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.