Wednesday, August 16, 2006

New York Review of Books

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The New York Review of Books
Charles Simic
1990  Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry
U.S. Poet Laureate, 2007-08  

Adam's Umbrella

Charles Simic review of How to Quiet a Vampire, by Borislav Pekić, trans. Stephen M. Dickey and Bogdan Rakic. From the New York Review of Books, June 24, 2004.

The first visual record of police interrogation we have comes from a Seventh Dynasty tomb in Egypt. two thousand years before Christ. The image shows a man being held by three others while the fourth one beats him with a bamboo stick and the fifth, who appears to be the one in charge, supervises the procedure. The sight is disheartening, Borislav Pekić comments. In four thousand years not much has changed. Prisoners still get beaten. And that's not the worst that happens to them, of course. There have been many refinements since the pharaohs in methods of inducing physical and mental pain. We must give credit to the Holy Inquisition, which contributed more than any other institution to the development of the role of the interrogator. The inquisitors' techniques of persuasion were especially admired by modern totalitarian states where ideological heresy likewise came to be regarded as a capital crime.
Only educated people conversant with nuances of doctrine and with a talent for abstract speculation could count on becoming inquisitors. Their task was no longer to bash heads and extract fingernails but to have the prisoner comprehend the nature of his transgression and make a public confession. Today, in the name of the war on terror, ill-treatment and torture in all their ancient and modern varieties are again being used more or less openly by some countries, including the United States. These practices, surprisingly, have the approval of a number of distinguished law professors and opinion makers who argue that to defeat evil we may have to do the unthinkable now and then.
Were he alive today, Borislav Pekić would not have been persuaded. His interest in the abuse and torture of prisoners comes from firsthand experience. Unlike his better-known Serbian contemporaries, the novelists Danilo Kis and Aleksandar Tisma, who also wrote extensively about imprisonment, Pekić actually spent time in jail as a political prisoner under the Communists. Born in 1930, he was arrested in 1948 in Belgrade while still in high school, and accused of organizing a conspiracy against the state. He did not deny his guilt. The secret student organization of which he was one of the founders planned to engage in sabotage in addition to proselytizing for democratic reforms.
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This was an act of bravery akin to starting in Nazi Germany an association to combat the spread of anti-Semitism. He was interrogated, treated roughly, and made to sign a statement in which he admitted plotting against the state because, supposedly, he and his friends could not bear the freedom and happiness his fellow citizens now enjoyed. In other words, he was made to realize that rather than having fought for liberty as he had previously told himself, he had been a mortal enemy of that liberty. He served five years out of a fifteen-year sentence.
Exactly how he was made to confess the opposite of what he believed, Pekić describes in Godine Koje su Pojeli Skakavci (Years Eaten by Locusts), a three-volume memoir, still to be translated, of his time in prison, published in 1991, a year before his death. As much as he dwells on his own predicament, he is even more interested in the stories of his fellow prisoners and his jailers. Prison turned out to be a pivotal experience in his life. When he was arrested, he was an upper-middle-class boy whose father, ironically, had been a high police official before the war. After his pardon in 1953, Pekić was an outcast in a state where one's political past and unquestioning loyalty to the Party were decisive factors in getting ahead. The best thing a man like him could do under the circumstances was to become invisible. That, however, was never to be Pekić's talent. The day he was to be set free, he refused to leave the prison until the fountain pen that was confiscated at his arrest six years before was returned to him. The officials showed him a large stash of fountain pens and implored him to select the one he liked best, but he continued to insist that his own be given back to him.
After his release, Pekić studied psychology in Belgrade, and then between 1958 and 1964, he worked in the film industry writing numerous screenplays and publishing a few literary works under a pseudonym. His novel The Time of Miracles (Vreme Cuda) came out in 1965 when he was already thirty-five years old. It turned out to be a success with both the critics and the reading public. The book is made up of stories based on Christ's miracles in the New Testament. Pekić  re-imagines the events from the point of view of those on whom the miracles were performed by a passing stranger who did not ask for their consent or care much what happened to them afterward. In place of traditional narrative and theology, he offers his own counter-parables as a corrective. What interests him, as it does in his other books, is the gap between some religious or political doctrine and the actual outcome for a particular person.
The Time of Miracles is a blasphemous book with scenes and images that could have come from Gnostic gospels and the canvases of Hieronymus Bosch. The story of resurrection is also given a twist. A disciple, greedy for salvation, begs Jesus to let him carry the cross so that he may save his own soul. Jesus, who never refuses anyone in spiritual need, lets him take up the cross while he himself vanishes in the crowd. The Roman centurions in their drunkenness do not notice the switch and crucify the wrong man.
The Houses of Belgrade (Hodocasce Arsenija Njegovana, 1970), Pekić's next novel, has a far more conventional narrative. It tells the story of a well-to-do house builder and landlord who shuts himself inside his apartment on March 27, 1941, the day street demonstrations in Belgrade overthrew the government, which had signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler, and who doesn't emerge from it until June 3, 1968, when once more he discovers that the streets are full of protesting students. As the novel opens, Pekić's hero, an elderly man in failing health, is composing a commentary on his life. He lives on memories of the houses he built, which he observes through binoculars from his top-floor window. During the Allied bombing in 1944, he at first refuses to go down into the cellar, insisting on remaining at his window and trying to ascertain if any of his houses are being hit.
"How does one tell a story that is outdated, pointless, incomprehensible, perhaps risky and yet touching?" Pekić asks himself in one of his essays. Arsenie Negovan. his hero, is a member of what in Serbia turned out to be a quickly emerging and as quickly declining class of urban merchants and professionals whose fates were sealed by the Second World War and communism. The Houses of Belgrade is an elegy for that lost world, a world to which Pekić's own family belonged. Arsenie Negovan was a builder in a country in which cities are forever being reduced to ruins by some foreign invader or, as in the case of Sarajevo and Vukovar, by home-grown lunatics.
In 1971, Pekić moved with his family to London where, except for a few extended visits to his homeland, he lived in self- imposed exile until his death. These were extremely prolific years for him. In addition to the books already mentioned, he published novels, plays, books of science fiction, and several works of nonfiction. His novel in seven volumes, Golden Fleece (Zlatno Runo, 1978-86), is regarded as his masterpiece. In 1990, Pekić participated in the founding of the Democratic Party in Serbia, to which both the recently assassinated premier, Zoran Djindjic, and the present one, Vojislav Kostunica, also belonged, before they became enemies. He also took part in the first demonstrations against the Milosevic regime.
The last things he wrote were newspaper articles and speeches and their theme was the democratic future of Serbia. Rereading the pieces today, I'm struck by his willingness to forgive his old enemies and by his rosy outlook. Like other moderate nationalists, he did not foresee what tragedies lay ahead, since, more than the others, he believed in compromise. Serious consideration of other people's views and a genuine attempt to understand them was the essence of democracy for Pekić. Without compromise, he wrote, there can be no normal life for us. He knew how difficult finding the middle ground politically had always been for Serbs; nevertheless, he hoped that for once they might come to their senses, seize the opportunity,
and act wisely.
How to Quiet a Vampire, well translated by Stephen M. Dickey and Bogdan Rakic, is a book without a trace of optimism. First published in 1977, it is the story of a former SS officer, Konrad Rutkowski, now a professor of medieval history at the University
of Heidelberg, who like thousands of other Germans vacations on the Dalmatian coast. In his case in the town of D. where twenty-two years before, during the Second World War, he served as a Gestapo officer. His wife, whose idea it was to take the trip, has no knowledge that this is the place where he was briefly posted, and so remains oblivious of her husband's inner turmoil. Rutkowski's efforts to both renounce and justify his past are detailed in twenty-six letters which he writes to his brother-in-law back in Germany, who also happens to be a professor of history. Pekić, writing as the narrator, depicts himself as the scholarly editor of the letters who provides a preface, numerous footnotes, and several additional documents and commentaries at the end of the book. In his introduction, he characterizes the writing as a mixture of personal confession and a historico-philosophical essay. These elements, of course, are present in Pekić's other fiction. He was always as interested in ideas as in his characters and his plots.
The former Gestapo officer, Professor Rutkowski, uses the letters to conduct a bitter polemic with the European intellectual tradition of which he proudly considers himself to be a descendant. He ascribes to it the great share of the blame for his personal tragedy as well as the moral ruin of Germany. The content of each letter is consequently associated with a different European philosophical school and a work of a particular philosopher. The Meditation of letter I belong to Marcus Aurelius; Matter and Memory of letter 2 to Henri Bergson; Thus Spake Zarathustra of letter 3 to Nietzsche, and so forth. By the last letter, Leibniz, Descartes, Freud, Schopenhauer, Berdayaev, Hegel, Spengler, Husserl, Erasmus, Plato. Hume, Abelard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Saint Augustine, Camus, Marx, and Wittgenstein have all been alluded to. In his view, these are the real culprits for the delusions and violence of the twentieth century. He writes to his brother-in-law:
Although you've never read Wittgenstein, you worship him. Although you didn't understand Hegel, you worship him, too. The same goes for Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. You owe this not only to your status as an academic, but also to your conviction that Ideas, especially philosophical ones, are a necessary corrective to the disgusting lives we're sometimes forced to lead. The idea that philosophy could inspire one such life, organize it, and defend it as ideal seems blasphemous to you. I assure you, however, that something just like that is what's going on. Your naive conviction (we'll see how naive it really is) that thinking philosophically means secluding oneself from reality and absolving oneself of all responsibility in connection with it—and that such seclusion is the condition sine qua non of every unbiased philosophical view— stems from an insidious wish, camouflaged in a general independence of the intellect, to disavow any responsibility for this world, whereby your harmlessness acquires a completely different meaning. . . . The thought that logical speculations could be connected in any way with beatings and the mutilation of people's souls seems to you to be a monstrous injustice—not against the people but against the speculations.
On a mundane level, Rutkowski's story goes like this. He was born in 1916 in a region of Yugoslavia called Banat, formerly a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where his German ancestors settled in the fifteenth century. His father was a moderately well-off farmer. Rutkowski studied medieval history at the University of Heidelberg between 1934 and 1938 and received his doctorate there in 1940. The subject of his thesis was German- Polish relations before the Reformation. He returned home and began teaching grammar school in a town near Belgrade. When the war came, he failed to respond to the mobilization call to the Yugoslav army and soon after the arrival of German troops in April of 1941, became a member of the SS and eventually a Gestapo officer.
He carried out his police duties in Belgrade, except for temporary assignments in D. on the Adriatic coast and later in a town in Slovenia. Following both of these periods of service, he spent time in military hospitals suffering from extreme nervous exhaustion. \\lien the war ended, he was subject to criminal proceedings by the Allied military authorities and sentenced to what was then known as work rehabilitation, following which he spent two years without steady employment until his former professor at Heidelberg brought him as a lecturer to the university and his academic career flourished.
The special operation in D. with which his letters are concerned occurs in 1943, when, following the capitulation of Italy, which had been occupying the Dalmatian coast, the German army and police moved into the region. Rutkowski is a member of a small unit led by an old Nazi Party member and experienced Gestapo investigator, a certain Standartenführer Steinbrecher, whose mission is to take over the police station and the duties the Italians performed until recently. As they are moving into their new quarters, Steinbrecher lectures Rutkowski on the complexities of police work in an occupied suite. His ideas are terrifying. He sounds to me like a brilliant follower of the philosopher Carl Schmitt, who took his antiliberal philosophy of the state to its logical conclusions. In Steinbrecher's view, as in Schmitt's, a strong, healthy state must have perpetual adversaries. Enemies are the bolts that hold the machinery of the state together. Mutual suspicion. the covert desire of human beings to snitch on each other, ought to be encouraged. Since universal spying and denunciation are going to be the rule in the future, there'll always be plenty of work for cops to do. Police will only become unnecessary if every human being on earth becomes a policeman.
Even the famous incident in the Garden of Eden ought to be studied for what it can teach us about running a state. Forbidding the fruit to be taken from one tree, fruit completely indistinguishable from the fruit in any other tree, could have had as its goal only the enthronement of prohibition as such to test its effects on people. Plucking fruit from that tree in particular proved that this was not a matter of an ordinary theft, but a premeditated act violating divine order and thus an act of rebellion. According to Steinbrecher, the original sin was the first political crime. The craving to violate the prohibition and to disturb the established order, the conspiracy of a particular man and woman with that as its goal (abetment and solicitation), the participation of the serpent as an agent provocateur and probable informer, make it so. Finally one person, God, appears in every legal guise—as legislator, investigator, prosecutor, judge, and even the one who administers punishment in the end. Vishinsky, Stalin's infamous prosecutor in the 1930s who argued that there is no difference between the intention and the crime, would have agreed with that view. Adam and Eve should have confessed and asked for forgiveness long before they reached for the apple in the tree.
A few days after they move to D., the Germans discover in the cellar of the police station a middle-aged prisoner left behind by the Italians. The file clerk Adam Trpković, they find, was arrested for failing to salute the flag while passing the town hall and was subsequently forgotten by the Italians, who left in a hurry. He has survived by eating tangerines intended for the black market that were also in the cellar. To the great astonishment of the Germans, he still has with him his umbrella. They don't know what to do with him. They want to let him go, but the presence of that umbrella puzzles them and creates bureaucratic difficulties when it comes to filling out the forms for his official release. How are they to account for it? They can't. As one would expect, once Steinbrecher learns of the situation, he has a different view. Why shouldn't we begin our police work with him? he asks, even though he is ready to agree that the file clerk is an insignificant nobody. Nonetheless, he's a member of an enemy nation, and that is a sufficient reason to take a further look into his background. Rutkowski has no comment, but he's horrified. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he still holds onto the belief that their duty is to learn the truth. His commanding officer sets him straight:
The truth? My foot! What are we, a bunch of goddamned philosophers or something? We make truths, Obersturmführer Rutkowski! We don't learn them, we make them! That's a creative endeavour, not an investigative one. We're artists, my dear sir.... I'd say poets.
Rutkowski pretends to himself that he can find a way to help the clerk. For Pekić, he has the intellectual's special ability to ignore evil by explaining it away. His unhappiness comes from his dim awareness that he is a hypocrite. In the end, he does nothing to help the innocent man. He who acts, he consoles himself, has no time for balances and scales. Rutkowski needs his "although," "maybe," and "on the other hand" to conceal his cowardice from himself. Steinbrecher, suspecting his ambivalence, assigns him to be the one who questions the clerk. He even provides him with the transcript of one of his own prized interrogations for guidance. The full text, included in the appendix of the novel, is worth studying closely for the way in which an extraordinarily logical mind can be an instrument of iniquity.
"A man can dodge even bullets, but not logic," Pekić writes. The task of the interrogator is to make the prisoner accept reason in place of reality and assume full responsibility for probable events that in truth never happened. Reality is a sin against reason for which the prisoner has to pay with his life. Chance is illogical; therefore it cannot and must not exist. In principle, it is always possible to show that it is more logical for something to have happened than not. One may say that philosophically it is necessary that everything be intentional; otherwise there can be no meaning. Because no such thing as coincidence can exist, there are also no mitigating circumstances. All circumstances in which one finds oneself are by their very nature aggravating. When our mothers warned us that someone who lies will also steal, that a thief will also commit murder, and that a murderer will end up on the gallows, they were giving expression to a view that a policeman of Steinbrecher's school can only confirm from his practice.
The clerk he is questioning through the night is not cooperating with Rutkowski. He barely replies, doesn't appreciate that his interrogator is suffering morally for his sake, and appears resigned to his fate. Even more infuriatingly, he is still clutching his ridiculous umbrella which no one, for some unknown, superstitious reason, dares to take away from him. How the memory of the clerk. Adam Trpković, comes to haunt Rutkowski and becomes his vampire is the story of the letters. Writing to his brother-in-law in the hope that words can cancel deeds, he seeks a compromise between suicide and apathy. In truth, his letters for the most part are a labored attempt to dodge responsibility and give a different explanation for his gutlessness.
"Can you recognize in Steinbrecher's linguistic jeremiad the semantic longings of Rudolph Carnap?" he writes to his brother- in-law, who, unknown to him, hasn't even bothered to read the letters. Pekić calls How to Quiet a Vampire "a sotie," deriving the term from satirical popular plays in France in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in which a company of sots, fools, exchanged badinage on contemporary persons and events. It is a grim comedy about what happens to philosophical ideas when they end up in a police cellar. "Knowledge is the prerequisite for all evil," Steinbrecher says. Ignorance can be wicked when it gets the chance, but crime on a large scale comes from the learned. Pekić reminds us that respected scientists were asked for technical assistance to solve the problem of how to burn the most human bodies in the shortest time with the lowest expenditure in death camps. Rutkowski, as much as he denies it, is an intellectual monster himself. Once he comes to that realization, his solution to how to get rid of his remorse is equally hideous. He writes in the next to die last letter:
The problem wasn't finding the key to my past—which was what I was passionately trying to do in my letters—but to find the one to my future. Tomorrow is what makes me human; yesterday is what makes me a corpse. The mistake was reviving something I should have taken long ago and buried forever. Our problem is not how to revive, but how to quiet our vampires. The past is a vampire and the real question is how to quiet it forever. We don't have a third option. Either we drive a stake through the vampire's heart or our blood is soon completely sucked dry. In order to achieve the former, we must for once begin with the excretion of the poisonous spirit of intellectual analysis from our lives.
For a short book, How to Quiet a Vampire has a complicated plot which I’ve barely sketched out. On one level, it is a psychological study of a descent into madness of an intellectual who in his ideas gradually begins to turn into an apologist for a brutal authoritarian state with its martyrs of destruction and saints of demolition. The story of the file clerk also takes many unexpected turns. He appears to Rutkowski as a ghost and perhaps even as the devil himself; his execution by hanging turns out to be a kind of mock crucifixion and resurrection. In my opinion, the realistic and fantastic aspects of the narrative are not as well intermixed as they are in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, which undoubtedly was one of Pekić's models. He strives to inflate the clerk and the guilt-ridden professor of history into even more universal symbols after it has become unnecessary to do so. Leaving some of the subplots and commentaries out—and that includes most of the appendix—would have made a brilliant novel into a great one.
For Pekić, history is not to be understood as created by Hitler, Stalin, and all the countless lesser-known executioners who do their killing. Rutkowski and Adam Trpković are more revealing of the history of our time: the one who supposedly knows better, but closes his eyes, and the one who pays with his life for that negligence. There was nothing suspicious about this wretch, nothing incomprehensible except his umbrella, Rutkowski writes. Nevertheless, Steinbrecher orders that the clerk be hung with it. "Do you sense the advantage of farce over all other forms of human humiliation?" he tells Rutkowski. "Farce kills truth, destroys faith, ridicules every feat of heroism. Can someone be a hero in his underwear while holding an umbrella?" Not even Achilles could have managed that, Steinbrecher says. The reader of How to Quiet a Vampire will disagree. The funny little man who carries an umbrella in one hand while holding on to his shorts with the other as he is being led to the gallows is the only true hero in a tragic farce.
Northwestern University Press should be commended for its series Writings from an Unbound Europe, in which Pekić's novels and dozens of other first-rate works of fiction in translation from the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe have appeared and continue to appear.

Charles Simic review of How to Quiet a Vampire, by Borislav Pekić, trans. Stephen M. Dickey and Bogdan Rakic. From the New York Review of Books, June 24, 2004.

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