Aunts and Uncles

Michael Hofmann

  • A Feast in the Garden by George Konrad, translated by Imre Goldstein
    Faber, 394 pp, £14.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 571 16623 7
  • Wartime Lies by Louis Begley
    Picador, 198 pp, £5.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 330 32099 8
  • Brothers by Carmelo Samona, translated by Linda Lappin
    Carcanet, 131 pp, £13.95, August 1992, ISBN 0 85635 990 4
  • Rolling by Thomas Healy
    Polygon, 161 pp, £7.95, July 1992, ISBN 0 7486 6121 2

After a lost war, Hofmannsthal said, one should write comedies, and in the Twenties, within his limitations and against his genius, he did just that. I wonder what he would prescribe for the countries of Eastern Europe – many of them former Habsburg territories – after what is infinitely worse than a lost war: regional entropy; systemic collapse; an abrupt close brackets on an experiment that failed; a largely bloodless and painfully incomplete reversion to the status quo ante of forty, fifty, even ninety years ago; future generations exposed to the deleterious half-lives of political, industrial and human debris; the discrediting of one set of political ideas in favour of another, older, just as discredited and probably far more violent – the belief in race and nation. Riddle? Farce? Silence?

The regimes of Eastern Europe may have been oppressive and iniquitous, but the fiction and poetry written under them were for a time quite outstanding. This was partly because of the system, which was oddly literary in outlook and valued writers, though of course not as much as athletes; partly in spite of it – its preferences as regarded form and content needed to be surmounted if anything of value was to be produced; and partly nothing to do with it: the usual accident of who was born when and where. With the floating off of those countries into liberty and poverty and various degrees of crummy nationalism, that age is now over: perhaps it is the moment to apologise for having had a taste for its literary products. Publishers will go on pumping them out in translation for a few more years yet – perhaps even, briefly, at an increased rate – but I have no great expectation of them any more.

This is why: the New World Order finds the Eastern (or as he would prefer it, Central – it sounds more hopeful) European writer completely disorientated. He has lost the system in relation to which he defined himself, and that gave him censorship, sense of purpose and a measure of his effectiveness; official and underground publishers; paper-rationing and three-year waiting-times; a superhuman readership that bought up entire editions of his books before one copy could reach a bookshop and passed them round afterwards, that queued for shopping-baskets at book-shops and filled football stadia for poetry readings (this last is starting to sound apocryphal). Bizarre conditions in their mixture of favourable and unfavourable, but they provided the writer with readers and made him feel that what he was doing was important. This extended to ‘abroad’, and the foreign readership that gave his books a second life, if he was lucky; some wrote only for translation, acquired inaccessible hard-currency accounts and a disciplined and patient and somehow abstemious readership which probably understood just a fraction of what they read.

The landslip of 1989 transformed all this. Literature, having been promoted beyond its expectations, even beyond its capacity, has been abruptly relegated, almost wiped out, its domestic market wrecked by the withdrawal of subsidies, by competition from Western culture, by popular indifference and by uncertainty on the part of the writer himself, who for the first time finds himself in an artistic free-trade zone, a beggar-your-neighbour world, in competition not just with Moroccans and Ecuadorians and Italians and other exotics, but also directly with his fellow nationals. Previously, there seemed some point, both within, say, Poland, and outside, in reading 17 Polish novelists: there was some cumulative effect, your money and attention were invested in something – not any more. By now the writer is like a ghost walking through walls. He doesn’t know what is real, the past or the future, his own language or English, domesticity or national life. A kind of combi-book beckons, historical summary and Euro-fantasy, the triple-decker, poly-ideological, multi-generational national epic that reaches out to the rest of the continent, and preferably across the Atlantic: Son of ‘Zhivago’. Inflation of length, mongrel form, the backward look to the Second World War – this time for scrapes and adventures, not anti-fascist credentials – the porno-historical schlockbuster that will sell in twenty countries, the definitive Ruritanian novel, now that all these countries have become Ruritanias, as indeed we are all Ruritanians now.

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