… of undarkness
The adequacy of the cultural categories of, in this case, university England, to provide a frame of intelligible reasonings, creditable values, and familiar motivations for such oddities as poison oracles, ghost marriages, blood feuds, and cucumber sacrifices recommends those categories as of somehow more than parochial importance. Whatever personal reasons E-P may have had for being so extraordinarily anxious to picture Africa as a logical and prudential place – orderly, straightforward and levelheaded, firmly modeled and open to view – in doing so he constructed a forceful argument for the general authority of a certain conception of life. If it could undarken Africa, it could undarken anything.
– Clifford Geertz,
Works and Lives:
The Anthropologist as Author,
The sweetest and most inoffensive path of life leads through the avenues of science and learning; and whoever can either remove any obstructions in this way, or open up any new prospect, ought so far to be esteemed a benefactor to mankind. And though these researches may appear painful and fatiguing, it is with some minds as with some bodies, which being endowed with vigorous and florid health, require severe exercise, and reap a pleasure from what, to the generality of mankind, may seem burdensome and laborious. Obscurity, indeed, is painful to the mind as well as to the eye; but to bring light from obscurity by whatever labour, must needs be delightful and rejoicing.
– David Hume
Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Now a reader is in a sense complicit in the making of a good book; without the reader’s empathy, wit, and understanding, be the book ever so finely written and ever so well put together, any book can be called rubbish. I myself remember the day, many years ago, when I said Pride and Prejudice had no plot and was about bad-tempered girls slogging through the mud to see misplaced sisters. Bad reader: good book.
That said, Wild East is not a bad book. It is a perfectly serviceable collection stories about the post-Soviet bloc. Allow me to summarize:
- ‘Shylock on the Neva’: new Russian moneylender searches for immortality by commissioning a portrait, throwing money and ne’er-do-wells, and committing passive suicide (author was born in Russia).
- ‘The Ambassador’s Son’: son of an American ambassador to Podunkistan cavorts with prostitutes and is involved in the unfortunate demise of a missionary and chauffeur via some local thugs (author dropped out of the Peace Corps and worked as a journalist in Central Asia).
- ‘Wenceslas Square’: CIA agent and Czech Intelligence service agent dally in espionage and fall in love (author is an American who lived in Budapest for two years).
- ‘Gika’: vaguely female narrator feels sentimental affection for street urchin who runs away (author is female, and lived in Tbilisi for two years).
- ‘Spleen’: Half-Serb/Half-Croat woman escapes rape and then feels weird thrill that new lover may (or may not) be the man who attempted to rape her (the author was born in Croatia).
- ‘Fatherland’: American students go to Kiev and enjoy local color, seduce each other and indulge in homo-erotic fantasies about a native; particularly bad-tempered view of vegetarians from the narrator (author is from Sarajevo).
- ‘The Subjunctive Mood’: humanitarian worker’s girlfriend wants to become a clown, they move to Paris, he goes to Sarajevo and gets two fingers blown off, and returns to Paris to find girlfriend has succumbed to the decadent clown lifestyle (author worked as a journalist in Balkans and former USSR).
- ‘The Condor’: yarn teller captured by enemy finds himself unable to speak, is traded for other hostages (author is a Bosnian Croat; the story is translated).
- ‘Babylon Revisted Redux’: Dan Quayle finds himself involved in a post 9-11 ‘habitat for humanity’ pyramid scheme in Poland (the author hops universities).
- ‘The Bottle’: pseudo-Gogolian political whimsy (the author is female, and English, and spent the 1990s travelling in Russia).
- ‘The English House’: atrocities – historical and present – in Chechnya; endurance of human spirit and all that (the author is a journalist).
- ‘Hiroshima’: people from all walks of life choke each other (author is Russian; the story is translated).
That is all well and good and I have nothing against any of these stories, nor even a collection of these stories – although an ardent fan would point out that my summaries are not the most sympathetic. There’s a reason for that, and that reason is in the introduction. Allow me to share it with you:
I’d like to think Wild East also disproves the charge that expat fiction about Eastern Europe is exclusively a male enterprise. In a review in The Nation of six expat novels, all by men, Eliot Borenstein wrote that, ‘Ultimately, the post-Communist expat’s story is a fundamentally male narrative of conquest, submission and coming of age. The expat experience was a perfect juncture between self-congratulatory Western machismo and the cultural anxieties of the cold war’s losers and victims. […]*’, It’s an intriguing argument, but strikes me as somewhat academic. What about, once again, Charlotte Hobson? What about Wendell Steavenson, who turned two tumultuous years in post-Soviet Georgia into the astounding Stories I Stole and, here, into this book’s tenderest evocation of abandonment and want in the post-Soviet era, ‘Gika’? What about Katherine Shonk, whose The Red Passport, about Russia in the 1990s joins the sobriety of an outsider with the sympathy of a grateful guest? Perhaps most strikingly, what about Paul Greenberg’s novel Leaving Katya? If anyone manhandles anyone – and establishes the superannuation of that verb – in that book of Russian-American love across two continents, it’s Katya, the willful Russian woman who exasperates the American Daniel. Even the literal manifestation of Borenstein’s thesis – the American entrepreneur Chip indulging that most emblematic spoil of Western triumph, prostitution, in a disoriented Lithuania in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – fails to sustain the argument: the experience, quite believably, ends up in edifying him rather than reducing the women. But perhaps Borenstein would counter, equally credibly, that this is yet another wrinkle of the male fantasy. The reader of Wild East should judge.
This reader has judged. And it doesn’t.1
Note to Mr. Fishman: if you want to use a collection of stories you have edited to contradict a review, please use more evidence from your collection. And why bother answering the review? ‘Timely’ books have trouble enough without trying to become dated. After reading this collection, I find myself returning to something in the review by Mr. Borenstein (which I would never have heard of, much less read if Mr. Fishman had not been so kind as to quote it):
It is remarkable how much the heroes of these North American novels resemble their depiction in the imaginings of the post-Communist ‘natives’ themselves. Though they may not be as nakedly cynical as the Western villains of post-Soviet potboilers, these young men are indulging in the very activities that define their caricatured counterparts: drinking, pillaging and whoring. ¶ Indeed, sex and drunken debauchery are these characters’ primary means of getting to know their surroundings (Milan Kundera clearly has a lot to answer for). […] Travel may broaden the mind, but it narrows the vision, facilitating an obsessive, adolescent-narrative navel-gazing.
- Disprove Borenstein’s charges, that is. [↩]
The process of not writing has been a kind of sleep – fitful dormancy. I cannot tell if I am awake again – awake to the habit of writing, of typing, of setting my thoughts someplace other than the impermanent stream of the passing breath – cannot tell if this is not just another middle-of-the-night stumble for a glass of water and the euphemism. Time will tell.
of the times
fallen pears fermenting on the pavement
indecisive days too warm and too cold
leaden-eyed maidens drooping into evening
slouching easily on an afternoon bicycle
slumped down reading in a pillowed chair
modern moral life
A new way of making and accumulating money, a dizzying new form of social mobility tied to this new economy, a new culture obsessively dedicated to work and financial success, consumerism, a cult of celebrity and fame, a mass culture based on journalism and advertising, a new conception of individuals as untrustworthy centers of self-interest, a new sort of dependence on the views of others for social esteem, and many other factors mean that things have not simply changed, they have changed in an unprecedented way. […] Even cynical, collective assumptions about greed and venality, much in vogue in the early modern philosophical tradition, do not have much effective purchase, however widespread their presence. One would need some sense of one’s own advantage and interest, and some reliable way of anticipating the pursuit of such interests in others, even for that sort of collectivity to function. The modern context, understood by James at a first pass as a massive failure in very much of a common normative structure, makes the assignment of or understanding of determinate meaning – psychological insight, honest self-description, genuinely shared social understanding, reliable act and intention descriptions of all kinds – nearly impossible and certainly very difficult. In such a historical context, any moral judgments of the sort we were just talking about also seem very much threatened, invitations instead – exactly as Hegel once predicted – to hypocrisy, a pretense about criteria of judgment no one can or wants to or knows how to meet, and ‘hard-heartedness’, a non-hypocritical but nearly pathological insistence on a selflessness that renders all actual action unworthy because self-interested.
– Robert Pippin,
Henry James & Modern Moral Life, p. 57