In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong (2000)

Comparing Michela Wrong and David van Reybrouck

David van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s modern history is basically an orthodox chronological account and political analysis interspersed with interviews with the many veterans and eye witnesses he has tracked down and spoken with at length.

Wrong’s account feels completely different, less chronological or, indeed, logical, more thematic. Instead of historical analysis, she brilliantly conveys what it felt like to live in Zaire under Mobutu as she sets about systematically exploring and describing different aspects of Zaire society and culture. Her vividness of approach is demonstrated by the way the book opens with the fall of Mobutu in 1997, going light on political analysis and strong on vivid descriptions of what it felt like to live in a crumbling, corrupt third world country.

Chapter one dwells on the role played in so many African states by key international hotels in their capitals, in Rwanda the Mille Collines, in Zimbabwe the Meikles, in Ethiopia the Hilton, in Uganda the Nile, hotels where presidents mingle with mercenaries, dodgy diamond deals are struck between smartly dressed middlemen, security goons lurked in the background muttering into their lapel mics, and the corridors were cruised by the most expensive hookers in town. And how it felt to be one among the pack of foreign correspondents living in Kinshasa’s Intercontinental Hotel as rumours swirled, troop carriers arrived, the president’s son turned up with a pack of soldiers furiously trying to track down the men who betrayed his father. And then suddenly, overnight, all the military figures switched to wearing tracksuits and casual wear in anticipation of the arrival of the rebel troops.

That’s the kind of picture painting and atmosphere Wrong is ace and conjuring up. How a country’s decline can be measured by the way the expensive carpeting in its hotels starts to smell of mildew, the lifts stop working, the blue paint on the bottom of pools comes off on the swimmers’ feet. Van Reybrouck takes an essentially academic approach spiced with extensive interviews. He is a historian whereas Wrong is a journalist, with a telling eye for detail and snappy one-line quotes.

Obviously, in this 314-page book she tells us an awful lot about the origins, rise and fall of the Mobutu dictatorship which lasted from 1965 to 1997, but it is the fantastically evocative way she conveys what it felt like that makes this book such a classic.

Van Reybrouck gives a detailed explanation of the ethnic tensions in eastern Congo which were exacerbated by the Rwandan genocide and then the constellation of political forces which led the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents to decide to invade eastern Congo and create a military coalition (the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, the AFDL) and select as its leader the long-time Maoist guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. This is to the good. His account is worth reading and rereading.

But Wrong tells you what it felt like to be in Kinshasa as the rebel army drew ever closer. The panic among Mobutu’s cronies, the so-called mouvanciers up in their gated mansions in the smart Binza district, the rush by the city’s moneyed classes to get visas for foreign destinations, the way the various western embassies practised evacuating their staff across the river Congo to Brazzaville, capital of the once-French colony the Republic of Congo which was unaffected by Mobutu’s fall.

Van Reybrouck gives you high-level analysis, Wrong gives you the sweat and the fear, the paranoia. She tells us everyone knew the game was up when the grizzled old piano player who’d been playing cocktail jazz in the bar of the Intercontinental for as long as anyone could remember one day disappeared.

She describes how the shopkeepers and population prepared for the mass looting which always accompanies regime change, and passes on the advice of an old hand that it’s best to select in advance one and only one item you want to loot and, once the anarchy begins, focus on getting that and only that. Wrong selects a $1,000 leather jacket for when the great pillaging begins.

She describes the way rumours are spread by ‘Radio Trottoir’, Pavement Radio i.e. word on the street. She conveys the mad, feverish atmosphere of a city about to be taken by rebel forces (p.27).

Another difference is that van Reybrouck sees the history of Congo as a tragedy, or series of tragedies, and he affects the reader with his sense of high seriousness. Wrong, on the other hand, has a lively sense of humour and an eye for the absurd detail. She finds almost everything about Zaire farcical, but then she appears to find all of Africa farcical and hopeless.

As for rebuilding the impression given by the scaffolding and myriad work sites dotted around Kinshasa is misleading. The work has never been completed, the scaffolding will probably never be removed. Like the defunct street lamps lining Nairobi’s roads, the tower blocks of Freetown, the faded boardings across Africa which advertise trips to destinations no travel company today services, it recalls another era, when a continent believed its natural trajectory pointed up instead of down. (p.20)

As this quote indicates, another difference is that whereas van Reybrouck’s account is focused with laser-like precision on the history of just the Congo, Wrong’s anecdotes and comparisons freely reference the many other African countries she’s visited and worked in as a foreign correspondent. There’s a lot more international comparison and perspective. Wrong visits places around Congo but also Brussels to interview historians, to visit the Congolese quarter, and Switzerland to track down some of Mobutu’s luxury properties.

And whereas van Reybrouck is optimistic, on the side of Congo’s bloodied but resilient people, Wrong is both more humorous and more pessimistic. According to her, the story is the same all across Africa, one of unstoppable decline and fall.

Talking to the melancholic Colonel, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense of tragic waste, of crippled potential that so often sweeps over one in Africa. (p.178)

In Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist the Belgian colonials who describe the Congolese as ‘children’ who need order, discipline and control and will make a horlicks of their country if granted independence are condemned as racist bigots – so you must never say anything like that. However, Wrong’s book freely refers to African politics as farcical, its politicians as clowns, and that, apparently, wins prizes.

At times, too many times, politics on Congo resembled one of those hysterical farces in which policemen with floppy truncheons and red noses bounce from one outraged prima donna to another. ‘I’m the head of state. Arrest that man!’ ‘No, I’M the head of state. That man is an imposter. Arrrest him!’ (p.66)

So it’s OK to mock Africans as long as you use the correct phraseology and attitude. Calling them children is a no-no; calling their countries farcical, absurd, ludicrous, surreal, Alice in Wonderland – that’s fine.

And perfectly acceptable to be tired and bored of the absurdity of Africa’s rulers, the comical proliferation of rebels and freedom fighters and guerrilla movements, the bleak iteration of yet another massacre or round of ethnic cleansing somewhere on this blighted continent, like the western media’s news producers and sub-editors ‘shaking their heads over yet another unfathomable African crisis’ (p.7). Africa is for Wrong, ‘a disturbing continent’, ‘Africa, a continent that has never disappointed in its capacity to disappoint’, whose countries brim with ‘anarchy and absurdity’ (p.10).

When the AFDL’s representatives started calling the BBC office in Nairobi in late 1996, claiming they would march all the way to Kinshasa, journalists dismissed them with a weary shrug as yet another unknown guerrilla movement, the length of its constituent acronyms only rivalled by its obscurity, making wild plans and farcical claims. Africa is full of them: they surface, splinter into factions – yet more acronyms – only to disappear with equal suddenness. (p.245)

Several times she mentions Liberia’s drugged freedom fighter who wore wedding dressed and pink lipstick as they mowed down innocent civilians and gang-raped the women. She describes the teenage  FAZ recruits preparing to defend Kinshasa who were so drunk they could barely lift their grenade launchers. When the AFDL rebel soldiers arrive they turn out to be mostly teenagers wearing flip-flops or no shoes at all. Kabila promised to relinquish power once he’d overthrown Mobutu but of course does nothing of the sort. In turn Kabila was himself assassinated (in 2001), replaced by a family member even more corrupt and the whole of East Congo engulfed in a huge, often incomprehensible and seemingly endless war. Farce and tragedy.

The Latin Quarter hit, ‘I’m hearing only bad news from Radio Africa‘ seems as true when Wrong was writing in 2000 or now, in 2021, as when it was released in 1984.

Chapter by chapter

Introduction

Wrong arrived in Zaire as a foreign correspondent in 1994, found her way around, did features on Mobutu and his corrupt circle, the prostration of the economy (‘a country reverting to the Iron Age’, p.31) the uselessness of the army, the universal vibe of fear and poverty. Less than three years later, in autumn 1996, the AFDL seized eastern Congo and began its systematic assault on the country, seizing the mining centre of Lubumbashi in the south while other forces marched on the capital Kinshasa in the west. Wrong is perfectly placed to report on the paranoia of the last days, to fly out to the hot spots, to interview soldiers, shopkeepers, street traders, as well as army officers and government spokesmen.

So the introduction gives us tasters, snapshots: Wrong flying to the pretty lakeside town of Goma which was pillaged by its own inhabitants when the occupying army left. Wrong wandering through the rooms of Mobutu’s legendary palace at Gbadolite, now ruined and looted, the five black Mercedes, the Ming vases.

And she explains the title which is a quote from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness about the madness and barbarism he, personally, encountered, in the Congo Free State in 1890, epitomised by the fictional character of Mr Kurz, the high-minded exponent of civilisation who is sent to man an ivory station up the Congo, far from civilisation, and decays and degrades to become an epitome of barbarism and nihilism. Wrong sees herself literally following in Kurz’s footsteps as she explores all aspects of the absurd rule of Mobutu in the mid-90s, then watches his regime collapse in ruins.

Chapter 1

Plunges us into the endgame with a wonderfully evocative description of the atmosphere in Kinshasa and the Intercontinental Hotel where all the foreign correspondents stayed, during the last few days in 1997 October 1997 before Laurent Kabila’s AFDL took the city and Mobutu and his cronies were forced to flee. Snapshots of a city under siege, with brief explanations of Mobutu’s rule, the character of the AFDL and its leader Kabila, their determination to clean up the pigsty and abolish corruption.

Chapter 2

Gives a brisk but effective summary of Stanley’s exploration of the Congo (with backstory about Stanley’s biography) and King Leopold’s disgustingly barbaric regime of cruelty and exploitation, which he called the Congo Free State, 1885 to 1908 (with backstory explaining why Belgium was a relatively new country – founded in 1830 – and its king wanted a colony so as to be taken seriously by the big boys.)

In Brussels she visits the Belgian scholar Jules Marchal, once a whip-wielding colon himself, who has devoted his life to editing and publishing definitive records of the Congo Free State. She visits the Royal Museum for Central Africa and is shocked by the complete absence of references to the atrocities the Belgians carried out there, and to learn that Belgian colonial history is not taught in Belgian schools (p.55).

She takes a tour of buildings by the noted Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, before pointing out that all the raw materials crafted into these beautiful buildings – the hardwood, onyx, marble, and copper – all came directly from the forced labour of Congolese blacks. Horta was rewarded for his services to Belgian architecture with a barony.

She describes how many of the Free State’s exploitative practices continued after the colony was handed over to Belgian government rule in 1908, including forced labour and use of the dreaded chicotte, the whip made of dried hippopotamus hide. It was only after the Second World War that Congo became less brutally exploitative and a tiny black middle class began to emerge, but if anything the colour bar or informal apartheid against this new breed of évolués or ‘evolved’ blacks grew worse.

Which moves into a description of the appearance, sights and sounds and mentality of the Congolese quarter in Brussels. She ends by making a strong case that Leopold’s atrocities, many of which continued under Belgian colonial rule, acculturated an entire region for 85 long years to abject humiliation, subservience, black market, illegal operations and corruption. Prepared the way, in other words, for just such a dictator as Mobutu.

No malevolent witch doctor could have devised a better preparation for the coming of a second Great Dictator. (p.57)

Chapter 3

Interview with Larry Devlin, the long-retired former CIA station chief in Kinshasa, who emphasises that Wrong only saw the regime at its bitter, pitiful end. She never knew the young, vibrant, charismatic Mobutu or knew the situation of anarchy between elected politicians which his 1965 coup rescued the country from (p.61).

She makes clearer than van Reybrouck or Bennett that Lumumba had actively invited the Soviets to give arms and advisers to crush the secessions. Devlin thinks Lumumba was never a communist, but he was naive. He thought he could invite in thousands of communist advisers at no cost. Devlin says he’d seen that happen in Eastern Europe after the war: your country falls to a communist coup and then Moscow is in charge. So Mobutu’s first coup of September 1960 was not just to bring political peace but to keep the Congo out of Soviet hands – and it worked. Soviet bloc personnel were given 48 hours to leave the country (p.67).

His account emphasises not just that, when the UN and US were slow to respond, Lumumba turned to the Soviets to supply him with arms and strategic advice to put down the secession of two major provinces – but that people of Devlin’s generation had seen this happen before. This was how the Soviets effected their coups in Poland and Czechoslovakia. This is how they established their tyrannies, by taking control of the army and placing personnel in key administrative and political positions. It had never been done in Africa before, but the Americans weren’t about to sit back and watch the Soviets make the experiment. So that’s why the Americans, backed by his political enemies within the country, decided he had to be eliminated. President Eisenhower personally approved CIA plans to assassinate Lumumba (p.77).

Then she backs up to give us the hasty run-up to independence from Belgium in June 1960, the army mutinying for better pay and promotion within days, triggering a mass exodus of the Belgian administrators and technicians who kept the country running, the political rivalry between ‘lethargic’ President Kasavubu (p.66) and passionate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and how the deadlock between them was broken by young Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, previously Lumumba’s personal secretary, who Lumumba himself had put in charge of the army and who, very bravely, faced down the army mutiny and restored order. Mobutu was encouraged then and ever afterwards by America.

A detailed look at the boyhood and young manhood of Joseph Mobutu from the Ngbani tribe, one of the smaller of Congo’s 250 ethnic groups, emphasising his brightness, reasonableness and extraordinary charisma; educated by Belgian priests, expelled for being a trouble-maker, a few years in the Force Publique rising to rank of sergeant, then contributing (anonymous) articles to new magazines set up for the Congolese, before he committed to becoming a journalist and then came to the attention of Lumumba who was looking for a secretary (pages 68 to 76). Devlin, the CIA man explains how Mobutu was really the best man available when he staged his 1965 coup.

Soon after the 1965 coup Devlin was posted to Vietnam. When he returned to Zaire in 1974 he found a drastically changed man and country. Surrounded by yes men, drinking pink champagne in his palaces, Mobutu was ‘already round the bend’ (p.82).

Chapter 4 Economics

In the immediate aftermath of the coup there were hangings, a new secret police was set up and so on. But the fundamental fact about Mobutu’s regime was he was an economic illiterate. Therefore his sole economic policy was to loot and plunder his country’s natural resources (when the going was good in the late 60s and early 70s) and then creaming the top off huge loans from the World bank and aid agencies. In other words, he didn’t know how to create or run a modern economy. He built a few high-profle white elephants, like the Inga dam, but when the builders left Zaire had no technicians to run it and there was never any coherent plan to create the infrastructure to distribute the electricity to where it was needed. Thus Congo has the greatest hydro-electric potential in the world in the shape of its huge and mighty river – and yet is a country whose cities suffer continual power cuts and outages.

He took up the creed of Pan-Africanism pioneered by Kwame Nkrumah, first Prime Minister of Ghana (who made himself president for life in 1964 and was overthrown by a military coup in 1966 supported by the CIA).

Mobutu promulgated his policies of authenticité, forcing everyone in the country to drop their European Christian names and adopt African names, renaming the state Zaire, renaming Leopoldville Kinshasa and Elizabethville Lubumbashi. He forced everyone to stop wearing European suits and mini skirts and adopt traditional African dress (p.90). He persuaded promoters to hold Miss World and the Ali-Foreman boxing match in Zaire (described in detail in van Reybrouck’s book).

In other words, he demonstrated how facile it is to address ‘cultural’ issues, fuss over ‘identity’ and language and culture. Meanwhile, in the absence of an economic or development plan, the economy tanked and the infrastructure rotted. The first years of his rule were bolstered by the high prices for Zaire’s raw materials created by the Vietnam war, but the end of the war in 1974 combined with the oil crisis to plunge Zaire into an economic hole it never crawled beck out of (p.94).

In 1973 he launched ‘Zaireanisation’ i.e. all foreign held businesses were confiscated by the state with a view to handing them over to ‘the people’ (p.92). The only problem was that ‘the people’ turned out, as when Robert Mugabe did the same thing 20 years later in Zimbabwe, to consist entirely of cronies and clients of Mobutu, who needed to be paid off or kept onside. None of them had a clue how to manage anything and ran businesses large and small into the ground, selling off the assets, living high off the proceeds, then needing further bribes or corruption money when they ran dry. $1 billion of assets were confiscated then squandered. It was gangster economics, ‘Alice in Wonderland finances’ (p.124).

And run on a massive system of cronyism. Mobutu needed so much money because he had to distribute gifts to all his important stakeholders in the manner of a traditional chieftain. Mobutu bought properties for himself around Europe, but he encouraged a system where hundreds of thousands of people scrabbled into the state administration, into the army or civil service, and then used their positions to embezzle, steal, demand bribes and generally be as corrupt as possible. By the mid-1990s Zaire had 600,000 people on the state payroll, doing jobs the World Bank calculated could be done by 50,000 (p.97).

The ambassador to Japan, Cleophas Kamitatu, simply sold the Zairian embassy and pocketed the proceeds. France sold Zaire a fleet of Mirage jets and ten years later, Defence Ministry officials simply sold them and kept the money (p.256). Ministers allotted themselves huge monthly salaries, lavish per diems, and insisted on having two of the very latest Mercedes, and their example was copied all the way down through their ministries, in state-run businesses and onto the street. Everyone stole everything they could, all the time. That’s what a kleptocracy is.

Chapter 5 Congo’s ruined mineral industries

Wrong flies to Katanga to report how nationalisation, corruption and utter mismanagement ran Congo’s mineral industries into the ground, beginning with astonishing stats about the country’s mineral huge wealth, then on to how Mobutu nationalised the Belgian mining corporation, Union Minière, consolidating it into the state-run company Gécamines. Sounds good, doesn’t it, one in the eye for the old imperial power, claiming the nation’s resources for the nation.

Except the nation never saw any of the profits. By 1978 the central bank had ordered Gécamines to transfer its entire annual profit of $500 million directly into a presidential bank account. By 1980 American researchers discovered that company officials were stealing $240 million  a year from Gécamines. Not only stole but smuggled, with huge amounts of diamonds, gold and other precious metals never reaching the books because they were stolen and smuggled abroad. In such an environment, nobody at any level gave a damn about investing in the company, in its stock and infrastructure, and so everything the Belgians had bequeathed the Congolese slowly rotted, decayed, was stolen, till the entire plants were rusting skeletons.

Wrong tours these sites giving us eerie descriptions of entire towns full of abandoned workings, derelict factories, rusting railways. That’s what she means when she described the entire country as slipping back into the Iron Age.

Wrong testifies to the decrepitude of the Shituri plant, describes the white elephant of Inga dam project built solely so Kinshasa kept control over Katanga. Pays an extended visit to the diamond town of Mbuji Mayi in the neighbouring province of Kasai, and interviews traders who explain the deep-seated corruption at every level of the diamond trade and ‘controlled’ by the Societe Miniere de Bakwanga (MIBA). She interviews its long-standing government representative, Jonas Mukamba (p.118) who paid Mobutu a hefty slice of the profits and in exchange was allowed to run Mbuji Mayi as he liked.

Eventually the infrastructure of Mbuji Mayi crumbled and collapsed, as had the mining infrastructure of Katanga. World mineral prices slumped but also, what was being produced was now being almost entirely smuggled. The rake-off from official trade collapsed because official trade collapsed. As the 90s progressed Mobutu lost his power of patronage.

She visits the central bank and the alleyway behind it jokingly referred to as Wall Street because it’s lined with unofficial street money changers. As Mobutu borrowed more and more from abroad and printed more money inflation soared and the currency collapsed. Wheelbarrows full of notes. A 500,000 zaire (the currency) note was printed to general resignation. Printing money led to mind-boggling inflation 9,800% and printing of the 500,000 zaire note. Mobutu had presided over the utter ruination of the economy.

Chapter 6

The collapse in Kinshasa epitomised by 1960s high-rise ministries without functioning lifts. The collapse of public phone system which was replaced by mobile networks, Telecel, for the wealthy. The collapse of the health system exemplified by Mama Yemo hospital which employs guards to prevent patients leaving without paying their bills.

Wrong pays a visit to Kinshasa’s small nuclear reactor, built on sandy soil liable to landslips, hit by a rocket during Kabila’s takeover of power, which had no security at all on the day she visited, and where one or two nuclear rods have recently gone missing.

Chapter 7

An explanation of ‘Article 15’, which is, apparently, the much-quoted ironic dictum by which most Congolese live their lives.

When the province of Kasai seceded soon after independence, it published a 14-article constitution. So many ethnic Luba people returned to the region expecting to become rich that the exasperated secessionist ruler made a speech in which he referred to a fictional, hypothetical 15th article of the constitution, which basically said, in French, ‘Débrouillez-vous!’ meaning ‘get on with it’, ‘figure it out yourself’, ‘deal with it’ or ‘improvise’. Since 1960 has become a universal expression throughout the country to explain ‘the surreal alternative systems invented by ordinary Zaireans to cope with the anarchy’ (p.11) they find themselves living in.

And so Wrong gives an overview of the hundred and one street professions of a people struggling to live in an economy with no jobs and no wages. Wrong gives an extended description of the Mutual Benefit Society run by the disabled street people of Ngobila Beach and the tiny loopholes in the law they exploit to smuggle and sell items.

She meets a fervent Kimbanguist, the religion described by van Reybrouck. Van Reybrouck’s account of Kimbanguism is much more thorough, lucid and logical, but Wrong’s is an in-your-face explanation via one particular believer, Charles, a Zairian who combines high moral principles (‘we are never naked’) with the profession of ‘protocol’ or fixer of bribes at Kinshasa’s notorious N’Djili International Airport.

Chapter 8

Le Sape, Congo’s equivalent of Mods, snappily dressed proles. The origin and purpose of the Society of Ambiencers and Persons of Elegance (SAPE), as explained to Wrong by self-styled ‘Colonel’ Jagger (p.176) as a protest against poverty and the drabness of the constricting African authenticité style demanded by Mobutu.

Then she gives a portrait of the ex-pat community of European idealists and chancers and romantics who came out in the 1950s or 60s and stayed on past independence and into the Mobutu years. This focuses on the example of Daniel Thomas a French construction worker who has repeatedly tried to start small farming businesses only to be repeatedly looted and ruined by his neighbours, and now all of his money is tied up in a farm he can’t sell and who has lost all hope. His wife is exhausted and disillusioned and wants to leave this sick land but they are stuck.

Chapter 9

Wrong details the vast sums loaned or given to Zaire over the years by international banks and especially the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. She interviews insiders who explain that during the 1960s, 70s and 80s very few conditions were attached to vast loans which, predictably, disappeared straight into the bank accounts of Mobutu and cronies.

Chapter 10

Details of the vast palace Mobutu had built for himself at Gbadolite in the jungle in the north of the country, right on the border with Central African Republic. It’s said to have cost $100 million, with an airstrip big enough for Concorde to land on. Musical fountains, ornamental lakes, model farm, gilt, marble. This is what a lot of Western aid paid for. Eventually it came to seem too big and imposing so… he had another one built a few miles away at Kwale, with an olympic size swimming pool,

The story of Pierre Janssen who married Mobutu’s daughter, Yaki, on 4 July 1992, and so became the only white person in Mobutu’s inner circle and a few years later revealed all in a kiss-and-tell memoir. The Moules flown in from Belgium, huge bouquets of flowers flown in from Amsterdam, cakes flown in from Paris along couturiers and barbers.

The weirdness that after his first wife, Marie Antoinette, generally reckoned to be a restraining influence on him, died in 1977, he married his mistress Bobi Ladawa, and took as a new mistress…her twin sister, Kossia. They socialised together, were seen together. Wrong speculates that there might have been a voodoo, animistic belief that the twins would ward of the nagging spirit of his first wife, for twins are regarded in Africa as having totemic powers (p.223).

Chapter 11

A brisk account of the Rwandan genocide which is in a hurry to explain the longer and more significant consequence, which was the creation of vast camps for Hutu refugees just across the borders in Zaire and how these camps, supported by huge amounts of foreign aid, were reorganised by the thuggish Hutu genocidaires who set about planning their revenge attack on Rwanda. By 1995 there were some 82,000 thriving enterprises in the camps which had become mini-towns (p.239), no surprise when you consider that the UNHCR and aid organisations had pumped at least $336 million into them, more than the Kinshasa government’s total annual operating budget.

In early 1996 the Hutu leadership undertook a mission to ethnically cleanse the North Kivu region of its ethnic Tutsis, massacring those it could find, forcing the rest to flee. In late 1996 it was south Kivu’s turn to be cleansed. The local Tutsis, known as the Banyamulenge had watched the Hutus slowly take control of the region, launch revenge raids into Rwanda, and had called on the UN and Kinshasa to neutralise the Hutu genocidaires but the UN did nothing and Mobutu gave them tacit support.

Which is why in October 1996 four rebel groups, with the backing of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments formed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) and took the fight to the Hutus, forcing the genocidal Interahamwe to flee west and majority of the refugees to traipse back into Rwanda.

Chapter 12

The main thing about the so-called First Congo War is there was hardly any fighting. The Zairian army, the Forces Armées Zairoises, the FAZ, was a joke and ran away at the first threat of conflict. The only violence came from the FAZ as they looted, burned and raped their way through the villages en route back to Kinshasa. There were a few set-piece battles but for most of the AFDL forces the war consisted of a very long march through jungle, sometimes using Zaire’s decaying roads, mostly using the jungle paths which have replaced tarmacked roads in many areas.

Wrong interviews Honoré Ngbanda Nzambo Ko Arumba, for five years the feared head of Zaire’s security service who explains why the FAZ was so useless. It all stems from Mobutu’s basic management technique which was to keep the army divided between different factions, to create a series if confusingly titled security and military units, to have a multitude of generals and security ministers and to keep them all guessing. To set them in deliberate rivalry, to give them contradictory orders, to create permanent confusion, suspicion and paranoia. Why? Simples: to prevent any single person or unit from becoming a centre of real power and so a threat to his rule.

Also, most of these units were kept down in Bas Congo, close to Kinshasa. Zaire had almost no border guards or forces. Why? Because the army was not designed to fight other countries or protect the country’s security; it was an internal security machine whose sole raison d’etre was protecting the president.

Another reason was simple corruption. The many generals and senior ranks Mobutu created, solely with a view to placating the numerous tribes and/or keeping prominent figures onside, to a man practiced various forms of corruption and graft, the simplest of which was to take the soldiers’ pay for themselves. Which explains why soldiers went without any pay at all for months on end, sometimes half a year. Which was the central reason why they mutinied and not only mutinied but went on great rampages of looting; they were claiming their back pay, taking what they though society owed them. That was the root cause of the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

And then there was greed raised to the level of comic farce. Most officers or army administrators had been selling off stock for cash for years. Thus the FAZ had out of date East European guns, the wrong ammo for their guns. Initially army commanders in Kivu sold the best of their munitions to the AFDL for a quick profit, arms and ammo the AFDL then turned back on the FAZ, who turned and ran.

Lastly, the neighbouring countries turned against Mobutu. Rwanda and Uganda were the AFDL’s main backers, but the Angolan government had for decades resented Mobutu’s support for the UNITA rebels and took the opportunity to send forces into Zaire to crush their base camps. Zambia co-operated by letting the AFDL cross its land to reach the south. Zimbabwe and Eritrea sent the rebels modern arms and Tanzania turned a blind eye to rebel bases on its territory.

By March 1997 the AFDL had taken Kisangani, next came Mbuji Mayi, then Lubumbashi, capital of the mining region in the south. It took just seven months from the launch of their campaign till the first AFDL troops arrived outside Kinshasa prompting the atmosphere of paranoid panic Wrong describes in the first chapter of this book.

Chapter 13

As so often happens with tyrants, Mobutu’s overthrow coincided with his final fatal illness. It’s as if their imminent fall from power triggers a collapse in their bodies. King Leopold II lasted barely a year after he handed the Congo Free State over to the Belgian government (February 1908) and in an eerily parallel way, the AFDL’s seven-month advance on Kinshasa coincided with 66-year-old Mobutu’s diagnosis with prostate cancer.

As the rebel forces relentlessly advanced westwards, Mobutu was in and out of the most expensive private clinics in the world in Switzerland. Thus his personal intervention and decision making was almost entirely absent during the crucial months. When he returned to his capital in March 1997, he could barely walk and had to be supported from the plane.

On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks chaired by President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, Mobutu fled into exile and Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory. Mobutu died in exile in Morocco 3 and a half months later, 7 September 1997.

This is where Wrong places a fascinating interview with Mobutu’s son by his second wife Bobi Ladawa, Nzanga Mobutu. He mourns his father and insists he loved his family and loved his country. Wrong gives her account of the very last few days, especially negotiation with the Americans who tried to broker a deal with Kabila, partly through Nzanga’s eyes, partly through the account of US ambassador Daniel Simpson who took part in the actual discussions, and Bill Richardson, the troubleshooter US President Bill Clinton handed the tricky task of persuading Mobutu to relinquish power and tell his troops not to fight the AFDL as it entered Kinshasa, a confrontation which would have led to a bloodbath, anarchy and another Great Pillaging (p.271).

What comes over is the absolute centrality of the Americans as power brokers in the situation, but the refusal of a very sick Mobutu to formally abdicate and of Kabila to make any concessions. Right at the last his generals abandoned him. The knackered Russian Ilyushin jet Mobutu and his close family flew out of Kinshasa to Gbadolite in was peppered with machine gun fire by his very pissed-off personal guard, the Division Spéciale Présidentielle (DSP) who he was abandoning to their fates (p.279).

Chapter 14 Ill-gotten gains

A few months after Kabila took power, he set up the quaintly named Office of Ill Gotten Gains (OBMA) to identify Mobutu’s looted assets, including his multiple properties abroad (p.286). Wrong meets the first director of OBMA, former nightclub owner turned rebel soldier Jean-Baptise Mulemba lists and visits some. Three years after his fall, Wrong visits his large Swiss mansion at Les Miguettes, now falling into neglect.

Epilogue

The epilogue reminds us that this book was published in 2000, when Congo was still in the toils of what became known as the Second Congo War and Kabila was still president. She was not to know Kabila would be assassinated in 2001 and the war drag on for years.

Wrong shows us the dispiriting process whereby the initial high hopes about him and his crusade to undo corruption soon faded, as he found himself having to resort to all Mobutu’s old techniques for trying to hold his wartorn country together, namely creaming money off foreign loans, the mining companies, and even introducing tougher taxes on ordinary Congolese, in order to keep the regional governors and all manner of fractious stakeholders onboard.

Anyway, as Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 it ends with a survey of the many depressing tokens which indicated that Kabila was falling into Mobutu’s old ways, only without the dictator’s charisma or shrewdness. Blunter. Cruder. She calls Kabila a ‘thug’ (p.300).

And she ends with an assessment of whether Mobutu’s missing billions will ever be recovered. The short answer is No, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. All the evidence is that millions went through his hands but en route to the key stakeholders, political rivals, regional warlords, he needed to pay to follow him.

At a deep structural level, the corruption and gangster economy run by Mobutu and then Kabila may be the only way to keep such a huge country, divided into starkly different regions, populated by some 250 different ethnic groups, together.

God, what a thought. The population of Congo in the 1920s when the first estimates about how many died during Leopold’s rule, was said to be 10 million. By the date of independence 1960 described in Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist it had only risen to 15 million or so. When Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 she gives Congo’s population as 45 million. And now, in 2021? It is 90 million! Good grief. What future for a ruined country overrun by its own exploding population?

France

The French come out of this account, as usual, as scumbags. France was ‘Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend’ (p.287), ‘always the most loyal’ of his Western supporters (p.258). From the 1960s Zaire came to be regarded by the French government as part of its ‘chasse gardée’:

that ‘private hunting ground’ of African allies whose existence allowed France to punch above its weight in the international arena. (p.196)

The French believed they understood the African psyche better than the Anglo-Saxon British or Americans. They clung on to belief in their mission civilisatrice despite their not-too-impressive record in Vietnam and Algeria. Since the 1960s the French government has promoted la francophonie “the global community of French-speaking peoples, comprising a network of private and public organizations promoting equal ties among countries where French people or France played a significant historical role, culturally, militarily, or politically.” (Wikipedia)

The practical upshot of this high-sounding policy was that the French government promised Mobutu their undying support, no matter how corrupt and evil he became. The French government funded schools and media – so long as they promoted the French language. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, French president from 1974 to 1981, was a great friend of African dictators and secured them many loans which just happened to coincide with a building firm run by Valery’s cousin winning quite a few contracts to build Zairean ministries and bank buildings and so on (p.131). Very handy.

It meant military aid, too. When rebels invaded Shaba from Angola, France parachuted legionnaires in to fight them. During the First Pillaging of 1991 France flew in troops to police the streets.

After his downfall, when the OBMA set out to track down the billions of dollars Mobutu had sequestered abroad, the lack of co-operation from the French government stood out.

Confronted with the AFDL’s legal and moral crusade, the silence from France, Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend, was deafening. (p.287)

But France’s standout achievement in the region was to protect the Hutu instigators of the great genocide of Rwanda. This is a hugely controversial subject, which I’ll cover in reviews of specifically about the Rwanda genocide, but in brief: the French government supported the Hutu government. The French president was personal friends with the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, so when his plane was shot down and the Hutu government went into panic mode, the French government’s first response was to support them and to carry on supporting them even as they carried out the 100-day genocide. When the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda to put an end to the genocide, France continued to support the Hutus and helped the genocidaires escape, along with millions of other Hutu refugees into eastern Congo, where they continued to support them, even after the evidence was long in the public domain that they had just carried out the worst genocide since the Holocaust.

Because for the French government, all that matters is the glory of France, the prestige of France, the strength of the Francophonie. Morality, justice, human rights, all come a poor second to France’s unwavering commitment to its own magnificence.

Hence France’s unwavering support for the evil kleptocratic dictator Mobutu right up till his last days; hence France’s support of the Hutu government, even after it became clear they were carrying out a genocide. A guilt France has taken a long time to face up to, has finally admitted, albeit hedged with reservations and caveats.

Repeated stories

Stories, gossip and educational facts are learned through repetition. Wrong repeats the description of big statue of Henry Morton Stanley, long ago torn down and lying rusting outside a warehouse in Kinshasa. Several times she refers to the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

She repeats the story about the Congo’s store of uranium dug from the mines of Shinkolobwe being sent by a foresightful colonial administrator to New York where it was discovered by scientists from the Manhattan Project and refined to become the core of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima (p.140).

Her chapter about King Leopold’s rape of Congo under hypocritical claims of freeing it from slavery and barbarism repeats much of the material I’ve read in Hochschild and van Reybrouck. She repeats Hochschild’s mentions of Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem’s estimate that 13 million died or fled the region during Leopold’s rule.

Van Reybrouck thought the tragic story of Lumumba betrayed by his secretary and friend Mobutu was like a Shakespearian tragedy. Wrong thinks it is Biblical like Cain and Abel, two beloved brothers who end up betraying each other. It certainly haunts the imagination of novelists and historians and commentators in a way the later, long rule of Mobutu rarely did, and the rule of Laurent Kabila not at all.

Credit

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong was published by Fourth Estate in 2000. All references are to the 2001 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham (1953)

The Kraken Wakes is told in retrospect, by a man living in a drowning world, when most of England is under water due to the melting icecaps, looking back over the events which slowly led up to this catastrophe [in fact the action of the book seems to cover about ten years], who tells us he is setting out to piece together an account of the events leading up to the catastrophic present.

It began so unrecognisably. Had it been more obvious – and yet it is difficult to see what could have been done effectively even if we had recognised the danger. Recognition and prevention don’t necessarily go hand in hand. We recognised the potential dangers of atomic fission quickly enough – yet we could do little about them. If we had attacked immediately – well, perhaps. But until the danger was well established we had no means of knowing that we should attack – and then it was too late. However, it does no good to cry over our shortcomings. My purpose is to give as good a brief account as I can of how the present situation arose – and, to begin with, it arose very scrappily….

Like Day of the Triffids, Kraken is a first-person narrative told by a polite and well-meaning, middle-class man, in this case named Mike Watson. He’s a journalist with the (fictitious) English Broadcasting Corporation, which, in a recurring joke, people are always mixing up with the BBC. The fact that both stories are told by very much the same kind of young middle-class man made me speculate that Wyndham probably realised he needed a different tone or register for his narrator in order to prevent the two books sounding the same.

So that’s probably the reason why, whereas Bill Masen’s account in The Day of The Triffids is consistently grim and often horrifying, the narrator of this book keeps up a chirpy, facetious tone throughout. In fact, the central feature of this book is the narrator’s relationship with his smart and sassy wife, Phyllis, herself a documentary scriptwriter, with whom he keeps up a solid stream of jokey banter and backchat and has a very 1950s kind of relationship, to the extent that it’s made jokily clear that it’s very much the wife who wears the trousers:

‘But, with a pressure of tons, and in continual darkness, and – ‘ I began, but Phyllis cut across me with that decisiveness which warns me to shut up and not argue…

‘A man of perception,’ I said. ‘For the last five or six years – ‘
‘Shut up, Mike,’ said my dear wife, briefly. (p.124)

‘Mike, darling, just shut up; there’s a love,’ said my devoted wife.

This snappy husband-and-wife banter completely differentiates the books from the rather grim, serious-minded tone of Triffids and makes this catastrophe feel much more like a bank holiday outing. This tone is established in the short prologue, or ‘Rationale’ as he calls it, which opens the book, Mike and Phyl are looking out over the English Channel, nowadays full of icebergs because the Arctic icecaps are melting and the sea-level is drastically rising, and he first suggests writing some kind of account of the disaster which has overtaken the world. Good idea, she says, and offers to help.

Plot summary

Phase one (pages 11 to 72)

Journalist Mike Watson is on a honeymoon cruise with his new wife, Phyllis, when they see five red shapes, fuzzy and gaseous, speed across their wake and crash into the sea. So he was lucky enough to be in at ‘the start’. There are other sightings, including from an RAF fighter pilot who encounters some of these flying speedballs, shoots one which promptly explodes. The years go by and Watson becomes the meteor specialist at his broadcaster, all the letters from cranks and flying saucer spotters are sent on to him. And yet reports continue to come in of groups of red dots flying at high speed across the sky and into the ocean, generally at its deepest parts.

At ECB Watson finds himself lumbered with reporting on the steady trickle of sightings of the fireballs and builds up a reputation as an expert. As such he is invited to the Admiralty where a Captain Winters shows him a map of the oceans with lines drawn showing the descent of the many fireballs reported over the past few years, which shows how they have all entered the water near the oceans’ deepest points, up to five miles deep, where the water pressure is up to five tons per square inch!

And that’s why he and Phyllis are invited aboard a Royal Navy mission to the Caribbean, where a bathysphere containing two men is lowered deeper than any such vehicle has gone into the deep sea before. It’s a tense and detailed description which leads to the inevitable – at the deepest depths where no fish are, the two men in the little metal sphere think they see some vague shape moving just out of reach of the lights. Next thing they are cut off. The cable is winched up and the hawser it was attached to hasn’t been cut, it has been fused. They try again with an unmanned sphere carrying cameras, this too gets to about the same depths, the watching crew see something, then all power is cut.

Actually they’re invited to witness this expedition because of Phyllis. She is a documentary scriptwriter (while the narrator Mike is a straight journalist). So the idea of having a husband and wife team means Wyndham gives his pair twice as many chances to be invited on expeditions or to meet and interview key figures and experts as the story unfolds.

In this respect, the solo nature of the narrator of Triffids emphasises the sense of loneliness and isolation which is one of the harrowing aspects of that book which describes how one man slowly uncovers the impact of the catastrophe; whereas the dynamic in Kraken is the exact opposite – he needs a number of sources in order to present a synoptic overview of events: and so having what are in effect two protagonists doubles the number of contacts and interviews and sources the book can use.

And a great deal of it is second-hand, in the sense that Mike and Phyllis – having been on the doomed bathyscaphe expedition – begin following every aspect of the story and scouring the news for related stories.

Thus, after another interview with Captain Winter back at the Admiralty, they go on to monitor new developments. So they meet up and interview a journo from NBC who accompanied an American version of the bathyscaphe expedition. All the hacks were on a separate ship accompanying the navy vessel and were watching their bathyscaphe via remote cameras when shouts from above brought them all up on deck in time to see some kind of electric charge surge up the cable, light up the ship like a Christmas tree, and then it exploded.

Something is down there, snipping the wires of these bathyscaphes, and then sending up enormous electric charges. The NBC guy tells them it’s not the only one. Another research ship has disappeared near the Aleutian Isles.

Time passes, three years to be precise (p.41) during which Mike and Phyllis celebrate the birth of son William and then mourn his death 18 months later. And then more reports of sinkings come in: the Americans lose a cruiser off the Marianas, the Russians east of the Kuriles, a Norwegian research ship in the Southern Ocean. I.e. the pattern extends.

When the Americans lose a destroyer their patience snaps. They invite half the world’s press along to witness an experiment with an atom bomb, which is towed out to above the deepest part of the sea off the Philippines where the destroyer was lost – it is released and allowed to sink several miles into the depths, then detonated. Mike and the other spectators see the eruption of water, the cloud forming above it and then their ship is buffeted by the wave, but little apart from that.

Back in London our pair have dinner with another couple of journos who swap theories and opinions. One of them recounts the theory put forward by a certain Bocker, which is the one the reader has figured out by now, which is that the ‘fireballs’ are some kind of spaceships carrying intelligent passengers who have evolved in a deep sea environment and now have come to colonise earth’s. They didn’t take kindly to the investigating bathyspheres, took to destroying the ships attached to them and now – they speculate – will not take kindly to having an atom bomb exploded over their heads.

In the coming months several more atom bombs are dropped into the depths with unmeasurable affect (p.53). But through the grapevine Mike and Phyllis learn that several of them failed to go off. That’s worrying (p.57). Several more research ships have disappeared.

Phyllis interviews Dr Matet, noted oceanographer and friend of Captain Winters of the Admiralty. He tells her oceanographers have begun to notice major discoloration of the oceans’ major flowstreams, as if vast amounts of the ooze on the ocean beds is being disturbed (pp.59-61).

They jointly interview Alastair Bocker, eminent geographer (pp.63-65). He has developed his theories further. If intelligent life has come from beyond earth, and if it thrives at the enormous pressures of the deep ocean, then they can be seen as settlers or colonists who will set about making the found environment more congenial to their civilisation. And if someone starts dropping massive bombs on their heads, we shouldn’t be surprised if they retaliate.

They read about a tsunami killing 60 or so people on the remote island of Esperanza. Neither of them know where that and Phyllis has never heard the word tsunami.

Phase one ends with a couple of pages of Phyllis reading out a draft script for ECB, written in amazingly purple prose about the mysterious depths of the great oceans, and bringing together all this scattered evidence to wonder what’s afoot…

Phase two (pages 73 to 182)

Part one – Ships being sunk

Years earlier they had bought a cottage in Cornwall with money left by an aunt of Phyllis’s. It has a fine view across a river, more land and to the sea beyond. I always think that, if you’re appearing in an apocalyptic end-of-the-world novel, it’s always a good idea to have a comfy country bolthole to retreat to.

In the Times is a report of a Japanese ocean liner, the Yatsushiro, which sank in moments, drowning over 700 passengers and crew. A day or two later an official statement is put out blaming it on ‘metal fatigue’. Our heroes are sceptical, sounds like a cover-up story. Phyllis imagines all those men, women and children as the freezing water gushed into their cabins, and is inconsolably upset.

Guests come to stay (Harold and is posh wife, Petunia or ‘Tuny’) and the posh wife without hesitation blames all these incidents on the Russians and lambasts Western politicians who are, she thinks, refusing to name names and, in effect, appeasing the commies. In her view Bocker is a fellow traveller propagating a Soviet cover story. General conversation, the guests go to bed and leave a few days later.

Mike works on a book commission for a history of royal love lives, Phyllis is writing a history of a stately home. A month later they hear the news on the radio that the huge British liner, the Queen Anne, has sunk. Half an hour later the head of EBC news and features rings up and says they want a half hour feature about it – why? Because rumour is going round that the Russians did it and might swell into enough of a movement to begin to pressurise the government to do something, risking escalation into, ultimately war.

Having written it they drive back up to London and arrive to hear that two more ships, American this time, have gone down. Now the Americans are angry and send a flotilla of battleships to the area loaded with high explosive and another atom bomb. But two of them are blown up as they get near the area, one was carrying the bomb primed to detonate at five miles depth, the other ships turn and flee, a few more being caught in the eventual blast, five surviving.

But now it’s official – there’s something down there. A global conference is held, at which the Russians walk out in protest. Watson is typically sarcastic about business as usual being resumed. Scientists devise anti-vibration protection and ‘dolphins’ which are supposed to spot the enemy, close in and blow up, and we get a description of an apparently successful trial. Governments declare the seas sailable again, and prematurely declare that ‘the Battle of the Deeps’ has been won (p.111). But it hasn’t. A month later a clutch more ships are sunk.

Part two – The sea tanks (pages 112 to 182)

But the real thrust or point of phase two is an entirely new development, which is the advent of the so-called sea tanks and their revolting sticky anemone weapons.

Reports start to come in from remote islands in the Pacific of some kind of attacks taking place on remote communities. A ship which investigates the next day discovers a poor shorefront settlement completely denuded of people, all the houses, trees and other objects glistening with a foul-smelling slime, and huge regular grooves running up the sand (pages 114 to 121).

As more and more reports come in, the authorities realise they are co-ordinated attacks. Bocker is consulted for his opinion. Mike is invited for a drink by EBC’s head of news and features (Freddy Whittier) who tells him that one of the stations’ sponsors is fed up with the lack of knowledge about these creatures and so is sponsoring an expedition to go and find out more. He has commissioned Bocker to lead it, since he has been right about the situation from early on. And since Bocker now holds advanced theories about the location of the enemy bases in the deepest parts of the oceans, Bocker calculates the next attacks will come in the Caribbean.

Since Phyllis and Mike have been in on it from the start, Bocker asks for them to come along as representatives of the media. So they fly to the island of Escondida and have barely arrived before there is an attack on a nearby island. (It is typical of the book’s deliberate flippancy that Mike translates Bocker’s scientific work into his own joky idiom when he says, ‘if we were disappointed, we were also impressed. It was clear that Bocker really had been doing something more than a high-class eeny meeny miney mo, and had brought off a very near miss.’ Eeny meeny miney mo 🙂 )

The team consists of Dr Bocker and two close assistants, Bill Weyman and Alfred Haig, Mike and Phyllis, Muriel Flynn, Johnny Tallton, the pilot, Leslie, Ted the cameraman, Alfred who rigs up bright stage lights down at the harbour and the streets into the square in case there’s a night attack.

In the most sustained and imaginatively intense passage in the book, they are woken one night, ten days into their stay, by an attack. They hear screams and shooting from the harbour, then see people fleeing across the main square which their hotel looks out onto. Then they finally see the ‘sea tanks’. Imagine an elongated egg, thirty or forty feet long, made of a dull, lead-like metal. Slice it along its length and place the flat surface on the ground, a bit like half an avocado, except longer than a car (p.138). Well, Mike and Phyllis watch these huge half-avocados made of dull leaden metal slowly moving forward, apparently without wheels, several of them barging through the sides of houses. They take up positions in the square, despite rifle bullets pinging off them. Then very slowly bulges begin to appear in their carapaces, turn into globes attached by spindly threads and then the globes break entirely free and hover in the air.

Then with a crack they explode and unleash scores of very long tentacles or tendrils which whip out in all directions. If they touch inanimate objects they fall to the floor but, somehow, if they touch anything human, even the clothes or shoes of a human, they stick. At the first bang Mike and Phyllis had instinctively recoiled but not fast enough and one thread attaches to Phyllis’s forearm. Almost immediately the thing starts reeling its threads back in, drawing every animate person along with them. Within seconds Phyllis is being drawn from the bedroom where she’d withdrawn, into the main room and towards the balcony. Mike grabs her round the waist and grabs the bed-leg with the other. Now it becomes a trial of strength and for a moment Mike is scared he’ll lose his grip but then Phyllis lets out a scream and the sticky tendril has torn a six-inch strip off her forearm and some of the skin from her fingers but it is withdrawing, without her.

Mike runs to the window in time to see the sequel, which is people from all parts of the square being drawn willy-nilly towards the anemone thing. There’s Muriel from their team, being pulled along by her hair, and Larrie, who seems to have broken his neck in the fall from his hotel window, and now Mike watches the disgusting sight of all these people being drawn closer and closer and finally packed and squidged into a ball of compressed flesh. Then the ball of people goes spinning away back down the street it came from, towards the sea.

Scattered firing from villagers who have rifles continues but makes no impression on the sea tanks which continue to release the anemone weapons until they’re quite done, and then slowly return backwards the way they came back into the sea. Long before that happens Mike is beside Phyllis, washing her wounds and tearing up bed sheets to dress them.

Only then do we learn, from Phyllis’s side of the dialogue, that Mike himself is crying and she is holding him in her arms (p.143). In a very understated, British way, they have both been severely traumatised.

Next day Bocker holds a conference of the survivors. The mood is grim. They speculate about the meaning of the attacks. Is it for food or sheer malice? Bocker gives one of his speeches (of which there are a number punctuating the book) in which he wonders whether man’s domain on earth might be under threat. Maybe humanity’s days are numbered…

Mike and Phyllis fly back to Britain with what film Ted the cameraman was able to take and eye witness accounts. Back in the office they discover similar attacks are proliferating all round the world and the number of sea tanks rapidly escalating into scores. Captain Winters of the Admiralty invites them in to give an eye-witness account to a senior admiral who asks them their opinion of Bocker’s theories and this is the trigger for more earnest, and strategic pondering on what ‘we’ (humanity) should do next.

They go down to the cottage in Cornwall but can’t get away from the news which brings accounts of multiple attacks all round the world. Almost as a throwaway we learn that ocean trade has all but dried up and so Britain is having to airlift in food and other essential supplies. It can be done but is very expensive and so the price of everything has shot up and rationing of some items has appeared. (When Kraken was published post-war rationing had still not completely ended.)

As news comes in of more and more attacks all round the world, Phyllis cracks. She had built herself an ‘arbour’ in the cottage’s garden, somewhere she could work outdoors on her ‘novel’, but one day Mike finds her sitting in it, slumped across the manuscript, crying her eyes out. She can’t think of anything except the state of war, and can’t get the shock of what they saw in Escondida out of her mind. For some relief they motor over to North Cornwall for some surfing and a day’s brisk activity does them good. But on the way back they make the mistake of turning on the radio, immediately hear more bad news, which takes them right back to the horror of the sea tanks, and Phyllis bursts into tears again.

Mike calls a doctor who gives Phyllis a sedative and recommends a Harley Street nerve specialist. It is only now, however, that we learn that part of her problem is that Mike has been talking about the incident on Escondida in his sleep, and makes it clear that in his dreams he sees Phyllis, not Muriel, being dragged across the town square and slowly mashed to pulp along with all the other victims. He too needs rest. And she needs a break from his nightmares and sleep-talking.

And so Mike travels by himself to stay in a room in a manor in Yorkshire, stops work, takes the phone off the hook, and devotes himself to long walks over the moors. After six weeks of rest cure he feels like a new man. Until he drops into a pub after a long hike and the radio is on and he overhears news of a massive attack on a port in north Spain where an estimated 3,000 people lost their lives.

By now the authorities all over the world are fighting back against the aliens. Ports large and small are either abandoned or heavily fortified. Tanks and artillery are deployed. And air forces put on high alert. And this has begun to pay dividends. If the sea tanks are hit by tank shells or airplane cannon shells they explode dramatically. There’s an extended passage describing the attack on Santander and how the local military called in air strikes which proved surprisingly effective. (I had to remind me that all this would have taken place under the military dictatorship of General Franco.)

His restful mood disrupted, Mike returns from his Yorkshire hotel to the cottage in Cornwall only to find Phyllis is long gone. She’s tidied up and locked up and apparently gone back up to London. When Mike arrives at their London flat he is surprised to find it deserted. He phones his pal at EBC, Freddy Whittier, and discovers that Phyllis lasted just a week in the Cornwall cottage by herself before she returned to the London flat and resumed work, writing material about the attacks. Freddy flabbergasts Mike by telling him that Phyllis has gone off with Dr Bocker to Spain, to investigate the scene of the recent Santander attacks. Bored and lonely, Mike spends the evening at his club (p.175). [His club?]

In the early hours of the next morning he gets a call from Freddy and at first panics, thinking it is bad news about Phyllis. Far from it, she’s doing fine in Spain. Freddy is ringing to say a taxi’s on its way, a plane ticket has been organised, and he’s being sent by the EBC to a small fishing village on the west coast of Ireland which has just been attacked by what people are now calling the ‘bathies’. This journey and what Mike finds are not described in any detail. It is simply the trigger for the new development that the bathies now for the first time start to attack the coastline of Britain, which quickly reverts to a spirit-of-the-Blitz state of militarisation. Ports and harbours are mined and barb-wired, military deployed, RAF put on alert.

The British government lends all military aid to the Irish. (It is an interesting sidelight on history, that Mike the narrator sees this as the Irish being prepared to forgive and forget and put ‘the past in the past’ – an interesting insight into the rockiness of Anglo-Irish relations even in 1953.) Anyway, the bathies have lost the element of surprise and large numbers are blown up by the mines they trundle over, by depth charges dropped on them, by air strikes or artillery. Their casualty rate on some raids is 100% while human populations have learned simply to flee out of range at the first warning. The only raids England suffers are in Cornwall, and the only one with any real consequences is an attack on Falmouth Harbour.

A few days after the Falmouth raid, the attacks cease, worldwide (p.179). Dr Bocker makes one of his periodic comments on the situation in a speech in which he says his early suggestions that we try and communicate with the enemy were obviously wrong. Now he recommends a policy of total annihilation, before they launch the next phase of their attack, whatever that might be.

Phase three (pages 183 to 240)

The move from phase one to phase two was relatively smooth and continued the tone of the normal world and its activities. Phase three, however, opens with a jolt, literally, as the small boat Mike and Phyllis as navigating through water at night bumps into a net. As Mike begins tampering with it a flare goes up illuminating the scene and a rifle shot goes off. Mike looks across at the sides of the flooded valley, to the parade of houses which disappears under the water, and hears a voice warning him away. Aha. As Mike fires up the engine and their little boat putters away, Phyllis asks where they are and, as Mike replies, somewhere in the Weybridge area, the reader has his or her suspicions confirmed. Yes, we are clearly in full-scale disaster mode now.

For, as the text quickly explains, the aliens did indeed launch the next phase, though it took a while for humanity to catch on. Quite simply, it was to melt the polar ice caps and flood the world, completely flood it, until it is a world of water – just the way the aliens like it!

As usual it crept up very slowly on an unsuspecting humanity, not least because most trans-ocean shipping had been suspended for some time, and the weather ships which would have noticed changes in temperature and, especially, widespread fogs, had ceased to observe things. But the fogs become increasingly apparent in Siberia and north America. Then spotter planes report back on vast numbers of icebergs being calved from the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. All of which leads up to another article by Bocker, this one titled The Devil and the Deeps.

Bocker and polyphony

I’ve come to realise that Bocker’s articles provide a sort of structure, or regular punctuation of the narrative, each appearance of article he writes crystallising the sequence of events to date and then making drastic suggestions, which his readers and hearers are consistently not ready to listen to.

Not only that, but they add to the multiplicity of voices in the book. As it has progressed, Bocker has emerged as a Cassandra figure, the first to speculate the fireballs were from another world, the first to theorise that the incidents of the sinking ships might not be accidents and the great flows of ooze might be more than a natural occurrence, but indicate the work of industrial intelligence in the ocean deeps. His articles have taken on a more and more Biblical tone of apocalypse and prophecy. They add to the spectrum of voices and register, which also includes:

  • the serious factual briefings from Captain Winters or the admiral
  • the scientific briefing about ocean-bottom ooze from Dr Matet
  • eye-witness accounts from the American journos in ships accompanying one of the first to be blown up
  • opinions of fellow journalists (Mallarby of The Tidings and Bennell of The Senate, p.44)
  • radio broadcasts, including the dramatic one of the ship trying to steam away from where a navy ship carrying an atom bomb went down (p.97)
  • newspaper articles and leaders (p.207)
  • even the hammy radio script which Phyllis herself writers (pp.70-72)

It’s a very polyphonic novel.

Anyway, in terms of the plot, Bocker’s article is the first one to grasp the enormity of the situation, something which he then expands on when Mike and Phyllis go to pay their by now regular visit. After some chatter it boils right down to this: the authorities will act too late because they always do; in any case, there’s probably no practical way to stop then; so the best strategy is – find a nice self-sufficient hilltop – and fortify it!

And so it comes to pass. Slowly the sea levels rise. In London the embankment is sandbagged but overflows anyway. But this is just the beginning. Bocker joins Phyllis to review the urgent work put into raising the embankment parapets by ten or 12 feet. Waste of time says baleful Bocker.

All round the world the waters continue their rise. Hundreds of thousands build levees but the smart money starts to abandon the cities and the low-lying ground and move to the country. Mike’s narration takes us through two successive years when, on each year, the spring tides broke through whatever barriers were erected. After the second flooding of London the authorities acknowledge that they’re going to have to leave.

What gives all this a frisson of familiarity is not only the fact that we now know that the ice caps are melting and the sea level is going to rise, but the shambolic response of the authorities to the gathering crisis, a make-it-up-as-you-go-along attitude which we have all seen in the British government’s response to coronavirus (COVID-19).

News comes in of refugees from flooded Holland and Denmark. When they tramped into north Germany, fighting broke out. In England, too, refugees from the drowning East found high land along the Chilterns barricaded off. In London, people moving from the riverside towards Hampstead and Highgate found roads barricaded and snipers taking potshots from windows. And then the barricades were stormed. The emergency electricity supply failed. Looting broke out.

Mike and Phyllis move their stuff through the half-anarchic, half-orderly streets to a last-ditch studio and offices which the EBC have rigged up at the top of the Selfridge’s building in Oxford Street. They hear of increasing panic flights, of cars being stopped their occupants turfed out, widespread looting. Parliament moves to Harrogate, 700 feet above sea level.

Their bosses had imagined the small crew manning the station (complete with oil and petrol reserves, power generators, and as much food as they could loot from the store beneath) would remain and carry on presenting entertaining variety radio programmes until summoned north. In reality, as the year advanced, order broke down, the streets flooded faster than expected and became the prowling ground of armed gangs of looters, who they had to fight off several times.

By spring of the following year the staff in their redoubt have been reduced from 65 to 25, most requesting to be evacuated by the helicopter which can land on the store’s roof. (Note: helicopters play a small but significant role in both Triffids and this novel.) There’s an effective scene when, one bright sunny day, Mike and Phyllis walk down to Trafalgar Square. The water is lapping against the parapet on the north side. There is a sheet of solid water down Whitehall to the half-submerged Houses of Parliament. Seagulls squawk from St Martin’s in the Fields. They are surprised to see a speedboat come roaring under Admiralty Arch and zoom away down Whitehall. Phyllis says let’s leave. Mike agrees. They’ll need a boat.

But they hang on through another season. Their old friend, Freddy Whittier and his wife, who had stayed with them in the Selfridges redoubt, take a helicopter out. A few weeks later he phones to tell Mike and Phyl not to follow them. The government area of the town is under siege. Civil war is about to break out. He promises to get the next chopper back to London but, although it leaves Harrogate it never arrives. A week or so later the Harrogate office are dictating the latest in a long line of forlorn, futile, spirit-raising announcements, denying rumours of fighting and collapse, when the phone line goes dead. It is never restored.

Another winter comes round. The streets are almost empty, though the few people you meet are carrying guns. They hear the counties surrounding London have set up miniature fiefdoms and repel refugees. They still have plenty of food and oil for the generator but when the water level reaches Oxford street and starts to drain into the basement of the Selfridge’s building, they feel it’s time to move. On bright May day Mike finds Phyllis up on the roof looking across the lake that is Oxford Street and crying. She says what all people going through tribulation say, since the time of Job and before:

Look at it, Mike! Look at it! We never did anything to deserve all this. Most of us weren’t very good, though we weren’t bad enough for this, surely. And not to have a chance! If it had only been something we could fight – . But just to be drowned and starved and forced into destroying one another to live – and by things nobody has ever seen, living in the one place we can’t get at them! (p.229)

She’s breaking down. It’s time to go. Mike finds a fibre-glass dinghy and loads it up. They say goodbye to their remaining colleagues and set off upriver. And that’s where we found them as the start of this final section. Turned back by a net and sniper and taking shelter in the top story of a flooded house.

In the middle of the night Mike hears a bumping against the wall and springs out of his sleeping bag in time to see a smaller vessel bumping against the wall before drifting away. He gives chase in the dinghy, grapples and boards it to find the body of a woman shot dead. He turfs the corpse over the side.

It’s a motorboat named the Midge. He and Phyllis transfer their goods into it and take to the coast to navigate (in an amateurish way) down towards Cornwall. In fact first they return to central London and load up with maximum provisions. The last remaining team in Selfridges think they’re crazy and try to persuade them to stay. But once they’ve loaded everything they can think of, they set off downstream towards the Thames Estuary and then round and along the Channel coast. The journey takes a month, with scattered observations of what the English landscape, coast and cliff look like under 100 feet of water.

The cottage is still there. It has been ransacked but is physically sound. Only now does Phyllis reveal that the summer several years ago when she developed an interest in bricklaying and built the arbour, supposedly to shelter and write in… well, she buried a load of stores in it. Nobody’s found them. They should be alright for a while…

Now these are the last pages. Mike tells us he began writing his account in November. Now it’s January. The rate of seawater rise has decreased. The sea tanks have been reported but don’t find many victims and all the little scattered communities post watchers, so the inhabitants know to flee. The hill their cottage sat on has become an island. People leave them alone. The winter has been bitterly cold, with howling gales. Sometimes the sea has frozen. It is becoming an Arctic climate. Soon nothing will grow. They decide to rig the Midget with a sail and dead south, presumably to France.

Two endings

Ending 1

The 1973 British Penguin paperback which I own ends thus:

Just as I was expecting the couple to sail off into the blue, there is a dramatic last-minute reversal. One day as they’re preparing the yacht Midget for her big journey, a strange sailing boat enters their backwater and hails them. The man has a message. Over what radios survive have come messages announcing a government of reconstruction. Speech given Dr Bocker (him again, right here at the end of the narrative) saying the water has ceased rising. Mike and Phyll are astounded to learn that only between a fifth and an eighth of Britain’s land remains. But the population has collapsed. Three hard winters and no medical provision has seen millions die of pneumonia and related diseases.

Now they’re going to try and organise and rebuild. The messages ended with a list of specialist personnel required. Mike and Phyll’s names were on it. They are requested to report to London. The man even tells them the boffins seem to have developed some new device to combat the bathies. A device which emits powerful ultrasonic signals. Developed by the Japanese. Already it’s been trialled by them and the Americans and seems to have cleared some of the shallower deeps. Large amounts of white jelly have floated to the surface, same as what exploded with such force from the sea tanks when they were shelled.

Suddenly, suddenly there is hope. It’s going to be hard surviving in a world changed out of recognition and yet… they will face the future bravely!

Ending 2

Intriguingly, the online version of the novel I referred to ends differently, thus:

This version begins its final section at the same moment, with Mike and Phyllis preparing the Midget for her voyage but, instead of a sailing boat coming up the creek, they are amazed to see a helicopter (Wyndham and his post-apocalyptic helicopters!). It circles their island, then hovers just above the uneven stones and heather, a briefcase is thrown out then a figure clambers down a short rope ladder and dusts himself off as the helicopter lifts off and flies away.

As they run up to him they realise it is Dr Bocker! Again! Phyllis embraces him and bursts out crying. Mike walks up and shakes his hand. He admits it has been lonely, very lonely and depressing. They help him up and down to the house, where Bocker produces a flask of whiskey! and proceeds to explain. He first flew to London where the BC crew told him Mike and Phyl had come to Cornwall and so he followed.

They are going to rebuild, The water has ceased to rise. They have lost a lot of land and a lot of people. But he estimates with what remains they can feed five million people. The population of Britain has collapsed from 46 million to just five million! Bocker says the country has disintegrated into tens of thousands of micro communities each defending their own and utterly isolated.

Step one is to break down that isolation by producing thousands of cheap battery-operated radios and dropping them on the communities, helping them get back in touch, broadcasting the new central authority’s plans. That’s where Mike and Phyll come in. He needs experienced and confident broadcasters to lead the operation.

Mike and Phyl are both stunned, above all by the revival of community, the sense that there are others out there, and they can work together. But what about the bathies, what about the evil aliens lurking in the deeps? And this is when Bocker tells them about the ultrasonics weapons which the Japanese have developed and seem to work really well. They’ve sent plans to the Americans who have started to mass produce them. (America, Bocker tells us, was hit nowhere near as badly as Britain. Britain is a cramped over-crowded place and pays badly for it when put under pressure. America is vaaaast.)

For a while, none of us spoke. I stole a sidelong glance at Phyllis; she was looking as though she had just had a beauty treatment.
‘I’m coming to life again, Mike,’ she said. ‘There’s something to live for.’

What about the Arctic cold? Bocker replies the scientific consensus is that the water will slowly warm up. Improbably, he claims the climate may end up being better than it used to be. In other words, this ending feels as if it was written to order to be significantly more upbeat than ending A. Maybe – along with the reference to America not being hit nearly so badly and about to mass produce the weapons which will save the world – maybe this version was written specially to flatter an American audience.

Thoughts

When I read this as an impressionable adolescent my imagination was fired to extraordinary heights. After H.G. Wells, Wyndham was my god when I was about 13, and the scene in the Caribbean town square where the alien globules explode into masses of sticky tentacles stayed with me for years. However, returning as a jaded adult and a man tired out from raising a family and hanging on to a demanding job, I read and experience this book completely differently.

I am now struck by the cleverness of the book’s narrative structure, and by the tone. By structure I mean two things:

1. One is the way he makes the protagonists journalists in order to allow them not only to be sent to a number of key scenes and incidents (they see the first fireballs land in the sea, they witness the first atom bomb being dropped in the deeps, they are the first Western eye-witnesses of the disgusting coelenterates) but also to interview a number of key experts, namely Captain Winters from the Admiralty and, most importantly, to really get to know Alastair Bocker, the book’s main theorist for the entire sequence of events.

2. Second aspect of structure is the way the story is told by a husband-and-wife team. Mike is the sole narrator but Phyllis gets to interview some of the experts, or they jointly meet other witnesses over dinner or drinks, and her opinions are as important as, and often sharper than, her husband’s. This dyad gives us not only gives the narrative access to more important people and eye witness, it also means the husband and wife team spend a lot of time discussing events, pondering and analysing and speculating and, of course, taking the viewer with them in their theories and speculations.

And this ‘pair structure’ is just part of the way the information about the story comes in from multiple sources. Because they are journalists working for a broadcast outlet, they sit in the nerve centre of an organisation devoted to bringing together information from every possible source, from everywhere round the world. And, after their accidental eye witnessing of some of the earliest fireballs landing in the sea, Mike finds himself early on lumbered with the task of co-ordinating other news on the subject, nobody in the early stages realising it will go on to become the story of the age.

3. But the biggest and most dominant aspect of the book for me as a married man, is the tone. The entire book is drenched in the way Wyndham conveys the relationship between Mike and Phyllis, in fast-talking, witty banter. It reminded me a bit of the Thin Man movies (1934 to 1947) based on the smart-guy, knowing banter between husband-and-wife detectives, William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Mike and Phyllis argue, they make up, she cuts across him during interviews and he knows when to shut up, they discuss ideas for stories and edit each other’s work. Thinking about it, Wyndham obviously not only wanted to differentiate the book, in structure and tone, from Triffids, but possibly also from standard science fiction, of the kind he’d been writing with so little success since the 1930s.

In the 1960s critics came to unkindly dismiss this approach as ‘cosy catastrophe’, but you can turn that critique on its head and point out that Wyndham was trying to take science fiction tropes away from the wide-eyed, boys-own-adventure world of the American SF magazines, and situate it, instead, precisely among the urban, middle-class bourgeoisie. To see what happens when you take characters who could come from a respectable drawing-room drama, who drink sherry before dinner and are oh-so-blasé about news reports and government statements – and then drop them into the middle of a world-shattering catastrophe.

I thought it was a telling moment when Mike and Phyllis are lounging by the pool on the island of Escondida and Phyllis jokingly says she feels as languid as a character in one of Somerset Maugham’s stories from the Far East (p.127). Maugham’s stories (which I have comprehensively reviewed elsewhere in this blog) are set among the pukka, public school-educated, colonial classes, and this passing reference is a reminder of the broader world this story is meant to be set in, and of the class Mike and Phyllis don’t really belong to, but certainly can relate to. What would happen to these pukka sahibs and memsahibs if catastrophe struck their world? Of course they’d carry on talking and acting the same, right up till the bitter end.

So from the point of view of the ‘radical’ 1960s, maybe The Kraken Wakes can be seen as a cosy catastrophe (as Brian Aldiss jokingly dismissed it). But maybe it’s also by way of being an experiment in mixing genres, of applying bubble gum disaster science fiction to drawing room drama characters and seeing what happens.

4. Loneliness I will now compare and contrast Kraken and Triffids. And I’ve already mentioned it, but the lasting impression of The Day of The Triffids is of intense and soul-harrowing loneliness. It’s a book with multiple levels of isolation and aloneness:

  • the protagonist is isolated when the rest of the world is struck blind
  • the entire world’s media (meaning, in those days, the radio and newspapers) ceases to function, so everyone becomes isolated, with no way at all of knowing what’s going on except by world of mouth
  • thus the protagonist has to find out what’s going on utterly by himself
  • and no sooner has he met a potential soul-mate who he can share his feelings with than she is kidnapped and taken off he knows not where, thus redoubling his sense of isolation and abandonment

But the fundamental metaphor at the centre of the narrative – blindness – is itself about eternal isolation from the visual understanding of the world, a theme which is rammed home on numerous occasions, when he either sees the blind in pitiful operation or reflects on the essential isolation which blindness imposes on its sufferers. There’s a searing moment when Masen comments on how quiet a blind world is because everyone is forced to listen to try and figure out what is happening. The only sound is the quiet shuffling of shoes along pavements and the sobbing of the newly blind in their infinite misery.

In the depth to which these tropes extend, in the multiple levels the story taps, Triffids approaches fable or allegory, and I found the totality and intensity of its vision truly terrifying.

So Kraken comes as an extraordinary contrast: it couldn’t be more the opposite, the jokey flippant, knowing, media-savvy tone of the two protagonists meaning the book is buoyed on a tone of knowing flippancy.

‘I wish,’ said Phyllis, ‘that I had been kinder and tried to pay more attention to dear Miss Popple who used to try to teach me geography, poor thing. Every day the world gets fuller of places I never heard of.’

Even when it becomes clear that the incident on Escondida has caused them both some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, this emerges only obliquely, and all the more movingly because of it. And in the later stages, even when Mike has to go to a rest home and Phyllis goes down to the cottage to recover: the stress and psychological impact is strongly hinted at and sort of described –but in this book the reader is never really as psychologically involved as I felt I was in Triffids.

Cold War references

I’ve mentioned some of the examples as they arise in the text, but it’s worth emphasising how strongly present Cold War themes are throughout the story. This operates at multiple levels.

At a ‘serious’ level, some of the experts, the men from the Admiralty or Bocker, discuss the possibility that the whole thing is a Russian ploy, some kind of new-fangled Russian attack.

In a different way, both Mike and Phyllis make jokey, ironic references throughout the novel to ‘our Russian friends’, ‘the other side’, ‘the Soviets’ and so on. Again and again they invoke, satirise and ridicule the Cold War rhetoric which the Russians had perfected about their ostensible quest for ‘peace’ (despite the obvious fact that they had occupied and continued to oppress all the nations of Eastern Europe).

Here’s an example of Wyndham pastiching Cold War rhetoric when, early on, the American government makes a formal complaint to Russia about the fireballs encroaching US airspace.

The Kremlin, after a few days of gestation, produced a rejection of the protest. It proclaimed itself unimpressed by the tactics of attributing one’s own crime to another, and went on to state that its own weapons, recently developed by Russian scientists for the defense of peace, had now destroyed more than twenty of these craft over Soviet territory, and would, without hesitation, give the same treatment to any others detected in their work of espionage…

The fact that Mike is a journalist allows Wyndham to give satirical swipes at the rhetoric of the press releases and communiques the Soviets perfected during this era, which managed to combine a pious wish for peace with barely disguised threats of retaliation and, always, the comic opera boasting that, whatever new technology the West developed, the Russians thought of it first and had already made it bigger and better.

Mr. Malenkov, interviewed by telegram, had said that although the intensified program of aircraft construction in the West was no more than a part of a bourgeois-fascist plan by warmongers that could deceive no one, yet so great was the opposition of the Russian people to any thought of war that the production of aircraft within the Soviet Union for the Defense of Peace had been tripled. Indeed, so resolutely were the Peoples of the Free Democracies determined to preserve Peace in spite of the new Imperialist threat, that war was not inevitable – though there was a possibility that under prolonged provocation the patience of the Soviet Peoples might become exhausted.

Then there’s the level of public opinion – because it’s a global phenomenon, Wyndham’s journalist protagonists regularly discuss the impact on public opinion of each stage of the ‘invasion’ and part of this public opinion is concern about ‘the other side’, and a predisposition to blame everything bad on the Reds.

This aspect – popular opinion – is actually embodied in one of the characters, Tuny, the self-important, pukka woman from Kensington who is the partner of Harold, an old friend of Mike’s. The pair come down to stay at Mike and Phyl’s Cornish cottage and, over dinner, Tuny leaves no-one in any doubt that she knows the entire thing is a Russian plot and that our government is refusing to say so out of fear. In her florid opinion, it’s appeasement all over again.

Quite distinct from the novel’s ostensible subject matter, all this is fascinating social history. At the end of the day The Kraken Wakes is a middle-brow work of fiction (i.e. has no particular aspiration to purely literary merit) but that makes all the more revealing the kinds of thoughts, conversations, opinions about world politics which Wyndham considered typical of the day (and of his likely readership).

The ‘two intelligent species’ problem

Having now read all of Wyndham’s four great novels, I can see that there is a strong unifying thread or impulse underlying all of them, namely the question: ‘Can two intelligent but completely different species cohabit on the same planet?’

Hitherto Homo sapiens has regarded itself as unquestionably the most intelligent species on earth and, probably, anywhere, and swanked and lorded it over creation. In Wyndham’s big four novels, humanity is suddenly confronted with creatures which present an existential threat: in Day of the Triffids, it’s the triffids; in Kraken, the deep sea invaders from space; in Chrysalids, the post-apocalyptic survivor communities are confronted by a new superspecies of human whose leaders treat old-style humans as animals to be eliminated; and in Midwich it is the alien children whose hive mind begins to present a threat to humanity.

All of these novels dramatise the plight of a planet divided into two opposing camps, two types of intelligent species who live in an uneasy balance of peace which, in all four novels, is knocked off kilter and in which our side is put on the back foot.

The point I’m driving at is that you could argue that the deep structure of all four novels embodies or reflects the Cold War rivalry between two highly intelligent, highly armed, aggressive camps – the capitalist and communist worlds – who live in an uneasy peace which could, at the slightest incident, be toppled over into catastrophic conflict.

In other words, that John Wyndham’s novels are Cold War novels not just by an accident of history or in incidental details or in the opinions of some of the characters, but in their deepest structure reflect the challenge of how two utterly opposed types of intelligence can inhabit the same planet without wiping each other out.


Credit

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1953. All references are to the 1973 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

John Wyndham reviews

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 latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
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 and they rebel
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, an 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 unimaginable strangeness

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 vastest 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, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern 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 vanished 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
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian 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  Foundation Trilogy, which describes 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 – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
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 who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by lingering radiation; but as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, and soon he and his mind-melding friends are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
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
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
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 fast-paced 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 revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
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
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
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
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
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
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head who it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents is real and a telepathic explorer from a far distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in retrospect, in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
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 – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
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 in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
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 barren, 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
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
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
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
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
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
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
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this novel is sharply divided into seven distinct parts. Unlike that book it retreats a little from being a collection of fragmented stand-alone narratives, heavily interspersed with philosophical digressions, back towards something a bit more like a conventional novel, in that the same characters recur in every part.

That said, it is still not at all like a conventional novel. Conventional novels set scenes, paint locations, introduce characters, and explore them slowly by taking them through events, described in full, with plenty of dialogue.

Kundera’s novels feature characters, but they are more often than not presented through the author’s ideas about them. The ideas come first, and then the characters exist – or are invented – to flesh them out.

Thus the first two short sections of part one of this book present no characters or settings at all, but consist of a meditation on Nietzsche’s puzzling idea of Eternal Recurrence, an idea Nietzsche proposed in his last works before going mad. Kundera interprets to it to mean the notion that anything which happens only once barely happens at all. He quotes the German proverb: Einmal ist Keinmal: ‘once is nothing’. Only recurrence nails something down with weight and meaning. What occurs only once, has no weight, no meaning. Its lightness is unbearable.

And this dichotomy between lightness and weight will underpin much of the discussion which follows.

Part One – Lightness and Weight

Tomas is a surgeon. Since Tomas divorced his wife and abandoned his son (she was a rabid communist who gave him only very restricted access, and even then kept cancelling his dates to see his son – so Tomas eventually gave up trying), he’s had numerous lovers which he runs on a rule of three: Either three quick sex sessions, then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but scheduled at three-weekly intervals. (Putting it like this makes you realise how, well, crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

And I’m afraid that the effect of reading five of his books in quick succession began to make me see through his plausible sounding words of wisdom.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (p.15)

Tomas is sent to a sleepy provincial town by his hospital to perform a tricky operation on a patient who can’t be moved. Here, in a sleepy local restaurant, he meets Tereza who is a waitress. They have sex. Weeks later, she turns up on his doorstep. He takes her in, they sleep together, he gets her suitcase from the station. All this goes against his principles, such as hating having women sleep over, preferring to drive them home after sex. Anyway, Tereza comes down with flu and Tomas is forced to look after her and, as he does so, has the peculiar sensation that she is like Moses in the cradle and he is the pharaoh’s daughter. Some higher power has decreed he must protect her. And so he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets his mistress, Sabina, to wangle her a job as a dark room assistant with a magazine.

And so they settle in to living together. But then Tereza discovers that Tomas has lots of other lovers. She comes across a stash of letters. She begins to have panic dreams, which Kundera vividly describes, one in which Tereza is one among a group of naked women who walk around a swimming pool performing kneed bends and exercises and if any of them hesitates or stumbles, Tomas, who is in a basket suspended from the roof, shoots them dead with the gun in his hand. Those kinds of dreams. Anxiety dreams.

He loves her and wishes to calm her feverish dreams, but can’t stop seeing his lovers, but then can’t make love to them without feeling guilty, so needs to drink to mask the guilt, but then Tereza smells the booze on his breath when he gets home, and has another one of her anxiety attacks. In fact she tries to kill herself.

Then, in his anxiety, Tomas’s longest-term mistress, the artist Sabina, catches him looking at his watch while making love, and takes her revenge on him. Oh dear. Can the poor man do nothing right?

Years go by. Tomas marries Tereza. He buys her a mongrel puppy, they name Karenin after the hero of the Tolstoy novel.

Then the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Tereza is by now a staff photographer on the magazine and spends the days after the invasion roaming the streets taking photographs of the occupying army, then handing the film over to foreign journalists.

Sabina has left for Geneva, Switzerland. A hospital manager from Zurich Tomas knows phones up and offers him a job. After hesitation he takes it and they drive to Switzerland. For some months she is happy and confident. Taking photos during the occupation gave her confidence. Then he gets home one day and finds a farewell letter from her. She can’t hack life in the West. She’s gone back to Czechoslovakia and taken the dog.

Initially Tomas feels liberated. Seven years with her were, in the end, a burden. But it only takes a day or two and then the terrible power of compassion kicks in – Kundera gives us a disquisition on the etymology and meaning of ‘com’ [meaning with] ‘passion’ [from the Latin word meaning ‘suffering’] – and he imagines Tereza alone in their flat in Prague. So, with a heavy heart, he resigns from the Zurich hospital, quoting the motif from a late Beethoven string quartet – Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. And drives back across the border to Prague, finding Teresa asleep in their old flat, and wondering if he’s just made the worst mistake of his life.

On this recording of Beethoven’s string quartet number 16, click to the final movement at 17:39. It’s here that Beethoven wrote the words Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein before the music itself begins, indicating that the rhythm of the words was the basis of the musical motifs from which he then created the music. What do the words mean: ‘Must it be?’ ‘Yes. It must be.’ It seems like it should be a meditation on man’s fate, on whether we make real decisions or go along with a pre-determined fate. Except that the music itself is surprisingly light and airy.

Puzzling and teasing. And, in this, similar to Kundera’s texts which invoke all kinds of serious political and philosophical ideas, and reference well-known writers and musicians in order… to muse on the different types of philanderer (the epic or the lyric), or the four types of ‘look’, or why one character close their eyes during sex while another keeps them open, or to give a mock academic definition of the art of flirtation. Is the entire book a deliberate playing and toying with ideas of seriousness and triviality?

Part Two – Soul and Body

In which we learn a lot more about Tereza, namely her family background. Her mother married the least eligible of her nine suitors because he got her pregnant. After a few years of boring marriage, she ran off with another man, who turned out to be a loser. She took all this out on young Tereza, in the form of nudity. Tereza’s mother walks round the house naked, she refuses to have a lock on the lavatory, she parades her friends round the house and into Tereza’s room when she’s half dressed. For Tereza, nudity represents a concentration camp-style enforcement of loss of privacy.

Meeting Tomas was an escape. He had a book on the table of the restaurant where she served him on the occasion of him coming to the town to perform an operation. Books are symbolic of escape from narrow provincial life into a higher realm. (In this respect she reminds me of Kristyna the butcher’s wife who is enchanted with the higher learning and big city sophistication of ‘the student’ in part five of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or of nurse Ruzena who longs to escape the narrow confines of her boring provincial town in The Farewell Party. The uneducated young woman trapped in a provincial town until rescued by a much more educated, big city-dweller, is a recurring trope.)

We re-see the birth and development of her love affair with Tomas through her eyes, including the night she danced with another man and made him jealous, then her discovery at discovering all his letters from his lovers, particularly Sabina.

She has a brainwave to control her jealousy which is to try and co-opt his lovers into their sex life. She has the idea to visit Sabina the painter and take photos of her (by this time she is a staff photographer on the weekly magazine). Which progresses to suggesting she photograph Sabina nude. As a heterosexual man I found this couple of pages stimulating, as I think they’re intended, but as wildly improbable as a porn film. It doesn’t come off, there isn’t a lesbian scene, the two women collapse in laughter.

We see how her exile in Geneva comes to a head when she takes her best photos of the Russian occupation of Prague to a magazine editor, who says, ‘Yes, they’re wonderful, but things have moved on, Is she any good at photographing plants, cacti, for example? Very fashionable at the moment.’

She protests that the Russian tanks are still on the streets of Prague, Czechs are still being sent to prison by the thousand. The editor gets a woman staff photographer to take her to lunch and explain the facts of life in the capitalist West to her, but the more she does so, the more Tereza feels patronised and disgusted.

In both these sections Kundera describes the fate of Alexander Dubček, the Czech leader who allowed the widespread liberalisation of communism which became known as the Prague Spring, and who was arrested and flown to prison in Russia after the Russians invaded in August 1968.

Initially, Dubček was told he was going to be executed, like Imre Nagy, leader of rebel Hungary, had been in 1956. But then he was reprieved, bathed and shaved and given a new suit and taken to a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, where he was offered his life if he agreed to roll back all his reforms. Within days he was flown back to Prague and forced to make a nationwide address on the radio explaining his change of strategy.

For Kundera, the significant thing was Dubček’s pitiful performance, his long pauses, his gasps for breath. During those pauses, he says, the entire nation heard their humiliation. And both Tomas and Tereza revert to this example of humiliation as they consider their own lives.

And it occurs to me that whereas traditional novelists use symbolism with a kind of subtlety, burying it in the narrative and descriptions, Kundera’s distinguishing feature is that he makes his ‘symbols’ front and foreground of the text. They are not subtly worked into the text but very visibly added into it and then commented on at length. Each time they recur Kundera himself does all the commentary and critique, explaining how Dubček’s silences became symbolic of all kinds of other silences, in apartments bugged by the secret police, or between lovers who can no longer talk to each other.

Tereza realises she is utterly alone in the West. She packs her bags, takes Karenin, and catches a train back to the Czech border. Five days later Tomas joins her.

Who is strong here, who is weak? Is weakness bad? Was Dubček weak? No. Anybody is weak when they are set against vastly stronger forces. Weakness has no intrinsic meaning.

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

Part three introduces us to Franz, who is happily set up with his docile wife, Marie-Claude, who runs a private art gallery, and (somewhat inevitably) enjoys the favours of his artist-mistress. Artist? Like Sabina? Her name is deliberately suppressed but as soon as the narrator mentions a bowler hat we know that it is Sabina, Tomas’s mistress Sabina, since the bowler is a prop she used to wear (with little else) for her erotic encounters with Tomas in Part One. In fact Kundera treats us to an entire digression about the bowler hat, which used to belong to her grandfather, the small-town mayor, and how her bringing it into exile in the West has now loaded it with multiple layers of symbolism.

But the real purpose of this section is to form an extended example of one of the central themes of Kundera’s fiction – which is the profound mutual misunderstandings which can occur between two people, even if they are lovers, especially if they are lovers.

And for the first time this is given a formal structure, in that Kundera shepherds the completely opposite ideas and principles of West-born Franz and Eastern émigré Sabina into a humorous format, a Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. This dictionary occurs in more than one of the sections and includes such subjects as: Woman, Fidelity & Betrayal, Music, Light & Darkness, the beauty of New York, Strength, Living In Truth, and so on – all areas where Kundera humorously shows us Franz thinking one thing and Sabina thinking the diametric opposite.

Take music. Franz would like to disappear inside a great orgasm of totally obliterating music. Whereas Sabina thought only under communism did musical barbarism reign until she came to the West and discovered the crudest pop music blaring and thumping from every public orifice. She hates its stifling omnipresence.

This is a clever, witty and funny idea – and another example of how Kundera pushes old fashioned ideas about ‘the novel’ to the limit. In your traditional novel these themes might have been embedded in fictional events, or maybe in dialogue, but to some extent dramatised. In Kundera, the narrative comes to a dead stop and the text comes close to becoming a Powerpoint presentation. At moments like this it comes close to being a collection of bullet points more than a narrative. The interesting thing is just how far Kundera can push all these tricks and experiments – and the book still feel like a novel, with a story and characters.

Parades For Franz, raised in the West, political parades are a release and a protest (and also, on a personal level, a relief to get out from the libraries and lecture halls where he spends his professional life). But Sabina was brought up in the communist East where, from earliest youth, she was forced to go on political marches and rallies, forced to march in rank with other Young Pioneers, forced to chant political slogans. Thus, he loves parades but she loathes them.

Lightness Franz feels that everything that happens in the West, and to him, is too boring trivial and easy. Too light. He was resigned to dissolving into the never-ending sea of words which is academic discourse. Which is why Sabina excites him so much as a mistress. In her country even the slightest phrase can be charged with superhuman weight, can consign one or more people to prison or execution. Now there’s meaning for you, drama and revolution and human adventure! Whereas for Sabina, of course, words like ‘revolution’, ‘struggle’ and ‘comrade’ are dirty, sordid, horrible reminders of the crushing of the human spirit.

Franz is worn out, psychologically and philosophically exhausted, by the West’s sheer profusion.

The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art. (p.110)

including the vanity of the endless pontificating about art which he hears on all sides at his wife’s press days and exhibition launches, and the insufferable loquacity of his cocktail-party-superficial daughter.

Franz finally plucks up the guts to tell his wife of 23 years that he has been seeing a mistress for nine months. He is horrified when Marie-Claude doesn’t buckle into tears (it turns out he had completely the wrong idea about her for this entire time – see the discussion in the Short Dictionary of his concept of ‘Woman’) but becomes very hard-faced. Becoming scared, Franz goes on to tell her the mistress is Sabina.

Next day he is on a flight to Amsterdam and feels wonderful light and airy and released from all guilt. He is living in truth. He has told Sabina, sitting beside him, that he’s told his wife everything about them, and so he feels light and breezy. But Sabina now is wracked with anxiety. No longer is she the free-spirited artist Sabina. Now she is ‘that painter who’s involved in the Franz and Marie-Claude divorce’. Now she’s going to have to decide how to play the role of ‘the mistress’. She feels weighted down.

This is just one of the many many ways the theme of ‘lightness’ is played out and dramatised throughout the book.

In fact during this trip to Amsterdam, while Franz feels lighter and lighter, Sabina feels so weighted down that she realises she can never see him again. They have a night of unbridled passion in Amsterdam, she giving herself up to physical ecstasy as never before. He thinks it’s because she is excited by their new life together and by the prospect of living in truth. But it is nothing of the sort. It is because she knows it is the last time. She knows she has to leave him. Thus they have completely opposed understandings and motivations. Complete misunderstanding, which is really Kundera’s central subject.

Back in Geneva, Franz shamefacedly packs a few things in front of his wife, then goes round to Sabina’s flat. The door is locked. There’s no-one home. He keeps going back like a lost puppy, no answer. After a few days removal men appear and empty it. She’s gone, and left no forwarding address. Initially he is devastated. When he goes back to his wife, she says ‘Don’t let me stop you moving out.’ On the face of it he’s lost everything. But in the event he takes a small flat in the old part of town. Moves in furniture which he, not his wife has chosen. Stuffs it full of books and becomes happy. One of his students falls in love with him and they start an affair. Deep in his heart he is grateful to Sabina for freeing him from the staleness of a 23-year marriage. Life is sweet. He is living in truth.

Meanwhile Sabina moves to Paris. She had hoped that the successive affairs and liaisons would weight her down and give her life significance. But she finds herself floating free and rootless in Paris. It is here that for the first time we read the title phrase of the book. She seems doomed to experience ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ (p.122).

One day she gets a letter telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car crash in some remote mountain town in Czechoslovakia.

By this point I’m thinking that the way this novel has followed just a handful of characters through quite extensive twists and turns makes it unlike his previous works. It’s still stuffed full of soft philosophising about life, but… feels deeper, more deeply felt, simply from the old-fashioned device of letting us get to know the characters via a reasonably chronological narrative.

Part Four – Soul and Body

Part four picks up with Tomas and Tereza back in Czechoslovakia, after she fled from Geneva and the West, and he reluctantly followed her.

Tereza gets a job in a hotel bar. The receptionist is a former ambassador, who criticised the Soviet invasion. All the intelligentsia has been kicked out of their jobs. Tereza gets chatted up by various male customers, which prompts Kundera to give a typically pithy and pseudo-academic definition of the activity of ‘flirting’:

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. (p.142)

The men at the bar hit on her. One is a fat secret policeman who gets drunk and tries to blackmail her. He is being particularly obnoxious, when a tall stranger intervenes and tells him to shut his trap, she is immensely grateful. But with a kind of sinking inevitability this man then begins chatting her up in a friendly way.

Now a key thing to realise is that at the start of this section, Tomas had come back from window-cleaning and fallen into bed dog-tired just as Tereza was waking for her evening job but not before she smells… can it be… is it really?… yes, the smell of women’s privates in his hair. My God! What has he been up to? But alas, she knows only too well what he’s been up to.

And so her jealousy-anxiety dreams start to recur, especially a new one in which Tomas smilingly tells her to go up Petrin Hill, the big hill in the centre of Prague. She does so, finding it eerily empty. At the top are a few other lost souls like herself, and a suave gentleman with a rifle and several assistants. He politely informs her that he is there to execute them. But only of their own free will, if they want to. And she is so miserable at Tomas’s infidelities, that she lets herself be led to a tree by the assistants and the rifleman is lifting his gun to execute her, and she tries to steel herself but, at the last minute, she bursts out No No, she didn’t come of her own free will, and the rifleman sadly lowers his gun, and she turns to the tree and bursts into inconsolable tears (p.151).

This, like the dream of the naked woman walking round the swimming pool, has the eerie uncanniness of literary dreams (I dream a lot and remember my dreams and none of them are this well-rounded and pregnant with symbolism). And they add to the sense that this book somehow goes deeper than its predecessors. It includes just as much learnèd digression, but by portraying Tomas and Tereza and Sabina at such length, we feel like we’re ‘getting to know them’ much more than previous creations.

So Tereza lets the tall man, an engineer it turns out, invite her to his small apartment where, after the minimum of preamble, he begins unbuttoning her and then having sex with her.

All the way through the book Tereza is afflicted by a dichotomy between her body and her soul (hence the title of this part, Body and Soul) caused by her early experiences with her shameless mother. In many ways she wants to escape her body. She certainly has an ambivalent attitude towards it. Now, she lets herself be stripped bare and penetrated (‘penetrate’ is a verb which crops up regularly in Kundera’s descriptions of sex) but, like so many of his female protagonists, feels far distant from what is going on.

She becomes more disgusted the more he roots around in her body, eventually spitting in his face. Later she uses his horrible toilet with no toilet seat, perching precariously on the crude bit of cold plumbing. Tereza longs to escape from the crudity of bodies, the way Tomas seems able to have casual sex with more or less any woman. But it kills her.

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What if she was somehow filmed or recorded having sex, compromising herself?

And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

One of these was the well-known author Jan Prochazka, recorded slagging off his colleagues and then broadcast all over the airwaves. Tereza is horrified by this and all other examples of the complete lack of privacy under communism. For her it is tied to her mother’s insistence on going around naked and on parading her, Tereza, naked to her friends. The horror of it!

And the time when she was 14 and her mother found her secret diaries, recording her innermost adolescent secrets… and brought them out when friends were round for tea and insisted on reading out whole entries at which all the raddled middle-aged women cackled with hilarity and Tereza wanted to die.

For Tereza, the definition of a concentration camp is a place of absolutely no privacy, where privacy is abolished (p.137)

That’s why Tomas’s infidelity makes her want to die, and dream about ways of dying: because she thought with him, she had found something utterly private and safe and secure. She gives their love tremendous weight. And yet Tomas finds sex light and easy, no consequences, no angst. She cannot relate to the lightness of his attitude. His lightness is unbearable to her.

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

And now, Tomas’s experience of returning to occupied Czechoslovakia.

At first he is welcomed back to the hospital. He is the leading surgeon of his generation. But now we are told about an article he wrote a few years previously, during the general relaxing of censorship leading up to the Prague Spring. It took as its subject the Oedipus of Sophocles. When Oedipus realises what a terrible thing he has done, even though he did it in complete innocence, he blinds himself. Tomas writes a long essay accusing the Communist Party of having betrayed Czechoslovakia and, although many of them did it with good intentions, he compares their pleas for forgiveness and understanding, with Oedipus’s intensely tragic self-punishment. The article is accepted by an intellectual magazine, though Tomas is irritated that they severely cut it, making it seem much more harsh and aggressive than he’d intended.

Then came the Russian invasion. A year later the director of the hospital calls him in and says the communist authorities want him to write a note disclaiming the article and its criticism. This gives rise to some intense analysis by Kundera. He foresees his colleagues reacting in two ways: first the nods from all the others who have given in and signed; then the smug sneers of everyone who was too young to be implicated and so can take a moral high line with no risk. Tomas realises he will hate being the recipient of either kind of smile. He refuses to sign and is sacked.

He gets a job as a GP in a practice 50 k from Prague. One day the last patient is a smooth-talking and charming secret policeman. He takes Tomas for a glass of wine and sympathises with his plight, he never meant to write that article, the editors butchered it, of course the authorities want one of their leading surgeons to return to his métier. And he holds out another document for Tomas to sign, his one much harsher than the hospital one, this one declaring how much Tomas loves the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

I found this sequence fascinating, it has a John le Carré sense of the insinuating ways of power and corruption, for it took a while for innocent Tomas to realise he is being tempted. He refuses. More than that, he quits his job as a GP and finds work as a window cleaner. The authorities only make people of significance sign these disclaimers. Once you’ve reached rock bottom they lose interest. Tomas wants to reach rock bottom. He wants to be free (p.192).

The ensuing passages describe Tomas’s adventures as a window-cleaner in Prague. The underground grapevine goes before him and he often finds himself offered a glass of wine and assured he doesn’t have to do any work by former patients who happily sign the chit saying he’s done the work.

But, this being Kundera, there is of course sex. Quite a bit of sex. Because handsome saturnine Tomas is calling during the day on plenty of bored middle-aged, middle-class housewives. Kundera describes his sexual escapades, the one which drive Tereza to paroxysms of despair, as casual couplings which Tomas can barely remember by the weekend. And, being Kundera, there is a great deal of theorising about sex. Again.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.  Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world. (p.201)

and he goes on to call the obsession of the former lyrical, and of the latter, epical, and spends a couple of pages of entertaining theorising expanding on this premise. The lyricists seek an Ideal and are always disappointed. Some sentimental women are touched by their idealism. Epic womanisers garner no sympathy. They are interested in quantity not quality. And eventually they get bored and become interested in ever more specific quirks. They become collectors.

Kundera describes Tomas’s collector habits, and several encounters of great erotic intensity. However, after a few years the women begin to blur into one, he starts forgetting names. But the real purpose of all this is to make the distinction (and Kundera’s type of intellectuality is about making endless numbers of distinctions – heaviness and lightness, lyrical and epical, demonic and angelic laughter, and so on) between Tomas’s collector instinct when he’s out there, in the world, and his love for Teresa.

He doesn’t need to collect Teresa. She came to him. And her falling ill within an hour or so of arriving was a key moment, which is referred to again and again in the novel. It made her completely vulnerable and reliant on him, in a way none of his conquests are, in a way he’s careful to make sure they never are. Which is what makes her the Great Exception.

Anyway, all this merry philosophising about sex is bookended with another encounter with people who want him to sign something. One of the editors of the magazine where he sent his ill-fated article about Oedipus calls him to a surreptitious meeting at a borrowed flat where Tomas is unnerved to encounter his own son, the one he rejected and walked away from after his divorce nearly 20 years earlier,

Over the space of several pages they try to persuade him to sign a petition they’re getting up among intellectuals to protest against the maltreatment of prisoners in prison. Again we are in the world of politics and coercion, as when the secret policeman met him. Only now there is this weird personal element of his son coercing him. Initially Tomas is minded to sign, but when they remind him of the Oedipus article which screwed up his life, he is reminded of what prompted him to write it. It was looking down in Tereza, as she lay in bed with a fever from the flu that kicked in within hours of her arriving at his flat, and made him think of pharaoh’s daughter looking down on Moses in the basket made of bullrushes. And so he went to his book of ancient legends and came across Oedipus, another abandoned child who is rescued… and one thing led to another.

And in a moment of insight Tomas realises she is still the defenceless babe in the basket and he must do nothing to endanger her. And he looks at the two men facing him and realises that nothing he signs or says or does will make the slightest difference to political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – but it might endanger his beloved. And so Tomas tells them he will not sign. He knows they won’t understand. He gets up and returns to the only woman he cares for… But, at the same time, unbeknown to him, the one who he is torturing to death with his ceaseless infidelities…

The petition is duly published. The signers are rounded up. The communist press denounces them as wreckers and saboteurs. On it goes, the endless cycle of repression. Tomas reflects on the history of the Czechs, their apparently bottomless ability to screw up their lives and politics. He ponders how one decision (to stand up for themselves) led to total defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) while the opposite decision (to be compliant to stronger powers, at Munich) led to total defeat by the Nazis. What is right? What is best to do? All alternatives seem to lead down to defeat.

If history were repeated multiple times we could try alternative answers and find out. But we can’t. Using these (not totally convincing arguments) Tomas concludes that History isn’t unbearable because of its crushing weight, but the opposite.

The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (p.223)

He’s been a windowcleaner for nearly three years, now. It’s gotten boring. The former patients no longer greet him with champagne and toasts. They just want their windows cleaned. The sight of intellectuals doing manual labour has become passé, and then embarrassing. And he is growing psychologically tired of all the sex. He can’t stop it, but it is wearing him out.

Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, get new jobs. She is obviously unhappy. He asks her why and she finally reveals that every day when he gets back from work she can smell other women’s private parts on his hair. Appalled, he makes to go and shower immediately but she says, It’s alright, she’s used to it and he is stricken with grief.

That night he wakes from a strange dream (lots of dreams in this book) about (alas) sex and the ideal woman, and wakens to find Tereza holding his hand, and vows to change.

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel, in fact one of the worst things Kundera ever wrote. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial.

In a great hurry Kundera progresses through an anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habits. Then Kundera picks up this idea of human faeces and runs with it via references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, the way they force a binary choice on us: that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

This leads him on to a meditation on the meaning of kitsch, which he takes to be the belief that the world is perfect, that it is a world without shit. (The general drift of this definition reminds me of his definition of angelic laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting i.e. that it is creepily unrealistic.)

Kundera then hurries on to rope in thoughts about ‘sentimentality’, defining sentimentality as The awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

And then moves on to claim that this kitsch is universal among all politicians. All politicians want to be seen with babies because they identify with the kitsch notion that human life is an unmitigated blessing. This is demonstrated by the time when Sabina, by now a famous artist and living in America, is driven by a US senator to an ice rink, where kids are frolicking and makes an expansive gesture with his arm as if to incorporate everything that is Good In Life. But Sabina has had a tough life and sees in his rinky-dink smile exactly the cheesy smiles of the Communist Parties smiling down at the smiling masses of the Communist Faithful as they march past on a May Day Parade. Totalitarian kitsch is a world in which everyone is smiling all the time because everything is so perfect. Anyone who asks a question or expresses a doubt must immediately be shipped off to the gulag because kitsch admits of no imperfections.

Which brings us to Franz and his need to be seen. Which prompts Kundera to explain the four categories of ways we need to be seen.

  1. People who long for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes. Actors.
  2. People who have a need to be seen by many known eyes. Cocktail party hosts.
  3. People who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.
  4. People who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

Franz is of this latter type and he undertakes the escapade which ends his life because of a futile sense that somehow, somewhere, Sabina the great love of his life is watching him.

This is a Mercy Mission to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 during which they managed to murder around a million of their fellow citizens, about a quarter of the population, in order to create their peasant-Marxist utopia. Communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 and expelled the Khmer Rouge, setting up their own puppet government.

In the novel a group of French doctors decide to mount a mercy mission by going to Thailand and marching to the Cambodian border and demanding admission. Soon the mission snowballs as a load of American intellectuals and actresses get involved. The French fall out with the Americans, the Americans are offended, can’t everyone see their motives are pure.

I think this entire episode is a rare example of Kundera striking a false note. The entire thing is meant to satirise the sentimentality of the liberal West and its obsession with Grand Marches and Noble Gestures, but… the horror of the Khmer Rouge seems, to me, too serious a setting for Kundera’s satire. It’s as if he was making facile or footling nit-picking pseudo-philosophical points in Auschwitz or Katyn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you can laugh at more or less anything, I have no politically correct objection to universal mockery. But some things you can only laugh at if it’s a really, really, really good joke, sufficiently funny to outweigh your knowledge of the horror – and Kundera tying together the superficial narcissism of western protests, silly Hollywood actresses and snotty French intellectuals with…. the horrors of the Pol Pot regime – this strikes me as the first wrong step he’s taken in the five books of his I’ve read.

Kundera tries to redeem what even he may have suspected was forced material by piling in ‘tragic’ material about his characters. In particular we now learn that the son, Simon, who Tomas abandoned early on in the novel is now all grown up and is also working as a farm labourer. He starts writing letters to Tomas in which he explains that, in protest at the regime, he left an academic career and married a devout wife and became a Christian. Simon and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, Simon hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind Tomas and Tereza’s deaths being reported at one remove like this, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task. We barely know him before he is carrying the freight of having the deaths of our two beloved central characters die.

Similarly, the Grand March of the French doctors and American celebrities to the Cambodian border descends into farce, that much was predictable. But there’s another oddly false note, when one of the hundreds of photographers accompanying the self-important marchers, steps off the road and onto a land mine and is blown to pieces, his body parts spattering all over one of the banners the Grand Marchers are carrying. Initially dazed, they look up and then… feel a surge of pride.

Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upwards and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march. (p.265)

That feels to me like bollocks. Satire has to have an element of truth to work, and this just feels to me like pure fantasy. Can you imagine a Hollywood actress being spattered by the blown-up body parts of a press photographer, then slowly breaking into a smile? It felt like Kundera was forcing his characters to fit his thesis and they snap.

Same with Franz. The Grand Marchers finally arrive at the border, and stand at one end of the slim bridge over the river which forms the border, staring across it into Cambodia. Everyone knows snipers are watching on the other side, and will shoot at the slightest provocation.

The interpreter calls out three times (as in a fairly tale) for the other side to let the doctors in, but each time there is only an ominous silence. Then the Marchers pack up and march back to their jumping off point, catch the bus back to Bangkok, and go off to restaurants or brothels as their tastes dictate.

It was a fiasco. But for me it doesn’t work as satire because it doesn’t contain any kernel of truth, it feels like contrived fantasy from start to finish. And then Franz is walking along a side street when he is mugged, smacked on the head and thrown into a deep hole where he breaks his back and blacks out. When he comes to, he is in hospital in Geneva unable to move his body or head and staring up into the benevolent eyes of the wife he abandoned. She is thrilled, because she is having her revenge, because

a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her suffering! (p.275)

Maybe he’s just dramatising Marie-Claude’s feelings, here, but this still feels like utter bollocks. Contrived and glib. Franz wastes away and dies, full of hatred for his wife, and to her great delight.

It feels like this entire section was written by someone else, by someone parodying Kundera’s approach of throwing together historical, social cultural, psychological and philosophical elements and threading them together with fictional characters and who…. has somehow got it profoundly wrong.

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

Which is why the final part is a relief. It follows Tomas and Tereza’s life once they move out of Prague and become agricultural labourers. Admittedly communism has destroyed the old rural ties, closing the village hall, and banning church attendance and cancelling the traditional holidays. But Tomas and Tereza don’t mind and he takes to driving a tractor with gusto and she tends the cows and heifers with real affection.

At moments it’s almost like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, and are merely machines; and this view is compared with Nietzsche, who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin) along with plenty more philosophising on his own account:

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. (p.289)

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not man, Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are long-time outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man. (p.296)

And much more in the same vein.

In among all these lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas -being a doctor – is forced to put him out of his misery with a lethal injection.

This event prompts a series of reflections about humanity and animals: that the measure of humanity is how it treats the absolutely helpless i.e. animals, and that in this respect humankind has undergone an absolutely catastrophic debacle. Our contact with animals was the last thread attaching us to Paradise, and look how we treat them. Factory chickens. Veal calves. Hormone-pumped cattle. Vivisection. How many rabbits have been blinded by mascara or beagles forced to smoke themselves to death?

So it’s no surprise how we treat each other. Kundera emerges from this final section as a vehement Animal Liberationist (reminding me of the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee).

This last section, about Karenin wasting away and dying, and how they eventually, finally, have to put him down and then jointly bury the little doggy corpse, is pretty obviously designed to be tear-jerking, the dog’s final hours and last whimpers, and then how they bury him in the garden in a plot chosen by Tereza, designed to wring the last drop of feeling from the sensitive reader.

But what made me cry was how, at long, long last, Tereza was finally reconciled with Tomas. She comes across him hiding letters and once again the old gnawing doubts bite into her. But then, one day, he reveals that they’re letters from his son who has become a Christian and works on the land not far away. Inevitably, they discuss his son more as an intellectual example of conversion to faith (given his mother was a rabid communist), than as a person – but the point is that Tereza finally realises that Tomas’s days of unfaithfulness are over. Finally, they are completely together. Finally her years of anxiety-jealousy nightmares can end.

And the book ends with them accompanying the jovial old director of the collective farm, and a young farm hand whose dislocated shoulder Tomas has fixed, to the nearest town where they get drunk and dance to the ludicrous accompaniment of an ageing pianist and equally old violinist, till they fall into bed together, finally, at last, HAPPY.

Thoughts

To read a Milan Kundera novel is to be bombarded with so many ideas about love and sex and marriage and fidelity and psychology and religion and politics that it’s difficult to keep them all in your head. Some will stick, some will go in one ear and out the other. Some kind of diagram would be needed to store them all and work out their web of interrelations.

They are dazzling, awesome intellectual feats of thinking, imagination and writing. But the downside is it can sometimes feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia; or a highly erudite author’s commonplace book where they’ve jotted down every thought and notion that’s ever occurred to them – and the concocted characters and a narrative which allows him to insert them at regular intervals.

I found it ultimately a very moving book, as mentioned above for the simple reason that we follow Tomas and Tereza’s story for longer, in more depth, and with more sympathy, than any of his previous characters. And because it ends with emotional closure, with them going to bed happy and contented so the reader can close the book with a big smile on their face.

But I also regularly experienced Idea Fatigue at quite a few places, where I just felt overwhelmed by yet another page of graceful and witty fancies and hypotheses, theories and thoughts, opinions and asides. It is possible to have too many postulates and paradoxes per page, in fact:

Questionable wisdom

Saul Bellow coined the term ‘reality instructor’ for people who take it upon themselves to explain what life is really like, what it really means. This kind of lecturing is a quintessential part of Kundera’s style. I think in small doses it can be very illuminating, but the more you read, the more you have the sense of being harassed.

An author can discuss philosophy without being a philosopher, psychology without being a psychologist. On the one hand it gives them the freedom to play with ideas and spin amusing and unusual insights. On the other hand, their little lessons risk lacking depth or evidence – of resting, ultimately, on assertion, often on rhetorical tricks, on paradox and wit, more than evidence. Here are some examples:

Dreaming is not merely an act of communication (or coded communication, if you like); it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that has a value in itself. Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs. (p.59)

Is that true? Or does it just sound like it’s true?

The only serious questions are the ones that a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions  are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. (p.139)

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

An important point to make about all this intellectualising and philosophising is that… none of it is difficult. It’s clever… but none of it is hard to understand, if you pay attention.

If you think of the tradition of learnèd wit, epitomised by Tristram Shandy, in which the narrative is buried in spoof footnotes and fake academic papers and sermons and all sorts of other texts interrupting the story… Kundera is not like that. By intellectual, we don’t mean he literally references academic papers or abstruse findings. The opposite. Most of his reflections are very middle brow. Referencing the Garden of Eden or quoting Descartes’ opinion that animals are just machines, these are either part of common lore or only a little beyond it. Intelligent A-Level standard. An A-Level student should have heard of Don Juan. Or Beethoven. Or Adam. These are not really obscure intellectual references.

And his core subject – sexuality, love, fidelity and betrayal, affairs and mistresses – hardly high-brow, is it? Not difficult to grasp. The opposite, in many ways all-too-easy to grasp.

Similarly, he’s surprisingly un-hypertextual. His texts aren’t clever constructions pieced together from diaries and journals and letters and newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts and so on. They are just meandering musings, all spoken in the same voice, his characters all speak in much the same way, and they certainly stop and reflect about the meaning of fidelity or political marches or nudity or art or music in the identical, same manner as each other and as the narrator.

For long stretches they seem like extended essays with characters thrown in. At other moments the characters get the upper hand and for a moment you forget the ideas in reading about them sympathetically.

God, it’s just so full, so rich, like a Christmas pudding, so full of so many ingredients it’s difficult to get a real grasp of, or give an adequate review of, because it’s impossible to hold so many ideas, incidents and events in your head at once. Inevitably, some bits will appeal more to some readers than others – the politics or the philosophy.

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is considered acceptable behaviour, especially around men and their speech and behaviour towards women. Sometimes, reading one of his countless reflections about ‘women’, it feels like a massive tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote about relations between the sexes seeming very dated.


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

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

‘A melancholy duet about the schism between body and soul’ (Milan Kundera in the Introduction)

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. When he was ten the Nazis annexed his country and imposed Nazi rule, when he was 16 the Russians liberated his homeland, and when he was 19 the Russians supported the February 1948 coup which brought a communist government to power. Initially, many of the brightest and best in the country celebrated a new era which promised to deliver a new world of freedom and justice and equality for all. Soon enough the government showed its Stalinist colours, rounding up not only conservatives and capitalists, big landowners, bankers and so on, but also socialist and liberal writers and critics. Hundreds of thousands were sacked from their jobs, around a hundred thousand were imprisoned and tens of thousands executed as spies and traitors and saboteurs, including friends and colleagues of Kundera’s.

After putting up with nearly twenty years of oppressive rule, in late 1967 and early 1968 rising protests against the regime was met by a new, more liberal generation of party leaders, who set about loosening communist policy, reining back the dreaded secret police, and allowing a flowering of expression and political criticism in the media, newspapers, radio and TV, and among artists and writers. Which all became known as ‘the Prague Spring’.

The growing political, economic and cultural liberalism of Czechoslovakia led to fears that it might be about to leave the Soviet-backed security and economic alliances, and that its example might undermine Russia’s grip on all Eastern Europe. So in August 1968 some 500,000 Russian and other eastern bloc soldiers rode tanks into Czechoslovakia, occupying all the cities and strategic points, overthrowing the liberal government and reinstalling a hardline Stalinist regime. Over a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country, and another massive wave of repression and punishment threw an entire generation of professionals out of their white collar jobs, forcing them into menial labouring jobs.

Kundera, just turning 40, was among this group. Back in 1948 he had been an enthusiastic communist, joining the party when still at school. He welcomed the 1948 coup and the arrival of a new world, and went, as a student, to study film at university. But his outspoken wit and anti-establishment stance got him in trouble with the authorities and he was expelled from the party in 1950. After a hiatus in his studies, he was, however, readmitted to the university, completed his studies in 1952, and was appointed a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 he was readmitted to the Communist Party. For the next ten years he was a dutiful communist and academic.

Kundera played a peripheral role in the Prague Spring, looking on as his students went on strike, organised meetings and rallies, devised slogans which they printed on posters and banners and carried on marches and spray-painted on the walls of the capital. But even after the Russians invaded, he continued to defend the Communist Party, engaging in polemical debate with more thoroughly anti-communist intellectuals, insisting that the communist regime was capable of reform in a humanist direction.

Only in the early 1970s, as it became clear that the new hardline government was imposing an inflexibly authoritarian regime, did Kundera finally abandon his dreams that communism could be reformed. In 1975 he moved to France, taking a teaching job at Rennes, then moving on to Paris. He was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, and legally became a French citizen in 1981.

By the 1980s, when his novels began to become widely popular in the West, Kundera had, in other words, been on a long gruelling journey of personal and intellectual disillusionment.

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

This all explains why, although the main action of the novels is often set contemporaneously – in the later 1960s and 1970s just before they were published – their root is in that 1948 coup. Again and again, in all of his books, he returns like a soldier revisiting the scene of his post-traumatic stress disorder, to the primal trauma of the revolution (in The Farewell Party, Jakub – a key character – describes it as the obsession of someone who’s been in a bad car crash to endlessly relive the trauma). Again and again he examines all its aspects, reliving the jubilation and sense of emotional awakening he and his generation experienced, and then – in the rest of the text – generally delineating the long, grim consequences the advent of communist rule had on so many people and so many aspects of life.

So Kundera’s work is characterised by his obsessive return, again and again, to relive aspects of the coup and re-examine what it meant, recasting the events as fable, fairy tale, allegory, in a host of genres and forms, in order to try and work through what was for him, the primal imaginative and psychological trauma.

Cynicism and the absurd

There’s no-one as cynical as a disillusioned revolutionary. All Kundera’s books bespeak an immensely jaded cynic, with a bitter view of human nature. What makes them interesting is he keeps his corrosive cynicism under control, and deploys it strategically to dramatise and emphasise his plots. What I mean is – he will often create one particular character who is extremely jaded and disillusioned and cynical, and let that character give full vent to (what we can guess is) Kundera’s own bitterness, against optimism, against utopian politics, against idealistic revolutions, against unimaginative party apparatchiks who carry out orders without reflecting. BUT – these characters are often set in juxtaposition with other characters, often with sunnier, happier outlooks, and often the cynical characters are proved to be completely wrong.

So he creates dramatic structures in which his bitter cynicism can be forcefully expressed but is always careful to balance and control them with other points of view. Eventually, as we shall see in our analysis of The Joke, what emerges is less cynicism as such, than an all-consuming sense of the utter absurdity of human existence: that nobody’s intentions come out as they mean them to, that all human perceptions, understandings, analyses and goals are absurd.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean bleakly, nihilistically absurd. it can mean ridiculously, comically, even light-heartedly absurd.

The personal and the private

If the communist government could nationalise entire industries, dispossess the rich of their belongings, collectivise the farms, determine what jobs each citizen is allotted, take over control of all newspapers, radio and TV, and monitor everything every citizen published or wrote, even in private letters and diaries – the one area of life it could not easily control was the citizens’ love lives, in particular their sex lives.

Sex plays a huge role in Kundera’s fiction, on one reading it is arguably his central theme, and some of his descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are immensely powerful and erotic. And, if you are a card-carrying feminist, I can see how the unrelenting emphasis on the predatory sexual stance of almost all the male characters can become claustrophobic and, eventually, oppressive. I am a heterosexual man, and I have gotten a little tired of the way all of the male characters are obsessed with sex, and with very straightforward, vanilla, penetrative sex, at that. Many elements of his obsession with male predatory sexuality now seem very, very outdated to modern readers.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that sex performs two other functions in Kundera’s fiction.

1. Given that it was impossible for citizens of Czechoslovakia to write or publish what they felt, to write poems or plays or novels or stories that wouldn’t be censored by the authorities, let alone make films or TV documentaries or radio programmes, or even put on festivals or meetings which didn’t go unmonitored by the authorities – given that almost all forms of expression were banned or heavily censored and controlled – then sex – the sexual encounter between a man and a woman (that’s all it ever is in Kundera’s traditional mindset) can be a theatre of the intellect and the emotions, a place where all kinds of thoughts and moods and opinions which are utterly banned in the public sphere can be expressed in the private realm of the bedroom.

2. But the most dominant idea which emerges is Kundera’s fundamental concept of absurdity, the absurdity of the human condition. When I mentioned to a friend that I was rereading all of Kundera, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s so sexy, so erotic!’ But the odd thing is that, studying the texts, you realise that many of the sexual couplings which take place are actually quite repugnant. In several of the novels men force themselves on women who are very very reluctant to have sex. There is at least one instance of brutal gang rape. And most of the other couplings take place between people who have ludicrously misjudged each other’s intentions. A good example of which lies at the heart of The Joke.

The Joke – structure and style

The Joke was Kundera’s first novel. The end page states that it was finished in December 1965, when Kundera was thirty-six i.e. it is not a young man’s book, it has been long meditated on. In fact, towards the end, the protagonists’ age itself becomes a topic of reflection, see below.

The Joke is divided into seven parts which are listed on the Contents page.

  1. Ludvik (10 pages)
  2. Helena (10 pages)
  3. Ludvik (84 pages)
  4. Jaroslav (34 pages)
  5. Ludvik (40 pages)
  6. Kostka (30 pages)
  7. Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena (58 pages)

Which tells us straightaway the names and genders of the main protagonists, and that the main figure is going to be Ludvik, who has more appearances, and more pages devoted to him (134 of the book’s 267 pages), than all the others put together.

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

The sections are named like this because each one presents a narration in that character’s voice, and Kundera makes an obvious effort to distinguish their voices. Ludvik, for example, is self-centred and factual in his approach. Helena’s style is immediately different, in that her sentences are made up of numerous clauses which all run into each other. Maybe this is an attempt to capture a more ‘feminine’ stream of consciousness, and noticing this reminds me of James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. However, Kundera is a very different writer from Joyce.

Joyce had a miraculous, Shakespearian grasp of the infinite range of the English language and, in Ulysses, made it explode into a multi-coloured firework display, melting and reforming words and phrases, and mixing them with other languages to create an extraordinary verbal extravaganza.

Kundera is the opposite. His language is pretty flat and boring. Maybe this is the fault of the translation, but I don’t think so. No, the interest of the book doesn’t stem from the words but from:

  1. a complex, farcical and thought-provoking plot
  2. from the complex interplay of the handful of characters caught up in the plot
  3. but most of all from what the characters think about the events they’re caught up in and activate; the characters are endlessly reflecting, thinking, pondering and analysing their motives

…because Kundera is not a descriptive writer but an intellectual, analytical author

This is what it means to say that Kundera is an intellectual writer. We barely find out what any of his characters look like (having read to the end of the book I have no clue what Ludvik actually looks like, what colour his hair or eyes are, whether he’s tall or short or fat or thin).

1. Analysis Instead we are incessantly fed with what the characters are thinking. And their thinking almost always takes the form of analysis. Even when they’re thinking about their love lives – and they spend most of their time thinking about their love lives – they are thinking about them in an analytical way. When they think about other people, even their supposed beloveds, the people they’re married to or in love with or planning to have an affair with – they tend to think of them as categories of person, as types which fit into certain typologies, and must be managed and handled as types.

Thus Ludvik thinks of Zemanek as The Betrayer and of Zemanek’s wife, Helena, as Instrument For Revenge, and remembers Lucie as being Ideal Pure Femininity.

2. Deconstruction But the book is intellectual in another way, which is that the entire story has been dismantled and analysed out into separate elements. The text itself is made up of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. As the index indicates, Kundera conceived a story – then he dismantled it into a set of disparate narratives given from the points of view of four main characters. Like a forensic scientist investigating a complex chunk of organic matter by submitting it to a set of procedures designed to identify the basic elements which make it up.

3. Multiple points of view So, although – as per point 1 – all the characters tend to think of each other as types or categories – the use of multiple points of view almost always undermines their analyses, showing just how wrong they are. Thus it’s only about page 100, when we first hear from a completely different character outside Ludvik’s worldview, Jaroslav, that we see things from a completely different perspective and learn that Ludvik is not the master narrator of events but is himself also a type – the Cynic, the Man Who Abandoned Folk Music For The Revolution – and a type very much caught up in events, misunderstanding and misreading other people.

In some ways the heart of the book only comes with the thirty pages devoted to the character named Kostka, where we see the world through his eyes and gain a completely different perspective on Ludvik’s history, and on his pivotal relationship with Lucie, showing the Ludvik was completely wrong in everything he thought about his one true love.

Thus:

  1. not only do the characters obsessively analyse their own motives and other peoples’
  2. and the narrator analyses his characters’ analyses
  3. but also, by juxtaposing characters’ analyses against each other, Kundera performs a further level of analysis, a kind of meta-analysis of the analyses

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

The book is set around the time it was published, the mid 1960s. But to understand it you have to realise that its roots lie 15 years earlier, at the period of the 1948 Communist coup and its immediate aftermath.

The fateful postcard

To be precise, the summer of 1951. Ludvik Jahn is one of the generation of young students caught up in the idealism generated by the Communist Party’s seizure of power and he is still a staunch communist, but also an intellectual and wit and joker. In his circle of friends is a particularly po-faced and unimaginative woman student named Marketa. She never gets any of their gags or references, which tempts her friends to spin all kinds of jokes on her, for example the time they were all down the pub and Ludvik invents the notion that the hills of Bohemia are home to a shy and elusive race of trolls – which Marketa accepts with open mouth and wide eyes.

So when she goes away to summer labour duty, helping with the harvest, as all young zealous communists do, and when she sends him a series of letters each more po-faced and staunchly patriotic and communist than the last, Ludvik decides to pull her leg by scribbling a quick postcard with the sentiments most guaranteed to shock her, namely:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The card is intercepted on the way to Marketa’s camp. The authorities call her in for questioning. Then Ludvik is called into a kangaroo court where he slowly realises that his quick jeu d’esprit is being interpreted in the most sinister way possible. How long have you been an agent for enemy powers, his interrogators ask him. With horror he realises that merely making a joke, of any kind, is – to these people – an insult to the 100% earnest, patriotic, communist fervour required from the entire citizenry.

Things reach a peak of horror when he is hauled before a roomful of his peers at the university, fellow students and communist party members. Ludvik is briefly heartened when he learns the chair is to be his good friend and fellow wit Zemanek. However, Zemanek rises and gives a thrilling and brilliantly damning indictment of Ludvik, kicking off by quoting the prison diaries of a young communist, Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured and executed by the Nazis but who died knowing he gave his life for a noble cause. Having let that sink in among the tearful audience, Zemanek then comes to another text, and reads out Ludvik’s postcard. At which point Ludvik realises he is lost. When it comes to a vote, 100% of the arms of his friends and colleagues stretch up to expel him from the university and from the communist party.

In those heady revolutionary times, Kundera explains, it was thought that human beings had a fixed inner essence and that that essence was either for the Party and with the Party, or it was against. Black or white. And a single slip, a chance remark, in a conversation or article or meeting – might suddenly reveal the terrible fact that you were not for the Party. And just that one slip revealed to all the party zealots, to the police and to all society who you really were. Just one slip of the tongue, and you were categorised and condemned for life as an enemy of the people. You would be fired from your job, unable to get a new one, all decent respectable people would shun you.

(Reading Kundera’s bitter and extended explanation of how the young, clever, intellectual communist zealots of this day took a fierce delight in policing everyone’s speech and writing, and pouncing on the slightest example of unrevolutionary sentiments… the reader can’t help reflecting that this is exactly the fierce, young university student zeal which drives modern political correctness.)

In the mining camp

It was only the fact that Ludvik was a student that had exempted him from military service. Now he’s kicked out of university, he is immediately conscripted straight into the army and, because of his misdemeanour, into a punishment battalion which works in the coal mines.

There follows a long passage describing the grim lives of the coal miners and the barbed-wire-encircled barracks they live in. Slowly Ludvik gets to know the other criminals and ‘social deviants’. I like prison camp memoirs (the twentieth century was, after all, very rich in them; the prison camp memoir is a major twentieth century genre) and I found this extended section powerful and moving. For the first time Ludvik is forced to pay attention to the lives and fates of people outside himself, and to sympathise with their plights.

Once a month they all get a pass to go into town on a Saturday night and spend the money they’ve earned in the mine, getting pissed and shagging the local prostitutes. Ludvik describes this in some detail.

But then he also describes meeting a shy girl who is different from the rest and who he conceives something resembling true love for, a young woman named Lucie Sebetka. He can only meet her once a month, and comes to project all his sensitivity and soulfulness onto her, turning her into an image of frail purity.

But Ludvik is a man – and a man in a Milan Kundera novel – so sex is ever-present in his mind and it isn’t long before he wants to – needs to – possess her, and make her his.

This sequence is written very convincingly, the way Ludvik’s thoughts slowly morph from worshiping Lucie’s purity to needing to possess it. Thus, on several successive dates – spread months apart – he tries to have sex with her, despite her refusing, clenching her legs together, pushing him off, and bursting into tears.

Maybe it’s because I’m so much older than Ludvik (he is, after all, only 20 at the time) or because I’ve read so many hundreds of accounts of #metoo-type rapes and assaults – but I quickly suspected that she had been abused earlier in her life and this explains her paradoxical behaviour: she loves Ludvik, she brings him flowers, she visits the camp and says hello to him through the wire mesh – in every way she is devoted to him; and yet on the two occasions where he manages to engineer meetings (at some risk – for the second one he manages to escape through a hole in the wire, and devise an elaborate set of arrangements whereby he borrows the bedroom of a civilian miner he’s befriended down the mines for just one evening) she is OK kissing, and sort of OK taking her clothes off but… absolutely and completely refuses to go any further, driving Ludvik into paroxysms of frustration, and then into a fiery rage.

He eventually shouts at her to get out and throws her clothes at her. She dresses and leaves in tearful silence. Ludvik waits an appropriate period of time, goes back downstairs to find the friendly miner has got a few mates round and they’re all a bit drunk, so he regales them with an entirely fictional account of what wonderful championship sex he’s just had with his girlfriend, before riskily sneaking back into the camp, and going to bed in his miserable bunk.

He never sees Lucie again – on his next furlough he discovers she’s simply left the dormitory she was sharing in with two other girls and left no forwarding address – but he never stops being haunted by her memory.

His mother dies while he’s doing his time and when it’s finally over, he is so heartlost and forlorn, that he signs up for another three years hard labour. The loss of Lucie – the stupid bungling lust of that one night – plunges him into years of ‘hopelessness and emptiness’ (p.104).

The Revenge

It is fifteen years later. We are in the mind of plump, middle-aged Helena. She is fed up with her husband Pavel and his philandering. She hates the petty bickering at work – she works in a government radio station. She resents all the fuss they made when she got some little hussy who she discovered was having an affair with a married man, sacked from her job. All her staff rounded on her, some even muttering ‘hypocrite’. But what do they know about all the sacrifices she’s made for the Party? And for her country? And for Truth and Justice?

OK, she herself flirts with younger men but that is completely different. And anyway, now she has met the love of her life, a wonderful heartfelt passionate man named Ludvik. And he has invited her for a trip out of Prague, to a town in the country where there is an annual folk festival. She has combined business with pleasure, as she’ll cover the festival for her radio station (accompanied by a loyal young puppy of a sound engineer named Jindra) but her real motivation for going is that Ludvik has told her he can’t contain his passion any more and must have her. She is thrilled to her fingertips. She has brought her best underwear.

And so she proceeds to check into the hotel in this rural town and then to meet Ludvik. It is only half way through this passage, and half way through the book (on page 151) that we casually learn that her last name is Zemanek. When I read that sentence I burst out laughing and everyone on the tube carriage looked at me. Yes, Zemanek, the name of Ludvik’s smooth-talking friend who was the first to betray him and led the meeting which had him expelled from university and the party, who ruined his life.

Now Ludvik is taking his revenge. Having eventually returned to Prague and found white collar work he is suited for, he one day meets Helena who comes to interview him for her radio programme and her surname makes him perk up. He does background checks and establishes she is the wife of his persecutor and contrives for them to have another meeting, at which he uses all his wiles to seduce her. The seduction proceeds apace and is now due to reach its climax in his home town, the setting of the annual folk festival.

And the heart of the novel (arguably) is this grand, staged, ceremonial act of sexual intercourse between the aggrieved Ludvik and his blissfully ignorant, plump adorer, Helena. It is described in great detail and is, I suppose, very erotic.

The two standout features of Ludvik’s technique are 1. He insists she strip naked for him, until she is standing there before him, starkers – without pulling the curtains or turning off the light. She is initially reluctant but eventually strips, and this has the psychological effect of making her truly really completely accept the reality of the situation. Rather than hiding under a blanket and letting something unspeakable happen to her, she is made completely complicit, willing and responsible for the act of sex.

Number 2 is that half way through coitus, Ludvik gets carried away and slaps Helena and, to his and her amazement, she likes it, it makes her howl louder, so he slaps her again, and soon he is slapping her face at will, then turns her over and spanks her big wobbly bum, while she howls and groans in ecstasy.

All very erotic, and written with an intense erotic charge, but – as I’ve emphasised above – also all wildly absurd. Because the forced stripping and the beating unleashes in Helena a deeper level of erotic experience than she could ever have imagined possible, with the result that her love and adoration of Ludvik goes from high on a normal counter, to off the scale, into slavish, super-deotional Shades of Grey territory.

BUT, as the process unfolded, Ludvik found himself more and more overcome with disgust and hatred. With the result that, once they are totally spent, Helena can’t keep her arms off him, is all over him, kisses him all over his body, while Ludvik, thoroughly repulsed and now ashamed of himself, shrinks like a starfish at her touch, and only wants to get dressed and flee.

So the idea of the joke has multiple levels. It refers to:

  1. the original joke postcard that Ludvik sent
  2. and this elaborate ploy he sets up to ravish, ransack and steal from his bitter enemy, everything that he (the enemy) loves (p.171)

However, there is more to come. Namely that Ludvik makes the tactical error of asking Helena to tell him more about her husband. He does this for two reasons a) he wants to hear more about their deep love, so he can savour the idea that he (Ludvik) has ravaged it, b) it will stop Helena pawing and fawning all over him.

What he hadn’t at all anticipated was that Helena proceeds to tell him that her marriage to Zemanek is over. Zemanek doesn’t like her. He has been having affairs. They have ceased living as man and wife. True they share the same house, but they have completely separate lives.

In a flash Ludvik’s entire plan turns to ashes, crashes to the ground. It has all been for nothing. Worse, Helena now enthusiastically tells Ludvik that now she can announce to Zemanek that she has a lover of her own, and he can go to hell with all his pretty dollybirds because she, Helena, has found the greatest, truest love of her life.

Appalled, Ludvik finally manages to make his excuses, plead another appointment and leave.

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

The book is so long and rich and complex because there are several other distinct threads to it. One of these is about Czech folk music. It turns out that the provincial town where this folk festival is taking place is also Ludvik’s home town. As a teenager he played clarinet in the town’s folk ensembles and was deeply imbrued with the folk tradition. He became very good friends with Jaroslav, a big gentle bear of a man, who emerged as a leader of the town’s folk musicians and a one-man embodiment of the tradition.

Jaroslav’s monologue allows Kundera to go into some detail about the Czech folk tradition, what it means, why it is special, and the impact the communist coup had on it. Surprisingly, this was positive. After all the Czechs were forced to copy the Stalinist model of communist culture – and this emphasised nationalist and folk traditions, while pouring scorn on the ‘cosmopolitianism’ of the international Modernist movement, then, a bit later, strongly criticised the new ‘jazz’ music coming in from the decadent West.

The communist government gave money to preserve folk traditions and to fund folk traditions like the one taking place on the fateful weekend when Ludvik and Helena are visiting his home town. Jaroslav is not backward in expressing his contempt for Ludvik, who abandoned all this to go to the big city, who turned his back on the true folk tradition to celebrate a foreign, imported ideology. Once best friends, they haven’t met for many years, and Jaroslav in particular, harbours a deep grudge against his former band member.

Jaroslav describes in some detail the ‘Ride of the King’ which is the centrepiece of the festival, when a young boy is completely costumed and masked to re-enact the legend of the almost solitary ride of an exiled king in the Middle Ages. It is a great honour to be chosen to play the ‘king’ and Jaroslav is thrilled that his own son was selected by the committee to play the king.

Admittedly the ride itself, as witnessed through the eyes of both Jaroslav and Ludvik, is a rather shabby and tawdry affair. The authorities don’t even close off the main street so the characters dressed in bright traditional costumes and riding horses, are continually dodging out of the way of cars, lorries and motor bikes. And the crowds are the smallest they’ve ever been. (At this point you realise this novel is set in the early 1960s, as radio-based rock and roll was just coming in, as the Beatles were first appearing – and the reader can make comparisons between this Czech novel lamenting the decay of traditional folk festivals, and similar books, describing similar sentiments, written in the West.)

Jaroslav puts a brave face on it all, decrying the horrible noisy modern world, insisting on the primacy and integrity of folk music and traditions and still beaming with pride that his son is riding on a horse through their town dressed as the King of the Ride.

Except he isn’t. Later on in the book Jaroslav makes the shattering discovery that his son has bunked off, gone off on a motorbike with a mate to a roadside café to drink and listen to rock’n’roll. And his wife knew all about it and helped cover it up, helped arrange the dressing up of a completely different boy, and then lied to Jaroslav!

No greater betrayal is conceivable. Stunned, the big man stands in their kitchen, while his wife faces their stove, continuing to fuss over the soup she’s making while her husband’s whole world collapses in ashes. Then, one by one he takes every plate on the dresser and hurls them at the floor. Then he smashes up each of the chairs round the table. Then he turns the table over and smashes it down on the pile of broken crockery. While his wife stands trembling at the cooker, crying into their soup. Then he leaves, dazed and confused, wandering through the streets, and beyond, out into the fields, out to the countryside and eventually sits down by the river which flows through the town, the Morava, then lies down, using the violin case he’s brought with him as a pillow. Lies and stares at the clouds in the sky, completely forlorn.

Kostka’s story

Kostka’s story comes toward the end of the novel, but it provides an important centre and touchstone. As you read it you realise that although Ludvik may be the central consciousness, he is powerfully counterbalanced by first Jaroslav and now Kostka.

Kostka was also of Ludvik and Jaroslav’s generation, the 1948 generation. But Kostka was and is a devout Christian. (Christianity, Christian faith and Christian terminology crops up throughout Kundera’s fiction. Readers [correctly] associate him with meditations on politics and communism, but Christian belief is also a substantial theme in his books.)

Kostka’s inflexible religious belief meant that he, too, eventually found it impossible to stay in university, though he differed from Ludvik in voluntarily quitting and being assigned to a state farm as a technical adviser (p.184) where, being highly intelligent and hard working, he was soon devising more effective ways to grow crops. It was then that a rumour spread about a wild woman of the woods, stories circulated about milk pails being mysteriously emptied, food left out to cool disappearing. It wasn’t long before the authorities tracked down the young woman to her shad shabby lair in a disused barn and brought her in for questioning.

It was Lucie, Ludvik’s pure young woman. This is what happened to her after their tragically failed night of sex, after he threw her clothes at her and told her to clear out. She did. She left her job and the dormitory she shared, and travelled across country sleeping rough, and ended up in a rural area, living off berries and food she could steal.

The authorities take pity on her and assign her to the communal farm. This is where she comes under the protection of Kostka. And very slowly we learn how she relaxes and opens up and tells him her story. As I had suspected, she was abused, to be precise as a teenager she hung round with a gang of boys and on one pitiful occasion, they got drunk and gang raped her. Even the quietest, sweetest boy, the one she thought was her special friend. He was the most brutal, to show off to his mates that he was a real man.

That is more than enough explanation of why she couldn’t give herself to Ludvik. It was precisely because what she needed wasn’t sex, but protection. In her mind, she was forcing Ludvik to conform to the role of Lover and Protector. Having sex destroyed that image which is why she couldn’t do it (over and above the sheer terror the act revived in her mind). And of course, in his mind she was pure and virginal, and he had worked himself up into a young man’s romantic state where he thought of her as especially his, and the act of love as a sacred blessing on the altar of her unsullied beauty.

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

In fact, we had been briefly introduced to Kostka right at the start of the novel because when he arrives back in his home town for the festival and to deflower Helena, Ludvik looks up one of the few friends he can remember in the place, Kostka, who is now an eminent doctor at the local hospital. In an amiable but distant way, Kostka agrees to loan Ludvik his apartment for an afternoon (for the fatal act of sex). It is only later, when they meet up that evening, that they share a drink and Kostka ends up telling him about his life.

Now Kostka remembers another meeting, by chance, on a train, in 1956. Kostka had been forced to quit the collective farm because of political machinations and had ended up becoming a labourer. First they shared the irony that two young men, both so idealistic about their beliefs, had both been dumped on from a great height by… by… by what? By ‘History’ is the best they can come up with. By the impersonal forces of society working to a logic nobody really understands, certainly nobody can control. In fact Ludvik was so incensed by the unfairness of Kostka’s fate that he moved heaven and earth and used all his old contacts, to get Kostka appointed to the hospital where he still works.

This is why Ludvik looks Kostka up when he arrives back in his hometown in the book’s ‘present’. This is why Kostka agrees to lend him his flat for the deflowering of Helena. And this is why, later that night, when the two old friends share a drink, Kostka tells Ludvik about Lucie, without realising he knew her: about the gang rape, the flight. How she found one man she could trust, a miner in a god-forsaken mining town. But how he, too, turned out to be just like all the rest. How she had turned up the collective farm all those years ago, how Kostka took her under his wing and how, despite himself, he too took advantage of her and began a sexual relationship with her – about which he now, older and wiser, feels cripplingly guilty.

Soon after this revelation, Kostka’s section ends and we are returned to the mind of Ludvik, in the present, walking back from Kostka’s flat late at night, and absolutely reeling. What? Everything he ever believed about Lucie, both during their ill-fated affair and for fifteen years since – turns out to be utterly, completely wrong (p.210).

Back to Helena

But there are still more acts to go in this pitiful black farce. For to Helena’s own surprise no other than her suave philandering husband, Pavel Zemanek, turns up for the festival. He is now a super-smooth and successful university lecturer, adored by his students for his fashionably anti-establishment (i.e. anti-communist) views. And he’s brought his latest student lover along, a long-legged beauty – Miss Broz – perfectly suited to Pavel’s stylish sports car.

Helena takes advantage of her recent mad, passionate coupling with Ludvik, to tell Zemanek that she’s met the love of her life, that she doesn’t need him any more, and generally take a superior position. She goes so far as telling Zemanek her marvellous lover’s name, Ludvik Jahn, and is puzzled when he bursts out laughing. Oh they’re old friends, he explains.

Helena recounts this all to Ludvik when they meet up the next morning, and it is all Ludvik can do to conceal his dismay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. And then a few hours later, in the throng of the bloody festival, in among the crowds packing the streets to watch the Ride of the bloody King, suddenly Zemanek emerges from the crowd, accompanied by his long-legged dollybird and Helena is introducing the two enemies, face to face for the first time in 15 years.

And, of course, whereas Ludvik is strangled by an inexpressible combination of rage and hatred, Zemanek is unbearably suave and cool, well dressed, well-heeled, hair well-coiffed, gorgeous student on his arm – unbearable! And doubly unbearable because he realises his revenge on Zemanek has not only failed, but epically, massively failed. Not only did he not ravish and desecrate the body of Zemanek’s beloved wife – because Zemanek doesn’t give a damn who his wife sleeps with – but Helena falling so deeply and publicly in love with him (Ludvik) has done Zemanek a big favour. For years Helena has been a burden round his neck – now at a stroke Ludvik has done him the favour of removing that burden!

Farce is laid over farce, bitter black joke on top of bitter black joke.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, yet another layer is added to the cake of humiliation – because as Ludvik is forced to swallow his rage and join in the polite chit-chat going on between Helena and Zemanek and Miss Broz, he realises something from the latter’s talk. As she witters on praising Zemanek for standing up to the authorities and bravely speaking out about this or that issue and generally becoming a hero to his students, Ludvik is subject to a really shattering revelation: the past doesn’t matter any more.

As she talks on Ludvik realises that, for her and her generation, all that stuff about 1948 and purges and executions and party squabbles and ideological arguments: that’s all ancient history – ‘bizarre experiences from a dark and distant age’ (p.232) which is just of no interest to her and her generation, who want to party and have fun.

Not only has Ludvik failed utterly to wreak his revenge on his old antagonist – but the entire world which gave meaning to their antagonism, and therefore to his act of revenge, has ceased to exist. He has been hanging onto a past which doesn’t exist anymore. It sinks in that the entire psychological, intellectual and emotional framework which has dominated his life for fifteen years… has evaporated in a puff of smoke. No one cares. No one is interested. It doesn’t matter.

Alone again with Helena, Ludvik lets rip. He tells her he hates her. He tells her he only seduced and made love to her to get his own back on her husband, the man who sold him down the river when they were students. He says she repulses him.

At first she refuses to accept it – she has just thrown away her entire life with Zemanek, the security of their house and marriage – for Ludvik and here he is spitting in her face. Eventually she wanders off, dazed, back to the village hall where she and her sound engineer, Jindra, have set up base to make their radio documentary. In a dazed voice, she says she has a headache and the engineer (still virtually a schoolboy, who has a puppy crush on Helena) says he has some headache tablets in her bag. She sends him out for a drink and then, rummaging in his bag, comes across several bottles full of headache pills. She takes two and then looks at herself in the mirror, at her fact tear-stained face, contemplating the complete and utter humiliation she has just undergone and the shattering of her entire life.

And, as she hears Jindra returning with a bottle from a nearby tavern, she hastily swallows down the entire contents of not one but all the bottles in the engineer’s bag. She emerges back into the hall, thanks him for the drink and writes a note. It is a suicide note addressed to Ludvik. She pops it in an envelope and scribbles Ludvik’s name on it and asks Jindra to track Ludvik down and deliver it.

Now, Jindra has got wind of Helena and Ludvik’s affair and was present when Zemanek and his student were introduced to them, so he knows Ludvik by sight. Reluctantly he goes off with the letter. The observant reader might notice that the story commences with a missive – a postcard – and is ending with another, though I can’t quite figure out the meaning of this – something about misunderstood messages.

Jindra fairly quickly finds Ludvik in the beer garden of the most popular pub in town. He grudgingly hands over the letter. Now a message from an angry upset Helena is about the last thing Ludvik wants to have to deal with and so, to delay matters, he invites Jindra to join him in a drink. He calls the waiter. He orders. The drinks arrive. They drink. They toast. The letter sits on the table unopened. I really enjoyed this little sequence.

Eventually and very reluctantly Ludvik opens the envelope and reads the message. He leaps out of his chair and demands to know where Helena is now. The engineer describes the village hall they’ve borrowed and Ludvik sets out at a run, zigzagging through the crowds and avoiding the traffic.

He makes it to the hall, bursts in and it is empty. Down into the cellar he goes, amid the cobwebs and detritus, yelling Helena’s name. No reply. They check every room on the ground floor, then realise there’s an attic, and find a ladder and go up there, Ludvik convinced at any moment he’ll see a mute body dangling from a rope. But no Helena – so another frenzied search reveals a door into a back garden, and they burst out into this quickly realising there is no body prone in the grass or hanging from the trees.

But there is a shed. Ludvik bounds over to it and beats on the door, which is locked. ‘Go away’ they hear Helena’s anguished voice, and Ludvik needs no bidding to kick open the door, smashing its flimsy lock to reveal…

Helena squatting on a toilet in agony, angrily begging him to close the door. Those headache pills? They weren’t headache pills. The puppyish engineer now sheepishly admits to both of them that he often gets constipated and so keeps a supply of laxatives ready to hand. Only he’s embarrassed about people seeing them so he keeps them in old headache pill bottles.

Ludvik steps back, surveys the situation and closes the door on Helena’s humiliation and stands lost, dazed, staggered. What… What is life about? What is the point? Could he be any more of an ironic plaything of Fate?

He walks away from the outside loo, from Helena and Jindra, back through the church hall, out into the hectic streets, along busy roads, across town to the outskirts, where the houses peter out, and on into fields, farmland, lanes and hedgerows and trees. Eventually he finds himself walking along beside the river Morava, and then makes out a figure lying down beside it. As he comes closer he is astonished to see it is his old friend and fellow musician, Jaroslav. He greets him and asks if he can sit down beside him.

And so the two lost men, their lives and their illusions in tatters, sit out in the empty countryside contemplating the absurd meaningless of existence…

Summary

The Joke is the longest of Kundera’s books, and also the most dense. The plot is intricate, ranging back and forth over the fifteen-year period and some of these periods are described in great detail, for example the long passage describing life in the miners’ punishment camp. As his career progressed, Kundera was to compress passages like this, making them ever shorter and punchier.

The Joke also feels dense because it includes large sections packed with very intellectual meditations – about music, folk music and Christian belief, as well as politics, communism, and human life considered from all kinds of angles. Kundera doesn’t hesitate to lard almost every action in the book with a philosophical commentary, some of which lift off from the text entirely to become stand-alone digressions in their own right.

And if it is a traditional form of literary criticism to describe the patterns in a novel’s narrative, particularly in terms of the growth and development of its characters – then you could easily do the same and analyse the patterns in Kundera’s deployment of ideas which, like the characters, seem plausible enough when you first meet them but then, slowly, over the course of the book’s intricate windings, themselves are undermined and contradicted. To put it another way – in a Kundera novel, the ideas have as many adventures as the ‘characters’.

It’s true there are a number of sequences acts of copulation and, more to the point, the male characters in particular, obsess about sex almost continually – which can, if you’re not careful, become very tiresome. But, as I hope I’ve shown, this focus on the private act of sex itself is continually opening up into more philosophical and psychological speculations about human nature. It’s as if sex, the sex act, is itself merely a stage on which much deeper philosophical and fictional questions can be raised and explored. There may be a fair amount of sex in the book, but if you look closely, you’ll see that hardly any of it is happy and fulfilling; most of it is fraught and tragic. Or tragi-comic.

And fundamentally, beneath the meditations on History and Communist power, beneath the stories of the individual characters and their worries and experiences and plans, and beneath the erotic layer of lust and sex which lards much of the book – at bottom the message, for me, is one about the complete Absurdity of human existence.

For me the message is that: Humans are the meaning-making animal, condemned to waste vast amounts of energy trying to find meaning and purpose in the grand narrative of their lives as much as in the slightest event or accident which occurs to them… But at the same time – because we are limited to our own very narrow points of view and relatively tiny number of lived experiences – our interpretations of the world and other people are more often than not howlingly inaccurate and ridiculously self-centred.

It is this mismatch between the will to understand, and the completely incomprehensible reality of the world, which is the Absurdity of the Human Condition. It’s all a big Joke.

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its ‘philosophy’ as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, when seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. (Introduction)

Because what if the ‘aberrations’ and ‘mistakes’ and miscarriages of justice aren’t aberrations from History at all? What if the aberrations and mistakes and miscalculations, which people are continually dismissing from their thoughts, are the norm? What if everything, if all human endeavour and effort, is one vast continual ongoing misunderstanding, just one big stupid joke? (p.240)

Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith: they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deed, people) and in the rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice.) Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. (p.245)

Another view

A friend of mine is mad about Kundera. She says I miss the point, or miss her point, about him.

Reading Kundera showed her that even the most grim and sordid events – the kind she was familiar with from her unbookish, working-class upbringing – can be redeemed by thought and imagination. Reading Kundera transported her into a world where even the most crude and barbaric behaviour was translated into intellectualism, into dazzling insights and memorable formulations. The act of reading Kundera was in itself an escape into the company of a highly educated, urbane, confident, man of the world, who could deploy ideas and quotes from the great names of European literature with a light touch, to bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of even the most mundane situations (two reluctant lovers groping in a shabby bedroom). He sprinkled a magic dust of insights and ideas over everything, making her realise that every minute of her day was just as capable of being analysed, just as susceptible to witty insights and psychological revelations. Reading him made her own life feel full of imaginative promise and intellectual excitement.

And she was dazzled by the way the reader feels they know the characters via their interiority, going straight to the heart of their affairs and dilemmas. She loves the way Kundera plunges you straight into their psychological depths and complexities. It doesn’t matter at all that they remain undescribed physical shadows, in fact it’s a big plus, it helps you focus all the more on their minds and characters.

As a woman she didn’t feel at all patronised by the focus on sex-driven male characters. After all, she grew up in a world of sex-driven men. What riveted her thirty years ago, when she first read Kundera’s novels, and has stayed with her ever since, was the revelation that even the most humdrum moments of the most humdrum lives can be transformed by the imagination and intellect into wonderful luminous ideas. This opened doors into a whole new way of thinking and helped inspire her go to university, and beyond.

It’s hard to think of a more moving and profound tribute to an author, which is why I include it here.


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

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

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Family Values: Polish Photography Now @ Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 is the foundation and gallery set up to promote art and culture from the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and the USSR.

The foundation as a whole is currently hosting a season titled Family Values: Polish Photography Now, a season of photography and events examining Polish visual culture from the second part of the 20th century through to the present day.

At the centre of the season sits the first exhibition devoted to Polish photography in the UK. The exhibition showcases the work of six photographers who all explore the themes of family and home and often, by implication, the nature of our familiar and social identities.

Zofia Rydet (1911 – 1997)

Having worked as a photographer in communist Poland since the 1950s, and gained some success, with exhibitions held and books published about her work, it was only in 1978, at the relatively advanced age of 67, that Zofia Rydet embarked on the monumental project that was to consume her until she died and to make her name.

She set out to make a photographic portrait of every person in Poland. (The population of Poland in 1978 was 38 million.)

Over the course of twenty years she photographed 20,000 people in their homes, the pace of the project only limited at the end by her increasing physical frailty. The work is known as the Sociological Record (1978 – 1997).

Installation view of photos by Zofia Rydet at Calvert 22

Installation view of photos by Zofia Rydet at Calvert 22

Much admired in Poland, Rydet is only now coming to wide international prominence. Her work – this vast sociological study – has never been seen in the UK before, and it is fascinating.

Most of the photographs were taken in the villages and towns of Podhale, Upper Silesia, and Suwalki. They are almost entirely portraits of children, men, women, couples, families and the elderly shot in their homes amid their familiar belongings.

She cajoled the participants into place and carefully arranged their belongings and possessions around them, subtle indicators of their everyday lives, random objects picked up on holiday or in shops, alongside religious icons and images which (we guess) have a much deeper meaning and power.

Rydet tended to photograph her subjects straight-on, using a wide-angle lens and a flash. The images are static, revealing, and somehow, at the same time, both bleakly realistic but also mysteriously moving.

Couples from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Couples from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Rydet broke the Sociological Record down into various sub-categories: TV Sets, Women on Doorsteps, Windows and Disappearing Professions. As you might expect, a key theme is The Family, and Rydet systematically photographed the family in all its possible permutations: men, women, children, married couples, teenagers, grandparents, babies, multiple generations simultaneously, the elderly and the infirm.

Children and Young People from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Children and Young People from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

The exhibition features 35 photos – just 35 from 20,000! – which take you across or through at least three barriers –

  1. into a communist country, with all that implies in terms of low standard of living and shoddy consumer goods
  2. into an East European country, specifically conservative Catholic Poland, with its distinctive culture
  3. back to the 1970s and 80s where TV had only just arrived, and plenty of people still lived in cabins with very traditional furnishings
Women from the Sociological Record series (1978 - 1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Women from the Sociological Record series (1978 – 1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Note in this photos the peculiar combination of what looks like an embroidered image of the Polish Pope,  John Paul II, hanging on the wall above tacky, blow-up plastic balloons of Hello Kitty and an inflatable telephone. Are these jokes? Or prized possessions of the relatively poor and unsophisticated?

Rydet presents you with loads of deadpan images which invite you, the viewer, to try and puzzle them out. They raise all kinds of questions and thoughts.

Here’s a YouTube video, entirely in Polish which I can’t understand, but which gives a generous sample of stills from Sociological Record.

Józef Robakowski (b.1939)

Józef Robakowski is a leading Polish artist not least because he was one of the first Poles to work with video. In 1981, the year that martial law was imposed in Poland, he was removed from his post as professor at the Film, Television and Theatre State Academy at Łódź.

Forced back on his own resources, Robakowski developed the idea of film-making called ‘personal cinema’. One of the key works in this genre is From My Window which does what it says on the tin. For over 20 years, from 1978 to 2000, Robakowski filmed what he could see out the kitchen window of his apartment.

Film still from From My Window (1978-1999) by Józef Robakowski. Courtesy AK/BRANICKA

Film still from From My Window (1978-1999) by Józef Robakowski. Courtesy AK/BRANICKA

Looking down into the square below, Robakowski’s camera records the daily activities of neighbours or passersby, as well as stray cats and dogs. His retreat into the world of the everyday represents a resistance to the conformist values imposed on Polish citizens by the communist regime.

But the film is also, fairly obviously, a kind of ‘alternative surveillance’, carried out not by the state but by a citizen with an acute eye for incident and composition. A different kind of surveillance. One which claims to be non-political and innocent but… can the human eye ever be innocent of intention and control?

Presumably Robakowski shot a lot of footage. It is represented in the exhibition by a 20 minute-long video which is both humdrum and strangely absorbing at the same time. If you slow yourself right down to Robakowski Time, it becomes beguilingly enjoyable.

Aneta Grzeszykowska (b.1974)

Aneta Grzeszykowska has been responsible for a varied and interesting body of photographic work. In Album (2005) she took over 200 photographs from her private family archive and used Photoshop to remove her own figure from each picture. In Untitled Portraits she used Photoshop to create detailed colour photos of people who don’t exist but are creations using Photoshop.

Untitled Film Stills (2006) was a homage to Cindy Sherman’s work of the same title, in which Grzeszykowska took 70 self-portraits, in each one made up and dressed to appear as a female ‘type’, from housewife to ballerina.

Black is a 15-minute video which starts with her naked body, in black and white, against a jet black backdrop, and slowly bits of it are painted or become black, so that bit by bit her whole body is blacked out, leaving last of all her face, and mouth and then – pop! – all gone.

Black. 2007, videostills

Black (2007) videostill

As a heterosexual man, it would be hypocritical not to mention the pleasure that the sight of a svelte naked young women gives me. It’s noticeable the way that the women artists who make a habit of stripping off generally are young, trim and svelte. ‘Isn’t this kind of counter to everything feminism stands for?’ I asked my woman friend. ‘No, you idiot,’ she replied. ‘The whole point is that the artist is choosing to do this, on her own terms, and thus is empowered by being naked in her own time and space, at her own volition, for her own purposes.’ Still looks a lot like a pinup to me, I grumbled as I walked on.

Grzeszykowska is represented in this exhibition by works from a series titled Negative Book. This is a further working of the ideas of presence and absence obvious in Album, along with the black and white palette from Black.

In Negative Book, Grzeszykowska has taken photos of scenes from family life – from an apparently random selection of ‘ordinary’ families – and printed the negative – a simple strategy which is, nonetheless, quite haunting. But she’s gone a long step further by including herself in each of the photos, as an interloper.

Negative Book #23 by Aneta Grzeszykowska (2012-2013) Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

Negative Book #23 by Aneta Grzeszykowska (2012-2013) Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

But here’s the real distinctive thing about these photos – whereas the ‘families’ and all their surroundings appear in negative, she herself appears in a strange kind of spectral ‘normality’. Her figure has a kind of spectral glow, but isn’t the same kind of ‘negative’ as the other figures. Takes a while to really register this.

Negative Book #46 (2012-2013) by Aneta Grzeszykowska. Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

Negative Book #46 (2012-2013) by Aneta Grzeszykowska. Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

It was only by reading the wall label that I learned that Grzeszykowska achieves the affect by painting herself black and white – so there’s a direct link with the film Black – but painting the white bits of herself black and the black bits of herself white.

Just in case we don’t grasp the verbal explanation there is a handy film showing her doing just that, once again, starting from complete nudity. ‘But…’ I turned to my friend. ‘God, men,’ she rolled her eyes and walked away.

Thus she paints her white body black, her black pubes and nipples and eyebrows white, wears a white wig as a negative of her own black hair, and so on. If there’s anything to notice about it stylistically it’s that the painting is done deliberately roughly, slapdash – not to create a scientifically precise effect.

Image result for Aneta Grzeszykowska negative process

And the final effect? For me, with an imagination saturated in the conflicts of 20th century history, I saw her negative photos as weirdly glowing, as if from the after effects of some great radioactive disaster. The first of the two from Negative Book, with the man holding a child, seemed to me like shots from a weird alien landscape, the first humans on an alien planet.

There’s a slideshow of images from Negative Book on YouTube.

Adam Palenta (b.1976)

Cinematographer and director Adam Palenta is a graduate of the Faculty of Radio and Television at the University of Silesia, the Academy of Fine Arts, now the University of Arts in Poznań and the Dok Pro documentary film programme run by the Wajda School.

He was awarded a Ministry of Culture and National Heritage Młoda Polska (Young Poland) scholarship in 2010 and has received numerous commendations and awards for his work, including the cinematography for the short feature, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark Room (2009).

He’s represented here by House on its Head. The film shows the family life of Wojciech Zamecznik (1923–1967), an architect, set designer and eminent poster artist, who made an immense archive of black and white home movies of his family life, meetings and trips with friends.

Palenta was given access to this huge archive and edited it together, incorporating graphic works and experimental materials, to complement the documentary material. The film provides not only an interesting perspective on the artist’s everyday life, but also a rare opportunity to watch simple family life in the communist Poland of the 1950s.

You can watch the entire film on YouTube.

Weronika Gęsicka (b.1984)

Gęsicka is a well-established contemporary Polish photographer. She is represented here by a series titled Traces. In her own words:

The project is based on vintage photographs purchased from an image bank. Most of these photos came from American archives from the 1950s and 1960s.

The photos include family scenes, vacation souvenirs, everyday life, all lit, styled and with a slightly washed-out colour palette reminiscent of those ‘Hey honey, I’m home’ 1950s postcards and adverts. Epitomes, in other words, of an idyllic, utopian vision of American suburban life.

Gęsicka has set out to undermine each of them using Photoshop-style technical manipulation, in highly imaginative and often humorous ways. Here is the archetypal American family at prayer before a Thanksgiving (?) Dinner except that… they are fading away.

Untitled #18 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Untitled #18 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

In other photos the people, but only the people, have turned into jigsaws, or have wooden structures instead of heads. My friend liked this one best, but all of them are very good, very imaginative, done with perfect style and taste.

Untitled #1 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Untitled #1 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Gęsicka says:

We know nothing of the actual ties between the individuals in the photographs; we can only guess at the truthfulness of their gestures and gazes. Are they actors playing happy families, or real persons whose photos were put up for sale by the image bank?

This question of identity and purpose may well trouble Gęsicka. ‘Identity’ is one of the buzzwords and buzz ideas of contemporary art.

And if you think for a minute, there is also an obvious influence from Surrealist art – the idea of jarring collages reminding me of no end of works by Max Ernst. Or, at least, Gęsicka’s works are highly reminiscent of Surrealist strategies.

But for the casual visitor and viewer, these ideas and connotations can be set aside. Her images work in themselves, refreshingly quirky, odd, and entertaining. It’s tempting to try and make up captions for some of them.

Gęsicka’s website has a gallery of images from the Traces series, and there’s also a YouTube slideshow.

Which one is your favourite?

Aneta Bartos

Nudes

If you do a Google Images search for Aneta Bartos you immediately discover that she’s taken a lot of soft porn or erotic photos. There’s her standing naked over another naked woman, there’s a suite of shots of a naked man holding his (impressively large) erect penis, two naked women on a bed, two naked women in the corner of a dilapidated room, one lying back against the other while the one behind has one arm across the other’s boobs, the other reaching down to cover her crotch, and so on.

Aneta Bartos online is a festival of nudity.

Self portrait by Aneta Bartos

Self-portrait by Aneta Bartos

As with so many women artists who decide to depict themselves naked, as with Aneta Grzeszykowska above, the woman in question is a) young b) thin c) unblemished, unmarked, perfect. Maybe she is asking questions about the border between art and porn but I’d have thought the answer is pretty simple: these photos are horny.

If we try to put sex out of our minds, the most obvious formal aspect of all these photos is their colour palette and setting. They are very brown and yellow, or sepia. There is little or no white light or black shadow. All the light is yellow, all the shadows are brown. And the locations have a consistent style and feel – dingy. Her nude figures are shot on bare beds, in rooms where the plaster or wallpaper is peeling, the opposite of pristine studio sets.

Naked young men and women, shot in pornographic attitudes, in a soft focus, heavily sepia filter.

Bartos’s dad

So much for Bartos’s internet presence. In this exhibition she is represented by half a dozen or so large prints from her project Family Portrait.

I happened to visit at the same time as a gallery official (a press officer?) was showing a journalist round and explaining each of the photographers’ works. She explained that Bartos’s father was a famous body-builder in Poland, who took part in competitions and publicity and tours.

As Bartos pursued her photographic studies, it dawned on both of them that he himself would make a good subject for study. Hence a series apparently titled Dad on her website which depict Papa Bartos in his jock strap, flexing his muscles in locations around the – presumably – family home, which appears to be in the countryside – here he is posing in fields, opening windows, by a railway track, kissing a sheep.

They have distinctive Bartos characteristics i.e. the isolated human subject is not wearing much, the whole palette is a washed out yellowy colour, and – as far as I can tell from the internet – almost all the photos are out of focus, presumably deliberately. The effect is to make the photos seem old and weathered, antiques, as if hazy memories of distant childhood.

Family Portrait

So, finally, to the dozen or so photos on display here: Family Portrait shows another selection of photos of her father (the solo subject of Dad), but this time with Bartos herself in the shots. It is a series of father and daughter photos. Double portraits.

As usual they are done with that very yellow tone, and all just out of focus. But what gives nearly all of them a rather unsettling tone is the way that Bartos is often as scantily clad as her father.

Mr Bartos the body-builder is just continuing to walk around in his jockstrap, as per normal, this we are used to – and in some shots Aneta is only wearing a bikini because, after all, it looks like summer wherever the photos were shot. Is the problem in your head if you find this a slightly salacious photo?

Lody, from the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

Lody, from the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

But it wasn’t me, it was the gallery official who pointed out to the journalist that many of the photos do seem to carry an unmistakable sexual or sensual overtone. In this one, a self-portrait with muscley Dad, Bartos doesn’t need to be wearing a bra and panties. The choice of clothes is sending a strong visual message.

From the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

Admittedly, in seven of the 23 photos from the series on her website, Bartos is wearing a traditional Victorian-style dress which completely covers most of her body, and even what is presumably a traditional head scarf, a restrained and ‘folk’ look which creates a completely different vibe. Is she playing the dutiful daughter of traditional Catholic Polish culture?

Scythe, from the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

Scythe, from the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

In which case, are all the other poses similarly play acting, role playing – in this one a sort of gangster’s moll or drunk hooker to Dad’s looming strong man?

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

The more you look, the more disconcerted you become. For me, once I’d become completely inured to the sexual element in the photos, I found myself thinking of them as explorations into the power of the photographic image itself.

Bartos is working with constrained subject matter – self-portrait with father – but creates an astonishing range of images with it. All the commentary I’ve read about them focuses – with lumpen inevitability – on the role of the female, on the way she’s playing with ‘gender roles’ within the ‘traditional family’, with ‘society’s tendency to infantilise women’ and so on.

On this reading the overt sexuality of the photographs is a deliberate challenge to patriarchal ideas of fixed roles, of what a father and daughter should be, of traditional boundaries of behaviour or perception. Fine. I get it.

But I thought there was also something deeper going on. It is not just the question, ‘What does this nearly naked man looming out of the shadow towards the bikini babe swigging from a bottle mean?’, or the way that the image undermines ‘traditional’ ideas of decorum between a father and grown-up daughter.

It is the corrosive way that the series of photos cumulatively undermines your faith in your ability to read any photograph – to ever really know what is going on in a photographic image. It was this increasing sense of uncertainty-of-interpretation, this undermining our confidence that we can interpret anything, which I found the really disturbing thing about Aneta Bartos’s work.

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

Curator

Family Values is curated by Kate Bush.


Related links

The photographers’ websites

Related blog posts (about Polish history)

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

(more…)

George Grosz: The Berlin Years by Ralph Jentsch (1997)

This big heavy paperback is the glossy catalogue to a comprehensive exhibition of Grosz’s work which was held in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection back in 1997. The long and detailed text was written by Ralph Jentsch, who is ‘managing director of the Grosz Estate, author of a number of catalogues and books on George Grosz, and a well-known expert in German Expressionism.’

It is a massive compendium of works by Grosz in all media – cartoons, caricatures, book illustrations, oil paintings, watercolours, sketches, drawings, collages and so on, not just from his mature years but starting with his earliest surviving sketches of cowboys and Indians and the heroes of boys’ own adventure stories which he loved as a lad.

There’s also plenty of evocative black-and-white photos of Grosz during the first 40 years of his life (1893 to 1933), featuring lots of semi-private shots of him messing about in his studio or playing the banjo – and also photos which give context to the story, from a typical German pub interior of the 1890s of the sort his father ran, to street scenes in Berlin, where he made the first half of his career.

In total there are 410 numbered works and photos in the main text, plus an additional 67 b&w photos in the 16-page potted biography at the end. It’s a visual feast, as they say, giving you a real sense of the visual universe he inhabited and the one he created.

(This book is the first volume of a two-volume and two-exhibition project – this one covers the Berlin years, the second one covers his time in exile in America, 1933-1959. Later, they were combined into one portmanteau book, link below.)

I’ve summarised Grosz’s life story in my review of his autobiography, A Small Yes and a Big No, no need to do it again. Instead, I’ll just mention half a dozen or so themes, issues or ideas which arise from a careful reading of this big book.

Transition from soft to hard lines

The first thirty or so pages include still life sketches Grosz did in conventional pencil or charcoal using multiple lines and hatching to create light and shade. These go alongside a consciously different style he developed for commercial caricatures, still very formal and multi-lined with an Art Nouveau feel. He had a different style again for the pictures he was hoping to use to start a career as a book designer.

Among the multitude of early sketches there are pub scenes, brawls in the street, and some gruesome (imaginary) murders. The point is – they’re all done in a much scribbled over, blurry, multi-line style.

What’s fascinating is to see how, during the war, he quickly and decisively changed his style to one of spare, scratchy single lines. Stylistically, it’s the decisive move: before – smudgy, obscure, feverishly drawn and overdrawn figures; after – scratchy, one-line figures, buildings, objects.

Evening in Motzstraße (1918)

Evening in Motzstraße (1918)

It’s fascinating to read his own account of how and why the change came about.

In order to attain a style that reproduced the hardness and insensitivity of my subjects, I studied the most direct expressions of art: I copied the folkloristic drawings in the urinals; they seemed to me the expression and most immediate rendering of strong emotions. I was also stimulated by the unequivocalness of children’s drawings. So I gradually reached my knife-hard style that I needed to draw what I saw. (Art in Danger, 1925)

I wonder if any other major artists, anywhere, ever, has credited their style as being derived from the drawings in public lavatories?

This is just one revealing quote from the many which Jentsch gives us from Grosz’s own autobiography, from the prefaces to the books, to the justificatory notes he prepared for each of his court cases, and to the countless letters he wrote to all his friends. We learn that Grosz wrote a vast correspondence to all his friends and acquaintances, kept copies of it all (which survive) and expected long and detailed replies in return – or else the friends were liable to get a none-too-polite reminder.

Grosz is a really fluent and enjoyable prose writer – his descriptions of holidays on the Baltic or the threatening atmosphere of Depression Berlin are a joy to read in their own right.

America

Jentsch’s quotes very liberally from Grosz’s autobiography (it is, after all, extremely jocular and readable) in bringing out Grosz’s obsession with America and its pop culture. As a boy he devoured James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, as well as the pulp westerns of Karl May, the detective hero Nick Carter, and loved everything American.

Having just read John Willett’s two books about Weimar art and culture, I can see that Grosz’s enthusiasm was part of a much broader cultural trend: the Germans loved American culture. Not only was there jazz which took everyone by storm, but the radio and gramophone were American inventions and everyone round the world fell in love with Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedies.

Later, for the avant-garde designers and architects which Willett’s book describes, America remained the beacon of all things modern, particularly the staggering efficiency of its industry and design. Henry Ford’s many books were bestsellers in Germany, as were the innovations of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s time and motion and efficiency studies.

I always think the most incongruous fan of America in this milieu was the Marxist playwright Brecht, who wrote loads of poems about a fantasy America, devoted a play to Chicago gangsters, as well as setting a number of plays and oratorios there, such as his oratorio about Lindbergh’s famous solo flight across the Atlantic. American jazz, cars, fashions and technology all stood for the exciting and new, liberated from the dead hand of Old Europe and its defunct empires.

Towards the end of his Weimar career (and in the depths of the Great Depression) Grosz’s attitude towards America (like Brecht’s) had become a good deal more satirical and critical. Now he sees all mankind as blindly greedily chasing after the consumer capitalism which America has perfected and exported to the world. But although the attitude has hardened – it’s still America which is at the centre of his thoughts.

Dreams, romantically dispensed and advertised a thousand times over: comfortable living, bath-tub, sports, utility car, and at best a weekend with cocktails and beauty queen. America has shown the way, we’re following after – due to war somewhat behind – in our naturally slow way. Even in Marxist Russia, America is the model and ardently desired goal. The goal is: rational exploitation of all raw material sources so as to procure comfort for the little man on the basis of mass machine production. (quoted page 135)

Just one year later – 1933 – Grosz was himself in America, beginning the long struggle to make a new career, which is described in his autobiography and in the second of these two volumes.

Alas, several of Grosz’s biggest most colourful fantasias on American themes (from the end of the Great War and featuring cowboys with six-shooters, wizened old trappers, gold miners and saloon whores) were confiscated by the Nazis and have never been found, so we only know them from old photos.

Misanthropy

Boy, Grosz hated people, he always hated people, he really hated people. Jentsch’s book clarifies that Grosz never saw action during the Great War, he had a nervous breakdown before he reached the front and ended up back in Berlin making sketches, caricatures and paintings which expressed his virulent hatred for people, for men, and for Germany in particular, for the state which had committed its young men to this suicidal folly and which had wanted to force him into the meat grinder.

It was a combination of loathing Germany and obsessing about America which made him change his name from the original Georg Groβ to the Anglicised George Grosz (just as his close friend and collaborator Helmut Herzfeld changed his name to the Anglicised John Heartfield).

Grosz’s misanthropy makes a mockery of his so-called communist beliefs. He joined the German communist party the day it was set up in November 1918 and played a role in the 1918 Berlin revolution, signing a revolutionary declaration published by a collective of revolutionary artists. But after his trip to the USSR in 1922 (where he actually met Lenin), Grosz quickly lost any political faith and lapsed into a universal contempt for mankind.

Hatred for humanity drips from the hundreds and hundreds of drawings from this era, and from the watercolours in particular, which show a relentless parade of corrupt and ugly old men, apparently surrounded by grim, half-naked prostitutes.

Before sunrise (1922)

Before sunrise (1922)

As Grosz wrote to his friend J. B. Neuman:

My drawings will naturally stay true – they are fireproof. They will later be seen as Goya’s work [is]. They are not documents of the class struggle, but eternally living documents of human stupidity and brutality.

Red

In 1916 to 1918 Grosz went through a red phase, lots of paintings done almost entirely in shades of blazing red. The house is on fire, the city is going up in flames. It didn’t last too long, but while it did it was very, very red.

Metropolis (1917)

Metropolis (1917)

A painting like this displays a raft of his characteristics. The knife-hard outline styling of all the figures is well established. Humans are caricatures with hardly any attempt at naturalistic shading or modelling. Perspective has been thrown away in preference for a crazy vortex of planes which gives the sense of a crashing chaos of urban architecture. Women are more often than not half or completely naked, with a little pubic bush in sight just to ram home the point. Corruption, sex, seediness. Everywhere.

Nudes

Grosz did a surprising number of nude studies, almost all of them unflattering or verging on the grotesque.

More surprisingly, he did a large amount of pornographic sketches and drawings, pornographic in the sense that they show men and women very explicitly and enthusiastically engaging in sexual practices, his misanthropy coming over loud and clear in the fat ugliness of everyone involved.

But there’s also something haunted about portraying men and women again and again at the feverish, pleasure-filled but somehow empty, tragic and futile copulations which obsess humanity, and to what end.

The obsessive reworking of the same theme (he liked women bending over and displaying their big wobbly buttocks) give the sense of a man questing, searching, trying to find the answer to the reason – why? Why are we animals? Why do we behave like farmyard beasts? What is behind this absurd farce?

The sex drawings cross over with a set of disturbing sketches and paintings of a cartoon character called ‘John the slayer of women’, who was much in his thoughts in 1917 and 1918. He claimed the set was inspired by a notorious murder of the time – or was it just a misogynist way to let off steam and vent the huge amount of anger he had permanently burning inside?

John, The Lady Killer (1918)

John, The Lady Killer (1918)

Dada and collage

Grosz was a central figure in the Berlin branch of Dada which got going about 1918. He formed a close working partnership with the Herzfeld brothers who set up a publishing house for avant-garde work – the Malik-Verlag – where Grosz was able to publish a series of ‘albums’ of lithographs throughout the 1920s (nearly all of which were confiscated and banned by the authorities).

He collaborated with Helmut Herzfeld aka John Heartfield in the invention and development of photo-montage i.e. cutting out objective pictorial elements like photos or text or headlines from newspapers or magazines and pasting them into grotesque and satirical combinations.

Grosz considered the painting below as one of his most important, and it had pride of place at the Dada exhibition in June 1920.

You can see the way any idea of perspective has been completely abandoned in the name of a potentially endless collage of objects, images and planes. The collage element of newspaper cuttings and magazine images is made particularly obvious on the table. There is the characteristically bitter satire of the so-called ‘pillars’ of the establishment at the bottom. And there is a naked woman with boobs and the characteristic hint of pubic hair to the left of the main figure.

Apart from anything else, there’s a ‘Where’s Wally’ pleasure to be had in deciphering all the visual elements in these, the most cluttered works of his career.

Germany: A Winter's Tale (1918)

Germany: A Winter’s Tale (1918)

Watercolours

Grosz had a number of styles – or a number of ways of deploying his basic vision. Thus the book juxtaposes the intense oil paintings (above) with the just as savage watercolours, but the latter have a very different feel. Watercolour makes the images lighter and Grosz has a very stylish way of letting the colour leach and bleed around the central subjects, something not possible in oils.

Waltz dream (1918)

Waltz dream (1918)

The nipples and bush of a scantily-clad woman/prostitute are probably the most prominent visual element, but what I like is the variety and inventiveness of the colours and the way they are arranged in patches or facets. Surprisingly decorative, isn’t it?

De Chirico vistas and mannequins

In 1919 and 1920 Grosz experimented with a series of works which combined receding vistas of perfect multi-story buildings, as developed by the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, with the photo-montage technique he’d been developing with Heartfield.

The result is uncanny, weird and grotesque objects made out of material cut from newspapers and magazines. The final, unsettling element is the omission of faces from the human figures, their heads instead the blank ovals of the shop-window mannequins of the day.

Republican Automatons (1920)

Republican Automatons (1920)

In a completely different style from the raging, red fractured cityscapes, here Grosz presents man as a faceless robot, a characterless shop-window dummy in a soulless landscape of factories and houses, a heartless automaton made up of interchangeable parts (as Jentsch puts it, on page 122).

To ram the message home Grosz stopped signing these automaton paintings and had a stamp made which said GEORGE GROSZ CONSTRUIERT, emphasising their machine-like quality.

Portfolios and collections

Drawing can be an effective weapon against the brutal Middle Ages and stupidity of man of our time, provided that the hand is trained and the will is clear.

As early as 1916 Grosz had a plan for a vast three-volume collection of drawings to be titled The Ugliness of the Germans. In the event he managed to get published the First George Grosz Portfolio and The Little George Grosz Portfolio in small editions. As you can imagine, original copies of these are worth a fortune today.

One of the great virtues of Jentsch’s book is that it includes nearly all the drawings from all his major collections, including the later ones which caused such a scandal – Gott mit uns (1920), In the shade (1921), The Brigands (1922), Ecce Homo (1923), The Mirror of the Bourgeoisie (1925) The New Face of the Ruling Class (1930).

This allows you to see what all the fuss was about and judge for yourself. It also lets you see each of the series in the context of the others, building up a cumulative effect.

Jentsch goes into detail about each of the trials, giving dates and places where Grosz and his publishers were arraigned and their punishments on each occasion (fines and confiscations). He devotes quite a few pages to a chronology of one of the longest court cases in the history of the Weimar Republic, the prosecution of Grosz and his publisher Herzfeld for some of the illustrations created for a stage adaptation of the classic novel, The Good Soldier Svejk, which started in 1928 and went through four separate trials on into 1932.

Grosz really was a thorn in the side of respectable society and it’s worth buying the book for the portfolios alone, which in their spare directness brutally convey seething his seething anger at man’s inhumanity to man.

Lions and leopards feed their young from The Brigands (1922)

‘Lions and leopards feed their young’ from The Brigands (1922)

Grosz was lucky, very lucky to happen to be offered a job in New York in 1932, and to persuade his wife and children to join him early in 1933, just two weeks before Hitler came to power.

He’d been taking the mickey out of Hitler for over ten years. On the day of Hitler’s accession SA troops broke into both Grosz’s flat and Berlin studio. If he’d been there he would have been taken off for interrogation, torture, prison and probable death. Lucky man.

Siegfried Hitler by George Grosz (1922)

Siegfried Hitler by George Grosz (1922)

And he was right when he compared himself to Goya. To later ages, to our age, his drawings and paintings are comparable with Goya’s, as ‘eternally living documents of human stupidity and brutality’.


Related link

Related reviews

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will be Taken Into the Future @ Tate Modern

This is a great exhibition, genuinely original, imaginative and thought-provoking. It is a major retrospective of these two pioneering Russian artists which ranges from enormous installations, through large oil paintings, big wooden models and fanciful book illustrations, down to small and beautiful drawings.

Ilya Kabakov was born in 1933, just as Socialist Realism secured its grip on Russian artistic life. Twenty years later, he began his working career just as Stalin’s influence was at its height, society was completely stifled and the gulag labour camps were full to overflowing (N.B. Stalin died in 1953 but his baleful influence lived on for some years.)

Wisely, Kabakov chose to go into the harmless field of children’s illustration and spent thirty years making a living illustrating a range of books. In 1959, Kabakov became a ‘candidate member’ of the Union of Soviet Artists (he later became a full member in 1965). This status secured him a studio, steady work as an illustrator and a relatively healthy income by Soviet standards. In secret, he created more subversive and experimental works to be seen only by a close circle of friends.

The first thirty years or so of work are effectively solo pieces by Ilya. In 1989, as the USSR collapsed and Ilya for the first time travelled abroad, he was reunited with his distant cousin Emilia who had emigrated in 1975. They began working together and were soon married. So the second half of the show – and the title – reflects the fact that the works for which he is most famous – the large-scale installations – are collaborations devised and made by both of them.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

The smallest works on display here include a room of charming drawings and small abstract paintings from the 1960s, mildly in the style of Kandinsky, maybe. Later on Ilya developed the idea of creating portfolios of prints each dedicated to a fictional character – the Ten Characters series of albums. One whole room of the exhibition contains about twenty school desks, each with one of the portfolios on it.

Thirty years later the situation in Russia had significantly changed. It was still rundown, dirty, backward, grey and depressing. But Stalin was long dead, to be replaced first by Nikita Khrushchev, and then the long years of decline under Brezhnev (1964-82).

Conceptual works

During the 1960s and 1970s Ilya rented an attic studio on Sretensky Boulevard in Moscow where he created experimental works which were to make his reputation: conceptual installations.

This is Ilya’s first whole-room or total installation, which he created in his Moscow studio in 1985. It expands on the idea of the fictional narratives mentioned in the portfolios. Here he has imagined that a man has built a home-made space travel device from springs and rubber straps and has used it to propel himself free from life in his cramped filthy communal flat, through the roof, and up into space and freedom.

Man who flew into space From His Apartment by Ilya Kabakov (1985) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Man who flew into space From His Apartment by Ilya Kabakov (1985) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

As you can see there’s more than a little of children’s humour in this idea. It can be read as a po-faced comment on the permanent housing shortage in the USSR; or it could be seen as a light-hearted Heath Robinson device designed to make us smile.

Next to it is a similar room-sized space in which Ilya has suspended from thin cords about forty household objects of the most boring kind, as found in all such shabby communal blocks of flats – a lot of metal pots and pans and mugs.

Incident in the corridor near the kitchen by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Incident in the corridor near the kitchen by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

You get the idea. The clutter of pots and pans represents the endless confusion and bickering caused by cramped communal living in blocks of flats with permanently broken fixtures and inadequate living space. The large oil paintings on the wall are of natural scenery and presumably represent windows, either real or imaginary windows which some of the block’s inhabitants look through into a dream landscape.

A key element not quite visible in this photo is the music stand to one side which holds a written account of the scene. Text is important in all the Kabakovs’ works. Many of the early paintings contain big chunks of text, for example, By December 25 in Our District…

By December 25 in Our District... by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1983) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

By December 25 in Our District… by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1983) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

This hyper-realistic painting of a half-built tower block, adrift in a sea of mud and building works, has Cyrillic text all down the left-hand side. The text is a list of all the buildings which the authorities promised would be completed by 25 December 1979. Since the artwork was made in 1983, four years later, it comes across as yet another example of the shabby, failing reality and broken promises underlying so much Soviet propaganda.

That said, I loved the two dirty shovels attached to the canvas. I love text in paintings and objects attached to paintings so I also really liked the four big paintings in an earlier room, which were realistic depictions of life in some Soviet new town but which had scrunched-up sweet wrappers glued on to them in regular grids like graph paper. Why? Why not?

Beyond the flying pots and pans is a big room devoted to an installation titled Three Nights (1989). Three massive paintings, each taking up an entire wall, refer to the theme of night – there’s a starry sky, a night scene and (a little disconcertingly) a huge nocturnal insect.

What makes the room striking, though, is the way that three massive plywood walls have been erected in front of each of the paintings almost completely blocking your view of them. For each there is only one gap in the plywood wall which visitors can see the paintings through.

In front of each of these gaps is a monocular ( a single-lensed binocular) on a tripod. If you bend down and squint through these monoculars you see…  that each of the paintings has a minute set of little white men made out of white paper, cut out and stuck on the surface of the paintings. Little white men?

Aha, we had seen some of these in the previous room, room 4, which included the piece Trousers in the corner (1989).

Trousers in the corner by Ilya and Emilai Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Trousers in the corner by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Little white men? According to Ilya the little white men are inhabitants of a parallel world who can occasionally be glimpsed by human eyes. Now they’ve been pointed out to me I go back to some of the earlier works and, yes, sure enough, inside the rims of some of the flying pots and pans are twos or threes of tiny, white, cutout silhouettes. Maybe they’re everywhere? From now on you can’t be certain.

The commentary claims the mysterious presence of the little white men is part of the artists’ strategy to create ‘subversions of perspective and scale’, and gives other examples. Yes, no doubt. But it’s also funny. It bespeaks Ilya’s long career as an illustrator of children’s books. It makes you smile.

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future

Following the night room is one of the biggest installations I’ve ever seen: a big long room has two rails through the middle, a mocked-up railway platform along the opposite wall from you and, at the far end of the room, the rear section of a train which seems to be leaving the station. Above the back door of the train is a tickertape digital sign reading ‘Not everyone will be taken into the future’.

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2001) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2001) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

This has a slightly complicated back story. The title derives from an essay Ilya contributed to a journal of Russian art published in Paris. It was an essay about the noted Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich, the man who reduced painting to one black square and so, in his own opinion, brought Western painting to a full stop.

This huge installation imagines Malevich as a charismatic visionary selecting some artists to be taken into the bright shiny Future, while others will be discarded and forgotten – as symbolised by a number of canvases abandoned across the rail lines. Who will be taken and why? Who will be left behind and who will mourn?

This work is big, but I didn’t really get it as a work of art: it didn’t seem to be saying anything important or interesting; some artists and many many works of art will be forgotten and lost. Didn’t we know this already?

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album)

The train work is quickly eclipsed by possibly the most powerful work in the show, the beguiling and entrancing Labyrinth from 1990. Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) consists of a maze of narrow corridors with an apparently endless series of abrupt turns. Like some of the earlier works, this is designed to evoke the shabby badly-lit corridors of Soviet communal housing.

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) by Ilya Kabakov (1990) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) by Ilya Kabakov (1990) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Each stretch of corridor has hung on the wall a series of large-ish prints which comprise photos of life in mid-century Soviet Russia, set on a patterned background with a fragment of typewritten text in Cyrillic attached. Propped up above each print is a translation into English of the Cyrillic text.

It turns out that the black and white photographs were taken by Ilya’s uncle and the texts are excerpts from a memoir by his mother, Bertha Urievna Solodukhina, describing the difficulties of bringing up her son in poverty. As you progress slowly through the maze of corridors, the sound slowly gets louder of Ilya Kabakov himself singing Russian romances in a low, depressed Russian voice… until you arrive at the heart of the labyrinth, to discover it is a derelict cupboard, the kind you keep brooms and dustpans in, with wooden planks across it, the floor covered in plaster crumbled from the roof. More symbols of Soviet dilapidation and… the failure of the utopian dreams.

In fact there are no fewer than 76 of these excerpts from his mother’s memoir, too many to read unless you want to spend several hours in here… and also a little difficult to read because they are propped on the picture frames about 6 foot from the ground. The gallery does offer a booklet which includes every single excerpt but other people had it when I went round. The fragments I read were evocative and moving. It would be interesting to read the entire memoir.

Contemporary oil paintings

The final few rooms are full of the enormous oil paintings the Kabakovs have been doing in recent years. These are completely figurative i.e. realistic portrayals of people and places with the catch that they all feature the same gag or idea – in that they are paintings of collages, portraying scenes from Soviet life as if torn up from magazines and pasted together, sometimes on backdrops of ‘classic’ European painting, to make the visual ironies all the sharper. So they are integral painted surfaces but made t olook as if they’ve been cut up and pasted together.

The Appearance of the Collage #10 by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2012) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

The Appearance of the Collage #10 by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2012) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

According to the commentary in these modern works ‘the artists layer scenes from different art historical moments to explore ideas of collective memory and cultural heritage’. Maybe. But after the scale and imaginativeness of the apartment spaceman, the floating pots and pans, the huge train station or the spooky labyrinth – ordinary oil paintings, no matter how inventive, feel less imaginative and impactful.

How to meet an angel

The final room changes the tone yet again, with a suite of works devoted to angels. Angels? It includes a harness of feathers which you could strap on to turn into an angel, some delightful pictures which have the feel of children’s illustrations of angels, a lovely little model of a common or garden stool positioned over a tiny model landscape with a tiny, tiny model angel suspended over it by a slender thread.

But dominating the room is a huge wooden construction, a tilting scaffold built up into the sky at the end of which a little wooden man is reaching out his arms and, not far away a much bigger wooden angel is stretching out his arms to meet him. Will they ever meet? Can we ever achieve our dreams? Can we ever escape from the grubby human condition?

How to meet an Angel by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2009) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

How to meet an Angel by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2009) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Who knows, but this huge exhibition, showcasing over 300 objects and works by these big confident conceptual artists, the first in the UK, curated and laid out with the advice of the artists themselves – suggests you can have a lot of fun trying.

The video

Tate made an extended interview with the Kabakovs at their studio.


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From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!


Related links

Related reviews

The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (2)

Never again, never, will I think about what I am – but only about what I do.
(Mathieu in his diary – p.134)

The Last Chance brings together all the fragments published during his lifetime, and then found among his papers after his death, of what was intended to be the fourth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy (1945-49).

I read the first three books (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Iron in The Soul) when I was at school in the 1970s and they made a profound impression on me.

This scholarly edition – which brings together all the known fragments for the intended fourth book in the series, along with a number of essays about it and about the tetralogy as a whole – was published in France in 1981, but only translated into English in 2009.

The ideas and issues raised in the introductory material and essays are so numerous that I discuss them in a separate blog post, The Last Chance (1).

In this blog post I am commenting solely on the two large fragments of the uncompleted novel itself. These were given by Sartre the titles of: A Strange Friendship and The Last Chance.


1. A Strange Friendship (68 pages)

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in the village of Padoux, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D. (Wikipedia)

Mathieu and Brunet at the end of Iron in the Soul

In the third novel of the published trilogy, Iron In the Soul, we followed the activities of Mathieu Delarue, the ineffectual philosophy teacher – a sort of self-portrait by the author – and Brunet, the tough-minded Communist organiser, as they both, separately, retreated in June 1940 before the German advance in France and ended up in a small French village.

Here Mathieu finds himself deciding to quit the squad of demoralised men he’d arrived with, and instead throw in his lot with a still-pugnacious lieutenant and his platoon, who have arrived in the village after carrying out a fighting retreat.

Almost before he knows it, Mathieu has accompanied some of the soldiers to the top of the village church tower where they wait anxiously for the first German scouts to arrive. When the first Germans enter the village, Mathieu and comrades begin shooting at them, sparking a fierce firefight, which is only ended when the Germans bring up a field gun and blow the tower to pieces. The reader assumes that Mathieu, until the last minute firing from this church tower, was killed.

Meanwhile, by a large coincidence, without realising the closeness of his boyhood friend, Mathieu, the tough-minded communist, Brunet, has also ended up in the same village, but here he makes a very different decision. He decides to surrender to the Germans in the hope of recruiting and organising what is obviously going to be a larege number of French prisoners of war into a communist cell.

The final part of Iron in the Soul had followed Brunet’s journey, along with thousands of other POWs, to a holding camp in France, where there is no food and his condition deteriorates along with all the others, Decent feeding arrangements are finally made and, after a long period of lassitude, the prisoners are marched to a train station, loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to a prison camp in the Fatherland.

In other words, both Mathieu and Brunet’s stories rely very heavily on Sartre’s own experiences of capture and imprisonment in 1940.

Throughout the long second section of Iron in the Soul, Brunet had found himself in conflict with a fellow prisoner, Schneider, who declares himself broadly sympathetic to Brunet’s communist intentions, but is much more a genuine man of the people – in contrast with Brunet’s well-educated background. At key moments Schneider points out the flaws in Brunet’s approach, in the way he’s handling the men and so on.

A Strange Friendship

A Strange Friendship opens with Brunet, Schneider and thousands of other French POWs imprisoned in a German prison camp in freezing winter conditions in January 1941. Because it’s based so closely on Sartre’s own identical experiences, we can be confident that the descriptions of the camp and of the horrible conditions are accurate.

What gets the action of A Strange Friendship going is the arrival of new prisoners at the camp, one of them being Chalais, a former Communist Party deputy. He turns Brunet’s world upside down by announcing:

a) that Schneider is none other than ‘Vicarios’, a French Communist Party official who had denounced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and was therefore expelled from the Party
b) that Brunet’s entire strategy within the camp, namely organising the prisoners, recruiting the willing ones to a communist cell, with the long term plan of undermining the Germans, is wrong

Chalais is a representative of the French Communist Party (which was, of course, a mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign policy).

He tells Brunet that the views he’s been putting about – that the war isn’t over yet, that the USSR will crush Germany, that the workers should reject the armistice, that the defeat of the Axis will be a victory for the proletariat, that the French prisoners should still consider themselves as soldiers (p.55) – are wrong.

Chalais ridicules de Gaulle’s recent radio broadcast saying the USSR and USA will enter the war, that the Vichy government is illegitimate, that the armistice the new french government signed with the Nazis was treason. With typical bullying insults, in his ‘loudspeaker voice’, Chalais says that Brunet has been dead wrong. He has, ‘objectively’, i.e. in the eyes of the inflexible Party, been merely a propagandist for Churchill and British imperialism.

Chalais tells him that he and his men must not oppose the Germans; the Germans are allies of our heroic Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never enter the war. (Indeed, at this point and until it was invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union for nearly two years supported the Nazi regime with food, oil and raw materials). The Soviet Union will wait until Europe has fought itself to a standstill and then dictate the peace in the interests of the proletariat.

So, instead of subverting the Germans, the communist party ought to cosy up to the Nazis in a bid to become officially recognised and to get a foot into the French National Assembly again.

To Brunet’s astonishment Chalais says they must work to attack the imperialism of the bourgeois ‘democracies’ (i.e. Britain), attack de Gaulle – who is merely a mouthpiece for British imperialism – and direct the workers towards pacifism, not towards enmity to the Germans (p.63).

Brunet listens with astonishment to this interpretation of the situation which is completely opposite to everything he has been telling the men he’s recruited to the communist cause. Chalais has the impeccable authority of being a senior party member, and of having been free – and so in touch with the communist hierarchy – more recently than Brunet himself.

Brunet tries to quell his misgivings, to make himself a servant of the Party and to obey.

This is an example of Sartre depicting how a man – Brunet – denies his absolute freedom, represses his own thoughts and feelings, in the name of Obedience to External Law.

(There is also a massive authorly irony at work here, because the reader knows that Chalais is dead wrong – when Hitler invades the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin immediately declares Germany the enemy and reverses every one of the policies which Chalais had been championing. Brunet was to be proved right. But not yet.)

The second section of A Strange Friendship jumps to a month later. The result of Brunet following Chalais’s instructions is that the camaraderie Brunet had carefully built up over the previous 6 months in the camp has evaporated, and Brunet is now regarded shiftily by the men he has so suddenly deserted. They no longer trust him.

In another one-on-one scene Chalais confronts Brunet with this problem – the men don’t trust Chalais and now think Brunet was lying to them. Chalais floats the possibility emerges that Brunet should co-host a Party meeting and stand up, validate Chalais and the Party line, and then humiliate and implicate himself – just as so many old Bolsheviks did in the Stalin Show Trials of the late 1930s (as depicted in the classic novel, Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler).

Brunet refuses. His unwavering faith in the Party is for the first time broken. For the first time he sees that the Party might be wrong, that the USSR might be wrong. If it loses the war, if the Party is abolished, Man will continue i.e. History is bigger than the Communist Party.

1. Here is Brunet explaining (to himself) his previous attitude to his own free thought i.e. that it was merely a bourgeois self-indulgence which he needed to repress.

So much for ideas. He’d always had them, like everyone, they’re just mildew, leftovers from brain activity; but he never used to pay them any mind, just let them sprout like mushrooms in the basement. So let’s just put them back in their place and everything will be alright: he’ll toe the line, follow orders, and carry his ideas around inside him without saying a word, like a shameful disease. This will go no further, this can go no further: we do not think in opposition to the Party, thoughts are words, words belong to the Party, the Party defines them, the Party controls them; Truth and the Party are one and the same. (p78)

(It’s worth remembering that Sartre was writing these passages just as George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarian thought control, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published [June 1949]. Orwell’s book now stands alone as a classic of dystopian fiction, like an isolated mesa in the desert; but once it was part of the vast ocean of discourse about communism, for and against, which washed over European culture all through and for long after the war.)

2. And here is Brunet, moments later, for the first time in his life considering what it would mean if the USSR did lose the war, and if the communist cause was defeated.

He blows through the roof, flying in the dark, explodes, the Party is below him, a living jelly covering the globe, I never saw it, I was inside it: he turns above this imperishable jelly: the Party can die. He’s cold, he turns: if the Party is right, then I am more alone than a madman [to oppose it]; if it’s wrong, we’re all on our own, and the world is fucked. (p.79)

It seems to me he is undergoing the classic Sartrean awakening to the fact of his abandonment, to his complete aloneness, to the shocking reality of his freedom.

Back in the plot, Brunet realises some men have been despatched from a Party meeting chaired by Chalais to go and beat up Schneider – a traitor to the Party because he criticised Stalin’s Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler.

Recalling all their talks and all the help he’s given him, Brunet comes to Schneider’s rescue and interrupts the pair of thugs beating Schneider. But the two men – who Brunet himself recruited to the communist cause – don’t understand why he’s protecting Schneider. Chalais has explained that Schneider is a traitor, why is Brunet defending him? Is Brunet a traitor too?

In the childlike simple-mindedness of the Communist Party, well, yes, Brunet is a traitor. Sticking up for a bad guy makes you a bad guy. Brunet smashes one of the thugs in the face and the pair of thugs slope off, at which point Brunet realises that he has burned all his bridges. Now ‘his’ men belong to Chalais and everything he and Schneider achieved is destroyed, in fact his entire life to date has been negated. He has fought all his adult life for the Communist Party. Now the Party has decreed that he is a traitor and so he is a traitor. He must get away.

Brunet makes plans for him and Schneider to escape. In the face of a blasting howling January gale, they lay planks over the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp and escape – only for the floodlights to come on and them to be shot at from all sides. Brunet realises they’ve been betrayed, probably by ‘the comrades’, who want them more dead than the Germans.

As they run for the woodline Schneider is hit. Brunet helps him on and they fall down a wooded slope, coming to rest against a tree which is where Schneider dies in Brunet’s arms, not at all romantically, but vomiting and blaming Brunet for his death.

Brunet stands up and walks back towards the guards. His death is only just starting.

Commentary

1. You can immediately see why Sartre ran into problems trying to finish this story. The more it plunges into the minutiae of the argument between communists loyal to the Soviet-Comintern party line, and every other non-communist brand of leftist, as it stood in the winter of 1940-41, the more obscure this story becomes. Not least because, as the notes in this edition point out, the official Party line was itself continually changing and would, of course, undergo a complete volte-face when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In addition, a vast amount had happened between spring 1941 and the post-war, Cold War era of the early 1950s when Sartre was writing. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, increasing general hysteria that the Cold War might escalate into a nuclear apocalypse.

Why write about the arcane disputes of this increasingly remote period of time, when your own times are so pressing and urgent? As you read the fragment it becomes increasingly obvious why Sartre gave up struggling with The Last Chance and switched to writing political commentary on the very fraught times he found himself in in the early 1950s.

2. Looked at from this distance of time, nearly 80 years later, all the characters seem like idiots – Brunet and Schneider and Chalais, all blindly defending the Soviet Union which a) they should already have realised was one of the most repressive regimes in human history b) went on to prove it in the brutal repression of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s c) collapsed in 1990 and is now remote, dusty, ancient history.

3. The entire plot exemplifies the way that the communists’ main talent appears to have been carrying out witch hunts against all other leftists, and then among themselves. This is the central theme of George Orwell’s terrifying memoir of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, which shows how the Communist Party systematically suppressed, arrested, tortured and executed all its opponents on the same side in the civil war – in the opinion of historian Antony Beevor, a major contributory factor to why the Republican side lost The Battle for Spain.

And the war of the Communist Party against itself is the subject of Arthur Koestler’s fictional recreation of the interrogation and show trial of an old Bolshevik in his classic novel, Darkness At Noon.

4. Looked at in its broader historical context, the entire sequence is more evidence to add to the 680-page analysis by historian Alistair Horne in his classic account, To Lose a Battle, that France’s defeat by Germany was entirely her own fault and overwhelmingly due to the ruinous divisions in her political culture. The french hated each other much more than they hated the Germans.

At one point Chalais, the hard-line Communist Deputy, actually says out loud that he prefers the Nazis to so-called ‘radicals’ i.e. to left-wingers operating outside the Communist Party (p.64) who he despises and calls ‘dogs’.

(It is important to remember that the French Communist Party called on workers to sabotage the war effort against Germany – to sabotage their own country’s war effort.)

Chalais prefers the Nazis to non-communist left-wingers. This is an amazing thing to really process and let sink in. And Chalais exactly mirrors the attitude of many right-wingers in pre-war France who declared ‘Better Hitler than the reds’.

Taken together it is a picture of a country in which nearly all sides wanted Hitler to beat them. I can see how this section was intended as an ‘analysis’ of the Communist Party line at a particular historical moment, and as a portrait of how it undermines and preys on a man (Brunet) who wants to be a loyal Party servant but finds himself torn between ideology and loyalty to the men he’s recruited.

I can see how it carries out Sartre’s mission to show his ‘heroes’ emerging from various types of ‘bad faith’ into the desolate realisation of their inescapable freedom: as, for example, Brunet realises that his ongoing presence is undermining Chalais’ Communist Party mission, that his own elimination is called for by strict Party logic – but refuses, in the end, to give up and insists on living.

But at this distance of time, the entire sequence seems like just a further example of the complete moral and political bankruptcy of mid-twentieth century French culture.

5. From a literary point of view, more interesting for me is the almost complete absence of any of the prose poetry which characterised the earlier books (and which I quote liberally in my reviews of them). The text is almost completely functional. It often reads like directions for a play: ‘X looks at Y. Y Says Z. X Gets up, leaves through the door.’  This suggests that a lot of the impressionistic poetry, the floods of feeling, the great waves of death and night and futility and emptiness which wash over the characters in the earlier books, that all this was put in later, during the revising, once the narrative scaffold was in place.

This text as we have it consists almost entirely of this very basic scaffold, bare present tense prose used to convey the dry-as-dust theological squabbles of a discredited belief-system and the toxic power struggles it led to.

Only at the end, in the final few pages, when the scales fall from Brunet’s eyes, does his mind then entertain some of the delirious hallucinations so common to the other characters in the series; and only in the escape over the wire and through the howling gale does Sartre let rip with some impressionistic prose.

I’m guessing this is deliberate. Maybe the grindingly boring, factual prose of most of the section is intended to enact the grindingly boring nature of revolutionary politics and its squalid betrayals.

Whereas the moments of high delirium which Brunet experiences in the last few pages, and then the intensely impressionistic description of the escape in the snow storm, represent the return of Freedom, the flooding into Brunet’s consciousness of the confusions, the overwhelming and bewildering sense of finally throwing off his disciplined devotion to The Party, and his arrival in the bewildering abandonment of his human Freedom.

To be free, in Sartre’s fiction, is to be overwhelmed with sensations and thoughts.

6. The whole thing is written as a tragedy but, to an Anglo-Saxon eye it has a certain grim humour. It is notable the way no Germans feature at all anywhere in the story: sure, they’re referred to a lot as the people who run the camp, but:

a) there’s no analysis of Nazi strategy, no mention of Hitler’s likely plans and intentions for Europe (which, though interesting, I can see would be extraneous to the core subject, which is the drama of Brunet’s disillusionment with the Party)
b) no individual Germans appear, even right at the end when they’re pursuing Schneider and Brunet in their escape. The Germans always remain disembodied shouts and bullets.

Again, to the sceptical outsider this is partly because – comically enough – the Germans don’t need to do anything. They know they can leave the French to carry on fighting among themselves, the right-wingers against the radicals, the communists against the Catholics. The French can be relied on to display not a shred of solidarity or patriotism.

Sartre is inside the French political world and so he takes endless internecine fighting for granted. I come from the Anglo-Saxon countries which had a bit more backbone and where patriotism really did unite the country against the potential invader: from a place where Canadians, Australians, Poles and other European exiles came together to fight the Nazis; not, as the French did, to betray each other to the Nazis.

For Sartre this squalid little squabble among communists can be represented as a kind of noble tragedy – but for the reader outside the snake pit of French culture, it’s just another example of the Communist talent for eliminating each other, and the French talent for ruinous infighting.

Vive la France! Vive la Revolution! are essentially comic declarations.


2.The Last Chance (76 pages)

All the readers of the original trilogy of novels thought that Mathieu Delarue – the most obviously autobiographical character in the series, an ineffectual philosophy teacher much like Sartre – had been blown to smithereens at the end of part one of Iron in the Soul. But no, folks, he’s back and more plagued by philosophical doubts than ever!

Nothing is explained. The other sizeable fragment of the unfinished novel – titled The Last Chance – just starts with Mathieu in a German prisoner of war hospital, from which he’s soon transferred out into the wider camp.

The section opens with him helping a young man who has lost both his legs, amputated after being hit by a shell, put on his ‘pants’ (all the way through the text are reminders that this is a translation into American prose). Apparently, Mathieu was shot through the lungs and still feels weak, but survived otherwise unscathed. Huh.

As usual, two things happen immediately with Mathieu: he is nervous around other human beings, over-sensitively noticing all aspects about them, and his reactions to them, and their reactions to his reactions to them, and so on.

And his consciousness is, as usual, susceptible to being flooded with overwhelming, uncontrollable perceptions and sensations. His perceptions flood his mind. This is the Sartre of his first novel, Nausea, and a feature of almost all the characters in the first two novels in the sequence.

He opened his eyes, and saw nothing. He was nowhere. Between two wooden frames with rectangular holes, there were a table and benches, but it was nothing, not even furniture, not even utensils, not even things; the inert underside of a few simple gestures; suspended in emptiness. The emptiness enveloped Mathieu with a glassy dissolving look, penetrating his eyes, gnawing at his flesh, all there was was a skeleton: ‘I’ll be living in emptiness.’ The skeleton took a seated position. (p.110)

This is just the latest in a long line of occasions when Sartrean characters cease to perceive the world normally, cease even perceive themselves as human, instead become perceiving objects, lose all their personality, are suffused with grand abstractions like death, night, freedom and so on.

I like them. I like this way of thinking and writing. The world, very obviously, is far far weirder than official discourse permits, and Sartre is a great poet of this weirdness, the weirdness of being a walking, sentient nervous system adrift in a sea of things.

Just as characteristically, Mathieu then hallucinates that the dour defeated inhabitants of the wider POW camp are sub-human, insects, crustaceans.

Even though they filled him with a slight repulsion, and even fear, like the crazies he had seen in Rouen in 1936, he knew perfectly well that he was not in an insane asylum: rather, he was in a breeding ground of crabs and lobsters. He was fascinated by these prehistoric crustaceans who crawled around on the tormented ground of an unknown planet, suddenly his heart sank and he thought: in a few days, I’ll be one of them. He would have these same eyes, airs and gestures, he would understand these incomprehensible creatures from inside, he would be a crab. (p.113)

Weird, huh? And reminds me of the notion I developed in reading The Reprieve that there is something distinctly science fiction-y about much of the altered states Sartre describes.

He was most certainly not in Africa, not even anywhere on a human planet. He was walking dry and crisp, between the glass panes of an aquarium. The horror was not in him yet, he could still defend himself against it: it was in things, and in the eyes of those who saw what he didn’t see. But soon, because of the water pressure and the great sea-spiders, these panes would break. (p.121)

The contrast between the histrionic, science fiction prose poetry of the Mathieu section and the spare functional prose of most of the Brunet section clinches the idea that Sartre alters his prose style to match the subject/character. I am genuinely impressed by the range of styles and rhetorical effects Sartre can pull off.

The structure of the complete novel

As to the plot, all we have is fragments. In the notes, the editor Craig Vasey, explains that the plan for the entire book appears to have been something like:

  • Novel opens with Mathieu in the infirmary. He helps the amputee put on his ‘pants’.
  • Mathieu transfers to the camp where he thinks the defeated soldiers look like undersea crabs.
  • Cut to Brunet smoothly running his circle of comrades, until Chalais arrives and turns everything upside down.
  • Back to Mathieu: through his eyes we see fragmentary descriptions of camp life and mentality.
    • Ramard: someone has stolen a fur coat from the German stores, Mathieu helps a fellow inmate hide some stolen champagne.
    • The only first-person narrative anywhere in the series, apparently from Mathieu’s diary, as he meets the disconsolate architect Longin.
    • One of the prisoners gets hold of a newspaper from a new inmate and reads it out to Mathieu’s room-mates, with Mathieu interpolating his usual philosophic ruminations.
    • The Dream of killing: Mathieu has a recurrent waking dream of killing his room-mates. A form of post-traumatic stress triggered by his shooting German soldiers back in the church tower. Interestingly, there are seven fragments on this one theme which are obviously reworkings of the same scene: Mathieu is sitting in a prison office watching his colleague, Chomat, doing paperwork and imagines killing him with a knife slipped into the nape of his neck. Over and over.
  • Cut back to Brunet. It’s 40 days after he was captured trying to escape, the snow-bound escape attempt in which Schneider died. Surprisingly, he wasn’t shot but put in the punishment block. Now, released, Brunet returns to his old barrack with trepidation only to discover that Chalais and the cohort of comrades who had it in for him have all been shipped out. Gone as if they never were. He is no longer under imminent threat of assassination. Then Brunet gets wind of an escape committee, is taken to see it and discovers…
  • That it is run by his childhood friend, Mathieu. The book seems to have been intended to climax with the encounter between Mathieu and Brunet, each assessing the road the other has travelled. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact the main tone is one of boredom and mild dislike.
  • The novel climaxes with a dramatic and philosophical encounter between Brunet and Mathieu.

The encounter between Brunet and Mathieu should have triumphantly completed the circle. They met in the first book, The Age of Reason, where the manly and convinced communist Brunet tried to persuade the ineffectual philosopher Mathieu to join him.

Now Brunet has been disowned by the communist party and discovered how tough life is on the ‘outside’, whereas Mathieu has not only ‘become free’ by shooting German soldiers from that church tower, but also – we now learn – runs the team that organises escapes from the camp. He has become the man of action while Brunet has become the man of uncertainty.

And, in a final rather melodramatic twist, it is revealed that the snitch who betrayed Brunet and Schneider’s escape attempt wasn’t Chalais the Commissar, it was the fat, thieving prole Moûlu. And in fact, while they’ve been chatting, Mathieu now reveals that his fellow escape committee members have just tried and executed Moûlu by strangling him. Brunet is more angry than shocked.

But the reader is shocked.

Mathieu says Brunet will be suspected by the Germans when Moûlu’s body is found, so they’ll arrange for his escape early the next morning. And it’s here that this long, fragmented section ends.


American translation

The translation is by an American, Craig Vasey, Professor of Philosophy at the Mary Washington University, Virginia.

This is a shame because Sartre’s demotic French is translated into demotic American, which jars with the English reader. ‘Mad’ means angry’; ‘pants’ mean ‘trousers’; the Germans become ‘the Krauts’, so that it feels like we’re in a U.S. war movie.

Worst of all, all the men or blokes are referred to as ‘the guys’. Innocuous though this trivial verbal choice may sound, it has major ramifications because the word appears numerous times on every page. For me it dominated the entire reading experience and its continual repetition had the effect of making it seem like we’re in a movie about the mafia.

  • Twenty guys are washing quickly under a shelter.
  • The guys are putting on their coats; they are heading off for work.
  • Brunet looks at his guys with satisfaction.
  • ‘This guy’s name is Schneider.’
  • ‘Our guys in Algiers have the proof.’
  • ‘My guys can’t stand him.’
  • ‘He’s not that kind of guy.’
  • ‘Don’t say anything to the guys.’
  • ‘I’m going to send you up one of my guys.’
  • ‘These Dutch guys don’t speak a word of French.’
  • ‘Hey,’ say the guys, ‘it’s Brunet.’
  • ‘What do you guys want?’
  • All the guys are there, all the guys looking at him…
  • ‘Don’t think about it too much guys…’
  • ‘You guys are assholes…’

Credit

The French edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

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