east, Alagoas is scarred by poverty and extreme inequality. With 107 murders per 100,000 people, Maceió is also the most violent state capital in Brazil, just as, with 60 murders per 100,000, Alagoas is the country's most violent state. It is a place of sugar and cattle, where the sugarcane cutters settle scores with fists and knives and the well-connected escape punishment by using contract killers instead.”  

It is this latter world that serves as the setting for this collection of powerfully rendered vignettes about the workaday men and women of Maceió—the lawyers, gangsters, sailors, poets, prostitutes, and nuns—a story, a novel (though Ivo denied it the name) in which the narration flits like a hummingbird from character to character, from place to place, sipping here, drinking there, darting back and forth in time as if drunk on the nectar it finds. In an age when more and more American writers are forced by the market to answer to the same dull master, that is, plot over character, murder and mystery over language and symbol and theme, this novel comes as a positive relief. 

Ivo’s heterodox approach to storytelling, to fiction, should come as no surprise to anyone who knows of him, for he was a poet, first and foremost, a writer who flirted with Modernism before turning his back on it to embrace more classical, more traditional forms. One feels the poetry in his language and rhythms, in the weight and balance of his words, yet there is nothing fussy or self-conscious about his style. Even in English his phrasing has the blunt simplicity, the force and gravitas, of prophesy or scripture, as in this passage describing the moments—the minutes, the seconds—before one of his characters, a manager of a local airline agency, blows out his brains:

"It was raining—it was a rain of words.  The wind blew—it was a wind of words.  The world wasn’t made of skies, clouds, cities, sugarcane mills, ports, dams, yards, old cars, streets, power plants, houses, men.  It was made only and exclusively of words—and the people spoke in words. Even the paving stones of Maceió were made of words.  Alexandre Viana ate words, slept words, worked words.  And he felt more alone than ever, as if the very weapon that sketched itself before his eyes would turn into a word."

While Snakes’ Nest is set in the Maceió of Ivo’s childhood, what he calls “minha terra” or “my land,” it is important to note that the period in which the novel was written, that is, the early 1970’s, was actually a more politically repressive time for Brazilian artists and writers than that of the quasi-fascist caudillismo of Getúlio Vargas, evidence enough that such authoritarianism is perfectly at home in the rich Brazilian soil. 

What makes this significant, what makes it  especially poignant to me, is that I have only just now finished reading the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s book, Brazil: A Land of the Future, a gushing, 250 page hymn to the nation that had given him home and sanctuary as a Jew in flight from Hitler’s Europe. The picture he paints of early 1940’s Brazil and its future in the world is just short of utopian, an incredible feat, given Vargas’ staunchly corporatist, right-wing, anti-Marxist politics, a tyranny over thought and expression that included censorship and the harassment, torture, and execution of leftists.  Somehow, for all of Zweig’s perspicacity as a writer and exile, he had failed to see the forest for the trees. Blinded to the rise of fascism there, in Brazil (the selfsame period described by Ivo’s novel) by his desperate need to keep faith with the human race, to believe in the possibility of a paradise on earth, Zweig ends his introduction to this Panglossian tribute by writing: “For that reason, one of our best hopes for a future civilizing and pacification of a world that has been desolated by hate and madness is based upon the existence of Brazil.”  That Brazil was indeed a sort of paradise to Zweig is clear; what is also clear—a fact perhaps only acknowledged by Zweig himself on the eve of his suicide in 1942—is that, by the time he’d finished writing Brazil: A Land of the Future, the Serpent was already in. 

Here, to conclude, is one of Ivo’s better known poems:

The Sound of the Sea
Sunday afternoon, I return to the old Maceió cemetery
where my dead never stop dying
their consumptive and cancerous deaths
that penetrate the ebb tide stench and constellations
with coughs, groans, imprecations
and their dark mucus
and in silence I summon them to return to this life
where from childhood on they slowly lived
with the bitterness of long days fixed to their monotonous existence
and the fear of dying of those who witness the close of day
when, after rain, the ants are scattered
across the maternal ground of Alagoas and can no longer fly.
I say to my dead: Arise, come back to this unfinished day
that has need of you, of your persistent cough and your tired gestures
and your footsteps on Maceió’s crooked lanes. Return to those insipid dreams
and windows opening on to suffocating heat.

On Sunday afternoon, among mausoleums
that seem suspended by the wind
in the bluish air,
the silence of the dead tells me they won’t come back.
No use calling them. From the place where they are now, there’s no return.
Just names carved in stone. Just names. And the sound of the sea.
© Translation: 2010, Alexis Levitin

Lêdo Ivo (1924-2012) was a Brazilian journalist, poet, novelist, and essayist who was awarded the prestigious Brazilian Walpmap Prize in 1973.  Born in Maceió, Alagoas, Brazil, the son of Floriano and Euridice Placido de Araujo Ivo, he later married Maria Leda Sarmento de Medeiros and fathered three children.  Ivo’s first volume of poems — As Imaginações — granted him national recognition in 1944. His other works of include Ode and Elegy, Ode to Twilight, Birth of the Sonnet, Language, and The Common Soldier.  In addition to Snakes’ Nest, he write three other novels: Alliances, The Road without Adventure, and The Death of BrazilSnakes’ Nest is published by New Directions Books. 

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Poland, 1945

Jerzy Andrzejewski, Ashes and Diamonds (1948)

As a historian, there are particular moments in European history that I especially want to understand; among them, preeminent even, is the passage of Eastern Europe from Nazi Occupation to Soviet-dominated governments.  What events precipitated the defeat of nationalist aspirations in Poland (for example) during the critical years between the end of the war and the establishment of the Polish United Workers' Party under Boleslaw Bierut? The facts aren't difficult to come by; what is wanted is the feeling of these years, impressions of the primary participants in the nation's reluctant embrace of Stalinism, a sense of the human cost to a nation already dismantled by the Nazi Occupation, Hans Franks' systematic terror, and the extermination of Polish Jews.  As usual, one must turn to works of literary art to gain insights, however limited, into the tragedy of post-war Poland. 

Often the 'whys' of history are neglected in the standard textbooks. We might say, for example, that given the horrors of Nazism, the Soviet Union was a natural ally for Polish nationalists who survived the camps (non-Jewish Poles were sent to Arbeitslager or German slave labor camps like Gross-Rosen, which figures prominently in Ashes and Diamonds) and were liberated by the Red Army.  But one suspects that this explanation is too simple; the truth, it would appear from Andrzejewski's brilliant and compelling novel, is that men and women were drawn into the sphere of Soviet influence, seduced by promises of brotherhood and Polish solidarity, for all sorts of reasons--out of patriotism, despair, personal ambition, greed, and idealism.  Andrzejewski's remarkably well-drawn characters embrace or reject communism only in part because of their experiences in the war; a great strength of this novel is that it depicts the power of an individual's will even at the most "world historical" of moments.

Barracks at Gross-Rosen

At the beginning of Ashes and Diamonds, the war has just ended--or has it? One of Andrzejewski's narrative talents is the blurring of time.  The novel transpires over some undefined period of days or weeks, and the events of the war, once so visceral to its survivors, are now receding from the memories of some characters (by choice) and defining the actions of others, especially those who hope to create a communist nation--a brotherhood of equals--in Poland. In other words, history isn't experienced in the same way by every person, and this is not only true, but a brilliant novelistic observation that enriches and deepens Andrzejewski's great book.

The deftness with which Andrzejewski sketches his characters is remarkable.  During a briefing that will lead to the murder of a member of the Communist Party by a Polish nationalist, the Colonel, who has ordered the assassination, calms a young man's qualms by saying:

"We're living and fighting under very difficult and complex circumstances. But the war years, which were the testing years for everyone, have taught us that things have to be regarded in their elementary, basic set up. There's no time for subtle discrimination. If there had to be any discrimination, it must be simple and clear. Good is good, and evil evil. You agree?"

But of course nothing is ever so clear.  For the socialist Podgorski, the world isn't divided into Manichean absolutes but gray with ethical questions and humane concerns; for the ambitious Mayor Swiecki the tragedy of Poland has served only to feed his ego--a mediocre man in peacetime, Swiecki remakes himself into the perfect Party toady, a yes-man for the cynical and brutal.  For Kossecki, at one time a prisoner at Gross-Rosen, the aftermath of the war is fraught with fear and self-loathing for what he allowed himself to become in the camp.  Opportunists like Drewnowski and Pieniazek (yes the names will give you fits!) have no allegiance to party or nation, while others, like the richly- drawn Communist Szczuka, have complex feelings about the meaning of commitment in the face of Poland's apocalypse (six million Poles, including over 90% of Polish Jews, perished in the war, out of a pre-war population of 35 million). 

Among Andrzejewski's many narrative talents is the subtlety with which he moves his story forward.  Much of the action of the book takes place in the Monopole, the central hotel and restaurant in the town of Ostrowiec, an establishment previously owned, we are offhandedly informed, "by of the wealthiest men in Ostrowiec, [who] died with the rest of his family at Treblinka." Slomka, the new manager of the Hotel Monopole, has been the beneficiary of Nazi racial policies, but no further mention of this fact is made. In 1945 there is emerging a new order, a world that is a blank slate for the ambitions, idealism, and cruelty of every man and woman. When the new world (of communism or of Polish nationalism? That remains to be seen, at least in the novel) has been created, will it be "only ashes and confusion" or "a star-like diamond./The dawning of eternal victory?"  [from the epigram by Cyrpian Norwid].  We know the answer of course--Poland's story since the war has been far more a tale of ashes than of diamonds.  And Andrzejewski as well seems to have been fully aware of the historical situation of his country:

"The fact is I don't know what this new Poland is, just yet."
"How can I put it in a few words? It's difficult, that's probably the best way to describe the tangle of conflicts and contrasts which we're faced with at every step and which we certainly shan't resolve tomorrow or the day after. ...the war is over, but the fight here is only beginning." 

Ashes and Diamonds was the third film in Andrzej Wajda's great trilogy which included A Generation (1954) and the unforgettable Kanal (1956) [Ashes and Diamonds appeared in 1958].  I saw the entire trilogy over one long, rather depressing weekend while in college.  Andrzejewski wrote the screenplay for Ashes and Diamond; the films are available through Janus and provide an emotional immersion in both wartime and post-war Polish history.

Ashes and Diamonds, the novel, is brought to us by the wonderful folks at Northwestern University Press whose series of European Classics includes novels by Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Vladimir Voinovich, and the incomparable Heinrich Boll, who has written the introduction of Andrzejewski's novel.

George Ovitt (4/16/13)