Reading Dangerously

Saturday 26 May 2012
by  NLLG

The Opportune Moment, 1855

The Year of Reading Dangerously

May 18, 2012

Another novel that I particularly enjoyed last year by a writer I’d never read before was Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana (subtitled ‘a brief history of the twentieth century’). Luckily two more of his books are available from Dalkey Archive Press, including The Opportune Moment, 1855. Ourednik’s interest in history continues to be evident from the title, but here the camera focuses in on one relatively unimportant event rather than attempting to give us the panoramic sweep of Europeana. The event in question is an attempt to set up an anarchist community in Brazil in the mid-nineteenth century.

The clash between ideals and reality is evident from the novel’s structure which begins with a letter written in 1902 to an unnamed woman by the originator of the colony, a narrative that is immediately contrasted with the diary of one of those undertaking the voyage to Brazil in 1855. This contrast is evident from the disparate styles: the former is written with rhetorical flourishes; the latter is a prosaic rendering of events, including, for example, lists of passengers and equipment. The failure of the colony is also quickly established:

“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.”

Here the author blames reality rather than his own philosophy. He complains that many of those on the voyage “had not even read my articles”. Not only does the experiment’s failure give us a lens through which to view the diary which follows, the move backwards in time makes a mockery of the idea of progress.

We view the narrative of the voyage with an eye for the origins of failure. Distrust between nationalities is clearly one difficulty:

“The Germans are poorer than us Italians and most of them have hardly anything of their own. We’re worried that they might try to steal some of our things.”

Perhaps even more serious are the clashes between different ideologies:

“Gorand said that that was a typical Italian anarchist attitude, at which point Decio inserted himself into the conversation, saying that anarchy was not quite what Gorand imagined it, and that communism was always trying to tell people what to do.”

There is heated debate about whether the ship’s Negroes should be allowed to join the settlement (without ever considering whether they want to), and what sanctions should be used against those who do not turn up for assemblies. Ourednik satirises without ever resorting to caricature: we sense he sympathises with their attempt to be free while at the same time recognising those attitudes which still trap them.

The final section of the novel consists of four further diary entries all headed October 1855. They all begin in approximately the same fashion:

“October the 15th. This is our sixth month here but the truth is I don’t know where to begin. I’m not sure that today is October the 15th.”

These entries tell of the deterioration of life in the settlement after the arrival in Brazil. Their repetitive nature emphasises the way in which the impetus behind the settlement slows until it dies. Each entry is shorter than the last showing the dissipating energy of both the writer and the community. Unsurprisingly, it all ends with a drunk waving an axe.

As with Europeana, this is not a novel which looks cheerily on mankind, but it does possess the same wit and elegance in its pessimism.