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A polyphonic classic

solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, the totalitarian state that imprisoned him, exiled him and turned him into one of its fiercest critics was already twenty years gone. The Soviet Union—in particular, the despotic regime of Joseph Stalin with its sham trials and violent purges, its forced collectivizations and frozen gulags—was a thing of the past, a dark spot from another century. As I began Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle recently, I wondered if the novel would prove to be a historical relic or, worse, a dated polemic masquerading as art.

I needn’t have worried. In the First Circle is a Great Russian novel in the realist tradition of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Epic in scope and genesis, and based on personal experience, it is polemical only in the way War and Peace is: it asserts the dignity of the individual in the face of a nation’s collective crisis. In the First Circle condemns the corrupted political system left in the wake of a failed revolution while it depicts a society terrorized by a secret police that operate through intimidation and cruelty.

Solzhenitsyn wrote the first draft of In the First Circle in the late 1950s. After winning worldwide acclaim for his 1962 novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he hoped to see this large novel published, too; he even excised some of its more critical sections and softened the plot to make it more palatable to the authorities. Still, the censors rejected it. But the expurgated version did see publication overseas, in English as The First Circle (1968). Later, dissatisfied with the “distorted” version as it had appeared, Solzhenitsyn restored the text to his original intent. This definitive version only appeared in English in 2009.

2080190Differences in the two versions begin with the title, which is a reference to Dante’s Inferno. A novel that takes place in the first circle of hell is different than one about it; the former emphasizes the people there over the place itself. The plot changed as well. In the restored version, the story hinges on the treasonous act of a disenchanted Soviet diplomat who on Christmas Eve, 1949, telephones the American embassy to inform them that Soviet spies are about to steal secrets about the atomic bomb. The secret police intercept the anonymous phone call, triggering a hunt for the traitor.

aleksandr-solzhenitsyn_4-t

Solzhenitsyn as a political prisoner. Image: scienceblogs.com

After what seems like a fine opening to a thriller, Solzhenitsyn shifts gears. The detective story is only a thread to loosely hold together the fabric of a much larger story. In order to determine the traitor from the recorded voice, the secret police turn to their experts: the zeks, or political prisoners, held in a sharashka, a prison research institute on the outskirts of Moscow (modeled on the prison where Solzhenitsyn spent three years). There, a select group of scientists held without trial for undefined crimes against the state are ordered to identify the traitor. If they fail, they will be sent from the comparatively comfortable existence “in the first circle” of the sharashka to one of the harsher physical-labor camps in Siberia.

When Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, the Soviet authorities refused to let him travel to Sweden. Karl Ragnar Gierow, who accepted the prize on his behalf, described Solzhenitsyn as the creator of the “polyphone” or “horizontal novel,” where “each person becomes the chief character whenever the action concerns him.” In the First Circle is perhaps the finest example of this technique. Each of the 96 chapters is told from a limited third-person point of view in which we think and feel with the character, and in this novel there are some thirty different points of view.

The result is a bottom-to-top depiction of Soviet society, of the prisoners, their wives and children, the guards and police, and the privileged apparatchiks who made the system work. Some of the stories are full of ironic undertones, even gallows humor; some epitomize the turbulent upheavals that so many Russians faced, first in civil war then in world war, and several chapters of the restored version even attempt to penetrate the midnight musings of a paranoid Joseph Stalin. Hell, it appears, is not reserved for the prisoners alone. Everyone in this novel lives in one circle of hell or another, except perhaps the prisoners being sent to the gulags. Having had everything taken from them, they have nothing left to fear.

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Life under the regime

Maybe it’s from growing up during the Cold War, but I always imagined life in an authoritarian state to be like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, laying bricks in the Siberian cold, your stomach empty, your fingertips frozen. Or perhaps like Nineteen Eighty-Four, with Big Brother’s thought police around every corner and rats thrust in your face. Or the solitary confinement of Darkness at Noon, facing daily interrogations until you finally confess, only to be marched out into the prison yard and shot.

Those are indeed possibilities, especially for dissidents. But what is life like for the multitude of ordinary citizens who must adapt to a system where the paternalistic authority of the state determines the most intimate decisions? How do individuals respond? How do they survive?

Two novels written close together in time but about two very different regimes and cultures give some insight into these questions.

In Ha Jin’s Waiting, a novel about life in China from the 1960s to the 1980s, we have one answer. Ha Jin came to the U.S. in 1985 to study English literature at Brandeis University. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, he decided to stay here. Like those extraordinary exiles before him, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, Jin chose to write in English. Waiting, his second novel, won the National Book Award in 1999.

WaitingWaiting is a quiet tale that slyly criticizes China’s post-revolutionary society. It’s the story of a repressed love affair between an army doctor and a nurse in a provincial hospital. The doctor, Lin Kong, is a conscientious, ambitious and educated man who loves books, even prohibited ones from Russia and America. He is also married, an arranged marriage made at his parents’ request, to an uneducated peasant woman. His wife still lives in his native village, tending their small farm and raising their daughter. But when the doctor meets Manna Wu, a single nurse who borrows a book and responds in kind to his polite, never forward, always self-conscious friendship, a flame is kindled.

At the time their relationship begins, in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, an affair would be considered illegal as well as immoral, a non-conforming action that risked punishment, possibly transfer to a harsher assignment and certainly career suicide. Yet, per the hospital commissar’s arbitrary rules, divorce is only permissible after eighteen years of separation. Simply walking outside the hospital grounds with a fellow worker of the opposite sex is not allowed. Discreetly, the couple take this risk to nurture, through several cycles of intensity and misunderstanding, what becomes an eighteen-year platonic relationship.

Even then, their wait isn’t over. Each year the doctor goes home to ask his wife for a divorce. Each time she agrees, but then at court she balks, stumbling under the provincial magistrate’s interrogation and her own mixed emotions or bending to the social pressure exerted by her brother who seeks monetary damages from the doctor.

Waiting is based on a true story Jin heard while serving in the army. He writes in a plain style that owes much to Hemingway, but the story is pure Turgenev or Chekhov. Jin subtly evokes the stranglehold of a political system that values social strictures and the dictates of revolutionary idealism over individual freedom and happiness.

At times you want to shake the characters for not taking action, for not asserting themselves, for living so long with their repressed feelings, for wasting years and years of potential happiness. And then you realize, yes, this is what it must be like to live in a society that does not see beyond the collective. The ending of Waiting is as ambivalent and as frustrating as you might expect.

Dirty Havana TrilogyDirty Havana Trilogy (1998) by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez voices a different kind of frustration. Gutiérrez still lives in Cuba and writes in Spanish, although censorship prevents his books from being published there. (This novel is beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer into a slangy English that is pitch perfect.) Gutiérrez depicts life in Cuba during the “crisis” of the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union has collapsed, ending its subsidies to the Castro regime, and the Cuban economy is in utter shambles.

The trilogy is really a three-part collection of short stories told from the largely autobiographical point of view of one Pedro Juan, a radio journalist who quit his job because he was not allowed to report the truth. Pedro Juan lives in a shack on the rooftop of a crumbling apartment building amid the decay, corruption and filth of Havana. With bawdy defiance, he chronicles his efforts to survive, whether that’s working as a garbage man or a janitor, stealing lobsters at night from state-owned traps, or serving as a pimp, a gigolo, a reseller of junk, or a dope peddler.

No matter what job he cobbles together, the overarching focus of his life is sexual gratification, and because of that Gutiérrez has been compared to Henry Miller. But in Gutiérrez’s case, the profligate sex is clearly a metaphor for life under the regime: if you aren’t screwing someone, you’re getting screwed.

With Gutiérrez the political criticism is always near the surface. The city he paints, the lives he describes, are transformed by his defiant sarcasm, visceral earthiness and sexual bravado, but what he reveals is devastating: the willingness of desperate people to prostitute themselves in every way imaginable in order to survive as the state fails to provide for even the most basic needs. This portrait—not the tourist photos of vintage cars and quaint art-deco mansions along the Malecón—is the disastrous endgame of the revolution. A world where the only escapes from poverty, starvation, violence and death are sex, superstition, rum and the carnal rhythms of salsa.

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Tlatelolco and Bolaño’s debt to Poniatowska

On October 2, 1968, just ten days before the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, soldiers opened fire on a demonstration of some 10,000 students at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlatelolco, in the heart of the city. At least forty-four people were killed (the actual number has never been determined) and hundreds wounded. Thousands were detained and over 1,200 arrested, some to be imprisoned for days and months without trial.

Plaza de las Tres Culturas

Then as now, the Plaza de las Tres Culturas contained a 16th Century church and pre-Conquest ruins, surrounded by urban housing projects and government ministries. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The massacre exposed the enormous rift between the government, ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for forty years, and Mexico’s youth. The government, which was so anxious to portray Mexico under its leadership as an emerging industrial democracy, instead revealed to the world its own dark, corrupted soul.

La escritora Elena Poniatowska

Elena Poniatowska (Photo credit: Casa de América)

Journalist Elena Poniatowska understood the significance of the tragedy and quickly went to work collecting the testimony of people who were there. In her 1971 book, La Noche de Tlatelolco (in English retitled Massacre in Mexico), she weaves together hundreds of eye-witness accounts to create a tapestry of horror. (Government documents released in 2001 would corroborate much of what Poniatowska described: that army snipers on rooftops began shooting into the crowd on a pre-arranged signal. Worse, they showed complicity for the order to fire at the highest echelons of the government.)

The accounts of the massacre occupy the second part of her incredible book. The longer first section uses the same narrative technique to explore the origins of the student movement. Like a documentary filmmaker, Poniatowska interweaves individual narratives to create a larger, more complex and heart-rending collage. She records the distinctive voices and their amazing stories without editorializing. By letting the voices speak for themselves, she captures the movement’s optimism, idealism and naiveté, as well as the manipulations of some of its leaders and the consternation it created among the older generation.

This is oral history at its finest and most powerful, and I believe it had a direct influence on an aspiring young writer who would emerge as one of Latin America’s great modern novelists: Roberto Bolaño.

the-savage-detectives-roberto-bolanoIn The Savage Detectives, Bolaño uses the same techniques to produce a similar documentary effect. His young Mexican narrator of the novel’s first section, Juan García Madero, possesses all of the idealism and naiveté, even the postured ennui, of those young people from the 1968 student movement.

In the second section of the novel, like Poniatowska Bolaño creates a collage of interwoven narratives to tell the larger, sadder story of the dissolution of the “infra-realist” poetry movement and the disillusionment of its two leaders, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. There is even a narrator in this section based on a legendary woman mentioned by Poniatowska who, during the student protests of ’68, remained on the university campus by hiding in a bathroom for weeks after the army evicted the students and shut it down. Bolaño takes that story and riffs on it in his own inimitable way, turning the woman into a poet whose voice adds more cumulative details about the demise of Lima and Belano.

The narrative arc of Poniatowska’s non-fiction and Bolaño’s fiction is the same. From ebullient, youthful optimism the reader travels across the emotional spectrum, while a compelling gravity draws each story to its inevitable outcome, culminating in violence, disbelief and dismay. Both books, one through meticulous reportage and the other through febrile imagination, brilliantly capture the history of a generation.

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To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild

There is little new to tell about World War One. John Keegan, Hew Strachan and others have written comprehensive, well-researched histories of the conflict that resulted in 20 million casualties and set in motion the turbulent waves of nationalism that dominated the 20th Century. Barbara Tuchman wrote vividly about the diplomatic failures that resulted in the headlong rush to war. For firsthand accounts of the trenches, nothing compares to the memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden.

But in this finely written account Adam Hochschild achieves something new by contrasting key proponents of the British war machine with the pacifists who attempted to stop it. From the suffragette and worker movements came a few brave souls opposed to the purblind patriotism that swept the nation and encouraged millions of young men to march to their deaths. The object lesson of Keir Hardie, Bertrand Russell, the Pankhursts, and the 6000 conscientious objectors who refused to fight might be: individuals must stand firm in their convictions to change the world. But the parallel truth is more frightening: when a nation confronts a perceived threat to its existence, voices opposing it are muffled, propaganda overwhelms truth, and civil liberties go by the board–even in great democracies.

We like to think we would have confronted the politicians and generals whose arguments for persevering in a senseless war grew weaker and weaker with each disastrous campaign, but the more likely truth is that we too would have condemned the opponents as treasonous cowards and marched with the rest toward the great debacle.

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