“The Opportune Moment, 1855” by Patrik Ouředník
By Adam Parker Cogbill
The Collagist, April 2011
Patrik Ouředník’s The Opportune Moment, 1855 is a startlingly sad and funny look at the way individual freedom conflicts with community well-being. It begins with a letter written in 1902 by an Italian anarchist who is later referred to as “Older Brother”. The remainder is the 1855 journal of Bruno, a settler traveling to Older Brother’s newly founded anarchist settlement in Brazil. Bruno’s descriptions of the voyage and subsequent events in Brazil may remind readers of the fates of William Golding’s British schoolchildren. Like Lord of the Flies, The Opportune Moment, 1855 succeeds because of its exceptional storytelling and characters that crackle with life.
Older Brother’s letter, addressed to a woman he loves, is part autobiography, part manifesto, and part rant. It’s written in the style of an articulate and charismatic early twentieth-century gentleman:
“Why are the natural aspirations of humans so often frustrated by the rules and automatic behaviors to which we accede like unresisting puppets, filled with sawdust and slavishly submissive? (...) I speak here not of social conventions, which are in and of themselves unimportant, but of people’s scant longing for liberty. Why is it that people are so afraid of freedom?”
Readers may even find themselves enchanted with his vision of the future:
“To justify life! The optimists – those affable, rosy-cheeked, smiling people – to believe that everything is in perfect order. All the horrors of the world, all human spite and folly…How pessimistic! The pessimists on the other hand – those gloomy, petulant, bilious, obstinate individuals – believe that life should be better, that it could be something other than spiteful and foolish. How optimistic!”
Older Brother’s letter explains his vision of a world free of convention, government, and religion and describes his life’s “work”, the Fraternitas settlement in Brazil. “Do not give people compulsory rights,” he writes. “Do not give them rights or obligations. Give them Freedom.”
The remainder of the book is told by Bruno, a young Italian settler in Older Brother’s settlement. Bruno’s descriptions of what he sees – first on the voyage to Brazil, and then in the settlement – are innocent and often unintentionally comic: “Most us Italians are anarchists, but most of the French are communists and are constantly calling meetings.” (...) “They look down a little on us (...) since there aren’t very many of us who have been in prison.” The settlers struggle throughout the novel with linguistic and ideological differences, yet Ouředník’s characters never feel like vessels for larger philosophical or political ideas; Bruno records their worries about supplies, their arguments with each other, and their interactions with the crew of the Southern Cross.
One of the settlers’ early disagreements is about whether the ship’s black sailors and cook should be invited to join them. After the ship’s first officer’s carelessness causes the death of one of the blacks, the following argument ensues:
“Decio moved that we (...) invite the Negroes to come to the settlement with us and found a new world where it wouldn’t be important what race a person was. Zefferino said that (...) in his opinion inviting the Negroes to join (...) was at the very least premature and could threaten the outcome of our moral and ideological investment. He said by no means did he intend to excuse the first officer, but on the other hand it was plain that the Negroes didn’t exactly break their backs at work. Decio declared that he refused to speak to such an idiot.”
The settlers address this issue – as well as other difficulties they encounter during the journey, such as dwindling stores of food and spoiling drinking water – in an assembly, which is a chaotic, disorganized affair. In order to bridge the language barriers, Bruno must translate everything the French say into Italian, and another Italian, Agottani, must translate the translation for the Germans. Unsurprisingly, confusion ensues: the Germans are initially under the impression that the issue being discussed is whether or not to provide equipment for those unable to afford it.
The novel changes forms once again in its final third, after the settlers have arrived in Brazil. In four journal entries, all of which are dated October 15th – albeit with the disclaimer, “I’m not sure that today is October 15th” – and all of which are written in single paragraphs that span multiple pages, Bruno describes the collapsing structure of the settlement’s society. One settler deserts after having stolen half the group’s money. Men complain when other men don’t “lend” out their women – throughout the novel, several of the men assert that women should “belong to everyone” – and many of the settlers leave to join other, nearby settlements. To contend with these new problems, the settlers draft a constitution and a Charter of Obligations. A dress code is enacted. Bruno laments, “The four greatest attractions of our settlement are poverty, envy, suspicion, and alcoholism,” and, “Individual freedom [is] suspended because it turns out people are not ripe for it yet.”
One of the primary questions The Opportune Moment, 1855 asks is whether we should value ourselves as individuals more than the societies we live in, or if “civilization [is] necessarily a vehicle for freedom”. Ouředník doesn’t grant us a clear answer. Instead, he gives us a moving portrayal of human beings struggling to balance their individual freedoms and their community’s welfare.