The Complete Review (M. A. Orthofer)

Wednesday 7 March 2012
by  NLLG

“The Opportune Moment, 1855” by Patrik Ouředník

By M. A. Orthofer

The Complete Review, April 2011

The Opportune Moment, 1855 begins with a still idealistic anarchist writing in 1902 to a long-lost love about his life, which culminated in his efforts to establish an experimental settlement in Brazil almost half a century earlier, where he had hoped to establish a truly free and egalitarian community. He admits that his grand project quickly collapsed, but still insists:

“However, the short-lasted duration of the settlement is not proof of the project’s unattainability – only people without imagination could think so. If the first experiment fails to produce the expected results, it must be repeated.”

He didn’t quite give up, but found: “It quickly became clear that my reputation and name would henceforth be an obstacle to similar projects”. As to everything he’s done in the decades since, he thinks that is hardly even worth mentioning.

He includes in his letter the journal of one of those who traveled from Europe to embark on this adventure in 1855, and this makes up the rest of the novel. He barely comments on it, describing the journal as “the memoirs of a stranger”, because of course he does not find in it a record of the ideals he aspired to. Indeed, he goes so far as to admit:

“Words, words, words ! In the depths of night sometimes I plunge into a mad dream: that one day people will do without words and speak with one another using nothing but the gaze of their eyes in infinite love and kindness, in the mutual understanding of free beings.”

Even he calls that a ’mad dream’, but his anarchist vision is no less unrealistic – as the journal amusing demonstrates.

The journal covers the long voyage to Brazil, the diarist one of a larger group that had decided to leave Europe in search for a better life and were drawn to these egalitarian principles that the utopia of ’Fraternitas’ seemed to promise. Things do not start particularly well – “11 of us died in quarantine” from cholera on the way to Paris – but at least they all are willing to buy into this utopian idea, and share and share alike. On board, of course, things soon start to go south. Money still matters, not everyone is willing to play by the same rules, taking more than their fair shares, and ideological differences surface. Concepts such as free love and allowing blacks to be part of the community prove to be divisive – not fatally so, but the arguments on board certainly put more than a few cracks in the idealistic structure. Once they start putting everything to a vote, anarchy begins to look very, very structured and the freedom they imagined increasingly distant...

The first and longest part of the journal comes to an end on 1 April, once they’ve arrived in Brazil but before they’ve reached Fraternitas; the remainder consists of four journal entries from on or about 15 October, shorter and shorter variations describing the slow collapse of the community over the preceding six months, and then the final blows.

Utopian ideals are amusingly deflated in The Opportune Moment, 1855, as Ouředník’s satire is rather small and even gentle, but quite effective. It can feel a bit thin overall, as the journal entries tend towards the simple and straightforward and few of the more dramatic occurrences are fleshed-out, but it works quite well.