Poisoned Cities

Birth of Our Power

by Victor Serge, translated by Richard Greeman
Doubleday, 264 pp., $5.95

The Third Book about Achim

by Uwe Johnson
Harcourt, Brace & World, 246 pp., $5.75

Night Falls on the City

by Sarah Gainham
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 572 pp., $6.95

All these books are love letters addressed to cities. For Victor Serge, the revolutionary, they are Barcelona, then Paris, then Petrograd, sprawling gardens of pleasure and gas-lit paradises to be “taken” by the People as the Israelites came down and took Canaan. For Uwe Johnson, it is a weary, grimy city without a name, which is also Leipzig in the years of German Communism. For Sarah Gainham, it is Vienna, graceful and sick, the lamps of courage and reason dimming like theater lights as the Nazis arrive and deploy their power with a horror growing both more subtle and more blatant until the Red Army is at the gates.

Serge, perhaps, is the pure revolutionary at last, the Incorruptible come again. Yet, as his hero Dario says with exultation, “what point is there in being incorruptible if you don’t take bribes?” The early revolutionaries he describes in this autobiographical novel are, with rare exceptions, men and women for whom the idea of “the people taking power” has a brilliantly simple meaning. They do not think of socialist legislation or the peeling corridors of revolutionary justice: they think about the beauty and richness and energy of the city they hide in, and mean to seize it. They do not want to parcel out and abolish this richness, but to touch off an explosion which will send it pouring down every back street.

Again and again, the words “to take the city,” “at last in the world we have taken cities” (at the news of the October Revolution), recur. Serge and his companions are like a band of saintly brigands, looking down from a dark ridge on the lights spread out before them and rejoicing over tomorrow’s plunder. The idea of crime as a noble expression tempts Serge again and again. “Oh, happy counterfeiters…! You surely would never have been willing to fight for the Comite Obrero. But cornered in a dead end with prison the only way out, you died—valiantly—shot down by the cops.” Serge always pulls himself together again: “I was conscious of certain imponderable poisons, synthetic products which combine bourgeois temptations with a natural love of life, intelligence and energy with rebellion and poverty….” But the taste of that imponderable poison lingers on his tongue.

In his own life, Serge saw a band of his own comrades in Paris form the gang nicknamed the “Tragic Bandits” and attack capitalism by armed bank robbery until all had either been executed or shot by the police. Although he did not approve, he could not publicly condemn, and for refusing to testify he served a five-year sentence. All this, and Serge’s experience of Stalin’s prisons twenty years later, is written down in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, the direct autobiography which was written in Mexico during the war. But this first incarceration was decisive for him: “it burdened me with an experience so heavy, so intolerable to endure, that…my first book, a novel, amounted to an effort to free myself from this inward…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.