Sunday, June 8, 2014

"History Has No Use for Witnesses"

"Communism ought to be saved from Communism. But people won't go without an idea, never. It would be easy to die if this were mankind's last great myth. To die, to commit the greatest crimes, so that people should never again believe in any sun. But it's no use. After a while some new madman will come along; he'll get hold of an icon and run through the city carrying it.....if I were born again, and if I wanted to take revenge on people, I'd create a new ideology for them. To lead crowds to the sunny days of the future--that's the biggest joke of all."

The Graveyard, by Marek Hlasko

He looks a little like James Dean, or maybe Kerouac--thick hair swept back, the scowl, cigarette (freshly lit for every photo) clenched between his teeth. Hlasko was  tough guy, a hard drinker, an "enemy of the people" and died at age 35, probably from a mix of booze and drugs. A worker rather than a full-time writer; certainly not an academic. Hlasko, born in Warsaw, worked in construction and transportation and had frequent run-ins with the communist authorities.  He began his publishing career writing for Trybuna Ludowa, then wrote stories that slowly found an audience, and, free at last of menial labor for the state, began to write the raw, deeply alienated novels that are the basis of his fame in Poland.  He had to leave Poland to live in the West--it was that or give up writing, and Hlasko lived to write. He settled in France, but also, at the invitation of Roman Polanski, briefly lived in Hollywood. There was much drinking, love affairs, suicide attempts--the usual afflatus of the alienated genius-author. Luckily, we have the books. 

The Graveyard is a darkly satirical dissection of the Communist Party's rule in Poland in the 1950's. Franciszek Kowalski, a former Polish communist partisan during the War, a (to all appearances) loyal apparatchik, goes out for a few vodkas with a former comrade. He has too many drinks, and on his way home has a run-in with the security forces, is detained, and through circumstances that neither he nor the reader entirely understand--for it is, after all, the sort of world where things simply happen--loses his membership in the communist party--which means he loses his job, his home, his family, and his identity. Of course, this sort of thing happens here as well, though not so melodramatically; nowadays you might simply wake up and someone has taken your identity--so it goes.  Oddly, Kowalski remains semi-loyal to the Party--he even expresses his pride in the turncoats (or loyalists) who denounced him.  The skeptical reader--how could such things have happened?--needs to recall that The Graveyard is set in he 50's: in the era of the Bomb, of NATO, of the Berlin Crisis, of the Suez Crisis, of the Truman Doctrine--in other words, during the decade of the hottest part of the Cold War. Kowalski, eager to be reinstated in the good graces of the Party, applies to his former partisan comrades for support in his appeal, only to find that the men who fought for a communist future against the atavistic Nazis now find themselves either alienated from their former ideals or working as hired thugs and spies in the service of the regime. Neither option satisfies Kowalski, who yearns for the intellectual and ideological certainty that his former standing in the Party provided. 

Reading this short novel reminds one of the great fictional expressions of disillusionment with the ideas of Marxist-Leninist thought: Darkness At Noon, 1984, The First Circle, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. The Graveyard is in some ways even more compelling than these other novels insofar as it begins with what is seen by the protagonist as his unfortunate, even tragic  alienation from the powerful ideal that had sustained him during the darkest days of the struggle against fascism. Koestler,
Orwell, and Solsjenitsyn, begin with an assumption of alienation from communism. Not Hlasko. The satire unleashed against the pro-Moscow regime in Warsaw by Hlasko is scathing, yet at the same time subtly explores the cost to an individual of losing his "true faith," even if it is a hideous one. One has the sense that what interests Hlasko, aside from settling scores with a regime that banished him, is exploring the apostate's disillusionment with a political system that had once literally saved his life. Kowalski believes in communism not for the sake of a job or for the convenience of an apartment, but because he believes, or  believed, in the brotherhood of man, in the future triumph of a just and humane communist revolution, in the goodness of his comrades and the correctness of their ideals. He had fought and nearly died for something he believed worth fighting and dying for.  To have that faith taken away by the ubiquitous security police and party hacks was, for Kowalski, and perhaps for Hlasko as well, unbearable. For, in the end, what is the alternative? Capitalism, with its own cruelties, or nihilism with its denial of all values? Kowalski wasn't cut out for cynicism, and Hlasko brilliantly sets out a cruel sets of options for his hero.  What is to be done? One might come to love Big Brother, but that's too simple a solution for Hlasko, who has imbued his beleaguered hero with a depth and complexity not often found in political novels.  

(Warsaw at the end of World War II)

The Graveyard is published by Melville House.  The novel was translated from the Polish by Norbert Guterman.

George Ovitt (6/8/2014) 


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