Sins of Denial

The word “lie,” like the word “truth,” is banned in art, and during the normalization neither of them can be used (251). 

IMG_2587When writing fiction, an author strives to make a story feel real and true, the reader must believe. Breaking the suspension of disbelief with questions like, “could that have really happened?” is naturally to be avoided. Unfortunately, non-fiction never ceases to mercilessly move the goalpost of plausible truth. It is difficult to compete with the awful, endless absurdity that is reality.  Mariusz Szczygiel has rather brilliantly shown fiction to be a mere sliver of the horrors of non-fiction. Exhibit A, his brilliant book of creative non-fiction,  Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia. 

2. not succumbing to idleness (so it is best to read, but with one reservation: DO NOT READ RUSSIAN NOVELS, says the slogan thought up by Bata and posted on the wall of the felting unit. Why not? Bata’s reply is on the wall of the rubber unit: RUSSIAN NOVELS KILL YOUR JOIE DE VIVRE) (17-18).

Szczygiel collection of vignettes in dark, despairing humor give a history of Czechoslovakia through the 1900s. It is fascinating, heartbreaking, and puzzling. Whywhywhy? Totalitarianism is formidable in its exercise and precision of terror.  The truth that it is nearly impossible to be heroic under total surveillance is made plain- at best the sound of your soul squashing will be second guessed and dissected by future gawkers of history, further robbing it of meaning and complexity.

Beginning the book with the grand rise of  the Plato/Henry Ford-esque utopian entrepreneur Tomás Bata (legendary Czechoslovakian canvas shoe maker) sets the perfect tone to a tale of societal engineering gone so incomprehensibly wrong.

‘I realized that, in Czechoslovakia, a hospital for the mentally ill was the only normal place, because there everyone could say what they really thought with impunity’ (journalist Eda Kriseova quoted, 167).

The stories of various screen stars, writers, singers and artists coping with life under extremely unfunny and cruel conditions that are shoved down every Czech citizen’s throat with an arrogant “it’s good for you” attitude are just devastating. The people that don’t kill themselves, must distort themselves into, as Szcygiel makes beautiful reference to, cubist versions of themselves: broken up, disjointed, disconnected. And still, goodness knows why, but there are always the unflappable spirits among us:

Though haggard and deprived of a job, he is always happy about something. He says that in prison he sang arias from Wagner’s operas. (“And if I hadn’t ended up in there, it never would have occurred to me to sing.”) (235).

The style of Szczygiel’s prose perfectly accentuates his theme of human fragility coping with the absurdity, cruelty, and bureaucratic black humor that history endlessly doles out. That people even survive societies where intellectuals are imprisoned for being the enemy of the “working man” (what ever that actually means…) while pulp fiction is literally being pulped for the crime of corrupting the intellect of the working man, (say what?) is remarkable. Little that would give pleasure through escapism survived, 70%, Szczygiel reports, of all “trash” crime fiction, horror, thrillers, adventure, science fiction and romance novels were liquidated. All pleasurable fiction was to be replaced with “social-realist trash.” Because, why just live it, eh? Besides why would you want to escape? Are you a traitor? Unsurprisingly,  the reverberations live on. I have difficulty understanding the totalitarianism mind-set, but no difficulty at all fearing it.

“Oh, that’s Procházka’s writing. Take a look, I think he wrote something about The Ear there,” he says.
Yes, he did.
“This story is made up. The things that really happened were far more terrible.” (director Karel Kachyna quoted, 145).

No doubt.

*Title from page 102: Taking note of linguistic details in the Czech Republic can offer clues. Thus, in situations where someone ought to say: “I was afraid to talk about it,” “I hadn’t the courage to ask about it,” or “I had no idea about it,” they say:
“THERE WAS NO TALK about it.”
“NOTHING WAS KNOWN about it.”
“that WASN’T ASKED about.”
I often hear the impersonal form when people have to talk about communism. As if people had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility. As if to remind me that they were just part of a greater whole, which also had some sin of denial on its conscience.

I would only add that, it seems to me, “communism” in this context is a mutable term. It is fundamentalists of any kind for whom freedom of thought and human dignity is actively suppressed, violently or in more subtle forms of propaganda and dogmatic ideologies, that are a plague upon peace and compassion. Haven’t we fought this battle, didn’t others cover this ground? Perhaps, but it seems to me reckless to neglect stating that this proclivity for fundamentalism is very much a part of present current affairs in many places around the world. I can’t just gawk. And as history has shown, simply speaking is a lot.

** Gottland translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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7 responses to “Sins of Denial

  1. There is definitely something special in their mindset, they see to be born with surrealist humour. Have you seen the film Bataville we are not afraid of the future, about ec employees of Bats in Britain visiting Bata related sites? It’s brilliant

  2. One must speak because one can. It’s frightening.

  3. In terms of brilliant Czech filmmakers from the period prior to the suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968, Milos Foreman and Ivan Passer’s films like Fireman’s Ball and Loves of a Blonde reveal a wonderfully dark and absurdist subtext. Fleeing the aftermath of the Soviet crackdown, Foreman made his way to America where it should come as little surprise that he directed among other films, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus.

    Perhaps the question (posed by Lawrence Durrell in Clea) to be asked is: “Is poetry, then, more real than observed truth?” And is not the poetry of madness necessary for survival in a totalitarian state?

  4. “I realized that, in Czechoslovakia, a hospital for the mentally ill was the only normal place, because there everyone could say what they really thought with impunity”

    I have the same contemplations about North Korea these days. I even wonder just what constitutes mental illness and mental institution there. Exactly, what are the standards of psychiatry in such a place? What was it in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany?

    To me, attempts to eliminate free will, free thought and free expression are at best illogical; at worse insane.

  5. I absolutely agree – criminally insane.

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