The novelist in central Europe today has a more than usually difficult task, surrounded as he is not only by a social scene in which national and ideological elements are changing places, but by a confusion of possible styles and modes of writing, many of them newly imported from the West. And behind all this looms the most disturbing of all questions for such a writer: Who, in this new age of change, dissolution, and uncertainty, is going to read him?
A disciplined socialist regime gave a reassuring answer to that question. Books—good solid fat conventional books—were valued on two counts: first, because they were there, and in a static society there was nothing much to do except read them; second, because any deviation in them of a crafty kind, from the Party line, meant a tremendous upsurge in interest on the part of a big, hungry, always attentive audience. No reader was bored by the latest publication, or indifferent to it. The orthodox had their privileges, their Writers’ Union clubs and guaranteed sales. The daring spirits had their chances of emigration; their possible fans at home in samizdat; and above all their reputation as freedom-bringers, heralds of new exciting truths, which naturally went with new ways of writing.
All that seems to be over for the moment. After the first intoxication of new books in new modernist or post-modernist styles, Soviet and East European writers seem to have quickly lost confidence in their techniques, while their audiences soon showed signs of becoming as bored with new novels as many of us are. In the midst of these “new developments,” however, certain writers who don’t fit into any particular category, old or new, continue to stand out. One such is the remarkable Danilo Ki, who adds to the other ways in which he cannot be categorized his origins on the borders of Hungary and Yugoslavia, a place where systems, nationalities, and languages meet on what has to be called a permanently temporary basis.
As a Jewish writer Ki was a natural for the region: the way his talent and imagination work had a close sympathy and parallel with the touching and comic fantasies of Bruno Schulz, who twenty years or so earlier was writing in Polish across the border up north, and who, like the hero of Hourglass, disappeared during the war, murdered by the Gestapo. Ki himself died in Paris in 1989, and in the same year was posthumously awarded the PEN/Bruno Schulz Prize, which honors “foreign writers underrecognized in the United States.” The name of the prize records in Ki’s case more than an affiliation, for the pair stand out as two of the most unusual and the most subtly and uniquely talented novelists to appear in their generation in Central Europe.
Ki lived at one time or another in Montenegro, Hungary, Belgrade, and France, and was a lecturer in the Serbo-Croatian language and literature at several French universities. His father died during the war in Auschwitz, and one of the most sinister and effective devices in Hourglass is a real letter, written by Ki senior to his sister some two years before his death, full of family gossip and complaints and accusations about small matters of property. His son must surely have added (but who can say?) the opening touches of the letter, in which Ki senior thanks his sister for giving him “something to write about,” in fact “ample material for a bourgeois horror novel, which I might entitle Parade in the Harem, Easter in a Jewish Household, or Hourglass.…”
Bruno Schultz’s characters would immediately recognize the nature and point of Father Ki’s preoccupations, and would have extended the warmest sympathy toward them. On the one hand E.S., as he is known in keeping with the Kafka-like impersonality of the novel, is full of his scurry of domestic problems, including the unexplained reduction of his pension as a long-serving employee and inspector on the Royal Hungarian Railways. On the other, he becomes gradually more and more aware of the fate that awaits him at the hands of the faceless Nazi-type bureaucrats who will eventually put him on one of the sealed trains to the extermination camps at Auschwitz or Treblinka, a similar fate to the one which had befallen Ki senior. Probably no other novelist has succeeded better than Ki in making a densely stylistic pattern out of such a nightmare, conveying with gruesome but also aesthetically beautiful effect the interrelation in such a life at such a time of the quotidian and the apocalyptic, the combination of the sense of trivia with the sense of doom.
E.S. acts out the fate of what has become the traditional victim of our times, but in so doing he becomes in Ki’s hands much more than a victim—the art of the novel turns him into a complex and as it were involuntary human being as well. In becoming a creation of literature E.S. approaches, paradoxically, the total humanity of Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. The resemblance is far from accidental. Although Ki’s imagination is original, the density of artistic patterning very much his own, he borrows and enlarges to cover the whole form of his novel a device that Joyce uses briefly and for comic purposes near the end of Ulysses. Having had too much to drink, Bloom is at the stage where every intention and action needs to be concentrated on with exaggerated care; and this state of affairs is conveyed by a series of questions and answers related to the sobriety of fact. Bloom manages to turn the faucet of the kitchen sink, and a voice shrewdly raps out the question, “Did it flow?” receiving a reply in enormous detail, recounting the ingenious steps by which the competent authorities of the Dublin corporation have contrived to make water run from the hills of Ireland into Bloom’s kitchen.
Ki transforms this device to cover, to explain, and to mystify by explanation an entire world. Question after question is posed to E.S. about his past. Trains and telephones figure largely in his answers, as also does the prodigious ethnic diversity of the Balkans, in which identity is both preserved and fantasized by external regimentation, war, labor camps, the Holocaust. Sometimes he burlesques in Joycean fashion a local or technical style as in this panegyric on the railroad:
Eager to embrace your distant dear ones as quickly as possible, you fly on wings of steel (symbol of the railroad), nestled in the soft bed of a Schlafwagen, sprawled on comfortable plush seats, or, if the worst comes to the worst, on a wooden bench or a baggage rack in second class, cradled not in the arms of Morpheus but in the warm maternal womb of a train, that marvelous invention of our modern times. Seated on warm plush seats or lying curled up like a fetus in the womb of the iron mother, you move through space and time, as comfortable as in a Russian novel (which you may be reading at this very moment by the bright light of a mercury lamp in a first-class compartment), without a thought to those hardworking, conscientious employees who watch over the telegraph and telephone at the stations, not only in the big cities but also in one-horse towns where God Himself knocks off for the night, without a thought for those who stay awake to service the giant locomotives.…
Ki’s art etches in distinctive features of every kind, as if to repudiate the melting pot of human experience: E.S. as victim is compelled under interrogation to discover himself, but at the same time he comes more and more to wish to do so, as if defining for himself the negative place which is himself, a place of possible dignity recorded in the face of death.
The firm of Slonski and Strauss, who tried making telephones, he recalls, are “a bunch of amateurs and poets, driven to business by necessity”; they have an odd trademark.
What did this trademark consist of?
The dark Bakelite surface has a white vase stamped on it, a vase or an hourglass or a chalice; but then you notice that this vase is an empty space, negative, hence an illusion, and that the only positive, that is, real thing, is the two profiles turned toward each other, face to face as in a mirror, which delimit the vase or hourglass.
The same emblem figures on the firm’s letterhead. “The joins and seams” of the phones “were not properly finished. The trademark stamped on them was also the work of poets.”
Ki’s humor, as elegant and as subterranean as his other effects, plays over the fact that art is only now beginning to deal with the history of the times, to create its own kind of negative of that nightmare world, instead of trying to describe it in positive and self-conscious terms. Ki’s subject, the world in which his father lived and died during the persecution and genocide of the war years, here becomes as “ordinary” as the June day in Dublin described by Joyce, but at the same time rich with implicit poetry and invisible pathos.
Although he carries the question-and-answer method as far as it will go, making it sinister and comic in turn, and always absorbingly full of the small details of a life, Ki manages to avoid the impression of monotony, or of reliance on any kind of formal literary experiment. On the contrary, the atmosphere of Hourglass may strike the reader as being rather traditional, as well as sui generis, and at times reminiscent of the most apparently improbable congeners, such as the later novels of Barbara Pym. Pym, like Ki, was fascinated by the minute pattern of a person’s existence—small things like a preference for the smell of a certain church, or for a certain brand of canned butter beans—which themselves take on hypnotic significance. In the same fashion his interrogators require E.S. to describe a padlock, a razor (“When did he switch from his high-quality Solingen razor to a cheap Tabula Rasa model?”), or a pair of shoes:
Antelope skin (imitation), gray, round tips, hard counters, size 45, six pairs of eyelets for round laces, double soles (tanned pigskin and cardboard), decorative perforations shaped like snowflakes and arranged in a semicircle at the toes, the same sort of perforations on both sides of the laces, flat heels, white double stitching along the soles, Bata model for the autumn and winter of 1940–41.
E.S. would have sympathized with the Pym character who spends her evenings sorting her hoard of plastic bags into their various sizes and E.S., too, has a wholly ecumenical fondness for the many religions of his polyglot domain, getting on better with the Orthodox priest than with the rabbi.
Ki and Pym are truly a part of their method, living in it and identified with it, but the same cannot be said of most other modern novelists who have adopted what might appear to be a new way of writing. They give the impression too often of realizing that the events of their epoch present a “challenge” to the novelist, and of sitting down deliberately to find some tactic and mode of workmanship which will dramatize and objectify these events. Ki’s imagination of his time is wholly internalized, as internalized as the beautiful and terrifying poetry of Paul Celan, whose parents were also victims of the Holocaust.
Ki’s world is without self-consciousness. But although Jirí Weil is a deservedly famous writer, and a veteran of the terrible age he describes (he survived the war in hiding near Prague by pretending to have committed suicide), he nonetheless gives in Mendelssohn Is On The Roof the impression of being himself consciously outside the world of his writing, using the novel for demonstrative and ideological purposes. We may honor him for it, just as we honor Arthur Koestler or Milan Kundera, but it does not produce true individuality within the novel. Nonetheless, Mendelssohn Is On The Roof, originally published in Prague in 1960, is a worthy predecessor of the more famous Life with a Star, which came out four years later, a remarkable account of the life of a Jewish survivor in wartime Prague.
An SS aspirant in Prague, Julius Schlesinger, whose ambiguous surname makes him determined to demonstrate how good a German he is, is ordered to remove the statue of Mendelssohn from the concert hall roof. But which statue is it? Using a crude criterion the officer opts for the one with the biggest nose, who turns out to be Richard Wagner. Complications of a Schweik-like nature ensue, as when the statue motif merges into that of the avenging Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a performance of which is given before Reinhard Heydrich in the newly opened Prague Rudolfinum. Such episodes are varied with a straight retelling of dire historic event. The terrible Heydrich, “Protector” of Moravia, is assassinated by a squad of trained Czechs sent from England; but this remarkable true episode, which led to the Lidice massacre, is best documented in factual accounts and war histories, which relate its sequel in the Prague church where the avengers took refuge and were destroyed to a man. In our terror-conscious times it is singular to think of the debonair Gestapo chief, in his gorgeous death’s-head uniform, driving daily—a perfect target—from Schloss to office in his open Mercedes, the swastika fluttering on the long bonnet.
Jirí Weil’s novel ends with the advance of the victorious Red Army, a climax of unambiguous joy, for the novel was published in the Sixties in Prague, although the author had by then been expelled from the Communist party. Much more moving are the scenes of the deaths of two little Jewish girls at the hands of the Gestapo. They have been hidden in a well-wisher’s house, but when this protector is arrested they have no choice but to come out and are picked up first by the Czech police and afterward by the Gestapo. The story of their end, chanting nursery rhymes and refusing to reveal their hiding place is as pathetic and touching as some of those in Leonid Grossmann’s great wartime novel, Stalingrad. Simplicity in such matters can still pay off if the writer is good enough, and Jirí Weil, who died in 1959, at times clearly was.
Such simplicity, if the writer can achieve it, is more effective than any number of comic bright ideas, such as the statue of Mendelssohn on the roof, or—in Josef Skvorecký’s The Miracle Game—a statue of Saint Joseph that bows to the congregation and causes consternation and a witch-hunt among the Czechoslovakian Party authorities. Naturally enough the miracle is never authenticated or explained, but the disturbance it causes gives occasion for Skvorecký’s accomplished and highly entertaining comedy. Although he is now teaching in Canada, having emigrated after the Soviet invasion in 1968 and set up the leading Czech press in exile, Skvorecký clearly knows the Prague milieu through and through; his account of the infighting among publishing houses and culture ministries is hilarious. With characteristic modesty, Skvorecký says nothing about his own splendid work in smuggling back to Prague clandestine imprints of his countrymen’s work—notably Havel and Kundera—which helped to keep life and hope alive for Czech intellectuals during the dark time after 1968.
The novel is full of memorable things, quite apart from politics and most of all of humor, the gadfly of every ideology. Danny Smiricky, the libidinous and jazz-loving young hero, a more intriguing European relative of Lucky Jim, appeared first in Skvorecký’s novel of 1959, The Cowards, and in The Engineer of Human Souls (translated in 1985), his sequel to The Miracle Game. It is for Danny, naturally enough, that a flirtatious young woman removes all her clothes and then has to jump in a lake to hide in the reeds when a priest comes along. Notwithstanding the shocking cold she gets as a result she decides to join the Church, as part of a general rebellion against virtue, virginity, and Communist respectability. Decidedly moving, too, is the portrait of Danny’s school principal, Ivana Hrozna, whose earnestness and heart of gold remind us that not all functionaries in Socialist Eastern Europe were either self-serving or hypocritical.
Both from inside and outside Russia the Party, with its apparatus, expedients, and tergiversations, is now subjected to a sort of satirical turkey-shoot from such novels as this one, with no closed season. Eventually the battue must die away, and where will the Central European novel turn then? No doubt it will find new sensibilities and a new material. These three examples all testify in their different ways to its continued vitality and enterprise, but Hourglass stands somewhat to one side and in a class of its own. It will probably be read when the politics of our age are forgotten, at least by the novel.
April 11, 1991