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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 nightmare.” It was with a recording conscience, as a writer in his apprenticeship, that on his release in 1917, Serge went to Spain and joined the anarchistic revolutionaries of Barcelona.

Birth of Our Power is the account of the next few years in his life, beginning in Barcelona and ending in Petrograd under the Bolsheviks. It is the first of five largely autobiographical novels, originally published in the Thirties. Two more are to be republished soon by Doubleday (Men in Prison and Conquered City), while The Case of Comrade Tulayev, revived in 1952, has also been reissued in paperback. This novel, an account of the children of the Revolution as the great purges devour them, has been compared to Darkness at Noon. Without Koestler’s narrow and hypnotic force, Tulayev none the less presents an account of the central mystery of confessions which is more convincing. It relies less on sheer ideology, the science-fiction legend of “brainwashing” which was later to intoxicate the Western world, than upon the behavior of highly various human beings under old-fashioned terror.

THIS FIRST VOLUME, if it is a sample of the others, is surely one of the most moving accounts of revolutionary experience ever written. Serge, born Victor Kibalchich in a family of Russian political exiles and dying in 1947 in Mexico after a lifetime of rebellion against powers socialist and capitalist, was indeed a natural writer. One thinks of his description of a brothel in Barcelona, emaciated women sprawling on couches and ivory switches hanging on the walls, or French soldiers in a train “hard and faded like stones at the bottom of a waterfall,” or of Petrograd “that vast city—not at all dead, but savagely turned in upon itself in the terrible cold, the silence, the hate, the will to live, the will to conquer.”

But the opening section, the Barcelona year, is the least satisfying. The workers’ leaders walk on the hill under the government fortress of Montjuich and look down on the glimmering streets of their prey, they drink in cafés and watch the passing girls and crooks until revolution itself becomes one more act of sensuality among young men, they bring out their followers in whirling demonstrations which break up against police rifles. There is something, though, exaggeratedly noble about the “comrades,” especially about the burning Dario. They become implausible, inexhaustibly impassioned, exhausting. They dissolve before the reality of the Chief of Police, who in the privacy of his office eyes the portrait of his King, “with a mouth like a piggy-bank,” and suddenly sticks out his tongue.

From Spain, Serge travels to wartime Paris where he is betrayed and interned in a camp at Trécy. Here is typhus, corruption, trafficking in greasy canteen coupons. Here, too, is a group of assorted revolutionaries with their eyes fixed upon the events in Russia. Their stormy discussions trail off leaving the dry little voice of Krafft, the Jewish tailor, who is the only scientific Bolshevik among them; unanswered because hatefully unanswerable.

Serge and a small group of Russians are deported to the Soviet Union by ship. The first ice is seen, the revolutionary homeland lies ahead, romanticism drops away, and the passengers stiffen and steel themselves against their doubts. But at the station in Petrograd—this is the summit of the book—Serge’s gay comrade Potapenko is met by a special car. In the worn dimness of a certain house, they tell him that there is only one thing they do not understand: why, as a known Tsarist police spy, he came back. He says in a whisper: “I couldn’t live otherwise.” A few minutes later—“please be patient a few moments longer”—he is taken to the yard and shot. Somewhere else in the city, Serge and a poor Jewish family are crouched by the stove of a huge abandoned apartment, feeding into the broadening red glow the enormous volumes of the Laws of the Empire.

UWE JOHNSON’S CITY, in the “first German Peace State,” is remote enough from all this. Like its gigantic railway station, it is grey, administered, repaired, discouraging. If there are enthusiasms in it beyond the fixed grins of the slogans and the “keep smiling” editorials, they hardly venture beyond jiving when the police aren’t looking and collecting foreign stamps. But the more certainties are affirmed—love, political commitment—the more elusive and insubstantial they turn out to be.

This is a dry, clever novel. Herr Johnson relies, in his usual manner, on much anonymity and officialese to create atmosphere. The country is formally nameless, so is the city, the Party is never named either, and Herr Ulbricht hides under the untranslatable pun of the “Sachwalter,” the administrator. Things appear to happen, but then Herr Johnson restores his professional fog by suggesting that perhaps they didn’t really happen: does it matter, anyway? This is not exactly the subtlest of methods for implying the subjectivity of truth.

Achim is a cycling champion. His state has built him up into a public figure. His loyalty to the Party, his collective spirit (sometimes he lets a team colleague win), his contempt for Western temptations are made legend. Still a young man and a champion, Achim has become a deputy in the republic’s parliament. He is living, intermittently, with a young actress who is disinclined to compromise with truth but has so far avoided trouble. There arrives a West German journalist named Karsch, who with Party encouragement sets about writing Achim’s biography.

The official picture begins to dissolve. Achim’s father, a worker, was indeed a resister but Achim could not be told: he was too deep in the Hitler Youth. His first bicycle had been looted by a Soviet soldier. He bought his first three-speed gear by slipping over the Berlin border to the West. He joined the Party because he was lonely and easily persuaded. Finally, Karsch finds an envelope in his pocket, containing a photograph of a column of marchers without flags, Achim in the first rank. The republic’s proletarian hero had marched with the workers’ rising of June 1953.

The third book cannot be written. Karsch must leave, the faster the safer for all concerned. But before he goes, there is a long argument. Karsch attacks the Party’s rule. Achim is outraged. “But I’m not talking about you!” “But it’s me you’re insulting,” Achim replies. Johnson, here and throughout, catches the defensive loyalty, the ability somehow to turn counterfeit into honest coin, which makes East Germany the most baffling of countries. It is a better novel than its successor, Two Aspects, but spoiled—like so much German writing—by showy rambling. The modish bricks of information on bicycle technology support nothing.

Night Falls on the City is a big and ambitious novel. In five “books,” which begin just before the Anschluss and end as Russian troops storm Vienna, Miss Gainham presents a group of Viennese intellectuals and theater people finding their way, or losing it, in a Nazified world in which glossy appearances are sedulously maintained while all the human and cosmopolitan values which the city stood for crumble away. The central figures are the actress Julia Wedeker-Homburg and a fictional company of the Burg-Theater, but the cast is a huge one. Miss Gainham tells this in the “straight” classic manner, without literary experiments, using now one character and now another to perform the subjective interpreting. Her constructing skill and powers of organization hold the whole tale together with total success: there is none of the confusion, or the vulgarity, which afflicts most modern “big-cast” novels, and from the first pages one is seized and held.

But the ambition is not just in the scale. This is an attempt to break down a European mystery: how the thousand-year Reich looked and felt to sensitive but not very trenchant human beings who were neither directly victims nor part of the apparatus. Julia’s husband is a Jewish deputy. He and his friends cannot quite take seriously the idea that “it can happen here,” and he leaves his escape until it is too late. Julia has to hide him for the next seven years: only their friend the journalist Kerenyi and their old servant Fina know. It is a secret even to her lover, who works in the department of the interior among zealots and SS officers from North Germany and Berlin. The theater survives uneasily under the tutelage of a weak Nazi administrator, each man and woman choosing how much to see and how much to risk.

Everything is forced gradually out of shape. Julia, after the first flash of disgust at seeing her husband a demoralized fugitive, becomes steadily estranged from the man she is risking her life for. Even Kerenyi, who hides a Jewish girl, makes her his mistress, and then loses her in a street round-up for the gas chambers, cannot suppress an instant of hatred for a battered man who is flung at his feet as he visits Gestapo headquarters. Kerenyi, loathing the Nazis and yet involved with them, is the most interesting character in the book. One wants now to see how these characters, grown so alive to the reader, make peace with their own past and the uncomprehending world outside after the war. A sequel is needed, and perhaps it will come.

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