One of the phrases that struck me from a very warm (and fine) review by Sukhdev Sandhu of Agata Pyzik’s Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes for the Guardian was her suggestion that a ‘sterner editor would have told Pyzik not to cover so many topics’ . Having read the review before I had time to read the book my first thought was ‘thank god in that case for lax editors’. Now having the read the book, too, my earlier feelings have been confirmed. In many ways I’m doubtful as to whether any British writer would have written such an intoxicating storm of a book confronting the reader with a new plethora of names and ‘unusual’ approaches giving one such an impressive ‘beyond the wall’ perspective. Upsetting all the ‘discourses’ that the Anglo-Saxon reader has been bombarded with from the likes of the Garton Ashes and Appelbaum’s as well an entire host of Eastern European liberals invited to feast at that sanctimonious collective of a generation of post-Soviet would-be sovietologists or slavologists negotiating and guarding the frontiers of a new wall constructed on the ruins of the old one but this time built from the other side. A virtual wall (but in other ways an all too real one) of phobias and immigration laws, visa regimes and moral panics as well as the semi-orientalist cultural constructs and the reinvention of ruritania by the British ‘chattering classes’ (which goes for an intelligentsia in these isles) that have dominated the quotidian existence of many East European immigrants since 1989.
I suppose I should start off with a panegyric to the publishers of this work: Zero Books who seem to have succeeded in creating a new space (indeed new spaces) in the staid and stuffy English world of what goes for informed discussion and has brought another solid author in the guise of Agata Pyzik to include others like Federico Campagna, Mark Fisher and Owen Hatherley already in their catalogue. Hopefully a new group of opinion formers able to detonate the tired old world of ‘English letters’.
Agata Pyzik in her book Poor but Sexy has led a nuanced multi-thronged attack on those many voices that effectively end up serving us one and essentially the same picture of Eastern Europe or the Post-Soviet space. As Sandhu intimates in her Guardian article Pyzik avoids and provides antidotes to the Scylla of painting everything in the Eastern bloc with a sterile and dour brush and the Chabrydis of whitewashing history with ostalgic vulturism. While the most well-known commentators on the eastern bloc from the Garton Ash’s and the Appelbuam’s to the former liberal dissidents from the East made good such as Adam Michnik appear to be stuck needle-like upon a record played long ago, Pyzik reminds us that life in the Soviet bloc (and now in the post Soviet space) was a tad more complicated than the ‘informed public’ have been led to believe. Life may not have fitted the rosy and beatified social realist picture that propagandists tried to paint but neither did it fit in with the black and white canvas with which liberal anti-communists all too often sketched their denunciations of the old as well as their myopic insistence of ignoring the very great shocks and regressions of the neo-liberal new.
Fortunately for the reader of her work, Agata Pyzik is willing to paint on a very broad canvas in a fine eclectic way. As well as her critical and partisan stance, she leads the reader to consider a wide and conflicting variety of realities. All of the following subjects are covered substantially and not merely in passing: rock music, politics, art, fashion, cinema, philosophy, feminism, television shows as well as interspersing all this with a wide variety of historical and personal reflections on her role in the interstices of this ‘new Europe’ (a newly minted term that one can barely utter with a shudder recalling those coining this term). In covering these themes she unearths an extraordinary cast of what Sandhu aptly calls erased histories. They may be the erased history of David Bowie’s travels east or the erased histories of East German, Polish, Roumanian and even Soviet culture beyond the wall. In describing things there is a reflexiveness and ability to fix the traffic both ways that exaggerated histories of how the Beatles rocking the Kremlin never managed. Creatively recycling glimpses from the West, Eastern bloc cultures and subcultures were far more complex, radical and nuanced than any major writer has ever given them credit for. The canny troublemakers (another concise but accurate term borrowed from Sandhu’s review) pop up from one art form to another: such life stories never having come to people’s attention before in the Cold war years (and their aftermath): something kept secret (or not known about) by the stolid and staid old men and women of sovietology. Wicked parody (in the guise of the group Margot Liedertafel Honecker- an electronic rock group named after the wife of Erich Honecker) , irony, improvisation (in the guise of fashion writer Barbara Hoff) and the insanely surreal and even luridly subversive films of Chytilova and Zulawski mean that Pyzik has finally revealed an entire ‘lost Atlantis’ previously drowned in predictable Cold War discourses.
Pyzik’s interventions into many subjects come surrounded by an assuring lack of simple ‘position-taking’. Daniel Trilling gets its precisely right when he calls Pyzik’s book ‘partisan in the best sense of the word’. Partisan certainly but her partisan nature consists in expanding and extending the imagination of ‘our side’ (ie ‘the Left’). Her work doesn’t reek of the defensiveness of the Anglo-Saxon Left harking back to an imaginary 1945 rather than looking forward to an expanded, multi-national socialism of 2045. Yes, Pyzik may attempt to pick up some of the debris left behind in that great storm of history of the late twentieth century but she does so precisely where some of those ‘healthy germs’ lie (those very germs which Victor Serge spoke of when talking about that great and much-maligned experiment that 1917 could have turned out to be).
From a fruitful metaphor she uses at the end of the book (based on an anecdote by Boris Kagarlitsky) there arises a broader conception of the conundrum of Eastern and Western Europe in which tantalizingly it is as much the West that needs to ‘catch up’ with discovering the real East as it is the other way round. As Pyzik remembers Kagarlitsky putting it: Maybe we still can come up with ways to open things that you don’t and didn’t have to know about. And by revealing the healthy resistances and revolts and the uncannily radical utopian dreams that arose in the midst of 1917 and 1945 buried alike (as though in a strange conspiracy) in the accounts of both liberals and orthodox stalinists or neo-stalinists, we can re-insert those ‘healthy germs’ into historical reappraisals that can serve us to open up the twentieth century and, by doing so, hopefully open up the present moment.