Free, in chains
By Anna Aslanyan
The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník, Dalkey Archive 2011
As a narrative tool, a diary is special in that it never equals the sum total of its entries and, in experienced – or, conversely, unskilled – hands, can become a truly unique document. It is not simply a collection of day-to-day accounts, but a text that has all its author’s idiosyncrasies – or, in any case, as much as they are willing to let on, plus those precious slips that make it worth reading. Our vicarious pleasure may be to do with the fact that a diary is usually not intended for our eyes, although there are exceptions to this rule; also, the same effect often occurs with private letters. Patrik Ouředník’s The Opportune Moment, 1855 is written in these two modes, leaving enough room for the narrator’s revolutionary fervour as well as the writer’s own satirical observations.
The letter which opens the book is dated 1902 and addressed to a lady who wishes her spurned admirer “to describe the novel of [his] life”; what comes out is “not […] a recounting of actuality, but the memoirs of a stranger.” The author, in his character’s words, warns you he is going to play a literary game: “I do not shun writing – merely literature. In writing is truth; in literature, lies.” This is supposed to put the readers off their guard: of course the book is written by a contemporary European, not by a 19th century Italian idealist with an early penchant for anarchism. But you need to stay alert – if only not to miss those clues in the diary which, as mentioned above, distinguish it from a straightforward first-person narrative.
The long letter to the old flame is a tirade of opinions and grievances Bruno Celli has been harbouring for decades. Infected by Rousseau‘s ideas and later political thoughts, he launches his big project whose aim is to establish a settlement in Brazil, where people would embrace freedom and “be able to say that anarchy is neither a just or unjust idea, but simply a fact.” Together with a group of like-minded followers, Bruno boards a ship, and their passage, described in his diary, begins in February 1855. That the moment deemed to be opportune is not quite so becomes clear early on, but keep reading – this diary is full of rewarding details.
Take, for instance, the author’s painstaking attempts to record the names of all the fifty-five Italians on board. It takes him three entries, and the phrase “(I’ll continue the list tomorrow)” is one you might expect to find in a diary; put after a roster of names, the aside adorns it with a new meaning while telling you something about the everyman diarist. Similarly, the accounts of “assemblies” travellers have almost daily, whenever there is an argument, become more charged and comical at the same time when written down by someone who tries to be on top of the situation. The entry on a meeting held to discuss the role of women in the settlement (where free love is envisaged as a path to a better future, ) is peppered with “supposedly”; another one tells of early linguistic problems: the interpreter “suddenly stopped short and said he didn’t know how to say go and hang himself in German.” Things get even more complicated when the settlers have a motion to admit Negro sailors into their multinational community; numerous meetings follow, attended by only one of the crew, Samba the cook, who “raised his hand both times, but it didn’t matter, since he wasn’t a member of the settlement yet at the time of the vote and didn’t have voting rights.”
For the author of Europeana, the journey is also an opportunity to examine different European nationalities close up, and this time it is far more entertaining (perhaps the moment was, indeed, more opportune for meeting them back in 1855). Here Ouředník’s picture is somewhat reminiscent of that presented in his fellow countryman’s Entropa, the 2009 installation by Czech artist David Černý, which the EU was not amused with. The book, set a century and a half before Černý’s joke, has its own stereotypes, of course: the Germans, for example, are portrayed as the poorest among the settlers, constantly asking for support from others. Certain countries, however, are shown in a similar, if updated for the 21st century, light: the French hold heated assemblies at every opportunity, Italians obsess about sex, while Slovaks, instead of wrapping themselves in a Hungarian flag, swear to fight their oppressor to the end.
Needless to say, the idyllic commune fails to live up to everyone’s expectations, even before multiracial issues arise. (In fact, you can gather as much just from looking at the book’s jacket.) The concept of free love, so appealing initially, seems to have its downsides, and a booklet titled Health for One, Health for All, written by one of the settlers, does little to help, as do smoking and alcohol bans. Bruno returns to Europe, disillusioned and bitter: so far, so predictable; and anyway, he has already mentioned that in the letter. But there, at the novel’s very end, is another of those little surprises you find in diaries and sometimes in books. The last few entries of the diary, all dated 15 October, the day the narrator’s mother was born, give everything a different perspective you would not have had from the start. They almost manage to convince you that it really is not “a recounting of actuality” the author has had in mind all along: what really happened matters not as much as what you put on paper. “If the settlers were overcome with indifference, it was due to lack of faith,” explains the narrator, whose claims “Man is born free” and “Man is born in chains” do not rule each other out. You can have both, it seems – in the same way as you can write a diary for yourself and hope someone may just be able take a peek at it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 7th, 2011.