Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin (1966)

She was of an ancient family, a descendant of the first kings of the Angyar, and for all her poverty her hair shone with the pure, steadfast gold of her inheritance. The little people, the Füa, bowed when she passed them, even when she was a barefoot child running in the fields, the light and fiery comet of her hair brightening the troubled winds of Kirien.

Basically, knights in armour meet flying saucers. ‘My liege, the Starlords are upon us’. Starlords, yes, they’re called Starlords.

Original pulp cover of a joint edition of Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile

Rocannon’s World was Ursula K. Le Guin’s first novel. It was published in 1966 as an ‘Ace Double’, along with Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign. Though it inaugurated the cycle of sci fi stories and novels set in what came to be known as the ‘Hainish Cycle’ (after the planet Hain which is behind the Federation which sends out investigators to numerous other solar systems) the story is also rammed full of many of the elements of what is called ‘heroic fantasy’ – tall guys with swords, underground dwarves, forest people with mystical powers etc.

The anthropologist

As I’ve mentioned in my two previous le Guin reviews, the fact that she came from an academic family, and her father was a famous anthropologist, is astonishingly central to her fiction.

Here – as in The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed – the central protagonist is a highly intelligent outsider visiting a strange planet and carefully noting its culture, practices, history, myths, politics, religion and so on. He is, by profession, an ethnographer.

In fact the novel opens with a quote from the Abridged Handy Pocket Guide to Intelligent Life-forms (an anticipation of The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy) about the planet he visits, which I quote in full:

Galactic Area 8, No. 62: FOMALHAUT II.

High-Intelligence Life Forms. Species Contacted:

Species I:

A) Gdemiar (singular Gdem): Highly intelligent, fully hominoid nocturnal troglodytes, 120-135 cm. in height, light skin, dark head-hair. When contacted these cave-dwellers possessed a rigidly stratified oligarchic urban society modified by partial colonial telephathy, and a technologically oriented Early Steel culture. Technology enhanced to Industrial, Point C, during League Mission of 252-254. In 254 an Automatic Drive ship (to-from New South Georgia) was presented to oligarchs of the Kiriensea Area corn-munity. Status C-Prime.

B) Füa (singular Fian): Highly intelligent, fully hominoid, diurnal, av. ca. 130 cm. in height, observed individuals generally light in skin and hair. Brief con~ tacts indicated village and nomadic communal societies, partial colonial telepathy, also some indication of short-range TK. The race appears a-technological and evasive, with minimal and fluid culture-patterns. Currently untaxable. Status E-Query.

Species II:

Liuar (singular Liu): Highly intelligent, fully hominoid, diurnal, av. height above 170 cm., this species possesses a fortress/village, clan-descent society, a blocked technology (Bronze), and feudal-heroic culture. Note horizontal social cleavage into 2 pseudo-races: (a: Olgyior, “midmen,” light-skinned and dark-haired; (b: Angyar, “lords,” very tall, dark-skinned, yellow-haired)

And a little later in the narrative:

Number 62: FOMALHAUT II.

Type AE

Carbon Life. An iron-core planet, diameter 6,600 miles, with heavy oxygen-rich atmosphere. Revolution: 800 Earthdays 8 hrs. 11 min. 42 sec. Rotation: 29 hrs. 51 min. 02 sec. Mean distance from sun 3.2 A U, orbital eccentricity slight. Obliquity of ecliptic 27° 20′ 20″ causing marked seasonal change. Gravity .86 Standard.

Four major landmasses, Northwest, Southwest, East and Antarctic Continents, occupy 38% of planetary surface.

Four satellites (types Perner, Loklik, R-2 and Phobos). The Companion of Fomalhaut is visible as a superbright star.

Nearest League World: New South Georgia, capital Kerguelen (7.88 It. yrs.). History: The planet was charted by the Elieson Expedition in 202, robot-probed in 218.

First Geographical Survey, 235-6. Director: J. Kiolaf. The major landmasses were surveyed by air (see maps 3114-a, b, c, 3115-a, b.).Landings, geological and biological studies and HILF contacts were made only on East and Northwest Continents (see description of intelligent species below).

Technological Enhancement Mission to Species I-A, 252-4. Director: J. Kiolaf (Northwest Continent only.)

Control and Taxation Missions to Species I-A and II were carried out under auspices of the Area Foundation in Kerguelen, N.S.Ga., in 254, 258, 262, 266, 270; in 275 the planet was placed under Interdict by the Allworld HILF Authority, pending more adequate study of its intelligent species.

First Ethnographic Survey, 321, Director: G. Rocannon.

The background facts

So, because she is depicting an entire world and its peoples and languages and religions and histories, as with Le Guin’s other novels, there are a lot of facts to process and assimilate.

Gaverel Rocannon is a 43-year-old (p.45) ethnographer from the planet Davenant (p.81), who works for the League of All Worlds. As the name suggests this is an alliance of a hundred or so planets across the galaxy, inhabited by humanoids who find it reasonably easy to communicate with each other.

A hundred years earlier the first visitors from the Federation landed on Fomalhaut II, established that there were three intelligent species on the planet, and decided the Gdemiar, the nocturnal troglodyes, known on the planet as the ‘Claymen’, were the most technologically advanced, and gave them a basic spaceship and some tech to urge along their scientific evolution.

This is because the League is expecting at any moment a return of some feared extra-galactic force to attack them, and is reaching out and allying with as many other races as possible.

However, Rocannon, as a sensitive ethnologist, had his doubts about this policy, doubts which were confirmed when a beautiful maiden of the Angyar i.e. tall, blonde warrior caste, – named the Lady Semley – arrived in the spaceship left with the Claymen, because she insisted on reclaiming a precious jewel which the Starlords had taken away. Dumb-founded by the appearance of her, and half a dozen trog-men, Rocannon, at the museum on Kerguelen – eight light-years away from their planet – graciously handed it back.

However, when the maiden arrived back at her planet it was to find her husband dead and her baby grown into a woman. Inter-stellar travel took only days for her but sixteen years have passed in her absence. She runs off mad into the woods.

The plot

That story, which has passed into local folklore opens the novel.

It is intriguing to have such a long passage told in olde worlde, fake folk tale style, juxtaposed with the rest of the narrative which are cast in much more factual, sci fi style (apparently, the story of Semley’s Necklace was, originally, published as a stand-alone story in a sci fantasy magazine in 1964).

The second part opens with Rocannon on the planet Fomalhaut II, having persuaded his bosses to be more sensitive with the inhabitants, to enforce an embargo on interventions, while he sensitively studies the inhabitants.

Unfortunately, we’ve barely met him and his host, the tall Angyar Lord Mogien of Hallan, before the plot takes a dramatic lurch forward. Rocannon had parked his spaceship just over the hills from the castle of Hallan, when it is attacked and vaporised. His 13 colleagues with it, and all their notes, and tech.

News comes in that other settlements have been attacked and so Mogien undertakes to help Rocannon go to the caves of the Claymen to see if the old spaceship they were given seventy years ago contains a comms device to get in touch with Rocannon’s home base.

The Claymen take them deep into their underground caves and past all the shining new devices they’ve invented with Starlord encouragement, but their lord says No Dice. But Rocannon does get access to a radio and overhears part of the Enemy transmission. He doesn’t understand the language but the Enemy use Cetian numerals (all the universe uses Cetian numerals). He records them and realises they are co-ordinates (p.38). He will travel to the location indicated, in the south, and see what he can do to identify and stop the Enemy.

Lord Mogien says he will go with Rocannon on this adventure and bring some of his liege ‘midmen’. Mogien’s mother, Lady Haldre (the daughter of the Lady Semley who went mad) gives Rocannon back the Lady Semly’s necklace, as a lucky charm when he takes Mogien with him, to protect her son who his mother fears will die on the mission (p.41).

En route they come across Kyo, the survivor of a Fian village which has been destroyed. And thus, this small group of humans, alien and a sort of elf set off on a mission to save their world. Ring any bells? It would only need to be some men, a dwarf, an elf and a wizard, and you’d have Lord of The Rings.

In fact the small and mysterious Fian, Kyo, names Rocannon Olhor, meaning The Wanderer, and mysteriously announces that his coming, and his adventure, and his motley companions, were all foretold!

Adventures

They engage in ariel combat with the men of Lord Ogoren, the Lord-Errant of Plenot (p.47). I haven’t mentioned that Mogien and Rocannon and their handful of helpers are flying south riding windsteeds. Elsewhere referred to as gryphoncats (p.71), windsteeds are clearly a kind of tiger-sized wild cat with wings, which can be tamed, saddled and ridden by men. Ridden in to battle, too, rather thrillingly a battle during which Lord Mogien spears his man, but Rocannon gets a nasty barbed arrow in the calf.

Lord Mogien riding a windsteed

Having vanquished the recalcitrant lord by the simple expedient of dropping flaming brands onto his little castle, Mogien, Rocannon et all are rowed across the sea by the lord’s men, men of Tolen. However, as they near the cliffs of the southern shore, it is stormy, and one of the boats capsizes. Rocannon rescues Kyo, but all his remaining equipment, ray gun, maps etc, go to the bottom of the sea.

The survivors make it ashore the southern land of Fiern. They have three windsteeds left, four can ride two apiece on two of them, but Lord Mogien is such a man that a windsteed can noly carry him. So he tells his man Yahan to get back in the boat of Tolen and go home. Yahan refuses, and Mogien makes to strike him, so the man runs off.

The others set off marching south but Rocannon, pausing to pick up a promising stick to help him walk with, loses the others in the fog and it promptly knocked over the head and abducted. He regains consciousness tied to the stake in the primitive castle belonging to Zgama, Master of the Long Bay (p.55), who Rocannon outstares in a staring competition, but who gets his men to light the brands around Rocannon’s feet, with a view to burning him to death.

Unfortunately, Zgama, Master of the Long Bay doesn’t know that Rocannon is wearing his impermasuit, an invisible suit which gives complete bodily protection and so he endures as much flaming pyre as Zgama and his men can make, to their astonishment. After a couple of nights none other than Yahan sneaks into the castle, sets Rocannon free, and helps him escape. What if Mogien finds them? He will be duty bound to slay Yahan. Rocannon solves the dilemma by making Yahan his liege man, and therefore protected.

Much the worse for wear they come to the simple hut of a peasant Piai who after initial reluctance tells them there is another sound they must cross if they’re heading south. After a few days resting with Piai, he is joined by two fellows who have a mean look and sure enough, they draw a knife and say they’ll row the pair across the sound but in return for their riches. An unstable situation evolves in which they are rowed across the water, one man holding a knife to Yahan’s throat: at the last moment Rocannon throws them Lady Semly’s jewel, which he’d been keeping in a leather back ground his neck, and he and Yahan drive into the water and swim to the shore.

It is a dry flay vast land. They set off south, existing off streamwater and fruits and berries but both become thinner as the land  grows more arid. Camping at night, they are troubled by shadowy shapes flitting just out of sight. They had just decided to pack it and turned round to head back to the coast when swooping out of the sky comes… Lord Mogien and his men on their windsteeds! Hurray!

Mogien bridles at the sight of Yahan, but when Rocannon explains that he has made him his servant Mogied laughs at being outwitted. Not only that, but they had found Piai and his surly mates on the shore, and forced them to admit that they’d rowed Rocannon et al across the sea, and also… recovered Lady Semly’s necklace, which Mogien now throws to Rocannon. They ascertained our hero’s precise location because the Fian Kyo used his mindspeech / telepathy powers.

They fly south, and bivouac at a stream come nightfall. In the iddle of the night they are ambushed by strange tall thin spectral figures which stun them. Rocannon wakes up in a beautifully designed and built room in a palace, to find his friends comatose by his side. Long story short: he realises he is in a kind of hive-city and their captors are thin insect-link creatures with wings – the Winged Ones of ancient legend – and his friends have been stunned but are fed a little water, so that they can be give to the larvae of the Winged Ones to suck dry.

Rocannon is left free to wander round the beautifully laid out city and feel helpless, until he comes across some small furry animals which have a very primitive speech – the Kiemhrir, who Kyo also calls

‘Wordmasters, wordlovers, the eaters of words, the nameless ones, the lithe ones, long remembering.’ (p.86)

The Kiemhrir revive his paralysed colleagues (one has died) and Rocannon, Mogien, Yahan and Kyo whistle for the windsteeds who promptly arrive, and they make their escape.

Now they journey south towards the high mountains, staying at a succession of Fian village, which give the ethnographer insight into their culture and opportunity to bring out Kyo’s uncanny quietness and wisdom. But he prefers to stay at the highest of the villages, leaving Mogian and Rocannon to fly on over the high ice mountain peaks and down into the warm valleys on the other side.

Recovering on the downward slope they see a shadow at night. Mogien insists it is his death, his destiny.

Later he goes scouting below on the windsteed, and Rocannon climbs up to a ledge to get water for Yahan, who is really weak and suffering.

But Rocannon finds a dark cleft, entrance to a cave, and goes cold with fear. Inside is the shadow, the ancient voice, who offers him wisdom, but it will come at the price of what he loves. Rocannon agrees.

Emerging dazed from the cave he realises he has been given the ability of mindspeech: he can feel the minds of his enemies. And he knows one is near. He points out to Yahan something emerging from the clouds. It is one of the enemy helicopters equipped with a laser gun. As it takes aim at him and Yahan perched on their little mountain ledge, out of the clouds flies Lord Mogien on his windspeed and deliberately flies full tilt into the side of the helicopter, wrenching it from the skies, man, beast and machine tumbling to their deaths in the gulf below.

Next thing Rocannon knows he wakes in bed in Breygna Castle being tended by the beautiful Lady Ganye, daughter-in-law and heiress of the castle’s old lord. He is hurt, the helicopter’s laser gun crippled his right hand. Slowly she tends him back to health, he is visited by Yahan, who survived, albeit frostbitten and weakened. When he goes among the castle’s folk they turn away or bow. He is regarded as a sort of god for coming down from the forbidden mountain. Also something of the mindspeech shows. The Lady Ganye tells him about the invaders from the sky who have laid waste the land to the south and killed all inhabitants, including her own husband.

A hundred days of resting & recuperating, during which Rocannon’s mind reaches out and investigates every aspect of the base to the south. It has been set up by aliens from the planet Faraday who are using it as a base to attack and recruit other planets to their growing power.

One evening Rocannon gets Yahan to saddle the remaining windsteed, and he flies to the forest, ties up the creature and makes his way in darkness into the base. He enters the spaceship where he knows there is an ansible, a device which communicates instantly across infinite distances. He sets it for his home planet and sends a warning message giving precise location of the enemy base, then sneaks out, and back across the tarmac at night, to the forest and so away.

Primed by Rocannon’s information, an hour or so later the Faraday base disappears in a fireball of death. Although men have to travel in sub-light spaceships, speed of light spaceships have been created which can be guided by computer – and programmed to destroy.

As dawn breaks Rocannon arrives back at Breygna Castle where the beautiful Lady Ganye asks him to stay. She has fallen in love with him, as tall, willowy ladies fair in isolated castles often do with brave and handsome warriors…

And stay he does. Eight years later a spaceship from the League arrives (no manned spaceship can travel faster than light) to find Rocannon has died in the meantime, mourned and loved by his widow and people. And so he was never to learn that the League goes on to name the planet after him – Rocannon’s World.

Thoughts

I liked it. In many ways I liked it better than the later, prize-winning novels, because it is more purely and unashamedly fantasy, with a new adventure and a new uncanny adversary around every corner — whereas the later books are ‘tackling issues’ with all the sometimes wearing earnestness which that implies.

It’s a boys’ adventure story with flying tigers and ray guns. What’s not to love 🙂

Credit

Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin was published by Ace Books in 1966. In 1996 it was republished along with its sequels, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, in a volume called Worlds of Exile and Illusion. All page references are to the 2015 paperback edition of the Worlds volume.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – planetary romance or sci fantasy set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who attacked his spaceship
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the impoverished, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything – the novel is a searching exploration of the psychology of a propertyless civilisation

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

Lord Berosty rem ir Ipe came to Thangering Fastness and offered forty beryls and half the year’s yield from his orchards as the price of a Foretelling, and the price was acceptable.

Le Guin’s anthropological approach

This is the second Ursula Le Guin novel I’ve read and I’m beginning to realise why all the author blurbs, articles and essays about her tend to start with the fact that she was the daughter of an eminent anthropologist.

It’s because her books are interested in creating whole fictional societies – with languages, customs, social systems and networks and values different from ours – and then sending an outsider into them to explore them on our behalf.

These worlds are often, at root, so schematic that they are indeed like essays in sociology or politics or philosophy. This was very true of The Dispossessed, which amounted to a kind of thought experiment – what would happen if dissidents from an authoritarian capitalist system didn’t just leave their country, but left the entire planet to go and colonise another one, nearby, and set up a cash-free, government-free anarcho-syndicalist society?

To find out, let’s send an inhabitant of the poor but honest utopia back to the corrupt capitalist mother culture so that he (and the reader) can compare and contrast the two of them.

The Left Hand of Darkness dates from five years earlier, but the recipe is similar: imagine a planet with one dominating feature and two fully imagined and distinctive societies, then send in an outsider to explore it for us, report back to us, describe the climate and culture and customs and so on.

And that’s exactly what happens here. In this case it is the planet ‘Gethen’, which the first visitors from the Hainish Federation named Winter because it is, er, always winter – a deep freeze world, a world of snow and cold, ice and pine forests in the mist (and hence, we are informed, the sixty-two Karhidish words for different types and conditions of snow, p.169).

And so it is that the narrative of The Left Hand of Darkness consists of the reports of the envoy Genly Ai back to the Federation – or, to give it its proper name, the Ekumenical Scope.

Genly’s neat, chapter-sized reports are interspersed with folk tales and legends from Gethen which pad out our understanding of their people and folklore – and also the point of view of a completely different narrator, a high-born inhabitant of Gethen, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who gives his (or its – see below about hermaphroditism) own first-hand account of its adventures, which join up and then become utterly entwined with Genly’s.

Fantasy nomenclature

So I can see the fictional intention very clearly… but… but… I have real trouble buying into these fantasy novels.

The most obvious reason is the names. The names Le Guin gives planets, people and places and their customs are often so preposterous that I wonder if she’s daring people not to have a fit of the giggles.

Thus the envoy from the Ekumenical Scope is named Genly Ai, her initial contact at the court of King Argaven XV is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, and the text sounds like this:

[My story] starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odhar-hahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One. It is always the Year One here. Only the dating of every past and future year changes each New Year’s Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now. So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide…

Ehrenrang. The book is absolutely crammed full of silly sci-fi fantasy names and people, and whether you take to it depends largely on whether you enjoy reading about made-up histories of made-up people with fake-exotic made-up names.

Estraven’s house, sign of the king’s high favor, was the Corner Red Dwelling, built 440 years ago for Harmes, beloved kemmering of Emran III, whose beauty is still celebrated, and who was abducted, mutilated, and rendered imbecile by hirelings of the Inner-land Faction.

As well as sounding plain silly, a more important issue I have with the names is their lack of depth. They all have an eerie sense of familiarity which, I think, is created by mashing up vague bastardised memories of medieval history, with exotic names which seem to have come out of the Central Asia of Genghiz Khan’s time. They all tremble on the edge of pastiche or parody.

‘You know that Karhide and Orgoreyn have a dispute concerning a stretch of our border in the high North Fall near Sassinoth. Argaven’s grandfather claimed the Sinoth Valley for Karhide, and the Commensals have never recognized the claim. A lot of snow out of one cloud, and it grows thicker. I’ve been helping some Karhidish farmers who live in the Valley to move back east across the old border, thinking the argument might settle itself if the Valley were simply left to the Orgota, who have lived there for several thousand years.’

The entire novel is written in this style, with this kind of clutter of faux-exotic names, all the way through, on every page. It’s not an original style. The names sound like they could come from Star Trek, the TV series of which came to an end the same year Left Hand of Darkness was published, 1969. (Top Star Trek enemies included the Klingons, the Cardassians, the Lore, the Romulans, the Holodeck, any of whom could step easily into this book.)

So the degree of your enjoyment will depend on how much imaginative energy you want to invest in characters with names like Ong Tot Oppong, Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and Lang Heo Hew. When I read about the summer palace at Warrever, I thought ‘whaddever’, indeed.

Hermaphroditism

Anyway, the regrettable thing is that – as in the Left Hand of Darkness – inextricably mixed up with the silly names are genuinely interesting ‘ideas’. The winter theme is developed up to a point, but far more dominant is the fact that all the inhabitants of Gethen are hermaphrodites. 

In her interest in sex and sex equality, Le Guin sometimes seems like a prophet of our own times, obsessed as we are with ‘gender’ and gender equality and gender issues and transgender rights and so on, and in this book she approaches it with characteristic thoroughness and imaginative depth.

Chapter Seven of the book is a report from another investigator from the Ekumen who, if I understand the dating system correctly, visited Gethen with the first landing party some 50 years before Genly, and wrote a thorough report on all aspects of the inhabitants’ hermaphroditism. Her name is Ong Tot Oppong (stop tittering at the back) but Le Guin’s working through of what a hermaphrodite society would really look and feel and think like makes for fascinating reading.

On the one hand there’s the biology – each Gethenite enters estrus for a week once every month, enters into a bond with another Gethenite, and then subtle hormonal changes decide which one will develop their latent male or female genitalia: everyone has them, it is in the subtle pair-bonding period that hormones decide which one will develop their genitals enough to be used. With the result that a Gethenite can both bear children and father children; may have borne children to one partner, but be father to the children of another partner. It matters not (her fake medieval style is catching) since the children (like the children in The Dispossessed) are taken away and raised communally.

Here, amid all the silly names and fantasy clutter, are some really thought-provoking ideas:

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological
effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be (as Nim put it) ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be – psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

The most striking speculation in this anthropologist’s report is that the absence of a fixed male or female gender may explain the absence of war, which can be seen as a vainglorious exaggeration of all the worst male characteristics (a theory attributed to the famous sociologist, Tumass Song Angot, p.96)

As in her treatment of an anarchist, egalitarian, propertyless society in The Dispossessed, Le Guin is excellent at thinking through her ideas to great depth and considering all their ramifications.

Thus her envoy gets caught up in the palace politics of Karhide (one of Gethen’s two major cultures) but the novel really binds and engrosses as we are drawn into his honest depiction of his confusion and difficulty in understanding such an alien condition – here, as in numerous other places, the anthropologist’s daughter is doing something really interesting.

Amazingly, by the end of the book, she has you seeing gendered human beings as the weird ones, with several of the intelligent Gethenites pointing out how tiresome, wearing and confusing it must be to be in heat all the time as humans, alone of all mammals, in fact are. In Gethenite society people in heat all the time are referred to as ‘perverts’ and the intelligent people Genly talks to find it hard to overcome their repulsion at the notion of humanoids living in such an icky, sticky condition.

Although, here again, with the best will in the world, I found myself stumbling over the way interesting ideas are inextricably tied up with ludicrous fantasy elements.

Take just the word Le Guin invents for the period during which Gethenite couples pair off – kemmering – it’s just one example of the many places where the high-minded thought experiments are undermined by the dubious or downright laughable words she coins.

At some moments, the narrative grips you as if they really were reports from a strange new world; but the next minute she gives out such an over-ripe burst of pseudo-medieval diction, or preposterous names, or silly made-up words, that I couldn’t help thinking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

About two hundred years ago in the Hearth of Shath in the Pering Storm-border there were two brothers who vowed kemmering to each other. In those days, as now, full brothers were permitted to keep kemmer until one of them should bear a child, but after that they must separate; so it was never permitted them to vow kemmering for life. Yet this they had done. When a child was conceived the Lord of Shath commanded them to break their vow and never meet in kemmer again.

‘And the Lord of Shath commandeth that thou shalt never kemmer again!” – Imagine John Cleese saying it

When Ai’s contact, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, is banished for conspiring with the envoy – Genly Ai – to undermine the Kingdom of Karhide, Ai decides it’s also time to make himself scarce and so journeys into the mountains, faring through the passes of Wehoth, in the shadow of the Fastness of Ariskostor, in order to reach the Fastness of Otherhord, where dwell the nine legendary Foretellers of the Handdarra.

Is that anywhere near the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’, I wanted to ask.

That’s what the Yomeshta believe of Meshe: that he saw past and future clear, not for a moment, but all during his life after the Question of Shorth…

Ah, the Question of Shorth. Of course, the world-changing Question of Shorth.

I think that Tolkien is the lord and master of fantasy fiction because he was well aware that he was channelling the myths and legends of North Europe into fictional form and, crucially,

  1. He knew those myths and legends inside out (he translated many of them)
  2. He knew their languages

The names in The Lord of The Rings have a just-so, just-right quality because Tolkien took many of them from existing Old English or Old German or Old Norse sources, and his intimate familiarity with the sources underpins every sentence.

Tolkien was a philologist by profession, and so his first study was words, words across the full range of Dark Age ad medieval Germanic languages, and so his use of words – and his invention of entire other languages, such as Elvish or Dwarvish – have a phenomenal amount of historical knowledge, authority and depth behind them.

With Le Guin and the hundreds of other authors who have written space fantasy, you have the opposite feeling: you get the sense that they’ve had this or that good idea for a planet (an egalitarian utopia, or a world of hermaphrodites, say) and have then mapped out a narrative which lets the protagonist explore the planet and its culture and customs in some depth – i.e. the ideas and the stories are often deeply worked out – and sometimes so thought-provoking as to be actually gripping…

But by lacking a profound rootedness in genuine myth and legend and, above all, by lacking a sure grasp of medieval languages, both the stories themselves and, above all, the names and the made-up words which play such a central role in sustaining belief in the made-up societies with their made-up customs, the words and names have a shallow, willed, at times laughable quality.

Long ago, before the days of King Argaven I who made Karhide one kingdom, there was blood feud between the Domain of Stok and the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land.

The Domain of Stok.

Eastern religion

In the first sentence of Le Guin’s encyclopedia entry it tells you not only about her 1. being the child of a leading anthropologist, 2. about her interest in ‘gender’ but that 3. she was interested in Eastern philosophy, specifically Taoism.

This is not exactly buried in her fiction – it’s upfront and obvious in both the books I’ve read. In The Dispossessed it is cleverly integrated into the story because the main character is a physicist thinking about the nature of time in a way which overlaps the hard equations of physics with mystical speculations about the nature of time and being.

Here, the Eastern interest felt less integrated, more of a bolt-on tourist feature. Genly Ai tells us that in the kingdom of Karhide are those who practice Handdara and that:

The Handdara is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. It is elusive. It is always somewhere else. Its only fixed manifestation is in the Fastnesses, retreats to which people may retire and spend the night or a lifetime…

I imagine the incorporation of pseudo-Eastern mysticism was one of the many elements which helped make The Left Hand of Darkness a cult classic in the late-1960s, and helped make Le Guin’s name as a kind of fantasy novelist for the Woodstock generation.

The book came out only a year after the Beatles went to stay with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, and the mystical chapters don’t hold back.

A hundred yards beyond him stood another statue, in blue and white; this one never moved or glanced our way all the time we talked with the first one. They were practicing the Handdara discipline of Presence, which is a kind of trance – the Handdarata, given to negatives, call it an untrance – involving self-loss through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Though the technique is the exact opposite of most techniques of mysticism it probably is a mystical discipline, tending towards the experience of Immanence;

Or as George Harrison once said: ‘What is here is elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.’

Or as Jeff Beck put it: ‘You’re everywhere and nowhere, baby – that’s where you’re at.’

I suppose that – as with the exploration of the anarcho-syndicalism in The Dispossessed – if this was the first place that you ever came across these Eastern and mystical ideas, then the book would make a deep impact on you, might become a kind of bible of new ideas for the impressionable schoolchild or student.

And at some moments the book does, in fact, express these and related ideas in powerful imaginative settings (amid fantasy mountain fastnesses, full of weird asexual monks), and gives some of the characters interesting and serious things to say:

‘The unknown, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action.’

But… but… When she describes the frenzied conclave of the filthy, possessed Foretellers of Otherhord, and the way the one in kemmer paws the other one, while those around screech their prophesy… My imaginative bond with the narrative snaps. The Domain of Stok, I think: Is that anywhere near the Fastness of Oxo?

Bible diction

One of the most irritating aspects of this kind of fantasy fiction is the way it shamelessly pastiches the diction of the King James translation of the Bible, on the assumption that readers will find it ‘profound’ and archaic and deep.

Being more familiar with the original King James text than with fantasy fiction, I can’t help finding all these efforts cheap and tacky, a quick-fix way of trying to win respect for the ‘depth’ of your fake folk tales or imaginary myths. Here’s a ripe slice of fake Bible from one of the ‘Gethenite legends’ which are interpolated throughout the text:

When Ennoch was an old man dwelling in the plains of Rer he met a man from his own country, and asked him, ‘How fares Shath Domain?’ The other told him that Shath fared ill. Nothing prospered there in hearth or tilth, all being blighted with illness, the spring seed frozen in the ground or the ripe grain rotten, and so it had been for many years. Then Ennoch told him, ‘I am Getheren of Shath’, and told him how he had gone up on the Ice and what he had met with there. At the end of his tale he said, ‘Tell them at Shath that I take back my name and my shadow.’ Not many days after this Getheren took sick and died. The traveler carried his words back to Shath, and they say that from that time on the domain prospered again, and all went as it should go in field and house and hearth. (p.25)

This is just a ridiculous pastiche of the Old Testament. Ennoch indeed. Any relation to the Biblical Enoch, by any chance? And yet, there is, as a glance at the jam-packed fantasy shelves in any bookshop will show, an enduring audience for this kind of would-be profound, pastiche Bible, fake medieval diction.

‘Seven years we were kemmerings, and had two sons. Being of his flesh born they had his name Foreth rem ir Osboth, and were reared in that Clanhearth. Three years ago he had gone to Orgny Fastness and he wore now the gold chain of a Celibate of the Foretellers.’

‘Being of his flesh born.’

Another example of the way this kind of fiction piggy-backs on the genuine otherness of Christianity, particularly Dark Age and medieval Christianity, is the way the clock is divided into First Hour, Second Hour, Third Hour etc, all announced with great seriousness, as if they weren’t a blatant rip-off of the liturgical hours of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and so on. As if the ideas of mountain fastnesses where monks and holy men practice strange rites wasn’t entirely ripped off from more serious and worthy religions, ripped out of context and sellotaped into narratives about spaceships and alien envoys.

The book has a three-page appendix explaining in detail the period of Gethen’s orbit around its sun (8406 Standard Terran Hours), its daily orbit, the period of rotation of Gethen’s moon (26 days, in case you need to know), the Day and then the meaning of the Hours. Onnetherhad, the 18th of the month (p.61) (The Gethenites often think in terms of 13s, 26s and so on, a function of the lunar calendar, p.170)

I couldn’t help thinking, again and again, that this kind of fantasy fiction wants the praise and profundity of real myth and real religion – it borrows the clothes of the Bible and of pagan myth – without asking the reader to engage with any of the difficulty and the actual strangeness of genuine pagan myth – the difficulty of reading the strange and obscure Prose Edda, for example – or of the difficult doctrines of Christianity.

At its worst, it is a Big Mac version of religion and mysticism – cheap and garish and thin and insubstantial.

A universe of human

Unrelated to its rip-off of religious diction, there is another deeper problem with reading all sci fi stories of this ilk – which is the notion that humans, more or less like us, could be inhabiting numerous other planets around the universe.

The odds against there being loads of other planets inhabited by humanoid creatures are immense, and the odds against them being exactly the same shape and size and talking, and talking languages which we can learn pretty easily, are ridiculous.

Apparently, elsewhere in the ‘Hainish Cycle’ of novels and stories she is explicit that the Hain are the oldest of all the inhabited peoples and they populated the other planets with humans like themselves. We really are all descended from one mother race. I like science fiction, so I like that as a sci fi idea, but it doesn’t quite totally get her off the hook. Having set out to be a ‘serious’ author and put forward ‘serious’ ideas, invites the fairly obvious thought humanoids ‘seeded’ across a wide variety of planets, millions of years ago, would in fact have evolved in all kinds of directions, into different shapes and abilities, and over one million years would have lost anything they’d originally had in common. Compare aborigenes and Indonesians whose lineages diverged only tens of thousands of years ago. A million years divergence would result in wild differences.

And yet, in the novels, the only difference between these races from different planets is some are a bit taller, some a bit shorter, some a bit hairier, some a bit smoother, than the others. they all basically think and speak and act alike, in fact they’ve got more in common than the inhabitants of the diverse London borough I live in (with its population of Asians, Tamils, Sikhs, Muslims, Chinese, Somalis and Eritreans, Nigerians and West Indians).

The plot

Terran envoy Genly Ai has been sent by the Ekumenical Scope to explain to the king of Karhide, one of the several kingdoms on Gethen, that there is a universe of inhabited planets out there, organised into the Ekumen, and they wish to introduce the inhabitants of Gethen to it.

But King Argaven XV is mad. Genly has been working through the King’s Minister (known as the King’s Ear) Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. But the king doesn’t believe there is intelligent life in outer space and so thinks Ai is a spy and Estraven is conspiring with him to overthrow him, the king. So the king banished Estraven who packs his bags and heads east to the rival country of and Ai, after an edgy interview with the mad king, also realises it’s time to leave and himself travels to Orgoreyn.

He travels over the high snowy mountains where he makes a detour to witness the famous Foretellers in action – a chaotic shaman performance involving half madmen, but which does climax with an answer he set them: will Gethen be in the Ekumen within five years? The answer is Yes.

Estraven is replaced by the king’s cousin Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and when it is announced that King Argaven XV is pregnant it begins to look like a coup by Tibe.

Meanwhile, Ai is received by the Orgata authorities and impressed by the quickness and efficiency of its bureaucracy and the orderliness of its countryside and capital city. Ai gives a dry factual anthropological report on their habits, especially their child-rearing, and how, since everything is owned and run by the state, there is full employment. The Orgata are very different from the Karhiders –

Orgota, people trained from birth in a discipline of cooperation, obedience, submission to a group purpose ordered from above. The qualities of independence and decision were weakened in them. They had not much capacity for anger. (p.173)

He is placed in the enthusiastic hands of Commissioner Shusgis. To his surprise, at a banquet, he finds himself sitting next to Esraven. Estraven had quite a torrid time of it after he left the court, working his way along the coast as a lowly fish-worker, until spotted and picked up by the Orgata authorities.

There are complicated manoeuvres between characters, but basically none of the Orgatas believe Ai and she is abruptly arrested one night, after having been a guest a a government feast, taken to a big prison, injected with truth drugs and interrogated for days.

When she comes to she is one among 26 or so prisoners, stripped naked, covered in vomit and faces, trapped in the sealed metal back of some horse-drawn cart which spends days and days climbing higher into the mountains, with no food, and only a jar of water once a day between them, as one by one they die off or huddle together for filthy body warmth.

Genly arrives at a labour camp up in the frozen snowy north – the so-called Pulefen Farm – and describes the brutal regime, lack of food, sleeping facilities etc. It is clearly a pastiche of a Soviet labour camp, but without the dignity or authority of being real. For real descriptions of labour camps, read:

Estraven, back in the Orgata capital of Mishnory, having noticed Ai’s disappearance and realised the sceptics on the Grand Commensal didn’t believe his story and so probably also think Estraven must be some kind of traitor in league with him – decides to sneak out of Mishnory.

This he does, fabricating a pass as the fishermen he spent some time with showed him. He buys a sledge and food and joins a trapping party heading north, but then ducks out and off to the labour camp where he has discovered Ai is being held.

And he rescues him. He changes his papers to those of a prison guard, is accepted at the camp and learns the chores and routine, then one night stuns Ai’s (already sleeping unconscious) body, claims he’s dead so as to get past several sets of guards, then invokes the mystical strength, the dothe which adepts at Handdara can call on, to carry Ai’s body to the sledge he’s hidden in the forest, complete with tent and provisions.

Over the next few days both of them recover in the tent, eating the food, lighting small fires, sleeping, and then… the rescue turns into the largest single section of the book, the last third or so, occupying pages 190 to 290 of the 300-page SF Masterworks paperback.

Genly having handed over his ansible, the only way he has of contacting the Ekumenical spaceship which is out in space waiting a message from him – over to Orgata officials, and having been stripped absolutely naked before being shipped off to the labour camp; and Estraven having rescued him but himself now at risk of arrest for disappearing from official view in Mishnore, let alone helping Geny escape…

The only thing for this unlikely and reluctant pair to do is to embark on a massive, heroic, epic seventy-five day hike across the ice caps of Gethen, experiencing blizzards, snowstorms, slippery glaciers and treacherous crevices, by day strapped up to the sledge bearing all their kit, by night huddled in a small (but conveniently hi-tech and efficient) tent, round the (conveniently small, light and durable heater-cum-stove) warming up the (conveniently freeze-dried and light, nutritious) food blocks in a pan of warmed ice.

his is the core of the book, its narrative but especially its emotional core because, mirabile dictu, what happens is Genly finds himself falling in love with Estraven; while Estraven undergoes kemmering during the epic journey and delicately tells Genly he must avoid contact with him.

Both characters, therefore, undergo feelings and emotions quite outside the limit of human experience. Suddenly – as in the final sections of The Dispossessed – finally, you feel you’ve arrived at the core of a far more serious and searching and mysterious and wonderful work of fiction than the opening sections suggested.

Le Guin’s hand-drawn map of Gethen showing the two main states of Orgoreyn and Karhide, and the (top left) route of Genly and Estraven’s trek across the ice

The long journey and the shared privations, risks, fears and experiences of extreme cold, frostbite, snowstorms and so on which the pair experience together are the heart of the book.

The silly names fade away, for the pair could be sledging across Antarctica or Canada or Siberia. What is weird and wonderful is that Le Guin draws you into the eerie possibility of a previously unknown, unnamed emotion felt between a male human and a hermaphrodite alien. The book takes you to an entirely new place never before explored in literature. This is why it won prizes and made her name, not for the tiresome fol-de-rol about Ennoch of Rer and the Indwellers of Otherhord.

So deep does the pair’s suffering and endurance go, that Genly offers to teach Estraven the off-world skill of telepathy and after many failed attempts, finally manages to speak directly into the latter’s head – although, in a moment which is clearly meant to be deeply moving – he speaks in the voice of Estraven’s long-lost, estranged and dead younger brother – causing the Gethenite to shout with terror.

Eventually the pair survive their immense ordeal and come down into the villages of northern Karhide where they are made welcome in the way of all travellers in folk stories. good honest yeomen who don’t have much but share what they have with an open heart. Ooo-ar.

Except that the kindly old man who gives them shelter in fact betrays them to the Karhide authorities and Estraven, unwisely, tries to make a run for it on his skis across the snowy landscape.

He is shot down at the border by Karhidish gaurds who have been tipped off. As in a thousand buddy, adventure and war movies, his friend and – at least in emotional terms – his lover, the bewildered Genly, skis up just in time to hold Estraven’s gashed body as the Gethenite breathes his last.

Shocked and stunned, Genly is taken off by the guards to Ehrenrang, where he is treated kindly, given a personal doctor, lots of food and then meets the king again. This time they believe him, and he signals his spaceship to land.

Like so many voyagers to distant lands he now finds the appearance of his gendered colleagues – half tall and deep-voiced, half shorter and light-voiced – repulsive. This notion, of the traveller who has stayed so long with another race that he now finds his own people repulsive, dates back at least as far as Gulliver’s Travels, at the end of which, after living among the peaceful horse-like creatures for so long Gulliver finds he can’t stand the sight of his own hairy, savage brethren. And that was back in 1726. Two hundred and fifty three years before the Left Hand of Darkness was published.

As so often with genre fiction, with sci fi or fantasy, they sell themselves as being somehow bold new innovations and exciting new ideas – but they are, in fact, old old old fictional ideas, deliberately told in an old old old fake-Bible, faux-medieval diction.

Glossary

I compiled a glossary, for my own reference, and to give a sense of the made-up vocabulary.

Places

  • Ekumenical Scope – name of the federation of 83 inhabited planets (p.34)
  • Ehrenrang – capital of Karhide
  • Gethen – planet the book is set on
  • Hain –  the Prime World of the Ekumenical Scope (p.37)
  • Karhide – one of the nations of Gethen
  • Kerm Land
  • Kuseben on the Gulf, 85 miles from Ehrenrang (p.72)
  • Mishnory – capital of Orgereyn
  • Orgny Fastness – there are lots of fastnesses, remote communities up in the mountains
  • Orgoreyn – Karhide’s rival and neighbour: Orgota, adjective meaning of Orgoreyn
  • Otherhord – where the Indwellers of Otherhord live
  • the Pering Stormborder
  • Sassinoth – disputed location between Karhide and Orgoreyn
  • Terra – earth

Names

  • the Foretellers – go into a kind of trance and can tell the future
  • Genly Ai – Ekumen envoy to Gethen and main narrator of the story
  • halfdeads – Karhidish slang for the infertile
  • Handdara – mystical religion – Handdarata – followers of Handdara
  • the Indwellers or Otherhord
  • King Argaven XV of Karhide
  • Lord Meshe – figurehead of the Yomeshta, born 2,202 years ago (p.47) founder of the Yomesh cult (p.60)
  • the Lord of Shorth – come on, everyone knows who the Lord of Shorth is
  • Commensal Obsle –
  • Ong Tot Oppong – undercover Ekumenical visitor to Gethen, who compiles a detailed report on the natives’ hermaphroditism
  • Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe – King Argaven’s cousin, takes over running Karhide
  • Stabile – the Stabiles are the senior officials of the Ekumen who Ai reports back to (p.16)
  • Therem Harth rem ir Estraven – formerly chief minister to King Argaven, goes into exile and narrates a number of the chapters
  • Yegey –

Things

  • amha – parent in the flesh (p.92)
  • ansible – instant communicator owned by Hainish envoys, explained on page 37
  • Commensals – the Great Commensality of Orgoreyn is divided into 33 commensals or districts
  • dothe-strength cf thangen-sleep – deep sleep, ‘the dark sleep’, after you’ve willed a period of dothe-strength (p.196)
  • farfetching – Hainish word for training given to envoys in forming a holistic picture of the society they’re investigating (p.146)
  • foray – Getheian word for attack, violence
  • gossiwor – musical instrument played in royal processions
  • kemmer – process of sexualisation and emotional attachment which allows Gethenians to mate;
    • secher – first phase of kemmer
    • thorharmen – second phase of kemmer
    • thokemmer – culminant phase of kemmer
    • oskyommer – vowing kemmering to another Gethenian
  • the kyorremy , the upper chamber or parliament in Karhide which Estraven heads
  • lifewater – a drink (p.84), ‘a fierce licquor’ (p.134)
  • mind-speech – telepathy, brought to Terra by Rokkanians, according to Genly
  • nusuth – no matter, the wilful wish for ignorance among the Handdara
  • orsh – ‘a brown, sweetsour drink, strong in vitamins A and C, sugar, and a pleasant stimulant related to lobeline’
  • sarf – gutter Orgata meaning ‘trash’
  • shifgrethor – prestige, place, pride (p.13)
  • thore-forest – deep snowy pine forest

‘I’m a Yomeshta, praise to the nine hundred Throne-Upholders and blest be the Milk of Meshe, and one can be a Yomeshta anywhere. We’re a lot of newcomers, see, for my Lord Meshe was born 2,202 years-ago, but the Old Way of the Handdara goes back ten thousand years before that.’

Credit

The Left Hand of Darkness by Usrula Le Guin was published by Ace Books in 1969. All references are to the 2017 SF Masterworks paperback edition.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the spare, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

The Good Soldier Švejk, Part One: Behind the Lines by Jaroslav Hašek (1921)

Švejk or Schweik, Shveyk or Schwejk (pronounced sh-vague) is a cultural icon in his native Czechoslovakia. His name is a byword and forms the basis of an adjective – Švejkian – which describes the insouciance and devil-may-care attitude of the common man in the face of hostile officialdom.

Švejk is a survivor, an amiably simple-minded, middle-aged man who never takes offence or gets angry, who walks through life with a sweet smile on his face, who faces down the various jumped-up officials and army officers who try to break him with a calm, imperturbable gaze, a survivor with a ready fund of cheerful stories about friends and acquaintances, which are appropriate for every situation he finds himself in, no matter how challenging, happy as long as he has a pint in one hand and his pipe in the other.

The Good Soldier Švejk as drawn by Joseph Lada

The Good Soldier Švejk is a very long book at 750 pages in the Penguin paperback translation by Cecil Parrott. But, unlike many supposedly ‘comic classics’, it is actually genuinely funny, in the way that Švejk’s imperturbable good humour either disarms or drives mad the endless stream of policemen, coppers’ narks, prison warders, lunatic asylum officials, army officers, chaplains and so on who confront and try to break him.

Švejk just doesn’t care. He lives in a shabby boarding house, frets about his rheumatism, and trades in mongrel dogs which he blithely tells everyone are thoroughbreds and pedigrees although they’re nothing of the sort. Some years earlier he had done military service in the 91st regiment but been kicked out for idiocy. He has a certificate to prove it – a certificate of imbecility – which he is liable to bring out and present to perplexed officials in the spirit of being helpful, ‘Yes, your worship, I am a certified idiot, your worship’.

Plot summary, part one

The story begins in Prague with Švejk’s landlady Mrs Müller, giving Švejk news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that precipitates World War I. Švejk sets the tone by not grasping the importance of any of this, and mixing the archduke up with several other Ferdinands of his acquaintance.

He goes to the local pub, the Chalice, landlord Mr Pavilec, where a police spy, Bretschneider, is encouraging the drinkers to speak their minds about the news, and then promptly arresting them for treasonous talk.

Švejk is arrested and taken off to police headquarters where he discovers numerous other innocents are filling the cells. He hears their stories which reflect the absurdity and randomness of police and official procedures, one of the guiding themes of the book. (Later he learns that the completely harmless landlord Pavilec was arrested at the same time as him but convicted and given ten years.)

But it is also where Švejk first demonstrates his uncanny ability to stay calm and reasonable in the face of ranting officials, like the police inspector shouting abuse at him for being a dirty traitor.

Švejk being yelled at by ‘a gentleman with a cold official face and features of bestial cruelty’

Švejk is taken before an examining magistrate, then back to the cells, and is then paraded before medical experts who have to decide whether he really is such an idiot as he appears.

They refer him to a lunatic asylum, which he enjoys a lot despite being forced to wear a white gown and where he is inspected by another set of experts, this time psychiatrists.

Eventually Švejk is kicked out and taken by the police back to another police station. Here he’s put in a cell with an anxious middle-class man who’s been locked up for doing something disreputable and is pacing up and down cursing the impact it will have on his wife and children. Švejk tries to calm him by telling some of his endless fund of stories about people he’s met or known or heard of, though some of the stories are comically inappropriate like the tale of the man who hanged himself in a police cell.

Švejk is then released from custody but is being accompanied through the streets by a policeman when they see a small crowd around a poster of the Emperor on the wall and Švejk gives vent to a patriotic cheer, which prompts his rearrest and return to the police station (for stirring up crowds, causing civil unrest).

Švejk is brought before yet another police official who listens to his excuses and, in an unusually piercing scene, looks into his wide-foolish, baby blue eyes for a long moment and… decides to release him. Švejk walks forward, kisses his hand, and then exits the police station and makes his way back to the Chalice pub where this whole sequence began.

Commentary

All this happens in the first 50 or so pages, the first quarter of volume one – and you can see straightaway that the ‘plot’, such as it is, consists almost entirely of Švejk the little man being dragged before an apparently unending sequence of police, warders, investigators, magistrates, doctors, and psychiatrists.

It is, essentially, the same scene of the little man facing down officialdom, repeated again and again.

Plot summary, part two

Švejk discovers that Mrs Müller has taken lodgers into his room while he was away. Švejk kicks them out and life returns to its easy-going normality for a week or so. But then Švejk receives his call-up papers to report to the nearest army barracks.

Incongruously, and memorably, he gets Mrs Müller to wheel him to the recruitment offices in Prague in a wheelchair, while he clutches his crutches, teporarily unable to walk because of his rheumatism.

Švejk is transferred to a hospital for malingerers because of his rheumatism, where he discovers the inhumane and brutal treatment the poor and sick are subjected to (and which some die of). He attends a compulsory church service for the malingerers, where they are given a sweary drunken sermon from the disreputable chaplain, Otto Katz.

Švejk bursts into tears at the constant swearing and emotional battering of Katz’s sermon. Surprised, Katz asks to see him, then takes him on as his assistant.

Švejk is inspected by the learned doctors

This pair have various adventures containing broad satire at the church’s expense – bluffing their way through Catholic services they don’t understand, being too drunk to remember the words, losing various bits of holy equipment (particularly the scene where Švejk is sent to buy Holy Oil and ends up in an art shop where he is sold painters’ oil).

Then Katz drunkenly loses Švejk at cards to Lieutenant Lukáš, an army officer much given to drinking, womanising and gambling.

Lieutenant Lukáš and Švejk proceed to have a series of adventures of their own, the most memorable being:

  1. when one of the lieutenant’s innumerable lovers and mistresses turns up unexpectedly and demands to move into the lieutenant’s rooms, until Švejk has the simple idea of telegraphing her husband to come and collect her, which all goes off with surprising civility
  2. and when Švejk obtains a pet dog for the Lieutenant by the simple expedient of getting one of his mates in the dog-catching underworld to steal one for him

Lieutenant Lukáš is delighted with his new dog until he bumps in the street into its former owner, one Colonel Friedrich Kraus von Zilllergut, to whom the dog, of course, goes running, and who – alas – turns out to be Lukáš’s senior officer.

Furious, Colonel Friedrich promises to get Lukáš moved up to the front immediately. Lukáš returns to confront Švejk with the fact he concealed that the dog was stolen, and has gotten him (Lukáš ) turfed out of his cushy life and sent into danger. But when Švejk looks at him with his mild clear eyes Lukáš, like everyone else who tries to get angry with him, feels his fury fizzle out in the face of such stolid, good-tempered imbecility.

And so volume one ends with the promise that volume two will follow the adventures of Švejk and Lukáš to war!

Religion

Hašek’s attitude towards religion is unremittingly satirical. All religion is an empty con, as far as he’s concerned, and if it had any meaning or content that was all finished off in the Great War.

Preparations for the slaughter of mankind have always been made in the name of God or some supposed higher being which men have devised and created in their own imagination… The great shambles of the world war did not take place without the blessing of priests… Throughout all Europe people went to the slaughter like cattle, driven there not only by butcher emperors, kings and other potentates and generals, but also by priests of all confessions… (p.125)

A central character in this first volume is the alcoholic, womanising, sceptical army chaplain Otto Katz who takes Švejk as his assistant and stars in a number of comic scenes:

  1. the first one is when he gives a rambling drunk sermon to a congregation of prisoners from the punishment barracks, who all nudge each other in anticipation of the chaplain’s regular drunken ranting
  2. in another he and Švejk get a visiting chaplain (who actually seems to believe in God and all that nonsense) blind, rolling drunk, until it’s safe for Katz to explain to him (the drunk chaplain) that he (Katz) only masquerades as a chaplain because it’s a well-paid, safe way of avoiding being sent to the front.

Satirical contempt is Hašek’s attitude to religion, and he yokes in the religions of the Incas or primitive tribesmen or Mongols to show how the same con has been pulled time and time again, marauding killers inventing some God in whose name they can commit whatever atrocities they like.

Švejk and the two drunken priests, the sincere one on the lft, Otto Katz on the right

Brutality

As I said, The Good Soldier Švejk is genuinely funny and yet, at the same time, it is surprisingly brutal. If I think of Edwardian comedy I tend to think of H.G. Wells’s comic novels featuring bumptious counter-jumpers like Mr Polly who are sort of comparable to Švejk, or the lighter moments of E.M. Foster, or the first novels of Aldous Huxley (1921, exactly same year as Švejk) – light comedy about vicars or chaps falling off bicycles.

By contrast Hašek’s book describes a world which, even in its civilian incarnation, is astonishingly harsh and brutal. Anyone in even the slightest position of authority seems to think it acceptable to shout and scream at anyone junior to them. All the characters find it acceptable to punch others across the mouth or box their ears or kick them downstairs. There are continual references to flogging as a casual form of punishment.

Švejk kicks the moneylender out of the house of Chaplain Katz

There is a generalised atmosphere of physical abuse which becomes a bit oppressive. On more or less every page people are kicked or hit or flogged:

  • p.163 Švejk tells the story of the trial of an army captain who was tried in 1912 for kicking his batman to death
  • p.165 the narrator describes informers who delight in watching fellow soldiers be arrested and tied up
  • p.167 Lieutenant Lukáš is described as routinely hitting his batmen across the jaw and boxing their ears

And the brutality applies not just to humans. When Švejk enters the employ of Lieutenant Lukáš we are told that all the Lieutenant’s previous servants tortured the his pets, starving the canary, kicking one of the cat’s eyes out, and beating his dog. Soon after starting work for him, Švejk even offers to flay the lieutenant’s cat alive, or crush it to death in a doorway, if he wants (p.167).

Or take Hašek’s detailed description of the physical assaults and torments to which supposed malingerers are subjected to by the medical authorities, described in chapter 8, page 62.

  1. cup of tea plus aspirin to induce sweating
  2. quinine in powder
  3. stomach pumped twice a day
  4. enemas with soapy water
  5. wrapped up in a sheet of cold water

More than one patient is described as having died from this treatment.

Maybe it’s a prejudice in me, but I can’t really recall this kind of thing, this level of violence and personal physical abuse, in any English novels of this era, certainly not in the comic novels – or when they do occur it is to highlight the psychopathic savagery of the exponents.

But here everyone behaves like this.

And this permanent background hum of punches and kickings and floggings occasionally rises to scenes of real horror. For example, in the barracks prison Švejk can hear other prisoners being beaten and tortured. He can hear the long, drawn-out screams of a prisoner whose ribs are being systematically broken (p.95).

And in the office of Judge Advocate Bernis are photos of the ‘justice’ recently meted out by Austrian soldiers in the provinces of Galicia and Serbia.

They were artistic photographs of charred cottages and trees with branches sagging under the weight of bodies strung up on them. Particularly fine was a photograph from Serbia of a whole family strung up – a small boy and his father and mother. Two soldiers with bayonets were guarding the tree, and an officer stood victoriously in the foreground smoking a cigarette. (p.93)

Goya’s drawings of the Horrors of war described all this a century earlier. What changed, maybe, was that the First World War was fought by civilian armies and so entire populations were subjected to horrors and atrocities with large numbers of soldiers either actively ordered to torture and murder civilians, or forced to stand by while it took place. Did anything like this happen in the West, I mean did the English army systematically torture and hang civilians in Flanders?

Kafka compared with Hašek – people

Bertolt Brecht pointed out that Josef Švejk is the identical twin but polar opposite of Kafka’s Joseph K.

Mulling over this remark, I realised this is because, for Kafka, other people barely exist: they are are sort of mirrors, or maybe extensions of the central protagonist’s own terror and anxiety, shadows dancing through the central figure’s endless nightmare.

Whereas Švejk’s life is full of other people – a steady stream of officials, doctors, police and army officers who try to break him, as well as the endless list of people he knows about or has met or heard or read about and who provide the subjects of the huge fund of stories, gossip and cheery anecdotes which he can produce at the drop of a hat to suit any situation.

So, at first sight they are indeed polar opposites – Kafka describes a haunted terrain of ghost figures, Hašek’s book is thronged with real substantial people, and can, up to a point, be taken as presenting a panoramic view of Austro-Hungarian society.

Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy

In chapter seven of The Castle the village mayor explains to K. how mistakes in the vast and complex bureaucracy up at the Castle have led to him being summoned to work as a Land Surveyor even though another department of the Castle had specifically cancelled this same request – but news of the cancellation didn’t come through in time. Now K is floating in limbo because the badly-run bureaucracy has both requested and not requested him, employed and not employed him: there is a reason for him being there, and no reason; hence his feeling of being a non-person, stuck in limbo.

Well, I was very struck when something almost identical happens in Chapter Nine of The Good Soldier Švejk. Here the narrator describes how Švejk comes up before Judge Advocate Bernis, and then proceeds to describe how, despite being ‘the most important element in military justice’, this Bernis is a masterpiece of ineptitude and incompetence.

Bernis keeps a vast pile of muddled documents which he continually loses and misplaces, and so simply makes up new ones. He mixes up names and causes and invents new ones as they come into his head. He tries deserters for theft and thieves for desertion. He invents all kinds of hocus pocus to convict men of crimes they haven’t even dreamed of. He presides over ‘an unending chaos of documents and official correspondence.’

But not only this. We learn that Bernis has a fierce rival and enemy in the department named Captain Linhart. Whenever Bernis gets his hands on any paperwork belonging to Linhart, he deliberately removes papers, swaps them with others, scrambles it up in the most destructive ways possible. And Linhart does the same to Bernis’s papers.

Thus their individual incompetence is compounded by active malevolence. And these are just two of the hundreds of thousands of incompetent fools who staffed the vast Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy. (In a satirical parenthesis we learn that the papers on Švejk’s case weren’t found till after the war, and had been wrongly filed in a folder belonging to JOSEF KOUDELA, and marked ‘Action Completed’.) (pp.91-92)

The Bernis-Linhart passage isn’t the only place in the novel where the bureaucracy of the police, legal system, medical authorities or army is described as being rotten and inept. In a sense, this vision of bureaucratic incompetence underlies the entire novel, with Švejk being an everyman figure sent on an endless picaresque journey through a landscape of muddle and confusion, which builds up into a powerful overview of a society in the grip of stasis and decay.

Indeed, even a casual search online turns up articles which paint a breath-taking portrait of the huge scale, byzantine complexity, and elephantine inefficiency of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

Kafka compared with Hašek – bureaucracy

Anyway, the recurring presence of various wings of the state bureaucracy in The Good Soldier Švejk has two big impacts on our reading of Kafka.

1. Many critics praise Kafka for his ‘unique achievement’ in describing a vast, spookily endless and all-powerful bureaucracy. But Švejk is teaching me that such an enormous, omnipresent and incompetent bureaucracy really did exist in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire; that it is less a product of Kafka’s mind than we at first thought, that the general sense of decay which Kafka conveys was the actual state of the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy in its dying days, even down to the details of the absurdity caused when different sections of the bureaucracy failed to communicate with each other.

2. Insofar as they are both dealing with more or less the same entity – this vast bureaucracy – then it makes us reflect on the differences between the ways Kafka and Hašek describe it, which can summed up as the inside and the outside:

Kafka describes the personal and psychological impact of a huge faceless bureaucracy on its victims (Joseph K and K) – we see it from inside their minds and we experience along with them the nightmareish sense of helplessness, anxiety and stress it causes them.

Whereas nothing at all upsets Švejk. The Good Soldier Švejk is, to a surprising extent, just as much of an indictment of the stupid, all-encompassing, vicious and inefficient Habsburg bureaucracy, but it is described entirely from the outside, in objective and comical terms. The effect on the reader is like reading a journalistic report in a satirical magazine. The continual atmosphere of blundering officialdom, cruelty and sometimes really horrible violence, is kept entirely under control, remote and detached by the tone of brisk satire, and above all by the burbling presence of the indefatigable, unflappable, undefeatable figure of Švejk. Without Švejk it would be a horror show.

Conclusion

I need to read a) other novels of the period b) some actual history of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to discover just how true this was.


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

The Good Soldier Švejk – the life of Jaroslav Hašek

The Penguin edition of The Good Soldier Švejk features a fascinating introduction by the translator Cecil Parrot, which includes an outline of the life of its author, the Czech journalist, agitator and scapegrace, Jaroslav Hašek.

Hašek’s life is arguably more exciting and improbable than the plots of most novels, and it helps that Parrott tells it in a deadpan way which brings out its Švejkian improbability.

Early years

Hašek was born in 1883, the son of an impoverished school teacher who proceeded to drink himself to death, setting the tone for the little boy’s life. At the tender age of thirteen Hašek was sent out to work in a chemist’s and began to develop a taste for dissipation. By the age of 16 he had also taken a liking for vagrancy, taking long trips through Moravia, Slovakia, Hungary and Galicia, supporting himself by begging and hanging out with gypsies and vagabonds and beggars.

In 1902 he got a job at the Slavia Bank but soon lost it for going AWOL on more of his long, penniless hikes. He then tried to make a living by writing but from 1900 to 1908 only got slight newspaper articles published, not enough to live on.

He had early shown signs of being an anti-social trouble-maker. In 1897 (aged 14) he’d enthusiastically taken part in the anti-German riots in Prague, tearing down police posters, wrecking symbols of the Hapsburg Monarchy, helping set fire to the yard of a German civilian. In 1906 he joined an anarchist group and went on demonstrations and agitations, which led to regular arrests and short spells of imprisonment.

In 1907 Hašek became editor of the anarchist journal Komuna and gave lectures to audiences of workers. He was put on a watchlist by Austrian police informers, until he was arrested and sentenced to a month in prison for assaulting a policeman during a protest.

True love

Meanwhile, he’d fallen in love with Jarmila Mayer, the daughter of a Prague decorator, but her father insisted that if he was to win her hand, Hašek better change his ways. In 1908 he was arrested a mere twice but Jarmila’s family continued to think him unsuitable husband material and removed her from Prague. Hašek took a train to her country hideaway to try and see her, but had no money for a return ticket and, characteristically, walked the 60 miles back to Prague.

In 1909 Hašek made a renewed attempt to earn his living by writing and produced 64 short stories (!), most of them published in Karikatury, a magazine edited by Josef Lada, who was to create the famous illustrations for The Good Soldier Švejk over a decade later. Hašek succeeded a friend as editor of a magazine called Animal World, though he was soon sacked for making up invented animals – an incident attributed to the one-year volunteer, Marek in Švejk (pp.323-328).

In 1910, amazingly, having worn her and her family down, Hašek finally married his Jarmila – and also managed to write 75 short stories. In 1911 Hašek published in Karikatury the first of his stories about the Good Soldier Švejk. In 1912 a set of them was collected in a volume, The Good Soldier Švejk and Other Strange Stories.

Hoaxing and politicking

Meanwhile, Hašek took his practical joking and hoaxing to a new level when he pretended to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into the river at Prague. After he was fished out, he was sent to a lunatic asylum, which presumably forms the basis for the asylum episode in volume one of Švejk.

Hašek then set about setting up a ‘cynological’ institute, having stumbled across this grand-sounding word in an encyclopedia, the institute being not much more than a pet shop specialising in dogs. Again, no coincidence that in the novel Švejk is a dog seller by trade.

Hašek then set up his own political party – The Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within The Limits of the Law, a name which is clearly satirical in its po-facedness – and stood as a candidate in a general election, although in his public speeches he ridiculed the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and all its works.

In 1913 his marriage to Jarmila ended. They had a baby son, Richard, who Jarmila took back to live with her parents. Left to his own devices, Hašek reverted to hard-drinking, losing a job at a Prague newspaper for attacking the political faction which ran it. Slowly he abandoned all attempts at respectability and eventually went underground, off the grid. For a while he lived with his friend Josef Lada, writing stories and cooking. He was, by all accounts, an excellent cook.

At the start of the war Hašek carried out another notorious hoax, checking into a famous brothel-cum-hotel in Prague under an assumed Russian name and putting it about that he was spying on the Austrian General Staff. The police surrounded the hotel and moved in to nab this high-ranking spy – only to realise they had only captured the hoaxer and ‘notorious hooligan’ Hašek. He was given five days in prison.

By this stage anyone familiar with Hašek’s novel, The Good Soldier Švejk will recognise in Hašek’s biography not only specific incidents (the dog selling, the animal magazine) but, more tellingly, the fundamental rhythm of the novel, in which the dim and incorrigibly innocent hero is repeatedly arrested and interrogated by all manner of authorities, civil and military, all across Bohemia and Austria, sentenced to short spells in the clink, released, meets,drinks and chats with friends until he gets into trouble again, is hauled up by more authorities, questioned, and sentenced to another brief spell in the cells. And so on.

Hašek in the Great War

In 1915 the 32-year-old Hašek was drafted to the 91st Infantry Regiment, the same regiment to which his creation Švejk is assigned. And just like Švejk, Hašek was sent with the regiment to České Budějovice in southern Bohemia, then via the outskirts of Vienna to Királyhida in Hungary, and so East to the Front in Galicia (southern Poland).

Like the name of the regiment and its itinerary, Hašek barely bothered to change the names of the real-life people he served with. Thus a Lieutenant Lukáš, who Hašek knew in the regiment appears in the novel as… Lieutenant Lukáš, and his company commander Captain Ságner appears as…Captain Ságner, while Švejk shared an office with one Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vanék who turns up in the novel as… Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vanék 🙂

Hašek wasn’t long at the Front before he was captured, on 23 September 1915 after the Russians overran the 91st regiment’s position. The Russians treated their captured fellow Slavs worst of all the different ethnic groups of prisoners of war. Hašek was sent to a POW camp near Kiev, and then on to another one in the Urals.

The Czech Legion

But when Hašek learned that the Russians were supervising the formation of a volunteer unit recruited from Czechs and Slovaks to fight against the Germans, he immediately applied and was accepted. His journalistic experience meant he naturally gravitated towards a job in the propaganda unit. The Czech Legion also published its own journal and it was in this that Hašek published a second series of stories about Švejk titled The Good Soldier Švejk In Captivity. It was published as a book in Kiev in 1917.

Characteristically, however, Hašek soon got into trouble for his outspoken opinions, and for lampooning the leadership of the Legion. Nonetheless he continued in anti-Austrian and pro-Czech stance, and was also a strong Russophil, supporting the Romanov dynasty right up until it was overthrown in the October 1917 revolution.

The Czech Legion had an odd history, the powers that be deciding to send it East to Vladivostok with the plan that it would take ship across the Pacific, then train across America, then ship across the Atlantic, to join the French fighting the Germans on the Western Front. In the event, nothing like that happened, the Czechs becoming caught up in the Bolshevik revolution, and ended up fighting the Red Army and among themselves.

Hašek had always though travelling round the world to get to the war was bonkers, and so had headed to revolutionary Moscow where, in a surprising move, he joined the Bolshevik Party. Thus when the Bolsheviks signed a peace with Germany in March 1918, the Czech Legion declared them enemies to Czech independence and Hašek, for his alliance with them, a traitor. The Red Army sent Hašek to Samara in Central Asia where he agitated among the soldiers of the Legion and set up a recruiting office for the Czechoslovak Red Army. But when Samara fell to the Legion – which at one stage controlled large areas surrounding the Trans-Siberian Express – he had to flee his fellow countrymen in disguise.

As the Red Army stabilised the military situation and the Bolsheviks cemented their hold on power, Hašek set out to make a career within the party. In December 2018 he was appointed deputy Commander of the town of Bugulma. Based on this experience, he wrote a series of humorous stories about a small town in Russia.

In 1919 Hašek was appointed Secretary of the Committee of Foreign Communists in the town of Ufa, then Secretary of the Party Cell of the printing office of The Red Arrow magazine, then next year Head of the International Section of the Political Department of the Fifth Army. What had happened to the drunken wastrel and ne’er-do-well? Astonishingly, he gave up drinking and led a sober, responsible and orderly life for the thirty months of his Bolshevik membership.

Back to Prague

Towards the end of 1920, however, a visiting delegation of Czech Communists asked him to come and help the party in his homeland, and he was allowed to leave, turning back up in Prague in December 1920. Here he started writing articles for Rudé právo, the newspaper of the Left Wing of the Social Democratic Party, which was to become the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

Hašek had brought a wife back from Russia, Alexandra Lvova, some said a relative of a Russian royal, though she was in fact a print worker he met at one of the Bolshevik papers. It proved difficult to get a job. Now he was considered not only a notorious hooligan and anarchist, but a deserter, a traitor and a Bolshevik. He started drinking heavily again.

The Good Soldier Švejk

But he had returned from his adventures with a plan for a novel, a big novel, and in 1921 he started writing The Good Soldier Švejk, a huge comic novel about an unsinkable simpleton who floats through life getting into endless scrapes with authority without ever losing his cheerful optimism.

Hašek planned the book to be in six volumes (each of the existing volumes is about 220 pages long in the Penguin translation) but, at least a first, no reputable publisher would touch it, and so Hašek was forced to publish the first volume privately.

However, to everyone’s surprise, it sold and a publisher committed to bringing out the second one, paying Hašek enough money to buy a modest cottage in the countryside east of Prague, where he dictated the following volumes. Dictated, mind.

Jaroslav Hašek and Alexandra Lvova, Lipnice, October 1922

But, alas, nearly thirty years of hard drinking and irregular living had taken their toll. Hašek fell ill and died of heart failure on 3 January 1923. The only mourners at his funeral were his 11-year-old son Richard and a few friends. He’d had got half way through the fourth volume when he was struck down.

A friend, Karel Vanek, gamely completed this fourth volume, but his continuation is never included in definitive editions. Three and a half volumes is all we have, although they make a whopping 750 pages in Parrott’s Penguin translation.

Themes

So what themes emerge from Hašek’s life that are relevant to his great novel?

  1. vagrancy – living life on the move, constantly coming to new locations, into new situations
  2. alcohol – the universal solvent and social glue – all good chaps naturally bond and unwind over a glass of beer or a bottle of wine
  3. police – continual trouble with the police resulting in arrests, detetntions in custody and short prison sentences
  4. army – life in barracks training, then war, then being a prisoner of war
  5. Josef Lada – the friend for most of his adult life, who published his stories, who he lived with for a while, and who went on to create the illustrations for The Good Soldier Švejk which helped seal its popularity

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The Good Soldier Švejk

The Burrow by Franz Kafka (1924)

Fear is the central theme of this grim, terror-stricken, but very wordy, story.

In The Burrow some kind of mole-like animal spends thirty-seven pages in long-winded agonising whether the elaborate maze of tunnels it has devoted its life to building underground is anywhere near enough to protect it from the hordes of enemies and predators of which it lives in permanent, heart-stopping fear.

What does this protection which I am looking at here from the outside amount to after all? Dare I estimate the danger which I run inside the burrow from observations which I make when outside? Can my enemies, to begin with, have any proper awareness of me if I am not in my burrow? A certain awareness of me they certainly have, but not full awareness. And is not that full awareness the real definition of a state of danger? So the experiments I attempt here are only half-experiments or even less, calculated merely to reassure my fears and by giving me false reassurance to lay me open to great perils. No, I do not watch over my own sleep, as I imagined; rather it is I who sleep, while the destroyer watches.

Deep (literally, deep underground) terror pervades every second of the narrator’s life and thoughts, and the story, such as it is, amounts to a characteristically long-winded, tortuous, self-lacerating exercise in paranoia and terror. The narrator tells us at very great length how he has elaborated his burrow into a maze of fake and deceptive passages to lose enemies, how he built a fake and obvious entrance to divert enemies, how he has created dumps of food scattered round the maze, so he can have rations if forced to retreat under attack from the enemy.

Then about half way through, he begins to hear a low whistling sound (‘ A faint whistling, audible only at long intervals’) and becomes convinced it is emanating from his enemies and attackers.

But whether the sound (and the enemies) are coming from up above – overground – or from somewhere underground but near enough for him to hear, whether it is the sound made by a horde of enemies or by one giant enemy burrowing nearby, whether that enemy knows about his burrow and is planning to break in at some place along the maze of tunnels, or knows about his burrow but is deliberately taunting him by digging close by, or is ignorant of his burrow but might break through into one of his tunnels by mistake – are just some of the scores of scenarios and permutations the narrator runs through in an increasing sweat of fear and paranoia.

The theme of fear

Reading Ernst Pawel’s biography of Kafka I came across this passage in one of his letters to his girlfriend, Czech journalist and writer, Milena Jesenská.

‘I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable, to tell about something I only feel in my bones and which can only be experienced in those bones. Basically it is nothing other than this fear we have so often talked about, but fear spread to everything, fear of the greatest as of the smallest, fear, paralysing fear of pronouncing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a longing from something greater than all that is fearful.’ (quoted page 96)

‘Fear spread to everything’ – that’s a good summary of the experience of reading this stifling text.

Unfinished

Apparently, The Burrow is unfinished, though I cannot pretend I was anything other than mightily relieved when it ended, almost in mid-sentence.

Allegedly, Kafka did write an ending to the story, detailing a struggle with the encroaching beast, but this completed version was among the works destroyed by Kafka’s lover Dora Diamant, following his death. It’s a little surprising that it was meant to end this way, since violent and explicit action is rare in Kafka’s fiction. More often his characters just waste away or the narratives themselves are abandoned as, in the only version we have, this one is.

Officialese

In Ernst Pawel’s biography of Kafka I came across the following quote from one of Franz’s early colleagues in Prague’s literary scene, Oskar Baum, which struck me as being very relevant to this story.

By nature he was a fanatic full of luxuriating fantasy, but he kept its glow in check by constantly striving toward strict objectivity. To overcome all cloying or seductive sentimental raptures and fuzzy-minded fantasising was part of his cult of purity – a cult quasi-religious in spirit, though often eccentric in its physical manifestation. He created the most subjective imagery, but it had to manifest itself in the form of utmost objectivity (quoted on page 133)

‘Utmost objectivity’. Because as I read this stiflingly claustrophobic story, I began to realise that although its subject is animal fear, its form is surprisingly restrained and detached.

In fact, I began to realise that the story is cast in a style almost like an academic presentation or a report by some government official. I began to annotate the many phrases the narrator uses which could come from an official report.

  • It seemed to me advisable…
  • please note, however…
  • It will be objected that I….
  • Prudence demands that I…
  • Indeed in all probability…
  • That is naturally a great advantage…
  • That consideration need not delay me…
  • One cannot but incline to the hypothesis that…

The sense of an old-fashioned and rather pedantic academic is reinforced by the narrators’s repeated use of little barrages of rhetorical questions.

What does this protection which I am looking at here from the outside amount to after all? Dare I estimate the danger which I run inside the burrow from observations which I make when outside? Can my enemies, to begin with, have any proper awareness of me if I am not in my burrow? A certain awareness of me they certainly have, but not full awareness. And is not that full awareness the real definition of a state of danger?

Or:

By what chance can everything have flowed on so quietly and happily for such a long time? Who can have diverted my enemies from their path, and forced them to make a wide detour around my property? Why have I been spared for so long, only to be delivered to such terrors now?

In other words, although the content of the story is the creature’s unremitting fear, its form or style is so pompously cerebral and academic as possibly to be a satire on academic or philosophical writers, on the dry dull lecturers at Kafka’s university, or even of some of his friends and acquaintances in Prague’s literary circles who became high falutin’ philosophers much given to rhetorical questions and orotund phraseology.

Not convinced? Well, here is the animal raising possible theories about the origin of the whistling sound, considering them, dismissing them and moving onto further theorising. Is it not the laboured and endlessly ramifying style of a certain kind of old-fashioned philosophical or aesthetic enquiry? (The Castle Keep he refers to is the big cavern at the centre of the maze of tunnels he has constructed for himself. The ‘small fry’ are the unnamed smaller animals which sometimes scuttle around his tunnels but are too small to present any threat.)

I listen now at the walls of the Castle Keep, and wherever I listen, high or low, at the roof or the floor, at the entrance or in the corners, everywhere, everywhere, I hear the same noise. And how much time, how much care must be wasted in listening to that noise, with its regular pauses. One can, if one wishes, find a tiny deceitful comfort in the fact that here in the Castle Keep, because of its vastness, one hears nothing at all, as distinguished from the passages, when one stands back from the walls. Simply as a rest and a means to regain my composure I often make this experiment, listen intently and am overjoyed when I hear nothing. But the question still remains, what can have happened? Confronted with this phenomenon my original explanation completely falls to the ground. But I must also reject other explanations which present themselves to me. One could assume, for instance, that the noise I hear is simply that of the small fry themselves at their work. But all my experience contradicts this; I cannot suddenly begin to hear now a thing that I have never heard before though it was always there. My sensitiveness to disturbances in the burrow has perhaps become greater with the years, yet my hearing has by no means grown keener. It is of the very nature of small fry not to be heard. Would I have tolerated them otherwise? Even at the risk of starvation I would have exterminated them. But perhaps — this idea now insinuates itself — I am concerned here with some animal unknown to me. That is possible. True, I have observed the life down here long and carefully enough, but the world is full of diversity and is never wanting in painful surprises. Yet it cannot be a single animal, it must be a whole swarm that has suddenly fallen upon my domain, a huge swarm of little creatures, which, as they are audible, must certainly be bigger than the small fry, but yet cannot be very much bigger, for the sound of their labors is itself very faint. It may be, then, a swarm of unknown creatures on their wanderings, who happen to be passing by my way, who disturb me, but will presently cease to do so. So I could really wait for them to pass, and need not put myself to the trouble of work that will be needless in the end. Yet if these creatures are strangers, why is it that I never see any of them?

And so, wordily, verbosely, and tortuously, on.

So is it a prolonged exercise in the description of gnawing anxiety, projected onto an unnamed animal? Or a lengthy satire on the high-phrased and wandering divagations of a boring old philosophy lecturer? Or is it both, combined, to make something new and very strange?


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Dates are dates of composition.

A Hunger Artist and other stories by Franz Kafka

A Hunger Artist is a collection of four short stories by Franz Kafka published in Germany in 1924, the last collection that Kafka himself prepared for publication. Kafka corrected the proofs during his final illness but the book was only published several months after his death. The first English translations of the stories, by Willa and Edwin Muir, were published in 1948, in the larger collection titled The Penal Colony.

They are all relatively short stories (compared to the 60 or so pages of The Metamorphosis). They are all odd, peculiar, non-naturalistic stories, having the feel of dreams or fables. They all seem to point to a truth or meaning beyond themselves, just out of reach. And it’s noticeable that three of the four have a circus setting, or involve animals, as did some of the stories in A Country Doctor.

First Sorrow (3 pages)

An account of a trapeze artist, married to and obsessed by his trade. It is typical of Kafka that the man lives in his trapeze, that food has to be hoisted up to him in special containers, merely retiring to one side when other performers perform, that he loves the height, the sense of freedom, specially when the windows round the top are opened.

But he hates travelling of any kind, in the city will only submit to being taken anywhere if it’s in the manager’s sports car, and from city to city, when travelling by train, has such sensitive nerves that he and the manager take a whole compartment to themselves and the trapeze artist sleeps in the luggage rack.

On one train journey the trapeze artist surprises the manager by asking for two trapezes to be set up for him to use. The manager, who clearly pampers the trapeze artist, immediately agrees. Nevertheless the trapeze artist is sad, and for the first time the manager sees worry lines and tears trickling down his face as he sleeps.

So that’s what the title, First Sorrow, turns out to mean. It is an elusive, elliptical story.

A Little Woman (8 pages)

This is very reminiscent of the fabric and feel of Kafka’s longer fiction, The Castle in particular, in the way it consists of a long, convoluted and tortuous meditation on a relationship between the narrator and one other character.

It simply starts off by describing a thin woman known to the narrator, and then explains that, for some unknown reason, she is permanently vexed and irritated by him, and from there passes into ever-more complex over-thinking of why that might be, and what it might mean, and the many possible reasons for her vexation, and whether it’s a performance solely for public consumption, and so on and so on and so on.

It is all done in Kafka’s characteristic block paragraphs which I find challenging to read.

Perhaps she hopes that once public attention is fixed on me a general public rancour against me will rise up and use all its great powers to condemn me definitively much more effectively and quickly than her relatively feeble private rancour could do; she would then retire into the background, draw a breath of relief, and turn her back on me. Well, if that is what her hopes are really set on, she is deluding herself. Public opinion will not take over her role; public opinion would never find me so infinitely objectionable, even under its most powerful magnifying glass. I am not so altogether useless a creature as she thinks; I don’t want to boast and especially not in this connection; but if I am not conspicuous for specially useful qualities, I am certainly not conspicuous for the lack of them; only to her, only to her almost bleached eyes, do I appear so, she won’t be able to convince anyone else. So in this respect I can feel quite reassured, can I? No, not at all; for if it becomes generally known that my behavior is making her positively ill, which some observers, those who most industriously bring me information about her, for instance, are not far from perceiving, or at least look as if they perceived it, and the world should put questions to me, why am I tormenting the poor little woman with my incorrigibility, and do I mean to drive her to her death, and when am I going to show some sense and have enough decent human feeling to stop such goings-on — if the world were to ask me that, it would be difficult to find an answer. Should I admit frankly that I don’t much believe in these symptoms of illness, and thus produce the unfavourable impression of being a man who blames others to avoid being blamed himself, and in such an ungallant manner? And how could I say quite openly that even if I did believe that she were really ill, I should not feel the slightest sympathy for her, since she is a complete stranger to me and any connection between us is her own invention and entirely one-sided. I don’t say that people wouldn’t believe me; they wouldn’t be interested enough to get so far as belief; they would simply note the answer I gave concerning such a frail, sick woman, and that would be little in my favour. Any answer I made would inevitably come up against the world’s incapacity to keep down the suspicion that there must be a love affair behind such a case as this, although it is as clear as daylight that such a relationship does not exist, and that if it did it would come from my side rather than hers, since I should be really capable of admiring the little woman for the decisive quickness of her judgment and her persistent vitality in leaping to conclusions, if these very qualities were not always turned as weapons against me.

It amounts to a brief specimen of the kind of endlessly self-questioning, over-ratiocination which makes the novels so very long and, often, such hard going, a fine example of the way Kafka can spin an inordinate amount of verbiage out of the simplest relationship.

In a sense this short excerpt demonstrates the technique by which Kafka assembles the longer texts to create the structure of the novels: the technique being to line up a series of encounters with officials from the Court, and then subject each one to a mind-bogglingly over-elaborated, hyper-sensitive, and rather menacing over-thinking of every possible nuance and conceivable double, triple and quadruple interpretation of all possible permutations of thinking and worrying about it.

Until you end up with entire paragraphs which appear to be saying something but which are, on closer examination, almost empty, as the narrator himself at one point acknowledges.

And on closer reflection it appears that the developments which the affair seems to have undergone in the course of time are not developments in the affair itself, but only in my attitude to it, insofar as that has become more composed on the one hand, more manly, penetrating nearer the heart of the matter, while on the other hand, under the influence of the continued nervous strain which I cannot overcome, however slight, it has increased in irritability.

A Hunger Artist (11 pages)

As I’ve noted in my reviews of the novels, a key element of the Kafka style is entropy, meaning that everything, large and small, literal or symbolic, falls away, declines, decays and dies.

The protagonists of The Trial and The Castle and The Metamorphosis die in the end, the Officer of In The Penal Colony dies, the man waiting at the door of the Law dies. And thus it is that, following the general pattern, the Hunger Artist as well wastes away and dies.

And, just like in The Trial or the Penal Colony or the Door of the Law, his last words contain a message pregnant with meaning and poignancy.

The text is told by a narrator looking back wistfully at an earlier time, a tone which immediately reminds us of The Great Wall of China. Back in those days, back in the good old days, fasting was an art which was widely appreciated and the Hunger Artist was the leader in his field. He was paraded around in a barred cage, wearing a black swimsuit, his ribs sticking out, setting up in a new town or city every forty days, and charging admission to admiring crowds who came to point and ooh and mock or admire his heroic efforts to survive on no food for forty days.

Why forty days? Well, on an interpretative level this is obviously a number fraught with religious meaning, since Jesus went into the wilderness to fast for forty days and nights, and this story itself was possibly invented to mirror the forty days and nights of the Biblical flood told in the book of Genesis.

But in the story it is simply because the artist’s commercially minded manager has discovered that forty days is about as long as you can milk an audience in any given own or city before they start to get bored and he has to move on.

The middle part of the text describes the Hunger Artist’s unhappiness and disgust at the way people don’t believe he’s really fasting, the way the guards set to watch over him don’t really believe him, and so on.

But then the narrator describes how a great change comes over society, fashions change, pastimes change, and people lost interest in fasting as a spectator sport. The manager tries a last whistle-stop tour of cities to rouse audiences, but people just weren’t interested any more. Should the Hunger Artist take up a new profession? He’s too old to learn new tricks. And anyway, it is his life’s work.

So he signs up to join a circus, although he finds his cage being set up in the narrow walkways the crowds walk along to get to the far more exciting animal cages. He has become a back number. People hurry past his cage or stop to mock.

Strictly speaking, he was only an impediment on the way to the menagerie.

Children ask their parents what it means and what he does. But the parents struggle to explain:

You try explaining fasting to someone! Unless a person feels it he can never be made to understand it.

His keeper initially marks a record of the days fasted on a wooden plaque stuck on the bars of his cage, but eventually forgets to do this, then forgets about the artist altogether. See what I mean by entropy.

One day a new supervisor demands to know the purpose of this empty cage and no-one can remember what it’s for. Mixed in with the straw is a stick. When they poke it the stick it talks. It is the Hunger Artist. The rough proley nature of the workers is well conveyed in the J.A. Underwood translation, as the workers listen to the Hunger Artist’s last confession. He only fasted, he explains in a weak whisper, because he never found anything he wanted to eat.

And with this poignant confession he expires, the circus labourers clear out his cage and instal a virile young panther in it which draws the crowds with its awesome power.

The Hunger Artist feels like a fable or parable or allegory of awesome importance, with Biblical resonances and some deep meaning for all of us. But what is that meaning exactly, is it historical or psychological or political or sociological… Kafka has left a century of critics and commentators to discuss.

Coming with a deep interest in history I note that the final years of the Great War saw widespread starvation in Germany and Austro-Hungary due to the Allied blockade on all shipping which prevented the importation of foodstuffs. And one of the Axis powers’ grievances was that the blockade continued for seven months after the armistice of November 1918, up until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

Thus real hunger, the actual starvation of men women and children was a spectacle Kafka and all Germans would have been bitterly familiar with.

Then again, those who prefer biographical explanations will point to the fact Kafka himself throughout his adult life subjected himself to an increasingly strict diet, which began with vegetarianism and became progressively more strict and self denying until he in fact died of untreatable laryngeal tuberculosis, which closed up his throat until he could neither eat nor drink and literally starved to death.

But you don’t need to know either of these background facts to respond to the power of the story. It is the way the subject has been turned into not just fiction, but into a story with the roundedness and finish and fairy tale perfection of a fable or allegory or parable, which counts.

Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk (19 pages)

The narrator writes like a person drafting a long critical essay examining a contemporary artist from a variety of sociological angles, except that, as the story progresses, the reader realises that the narrator is a mouse and that he is talking about the ‘famous’ mouse singer Josephine.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned the way things in Kafka’s stories decline and fall away, and the way this even happens within individual sentences, in the way a sentence sets off to make a statement and finds itself contradicting its opening, qualifying and balancing and introducing doubts and numerous clauses which successively weaken the opening until it is often abolished and erased.

Even Kafka’s sentences display a death wish.

That pattern is very visible in this, Kafka’s final story. The narrator opens by telling us that Josephine is the mouse people’s greatest and most popular singer and makes a few supporting statements about how important she is to her people.

But this breezy opening is then subjected to eighteen pages of criticism and undermining. It comes out that her ‘singing’ might in fact not be strictly speaking ‘singing’ after all. In fact it might very much be like the sound every other mouse makes, which is a common or garden squeak. In fact Josephine’s squeaking might, in fact, even be weaker and less impressive than the average mouse’s. If this is so, what on earth gives her the extraordinary power and influence she holds over mousekind?

And it is to the investigation of this apparent mystery, with long, multi-claused sentences, hedging his own conclusions, balancing interpretations and weighing possible theories, that the narrator turns to ponder with all the weighty orotundity of a learned German professor.

How to explain that at some public concerts, other mice have gotten excited and let out squeaks, and those squeaks were every bit as good as Josephine’s if not better? Is her popularity something to do with the history and struggle of her people, his people?

A thought which gives rise to a long series of reflections on the life of mice, how they are born into struggle, into a life of anxiety, small and weak and surrounded by enemies, by ‘the enemy’.

It was impossible, for me at any rate, not to think about Kafka’s Jewishness and wonder to what extent these repeated and heartfelt descriptions of a scattered, weak race oppressed by stronger neighbours, is a not very coded reference to his Jewish peers.

Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows; but even so it often becomes very difficult…

This mass of our people who are almost always on the run and scurrying hither and thither for reasons that are often not very clear…

Laughter for its own sake is never far away from us; in spite of all the misery of our lives quiet laughter is always, so to speak, at our elbows…

One might think that our people are not fitted to exercise such paternal duties, but in reality they discharge them, at least in this case, admirably; no single individual could do what in this respect the people as a whole are capable of doing. To be sure, the difference in strength between the people and the individual is so enormous that it is enough for the nursling to be drawn into the warmth of their nearness and he is sufficiently protected.

But for all the occasions that the reader can impose onto sentences like these a meaning to do with the Jewish community of Prague or Berlin or Central Europe, there are plenty of other sections which are patently just descriptions of mice, with their impatience, tendency to gossip and to squeak at the slightest provocation.

In other words, the narrative sometimes approaches what you could call a real-world interpretation but then veers away, into fiction, subsumed into the vividness of the allegory or fable.

Whenever we get bad news – and on many days bad news comes thick and fast at once, lies and half-truths included – she rises up at once, whereas usually she sits listlessly on the ground, she rises up and stretches her neck and tries to see over the heads of her flock like a shepherd before a thunderstorm…

The more you read on, the more you realise the text is as much or more an analysis of The Mouse Folk as of Josephine herself, and hence its sub-title. And, while you read on, the figure of Josephine becomes less and less of a singer and more and more of a unifying symbol of hope for an embattled people.

Josephine’s thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people’s precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world.

But by half-way through you have come to realise that the story is more like a parable about art and the artist and the artist or storyteller’s ability to give comfort and solace to his ‘people’ no matter how inadequate and ordinary his voice.

It is more the symbolism and the staging of the artist’s performances and what they mean for his or her listeners or readers which matters, it is the psychological unifying and healing it offers, than the actual ‘quality’.

Squeaking is our people’s daily speech, only many a one squeaks his whole life long and does not know it, where here [in Josephine’s performances] squeaking is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while…

And where he writes squeaking, he means speaking, and in fact means writing.


Related links

These are links to modern translations of the stories available online.

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

‘It gives me the feeling of something very learned, forgive me if what I say is stupid, it gives me the feeling of something abstract which I don’t understand, but which I don’t need to understand either.’
(Frau Grubach, The Trial page 27)

About Kafka

The Trial was left unfinished at Kafka’s death from tuberculosis in 1924. In one of the most notorious incidents in literary history, Kafka asked his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to burn all his stories, novels, notes and drafts after his death, but Brod ignored this request, carefully edited the surviving texts, and arranged for their publication and promotion throughout the 1920s.

Thus The Trial was published in 1925, The Castle in 1926, America in 1927, and a collection of short stories in 1931. It was Brod’s decision not to burn, and then his dedication to editing and publishing the works, which made Kafka, already known in German literary circles, world famous.

The Trial – style

Not experimental in form As great works of literature go, The Trial is straightforward enough to read. There is no formal experimentalism, no cutting between points of view or stream of consciousness or insertions of bits of diary or newspaper, or any of the other tricks the Modernists used.

Blocks of prose The most notable feature is that, contrary to modern practice, the paragraphs are very long – pages and pages long. And the dialogue is embedded in them. Extended exchanges between two or three characters go on in one long, monolithic block of prose – utterly contrary to the modern practice of starting a new paragraph for each speaker, and each new bit of dialogue, no matter how brief.

These great blocks of solid text make Kafka’s prose rather hard going. You can’t tell at a glance whether a page consists of description or dialogue, and there are hardly any ‘breaks’, places where you can enter the big, solid page of print. The text looks and feels like an imposing monolith of words. If your concentration lapses even for a few seconds, it’s difficult to track back to the last bit you were paying attention to. There are no visual cues, making it hard to find your place again when you pick the book up after a break.

This might sound trivial but, in my opinion, contributes to the sense of struggle, effort and oppressiveness which the book radiates.

German Although Kafka was born and lived most of his life in Prague, he wrote in German. He spent most of his working life in an office at the Workers Insurance Office in Prague, only right at the end of his life quitting this job to go and try and earn a living in Berlin by his writing.

The Trial – the setting

It’s Joseph K’s birthday. He’s 30 years-old. He works in a bank where he holds the ‘comparatively high post’ (p.10) of ‘Assessor’ (at one point he refers to himself as ‘the junior manager of a large Bank’, p.48), and is deferred to by lowly clerks. He has a big office with a waiting room attached, and ‘an enormous plate glass window through which he looks down on ‘the busy life of the city’ (p.70).

Joseph lives in a rented room in a boarding house, and his landlady is Frau Grubach. Other lodgers include Fräulein Bürstner, a typist (p.16) and Frau Grubach’s nephew, one Captain Lanz, ‘a tall men in the early forties, with a tanned, fleshy face’ (p.91).

The plot

The plot is in a sense simple, has the simplicity of a fable or dream fantasia.

On the morning of his 30th birthday, Joseph K’s breakfast isn’t brought in by the cook, Anna, as usually happens. Instead two men arrive and announce themselves to be officials who have placed him under arrest. Their names are Franz and Willem. While Franz explains the situation, Willem sits in the living room and calmly eats Joseph’s breakfast (p.11). Neither are wearing official or police uniforms, but are dressed casually. They aren’t violent or threatening, their tone is much more of hard-done-by and misunderstood lowly bureaucrats just doing their jobs. Through the window, an old couple in the apartment opposite watch the goings-on. And the warders seem to have brought three ‘assistants’ who are rummaging around in the apartment, as well, looking at family photos on the piano (p.16).

This opening sets the tone of mystery and uncertainty. In the very first sentence we learn Joseph has been placed ‘under arrest’, but it’s never really clear what this means. Even the officials carrying out the arrest aren’t really certain about it.

‘I can’t even confirm that you are charged with an offence, or rather I don’t know whether you are or not. You are under arrest, certainly, more than that I do not know.’ (The Inspector, page 18)

Indeed, the officials leave Joseph free to go about his life exactly as before. He goes to work, he meets friends and his fiancée after work, everything continues as normal except for his nagging worry about what  being ‘under arrest’ means.

The following Sunday he is invited to a so-called ‘interrogation’. But when he turns up at the appointed location at the appointed time, he finds it is more like a meeting in a crowded church hall. The officials seated up on the stage are trying to make themselves heard, before Joseph tries to make a speech, despite various distractions in the audience.

In the next chapter he goes to the office of ‘the Prosecutor’, which turns out to be a dingy room at the end of a grubby corridor littered with shabby appellants and clients, and this meeting, also, becomes hopelessly confused, as Joseph finds himself distracted by the pretty wife of one of the officials.

In other words, The Trial is emphatically not a case of Joseph being arrested, carted off to prison and subject to harsh interrogations, the kind of thing which became routine in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and all the other totalitarian states which copied them during the 1930s and 40s.

Far from it. There is no police station or cell, no actual interrogation, nothing that well-defined and recognisable. Instead, there follows a series of dreamlike, very long-winded, and claustrophobically frustrating scenes.

Episodic

This air of continual uncertainty about what is going on, and what Joseph should do about it, and where and when and why he should be attending hearings, or whether he should be preparing documents to present to this or that official – he doesn’t know and his adviser, his uncle, having claimed intimate knowledge of the Court only ends up confusing things – all these levels of uncertainty are reinforced by the episodic structure of the novel.

The chapters start with variations on the same phrase – ‘One afternoon’, ‘A few evenings later’, ‘In the next few days’, ‘During the next week’, making each episode only loosely connected to the previous one, if at all.

The reasons for all this are clarified in Max Brod’s afterword to the novel. Here Brod explains that Kafka a) never finished the novel b) left it as a collection of fragments, of finished and unfinished chapters, and other scraps. It was Brod who decided what to include and exclude. Put simply, he included all of what seemed to be the ‘finished’ chapters, and excluded the fragments which were self-evidently incomplete.

As to the ordering of the chapters, again Brod relied on the fact that he had listened to Kafka reading excerpts of the book out aloud to Brod and other friends, and discussing it with them. That gave him a good sense of how things were meant to follow each other. Still, the novel we read is not the author’s final, definitive version: it is the best guess of an assistant.

All this helps to explain the ‘episodic’ feel of the ‘book’, as if the consecutive chapters nearly but don’t quite link up.

But then, this fragmentary and provisional state is entirely in tune with the text itself, which is also structured according to a kind of dreamlike lack of logic or consequence. Everyone talks to Joseph about his arrest and trial but he is at no point detained anywhere, or prevented from doing anything, and there is no actual trial in the entire book.

Indeed, as the book progresses you being to realise that the so-called ‘trial’ simply amounts to Joseph’s knowledge that he has been charged. He doesn’t know what for, and nobody can tell him. The ‘trial’ really amounts to the pervasive sense of guilt and unease which his plight comes to bleed into every area of  his life and every waking thought.

It’s in this sense that the trial is more of an existential condition rather than a procedure or event. The chapters don’t really move on ‘events’ or any kind of narrative, so much as deepen the mystery and confusion surrounding Joseph’s situation.

You begin to realise that there really could, in theory, have been any number of chapters in the book, since there isn’t really a plot as such. As you read on, you can see how Kafka laboured hard over getting down his conception of a man lost and persecuted by a world he doesn’t understand… but also why the approach he’s taken almost militates against it ever really being finished… The encounters with court officials, and the bad advice from relatives, and the bizarre encounters with various female characters, could all be expanded indefinitely. As in a nightmare.

Crowded with characters

I read The Trial when I was at school and over the years had developed the common impression that Joseph K. is one man alone against a vast faceless monolithic bureaucracy. But that is a completely misleading memory. The book is actually crowded with people, and shows Joseph embedded in multiple webs of relationships – personal, social, sexual, familial and professional.

Home and family In his boarding house live Frau Grubach, Fräulein Bürstner, a typist (p.92) and Frau Grubach’s nephew, one Captain Linz. Fräulein Bürstner is soon joined by a lodger to share her room, the sickly pale Fräulein Montag. There’s also Anna the cook (who we never meet) and reference is made to the house-porter and his son.

In Chapter Six Joseph’s Uncle Albert K. turns up (his name is only given on page 111). Albert shows Joseph a letter Joseph’s niece, the 17-year-old Erna, has written the uncle, expressing her concern about Joseph, who has promised to go and visit her but never has. That’s why Albert’s come to see him. Uncle Albert takes his nephew off to see the Advocate Huld.

In other words, far from being one man against a faceless world, just considering Joseph’s home already furnishes us with quite an extensive cast. In other words, the novel is surprisingly busy and populated.

The neighbours Joseph’s arrest is watched through the window from the apartment across the way by ‘two old creatures’, and a tall young man with a reddish beard (p.17). ‘A fine crowd of spectators!’ cries Joseph. Who are they? We never find out, they are just silent watchers, adding to the sense of voyeurism and unease.

Work At work Joseph interacts with a number of junior clerks, the Manager of the Bank invites him for a drive or for dinner at his villa (p.24) and the Deputy Director invites him to a party on his yacht, and then crops up in most of the subsequent Bank scenes, poking and prying around in Joseph’s office. At other points Joseph is seen giving orders to any number of junior clerks and, in several scenes, we see him dealing with customers of the bank, including a manufacturer, and then a cohort of three business men.

So, once again, he isn’t a solo agent, but embedded in a network of professional relationships.

Crowd scenes

There are not only far more characters than you might have expected, but plenty of actual crowds.

In Chapter Three Joseph is told to attend an ‘interrogation’ at a set time and place the following Sunday. But first of all he has a hard time finding the building, as it is in a warren of slums, the kind of late-Victorian slum where everyone is out on the street yelling and fighting or selling stuff from cheap stalls, or cleaning doorsteps etc. (This page and a half describing Juliusstrasse, p.42, is an interesting piece of social history and reportage.)

And when he gets to the building itself, Joseph discovers it is a rabbit-warren of corridors and staircases. And when he finally arrives at the room where the so-called ‘interrogation’ is meant to take place, he discovers it is packed out with a crowd, like a meeting in a village hall –

K. felt as if her were entering a meeting-hall. (p.45)

– and that the official meant to be conducting the ‘interrogation’ is ‘a fat little wheezing man’ sitting up on the stage, by a table along with a number of other officials and assistants. In fact there is no procedure at all, there is no actual interrogation, just long dialogues where both sides try to figure out what is happening, all of which is interrupted by a student right at the back of the hall, wrestling a women to the ground in a clinch, it’s not clear whether they’re having sex or not but it’s certainly a love or sexual embrace, which utterly distracts the crowd from the proceedings up at the front.

This is the complete opposite of the icily terrifying interrogation scenes in books like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Darkness at Noon. The initial scenes in the slum street reminded me of Dickens, and then the scene amid the crowded meeting is like a very long-winded dream which is going nowhere but in which you feel you’re drowning or asphyxiating, mixed in with surreally jarring details.

The whole book is like that, a series of encounters with grand-sounding officials who turn out to be shabby little men tucked away in grubby attic rooms who, when pressed, know remarkably little about the procedures of the Court, have only heard about the higher officials, point out the many ways Joseph has blotted his copybook and upset the powers-that-be without even realising it, and give ominous but often contradictory advice which, far from helping Joseph, sinks him deeper and deeper into a sense that he’ll never understand what’s going on or be able to do anything about it.

Court officials

Joseph meets umpteen representatives of ‘the authority’ under which he seems to have been arrested, starting with the two warders who make ‘the arrest, Franz and Willem, followed by the Inspector who takes over Fräulein Bürstner’s room to turn it into a makeshift office, and proceeds to explain everything, but in an obscure and puzzling way.

It is also odd and confusing that the three ‘assistants’ who are fussing around in the background of Fräulein Bürstner’s room turn out, on closer inspection, to be three young clerks he knows from his bank – Rabensteiner, Kullich and Kaminer.

It’s also confusing that later, describing it all to Fräulein Bürstner and apologising for the way they moved furniture around in her bedroom, Joseph refers to them collectively as ‘the Interrogation Commission’ (p.33) a phrase none of them had used. In other words, Joseph himself collaborates in making what was in reality two shabby badly-paid warders and a lowly inspector, appear and sound like something much more grand and official.

When, in Chapter Two, Joseph goes to the building in Juliusstrasse as instructed over the phone, he meets the ‘Examining Magistrate’, presiding over an ‘Interrogation Chamber’. But in reality the magistrate is a comical fat little man and the Interrogation Chamber is like a packed village hall.

In fact all the way through, the so-called officials have grand-sounding titles which contrast mockingly with their shabby surroundings (‘the dimness, dust, and reek’, p.47), their cheap suits and lack of authority or knowledge.

When he looks down at the first row of men in the meeting hall which constitutes the Interrogation Room, Joseph expects to see a row of wise and seasoned lawyers, but instead sees a row of senile old men with long white beards. All his expectations are subverted. Everything is old, decayed, ineffectual. This continual subversion of expectations is a form of satire, a kind of dream satire.

He goes on to meet:

  • the Law Court Attendant
  • the grey-haired worn-out litigant
  • a warder smartly dressed in a smart grey waistcoat who represents the Inquiries Department
  • the Clerk of Enquiries
  • the Law Court Attendant
  • the Advocate Huld
  • the Chief Clerk of the Court
  • the businessman
  • the painter Titorelli
  • the chaplain

The higher authorities

The most obvious thing about the ‘authorities’ that everyone tells him about, is that even though Joseph himself believes it to be a grand and mighty organisation…

There can be no doubt that behind all the actions of this court of justice, that is to say in my case, behind my arrest and today’s interrogation, there is a great organisation at work. (p.54)

… in reality, the only people he ever comes into contact with seem to be at the very bottom of the hierarchy, very junior officials who, once he gets to know them, stop being intimidating and, quite the opposite, come over as paltry and whinging, spending their time complaining that they don’t like their jobs, don’t know what this case is all about etc etc.

So if the low-downs are a shabby bunch, surely the higher-ups must be more impressive? But in conversation after conversation, not only with members of ‘the Court’ but with hangers-on and outsiders, like the Law Court Attendant’s wife, they all convey the same sense that the hierarchy of officials extends infinitely upwards, and can never be reached.

‘The higher officials keep themselves well hidden.’ (p.120)

‘For the Judges of the lowest grade, to whom my acquaintances belong, haven’t the power to grant a final acquittal, that power is reserved for the highest Court of all, which is quite inaccessible to you, to me, to everyone.’ (Advocate Huld p.175)

In the real world of 1910s Austro-Hungarian Prague, there was, of course, en entirely public hierarchy of law courts, from local to municipal up to a High Court and then to the Emperor, who could be appealed to by legal petition. Kafka knew all about it since he himself had studied law at university.

In parallel, in the Roman Catholic religion of Kafka’s Prague, there were numerous intermediaries – priests then bishops, archbishops, then saints, the Virgin Mary and then God himself who could be appealed to by prayer.

Both of these hierarchies have an end, a top, an ultimate authority.

But Kafka’s hierarchy has no top, no pinnacle. You can appeal upwards for the rest of your life, and never reach anyone who has the ultimate say. Because there is no ultimate say.

The ranks of officials in this judiciary system mounted endlessly, so that not even adepts could survey the hierarchy as a whole. (p.132)

Chapter Seven is the one which really brings this home, being the Advocate’s account of his situation, in which – typically – he laments the plight of advocates such as himself (i.e. one of being miserably ignored by ‘the higher authorities’), and the likely fate of any appeals Joseph might make (waste of time). If you don’t have time or patience to read the whole book, you could (arguably) read Chapter Seven to get a vivid understanding of what the ‘Kafkaesque’ really means.

Shabbiness

The novel is full of shabby, half-derelict buildings. All the locations of the great Authority which Joseph is trying to identify are rundown, dirty, and generally located up rickety staircases in the attic rooms of derelict buildings out in the suburbs.

The whole milieu, all the settings, are deliberately opposite to the Grand Palaces and Castles and Institutions of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy which Kafka began writing under. Google anything about modern-day Prague and you get images of brightly painted palaces and castles and Baroque churches and olde buildings.

Kafka’s Pargue couldn’t be more different, shabby and dirty and rickety and tumbledown. The ceiling of the court in Chapter Two is so low that people watching proceedings from the gallery are bent nearly in two, and use pillows to prevent their heads banging against the roof.

In Chapter Three Joseph can’t believe that such an important personage as the Examining Magistrate lives in a creaky garret at the top of some narrow stairs (p.69). When he goes up there to investigate, Joseph discovers a long narrow hallway, lined with benches on which sit the shabby, defeated clients of the Court (p.73).

When Joseph starts to feel faint because it’s so hot and stuffy, a young woman attendant (there always seems to be one of these at hand) opens a skylight, and so much soot immediately falls into the corridor that they have to close it and wipe Joseph down (p.78).

It is symptomatic that even the dining room in Frau Grubach’s house is inconveniently long and narrow, into which two cupboards are wedged at angles and the table so long it makes the window at the very end all but inaccessible (p.89). All the buildings and stairs and corridors and rooms are like this – difficult, and inconvenient.

Or that the bedroom of the Attorney Huld is so dark and dingy, illuminated only by one weak candle, that Albert and Joseph are half way through a long explanation of Joseph’s case to the bed-ridden Advocate, before either of them realise that there is another guest in the bedroom, completely hidden in the shadows, namely the Chief Clerk of the Court (p.116).

On a later visit the Advocate tells him the defence attorneys are in fact only barely tolerated by the court and that their room is small and cramped, right up in the attic, lit only by a skylight which is so high up the only way to see out of it is to get a colleague to hoist you up onto his back, and even then the smoke from the nearby chimney would choke you and blacken your face. Plus there’s a hole in the floor through which, if you’re not careful, you might stick your leg (p.129).

When in Chapter Seven Joseph catches a taxi to go and consult with the painter Titorelli, on the advice of ‘the manufacturer’ who he meets at work (at the Bank), Joseph is dismayed to find the painter’s studio in a slum neighbourhood, with a gaping hole in the doorway, some disgusting effluent oozing out of a pipe, inexplicably a baby lying in filth and crying, and the garret up disproportionately high, long, narrow stairs, and the artist’s studio ‘a wretched hole’ (p.160) made of bare wooden planks, in which you can hardly take two paces in any direction. Although there is a window set in the ceiling, as the atmosphere grows more and more stuffy, and Joseph breaks into a sweat, he’s told it can’t be opened, oh no.

There is no relief anywhere.

Sex…

Part of the dreamlike atmosphere is the way Joseph drifts easily from woman to woman: I mean that he has barely encountered a woman before they routinely start flirting with him, and sometimes have sex with him.

Given the generally Victorian tenor of the book, with its insistence on correct dressing and formal manners, it is incongruous how, every time he meets a new woman, Joseph immediately starts thinking about ‘having’ her – and how easy these women then are to be seduced, holding hands, then kissing and, in some instances, having sex.

Elsa Joseph tells us he has a girlfriend of sorts, Elsa, who dances at a cabaret, and receives guests during the day in bed (p.24). I couldn’t work out fro the text whether this just meant she had Bohemian manners, or was a prostitute. (I’ve subsequently read that yes, she is intended to be a prostitute.)

Fräulein Bürstner In the course of a long conversation with Fräulein Bürstner in which he apologises for the impertinence of the men who ‘arrested’ him and took over her room for the purpose, Joseph takes her hand, then kisses her fingers and they begin a flirtation.

The Law Court Attendant’s wife When he visits the ‘court’ where his first ‘interrogation’ takes place, proceedings, such as they are, are interrupted by the bright-eyed woman at the back falling to the ground in the grip of a young man.

When Joseph returns to the ‘court’ the following Sunday, he finds it empty except for the same young woman. She shows him the books lying on the Examining Magistrate’s table – which he imagines will be weighty books of law – but they are in fact cheap pornography (p.61).

The woman shows him round, explaining that she is married to an official of the court, the Law Court Attendant, then starts flirting with him, ‘offering’ herself to him.

She tells him how the Examining Magistrate works late into the night and one night, she discovered him at the end of the bed, holding a lamp, and remarking on how beautiful she looks. He sent her a pair of silk stockings as a wooing present. He, the magistrate, knows that she is married. She is telling him naughty or provocative stories in order to signal her sexual availability, which she then makes overt when she pulls up her skirt to admire her stockings. A page later she tells him:

‘I’ll go with you wherever you like, you can do with me what you please. I’ll be glad if I can only get out of here…’ (p.65)

But she and Joseph have barely got into their flirtation before another young man, Bertold, appears in the meeting room and takes the wife off to an alcove for an intense conversation, which – to Joseph’s astonishment – soon progresses to him kissing her on the neck. When Joseph steps forward to protest, the young man sweeps the woman up in one arm (a gesture which, by itself, is surreal enough) and carries her away upstairs for the ‘use’ of the Examining Magistrate.

if she’s the mistress of the Examining Magistrate why was she flirting so fiercely with Joseph? Why did she let the other man kiss her? What does any of this mean?

Leni Then, in Chapter Six, Joseph’s Uncle Albert arrives and takes him by taxi to the home of the Advocate Huld, another rundown house, mostly in darkness. They’re shown up the stairs to the official’s room by another dark-eyed beauty, who we learn is named Leni (p.113) and is the old man’s nurse (he’s had a heart attack and is bed-ridden).

Half way through the conversation with the official they all hear a plate smash somewhere in the house and Joseph volunteers to go investigate. Down in the darkened hallway, Leni takes his hand and leads him away from the others, sits on his lap, kisses him and then pulls him forward onto the floor on top of her. The text then cuts to him getting up and adjusting his clothing. Presumably they have, in this lacuna, had sex! (p.123).

This seems to be confirmed when, at the end of the chapter, a furious uncle Albert asks Joseph what the devil he thinks he’s playing at, not only walking out on a vital meeting which will decide his future, but then sleeping with the nurse who is, according to Uncle Albert, also the Advocate’s mistress.

Again, a woman who appears to be ‘giving herself’ to Joseph, turns out to ‘belong’ to another man – and a man higher up in the authorities and officials of the Court. Is that the point? That any woman he flirts with turns out to be already co-opted by the Court? That the Court owns not only him, but all his personal relationships?

The pubescent girls In Chapter Seven, when Joseph visits the painter Titorelli in his rickety slum, part of the slum vibe is the way a gaggle of pubescent street girls flock around the visitor, and tease and torment the painter, continually interrupting their conversation through the keyhole and poking object, paper and straw, up through the floorboards. An unnerving note being struck when the ringleader of the girls gives Joseph an unmistakably flirtatious and sexually knowing look, as she shows him up to the painter’s garret.

Even Joseph notices the ubiquity of woman in  his story.

‘I seem to recruit women helpers’, he thought almost in surprise: ‘first Fräulein Bürstner, then the wife of the Law Court Attendant, and now this cherishing little creature…’ (p.121)

(The ‘cherishing little creature’ being sexy Leni who is sitting on Joseph’s lap at that moment.)

So, taken together, you get the strong feeling that these aren’t real ‘women’, so much as counters or markers in the elaborate game which is being played out.

Because it’s not as simple as the male protagonist finding a steady stream of women throwing themselves at him. That would be level one male sexual fantasy. Instead, there’s this added level that all the women who do so are already sexually involved with at least one, sometimes two or more, other men.

The Law Court Attendant’s wife is also snogging Bertold and seems to be the Examining Magistrate’s mistress. Similarly, Leni has sex with Joseph but appears to be the Advocate’s mistress, and, when he visits in Chapter Seven, he finds another client of the Advocate’s, along with Leni, both half undressed.

Like everything else, these sexual partners are themselves ambiguous and unstable, not fixed points. They present another layer of human interactions which turn out to be unreliable and ambiguous, continually putting the meaning of what Joseph thinks he’s doing in doubt.

Just as all the Court officials he meets turn out to be low-ranking and as powerless and confused as him i.e. are not what they seem – so all the women appear to make what, in the ordinary world, would be pretty binding commitments to Joseph (holding hands, kissing, groping and having sex) and yet are continually revealed to belong to someone else, to not be in the kind of relationship with him with Joseph mistakenly imagined.

… and violence

On the whole the novel eschews violence. Almost all of it consists of long-winded dialogue between bemused and puzzled characters, often with a lot of late-Victorian politeness and courtesy.

Which makes the occurrence of the rare moments of actual violence all the more shocking. In Chapter Five, titled ‘The Whipper’, Joseph is at work in the bank, when he hears noises from one of the many storerooms. When he opens it he discovers to his horror the two ‘warders’ who came to ‘arrest’ him, Franz and Willem, stripped half naked while a big rough, sunburned man wearing a leather jerkin like a blacksmith, is whipping them with a hard rod while they scream in pain.

This is so brutal and so unexpected, so completely unlike the dreamlike wanderings round a busy city and peculiarly inconsequential encounters in shabby rooms at the end of long dirty corridors, that it is difficult to know how to react.

Joseph reacts by desperately offering the man money to let Franz and Willem go, but – and here’s a very characteristic Kafka touch – the whippees themselves refuse. They acknowledge their guilt. And what is their crime? Having been too fond and familiar with Joseph. He is partly to blame for their shocking punishment.

But hang on – why is all this taking place in a room in his bank? It is like a Terry Gilliam film, where someone opens a door in a boring bank and there are two half-naked men being whipped. When one of them lets out a particularly piercing scream, Joseph shoots back out of the room and slams the door shut. He notices a couple of the bank’s clerks walking towards him to investigate the scream and so, in a fluster, orders them to go about some other business.

What makes this scene even more bizarre, is that – having gone home and been troubled about what he saw all night – the next day at the Bank, Joseph tentatively goes along the corridor to the same room, opens the door and… discovers the three men in exactly the same postures, and picking up the conversation where it left off! That really is like something out of a film or, a nightmare.

And it is also symptomatic of the highly episodic nature of the book in the way it is a stand-alone episode, self-contained and leading, apparently, nowhere. Did Kafka intend other scenes of extreme violence, of which there is now no trace? Or was it consciously intended to stick out on account of its violence?

We can guess that this is one of the many editorial problems which the author faced, which led to him abandoning the book and then, a decade later, being so embarrassed by it that he asked Brod to burn it all.

The trial of being

Chapter Seven is the one which really brings into focus the way that the trial has nothing to do with anything Joseph K. has actually done: it is a trial of his very existence. It brings into doubt everything about him.

By the time we get to this chapter, the trial has come to obsessing Joseph K. and is forcing him to go back over every single action he’s ever taken, every thought and gesture, to try and discover what it was that he did wrong.

To meet an unknown accusation, not to mention other possible charges arising out of it, the whole of one’s life would have to be passed in review, down to the smallest actions and accidents, clearly formulated and  examined from every angle. (p.143)

I think this is the sense of Brod’s remarks about Kafka’s religious concerns. This hypersensitive paranoid self-consciousness reminds me of the 17th century Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans who kept minutely detailed diaries and journals dedicated for just one purpose: to monitor every act and thought which might indicate whether the author was among those pre-determined by Calvinist theology to hell and damnation.

The entire book describes Joseph K.’s efforts not so much to defend himself as to discover what it is he’s been charged with, and in fact he never finds out.

In fact the entire book is a masterpiece of (very verbose) obfuscation and delay.

In the stories which Kafka left us, narrative art regains the significance it had in the mouth of Scheherazade: to postpone the future. In The Trial postponement is the hope of the accused man only if the proceedings do not gradually turn into the judgment. (Walter Benjamin)

Pages and pages and pages are devoted to dialogue between Joseph and the Inspector or Examining Magistrate or the Law Court Attendant or the Advocate Huld or the Chief Clerk of the Court, and each, in turn, tut tuts over Joseph’s behavior and attitude and explains some of the processes, while continually emphasising that they don’t understand most of it, no, a man in his position barely understands the cases that pass through his hands, may spend weeks or months preparing papers which they send off to higher authorities but never see again, or are returned unread, or may have a damaging rather than a meliorating effect, you never can tell.. and so on and so on, endlessly.

The majority of the text is taken up by that testimonies of these ‘lower’ officials which rarely if ever describe any tangible process, but repeat in ever more tormenting detail what a lowly role they hold and how little they understand.

By half-way through the book you can see why Max Brod wrote that Kafka could have gone on adding an indefinite number of extra chapters, making up a never-ending sequence of interviews Joseph has with a never-ending series of minor officials, each with grand-sounding titles who, when he actually meets them, turn out to be ill or old or fat or grubby little men, shacked up in makeshift offices up in the attics of slum buildings in out-of-the-way parts of the city, who proceed to spend entire chapters telling him that his case is going badly, oh very badly, or that he’s missed some golden opportunities to improve his lot, but, ho hum, they must do what they can, although they don’t really have much power and most of their efforts come to nothing or might even be counter-productive, but he will certainly have to come back and talk to them at greater length. Again. Forever.

It is the repetition of this kind of scene which gives the book its dream-like feel and structure, the sense of fighting with a giant blancmange which can never be seized or grasped or properly pinned down or attacked, let alone defeated.

It gives you a really uncomfortable cumulative sense of smothering and asphyxiating in a series of long drawn-out very wordy encounters with petty officials which always leave you even more in the dark than when you started.

And always accompanied by the constant, hyper-anxious sense that, whatever you’re doing, it is wrong – you are offending and alienating people, the people you share a house with, your work colleagues who notice you increasingly neglecting your duties, every single figure of authority you come into contact with who looks at you, shakes their head and says ‘Tut tut, if only you’d come to me sooner’… and all the time, you don’t know what it is you’ve done wrong!

Credit

The Trial by Franz Kafka was published in German in 1925. The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir was first published in 1935 by Victor Gollancz, then by Penguin in 1953. All references are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.


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The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera (2014)

The Festival of Insignificance is by far Milan Kundera’s shortest book at just 115 pages. Four men live in Paris, four men of varying ages, pottering round, bumping into each other, in the street, at parties, having thoughts and conversations.

Alain is walking down the street fascinated by the way all the girls these days wear low-slung jeans and crop tops, showing off their navels. Ramon strolls through the Luxembourg Gardens. D’Ardelo visits his doctor with a heavy heart, convinced his symptoms are cancer. The doctor assures him they’re not.

Moments later D’Ardelo bumps into Ramon in the Luxembourg (they use to work in the same institute) and D’Ardelo a) asks Ramon whether he knows someone who can organise a little cocktail party to celebrate his (D’Ardelo’s) birthday and b) deceitfully tells Ramon he has just been diagnosed with cancer. His friend commiserates. As he walks away even D’Ardelo doesn’t understand why he lied.

An hour later Ramon is at Charles’s apartment and asks if he and his partner, an unemployed actor named Caliban, can cater for this cocktail party. Sure. Ramon explains the client with a story designed to show the difference between Brilliance and Insignificance. D’Ardelo is at a party preening like a peacock and spinning jokes, whereas Quaquelique is a discreet, quiet presence. Not silent, just uttering the occasional platitude. Ramon explains how D’Ardelo’s brilliance intimidates the women he talks to, they struggle to rise to his repartee.Whereas it is Quaquelique who leaves with the beautiful woman at the end of the party.

Insignificance trumps brilliance.

Part two – the marionette theatre

Introducing the anecdote Stalin told the Politburo about how, when he was a boy, he came across 24 partridges sitting on the bough of a tree. He had his shotgun with him, but only 12 cartridges. So he shot the first twelve birds, then walked home with the bodies, collected 12 more cartridges, walked back to the tree to find the other 12 partridges sitting there peacefully and shot them too. The Politburo listened in stunned silence. Only after the meeting had ended and they all went to the loo, while Stalin went off to his private room, did the Politburo burst out in guffaws of outraged laughter at Stalin’s outrageous lies.

We know the story because it is told in Khruschev’s memoirs which Charles owns a copy of. On another occasion Charles explains why the Russians renamed Koenigsberg Kaliningrad. It’s because of a Politburo member Kalinin, in fact president of the Supreme Soviet, who had a particularly weak bladder, and Stalin liked to keep waiting or late at meetings until he wet  his pants. Naming a city after this man was the whim of a dictator who felt something like genuine affection for this poor weak man.

Part three – Alain and Charles often think about their mothers

Alain, still thinking about girls’ navels, has a memory of being ten, of his mother paying a rare visit to the family home, of him climbing out of the family swimming pool and going over to where she’s sitting, and of her reaching out and touching  his navel.

There is an unexplained cut to an unnamed woman who drives to a bridge over a river and jumps in, attempting to drown. She hears a man’s voice, a man dives in and swims out to rescue her. Vengefully she drags the man down under the surface, lying athwart his body till he is still, then swimming up to the surface, walking wetfoot to her car, driving off…

On his way to his apartment, Alain is jostled by a brisk young woman who calls him an idiot. He phones Charles who tells him about his sick mother. Alain for some reason imagines her as an angel, and this leads to a brief consideration of angels, and a mild comparison of Alain, who’s mother left him when he was a baby, and Charles’s mother, who he’s known all his life and is now old and frail and a burden.

Part four – They are all in search of a good mood

Caliban the unemployed actor decided that, if he was going to work as a waiter for Charles, it would be fun to act a role, and so pretends to be from Pakistan. They get dressed up in waiter costume and drive to Madame D’Ardelo’s, unpack food and drink, get it ready to be presented etc. There’s a Portuguese waitress there (who hates speaking French) and, somehow, she gets into speaking to him in Portuguese while he replies to her in (largely made-up) Pakistani. Despite talking at complete cross-purposes (as so many Kundera characters do) they sort of fall in love.

Meanwhile, Alain is in his apartment which is decorated with just one photo, of the mother who didn’t want to have him. She told his father to be careful when making love but he came inside her nonetheless (making the modern reader realise this act of love happened before the coil or the pill i.e. in another universe).

She, we now learn, is the young woman who jumped into the river, because she was pregnant and didn’t want it. The drowning of the man is just one of the many fantasies Alain projects onto the mother he never knew. He talks to the photo and, in a mild outbreak of magical realism, she talks back. He reflects that, being gentle and weak, and yet an intruder into his life, he was born to be an Apologiser.

Ramon arrives at the party. He hates these posh people. He’s retired i.e. older than D’Ardelo. He watches an amusing scene in which some grande dame, Madame Franck (whose husband recently died) stuffs a canapé in her face while rudely ignoring the pushy, social-climbing daughter of M and Mme D’Ardelo.

Alain is pleased to bump into his old friend, Quaquelique, on the scout, as ever, for a new girlfriend. Alain bumps into a woman he knows, Julie, who flirts with him, then walks away waggling her bottom.

Part five – A little feather floats beneath the ceiling

The narrative becomes slowly more fantastical. Charles the bartender is looking up at a tiny feather drifting down from the ceiling. Remember the conversation earlier about angels? He wonders if this is a tiny token of an angel. Madame Franck notices it too and holds out her finger for it to land on.

Somehow this scene morphs into the Politburo standing round while Stalin calls them to order and then laughs at his own joke of renaming Koenigsberg after pitiful comrade Kalinin.

Ramon engages in conversation with Caliban, agreeing that their tactic of speaking in ridiculous languages does, to some extent, mollify the humiliation of making their living by being lackeys at parties of the rich.

We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. (p.75)

But now he wonders if we are in a post-joke era. As if to confirm it they both notice a man who appears to be eavesdropping on them, on Caliban. Suddenly he is seized with anxiety: what happens if a French security man or policeman realises he is a Frenchman masquerading as Pakistani? Arrest. Interrogation. Prison, Deportation. (This seems to me a bit weak; if Kundera wanted to raise the spectre of 9/11 and the war on terror, why not have a Muslim or Arab character?)

Which leads Ramon to remind them of the story of Stalin and the partridges. One way of interpreting it is that Stalin didn’t expect to be believed, he was telling a joke, but the Politburo didn’t get it because they were too sacred. Ramon grandly announces that this moment symbolised the start of the Post-Joke Age (p.77). This is such palpable bollocks it barely seems worth engaging with. Do you think we live in a Post-Joke Age?

Madame Franck finally catches the feather on her finger and announces it is a symbol. Ramon slips out the door and hails a taxi in the street. Alain’s mother speaks to him from her photo, describing an enormous fantasy in which all humanity is still connected via their umbilical cords back to their mothers who are connected back to their mothers and so on in a vast tree back to Eve. Alain’s mother wanted to destroy the tree and wipe out the memory of humanity.

Part six – Angels falling

The party is over. Charles and Caliban change back into their ordinary clothes. The young waitress, whose name is Mariana, adores Caliban even more. She intercedes with Charles to speak on her behalf, but then Caliban walks over and kisses her. But she remains chaste and rushes off. The two men reflect on chastity.

Caliban wants to go see their friend Alain and drink to chastity. They call up from the street, Alain lets them in, Caliban teeters on a chair to reach the bottle of vintage Armagnac brandy Alain has placed high on his armoire, but the chair breaks and Caliban topples to the floor, mashing the brandy.

Meanwhile, the narrative cuts back to an extended sequence with Stalin and Politburo. First of all he asks them if they know what Kant’s great idea was: It was the Ding an sich, the notion that there is a reality out there, but we can never know it. Against this he describes the central idea of Schopenhauer, namely that the world is made of Will and Representation. Everyone in the world has their different representations of it. Which ones triumph depends on the force of will. And he, Stalin, has done more than any man in history to impose his Will, and his Idea, on humanity.

But now he feels tired and, looking round at the imbeciles in the Politburo, he wonders what he sacrificed his life to. He thumps the table which shakes.

That thump coincides with Caliban falling off the chair in Alain’s flat with a bump.

And the door closing in Julie’s flat. Without quite understanding how, she seems to have left the party with Quaquelique and to have slept with him.

But the Politburo are distracted by an amazing sight. Outside the Kremlin window, from high in the air, angels are falling. What does it mean? While they are distracted Stalin changes into his hunting gear, grabs his shotgun, and goes stalking off down the Kremlin corridors.

Part seven – The festival of insignificance

It gets weirder and weirder, and more fantastical and inconsequential.

It’s the morning after the party. Alain gets on his motorbike and feels the presence behind him of the mother he’s never known. She now reads him a bitter lecture about people, humans and the way none of us asked to be born, the way we have our existence, our gender, our physical characteristics, and the era we’re born into, thrust on us. After all that how can there be a thing called ‘freedom’?

Alain arrives at the Luxembourg Gardens to meet Ramon. They had planned to go the Chagall exhibition at the museum but, once again, the queue is too long and puts Alain off. Instead they stroll, and Alain takes the opportunity to expand on his theories about the navel. Previously, he said, women’s bodies had three distinct erogenous zones, the breast, buttocks and thighs. These were individual and distinctive. Now, Alain claims, we live in the era of the navel (two young women walk past displaying their navels as he speaks) and the navel is anonymous and identical. We live in an era of uniformity. Everyone must conform to the same values and music and fashion. We live in a culture which promotes all the values of ‘individuality’ and yet… there is no individuality left.

In the past, love was a celebration of the individual, of the inimitable, the tribute to a unique thing, a thing impossible to replicate. But not only does the navel not revolt against repetition, it is a call for repetitions. And in our millennium we are going to live under the sign of the navel. (p.107, italics added)

I think he means endless pointless reproduction, and mass uniformity.

D’Ardelo arrives and he and Ramon greet each other warily. All three are interrupted by two events. One is a flood of children streaming into the gardens who arrange themselves in a circle to take part in some kind of musical performance.

Much more striking is the arrival of Stalin in his hunting gear. Yes. Josef Stalin runs into the scene, looking manly and virile.

All around people stop and watch, startled and sympathetic. (p.110)

His appearance is that of a ladies’ man, a village rake, an adventurer. The morning crowds in the Luxembourg warm to this fellow (is this satire? on how the conformity of the modern world is preparing the way for new dictators? or whimsy?).

He takes up his shotgun and fires at one of the many statues of French queens in the park, blowing the nose off Marie de Medici. Why? Because Kalinin – remember him of the weak bladder – is having a pee behind it. Stalin explains that pissing in the park is illegal and roars a great Georgian laugh and the crowd warms to his honest, free-spirited hi jinks.

He bursts into laughter, and his laugh is so gay, so free, so innocent, so rustic, so brotherly, so contagious, that everyone around, as if relieved, starts laughing as well. (p.111)

From time to time the narrative has told us that Charles dreams of putting on a play, maybe a play performed by marionettes. Now Ramon turns to Alain and says, ‘Does the hunter remind you of anyone?’ Yes, Charles.

‘Yes. Charles is here with us. It’s the last act of his piece.’ (p.112)

‘His piece’? What piece? Is the implication that some or more of the text is part of Charles’s ‘play’? Surely not. So is it really Charles or really Stalin? Charles, apparently. Both men conclude the Stalin and the Kalinin are the high jinks you’d expect of two actors trying to keep in practice.

Then Ramon delivers a long speech about the subject of the novel:

‘Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence. It is all around us, and everywhere and always. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in horror, in bloody battles, in the worst disasters. It often takes courage to acknowledge it in such dramatic situations, and to call it by name. But it is not only a matter of acknowledging it, we must love insignificance, we must learn to love it. Right here, in this park, before us – look, my friend, it is present here in all its obviousness, all its innocence, in all its beauty. Yes, its beauty. As you yourself said, the perfect performance [referring to the actors dressed as Stalin and Kalinin]… and utterly useless, the children laughing… without knowing why, isn’t that beautiful? Breathe, D’Ardelo, my friend, inhale this insignificance that’s all around us, it is the key to wisdom, it is the key to a good mood…’ (p.113)

Alain’s mother whispers in his ear that she is truly happy. Ramon sees that his speech about insignificance has not pleased D’Ardelo, a man who is more attracted by the weighty and the significant. So he changes tack and flatters him by telling him he saw how much Madame Franck was eyeing him at the party last night: surely they must be secret lovers – which sends D’Ardelo off with a spring in his step.

And an old-fashioned horse and carriage draws up, and ‘Stalin’ and ‘Kalinin’ climb into it, waving to the crowd, as the children’s choir strikes up a rendition of La Marseillaise.

Thoughts

By the end I think you’re meant to have realised that the entire book is a festival of insignificance. To use the comparison explained by Ramon back at the start, it avoids the off-putting brilliance of a D’Ardelo, and adopts the steady unobtrusive burbling of a Quaquelique, and wins the pretty girl in the end.

But no, that can’t be right. Because the whole short narrative is far from unobtrusive burbling: it is made up of bravura displays and performances – the sudden unexplained story of the woman who tries to drown herself but drowns her would-be rescuer – the story of Stalin terrifying the Politburo – Caliban’s jokey adoption of Pakistani – the way Alain’s photo of his mother regularly talks to him and holds conversations. And from time to time the characters mention their Master, who I didn’t immediately understand meant the author, the man who dreamed them up and is manipulating them as they speak and act.

These are not quiet and unobtrusive events, they are surreal or magical realist tokens: they strike me as being displays of whimsical narratorial brilliance.

But why? Why choose Stalin to be a central figure in his last novel? Why not some figure from Czech history? Is it a poke in the eye at all the people who expect him to write about Czech history and issues, who expect him to conform to what their idea of a political writer or an émigré writer should be (as the Czech émigré Irena is irritated by all the French people telling her how much she ought to be caring about her homeland when communism collapses in 1989)?

Is he demonstrating the complete freedom of the novelist to write about whatever takes his fancy? Is the insignificance of the entire story part of its resistance to the forces of Kitsch and earnest conformity, which he identifies in his earlier novels?

Maybe. But I can’t help feeling there’s a quality of disappointment about these later novels. I mean that, when you hand over your time and effort to a writer, you expect, to some extent, a kind of rounded experience, one with a beginning, middle and an end.

That sounds crude, but what I’m driving at is the way this book, like Slowness and Identity, starts off with high hopes and expectations, with promising and interesting characters and immediately hits you with some of his trademark meditations about ideas and notions about the meaning of life and memory and love and so on…. but then, somehow, lose their way, fails to deliver, fizzle out – as Slowness leads up to Vincent’s frustrated copulation by the pool of the hotel and the last third of Identity, even worse, turns out all to have been a dream.

Somehow the cleverness of the meditations and digressions, and of many of the incidents, is not, ultimately, matched by a cleverness of form or shape. That’s what I mean by disappointing. They don’t quite deliver the intellectual or imaginative punch they start out promising.

But maybe, again, he is reacting against giving the audience what is expects. If that’s what we want, maybe we should go watch a Hollywood movie. Fiction does something different. It intrigues and beguiles. And puzzles… Maybe this book is intended to be an entertainment, a beguilement and a puzzle… Pretty obviously it is saying: ‘If you want a serious message… my serious message is… that nothing is serious :)’

Credit

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2015. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Ignorance by Milan Kundera (2002)

This is a really enjoyable book and feels like a return to form for Kundera. I hate to say it because it sounds like such a cliché, but it feels that the reason for this is simply to be that, after three novels set predominantly in France and in a Western consumer capitalist culture which Kundera can’t help but loathe and despise – this one returns to Czechoslovakia, to his homeland – and feels significantly more confident, relaxed, integrated, deep and thoughtful as a result.

It’s a novel about returning from exile. It’s set soon after the collapse of communism in 1989 and the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Russian rule, and describes the journeys back to newly-liberated Czechoslovakia of two émigrés, one man, one woman.

But it is a Kundera novel, so the narrative, such as it is, is routinely interspersed with digressions and thoughts and analyses, primarily about the characters’ perceptions and feelings, then of their personal situations, then of their positions as symbols of ‘the émigré’, then explanations of the broader historical background to their situation, and then, stepping right back from the present, Kundera aligns their ‘returns’ with a) the classical legend of Odysseus, maybe the greatest symbol in European literature of the Returner, and b) with passages about the different words in European languages which attempt to convey the many feelings of the returner, nostalgia, longing for home, and so on.

Ignorance

Thus we discover he is using the word ‘ignorance’ not at all in the common or garden sense of ‘lack of knowledge or information’, but in a subtler sense moderated by placing all around it words from other languages (such as the German Sehnsucht and the Czech stesk) which express ‘nostalgia’, longing, the act of missing something or someone – then by examining its Latin root, to produce a wider deeper definition:

To be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss. In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there. (p.6)

Arguably, the rest of the text is an extended mediation on the meaning of this concept, the suffering of the exile, and the bewilderment of return.

Odysseus is doubly relevant: not just as a returner, but a returner after an absence of twenty years, he is surprisingly close to Kundera’s fictional character. It was in 1968 that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed of the Prague Spring, but only in 1969 that they imposed their new government which proceeded to implement its harsh crackdown on all liberals and dissidents. So it was 20 years later that Russian communism collapsed and the Russia-backed Czech communist government fell.

And Odysseus was away from his homeland (Ithaca) for a long 20 years: 10 years fighting at Troy, three wandering across the Mediterranean and having the extraordinary adventures all children learn about; then seven trapped by the magician Calypso, who was also his lover.

Now these disparate elements – geopolitics, personal stories, etymological precision and ancient myth – could easily have hung apart and pulled in different directions. In my opinion his use of these kinds of disparate elements, or different levels, failed to gel in the previous couple of novels.

But here they meld perfectly. All four of these levels or themes naturally complement each other. The feelings and experiences of the present-day émigrés really does illuminate your understanding of how Odysseus must have felt, pitching up in his homeland twenty years after leaving it. And Kundera’s subtle insights into Odysseus’s plight really does help to amplify the bitter experiences of his émigrés in the present day.

To both of them Kundera applies his insights about memory and forgetting, namely the idea developed in Identity that part of the point of friendship it to tell each other stories about the old days and keep memories alive. Exiled to a foreign land, with no friends, those memories atrophy and die. The more intense Odysseus’s longing for his native land – the less he can remember anything about it.

Émigrés gathered together in compatriot colonies keep retelling to the point of nausea the same stories, which thereby become unforgettable. But people who do not spend time with their compatriots, like Irena or Odysseus, are inevitably stricken with amnesia. The stronger their nostalgia, the emptier of recollections it becomes. (p.33, emphasis added)

Plus (as a big history fan) I am fascinated by the light Kundera sheds on the political and social and cultural changes which took place in a communist-dominated society, how it changed so quickly after the fall of communism, and the myriad little insights thrown up as his two protagonists move among this familiar but alien world.

For me, all of these elements come together to make a really fascinating and engaging book.

The characters

Irena

The woman protagonist, Irena, fled Czechoslovakia with her husband Martin, with one little girl and pregnant with another, back in the 1970s. Émigrés from communist countries weren’t all that welcome in the Paris of the 1970s, dominated by its communist party and the fashion for left-wing students. Her husband fell ill and died, and she had a hard time bringing up the girls (cleaning houses, caring for a paraplegic, p.28).

Emigration-dreams

All the émigrés have them, both she and her husband are plagued by them, dreams in which you are wandering the streets of a strange city and the see the uniforms of the Czech police and awake sweating in panic. Dreams like that. Sometimes they came during the day, in the middle of a meeting, a sudden shaft of memory, walking through a green part of Prague, for a moment, becomes more real than the real world. The continual eruption of the unconscious.

Gustaf

Then she met Gustaf, a Swede who’s fled his homeland to get away from his homeland. They become friends then lovers, then partners. He disconcerts her by saying his company are going to open up a small office in Prague. She wants to get away from the old life, not have it hanging over her all the time. Especially her self-centred, garrulous mother. After the fall of communism his company expands this to buying a house in central Prague, with a flat in the eaves where Gustaf stays on his business trips.

Now Irena flies back to Prague and is able to stay there, while she looks up her old friends and has a sort of hen night for women friends only. This scene registers their different reactions, some jealous, some bitter, everyone keen to tell how much they suffered, the ‘suffering contests’ (p.41).

All of this is interesting and moving and subtly described – very unlike the sex comedy shenanigans of the previous novels, Slowness and Identity, which I didn’t like. When references to Odysseus’s experiences as an exile returning after twenty years are interleaved with Irena’s it doesn’t feel contrived or arch; the two complement each other really well.

Josef

In the airport Irena spots a man she knew twenty years earlier. He had been someone else’s boyfriend who she had flirted with at some party downstairs in a bar in Prague. But then she got married and left the country. But she’d always wondered what would have happened. When she introduces herself to him, he is flustered and shy.

Then we cut to his point of view and learn why he is flustered. He is called Josef and he has absolutely no memory of her whatever, can’t even remember her name. He also fled Czechoslovakia, settling in Denmark and marrying. Now his wife is dead and he is making the pilgrimage home.

The great broom

He wriggles free of her and goes on his own quest in Prague, his own odyssey. He goes to the cemetery where his parents are buried and is appalled by how cramped it is, overshadowed by high rise blocks and freeways. He reflects than an invisible broom has swept across the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar.

And it seems to be getting faster. Things changed slowly ‘back in the day’, now they change before your eyes. This is brought home in the dining room of the hotel where he’s staying and he realises spoken Czech has changed in intonation and tone in the twenty years he’s been away. Now it feels like ‘an unknown language’ (p.55)

Josef’s brother

Then Josef goes on to meet his brother and the sister-in-law who never liked him. I really liked this scene, the way his sense of the feelings of the other two fluctuate, how Kundera captures the changing mood, the sudden embarrassing silences. He realises he must have been seen as The Betrayer, the lucky younger son who ran away. His flight bedevilled his brother’s career as a surgeon, casting a blight over it. Josef had turned his back on a career as a doctor (turning his back on the family tradition pursued by his grandfather and father) in order to become a vet. The motives for his flight are examined.

Josef left in a hurry and mailed his brother the key to his apartment, saying take what he wanted. Now his brother gives him a bundle of notes and journals and diaries and letters. Back at his hotel he goes through them. He realises he has forgotten most of his childhood.

The law of masochistic memory: as segments of their lives melt into oblivion, men slough off whatever they dislike, and feel lighter, freer. (p.76)

He is disconcerted at the combination of ‘sentimentality and sadism’ (p.83) displayed by the diaries of himself as a frustrated virginal teenager.

The teenage girl

Kundera now creates ‘out of the mists of the time when Josef was in high school’ a virginal girl his own age who has just split up with her first boyfriend. She enjoys the fist pangs of ‘nostalgia’, the first teenage tryouts of that feeling of wanting to ‘go back’ (in her case to the happy days when she was going out with X; but you see how this mention of nostalgia ties in with the book’s theme).

She goes out with young Josef. He is petulant and frustrated. When she announces she is going off on a school skiing trip he has a tantrum and dumps her.

Josef tears up his diary and throws the pieces away. But,

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

Gustaf and Irena’s relationship decays

I thought the book was about Irena’s first and major visit back to Prague, but this passage makes it clear that, her partner Gustaf having opened an office in the city, she found herself spending more and more time there, watching as Prague rapidly becomes westernised, repaints itself and fills up with tourists.

Meanwhile her relationship with Gustaf peters out. They stop having sex. They stop even talking because he enjoys talking in American English, talking loud and long, whereas she clings to the French she had learned in Paris, and behind that to the Czech she grew up with, neither of which Gustaf understands. Now, meeting the strange man (Josef) in the airport has revived something in her. He had given her the number of his hotel and when she gets through after trying half a dozen times, she is thrilled and aroused at his voice.

All this contrasts with the gabby loudmouth Gustaf who she can hear downstairs keeping her horrible chatterbox mum in stitches. Josef represents escape from two people she’s come to loathe.

The teenage girl attempts suicide

The narrative cuts back to that teenage girl after her second boyfriend cruelly dumps her. We are intended by now, I think, to realise that the sentimental and sadistic boyfriend was none other than Josef, and I think the distraught girl was a young Irena.

We are told how the teenage girl goes on the school ski trip, one evening walks away from the chalet, as far as she can, swallows a bunch of sleeping pills she’s stolen off her mother, and lies down in the snow to die.

Burying the dead

This narrative breaks off to revive a thought that had been mentioned earlier (and which recurs in Kundera’s later fiction) which is the correct disposal of the dead. When Josef’s wife dies, he fights an almighty battle to stop her family claiming the body and burying it in the family plot. Josef feels she would be abandoned among strangers. (This parallels Chantal’s anxiety in Identity about what happens to the bodies of the dead the instant they’ve gone i.e. they lose all privacy and pored over by pathologists and police and strangers, cut open and humiliated. Which is why she insists on being cremated.)

The suicide survives

She had lain down under a beautiful blue Alpine sky, her head woozily full of images of a beautiful death. She wakes up under a black night sky feeling awful and in fact unable to feel half her body. Evidently she is not dead, and she staggers back to the ski chalet where the doctor diagnoses her with frostbite and says part of her ear will have to be chopped off. Word goes round the other kids and teachers about the girl who tried to kill herself. She is mortified. Now her life divides into two halves – the innocent years under the blue sky of childhood, and the years of knowledge under a black sky.

The implications of human lifespan

There now follow some fascinating passages about the human condition. Nothing impenetrable or difficult, it’s all very accessible. It’s as if he’s made philosophy entertaining. It’s like Heidegger turned into a newspaper editorial.

First idea is a consideration of how much our lifespan – say 80 years – affects meaning. If human beings lived for, say 160 years, then the notion of a Great Return which his book is about, would dissolve into just one of the many peregrinations 180 year-olds would be prone to.

Human memory

Next, Memory. The fact is that human memory retains no more than a millionth, maybe a hundred millionth of our actual lived experiences. If human beings remembered everything they would cease being human and be a different species. One of the things that defines us is the way we forget almost everything.

And why do we remember some things and not others? Because they are part of the complex narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. And these narratives, obviously, vary hugely from person to person.

It’s not just that people remember the same event differently (as Kundera has given us ample examples of throughout his work), but that quite often two people don’t even remember the event at all. Thus Irena powerfully remembers her first meeting with Josef, and remembers him as a symbol or talisman of the single life she left behind when she married her husband soon after. Whereas Josef doesn’t remember her at all.

Kundera evinces both Irena’s experience after he husband died and Josef’s after his wife died: for both of them the shared memories which made up their relationships required constant discussing and sharing. Once the sharing ended, the memories started to decay, worryingly quickly.

Kundera’s discussed some of these issues before but, as I’ve said, they seem to arise more naturally from the subject matter and setting in this book than they do in its immediate predecessors. The result is that it feels more graceful. There are fewer abrupt handbrake turns.

Back to the narrative

Irena goes strolling round Prague, revising the middle class area where she grew up. She walks through woodland to the back of the famous castle. She thinks about her upbringing, the poets and storytellers and the little theatres with their humour – the ‘intangible essence’ of her country.

Josef reflects

He drives out into the country. He reflects on the destiny of the Czechs, a small nation, whose history has been one of fear and domination, yet have refused to bow to their larger neighbours, like the Danes he has settled among.

He and his sister-in-law had bickered about a painting, a painting by a painter friend of his depicting a working class neighbourhood in the flamey colours of the Fauves. Now he realises he doesn’t want it anyway. It would be a splinter of old Prague in his clean, windswept Danish existence. Out of place.

Man cannot know the future because he doesn’t understand the present

This point is made very amusingly though the example of Schoenberg the revolutionary Austrian composer. In the 1920s he announced that his new twelve-tone system would ensure the dominance of German music for a century. Barely ten years later he, a Jew, was forced to flee Nazi Germany, to America. Here he continued to write and developed the fans and acolytes who were to dominate post-war classical music and impose the atonal ‘system’ onto serious music until well into the 1970s.

But where is he now? In Kundera’s view forgotten and ignored (I’m not sure that’s quite true, but his system certainly doesn’t dominate classical music the way it used to).

Anyway, Kundera introduces another level to explain what he means. Imagine two armies meet to determine the fate of the world but unknown to either one carries the plague bacillus which will wipe out the civilisation they’re fighting over.

Same with Schoenberg and his arch-enemy Stravinsky who he spent fifty years slagging off. In the event both were blown away by radio. The advent of radio in the 1920s was the start of the great plague of noise and din and racket which, in Kundera’s view, has ruined music forever. Kundera lets rip with some classic cultural pessimism:

If in the past people would listen to music out of love of music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, ‘regardless of whether we want to hear it’, it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don’t know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can’t tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form); sewage-water music in which music is dying. (p.146)

So who cares any more whether Schoenberg or Stravinsky was right. Both have gone down under a tsunami of sewage-water music.

Irena and music

As so often in Kundera, having shared a thought or idea with us for a couple of pages, he then applies it to one of his walking experiments, also known as ‘characters. Thus we eavesdrop on how much Irena hates the way music blares from every outlet, how much she wants to get away from it to a realm of quiet. On one side of her the bedside radio which, even in its speech programmes, contains snippets of sewage music; on the other side Gustaf snoring like a pig. (This trip to Prague has crystallised how much she hates him.)

She is tense because it is the day when she’s made an appointment to meet Josef.

Josef and N

Before he left the country, Josef had been helped by N., a devout communist who stood up for people like him. Josef goes to meet him, his head full of questions about how he felt about collaborating in the oppression of his people, how things changed towards the end, what he feels now. But N.’s house is packed full of his grown-up kids milling around and he and Josef can’t manage to get a conversation started. He laments the capitalist commercialisation he sees all over the country. N. nods his head. ‘National independence has been an illusion for some time, now.’

Josef abandons his plans to engage in Weighty Conversation and, as soon as he does so, experiences a sudden release and sense of liberation. Suddenly he and N. are like two old friends chatting and gossiping about the past. (There is a certain polemical purpose in the notion that Josef the émigré has more in common with a former communist than with his own brother. His brother represents bitterness, and his wife, Josef’s sister-in-law, would string up the old communists if she could. Josef’s relaxed and warm conversation with his old friend shows how irrelevant that witch-hunting mentality is to the situation. Celebrate what we have in the here and now. Not least because ‘they’ – N. nods towards his adult children – have no idea what they’re talking about.)

The memory theme reappears because N. thanks Josef for acting as his alibi to his wife, on an occasion when N. was off with his mistress. Josef has absolutely no memory of this happening and doubts it was him, but acquiesces in the story. Earlier, his brother had reminded him of some boyhood lines he had supposedly uttered, and his sister-in-law reminded him that he used to scandalise the family with his anti-clerical sentiments. Josef remembers none of this, none of it.

Irena and Josef

They meet at his hotel. They chat and get on. She describes how alien she feels in Prague and yet how she has been cold-shouldered in Paris. The French accepted her and Martin as Heroic Exiles. When the wall came down and she could go back, she realised her few friends slowly lost contact with her because she was no longer interesting.

The suicide girl grown into a woman

I was wrong about the suicide teenager being Irena. It’s her best friend from the old days, Milada, who alone of the cackling women at the hen night reception for Irena, makes the effort to talk to her and understand her. At the time Kundera had told us that she had a very particular hairstyle, the hair cut to perfectly frame her face. Now we realise it is to hide the ear she had cut off because of the frostbite. For her, while Josef and Irena get to know each other in the Prague hotel bar, it is another boring day driving out to a suburb, having a beer and a sandwich alone in a bar.

Except that she has learned that he has come back, the teenage boy who rejected her and prompted her suicide attempt and the loss of her ear. Him. Josef.

Irena and Josef

It’s so noisy with sewage-water music in the bar that Josef invites Irena up to his bedroom. He’s reading the Odyssey. They explicitly compare Odysseus’s 20 year exile with Irena’s own. Talk swiftly moves to Odysseus and Penelope’s first night back in bed. Irena describes it then, half drunk, describes it again using coarse sex words. Both are immediately aroused and tumble into bed. Yes. It is a Milan Kundera novel where, no matter how artful, erudite and thought-provoking the ideas and discussion, straightforward heterosexual penetrative sex is never far away.

It was the sound of those rude words in their native Czech. Both have been married to or living with people who don’t speak Czech. The sound of those words in their native tongue, certainly stimulates Irena to ecstasies of sexual abandonment, she wants to do everything, try every position, and then describe out loud her crudest fantasies, voyeurism, exhibitionism (to be honest, in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey, these do not sound like the wildest fantasies).

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

She is a loud bossy vulgar woman who Irena has been trying to escape all her life. She lives in one of the rooms of the big house Gustaf’s company bought after the liberation. He gets back after a heavy lunch with clients. She has put on some dance music and playfully dances round the room. She takes his hand and makes her dance with her. She pulls him over towards the wall-length mirror. She places her hand on his crotch. They continue dancing. She lets her robe fall open so he can see her breasts and pubic triangle. They continue dancing. She slips her hand down his trousers to touch his hardening member.

Irena and Josef

Irena is exhausted and drunk. She bursts into tears. One thing leads to another and suddenly she realises the awful truth – he doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t on the plane, or in their follow-up phone calls, or downstairs in the bar, or now. She stands and demands he tell her her name. He is silent. Oh dear.

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

Gustaf withdraws from Irena’s mother’s quavery wobbly body. In the darkness she intones that he is quite free to make love to her whenever he likes, but under no obligation. Now, throughout the book we’ve been gently reminded that Gustaf is a bit of a mother’s boy, who fled the responsibility of his wife and child. Now, we realise, he has finally arrived home. Irena’s mother offer him precisely the reassurance and mother love he’s always sought. He reaches out to stroke her cellulite-wobbly buttocks.

Irena and Josef

Abruptly drunk tearful Irena collapses on the bed and passes out. She starts snoring. Josef knees beside her naked body and wonders: could he spend his life with her? she is so obviously in love with him? is she the sister-lover he’s been seeking (on and off) throughout the book?

The suicide girl

Alone and sad, she is in her flat, she is a vegetarian because she is terrified by the thought of eating bodies, that we are all bodies, that she is a body. She has a sad snack dinner and looks at herself in the mirror. She lifts up her hair and looks at her damaged ear. She became a scientist and dreams about flying off into space to find a world where people don’t have bodies.

I thought she and Josef would have had some dramatic reunion in which she blamed him for ruining her life (after he, the selfish teenager, dumped her, she made her suicide attempt, then had part of her ear cut off due to frostbite and gangrene, then she was too scared to show herself to men and never married). But it doesn’t happen, and it feels like an opportunity (deliberately) missed. Remember when he wrote:

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

I thought this was a strong hint that the jilted girlfriend was going to step out of the shadows to confront Josef. Shame. It feels a little like coitus interruptus, a little like the flirting with the reader Kundera does in all his books, promising big things which, somehow, don’t quite come off.

Josef leaves

He writes sleeping snoring Irena a brief sincere note, telling her she has the hotel room till noon the next day. Then packs his bags, goes downstairs, tells reception there’s a guest sleeping in the room who’s not to be disturbed, takes a taxi to the airport and catches his flight. The plane flies up through the clouds and into the big empty black empyrean of night dotted with stars.

Credit

Ignorance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2002 All references are to the 2003 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Identity by Milan Kundera (1998)

This is a detailed summary of the plot of Identity by Milan Kundera. It aims to recreate the experience the reader has of only slowly discovering who it concerns and what it’s about and what happens, and also to recreate the continual sense of slight disorientation the book gives you – a feeling which snowballs in the second half, where the reader eventually realises that the book has actually crossed the line from ‘reality’ into ‘fantasy’, and is prompted to go back and try to figure out where it happened.

In other words, Identity is a clever, playful and deliberately teasing little book.

But it all starts very modestly with a middle-caged couple going to spend a weekend in a hotel in Normandy…


Chantal at the hotel

Jean-Marc and Chantal are going to spend the weekend at a small hotel on the Normandy coast. Chantal arrives first, freshens up and goes into the dining room. She overhears the waitresses discussing the disappearance of some rich person as described on a popular TV show Lost To Sight. She wonders how anyone can go missing in a world where every move is monitored by CCTV camera, where privacy is dying. She imagines losing Jean-Marc that way one day.

Jean-Marc visits an old friend

Meanwhile Jean-Marc has gone to Brussels to see an old school friend, F, because he is dying. They were close until he heard that F. refused to stand up for him in a meeting where he was universally attacked. At that point he completely cut F. out of his life. Looking down at F’s wasted body Jean-Marc realises how stupid that was. F. describes having an out-of-body experience.

F. describes some incident from their school days which Jean-Marc can’t remember. Suddenly it dawns on him that the purpose of friendship is to keep old memories alive.

Chantal and the daddies on the beach

After a bad night’s sleep troubled by a dream, Chantal walks down to the beach. On the way she observes fathers festooned with sacks and slings carrying babies and pushing prams. They have been daddified. On the beach she watches more dads flying enormous kites. She reflects that none of these absorbed men will turn and look at her, flirtatiously. Men don’t turn and stare at her any more 😦

Types of boredom

Jean-Marc has driven from Brussels to Normandy and parked at the hotel. He walks down to the beach, passing a girl wearing a Sony Walkman and half-heartedly jiggling her hips. Being a Kundera character he has to analyse and categorise everything, so he posits three kinds of boredom:

  1. passive boredom – the girl dancing and yawning
  2. active boredom – the men flying kites
  3. rebellious boredom – kids smashing up bus shelters

Down on the beach he comes across sand yachts being raced. Suddenly he sees one hurtling at high speed towards Chantal far out on the beach. He runs towards her trying to warn her. In the event, the sand yacht passes wide of her and, as he catches up with her, he realises it isn’t her at all.

Chantal is menaced in the café

This is because Chantal had got bored of the beach and gone up to a café complex perched on a cliff. It’s empty apart from a surly waiter and his mate, who deliberately intimidate her, turn up the rock music loud, block her way and threaten to prevent her from leaving. At the last minute they laughingly step aside so she can exit, her heart pounding with fear.

Men no longer turn to look at Chantal

Jean-Marc is appalled that he couldn’t tell his lover’s reality from a distance. He arrives back at the hotel and goes up to the room they’ve booked to find Chantal waiting. She is still in shock from the encounter in the café but she is also having a sustained hot flush. I surmise this is from the menopause, though Kundera doesn’t use the word; all we know is she is ashamed of feeling hot and perspiring. She tries to distract him by blaming her odd mood on the thought she had earlier – men no longer turn to stare at her.

Chantal’s work in advertising

A few hours later they’re at dinner, discussing her work in an advertising agency. She describes her two faces, the mocking one which thinks advertising is ridiculous, and the hard-faced professional one which has allowed her to succeed.

Now the company has got a brief to come up with adverts for a funeral parlour. This allows the characters to quote poems about Death, namely some lines from Baudelaire, as you do.

Chantal’s dead son

Talk of death makes her think of her son by her first husband, who died when he was just five. Her husband and his family told her to hurry up and have another one so that she would forget. This filled her with so much loathing that she vowed to divorce him and so a) she went back to work, not as a teacher as she had been but in advertising and b) as soon as she met Jean-Marc and was sure he was the one – she left her husband.

That night Jean-Marc has a dream in which Chantal appears to him vividly in every detail, except for her face. How do we know when someone is the person we love? If their face completely changed, would it still be the same person?

Existence and identity

By this stage (page 32) the reader has realised that the novel is a classic Kundera production, insofar as it is a prolonged meditation on a theme of existence, an aspect of the human condition. There’s no secret about it. The title broadcasts it. The theme is identity, what it is, and how fragile it is, how it can vanish and reappear from moment to moment in our quotidian lives.

Chantal in the bathroom, in the boardroom

The next morning Jean-Marc wakes up to find her already in the bathroom cleaning her teeth. For a moment he watches her unobserved being functional. Then she notices him and her whole body changes into the softness of love. They drive back to Paris and he drops her at work. Later, that evening, Jean-Marc arrives at Chantal’s advertising agency, and catches a glimpse of her being swift and professional with two colleagues and wonders at the change in her identity.

That morning, in the bathroom, he had recovered the being he’d lost during the night, and now, in the late afternoon, she was changing again before his eyes. (p.33)

By this stage, the reader realises the point of the book is just these fine distinctions, the way the two central characters, and the author, notice and analyse the myriad fine shifts in identity, from moment to moment, and across larger periods, during the change in their relationship.

Chantal’s fantasy about being a rose

When she was a girl Chantal had a fantasy about being as powerful and ubiquitous as a fragrance which would spread through the lives of men. But she was not by nature promiscuous and, as she’d grown older, had become more monogamous. So monogamous and devoted to Jean-Marc that she began to have feelings about her dead son where she was glad he was dead. Why? Because it meant her devotion to Jean-Marc, to her chosen one, was total.

The anonymous letter

One morning she receives an unsigned unmarked letter with the text: ‘I follow you around like a spy – you are beautiful, very beautiful’, which upsets her all day. Luckily, when she gets home, her letter is trumped by one from the hospital telling Jean-Marc that his old schoolfriend F. has died. This triggers a couple of pages on ‘the meaning of friendship’ i.e. to keep memories alive, memories being necessary for maintaining ‘the whole of the self’.

With typical morbid negativity, Kundera (well, his character) considers that friendship is dying and that modern friendship is merely ‘a contract of politeness (p.46).

Leroy, head of the advertising agency

CUT to a different type of scene and a new character, Leroy, who is supposed to be the whip-smart head of the advertising agency where Chantal works. Every week he does a presentation analysing a campaign which is in the media. Having worked in TV for 15 years I don’t recognise anything Kundera describes about TV, his version is far more casual and chaotic than the well-organised, budgeted and crewed TV productions I worked on. Similarly, I don’t believe this portrayal of an advertising agency. The character Leroy instead comes over as a sexed-up university lecturer, a type Kundera was familiar with since he was an academic for decades. The ‘analysis’ Leroy gives is about sex sex sex – the humanities lecturer’s favourite subject and not, as the advertising and marketing people I’ve met, about ratings, audience segments, personas channels and ratings. Leroy doesn’t sound anything like an advertising exec. He sounds like a film studies lecturer:

‘The issue is to find the images that keep up the erotic appeal without intensifying the frustrations. That’s what interests us in this sequence: the sensual imagination is titillated, but then it’s immediately deflected into the maternal realm.’ (p.50)

He goes on to tell his staff that new film footage shows the foetus in the womb sucking its own willy, fellating itself. Can you imagine a modern advertising executive playfully mentioning that in a presentation about a new campaign? No.

The self-fellating foetus

Amazingly, at the end of the day, when she climbs the stairs to the accompaniment of loud banging and drilling (because the lift is out of order), and in a menopausal flush, the self-fellating foetus is what she chooses to tell Jean-Marc about. Which prompts his clever-clever thought that the foetus feels a sexual impulse before it can even think of pleasure.

So our sexuality precedes our self-awareness. (p.53)

Modern society spies on everyone

But she has a different take on it. Chantal is appalled that even in the womb, ‘they’ can spy on you, that nowhere is safe nowadays from the prying eyes of the media, and she tells macabre stories of how they cut off Haydn’s head after his death to analyse his brain and various other famous clever people whose brains were experimented on after their deaths. Influenced by her hot flushes, she blurts out that only the crematorium, only being burned to ashes, means you will be finally, completely safe from them.

At the grave of her son

Next day she visits her son’s grave and talks to him. She realises that, if he still lived, she would have to have engaged herself with the horrible world and accepted all its stupidities. His death freed her to revolt against a world she hates, to be truly herself. She silently thanks her dead son for this gift.

The second anonymous letter

Chantal receives a second, longer anonymous letter, the author has been following her movements. It’s signed C.D.B. The reader reflects that this is another aspect of identity, where identity is withheld, the letter is from someone but a person with no name.

Jean-Marc remembers giving up medicine

Jean-Marc recalls his dead friend F. telling him about a boyhood memory he (F.) has of Jean-Marc, namely that at age 16 or so Jean-Marc was disgusted by the eye, by the eyelid sliding over the cornea. Jean-Marc went on to choose to study medicine aged 19, but after three years realised he couldn’t face blood and guts, the body, its decay and death.

The letter suggests she wears cardinal red

Chantal receives more letters, which are becoming more passionate, in a French way. The writer dreams of wrapping her in a red cardinal’s costume and laying her gently down on a red bed. So she buys a red nightdress, as you would do if an unknown man was writing you anonymous letters, and is wearing it when Jean-Marc comes home one day, and she sashays round him, seducing him, and so he ravishes her and, thinking of the letter, she climaxes. She shares the fantasy of wearing cardinal red in a crowd and, aroused a second time, he makes love to her again. I admire the rapid recovery time of his penis. Or is he just an empty cipher for the author’s psychological-erotic fantasies?

The obsession of all Kundera’s books with love-sex is wearing me down. There is so much more to life than love-sex.

Is the letter writer the young man in the café?

At first Chantal thinks the author of the letters is a moony young man who’s often in the local café. But one day she walks boldly almost up to him as he sits outside nursing a glass of wine, giving him ample time to at least smile, but he doesn’t register her existence at all.

Is the letter writer the beggar in the square?

Then she suspects it’s the incongruously well-dressed beggar who hangs about in their square, near the big lime tree. To test her theory she goes up to him and offers money into his outstretched hand, only at the last minute realising she doesn’t have any coins then, worse, that the only paper she has is the ludicrously large sum of 200 Francs. The beggar is flabbergasted and she realises it isn’t him.

Or is the letter writer Jean-Marc?

Then she begins to suspect it is Jean-Marc, specially when she realises that the pile of bras she’s been hiding the letters under has been riffled through, then carefully restored.

And indeed, on page 88 this suspicion is concerned as we flip over to Jean-Marc’s point of view, and are told why he wrote her an anonymous letter. It was to cheer her up when he saw she was depressed, after she had said that men no longer turn to look at her in the street i.e. she has become middle-aged and unattractive. That’s why he playfully signed the second one C.B.D. short for Cyrano de Bergerac, the lover who hid behind the mask of another. Soon he wrote another one, and soon he became hooked.

How writing the letters changes Jean-Marc’s view of himself and of Chantal

And as he did so, it created a different idea of Chantal in his mind. The fact that she has kept and hidden the letters from him, suggests she might countenance an affair with an anonymous letter writer. She is ready to be unfaithful.

For her part, Chantal has a whole fleet of complicated reactions (the point of a Kundera novel is to place the characters in a situation and then analyse their motives and reactions to the nth degree), the main one being the disturbing suspicion that Jean-Marc is trying to trap her. But why? Because he is going to dump her for a younger model.

The flush

Worth pausing to consider The Flush. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being a key incident was that, after turning up on his doorstep from her remote provincial town, Tereza a) made love with Tomas but then b) came down with a heavy flu fever. He was forced to nurse her back to health and during that nursing discovered all kinds of emotions within himself he didn’t know he had. That fever recurs again and again through the story, as the characters reassess its importance and consequences.

Kundera uses the same technique here with respect to Chantal’s hot flushes. The first time the couple met was at a conference at an Alpine hotel, where he was a ski instructor and invited along to mingle with the guests after a session. They were briefly introduced and made a little small-talk then went their ways. But the next evening he went back determined to find her again, and the moment she spotted him, she flushed crimson all across her chest and breasts. That flush decided their love, for both of them.

Now she is flushing again, although it is due to the menopause, her physiology confusing, or sending confusing signals, over the terrain and memory of that initial, primal flush. This is a key element of a Kundera narrative, repetition with variations, variations of interpretation.

Back to the narrative

Jean-Marc is sad because by creating a simulacrum of a lover, he has conjured into being a simulacrum of Chantal. And if Chantal is not real, but a simulacrum, then so is their relationship. And in fact so is his life, which he has committed to her. He decides to end the whole thing and writes a farewell letter.

He’s just about to post it in the apartment building mailbox when he is accosted by a woman with three children – it is Chantal’s sister-in-law, the (rather bossy) sister of Chantal’s first husband, the one who blithely said let’s have another child to help us forget the one that’s just died.

The fantasy

Quite abruptly the book changes tone and pace. Up till now this couple had been drifting peacefully from episode to episode, a morning here, arriving at work there, cleaning teeth, hiding letters – and Kundera has been cascading his own thoughts and their thoughts and analyses of each others’ feelings like confetti in the breeze.

All of a sudden the pace picks up and it turns into a farce, then a fantasy, then a kind of nightmare all happening in real time i.e. in one extended breathless fifty-page-long passage.

The sister-in-law’s unruly children

The sister-in-law’s kids run riot in Chantal’s room and Jean-Marc feebly tries to get them to leave. He is distracted by the sister-in-law flirting with him (in KunderaWorld a man and a woman cannot be in the same space without flirting and talking about sex), she even leans forward and whispers the bedroom secrets of Chantal and her first husband in Jean-Marc’s ear.

At which moment Chantal herself arrives in the door. She is livid. She bought this place to get away from her wretched sister-in-law and her brood. And then she sees that the kids have rifled through her pile of bras which are all over the floor, one of them on one of the kids’ heads, and the mystery letters are scattered all over the floor. She orders them to leave, all of them, orders her sister-in-law to leave.

Chantal and Jean-Marc argue

She and Jean-Marc have a blistering argument in which she asserts that she bought this flat so as not to be spied on, with the heavy implication that his letters say he is a Spy and, worse, she knows that he has been searching her room till he found her stash of his letters. And he realises she knows and is crushed. And in a few swift exchanges they reduce their relationship to ashes.

Chantal packs her bags and leaves for London

With steely self-control she goes into her bedroom, closes the door and doesn’t come out all night. Jean-Marc is forced to sleep on the spare bed. Early in the morning she has packed her bag and declares she is off to a conference in… in… London springs to mind, yes, London. In fact her office had been planning a trip to London, but not for three weeks. Several points:

  1. Earlier in the novel the seed of this was planted when Kundera invented an ageing English lecher who hit on Chantal on a visit to her office and left his card. They often joked about this figure who they blew up into a master of monstrous orgies, and gave him the nickname Britannicus.
  2. This had led Jean-Marc in the final letter, to suggest that he was ending the series because he had to leave to go to, to… on a whim he had written London.
  3. Incidentally, Chantal sleeps badly because, being trapped in a Milan Kundera novel she has all sorts of inappropriately intense erotic dreams. The narrator wonders whether all virtuous women have to combat erotic orgiastic fantasies all night long, before showering and facing the day with a straight face (p.115). Let me ask my female readers: Do you struggle every night with erotic fantasies of sexual promiscuity? In my opinion, this is more ageing male sex fantasy.

In fact Chantal has no plan but stumbles out the house and onto the first bus which comes along. As it happens it is going to the Gare du Nord from which trains head to London, she at first imagines she won’t get off at that stop, then she does, then she buys a ticket, then she bumbles down onto the platform where – in a coincidence which doesn’t make sense in any rational terms – she discovers her entire office waiting for her! What! How, why?

On the Eurostar

Onto the Eurostar they get and Chantal finds herself seated opposite the self-style super-clever boss of the advertising agency, himself sitting next to a middle aged female admirer. (Makes it sound more like a cult than a professional place of work.) Remember how Leroy regaled his staff with stories about the foetus that could self-fellate in the womb? Well, now he treats Chantal and the older woman to a prolonged analysis of the command in the Book of Genesis (‘Go forth and multiply’) which boils down to the categorical imperative that everyone must fuck. Chantal is wet and aroused. She admires Leroy for his ‘dry as a razor’ logic (while this author thinks he’s a dickhead).

Chantal fantasises about forcing the prim woman into an orgy

Down into the black hole of the Channel Tunnel the train hurtles as Leroy continues his prolonged sermon on the important of sex and coitus and coupling and fucking, while the middle-aged woman wails about ‘the grandeur of life’ etc, and Chantal sitting opposite her fantasising about leading this prim and properly dressed lady to Leroy’s bed, which is set on a grand stage amid smoke and devils.

Jean-Marc decides to head off Chantal at the Gare du Nord

Meanwhile, Jean-Marc had woken up to discover Chantal gone and himself packed his bags, he knows when he’s not wanted. He leaves his keys on the coffee table, slams the door and blunders out into the street. London? OK, London, he hails a cab and asks it to take him to the Gare du Nord. Here he blunders up to the ticket desk, buys a ticket to London, and is the last person to board the Eurostar, setting off through the carriages to find Chantal.

Jean-Marc sees Chantal behaving like a different person on the Eurostar

He does, spotting the back of her head as she engages in the long ‘razor sharp’ fantasy about fucking and deflowering the prim lady. Jean-Marc is appalled (yet again) at how unlike his Chantal she seems, animated and confident and professional. Though he doesn’t know that Chantal is now consumed with eroticism, imagining the middle aged lady stripped naked and forced to take part in an orgy while all around naked bodies couple and bump (p.134).

Jean-Marc tried and fails to reach Chantal in the London terminal

The train arrives in London and everyone disembarks. Chantal goes off to a phone booth to make a call (we are still before the era of mobile phones) and when Jean-Marc tries to get to her he is blocked by a film crew (film crews often play this role as frustraters, getting in the way, as in Slowness and the Farewell Party) filming a group of oddly dressed children, presumably for a commercial, and when he tries to push through he is firmly restrained by a policeman. By the time he’s let go, Chantal has disappeared.

Jean-Marc wanders the streets of London

Now Jean-Marc is lost, walking the streets of London, and he feels he has returned to his true self, a drifter, a loser – Chantal always made five times what he earned, he was always dependent on her charity. Now he’s homeless and looking for a bench to doss down on.

He finds one in a typical Georgian London square, opposite a big house with a grand portico and when the lights go on inside he knows this is the house where Chantal has come to attend the orgy, the orgy led by that lecherous Englishman who visited her in Paris, ‘Britannicus’.

Jean-Marc enters the house where the orgy is happening

Jean-Marc opens the door (unlocked) and goes up the stairs to a first floor where a huge clothes rack holds the clothes of all the people he knows are stripped off and fornicating like wizards in a room not far away. But at this point a tattooed bouncer in a t-shirt appears and manhandles him back down the stairs and into the street. I couldn’t help warming to this bouncer, one of the few characters in the book not overloaded with smart-alec psychological analysis.

Chantal at the (largely invisible) orgy

Chantal is in the middle of an orgy, or is dominated by the image of an orgy where, at the moment of climax, all the participants turn into animals. She opens her eyes to find she is naked and a blonde woman is trying to drag her somewhere for a sexual encounter but the spittle in her mouth makes Chantal want to gag (as in fact, we have seen her revolted reaction to the thought of the saliva in other people’s mouths throughout the novel; the Saliva theme is up there with the Flushing theme as a recurring image throughout the book).

Chantal and the septuagenarian orgy impresario

Then she is alone in a big cavernous room with the host, Britannicus, who is of course fully clothed and pulls up a chair and starts reassuring her that she is perfectly safe. He calls her Anne and she protests it is not her name, they are stripping her of her identity, but she can’t remember what her name is, she can’t remember anything about herself, she can’t she can’t…

And then she wakes up and it was all a dream.

Seriously. It was all a dream. ‘Wake up, wake up,’ Jean-Marc is shaking her awake and she wakens, hot and sweating and terrified from this long elaborate dream and everything is alright and she is safe in his arms.

Now, on the last page, Kundera invites the reader to decide at just what point his story ceased being ‘realistic’ and turned into this rather delirious dream, just where ‘reality’ crossed ‘the border’ into ‘fantasy’: was it when the train went into the Channel Tunnel? when Chantal announced she was leaving for London? maybe even when Jean-Marc began sending those letters?

Who knows 🙂 and it is difficult to care enough to try and decide. As if he himself can’t be bothered, Kundera only devotes a short paragraph to the questions and, unusually for him, doesn’t dwell on them.

Instead, in the last paragraphs, Chantal and Jean-Marc are in bed together. Once she has totally woken up, she vows she will henceforth sleep with the light on every night, so she can see him.

And that’s it. Finis.

Conclusions

This is a very strange book.

Having read his book of essays on the theory of the novel I understand how Kundera regards the novel as an investigation of aspects of human existence. That explains why, having chosen ‘identity’ as the theme of this one, he then crams every possible permutation on the theme into this little text. And yet, even on that basis – as a self-consciously contrived experiment – it seems oddly… limited. After years of thought, is this little story of two lovers who have an argument the most thorough investigation he can think up of the theme of identity in the modern world? Very limited…

Early on, the book contains some very sensitive moments, moments which genuinely capture the strange and evanescent feelings you might have for a lover or someone you’ve been married to for years, sudden distances and misapprehensions. These are delicately done. When Jean-Marc mistakes the woman on the beach for Chantal, or sees another side to his lover when she’s at work, these are novelistically interesting and on-point for his theme.

The trouble is that these early subtle moments are lost in a story a) whose scaffolding i.e. the plot, becomes more and more crude and stupid as it progresses, and b) are set next to examples of blundering crudity – for example, the extremely crude and horrible sex soliloquies of the monstrous head of her advertising agency, Leroy, yuk, what an idiot, and what crude bluster.

These are so bad and boorish and coarse that they tend to destroy the delicate filament of the earlier, subtler perceptions, blowing them away like a gossamer spider web in a hurricane.

The abiding memory of Identity is not so much of pornography – in a way straightforward pornography might be refreshingly honest, but the striking thing about the orgy scene is that there is, in fact, no description at all of an actual orgy – but of a sensibility which is obsessed with the erotic urge, which can’t conceive a human character without having him or her immediately thinking erotic thoughts, waking from steamy dreams, flushed by arousal, fantasising about whispering erotic provocations in the ears of the daddies on the beach (as Chantal does), imagining each other’s former sex lives, even the ghastly sister-in-law is within minutes flirting outrageously with Jean-Marc, leaning forward to whisper Chantal’s sexual practices with her first husband in his ear… not pornography so much as lust lust lust.

And this crude hectoring about sex and eroticism and fantasy and orgies, for me, eclipses and overshadows the more subtle insights Kundera has about identity in a relationship. Shame.

Is Kundera flirting with the reader?

Are Kundera’s books flirtations? Does Kundera flirt with his readers? I am not using the word in its ordinary sense, but as he himself defines it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, p.142)

‘A promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.’

Throughout the book there is a permanent erotic charge and expectation, from Chantal imagining trying to seduce the daddies on the beach on page three or four, onwards. The night after she has the big argument with Jean-Marc, she is plagued with all manner of erotic fantasies. Then, on the Eurostar, she can’t control her fantasies about stripping and serving up the prim middle-aged woman to her boss at the advertising agency to be raped on a stage amid smoke and devils. That’s quite steamy, wouldn’t you say?

And then the entire fantasy sequence which constitutes the final third of the novel climaxes in her attendance at an orgy which is paralleled by Jean-Marc’s feverish jealous fantasies about what she is doing in the big smart house, and what is being done to her, at the orgy.

Except that… there is no orgy. She awakes (strangely, with no explanation of how she got there or why she’s naked) in a remote room in the big house in London, where no sex is going on at all, and she is alone. She (and we) actually sees no sex taking place, she has no sex with anyone, no contact with any man at all. Her only contact is with a blonde woman whose only role is to remind Chantal of her long-running aversion to saliva and French kissing, yuk.

So both of the key characters fear and fantasise about a gross, mass orgy and yet… we never see a single breast or penis, and no sex of any kind is described.

In this sense, then, the entire book can be seen as a prolonged promise of sex, ‘without a guarantee’. In other words, the entire novel can be seen as Kundera engaging in a prolonged ‘flirtation’ with the reader.

Credit

Identity by Milan Kundera was first published in Linda Asher’s English translation by Faber and Faber in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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