Category: European literature

Svetlana Alexievich: Anthropology of Homo Sovieticus through compassionate eyes

Svetlana Alexievich: Anthropology of Homo Sovieticus through compassionate eyes

“No one had taught us how to be free. We had only ever been taught how to die for freedom.”

Svetlana Aleksievich, Secondhand Time: An Oral History of the Fall of the Soviet Union

Belarusian author, journalist, oral historian, and now also a political dissident Svetlana Alexievich, to use that chilling Stalinist phrase about writers, is a certified “engineer of human souls” and has a Nobel prize to prove it. Four decades ago she acquired a tape recorder (500 rubles, an astronomic number for your run-of-the-mill 100 rubles desk job salary) and set out to catalogue a multitude of voices, old and young, surging in a cacophonic symphony of victimhood and heroism from every far and near corner of the Land of the Soviets. Six books were born out of this labour, each one a raw manifesto of truth, suturing a particular apocalyptic wound (Second World War, Afghanistan War, and Chernobyl, among them).

This is not the kind of literary product one can savour with a glass of flinty Chablis, half-listening to the analog grit of some fresh lo-fi chillop. This is work both for the intellectual and the emotional aspects of readership, often punctured by tears, but always ending in a classic cleaning catharsis. I am fortunate to be able to read Alexievich in the original Russian, but even the English translations retain the thunderbolt strength of her laconicism. Truly, if the story (in this case, hundreds of stories) is enthralling, it requires no embellishment (sorry, Tolkien). Today, as the pandemic world convulses in the corrosive slops of populism, and in Alexievich’s native Belarus the emboldened dictator releases smug videos of himself with an automated gun (and his own underage son grotesquely clad in a spetznaz uniform), I revisit her Secondhand Time in search of answers, clues, and prophesies. What is the essence of a Soviet (and post-Soviet) person? What knowledge (if any) has been retained after decades with so much happening within them and yet with so little to show? What hope is there for hundreds of millions of identities stumbling, half-conscious, from ideology into ideology?

Alexievich the chronicler, Alexievich the therapist, Alexievich the compassionate anthropologist… It is precisely this nurse-like compassion that makes Secondhand Time such a precious jewel among numerous other attempts to understand the “Soviet mystique.” Solzhenitsyn did this in Gulag Archipelago and in pretty much everything else he’s said or written, and also Aleksandr Zinovyev did this with his sarcastic buzzword Homo Sovieticus. This archetypal “Soviet man” is, in the words of Leszek Kolakowski, an “ideological schizophrenic, honest liar, a person always ready for constant and voluntary mental self-mutilations.” Bingo. That’s exactly it. Alexievich treads the very same conceptual path that Zinovyev and Solzhenitsyn stepped on before her, capturing the essence of homo sovieticuses from Belarus to Kazakhstan. What is this essence? Emanating from a breadth of ethnically and religiously diverse voices, the Homo Sovieticus is a brittle jelly held together by one thing and one thing only – a terrifying ability to consciously gobble up lies and to rationalize brain-frying contradictions. Homo Sovieticus reconciles the irreconcilable within the humble square footage of his grey matter. Homo Sovieticus is at once pitiable, admirable, loathsome, pathetic, heroic, insightful, ignorant, passionate, and inert. Homo Sovieticus, coming out of Alexievich’s pages, can start a sentence opening up about his parents being butchered by the Soviet regime, and finish off with emotional nostalgia over the golden years of Soviet bounty and the vitriolic indictment of democracy. There is no logic, no cause-and-effect relationship. There is only Stockholm syndrome and a severe, pan-national, untreated PTSD.

Many Westerners and ex-Soviets (the ones younger or simply fortunate to be better oriented in matters of history and truth) scoff at the Homo Sovieticus for possessing the naivete of a blind kitten. Not Alexievich. There isn’t an ounce of ridicule in her approach. Instead, there is a profoundly humanist understanding of immeasurable loss and confusion, of deracinated personhood, and of a perpetually shifting system of ideological coordinates that only amplifies this disorientation. At work you say one thing, at home another, you pretend to do your job, your employer pretends to pay you, in public you pretend to be atheist while at home you teach your kids to say the namaz, and on and on it goes, this neverending umbilical cord of duplicity, chaining a person to the regime of lies.

Why is this Homo Sovieticus anthropology important today? Well, for one it helps explain Transdnistria, Abkhasia, Crimea, Donbas, and other scenarios as something more than just bona fide putinist imperialism. This is a war for the last remaining grey matter square footage of the last remaining Homo Sovieticus generation.  More globally, Alexievich’s catalogue of Soviet souls, read against the backdrop of today’s fake news pandemic, clearly demonstrates just what kind of dire consequences befall the people who are brainwashed into kissing the cold portraits of their family’s murderers. Every and all evil can be excused if we cannot even agree whether the sky is blue…

Image: Vasily Kolotevy, Queue.

Simon Winder’s Germania: a scrumptious read for the Wanderlust-afflicted

Simon Winder’s Germania: a scrumptious read for the Wanderlust-afflicted

Sometime between traipsing along the Harz Mountains’ Grimm-like forest trails and tucking into a frothy beer at yet another charmingly nondescript rathskeller, Simon Winder casually mentions to his undoubtedly nerdy reader: “There could be an argument that this entire book should be understood to be in brackets.” Indeed, it takes a special sort of enthusiasm (for such a complicated country as Germany, no less!) and a special skill-set of hunting for precious trivia of insight in the crevasses of pompous historical brass to produce such a bursting beehive of architecture, history, folklore, Prussian militarism, Viennese nostalgia, cuisine, music, cabinets of curiosity, chocolate with ostriches, turrets, suspenders, and oompah.

Winder takes us across Germany, from the Roman times and until the morbid 1933 (although I do wish he’d continue until Goodbye Lenin! era or, if he’s feeling particularly ambitious, all the way to the Age of Merkel, arguably the other great leading female German since little Sophie Zerbst aka Catherine the Great). Much like his other fantastic book Danubia, Germania is a historical narrative knitted out of love and compassion, with generous attention paid to stuff from the arcane margins, from weirdo backwaters, from the cornucopia of Germany’s “doll’s handkerchief states,” ancient homes of Wagnerian heroes in bearskin, now reduced to comfy second-rate magnets for the middle-aged tourist whose poorly disguised modus operandi involves “sitting in groups around tables, eating astonishing amounts of sausage and cake, drinking massive glasses of lager and smoking furiously.” Stumbling in this gluttonous stupor one will inevitably walk into yet another painfully picturesque Schloss, at which point Winder will lovingly guide his reader up the winding staircase and into:

“… an attic room filled with wigs, pictures of basilisks, a giant model of the solar system, pickled geckoes, a little dog made out of seashells, wax heads, a dried cow-fish, a speculative engraving of the Ark of the Covenant, an opium pipe, shoes from around the world and, hanging from the rafters, the best and biggest stuffed crocodile ever, an ancient, gnarled Behemoth which, if it fell to the ground, would detonate in a great cloud of evil-smelling dust.”

From his ridiculously adorable glee over a nautilus-shaped drinking cup, to vivacious awe at the sight of a four hundred year old King of Sweden’s horse in an Ingolstadt museum, to a poetic moment on a Freising trek to the oldest brewery in the world where Winder feels like he’s walking through Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow, one can only feel pure envy at his unbridled passion. May we all feel as strongly about our hobbies, interests, and fancies, for it would truly be the most delicious sort of life to live – a joyous wanderer with a massive heart, a contemplative mind, and a stomach tough enough for this:

“I once went with some friends to a traditional Frankfurt restaurant which turned out to be a sort of a temple to German hard-core, with undrinkable apple-wine and guests greedily tucking into blocks of lard on black bread. On the disturbingly narrow menu, the only choices seemed to be between cuts of hot fatty  ham served with the notorious Frankfurt ‘green sauce’ (an old enemy – vinegared chopped herbs), yet another bratwurst of a kind that even I was getting bored with, or something described as a ‘slaughterhouse platter.’ In a spirit of fatalism I went for the platter. This turned out to be a central ridge of sauerkraut flanked by two skin canisters, sealed with metal surgical clips – the one filled with blendered liver, fat, and water, the other with blood and a kind of mealy material. Sticking a fork in one cause the canister to detumesce, jetting its content over the sauerkraut.” 

The man should do restaurant reviews.

Image: Nose Dance, by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550).

Czeslaw Milosz’ Proud to be a Mammal – finding grace in the belly of a beast

Czeslaw Milosz’ Proud to be a Mammal – finding grace in the belly of a beast

Emmanuel Levinas said “God left in 1941.” Theodor Adorno said “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Czeslaw Milosz, writing from Warsaw, Nazi terror’s ground zero, said this:

“The poetry I wrote before the war and later in Nazi-occupied Poland would have been utterly without hope if not for my awareness of the beauty of the things of this earth, and that beauty was incomprehensible, as it coexisted with horror.”

Czeslaw Milosz, Happiness 

Milosz lived and wrote through twentieth century’s darkest hours, in Warsaw disemboweled by war, its citizenry fighting like lions for the very soul of Europe, that fatigued continent. He sold contraband sausage, cigarettes, whiskey, and undies. He traded passports and crossed illicit borders. He saved Jews and was imprisoned in a transit camp. He translated and published little clandestine volumes of poetry on a Ditto machine. He survived. Today we read him as we read Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, and Gunther Grass, all these austere witnesses of horrors doing a post mortem of humanity to decipher what the hell happened, why, and how it may happen again.

For his part, Milosz searches for answers in Dante, circles of hell, Faust, and European fatalism at a time when, as he says, history started rapidly accelerating:

“In Europe, this ‘acceleration of history’ demonstrated its force in the span of one generation: the First World War broke out; seemingly indestructible powers – the Russian Czarist Empire and the Hapsburg monarchy – fell; the Revolution of 1917 flared up; Nazism and Fascism culminated in the Second World War and Russia marched far beyond its 1914 borders, taking into its orbit little countries which had previously separated themselves from it, as well as nearly all the former Hapsburg domain. To one witnessing these events, the rise and decline of State organisms, the appearance and disappearance of chiefs, the millions of graves and the ashes of other millions scattered over the fields, all combined to make up a film running at a crazy tempo. Human affairs exploded like the mushroom of the atomic blast.” 

Czeslaw Milosz, Speaking of a Mammal

A whole lot of stuff goes on during a world war but, in moments when the centre doesn’t hold, some things are surprisingly durable: a stone and two blades of grass, or a roof of a hut, or a plough. While governments fall, the land is “singularly naked.” There are moments of felicity to be found even as the world goes ablaze:

“One should not imagine that those who have been swallowed by a dragon won’t experience moments of perfect contentment.” 

Czeslaw Milosz, Saligia

Milosz is deeply humanist, as are most of these wartime writers, paternalistically reconciling our capacity to do evil with our capacity to be good. Milosz, probably owing to his deep Catholicism (or to what some critics called a “beautiful naivete”), goes further than his cohort in his enduring optimism in humanity – pain is transitory and harmony is eternal. Writing idyllic verses in the land he claims was called anus mundi, the cloaca of the world, he says:

“Horror is the law of the world of living creatures, and civilization is concerned with masking that truth. Literature and art refine and beautify, and if they were to depict reality naked, just as everyone suspects it is, no one would be able to stand it.” 

Czeslaw Milosz, Anus Mundi

It’s an eerie feeling today, strolling across Warsaw’s old town, looking all those fairytale-pretty houses, bustling cafes, watching tourists take selfies by the Mermaid of Warsaw monument, and knowing it was all rebuilt from scratch, brick by brick, a city drawing its new blood from an underground cavern of old blood, burnt blood, shed for the country, its people, and its freedom. Czeslaw Milosz, much like the heroic fighters of the Warsaw Uprising, knew that his (and their) chances of surviving and seeing “what came out of this cauldron” were slim to none. Nevertheless, the old humanist went with Martin Luther’s advice: “when asked what he would do if he knew tomorrow was going to be the end of the world, he said, ‘I would plant apple trees.” 

Image: The monument to Warsaw Uprising, shot by me this summer.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn: turning the everyday into metaphysical exercise

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn: turning the everyday into metaphysical exercise

Experiencing Autumn is a bit like newbie meditation. Wholesome intentions at the start, then excruciating boredom, and just then, when you, high-strung and anxious in all of your hyper-jacked always-on digital modernity, are ready to capitulate, just then you are (maybe) rewarded with It. That high-density particle of insight you’ve been sweating your saggy bits for. Momentarily relieved and perhaps even elated, you drag yourself back into supplication, back into that downward dog, back into the unassuming text whose cavalcades of wee chapters put you to difficult work again. That, or you call it drivel, and throw it behind the couch, a lifelong sentence of collecting cobwebs and lost buttons.

Only a well-established author of comfortably broad renown (and Knausgaard, that Scandinavian Proust, has earned his accolades through the widely popular My Struggle) can get away with a book as richly self-indulgent as this. Through the measured andante of the narrator, a salt-and-pepper-haired paterfamilias, we are invited to examine the intense materiality of this world. Apples. Badgers. Chimneys. Mouth. Churches. Piss. Forgiveness. Thermos. Vomit. Beds. Loneliness. Infants. Labia. Flaubert.

This is reality without makeup, as it appears in autumn within the bowels of a palpably hygge home to a “white middle-aged man with a frozen inner self, who walks stiffly and slightly stooped, and who never plays, never dances, never ventures into the wild, uninhibited darkness.” He makes coffee, writes, cooks breakfast, cleans, puts children to bed, and catalogs it all into his cabinet of banalities for the make benefit of his unborn daughter.  Perhaps one day, when she reaches the age at which adult children suddenly start enjoying spending time with their parents, she will thank him for these metaphysical lab notes, like the one about how pleasant it is to have a fever. Or how oddly satisfying it is to eat the entire apple, seeds and all. Or how war unleashes rational forces latent in humans. Or how sewing on buttons connects you with the spirit of your Norwegian grandmother. Or how  a thermos is “a kind of a family totem [that] discreetly embodies all that bound us together back then and which has now been broken.” 

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Autumn is its perfect stillness. There is no ebbing conflict to resolve in glorious crescendo. Instead, there is a near-perpetual but ever so irritating tension, like electricity static. An existential cul de sac. There is no untying this knot, there is no solving this mathematical equation, because it is life itself. It cannot be squared. It cannot be compartmentalized. It can only be endured or, better yet, accepted. A kind of Scandinavian stoicism, standing strong like a solitary autumnal leaf, grasping on while all his brothers have long tumbled into that early November frost.