Tag Archives: Pablo Neruda

Georgi Markov – a footnote on a recent edition

I am reading right now (in Bulgarian) a three-volume edition of the essays of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who is for me one of the most remarkable Eastern European intellectuals of the time between the end of WWII and the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately he is in the West mainly known for the fact that he was assassinated in a rather bizarre way by a hit-man in the service of the Bulgarian State Security, and not for his work and the brilliant analysis of the Bulgarian and other regimes in Eastern Europe.

The edition contains many essays that are – according to the information in the books – published here for the first time in print, and it is remarkable how fresh and highly relevant these essays that are at least four decades old, are today. A fact that says also something very unpleasant about the situation in Bulgaria – still very much run by the networks of people with links to the former Bulgarian State Security and their underlings – and most other Eastern European countries.

The publisher, who brought recently among others also Varlam Shalamov, Yevgenia Ginzburg, and works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the Bulgarian readers, has to be praised for this deed.

However, I have also to mention that the footnotes are to me very annoying. While some of them are ridiculously inadequate – is it really necessary to try to explain in two lines who Thomas Mann or Pablo Picasso were, and does the fact that the publisher added these footnotes mean that this edition is intended for an audience that is missing even an elementary Bildung? -, others are inaccurate, and even manipulative.

One example: Pablo Neruda is described in a footnote as an author that was “occupied by communist ideas”, which is clearly a strong understatement; he was in reality a Stalinist hardliner and active GPU/NKWD agent with blood on his hands; he played a big role in the Trotsky assassination, and allegedly some others, and he personally took care of deleting non-Stalinist leftists from the list of people that would be granted a place on a rescue ship and visa to Chile, people desperately trying to leave unoccupied France in 1940; Neruda knew perfectly well that his selection (I am almost tempted to write Selektion here) was in fact a death sentence for almost all of them, executed either by the Nazis, or by the assassination squads of Stalin (Victor Serge has written in detail about such murderous “intellectuals” as Neruda). The footnote about Neruda is in this context extremely misleading.

Another example is Günter Grass, who according to the footnote was a “far-left” writer. For those who don’t know it, Grass was a life-long supporter of the German Social Democrats, even when he left the party for few years out of disappointment; he wrote speeches for his close friend, Chancellor Willy Brandt, one of the most fervent German anti-Communists, and he was himself a lifelong anti-Communist. The German Social Democrats, and also Grass himself, were never “far-left”, and the footnote is either reflecting a completely uninformed editor, or is – what I don’t hope, but cannot completely dismiss as a possibility – intentionally manipulative, “far-left” being in Bulgaria a common epithet for a Communist sympathiser.

On the other hand, it is mentioned that Salvador Dali left Spain after the Civil War, but “refrained from political activities”; those who don’t know who Dali really was, might get the impression that he was an active anti-fascist who left the country to avoid persecution – while the truth is exactly the opposite: he showed a servile attitude towards the dictator Franco and open sympathies for fascism, and he had even the bad taste to (figuratively speaking) spit on the grave of his former best friend Garcia Lorca, who was murdered by Dali’s new friends. There was a reason why Max Ernst crossed the street when he got sight of Dali during his emigration, and it was not only for artistic reasons that he didn’t want to face his shameless plagiarist!

Unfortunately, all intellectuals with sympathies for the (democratic) left seem to be described in a way similar to Grass, while in cases of intellectuals or artists with fascist sympathies a sudden amnesia seems to have taken hold of the editors. 

But not only when it comes to Western artists and intellectuals, this edition goes astray; almost all Bulgarian authors – most of them household names for the readers of this edition; even the famous Blaga Dimitrova has her two-line resume – have a footnote; only Lyubomir Levchev, a key figure of Bulgarian literary life in the time of Communism is not worthy(?) of a footnote. This gifted poet, a close friend of Markov while the later dissident was still living in Bulgaria, who made a career as an orthodox Communist literary functionary, played for example a very active role in the persecution and partly expulsion of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria in the 1980’s (euphemistically called “Revival process” by the Communists), a role in which he seems to take pride until today.

I doubt very much that the missing footnote for Lyubomir Levchev was an editorial oversight (I have privately my suspicion for which reason the footnote is missing), and this missing footnote, together with the other inadequate, wrong, and manipulative footnotes decrease my pleasure in this otherwise great and valuable edition very much. I hope that this edition will see many reprints, and that many especially young Bulgarians will read it – but with more appropriate and correct footnotes!

Георги Марков: До моя съвременник; Ненаписаната българска харта; Ходенето на българина по мъките (3 volumes), Communitas Foundation, Sofia 2015-2016

My remarks are mainly based on the first of the three volumes, which I have finished so far.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Unforgiving Years

Unforgiving Years – a very suitable title for a novel that is reflecting the lives of the protagonists of Victor Serge’s posthumously published book about a group of life-long revolutionaries that have broken with the Communist Party after the show trials of the years 1936/37 in Moscow and the great purges in the Soviet Union, followed by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

D – like all Comintern agents he is using several names and passports – has sent his “letter of resignation” to the service, a step that can result in any moment in retribution, i.e. assassination by one of the services loyal agents. Defectors are considered as traitors and have to be eliminated, in pre-War Paris where the novel starts like in any place of the world where Stalin’s long arm is reaching.

The novel consists of four sections, which are like large panels of a painting that shows the ideological, physical and personal devastations of these Unforgiving Years. In the first part, D is preparing his and his partner Noemi’s escape to the New World; the atmosphere is that of growing paranoia: both fear for very good reasons that a killer commando is after them and they are using all stratagems of conspiracy to stay safe. D tries to convince Daria, a close friend and fellow revolutionary whom he knows a long time (and was once in love with) to join them, but to no avail. Daria has made up her mind to go back to the Soviet Union.

In part Two, we are following Daria’s fate in the steppe of Kazakhstan and during the blockade of Leningrad. In part Three, she is on a dangerous mission behing enemy lines in a bombed-out German city during the last days of the war. These parts are full with some of the most impressive pages I have read about WWII; characters like the young officer Klim, the cripple Franz or the girl Brigitte and her fate leave a very strong impression on the reader. In the last part, Daria finally defects too and is joining D and Noemi – they have established themselves as small farmers in a remote part of Mexico – hoping that they have finally escaped the wrath of Stalin and the tentacles of his secret army of agents and killerati

It is interesting to compare Serge’s novel with a few others written by so-called renegades; authors that were not only “fellow-travelers” of communism but that participated actively as Comintern agents or in other official or secret function in the fight for the revolution (or for Stalin), and that grew more and more disappointed after the trials and the pact with the devil Nazism. Unforgiving Years, Like a Tear in the Ocean (by Manes Sperber), The Great Crusade (by Gustav Regler), Darkness at Noon (by Arthur Koestler), and I could mention also many other works by Silone, Spender, Malraux, Orwell and others – they all have a central character that turns after a long inner fight from a convinced communist and revolutionary into a renegade, a person that objects to brutal and inhumane Stalinist ideology.

Contrary to the other mentioned authors, Serge was a life-long activist and a revolutionary by birth so to say. He was born into a Russian family of emigrants in Brussels – a distant relative was the explosives expert of the anarchist group that assassinated Czar Alexander II -, got involved in the activities of an anarchist group (probably the first one to use cars as escape vehicles during their bank robberies), served some time in prison and went shortly after the October Revolution to the Soviet Union were he became a part of the so-called “Left Opposition”. The later part of his life resembles a lot that of the novel’s main character, 

Against all odds, this is also a novel of hope. D is expressing it after Daria arrives at his farm in Mexico and finds him changed and more calm, even philosophical:

“Every bit of basalt has its crown of greenery and flowers sprung from lifeless aridity. It’s a miracle of resurrection, like when the snows melt in our cold countries… For months there was nothing to see but a dried-up desert; who could guess that beneath the calcinated ground, millions of invincible seeds were concealed, ready to germinate. We observe that he true power is not that of darkness, or barrenness, but of life. All that exists cries, whispers, or sings that we must never despair, for true death does not exist.” 

For me, Unforgiving Years is first of all a novel about the conscience and responsibility of the individual. Quite in the beginning, D – who is also the narrator of this part – says something that reflects perfectly the author’s opinion of that question, I suppose. And I think it is worth it to quote it in detail:

“What is “conscience”? A residue of beliefs inculcated in us from the time of primitive taboos until today’s mass press? Psychologists have come up with an appropriate term for these imprints deep within us: the superego, they say. I have nothing left to invoke but conscience, and I don’t even know what it is. I feel an ineffectual protest surging up from a deep and unknown part of me to challenge destructive expediency, power, the whole of material reality, and in the name of what? Inner enlightenment? I’m behaving almost like a believer. I cannot do otherwise: Luther’s words. Except that the German visionary who flung his inkwell at the devil went on to add, “God help me!” What will come to help me?”

From his memoirs which I had read long ago, I knew that Serge was an interesting author. Judging from Unforgiving Years it seems that he was even a very accomplished novelist who is still to discover; the very informative preface of the translator explains us that a recent biography on Serge wants to make us believe that “writing, for Serge, was something to do only when he was unable to fight.” (Susan Weissman, The Course Is Set On Hope, Verso 2002). I find this opinion wrong and the biographer’s decision to reduce Serge to anti-Stalinist fighter and propagandist only diminishes this extraordinary novelist without reason.

In a perfect world, the works of Serge and other writers who tried to open the world’s eyes to see the ugly truth about Stalinism, would be read far more widespread – and the works of those authors who started their careers as GPU henchmen that organised the assassination of renegades and ended up as Stalin or Nobel Prize winners would be, where they belong…but, as we all know, the Pablo Neruda industry is still blooming, whereas Serge is still virtually unknown to a big part of the reading public. 

Thanks to New York Review Books, at least several of Serge’s books are available in English and we readers can do him justice: Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Midnight in the Century, Conquered City, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, and Unforgiving Years, a masterpiece that I can recommend strongly.

Unforgiving Years

Victor Serge: Unforgiving Years, translated by Richard Greeman, New York Review Books, New York 2008

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.