Patrik Ourednik, The Opportune Moment, 1855
Devin Z. Shaw
The Notes Taken, June 29, 2011
It was a late night hyperlink clicking session that led me to Patrik Ourednik. I don’t know exactly where it started, but it ended with me acquiring two of his books: The Opportune Moment, 1855 and Case Closed, both translated by Alex Zucker and published by Dalkey Archive Press. Here’s some brief background on Ourednik, which I’ve taken from Context (a journal published by Dalkey Archive as well).
Patrik Ouredník was born in Prague‚ but emigrated to France in 1984‚ where he still lives. He is the author of eight books‚ including fiction‚ essays‚ and poems. He is also the Czech translator of novels‚ short stories‚ and plays from such writers as François Rabelais‚ Alfred Jarry‚ Raymond Queneau‚ Samuel Beckett‚ and Boris Vian. He has received a number of literary awards for his writing‚ including the Czech Literary Fund Award.
I started with The Opportune Moment, 1855, which tells the story of the failure of an utopian commune founded by Italian anarchists in Brazil. It opens with a letter by one of the protagonists (who I will call the epistolary narrator), to his unrequited love, many years after the failure of the new society. At once it becomes clear that Ourednik is writing, in a way, a historical novel and satire. Here are the opening lines (also from the DA website), which convey that 19th century epistolary mood:
Madam, however strong my distaste at the thought of deferring to your whim after so many years, I have not found within myself the courage to resist it, and am left with no choice but to submit, albeit I do so at the expense of my repute. To oblige you means to confess to my love for you, that transient conflagration, that involuntary clouding of the senses, which renders less persuasive all that I have professed and proclaimed; and as much as you know it, in your selfishness you ask of me a sincerity which I could not show anyone else. For if in life I have resisted your God and his depraved demands, if I have resisted unfreedom and shallowness, if I have faced ridicule and human baseness always with calm and determination—I have lost my struggle with love; and what is more, my love has been embodied by you, a woman unworthy of true emotion. Still today, when I find in you nothing which would be worth attention, when I marvel at the fact that I ever could have loved you, still today a word from your mouth knocks me defenseless to my knees, returning me to the days of immaturity and youthful fumbling, to days past and past perfect, to the juvenile schoolboy who carried out directions and instructions he did not understand. But the schoolboy in the end revolted and made up his mind to submit only to that which appeared sensible and good to him, whereas the aging man takes pen in hand and hastens to satisfy your vanity.
The narrator then recalls the desires and reasons to attempt to create a new society in rural Brazil, his conflicted feelings over his paramour, and the shortcomings of the commune and his youthful enthusiasms. This particular participant is the founder that searched out its location and returned to Europe to propagandize for its creation, who nevertheless fails, due to his delay at sea, to arrive before the settlement self-destructs. All that is left, aside from the deserted settlement, is a journal that is given him by the Brazilian policeman.
The journal takes the reader back to 1855, and is told by an Italian anarchist named Bruno (who is not the same as the epistolary narrator, who, as far as I can tell, is referred to by Bruno as “Older Brother”). The journal is split into two parts, the first describes Bruno’s trip across the Atlantic, the second of the decline of Fraternitas settlement. During the trip across the Atlantic, Bruno captures the hopes and anticipations of the voyagers, their squabbles, and, unwittingly, their exploitation at sea by the ship’s captain (for example, when the captain chooses to land temporarily at Cape Verde rather than the Canary Islands, one of the voyagers “didn’t see why we hadn’t filled up on fresh water when we were in the Canary Islands, where it was free”). In the squabbles, many of the limitations of their enthusiasm are revealed: the group argues over whether non-Europeans should be admitted to the group, they seem oblivious to the problems of being settlers in relation to indigenous peoples, etc.
After this section, there is a six month gap in the journal, and it resumes as the Fraternitas settlement collapses, and narrator becomes completely unreliable (that’s all I can say without spoiling anything).
With novels such as The Opportune Moment, 1855, I find it impossible to ignore considering the political subtext. A story of a failed utopian project suggests, of course, that Ourednik views all political change with cynical eyes, meaning that all attempts at change end in defeat (but, then, why translate the book? We’ve got plenty of cynics and conservatives in the English language).
Or, it could accent the importance of the hopes opened by such a project despite their flaws. If the epistolary narrator is any indicator, Ourednik opts for the latter possibility. In his letter, the narrator rejects the smug liberalism of his former lover, choosing to resign himself to the absurdity of life rather than to the absurdity of bourgeois world.