Friday, January 11, 2008

The impact of ethnicity on politics and the deprivation of the frozen North (Book - Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski) cont'd

Kapuscinski arrives in Baku:
Buses arriving from the countryside crawl amid the deafening cacophony of horns into a dense, bustling crowd, into a swarm welcoming and bidding farewell, amid sellers of tomatoes, cucumbers, and shish kebabs, groups of children asking for baksheesh, sluggish and listless policemen with clubs in their hands. The East, the real East, smelling of anise and cardamom, mutton fat and fried paprika, some sort of Esfahan or Kirkuk, Izmir or Herat, an exotic world, noisy, eccentric, preoccupied with itself and closed, inaccessible to anyone from the outside. Wherever its people come together, there immediately forms a colorful, agitated concourse, bazaar, souk, market; there is immediately lots of shouting, jumping at one another's throat, quarrels, , but then (patience!) everything is transformed into calm, into an inexpensive little restaurant, into a chat, into a friendly nod of the head, into a small glass of mint tea, into a lump of sugar.

This tumult of images is like the opening shot of a film, assisting me in not merely placing myself, but experiencing the character of place upon my arrival.

I enjoy the following generalization not because it is necessarily more true than others, but because of the way Kapuscinski introduces his observations of the soviet people's relationship to nationality becomes the basis on which he builds his story of the dissolution of the Imperium.
Like peasants the world over who begin each conversation with reflections on the subject of crops, and Englishmen who start every exchange with a discussion of the weather, so in the Imperium the first step in establishing contact between people is a mutual determination of one's nationality. For much will depend on this.
Kapuscinski follows this thesis with a two-page history of soviet ethnicity from the nineteenth century to the moment of his travels as the empire dissolves. It's an excellent primer on the role of national identity in world politics and economics, and he does it all in two pages! That lays the groundwork for this simple passage about the leader of the Azerbaijani National Front, Yusif Samedoglu, who, like Kapuscinski, is a writer.

He is trying to navigate between the dictatorship of the local political bosses and the Islamic fundamentalists. But these are difficult times for liberals, for people of the center, for those who would like to reach out and hug everyone. I know what he will tell me about the situation in Baku, so I do not ask him about that; I ask him instead whether he is writing anything. He shakes his head, a resigned no. And anyway - how should he write? He always wrote in the Cyrillic alphabet, and now they are going to abolish Cyrillic. They will use only the Latin alphabet, as in Turkey, or will go back to the Arabic, nobody knows which. And what about the books that he wrote in Cyrillic? Translate them into other alphabets? Who is going to do this? Is it worth it? A writer in the prime of his life is left empty-handed, with work that will be illegible.

The observer and the observed for a moment meet at a common point. It becomes poignant because Kapuscinski can sum up the personal impact of a political upheaval in a way that he himself can feel and thus express (rather than describe) to us.

Vorkuta is north of the 'stans, north of the Urals, north of the Arctic Circle. It is pretty much beyond everything you would ever want to experience in your life. This chapter made me realize why the Russians chose Siberia as their prison. The sheer size of the country and the immobility and cruelty of the regimes that have governed it are magnified tenfold there: not just because it is isolated and has a punishing climate, but the cold is so intense, just to live is difficult - breathing is painful, you can't break the ground to make sewers or bury electricity cables most of the year, it takes ages to communicate with the central government to accomplish anything, just the way you must dress to survive isolates you from others, those who survive look straight ahead, they do not waste energy with becoming irritated, they do not ask questions - what is the point?

On his flight to Vorkuta they land instead in Syktyvkar. Kapuscinski stays with the fellow passengers from his first flight, sweating inside his sheepskin coat in the airport, there are no announcements, there is no food. He looks at those around him:
They stood staring fixedly straight ahead. Just like that: staring fixedly straight ahead. One could see no impatience in their expressions. No anxiety, agitation, anger. Most important, they asked about nothing; they asked no one about anything. But perhaps they weren't asking because they already knew?

I asked one of them if he knew when we would be taking off. If you suddenly ask someone a question here, you must wait patiently. For you can see in the face of the one queried that it is only under the influence of this stimulus (the question) that he seems to awaken, comes to life, and starts the laborious journey from some other planet to earth. And this requires time. Then an expression of slight and even amused surprise crosses his face - what's the moron asking for?


In literature (in Vasily Grossman, for example), scene describing a return home from the camps. A man has come back after ten years of suffering in Siberia. He sits down the first evening at the family table together with his wife, his children, his parents. They eat supper, perhaps there's even a conversation, but no one asks the newcomer where he was during those years, what he did, what he experienced.

What would one ask for?

A wise sentence from Ecclesiastes: "Who gathers knowledge, gathers pain."

Developing this bitter thought, Karl Popper once wrote (I am quoting from memory) that ignorance is not a simple and passive lack of knowledge, but is an active stance; it is the refusal to accept knowledge, a reluctance to possess it; it is its rejection. (Or, in a word,, antiknowledge).

Kapuscinski writes of the cruel deprivation of the lives of the coal miners of a place called Komsomolski Posiolek. He begins though with a desicription of the bus ride to his destination that is hilarious in its description of discomfort and also, somehow, elegant and richly detailed:

A small, old bus, crowded, packed, jammed. People tightly wrapped, enveloped, entangled in sheepskins, furs, scarves, pieces of felt - large, stiff, clumsy cocoons. When the bus stops, the cocoons abruptly tip forward; when it suddenly starts, they tip back. At each stop several cocoons vanish into the darkness, and others appear in their place (that is, I assume that they are others, for all the cocoons look more or less alike). Sometimes something kneads our feet so hard that we feel our bones are cracking - it is some little cocoon that is making its way towards the exit. A question about the hotel must be directed at the upper part of the cocoon - that is, at the spherical object directly in front of us, just as if we were talking into a microphone. One must strain one's ears to hear the reply, for it will not be aimed at us, but will float up from where a voice emerges from the cocoon. The downside of this mode of travel is that one can be riding next to a very beautiful girl and be completely unaware of it - no faces are visible. It is also impossible to see where we are - a thick hoarfrost and extremely rich, rococo bouquets of white flowers cover all the windows.

This entire chapter is one to read on your own, rather than in excerpts. Life in Vorkuta seems the ultimate in a desolate and pointless existence. You are lucky, if you live here, to make it to fifty years of age and yet, to give this description context, many of the people in the coal mining communities came there from elsewhere for a chance at a better life than the one they had somewhere else. Reading this incredibly vivid writing coupled with our watching the film Blood Diamonds last night really let me know how good a life I have.


Sheila O'Malley said...

The cocoon imagery KILLED me. And isn't there a little girl jumping over puddles in that same chapter?

He makes you feel the cold. He really does. Marvelous.

Ted said...

Yes, that whole section with the little girl explaining to him about the sewers and the electricity and making him play her puddle game as she takes him to talk to someone in the town is just great.

Sheila O'Malley said...

I can't remember the order of the book - but the chapter about Kolyma - one of the Stalinist "work" camps in the gulag ... is so terrifying. You can't believe that people spent, oh, 25 years in such places. Like Solzneihtsyn (I never know how to spell his name). Unbelievable.