The Laboratory: Reading the Eastern Bloc

When I went to see Jiří Hájíček talk about his novel Rustic Baroque (Selský baroko) at Prague’s American Center in mid-January he made an obvious but still very interesting point about what distinguishes the English-language translation of the book from the other translations that have come out so far. He said that not only for Czech readers, but for the readers of the Hungarian, Croatian and if I remember correctly, Polish, versions, the tragic history of the communist land collectivization the novel depicts is something that would be familiar, whereas for readers from the US and UK these would be events entirely outside their collective experience and that this would make it exotic for them in a way it wouldn’t be for readers from former communist countries.

I have always been highly allergic to the guidebook-like notion that it might be a good idea to read international literature as a way of learning about or “visiting” a particular country. As if you might read a novel like Bolaño’s 2666 in lieu of a trip to Mexico, after which you can return from the experience  to present your friends figurative slide shows of the warped, demented images you have brought back with you along with raves about the delicious food. And yet there really is something tangible that reading from different places and times provides, and it is of far more than documentary interest, let alone a matter of novelty or edification.

I was reminded of this when reading about Balázs Györe’s My Friends Who Informed on Me at Hungarian Literature Online (HLO). The book is described as “a book on friendship : betrayed friendship.” So far, that makes it an unfortunately universal experience. But being a documentary account of how his old friends informed on him to the communist secret police makes this book similarly ventures into a realm beyond Western experience.

At the same time, some of the universality remains. If history can be defined as psychology in time, then the Eastern Bloc represents a place and time whose history tells us how people react under extreme and unnatural conditions. To read a novel or work of non-fiction and only view it as what it’s like in another part of the world is missing the point. These books show the results of experiments, but ones carried out by mad and at times mindless non-scientists whose experiments were uniformly worthless. Milan Kundera referred to the Central Europe of his favorite novelists – Broch, Kafka, the Gombrowicz and Musil – as the “laboratory of twilight”. The era that followed proved to be a far more sinister laboratory, with writers doing to various degrees what Balázs Györe did with his own secret police files, taking the data amassed from these failed experiments and drawing out of them observations and insights of their own.

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Categories: Essays

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