Who Am I? Who Are You?

Victor Serge knew a lot about imprisonment. He recently translated political novel, Unforgiving Years, chronicles the life of two revolutionaries working for the Communist regime during the the Second World War. Divided into four parts with four separate locations, Serge makes us feel as if we are just beyond the door peeping through the keyhole trying to figure out what the characters are doing. This is dizzying. Yes. It is gripping. Check. It is terrifying. Correct. As it should be when we read about war.
All she needed was the time it took to collect some linen and a few clothes, the time to burn the journal she had kept to ward off the fears of sinking into obsession. A curious document, this journal, whose carefully chosen words sketched out only the outer shapes of people, events, and ideas: a poem constructed of gaps from the lived material, because–since it could be seized–it could not contain a single name, a single recognizable fave, a single unmistakable strand of the past, a single allusion to assignments accomplished (which it is forbidden to write without prior permission). No expression of torment or sorrow (this for the sake of pride), no expression of doubt or calculation (for the sake of prudence), and nothing ideological, naturally, for the ideology is the sludge at the bottom of the pitfall…

I don’t’ know about you, but when I think about writing without the ability of adding any personal details and emotion, I find that in itself an impossible task. But if I did manage to master it and then was forced to burn it as if I didn’t exist…just seems like a sense of fatality to powerful to overcome.

Moving through the book, the idea of prison and being imprisoned appears with more frequency and in seemingly dd ways. Like in descriptions of art from a exhausted French soldier:

Abstraction culminates in the black-on-white grids of Mondrian: straight lines, right angles, ingenious variations on the prison-bar theme. Then poor old Mondrian remembers about color, and fills in a corner of his jail with a minute square of wash, better than nothing to be sure; but after that, how gorgeous, how unforgettable a red blouse looks or a richly patterned scarf! All that remains of art is an imprisoned whiteness. You’ll say it’s powerful, and I won’t deny it. Very powerful and very dead.

With a precise lyricism, we see and feel the devastation of war and the futile loyalty of everyone involved. After all, it is war we are talking about here and Serge describes it aptly through Alain, a comrade of Daria:

The good thing about war is that it leaves no time for thinking. All you care about is not getting killed, finding aomething to eat, killing someone else, destroying something and holding out another day. It puts your consciousness at ease, by supressing it. The misfortune of prisoners is that they have time…I’ve just spent two extraordinary days, Erna, windows flying open in my skull, my skull was like the ruins, with empty casements gaping on all sides, all the sky pouring in, and the winds, the memories, the future, all this in the form of ideas without form. I couldn’t sleep, nor could I make any order out of the mess in my mind. I let it go, I thought: Either I hang myself tomorrow, or else the mess will settle, I’ll see things more clearly, decisions will have been made…It’s now been proved, Erna; I am not destined to hang myself. I’ve decided.

War is hell, but so is loyalty to an unforgiving politcal regime and Serge tell us this in a compelling and bleak novel about what it means to truly know who you are.

Unforgiving Years
By Victor Serge
Translated by Richard Greeman
NYRB
Paperback
368 Pages
ISBN: 9781590172476
$15.95

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