A Postmodern Tomb of Ideologies or a Toilsome Path to Mother’s Grave?
Thinkling, May 25, 2006
“Man is born in chains. In chill – he gropes his path to decay. [...] Without end he drags the cart of evil through history. Heavy wagons along muddy roads.” Patrik Ouředník, « Instant propice, 1855 » (The Opportune Moment, 1855)
Unlike his famous emigré compatriot Milan Kundera, Patrik Ouředník – another Czech writing from France, where he exiled himself in the 1980’s – remained largely unnoticed, until his short fiction-documentary Europeana came out in 2001. The eerily unorthodox overview of the twentieth century has by now been translated into 20 languages and made something of a hit in places as historically disparate as Hungary and the Netherlands. In author’s own words, if a book like that sells more than a couple of thousand copies, there is almost certainly a misunderstanding involved. But might there not be a real passion, on the part of those who lived through at least part of it, to try an grasp that strange century by any as yet untried means?
Far from a history by any standards, Europeana is somewhere between the stream of consciousness and the Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot”: a semi-absurd sequence of facts, quotations, anecdotes, and margin captions meant to evoke a history textbook, it stubbornly refuses to conform to any hierarchy of events by making no distinction between the (allegedly) major currents of the times and insignificant incidents accompanying them. That everything in the narrative is factually correct only adds to the chilling effect.
It is language that features prominently: slogans and rallying cries and newspaper headlines and contemporary ditties and lists of clichés, the uses of words create the portrait of the strange and rushed century. Ouředník’s editorship of the first dictionary of Czech slang and argot, compilation of another dictionary of the history of usage of biblical terms in everyday speech, his own experimental poetry, translations between French and Czech, essay In Search of Lost Language, all point to a concern with language, its uses, twists, distortions, genres, ideological manipulations, misappropriations. But then this might be something central-Europeans are somehow fatally predisposed to.
The latest novel by Ouředník, now published simultaneously in Czech and French versions, deals with another moment in history: the “opportune moment” to create a new world overseas which for many Europeans came in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the revolutionary enthusiasm still vivid in memory but already frustrated enough by realities of the diseased Old World.
The book consist of two distinct parts corresponding to two types of text, both first-person narratives; the first a letter, the second a (possibly fragmentary) diary. There is no bridging unity of a preface or afterword provided by the author himself. The letter is apparently written by an aged and disappointed man, an Italian and passionate anarchist, an ideologue and organizer of the movement of sorts, educated, but hostilely sceptical toward the course of western civilisation. Writing to a woman he once loved and surveying his ending life, he concentrates on his failed project – half a century ago – of founding in Brazil a free settlement Fraternitas for volunteeering European enthusiast revolutionaries and poor commoners. The diary, then, is a record kept by one of the motley group of participants in the project back in 1855, and also the only extant trace and memory of the settlement.
The voice of the diary has an uncouth ring of unsophisticated naivety, as it ranges indiscriminately events, quotes of speeches and bits of conversations, rarely attempting to establish any order among them. The only feeble suggestion of some sort of connection between the ideal of anarchist socialism and the actual practice of lives of the settlers are random transcriptions in the diary of ever more hopelessly and hollow sounding pronouncements on nature of man or freedom, on the promised land, on liberation from the shackles of civilisation, made by the various leading figures in the group: an authoritarian Zeffirino, French communist Gorand, an eternal nonconformist Decio.
While the same effect employed in Europeana produced an atmosphere of scepticism bordering on cynicism, The Opportune Moment is more than an explosion of yet another utopian ideology which proposes to build up a new world and either crash-lands upon encountering the everyday reality of human natures, or transforms itself into a deadly tyranny over bodies and minds in an attempt to channel the resisting world into predestined courses. The Opportune Moment is arguably more profound, or at least more complex here: the idiot’s tale is not a total judgement over the meaning of history; here it has behind it a real human face and a painful path through a real life. There is an honest desperation and hope in the hopeless search for a better world.
Language of the diary gets stuck and runs in circles as Fraternitas approaches its final crisis. Time seems to stop as consecutive entries now all bear the same date, 15th October 1855, and the same sentences keep reappering in increasingly disorderly fashion, creating an effect rather like that of the Theatre of the Absurd, the collapse of meaning emergent in plays by Ionesco, Beckett, or Havel. With the end in sight a rarely personal record of a dream appears: diarist’s mother rises up from her deathbed and leads him to the cemetery where she sinks into the ground telling her son they will now have chance to see each other often. Where Europeana led us to a postmodern scribble-covered tombstone of an absurd century, Opportune Moment leaves us by the side of mother’s grave. And that’s perhaps still a humanly more hopeful alternative.