Monday, 23 May 2016

Book of the Month: The Graveyard (Marek Hlasko)

Franciszek Kowalski, the protagonist of The Graveyard, the 1957 novel Polish author Marek Hlasko (who, apparently, was described as the James Dean of Poland, because of the striking facial resemblance between the two), is an obedient member of the Polish communist party. A life-long communist, Kowalski has fought in the resistance for the underground during the German occupation of during the Second World War. After the end of the war Kowalski, a Communist party member, has obediently swallowed all the received wisdom: the evils of Capitalism; the ideological superiority of Communism over Capitalism, especially as espoused by Lenin and Stalin to which unwavering loyalty was expected from all the Eastern Bloc countries. Then one night, it all unravels spectacularly for Kowalski. Having met an old friend, a partisan fighter like Kowalski against the Germans, Kowalski drinks more vodka than is advisable and becomes merry. As he is walking down the street of Warsaw, singing loudly and, occasionally, shouting at passers-by, Kowalski is accosted by policemen. Kowalski, his judgment no doubt impaired by alcoholic beverage, makes a further error: he answers back to the policemen, and makes clear by his belligerent and insolent tone and manner that he does not much care for what the policemen have to say, based on the dubious reasoning that he has done nothing wrong. High level of inebriation gives Kowalski ideas beyond his station. He believes that as an individual he has the right to have a view, even if that view is to want to have the right to sing a song when he wishes. Kowalski is arrested and spends the night in the police cells in the company of individuals, who, it would appear, were labouring under the notion that in Communist Poland they had the right to not only hold opinions but express them publically. Kowalski is further aggravated in the cell by speculations of the other inmates that the real reason Kowalski was in the cell was that someone close to him must have informed on him. Kowalski takes offence at these conjectures, and unwisely gets into arguments with the speculator. He would pay dearly for this, too. The next morning Kowalski is summoned by the lieutenant in charge of the police station to the corporal’s office. There, Kowalski is informed by the police what he said the previous night in the cell, in front of witnesses. Kowalski, sober by now, can’t remember, try as he might, saying anything the police claim he said. What has Kowalski said? Kowalski, the police inform him, expressed doubt. Kowalski insulted the People’s Poland by expressing a wish to make a dash to the West. The language used by Kowalski was so vile the lieutenant was even ashamed to repeat it. The police have unmasked an enemy of the people: “what a sober man thinks in his heart a drunk says with his tongue.” Kowalski, nevertheless, is allowed to leave after he has signed the papers, knowing that he, from now on, is a marked man; the police have his number. Shaken, Kowalski, who still can’t believe that he actually said the things he was supposed to have said, decides that the only way to redeem himself is to put his case in front of the party members, about what happened the previous night, and seek their vote of confidence in him. Notwithstanding what the police claim Kowalski said when he was drunk, he wants an endorsement from the party members that his fealty towards the Communist principles is unfaltering (which just goes to show that Kowalski’s judgment is as suspect when sober as it is when he is drunk). At the end of the meeting Kowalski’s life and everything he has held dear lie in tatters. He is expelled from the party for his transgression against the party. When he informs what has happened to his son, Mikolaj, Mikolaj—a fervent believer in the party—informs Kowalsi, not without sadness, that Mikolaj going to have no truck with him. His daughter, Elzbieta, finds herself spurned by her fiancé, who wants nothing to do with the daughter of a traitor, even though she is expecting his child. It does not end, here, Elzbieta is chucked out of university, and decides, having considered her situation, that the best thing in the circumstances is to kill herself. Am I forgetting anything? Oh yes! Kowalski loses his job. As the novel ends we find Kowalski rip-roaringly drunk again, and meeting the same policeman who arrested him on the fateful night.
The Graveyard is a novel that is remarkable for a number of reasons. First published in 1958 (outside of Poland, in France, it goes without saying), it is a powerful portrait of the Stalinist dictatorship in the Communist countries, with the pervasive presence of police and thought control—an inevitable consequence of paranoia common to all dictatorships. “Do you like it, here, or don’t you,” is the question the police constantly throw at Kowalski and scores of innocent people like him who are arrested for the flimsiest of reasons. Hlasko presents a personal portrait of Kowalski’s journey—along which he meets his former comrades from the occupation era living life in fear or else disillusionment—with its inevitable destination: shattering of a man’s faith in the principles and ideology he has held dear. The story is very cleverly structured, with a cruel twist at the end, which, we now know, is the axiomatic truth at the rotten heart of Communist dictatorships: the regimes became so paranoid that they turned on themselves in the end.

The Graveyard (excellently translated from Polish Norbert Guterman) is a powerful depiction of a society where freedom of expression is suppressed and individuality is treated as poison. Hlasko went into exile before he was twenty-five, after The Graveyard and another novel were rejected by the Communist run Polish press. He died ten years later, before his thirty-fifth birthday, of an overdose—either deliberate or inadvertent—having spent the previous half-a-dozen years in the psychiatric hospitals or prisons of various countries. In his short life Hlasko published ten novels and a memoir. The Graveyard, long since out of print, was reissued in 2013, and is an essential reading, like the novels of Koestler and Orwell.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Dinner Party

I once read somewhere about the rule of 9 of American journalist Joe Alsop, famous for his influential dinner parties. According to Alsop when you are hosting a dinner party you can cope with one bore. And if you invite 9 people for a dinner party there is bound to be a bore amongst them. Invite more than nine people and you run the risk of being with more than one bore that could ruin the evening.

I thought of this rule recently when I was subjected to a vicious assault by bores in a dinner party; and there were only six of us including me (and I am not a bore): the couple hosting the dinner, a retired couple, and a common friend.

The retired couple: The husband, I was informed, used to work as a manager of a flour-mill while his wife was a telephonist. The husband was a bald, portly man with a weak chin with a dirty spot on it, which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a beard. He had gone bald, I noticed, in a weird manner. There was the usual half-moon of the hedge of hair. Then there was a tuft at the apex which for some reason he had let grown long. The tuft came all the way down to the back of his neck. I figured he was a t**t by the excfement-brown jacket and a bow-tie (same colour) he was wearing. (Over the years I have come to hold the default position that men who wear bow-ties are, unless proven otherwise, t**ts.) He had an enormous belly and hollow ass—not a pretty sight. In the Neolithic era he might have been considered a catch; but at some point of time in the human history the parameters of beauty obviously changed and being defined entirely by roundedness had ceased to be considered as the finest specimen of manhood. The wife was, to borrow a phrase from a Tom Wolfe novel, Dorian-Greying: not allowing signs of aging to show, with anything approaching grace. She was very excited, she said, about her twin grandsons and, labouring under the notion that we shared her excitement, treated us through the first part of the meal to various physiological milestones achieved by the infants as well as their activities which she thought were hilarious (and therefore newsworthy) but struck me as banal, until her husband, the flour-mill manager, said, ‘I think people have heard enough of their [the twins’] bowel movements.’ This achieved the desired effect of shutting her up (especially when none of the others present disagreed with the husband and conveyed by the body language that they were not really interested in hearing more stories of regurgitated food). The husband then proceeded to give us his expert views on (a) Barak Obama (a disappointment; he was surprised Obama was elected in the first place; he, Obama, was all talk and no action; he had no solutions to the economic problems; he was ruining the health system; he, the flour-mill manager, would be shocked if he, Obama, left behind a lasting legacy); (b) ‘Brexit’ and whether we should be in or out (Out, of course; he, the flour-mill manager, was incensed that Gordon Brown had now entered the fray and come out in support of Britain staying in the EU, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, rich, seeing as it was all fault of Gordon Brown in the first place—Brown had wrecked the country’s economy; in a different (and no doubt more just) world the man would be facing a firing squad, and, while he, the flour-mill manager, was, all things considered, against that sort of punishment, he wondered at times whether that would not have been just punishment for the one-eyed Scot who, he, the flour-mill manager, was convinced was a crypto-Communist); and (c) their recent trip to Majorca, which they enjoyed so much—you can chill out in English style pubs run by expatriates and can even get Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, albeit a day later—that they were thinking of going there again, the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. The man pre-fixed his opinions with the caveat that he was not a well-educated man, as if the point was not already impressed.  

There is a certain type of Englishman that I call the braying type. He (it is usually a ‘he’, I am afraid) is usually deeply unattractive (ugly yellow teeth and body odour). He has an opinion on everything, which he insists on airing at a volume that would send the fans of heavy metal rummaging for ear-muffs. He is impatient; he interrupts others; and he is generally intolerant of views that are different from his. He is pig-ignorant and very proud to be English (the two are usually linked), and thinks that the best way to show his love for his country is to make offensive comments about other cultures and countries and rationalise them by crap like truth must be told. He is impervious to logic and abstraction; subtlety is wasted on him—indeed any form of communication other than a jab in the ribs is a challenge to him. The flour-mill manager was one these men; you take one look at them and you understand why half the world hates the English.

The common friend (although she is more of an acquaintance): She is a woman in her mid-forties and has been single for as long as I have known her. She was going through a divorce when I first came to know her. She divorced her husband a few years ago because he was apparently so boring he was sucking the life-juice out of her. After the divorce came through she went through the predictable phase of obsessional calorie counting, wasting money she couldn’t afford to waste on a gym, changing hair-style and hair-colour—all purported to propel her towards a new start, she announced. I felt, when she told me about this, that what she was really after was finding a new partner. It did not work out, of course it didn’t. Which, from what I know of the woman, did not surprise me: the woman might be mistaken at first, if you are not attentive, to be animated, witty (if somewhat loquacious) and well informed about what is going on in the world; but, upon further acquaintance, is revealed to be a bitter, vitriolic, and opinionated woman who is half-way down the mine-shaft of alcoholism. When this phase did not lead to the desired outcome she (predictably) dived into depression while her ex-husband dived into a busty work-colleague and moved to another city. In the last year or so she seems to have given up on meeting anyone who would be able to put up with her, and has resigned herself to a lonely, alcohol-sozzled middle age.  Alcohol abuse has had the expected effect—jowly cheeks, pouches below eyes, pillowy bosom, ass that would cover Iceland, and temperament which has become more obnoxious. The woman is part owner—along with a man who is always to be seen wearing t-shirts (that might have once been white) with slogans like ‘Save the Syrian refugees NOW’ or ‘Climate Change—Talk About It’—of a vegetarian restaurant. I have eaten a few times in her restaurant. The food is totally unappetizing and over-priced. I am not a voracious meat-eater (the sight of people chomping on practically raw beef oozing blood puts me off food). That however does not mean that I am prepared to part with eight quid for ‘braised white beans with zucchinis’ or ‘raw tofu marinated in sesame oil and ginger’. Both the owners wear smug expressions (that make you want to slap them) suggesting that by serving tasteless goo (that would be spat out by the starving tribals in South Sudan) at exorbitant prices they are somehow serving humanity.

The hosts: The husband is in his fifties; the wife 8-10 years younger than him. The husband is not very tall and is very gaunt. He has a stare that never fails to unnerve me. An ex-girlfriend of mine, after an evening dinner with them complained that she felt as if he was undressing her with his eyes. When I asked her what it was he did that made her think that she said that he was staring at her tits the whole time. I pointed out to her that she had non-trivial tits (hastening to clarify that it was not a complaint and I was very grateful to have been given the opportunity to handle them), which, given the difference between their respective heights plus the fact that she was sitting directly opposite the man during the meal, meant that her tits were at his eye-level or, if she wanted to look at it from another angle, his eyes were at her tit-level. The ex was not convinced; she pointed out that he could have lifted his gaze above her collar-bones and given a shot at looking at her face. This guy used to be a primary school teacher, but retired in his forties on health grounds, having been diagnosed with something called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Now I don’t know much about this condition, but I have noted that in his case it is serious enough to prevent him from going back to work, but not serious enough to stop him from kayaking twice a year. When I asked him about this once, he replied, with the indignation of a man wrongfully accused of shoplifting, that kayaking was part of his recovery. If he did not force himself to do some exercise his muscles would waste. His wife is so relentlessly jolly that you almost wish ovarian cancer on her if only to wipe out the grin off her face. There is something psychopathic about that smile, as if she wants to break your will with it, like a Jehovah’s Witness. She too presents a creditable cleavage for inspection (this was another reason I remember proffering to the ex-girlfriend why the husband couldn’t have been ogling at her breasts, seeing as he got an eyeful of them every day). The couple does not have children. I have never asked them why but having been subjected (by the wife) to the dangers  of overpopulation and the planet running out of its resources if ‘we’ are not ‘sensible’ about it, it is possible that it was a deliberate decision on her part not to have children. Or she was unable to conceive because of polycystic ovaries and this is all a giant rationalization.

So there I was, marooned for an entire evening amongst people that included a moron with political view to the right of Genghis Khan; his wife who nattered all the time about her grandchildren in whom no one was interested; a common ‘friend’ whom you wouldn’t want to be with if you were desirous of human connection; and the hosts comprising a husband who would creep the flies off a manure truck, and his giggly wife with her naïve utopian views.

The thing about aggressive bores is that they have cut and dry opinions on everything, and they go around looking for anything that would support their prejudices. And, if they are English with right wing views, then they invariably arrive at the conclusion—which they air at every opportunity—that Britain is being fleeced by the hordes of foreigners. They would have you believe that foreigners from every crevice of the developing world are arriving in their hordes at Heathrow with the express aim of getting a free council flat and claiming fraudulently millions of pounds in benefits. The flour-mill manager was one of these bores. During the main course he somehow launched into a lengthy diatribe against ethnic minorities, the immediate object of his wroth being the Somalis. He had read, he said, a story in the newspaper about a Somali family—neither husband nor wife working and claiming ‘loads of money’ in benefits—with a ‘litter of children’, who were living in Birmingham or Manchester (or some such place where no person in his right mind would willingly choose to live). The flour-mill manager droned on, his mind untutored by anything so trivial as evidence. The Somalis apparently successfully applied for a transfer to London on the grounds that they could not speak English and wished to be in London where there are lots of Somalis (who presumably can’t speak English) and they would be nearer to their culture. The family was now accommodated in a five bedroom house ‘most hard-working English people’ could not afford. The flour-mill manager ended his story with the rhetorical question ‘What do you say to that?’ and looked at me as he asked the question. I therefore felt that some sort of response was expected of me. ‘I say,’ I said, ‘that if you were a dog I’d get you checked for rabies.’  The flour-mill manager choked on his tofu. The half-chewed tofu flew out of his mouth, barely missing the cleavage of the hostess sitting opposite him. After he had calmed himself down with a hefty glug of wine and pats on his back by his wife he said, ‘You are being very rude and offensive. I demand an apology.’

‘I am sorry,’ I said, ‘that you are offended.’

Now the wife weighed in. ‘You called my husband a rabid dog. You are a very rude man.’ She too demanded an apology.

‘I honestly did not mean to cause offence,’ I said. ‘Also, I said that I would have him checked whether he had rabies. That suggested that I had doubts in my mind. And please remember that it was all in the context of a purely hypothetical situation. Your husband is very clearly not a dog.’

The wife turned to the hostess. ‘Are you going to allow this man to insult Walter?’

Did I mention the man’s name was Walter? I know of no Walter who is less than seventy.  The man had a name from another generation, which went some way to explain his views.

‘You are being very naughty,’ the hostess turned to me. ‘Say sorry to this nice man.’

‘But I already did. I’ll say it again: “I am sorry you are offended,”’ I said.

Walter accepted the apology, confirming that he was not bright.

There was a lull for a few minutes that was broken by Mary (the common friend) who started a story about an organic greengrocer’s shop which had recently changed its ownership. The old owner, who was a friend of Mary and an environmentalist, had decided that he was going to devote his creative energies full time to a charity which was doing ‘groundbreaking work’ to raise awareness about howler monkeys which were apparently at risk of getting extinct. I must say that I find it very difficult to donate money to such charities. Come to think of it I find it very difficult to donate money to any charity. I have strong views about charities, but that is a subject of another post. Suffice it to say, here, that I could not see the point of a charity raising awareness of the plight of the howler monkey. I mean over the millennia hundreds of species, if not thousands, have become extinct. That’s the way it goes. Survival of the fittest and all that. The mighty dinosaurs, who roamed the earth far longer than the humans have (so far), became extinct. Sabre toothed tiger, woolly mammoth, dodo, they all became extinct. Did the world come to a halt because these species disappeared? Did it make even an iota of difference to anyone that the world has lost dodo? I don’t think so. The world carried on; and it will soldier on when the howler monkey disappears from the face of the earth. These charities serve no purpose other than to line the pockets of their chief executives and managers who know how to exploit the collective guilt of the developed world citizens for the exploitation carried out by our forefathers that made our continent wealthy. Donate money to the howler monkey charity, and partake with good conscience ‘responsibly farmed’ salmon on a potato rosti and watercress salad in an obnoxiously hoity-toity restaurant at prices that would immediately put many in the mind of a second mortgage.  Or, as in my case, a godawful combination of runner beans and tofu (that would immediately put many in the mind of making a will). However, I kept my mouth shut: firstly, I did not want to risk offending all the guests in quick succession; secondly, Mary would have been a different proposition from Walter the retard. I take on shrill, waspish, shrewish guttersnipes only if I absolutely have to. And I decided I didn’t have to, on this occasion. Which meant I had to sit through the boring story of Matthew (the howler monkey rescuer) who was gyped by the guy who bought the greengrocer’s store from him. Apparently the new owner initially agreed to pay 250,000 pounds but in the end paid only 200,000 pounds for the store which is situated on the ground floor of a building that is so rickety it seems to be in danger of collapsing any time,. The site, I was informed, was a matter of dispute between its owners, ‘some Jewboys’ (a whiff of Xenophobia, here, from Mary) who wanted do demolish the eyesore and sell it to the developers, while the council wanted to develop it as a commercial complex; or it could have been the other way round; it was so bloody boring, I had to pinch myself—not to ensure that I stayed awake, but to check that I hadn’t fallen asleep. Why do people think it is appropriate to deluge guests at a party with totally irrelevant information? In some ways she was worse than Walter, the flour-mill manager: his topic of conversation was at least of general interest on which people might have had views. Why would anyone be interested in what Matthew-the-howler-monkey-saver got up to and whether or not he was duped? I wasn’t. Since the person who duped Matthew was not a Somali or a foreigner I reckoned Walter wasn’t interested either. And I had never known the hosts to have strong opinions on anything; so whom was this directed at? Finally the truth came out. The new owner had started a café in one section of the store, needless to say a healthy, organic café. And while the café did not pose any realistic threat to Mary’s vegetarian torture chamber I suspected its opening had triggered an acute attack of colitis.

At least Mary wasn’t venting her bile on God and religion. Mary, despite (sometimes I feel because of) her name, is a noisy atheist, driven by the desire to loudly express her hostility towards organized religions, with clichés like ‘religions are advertisements for goods that don’t exist’ (which I am sure she is not imaginative enough to have thought of herself and must have lifted from some book). She is particularly vicious towards the Catholics (needless to say she was brought up as one) who are the ‘most evil people on earth’ and the last Pope who was a ‘Nazi w**ker’.

‘So you are angry with the new owner because you think he managed to obtain the greengrocer’s shop at a bargain price and is thinking of expanding it,’ I said to Mary, forgetting my earlier resolution not to start another argument.

‘It’s the greed,’ Mary said with a sigh. ‘People will do anything these days to get a deal that is beneficial to them, no matter how unfair. The world is full of smooth talking psychopaths.’

‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘Unless you are holding back some vital information, all that the new owner did was he negotiated a deal that was beneficial to him. He didn’t kidnap your friend’s family and threatened to torture them, did he?’

‘Trust you to distort everything,’ Mary replied with mock-exasperation.

‘I am not distorting anything. What you are telling me is that a monitory transaction took place between these two guys, each wanting to get the best deal. In the end they settled on a price that was presumably acceptable to both of them,’ I said.

‘That’s precisely the point. Matthew was not happy about it,’ Mary replied.

‘Why did he agree to it then?’ I asked.

‘Because he is too nice,’ Mary said.

I took a decision not to pursue this line of inquiry which, from previous experience, I knew would not go anywhere; into the bargain I would be labelled a psychopath (like the new owner of the greengrocer’s store).

Walter, after the unexpected interruption when he was just getting into his flow, was ready to resume again. The Indians were now in his line of attack. As if the interlude of the story of Mary’s friend had not happened he said, ‘Honestly, I don’t know what is wrong with this country. The bloody Indian curry houses and takeaways have come up like mushrooms. They are everywhere. You go anywhere in England you will find one of these, stinking the street out. Half of the staff are probably illegal immigrants; and they can’t even speak English. Every day 80 pubs are closing in the country, but is anyone bothered?’

‘You obviously are,’ I said.

Walter looked at me with narrowed eyes. I could see in front of my mind’s eye the rusted brain circuits creaking into action as he tried to decide through the fog of alcohol (he had polished off a bottle and half all by himself by this time) whether he should take offence at what I had said. In the end he let my comment go unchallenged and continued: ‘I can’t understand this fascination with Indian food. It’s disgusting,’ He looked around him challenging anyone to disagree with him. When no one did he carried on, ‘And it is not even healthy. God knows what oil do they fry that stuff in. Eat that stuff if you want a coronary is what I say,’ he concluded, taking a swig from his wine glass and burping. ‘Oh! Excuse me,’ he said.

‘Are you interested in Morris dancing?’ I asked Walter.

He looked at me suspiciously. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘It seems the only way to get you off the subject of offensive foreigners without offending you. I did not want to cause offence,’ I said.

‘That’s very kind of you,’ Walter said. I wondered whether he was being sarcastic.

‘So are you?’ I asked.

‘Am I what?’ Walter asked back.

‘Interested in Morris dancing.’



‘Are you?’ Walter asked.

‘Am I what?’ I asked back.

‘Interested in Morris dancing.’

‘Why do you ask?’ I asked.

‘You asked me. So I am asking you back,’ Walter said.

‘No,’ I replied.

‘So neither of us is interested in Morris dancing,’ Walter summarised.

‘That would appear to be the case,’ I agreed.

‘Glad we established that.  Can we now move on to another topic?’ Walter asked. He was being sarcastic when he thanked me.

‘Not if,’ I replied, ‘you are going to talk about Indian takeaways.’

Walter’s wife appealed to the hostess. ‘Susan, he is doing it again.’

‘I don’t care. I shall say what I think. I am not scared of some namby-pamby liberal tosh,’ Walter declared.

‘Good for you, sir; your mother will be so proud of you.’

At this Walter’s wife started snivelling. Walter took a deep breath and gazed at the ceiling with pursed lips, looking as if he was trying to control his emotions or suppress a fart (or both).

‘Walter’s mother passed away last week,’ Susan informed me.

His mother’s death hadn’t stopped Walter from socialising within a week of her death, even though he was now acting as if he had suffered a mortal wound. ‘I am sorry to hear that,’ I said, turning to Walter, ‘Were you talking to her about the Somalis and Indian takeaways when she died?’

‘That’s it,’ both Walter and his wife stood up. ‘I am not prepared to be insulted by this twerp. Manner-less fellow.’

‘Oh, don’t go,’ I pleaded, ‘We were enjoying your company so much.’

Susan got up from her seat and followed Walter and wife into the hall, revealing, from beneath her tight trousers that stretched across her fleshy buttocks, the outline of an alarmingly skimpy underwear. I looked at Mary and Susan’s husband, and shrugged my shoulders. ‘Sorry,’ I said.

I don’t think I’ll be invited back to their house for a while.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Anti-Semitism in British Politics

Ken Livingstone (who should always be referred to by the prefix ‘controversial’), the former mayor of London, has been suspended by Livingstone’s old rabble-rousing pal, Jeremy, who now heads the British Labour Party.
A Labour MP from Bradford (a piss-poor Northern town in England), called Naz Shah (I hope I won’t be called racist for mentioning, here, that Ms Shah is a Muslim, whose parents were migrants to the UK from that cradle of democracy and secularism in South East Asia, called Pakistan, and she herself spent her teen-age years in that country, no doubt imbibing liberal attitudes and tolerance towards all faiths), before she became an MP in the UK general elections of 2015, shared on her Facebook page (with dozens of people) a poster that suggested that Israel should relocate to America as the transportation cost would be worth it. The poster further commented that Americans would welcome the Israelis with open arms and it would also bring peace to Middle East by ending foreign interference.  Alongside the poster Ms Shah posted her own comment: “Problem solved.” And, in order not to leave any doubt in the minds of the people with whom she shared this poster on her Facebook page about how she felt about this proposal, Ms Shah added a smiley face. (Was Ms Shah ironic when she posted ‘problem solved’, the renowned British irony which the Americans don’t get because they are not very clever? Did she mean exactly the opposite of what she posted and the smiley face represented an emotion exactly opposite of that which she was experiencing at that time (anger, despair, sadness)? Impossible to say. It is not easy to express irony effectively when you are posting on Facebook.) Ms Shah's Facebook poster was unearthed by a right-wing blogger with a ridiculous sobriquet, in April 2016, almost two years after Ms Shah posted it (I am guessing this is the full time job of the right wing blogger with the ridiculous sobriquet—not obsessively following Naz Shah on Facebook, as that would be stalking—but blogging). Predictably politicians whipped themselves into a frenzy. Naz Shah issued several apologies, including one in a Jewish rag, which, if you are of a gullible nature, you would say were sincere and from the heart of her bottom—I mean the bottom of her heart—and not a last-ditch attempt by a desperate politician to save her skin. It did not work. Pressure mounted on Jeremy Corbyn, the man who exudes the charisma of a Batchelor soup packet, to do something about it, and eventually Ms Shah was suspended from the Labour party for bringing it into disrepute; but not before Jeremy’s spokesperson provided some unintended entertainment to public. This is what the spokesperson said: “We are not suggesting that she [Naz Shah] is anti-Semitic. We are saying she’s made remarks she does not agree with.” How is that possible? There are a few instances when someone says things they do not agree with. For example, people might be forced to say things they secretly do not agree with. Since this post is about Jews and anti-Semitism, I shall follow Ken Livingstone’s example and give a historical instance to illustrate this point. On the eve of the Second World War, the Nazis finally allowed Sigmund Freud to leave Vienna and go into exile in England, but not before they fleeced Freud off his wealth. And that was not enough. Freud had to sign an affidavit before he left Vienna that he had been treated very fairly and with courtesy by the Nazis. Freud signed the affidavit (I suspect he did not have a choice). After he signed the affidavit, Freud added a comment: "I recommend the Gestapo to everyone." (Now that is irony for you). Another example: people might say things they do not actually believe in because they feel that saying such things will bring rewards. Like the Tory Prime-minister of the UK, Cameron, saying that he deeply cares for the poor people of his country, even though he knows (he does; don't ask me how; he just does) that they are a bunch of selfish, boorish, stupid people who have not done an honest day’s work in three generations. David ("Call me Dave") says these things which he probably does not believe in himself because he also believes that that is the thing to say to project an image of compassionate Tories. Sometimes people might say things they do not agree with just to irritate the other person (I have done this many times). However, I can’t think of a single instance when someone would knowingly say things they don’t agree with without a reason or motivation, when they are in full control of their faculties. So the explanation given by Jeremy Corbyn’s spokes-person to explain Naz Shah’s Facebook comment was strange at best, disingenuous at worst, and ridiculous at all times.

You would have hoped that that would be the end of it; the nutters on the Labour’s left would keep their traps shut and let the controversy die, which is what, you will remember, the Tories did when Boris Johnson made comments about the ancestry of the American President, Barak Obama.

However, to expect the lefties to act and talk sensibly, when there is an opportunity to embarrass everyone with their deranged wittering, is like expecting a raging bull to ignore the China shop as it charges down the high street.  Ken Livingstone decided to come out in support of the suspended Naz Shah. The nicest thing one can say about Ken is that he is unbearable; his very existence is an affront to everything that is decent. The man does not have many sensible ideas in his head, and, to compound the problem, little to no control over his mouth: there is no filter between the muscles of his brain and mouth.

Never shy of offering his opinion, Ken went round giving interviews the day after Ms Shah was finally suspended from the Labour party. What did Ken say? He was dismissive of the claims that there was anti-Semitism in Labour. Never in his 47 years in the Labour party did Ken hear “anyone saying anti-Semitic.” Ken had “heard a lot of criticism of Israel and its abuse of Palestinians”, but he had “never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.”  You hear that, and you think to yourself, well, that’s is, like, Ken’s view. If Ken never heard anyone in the Labour Party say anything anti-Semitic, that could be because either no one in the Labour party said anything anti-Semitic, or because what they said was not deemed to be anti-Semitic by Ken because—some might argue; indeed, John Mann, another Labour MP with impulse-control issues, has suggested this publically—Ken himself is an anti-Semite and (to quote John Mann, again) a “disgusting Nazi apologist.” On a general note, I have come across hardly any racists who accept that they are racists; it’s others who think they are racists. Most racists are shocked and deeply offended when it is suggested that they are racists. Anyway, coming back to Ken’s interview, you might say that so far what he said might be interpreted as denial, lack of insight etcetera, but not in itself deserving of suspension from the party. Next, Ken offered his insight on Naz Shah’s Facebook comment. Ken gave Naz Shah the moral X-ray and concluded that everything was ship-shape. “It [Naz Shah’s Facebook comment] is over the top but it is not anti-Semitism,” declared Ken, in his nasal tone. (To say that Naz Shah’s Facebook comment was just ‘over the top’ is a bit like saying Jeremy (Clarkson) was a bit over the top when he threw punches at the producer of Top Gear and inflicted ABH on the poor Irish man, because there was a 4 minute delay in the steak or the curry or whatever disgusting food Clarkson shoves down his gullet, after a day's filming of the Top Gear.) Back to Ken and his interview. To emphasize his point that Naz Shah was not an anti-Semite, Ken obviously believed what he needed to do was to bring Hitler to the discussion (thereby revealing his magnificent grasp on the fabric of the universe). “Let’s remember,” Ken reminded, “when Hitler won his elections in 1932, his policy, then, was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism—this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” It was this comment which landed Ken in hot waters and left his mate Jeremy (Corbyn) with no choice but to suspend him. Ken made a few more comments in the interview, which, interestingly (though not surprisingly) enough, sought to support Corbyn: Ken saw deep conspiracy in all this to smear Corbyn and “his associates” (presumably Ken included himself in this group, though he did not say this explicitly) as anti-Semite, neglecting to mention, somehow, that Corbyn himself had suspended Naz Shah, and Shah had issued grovelling apologies. (This suggests that Ken questioned the judgment of his mate, Jeremy, or else, he was suggesting that Jeremy did what his spokesperson said Naz Shah did, when she posted her comment on the Facebook: took an action he did not agree with.)

Coming back to Ken’s comment about Hitler and the Jews, it must strike those amongst us who have got a shred of decency as offensive and wrong on so many counts. Even George Galloway thought Ken’s comments were poorly judged (which is saying something; when it comes to making poorly judged insane remarks Galloway is the world-leader). Taking at face value, Ken seems to suggest that in 1932, when Hitler was elected, he was this nice, sensible, humane person, who was deeply compassionate towards the Jews; he supported Zionism, and was supportive of their wish to be relocated to Israel (which did not exist then, and would not come into existence for sixteen more years); until, regrettably, a few years later, he was struck down by mental illness (what was it? Schizophrenia? Bipolar Disorder? Adult ADHD?), and somehow ended up killing six million Jews. (Perhaps, Corbyn's spokesperson, if asked for a comment, will say Hitler did things he did not agree with.) If Hitler had not blown his brains away in 1945 and was captured instead, continuing with Ken’s logic, all that the man would have needed was a good barrister who would have put in a successful plea for manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility. Leaving aside all this, I fail to understand the logic of bringing in Hitler when Ken, for all outward appearances, was bleating about how Naz Shah’s comment was not anti-Semitic, not even offensive, but just “over the top”. Ken’s logic seemed to be as follows: “Look, even uncle Adolf, that paragon of humanity (before he went mad, of course), was supporting Zionism and doing what he could to “transport” the Jews to Israel, so what’s the problem with Naz Shah’s support to the suggestion that Israel should be relocated to America?

Here is a suggestion: if you are a public figure and are trying to defend your friend against the accusations of anti-Semitism, it is advisable not mention Hitler. Leave Hitler out of the debate. Chance are your comments will be misconstrued (or worse, people might see you as a racist); you will get suspended from the party; and you will end up dragging the party you purportedly hold so dear into unnecessary and wholly avoidable controversy.

Ken shows no signs of regret or repentance (which is entirely in keeping with the man's character: he has no insight) and is saying that everything he said about Hitler and Jews is a historical fact, which he can prove (Ken has George Galloway's support in this, which, if you ask me is a kiss of death). John Mann, the aforementioned Labour MP, publically confronted Ken after Ken's interview, and, when he managed to take a breather from hurling abuses at Ken, suggested that Ken needed help. (The consensus seems to be that Mann did not stage this performance; he just lost the plot, something which, ironically enough, he declared Ken had lost when he shouted at Ken. It was, to say the least, an unedifying spectacle.) My assessment is that Ken cannot be helped. (Come to think of it John Mann is beyond help, too. I think that both Mann and Livingstone have lost the plots. The kindest thing for them, and for the British public, is to throw both of them in a deep dungeon (and leave them to fight it out between them (with George Galloway as the referee)), and then throw the key in the sea.

Are Ken Livingstone and Naz Shah anti-Semite? The problem, here, is that racism, like most prejudices, is mostly subconscious for most people. What you are left with is a deep dislike for a group or people, which you try to rationalise using a variety of means. It is also worth keeping in mind that a racist person need not be prejudiced against all races. You may go on marches with the Africans and the Asians and the Arabs; and could be racially prejudiced against the Jews or Americans or Europeans or Russians or Scandinavians (either singly or in combination).

To paraphrase Brecht, when the Labour dies by its own hand (the next general election, in 2020) Corbyn, Ken Livingstone (I am sure he will be reinstated) and John McDonnell will be that hand.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Book of the Month: The Emperor of Lies (Steve Sem-Sandberg)

Steve Sem-Sandberg’s Emperor of Lies was a huge success in his native Sweden when it was published. It won Sweden’s most prestigious literary award, the August Prize. Since then the novel has gone on to become an international bestseller, and has been translated into 25 languages.

Emperor of Lies is a Holocaust novel; it can also be described as historical fiction. It gives the reader a view—that is panoramic and intimate at the same time—of the Jewish ghetto the Nazi established in 1939 in Lodz, a Polish city 70 miles from Warsaw (which the Nazis renamed Litzmannstadt, after Karl Litzmann, a German general who defeated the Russians near the city in the First World War). The ghetto, at one time, had a quarter of a million Jews—both Polish and those deported from other parts of Europe—living in it. It was liquidated in August 1944.

A dominating figure in the novel is Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the eponymous emperor of lies, the ‘eldest of the Jews’ and the ‘Chairman’ of the Lodz ghetto, who presided over it and its inhabitants (with the conniving eye of the Ghetto’s civilian German administrator, Hans Biebow, the real power in the ghetto), in the four years of its existence, in a manner that ensured that he (Rumkowski) would, forever, remain, a controversial figure in the history of the Holocaust.

Rumkowski, it should be noted, is only one of the many real life (and fictional) characters that populate this behemoth of a novel (640 pages). Indeed there are so many that after a while you lose track of them, especially those who make periodic appearances and zoom in and out of the narrative.

Rumkowski might be the central, even pivotal, character, but the novel is—despite its title—not about him; or not only about him. There are large sections of the novel where he is completely absent, as Sem-Sandberg goes into the minutiae of the lives of other characters. What Sem-Sandberg has attempted here, for the best part with great success and panache, is to create for the reader the day-to-day existence—if it could be called that—of its benighted Jewish residents. In his endeavours Sem-Sandberg was no doubt helped by the extensive records (more than 3000 pages) of the life in the Lodz ghetto, created, bizarrely enough, at the behest of Rumkowski, which survived the liquidation of the ghetto (and which, in addition to the accounts of the survivors of the ghetto, made him a villain, a Nazi collaborator, in the eyes of some). It is clear that Sem-Sandberg has painstakingly researched the novel. One of the consequences is that on several occasions the dividing line between facts and fiction gets blurred. Indeed there are instances when the writer makes it clear that he is telling a fact within the fiction (by quoting references). Some of the speeches delivered by Rumkowski—for example, his now infamous speech to the first departing families when the Nazis began liquidating the ghetto in 1943—and Biebow seem to have been quoted directly and are printed in a font that is different from that of the rest of the novel.  

There are so many characters in the novel, each with his own riveting story, that it is difficult to do justice to all of them in a single review. As the reader reads the travails of the ghetto’s denizens, their daily struggle for survival, and the unspeakable misery that pervaded what passed for their lives in the Lodz ghetto, the overriding feeling you are left with is of numbness. Sem-Sandberg’s achievement is that with only very occasional tendency towards melodrama, he depicts the full horror of the ghetto life. Indeed at times Emperor of Lies reads less like a novel than an account of the daily lives of Jewish families living in the Lodz ghetto. Some of the stories, like that of Adam Rezpin, are dealt with in some detail, whereas stories of some others, like that of Vera Schulz, the daughter of a Czech Jewish doctor, who is plucked out of Prague and deported to Lodz, are left without a closure. As a result the novel does not have an organized, concise feel to it. Only those readers with interest in and knowledge of the Lodz ghetto would be able to tell whether the wide cast of characters in the novel were true historical figures (who lived through those times) or whether they are the products of the writer’s creativity. Does the distinction matter? The answer is yes, but probably not a great deal. The stories of the several characters in the novel are variations of a single theme: the depredations of the human mind (in this case the Nazis) that make people commit abominable crimes against fellow human beings. If one assumes that the characters in the novel are purely imaginary (with the exception of the obviously historical characters such as Rumkowski and Hans Biebow to name just two; Heinrich Himmler, too, makes a guest appearance), then one wonders whether the theme couldn’t have been conveyed as powerfully with a smaller cast of characters. Their stories, however, are told extremely well, and have a kind of appalling fascination about them. Sem-Sandberg has created some bravura characters, such as the fat Jewish smuggler in the ghetto who is nick-named ‘The Belly’ in reference to his overhanging gut ‘between his flabby arms’, and Princess Helena, the highly eccentric bird-loving sister-in-law of Rumkowski. 

Sem-Sandberg goes in and out of the minds of the novel’s myriad characters with great ease. The exception is Rumkowski. Strangely enough he does not come alive for the reader the way many others, even the German administrator, Biebow, do. Sem-Sandberg does not attempt to enter the head of the man who presided over the lives of a quarter of a million Jews in a manner that—you are encouraged to conclude by the end of the novel—was autocratic to say the least. The inner world of Chaim Rumkowski does not lighten up for the reader. The reader is left to draw his own inferences about the character of the man from what he sees of his action through the prism of Sem-Sandberg’s prose.

The Rumkowski that emerges from the novel is a mixture of vanity, grandiosity, ruthlessness, perversion and pathos. Not a great deal of information is provided about his past. He is a failed businessman, and a ruthless and unscrupulous seller of insurance certificates. He is childless. When his first wife dies in 1937 (Rumkowski was 60 by this time) he has a kind of religious conversion, and he opens an orphanage for Jewish children, which, at its peak, houses several hundred children. The novel depicts Rumkowski as a paedophile, who sexually abuses his son whom he adopts in 1943.  (The son, along with the rest of Rumkowski’s family, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and was murdered on arrival.) I do not know whether the paedophilic element introduced in Rumkowski’s character is based on historical evidence or is a product of the author’s imagination. If the latter is the case, one wonders whether it was necessary to make the man a paedophile in addition to his other myriad character defects—for which there is historical evidence is a-plenty. Rumkowski is chosen by the Nazis to run the ghetto (which lasted the longest, although all but 900 of its 230,000 inhabitants—Rumkowski included—were eventually murdered by the Nazis. When the Russians ‘liberated’ the Lodz ghetto there were only 877 inhabitants left in the ghetto.) Rumkowski has his own Jewish police force, headed by the wily and corrupt Dawid Gertler (who, the novel’s Afterward informs the reader, incredibly and unlike Rumkowski, survives the liquidation, and emerges in 1961 to testify against Fusch, the German commander in charge of ghetto). The Jewish police force is scarcely less ruthless than the Germans and, when the deportations begin, goes to great lengths to ferret out the hiding Jewish families so that they could be sent to their deaths. Corruption is rife (as are infectious diseases), and those in the good books of, or are close to, the ‘Chairman’ are higher in the pecking order. The ghetto has its own currency, called ‘Rumki’, and even postage stamps that bear the face of Rumkowski! There is no doubt that Rumkowski is a man fully convinced of his importance in the order of things.

When the novel opens, the ghetto has been ‘functional’ for almost three years. The war is turning against the Germans, although they will not accept it, at least not outwardly, and certainly not to the Jews. As Biebow informs Rumkowski matter-of-factly, Germans have to feed their own first. The dictate has come from Berlin that 20,000 of the ghetto’s Jews will have to be deported to the incinerators of the concentration camps. It is Rumkowski’s job to do that for them. Rumkowski gives a speech to the ghetto denizens and tells them that the only way to ensure that the ghetto exists is to give the Germans what they want. That means the old and the infirm and the children will have to go. In a speech (quoted in the novel verbatim from Rumkowski’s original) that is an odd mixture of pathos and grandiosity (“For 66 years I have lived and not yet granted the happiness of being called Father, and now the authorities demand to me that I sacrifice all my children”) Rumkowski ‘demands’ that the parents volunteer their children younger than 9 years to the German administration. That, he says, is the price the ghetto has to pay if the rest want to survive.

This seems to have been Rumkowski’s position all along. He would appear to have convinced himself that if only the Jews made themselves indispensable to the Germans by their ‘hard work’ and ‘production’, they would be allowed to survive in the Third Reich. Indeed he even imagined—so the novel tells you—that the Nazis would allow an autonomous Jewish state (of which of course he would be the ruler, the satrap of the Nazis) in their Reich. Hence perhaps his acquiescence to the German demands, and his constant mantra that only labour and hard work would save the Jews. Hence also perhaps his insistence that children as young as nine should do hours of back-breaking work to support the Nazi war-machine. That, he probably felt, was the only way to make sure that they did not end up on the transport carriages to incineration camps.  In this, as in his many other suppositions, Rumkowski was tragically wrong. While the Lodz ghetto survived longer than other ghettos (and made profits for the Nazis worth millions of deutschmarks), the Nazis liquidated it eventually, and Rumkowski’s life (as also the lives of his family members) ended like hundreds of thousands of Jews: in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. However, since the Nazi civilian administrator Biebow—who fought an increasingly desperate battle to keep Himmler’s SS from taking control of the ghetto—put Rumkowski and his Jewish police in charge of what he euphemistically put as organizing transport, it meant that the once-failed businessman was deciding who amongst the denizens of ghetto would stay back and have hopes of surviving and who would be transported to the death camps. And the novel suggests that he was ruthless about it.

In the Afterward to the novel Sem-Sandberg asserts that he has not taken any ideological position as to whether Rumkowski was a monster, a corrupt administrator who collaborated with the Nazis, or whether he—despite his character faults—did what he did with the genuine belief that that was the best way to ensure the survival of his people. That said the novel drops large hints that Sem-Sandberg belongs to the ‘Rumkowski is a monster’ camp (clue is in the title of the novel). His distinction lies in the fact that at no stage does he forget (and does not let the readers forget) who were the real villains: the Nazis. Rumkowski might preen as much as he wants, presiding over the fates of his fellow Jews, but the Nazis step in whenever they choose and put him in his place, such as the instance when Biebow slaps Rumkowski publically. They were the ultimate monsters who reduced a race to sub-human level.

As one finishes reading this absorbing, if somewhat rambling, account of a Jewish ghetto in Poland and its elderly Jewish administrator, one is left with indescribable feelings of sadness for the human condition. A remarkable novel on a tragic episode in the twentieth century European history, translated in faultless English by Sarah Death.  

Monday, 21 March 2016

Book of the Month: A Small Circus (Hans Fallada)

Michael Hoffman’s 2009 translation of Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin was a great success (the novel sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK alone).

Inevitably, the success of Alone in Berlin led to more works of Fallada (real name Rudolf Ditzen) being released for the consumption of the Western readers among whom, it would appear, there is an appetite for European novels about totalitarianism.

A Small Circus, published in the UK in its (excellent) English translation by Michael Hoffman, was Fallada’s debut novel. He submitted it for publication in 1930 and the novel was published the following year.

According to the foreword (by Jenny Williams), A Small Circus, like many other debut novels, was inspired by Fallada’s experience as a journalist working for a provincial newspaper in the small German town of Neumunster in the district of Schleswig-Holstein. Fallada worked for the local newspaper for two years and was an observer of not only the workings, machinations and petty politicking of provincial journalism but also of the political situation developing in Germany which would bring an end to the Weimer Republic and pave way to the rise of Hitler.

All of which is described in with great bravura in the blackly funny A Small Circus.  

Neumunster becomes Altholm in A Small Circus. It is the late 1920s and the German economy, burdened by the reparation demands of the Treaty of Versailles, is in a freefall. The democratic Weimer Republic is on its knees. In Altholm the Social Democrats (SDP) are in power, led by its frighteningly capable, larger than life, mayor Gareis. In his capacity as a mayor Gareis is also the Chief Commissioner of Police. Gareis is accountable and answerable to the district president Temborius who is based in Stolpe (another fictional town). Gareis’s work is cut out. He has to steer his way through what he sees as obstacles put in his path by other political parties in the region including the Democrats, the Communists, the right-wing Volkspartei, the Reichswirtschaftspartei which represents the interest of the middle-classes, and last but not least the National Socialists who are on the rise with their populist, xenophobic agenda. Then there are the local newspaper such as the right wing Chronicle with its menacing and devilishly cunning chief reporter Stuff who feels obliged to oppose tooth and nail every policy of SDP, the Volkszeitung which supports the SDP, and the highest-selling News which considers itself to be holding the centre position.

The situation in the district of Stolpe is like that which will be described as prevailing in Austria on the eve of its annexation to Germany a few years later: serious but not desperate. However it is about to become desperate for the ruling SDP. The farmers in the region, most of whom not rich and land-owning but small and independent, are seething with rage at what they see as very unfair taxation by the Republic, which they have come increasingly to view as anti-farmers and only having the interests of the working-class at its heart. The farmers form their own movement, Bauernschaft (based on the real life Landvolk movement formed by the farmers in Schleswig-Holstein in the 1920s, bitterly opposed to the taxation of SDP). The proverbial last straw that breaks the camel’s back is an attempt by a couple of hapless employees of the tax department to confiscate the oxen of farmers who are unable (unwilling as the administration sees it) pay the taxes. The tax officials are driven away but the identities of the assailants is captured in a photograph taken by Tredup, the perennially impoverished advertising manager of the Chronicle and a freelance photographer. Tredup sells the photographs to the district administration in Stolpe and Reimers, the headman of the village of Gramzow where the trouble with the tax-officials began, is arrested and thrown in jail in Altholm. The farmers’ movement decides to organize a huge demonstration in Altholm. Gareis, the mayor of Altholm, much to the displeasure of the district president Timborius, decides to give permission for the demonstration to go ahead. Once the decision is made all sorts of characters and forces swing into action vying with each other to add more spice into what is already promising to be a vindaloo. These include in no particular order the Fourth Estate, factions within the farmers’ movement, the district administration in Stolpe, and some fly-by-night characters who have no personal interest or stake in the local affairs in Altholm other than to have a damn good ruckus. No one—including mayor Gareis—is a saint, here, and every trick in the book—including threats, calumny, misinformation, blackmail, bribing—is employed by all the parties. The demonstration duly takes place on the due date and is dealt with unusual severity by the Altholm police force, inexpertly led by the bungling and bombastic Frerksen, the commander of the Altholm police force, who also happens to be a member of the SDP and probably owes his position to him being a lackey—as is accused in the right-wing Chronicle—of mayor Gareis.

The demonstration is a fiasco. To compound the problems for the Altholm businessmen and bourgeoisie the farmers in the region embark upon an unofficial boycott of the town which hurts the already ailing economy of the town. It is very clear that someone is going to have to take the blame for it; heads are going to have to roll. The question is: who would that person be. The person who, for many, is for the high jump is mayor Gareis, who makes it clear that try as he might he is simply unable to comprehend how it was his fault and the chances of him relinquishing the post willingly were less than slim. Frerksen is in trouble, too, for his inept handling of the farmers’ demonstration. District president Timborius’s role in the whole affair is also of interest partly because of his insistence that the farmers’ demonstration should not be permitted under any circumstances but also because of the ‘secret order’ he is supposed to have sent to Gareis on the eve of the demonstration about which the Altholm mayor is acting more coy than a Bollywood virgin looking at her beau with trembling lips,  knowing fully well what is it that is on his mind but acting ignorant all the same. The state brings charges against the torchbearers of the Altholm demonstration. This gives rise to a fresh round of back-stabbing, skulduggery and perjury in which all parties involved come out with flying colours.

When this sprawling, humongous novel of almost 600 pages draws to a close no one, unsurprisingly, emerges as a winner; and most characters get their just desserts.

A Small Circus is anything but small in its scope and the ambition of its author. The cast of characters populating it is extensive. A list given at the beginning of the novel of all the ‘dramatic personae’ that, in small or big way, propel the story further, is very handy, but despite that it tends to get a tad confusing at times. This is (I think) because of the sheer number of characters each and every one of them is up to some or the other shenanigan, but also because of the way the story is told so that the links amongst different strands of the story are not always apparent. The plot is revealed to the reader piecemeal, in snatches and, if you find yourself, from time to time, going back in the story trying to decipher the significance of a comment, say, you wouldn’t be the only one.

A Small Circus, on the face of it, depicts German life in a small rural town at a particular period in the history of Germany in twentieth century. The novel, several decades after it was first published is, still, relevant, not just because what we now know of the events in Germany in the 1930s, the rise of National Socialists and subsequent tragedy, which the novel—in its realistic and, frankly, terrifying, portrayal of Germany’s implosion—so superbly helps the reader to gain an insight into, but also because Fallada touches themes in the novel that ring true even now: the corruption in politics, sycophancy, the poor becoming poorer and rich richer.

A great pleasure of reading A Small Circus is the way the story progresses, which is mostly in dialogues, which, for the most part are quirky, idiosyncratic and funny. The credit for this should also go to the translator Michael Hoffman.

A Small Circus is an impressive novel, a caustic and piercing commentary on the greed, treachery and petty bickering that made Hitler’s dramatic rise to power possible.

Hans Fallada, according to various biographies I read of him on the Net, was a tortured soul. He died a broken man in 1947, of morphine overdose, at a relatively young age of 53, in East Berlin, East Germany where the Soviets had banned A Small Circus because of Fallada’s less than flattering description of the Communists in the novel. The success of Alone in Berlin (which heralded the revival of his works) and subsequent novels, in the West may have come too late for their creator, but it is still a deserving recognition of the genius.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Book of the Month: Old Masters (Thomas Bernhard)

Old Masters is Thomas Bernhard’s penultimate novel (and my first foray into the Austrian novelist’s dark, misanthropic world). In it we meet 82 year old Austrian music critic, Reger, who, recently widowed, has arranged to meet with a younger critic, Atzbacher, in Vienna’s Kuntsthistorisches museum. Atzbacher has met with the old critic the previous day, at the Ambassador hotel in Vienna, and is curious to know why Reger wants to meet with him again.

As the novel opens we meet Atzbacher, who has arrived at the museum an hour before the appointed time of the meeting with Reger, and has taken a position in the “so called Sebastiano room” of the museum, so that he can observe, unobtrusively, the old critic—who, Atzbacher knows, will be sitting on a settee in the “so called Bordone room” of the museum, in front of the Tintoretto-painting of a White-Bearded Man, as he apparently has done for the past thirty tears—in profile. The day before, Reger had waxed eloquent about the “so called Tempest Sonnata”, and lectured young Atzbacher on the “Art of the Fugue”.

So the novel begins.

It is hinted that Atzbacher is a philosopher who is working on philosophical work over many years which is yet to be published; indeed Atzbacher, as the reader learns later in the novel, has never published anything. Atzbacher watches Reger, as the old man takes his position on the settee which he has appropriated, over the years, as some sort of personal property, sitting on which he has held many a public court, giving others—Atzbacher included—the benefit of his views on matters ranging from Austrian public lavatories to the Old Masters. Atzbacher watches Reger interacting with Irrsigler, the museum attendant, who is happy to serve as Reger’s personal attendant.

As Atzbacher watches Reger, he remembers his conversation with Reger the previous day in the hotel Ambassador. The reader soon learns that Reger is a man who holds the state of Austria in contempt. It is not, however, just Austria of which the old critic disapproves. Reger’s view of the contemporary culture is dismal. Come to think of it, it is not just contemporary culture that Reger rails against; he does not think highly of the old painters: El Greco is overrated; he can’t even draw a hand properly. That the Kunthistorisches museum does not even have an El Greco is proof enough for Reger of the inferior quality of the museum. (The museum does not have a Goya—a “tougher nut” although he, too, can’t paint a hand, either—who holds a slightly higher place in Reger’s esteem.) The old painters are imperfect. They “tire quickly” if you subject them to close scrutiny (as Reger obviously has done with ‘The White-Bearded Man’, over more than thirty years). They always disappoint if we “make them the ruthless objects of our critical intellect.” The closer we look at them, the more flawed they appear. And they mean nothing to us “in the crucial point of our existence.” They are nothing more than survival artists; their art has the despicable Catholic halo around it, patronised by the brainless Hapsburgs who were essentially anti-culture, and did not understand literature or painting. The Hapsburg promoted music only because they found it harmless. Austrian writers have nothing to say and cannot even write down that they have nothing to say. Their books are rubbish, the products of two or even three generations that never learnt to think. Reger has a visceral hatred for Catholicism (you will not be surprised to learn), as he has for Austria. Austria is a pigmy country, full of coverer-ups of crime, a country full of “congenital opportunist cringers”, and a country in which politicians have committed “murderous frauds”. Austria and Vienna have no culture. The Viennese are as monotonous and lacking in taste as the Germans. You walk through Vienna and all you see is “depressing faces and tasteless clothes.” The newspapers report scandals daily, but their calibre has sunk so low that that in itself is a scandal. Austria is apparently one of the dirtiest country in Europe. Vienna’s pissoirs are the dirtiest in Europe. The Austrians have the vilest characters in Europe; they are masters of deceitfulness. Irrsigler, the museum attendant who has served Reger untiringly over decade is a good man—particularly stupid but also particularly honest and undemanding. Not so his wife, though, with her “hysterical voice and hen like walk.” And he can’t stand Irrsigler’s children, either, who hang on to Reger’s coat-tails like burs.

And so it goes on.

The Old Masters, at almost 250 pages, is a spectacular and never-ending rant, which is presented in one continuous paragraph. (If I remember correctly Updike tried this—writing a novel as one continuous paragraph, in Seek My Face, with insipid results). The passages and sentences progress in loops: certain phrases are repeated—not for emphasis, you get the impression, but to convey the contempt—despair, even—of the narrator. Reger is the main protagonist of the novel, and he has his unique way of expression; however, other, even minor and peripheral characters in the novel sound exactly the same. It is as if there is an invisible omniscient puppeteer is controlling all the characters in the novel. I wasn’t sure even after I reached the end of the novel whether Old Masters was just a dyspeptic rant that represented, well, just that; or whether it was a of very sly commentary on art; or whether it was a (deliberately) skewed animadversion of life. It is, however, not random: you get the feeling that the whole novel is a cleverly and intricately plotted performance. The English translation (translated from German by Ewald Osers) I read was described on its jacket as ‘devilishly funny’. I was, again, not sure that Bernhard meant it as a comedy, even though his prose, style, and the nature of the narrator’s rant makes you wonder whether the narrator really means any of what his rant; and, if he doesn’t, is it all tongue-in-cheek? I wasn’t sure. The only thing I was sure about was that Old Masters was not like any of the novels I had read. I loved it.