Monthly Archives: January 2013

Memoirs of a Revolutionary – Victor Serge.

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A portrait of Victor Serge

The first time I travelled to Siberia, on a sixty-two train journey from Moscow, I took with me Victor Serge’s novel The Case of Comrade Tulaev. A woman in the carriage perked up ‘oh, so you’re reading a book on our governor’ (the train was going to Novokuznetsk in the heart of the Kuzbass coal basin). I tried to convince her that this was a novel written well over half a century earlier by a Russian writer in the Stalinist era but for her a book about Tulaev could be about none other than the governor of the industrial Kuzbass region. A governor whose reign here has been solid for the entire two decades of the post-Soviet period. Victor Serge’s name, it seems, is almost entirely unknown in Russia, although there is (or was) said to be a Victor Serge Library in Moscow a former director of which was the assassinated anti-fascist lawyer Stanislav Markelov- one of those who in the chaos of post-Soviet times most resembled Serge in terms of his humanity, clarity, fighting spirit and morality. Having read the previously published translation of Serge’s Memoirs during the final years of a course at university and deciding that this was the most important book of those years and discovering that the full unabridged was finally available last year, I immediately ordered a copy.

Both times that I’ve read the book something was transformed in me.  Whether it would be by liberating me from those academic strait-jackets which one ties oneself in while studying an undergraduate degree over a decade ago or the fact of discovering something in Serge’s style and descriptions that exude a kind of wonder so rare that the joy of reading becomes a kind of liberation in itself and recognizing that all our conceptions about history are so immensely poor compared with the tremendous witness that Serge bore.  I think that Serge’s writings will remain one of the greatest and most extraordinary testimonies to the Twentieth Century along with another rather neglected testimonial masterpieces  such as those by Alexander Wat entitled My Century as well as some of the extraordinary accounts that Jorge Semprun was to leave posterity. Life is so present there because for Serge his situation simply dictated that there could be no distance between Life and Words.  This is the book that will not fit in because of a kind of fragile grandeur in which the human spirit reaches heights that only a permanently persecuted revolutionary could reach. He became such a permanently persecuted revolutionary precisely because his revolutionary consciousness and conscience was such a profoundly humane one which simply wouldn’t allow itself to trample on a genuine human and revolutionary morality.

I think Owen Hatherley had some fine points to make about Serge’s ultimate consistency in an article which details how both the revolutionary press and the liberal literary press have divided up the publication of his oeuvre.Owen Hatherley on Serge As Sheila Fitzpatrick in a review for The Guardian pointed out one of the key passages which explains the true power and spirit of Serge as well as his passionately humane intent is encapsulated in this passage here in the concluding part of the book:

the feeling of having so many dead men at my back, many of them my betters in energy, talent, and historical character, has often overwhelmed me, and that this feeling has been for me the source of a certain courage, if that is the right word for it.

Serge is the ultimate chronicler of those many thousands of lives from three generations whose memory remained dear to Serge and should be for us too. Before this statement cited by Fitzgerald, Serge talks of these generations of men and his experience which defied what he termed “nearly impossible”:

I have discovered that it is nearly impossible to live a life devoted wholly to a cause which one believes to be just- a life, that is, where one refuses to separate thought from daily action. The young French and Belgian rebels of my twenties have all perished; my syndicalist comrades of Barcelona in 1917 were nearly all massacred; my comrades and friends of the Russian revolution are probably all dead – any exceptions are only a miracle.

Nearly impossible for Serge and many thousands of those who fought against multiple slaveries – whether of bourgeois capitalism, fascism, Nazism or Stalinism – managed this life of not separating thought from daily action. For me, perhaps, one of the greatest aspects of this book is that these names have been remembered as well as the names of those betrayed this dream of liberation. In many ways, Serge has written something of a Divine Comedy of the twentieth century but gives us a portrait in which the villains in the hell of their misdeeds are of much less interest than those names that history has conspired to forget. Those who died in prison and camps or in despair by their own hands or by hunger or by fascist and stalinist bullets: shot, scorned, betrayed, emaciated, deceived but whose words and deeds will one day be redeemed by another great struggle to free humanity from the shackles of its imprisoned consciousness and from a world in which the few continue to control and deceive the many. When a new generation will learn to “see the cracks of the Earth open wide” it will be good not to forget the example of Victor Serge and those many thousands whose memory and honour he restored in his Memoirs.

The poignancy of his memoirs as a salvaging of the memory of these genuine heroes of the Twentieth Century was, perhaps, encapsulated most succintly in his poem Constellation of Dead Brothers some years earlier:

Constellation of Dead Brothers (1935)

André who was killed in Riga,
Dario who was killed in Spain,
Boris whose wounds I dressed,
Boris whose eyes I closed.

David my bunk mate,
dead without knowing why
in a quiet orchard in France—
David, your astonished suffering
—six bullets for a 20-year-old heart…

Karl, whose nails I recognized
when you had already turned to earth,
you, with your high brow and lofty thoughts,
what was death doing with you!
Dark, tough human vine.

The North, the waves, the ocean
capsize the boat, the Four, now pallid,
drink deeply of anguish,
farewell to Paris, farewell to you all,
farewell to life, God damn it!

Vassili, throughout our sleepless midnights
you had the soul of a combatant
from Shanghai,
and the wind effaces your tomb
in the cornfields of Armavir.

Hong Kong lights up, hour of tall buildings,
the palm resembles the scimitar,
the square resembles the cemetery,
the evening is sweltering and you are dying,
Nguyên, in your prison bed.

And you my decapitated brothers,
the lost ones, the unforgiven,
the massacred, René, Raymond,
guilty but not denied.

O rain of stars in the darkness,
constellation of dead brothers!

I owe you my blackest silence,
my resolve, my indulgence
for all these empty-seeming days,
and whatever is left me of pride
for a blaze in the desert.

But let there be silence
on these lofty figureheads!
The ardent voyage continues,
the course is set on hope.

When will it be your turn, when mine?

The course is set on hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 24th Trieste Film Festival (Part One)

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24th edition of Trieste Film Festival

My first memories of a film festival I believe was a trip to a few films in late 1991 or early 1992 to Trieste’s Teatro Miela where I went along to one or two films of the festival del cinema Alpe Adria. The Alpe Adria Film festival has now been renamed the Trieste Film festival and it is in its 24th edition. From watching a Croatian film about a certain family and a certain boat trip (the only scene I remember from this nameless film) to tonights experience of watching György Pálfi’s The Final Cut two decades have passed. Trieste in my two years of residence was always a literary city and film didn’t matter too much apart from certain evenings watching Enrico Ghezzi’s Fuori Orario during insomniac nights. Nonetheless, this week Trieste has meant for me cinema and little else. Whether this festival has merited this obsessional search for new visual experiences instead of exploring this city that has meant so much for me is something I’ve yet to answer. Nonetheless, the fact that this festival has an absolutely vital role to play in bringing two worlds together is an undoubted fact. Its slogan this year West goes East is what this film festival has been trying to accomplish in the past twenty four years- to bring the great and still far too unexplored cinema of Central and Eastern as well as South Eastern Europe to the attention of a West European audience. That this festival has achieved wonders in these almost two and a half decades can only be indicated by a glance through its previous catalogues still available for sale outside the halls. Retrospectives and showings of some truly classic names and titles in countries from Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, the Baltic Republics, the former Yugoslav Republics, Bulgaria and as far East as all those small and large former Soviet republics from Georgia to Kazakhstan and including Ukraine, Russia and Belorussia.  This meeting of different worlds – the Italian and the Slavic, Baltic, Magyar and Germanic etc – is an accomplishment that should never be underestimated. The Trieste Film Festival is a true labour of love by its organizers and one can only be enormously thankful that such a festival exists.

While I have written in my Russian film blog of the Russian/Ukrainian/Belorussian winner of the main feature competition Loznitsa In The Fog I wanted to add some impressions of other films from other countries which were shown here. This years festival seemed a little thinner at times than previous unfortunately missing a full retrospective which in previous years were linked either to a single director (such as  Sergei Loznitsa himself who had a retrospective of his documentaries two years ago) or to a school (such as the Wajda school last year) or even to a national cinema (in 1996, for example, it featured Ukrainian cinema). hopefully, this feature will return in future years. What was shown was indeed fascinating. I missed some of the important features such as the shorts as well as the Walls of Sound (dedicated to musical films and documentaries), the Cinema Zones (based on films more locally connected the area surrounding Trieste) as well as the important animation and short film section which had some fine films according to reports from others.

Instead I tried to concentrate on the genre films as well as the main feature and documentary competitions. The genre films offered no tremendous surprises but some very well made films and one or two favourites. A really splendid Roumanian comedy named Despre Oamen si Melci (Of Snails and Men) by Tudor Gurgiu reminded one of some Ken Loach comedies in which the desperation of the marginalized is linked to an almost obscene hilarity to produce a bitter sweet tale of great depth. Miroslav Terzic’s Ustanichka Ulica (Redemption Street) – a legal thriller set in Belgrade and regarding the Haig War Crimes Tribunal was a very potent attempt to bring this subject to a Serbian audience in a way not overly political and based around two families facing similar traumas. Another thriller from Germany and by Dennis Gansel Die Vierte Macht (The Fourth State) was an attempt to bring alive certain facts in Russia’s recent political history and its descent into a state of authoritarian terror. Unfortunately, although the references were there all the details were just wrong and, for an inhabitant of Russia for much of the past decade, simply implausible. However, well made it may have been filming Kiev and pretending that it is Moscow means that this film will never travel to Russia. Its picture of Russian journalism is also completely out of kilter. While it does work as thriller its attempt to reference certain historical events irritates one due to its break with reality. Kristina Buozyte’s Aurora (Vanishing Waves) from Lithuania was a rather complex work of fantasy about a medical experiment around coma which tried to explore issues of human co-relationships. Ultimately unsatisfying it was difficult to pinpoint the precise nature of its failure as a film even though it had a number of fine scenes.

Another genre film that impressed was the film by the Estonian director Imre Raag who made a French film in France with the participation of Jeanne Moreau Une Estonienne a’ Paris (An Estonian in Paris). Raag described how he managed to convince Moreau to act for his film after other actresses were found unsatisfactory for the part and generally the film is an interesting tale highlighting what Raag himself termed ‘the limits and paradoxes of cultural emigration’ another form of emigration rarely discussed.

For me the weakest films were shown on the opening day of the festival. A genre film by the Slovene director Metod Pevec Vaje v Objemu (Tango Abrazos/ Practicing Embrace) tells the tale of two couples who turn up for tango lessons and discover the temptations and attractions of a member of the other couple. An encounter with tangos physical passions upsets the routine of these rather complacent Slovenian couples. This film was preceded by what can only be called the most disastrous choice of opening film for years. A film about Trieste (and there are few cities more obsessed about its singularity than Trieste) could have been a revelatory one given the quality of some of its interviewees was spoiled by absolutely incompetent directorial choices. The fact that the film was directed by the sister of Berlusconi’s truly psychotic former Minister of Culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, can only lead one to conclude that this film would never have made it were it not for Elizabetta Sgarbi’s contact in high places. Squnadering the opportunity to quiz some of Trieste’s great contemporary cultural figures Sgarbi instead produced an ill-fitting and illiterate melange of beautiful picture postcard images of the city, an absurd story as prologue and epilogue mixed with what must have been the most absurd utterings in her dialogues with the likes of Claudio Magris, Boris Pahor, Gillo Dorfles, Susanna Tamaro and others. The final day was something of a compensation with a Hungarian flavour and detailing how such an inane approach to culture was its undertaker. Bela Tarr’s idea of producing an anthology film Hungary 2011 as an outcry at the increasingly right wing authoritarian government and its destruction of culture had a few shorts of great worth. Accompanied by a number of social shorts, the three by Peter Forgacs, Marta Meszaros and Miklos Jancso were of exceptional interest. Maybe the message was summed up in the last short by Jancso in which a character states We shouldn’t be filming. We should be screaming. A reasonable attitude both to the evil doings of the Hungarian government as well as to the pointless trash served up by Elizabetta Sgarbi. The final film of the festival Gyorgi Palfi’s Final Cut used 450 films from world cinema history to build a film about love of exceptional interest- an attempt to produce something of rare originality while the government is cutting and trying to kill off one of the great cinematic cultures of Europe and indeed the world.

A later post will be added to describe the documentary films of the festival.

Cesare Pavese ‘The Night You Slept’ (translation)

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Cesare Pavese

For me Cesare Pavese was both the poet and the diarist of my late adolescence. I don’t recall exactly when I read his poetry but I know that his diary ‘Il Mestiere di Vivere’ (The Business of Living) was a book that had an enormous influence on me around the age of seventeen. It was, perhaps, a period of heightened sensitivity. In any case Pavese’s poetry and diaries as well as his book of retold myths Dialoghi con Leuco (and to a much lesser extent his novels) influenced and shaped a certain mentality. Alongside Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’s The Outsider (which I had read in my earlier adolescence), Pavese’s particular brand of anguished melancholia drew me in. I am not sure whether there are texts from which one can’t escape but, in many ways Pavese’s particularly pessimistic and fatalistic vision of the world drew me in and had claws. I think that I no longer find the diaries that convincing (and rarely reread them) and many things irritates me even about his poetry. Yet his final collection Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi (Death will come having your eyes) written in a few weeks of final desperation over his failed love affair with American actress Constance Dowling held me in their power. In late 1991, early 1992 I decided to try to translate them – it was the one collection that I wanted somehow to render in full. Perhaps because Pavese himself had written a final poem in English therefore belatedly moving through a border (as well as having translated American classics). I am not sure how I find his poems anymore. The fixation of an adolescent, the bitter adulation of a suicide, that need for some form of fatalism. All I remember is that the lyric abandon from the narrative core that had characterised Pavese’s earlier poetry led me to an almost metaphysical adulation of these particular poems of Pavese. At one point I translated at least eight or ten of the poems but I have only found one of them entitled The Night You Slept. Here is the translation that I made in 1992 (with the Italian original):

The Night You Slept.

Even the night resembles you

The remote night that mutely

Weeps, inside the deep heart

As the stars pass wearily.

A cheek brushes a cheek

A chill shiver, someone

Writhes, pleading alone,

Lost in you, in your fever.

 

The night suffers yearning dawn

Poor gasping heart

O stony face, dark anguish,

Fever that saddens the stars

There is he, who like you, awaiting dawn

Searches your face in silence.

Spread out under the night

Like a sealed, dead horizon

Poor gasping heart

A distant day you were the dawn

Anche la notte ti somiglia,
la notte remota che piange muta,
dentro il cuore profondo,
e le stelle passano stanche.
Una guancia tocca una guancia –
è un brivido freddo, qualcuno
si dibatte e t’implora, solo,
sperduto in te, nella tua febbre.

La notte soffre e anela l’alba,
povero cuore che sussulti.
O viso chiuso, buia angoscia,
febbre che rattristi le stelle,
c’è chi come te attende l’alba
scrutando il tuo viso in silenzio.
Sei distesa sotto la notte
come un chiuso orizzonte morto.
Povero cuore che sussulti,
un giorno lontano eri l’alba.

This cycle of ten poems by Pavese was something of an obsession for me in that Trieste of the early 1990s. I remember returning once to the city years later finding two or three telephone booths of the city littered with typed copies Pavese’s late poetry. A very Triestine coincidence for me. I couldn’t quite imagine another city where I would have made this discovery of finding my favourite poems in public telephone boxes. Pavese no longer holds for me the aura of a Saba, a Montale, an Ungaretti or even a Campana. But it is still so difficult to finally shed the adolescent yearning for the tragic lines of a Pavese (or a Rilke for that matter).

Cesar Vallejo ‘The Black Heralds’

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Cesar Vallejo in Moscow

A decade or so ago during a class of Latin American literature at Salamanca University we were asked us to judge who was the greater (and perhaps the greatest) Latin American poet of the twentieth century: Pablo Neruda or Cesar Vallejo. The consensus in the group was firmly in favour of Pablo Neruda, although I silently dissented not being able at that point to argue why I found Vallejo a greater poet than Neruda. Perhaps I still can’t do so – my reading of Neruda anyway has been superficial and while a few of his poems still stir me, Vallejo remains my favourite. Neruda was, perhaps, closer to European sentiments (but, not I would argue, more universal) whereas Vallejo was more radical in his dissection of the human condition and the wretchedness of humankind. While Neruda will most probably be stuck in the twentieth century, Vallejo would surely overtake him in being a voice through and beyond this century. I think that a translator of Vallejo, Clayton Eshleman, got it right when he stated that:

In Vallejo, and not in Neruda, the entire consciousness of modern South American man is suffered and partially redeemed: Neruda stays within the bounds of what we (North Americans and Europeans) have expected from South America… the Poemas Humanos of Vallejo are still not read, because the consciousness is altered. Vallejo attacks at root the Catholic-racist-colonial culture than many of the best in South America are still in the nets of. “

Eshleman compares Vallejo to William Blake and I think that there is something surely that they share. They both manage to cast off everything but the essential taking us beyond common dualities of consciousness. I have still yet to really study Vallejo in any systematic way but for me his vision has spoken to me again and again. There are, perhaps, at least a dozen of poems of Vallejo that mean a great deal to me but it is perhaps the first poem that I read of Vallejo’s in an Italian poetry magazine Poesia which I wanted for some time to render into English. Vallejo’s poem Los heraldos negros has associations with the city of Trieste for me- the city where I first read the poem, first discussed it with friends and first heard it recited in the mouth of someone who, I suspect, mourned the same person that I mourned and to which this poem meant like it does to me something both extraordinarily personal as well as something universal. Cesar Vallejo is still in many ways a poet whose time has not yet quite come – or whose time is about to arrive. I have never read much about him and his life and poetic trajectory but have always wondered why he should be so absent from the consciousness of Europeans.  I hope soon to write here on a subject that I am immensely curious about: his visits to the Soviet Union. While time and again the visits of Europeans and North Americans to Stalin’s Soviet Union have been written about, the visit of Vallejo (as well as other latin Americans) have been almost entirely ignored. In the meantime here was my attempt at translating Vallejo’s first poem Los Heraldos Negros (I think the version dates from the early/mid 1990s- it was abandoned and then lost but after a recent search through my papers it has turned up again.

 

Life rains down such blows, such harsh blows … I don’t know

Blows that seem as though sent from the hatred of some God;

As though, before them, the undertow of all suffering

Were to form puddles in the soul … I don’t know.

 

They are few, yet there they stand … they open up dark ditches

In the proudest of faces and in the strongest of spines

They are, perhaps, the racks of barbaric Atilas

Or the black heralds sent from Death.

 

They are the dark abysses of the Christs of the soul,

Of some adorable faith that fate blasphemes.

These bloody blows are the crackling of

Some bread which burns us at the door of the oven.

 

And man … wretched … wretched man! He turns his eyes

Like when a slap on our shoulders calls our attention

He turns his crazy eyes and all life

Wells up like a furrow of guilt in his look

 

Life rains down such blows, such harsh blows … I don’t know.

 

(the original in Spanish:

Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes… ¡Yo no sé!
Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos,
la resaca de todo lo sufrido
se empozara en el alma… ¡Yo no sé!

Son pocos; pero son… Abren zanjas oscuras
en el rostro más fiero y en el lomo más fuerte.
Serán tal vez los potros de bárbaros Atilas;
o los heraldos negros que nos manda la Muerte.

Son las caídas hondas de los Cristos del alma
de alguna fe adorable que el Destino blasfema.
Esos golpes sangrientos son las crepitaciones
de algún pan que en la puerta del horno se nos quema.

Y el hombre… Pobre… ¡pobre! Vuelve los ojos, como
cuando por sobre el hombro nos llama una palmada;
vuelve los ojos locos, y todo lo vivido
se empoza, como charco de culpa, en la mirada.

Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes… ¡Yo no sé! )