Saturday, September 18, 2010

Panait Istrati and César Vallejo

The Romanian Istrati found a receptive audience for his work in Latin America, above all in Peru. His work was reviewed and in some cases published in Spanish translation in José Carlos Mariátegui’s influential journal Amauta. He is mentioned in Martín Adán’s La casa de cartón

Istrati and the poet Vallejo coincided in Paris in the late nineteen-twenties and the early nineteen-thirties, but it’s unclear if they ever met; in any case, Vallejo, like many Peruvians, was an early admirer of Istrati. In a 1926 article in the Trujillo paper El Norte, Vallejo writes: “Panait Istrati, that brilliant vagabond who has crossed every border and learned every language.”

But when Istrati next appears in an article by Vallejo it is after Istrati’s publication of his denunciation of the Soviet regime. In a piece called “Emotional Politics and Scientific Politics,” Vallejo, deeply disappointed, reacts with the bitterness and resentment of a jilted lover: 

Panait Istrati’s latest and sudden reflex—his rabid attack on the Soviet, which, up to now, he has always praised equally rabidly—doesn’t surprise me. Panait Istrati has always been an instinctive creature. He thinks and acts reflexively. He is easily influenced and his observations and judgments are subjective. Bergson has taken possession of him, leaving no room for the disciplines and methods of thought. I have called his attack on the Soviet a “reflex,” as the entire life and work of the strange Romanian have never been anything but “reflexes.” He experienced the personal changes of fortune that serve as the constant theme of his work—“the usual story of bandits,” as Barbusse calls it—from the bulb of the spinal cord down. He attempted suicide for purely medullar reasons. […] Of a sudden he became a writer. Later, opening his eyes to the universal panorama of our times, he found that the country that best suited his rebellious and long-suffering character was Russia, and likewise, from one day to the next, he became the overeager and hyperbolic eulogizer of Moscow.

So there is nothing more logical than that he should now become indignant that his friend Russakov had a run-in with a Bolshevik woman and lost his apartment and that, for this reason, he should suddenly insult the revolution, no longer seeing in the proletarian State anything but disasters, crimes, abominations; behind the slightest and most trivial Soviet happenings and circumstances are now, for Istrati, hiding and throbbing the cruelest horrors of history…

The author of Kyra Kyralina is free to use the “reflex” method to his heart’s content in his personal life and in his literature. But he is not free to use it in politics, an area that requires a less animal and more human, less emotional and more intellectual, temper. In everything Istrati writes about politics, there is, inevitably, high praise or invective. He knows neither soundness nor justice, which arise from the facts of objective reality rather than from arbitrary subjective tricks. People of Istrati’s ilk are miles and miles from Marxist psychology, according to which our notion of social and economic reality should be rational, rigorously scientific, and independent of our sentimental whims.

In politics, as in everything, Panait Istrati is but a sentimental man, and, as a result, he changes, contradicts himself, or deviates as he pleases, depending on his ultra-individualistic impressions. […] Where the rich were being shot because they exploited the poor, as in Russia, Istrati delivered his greatest eulogies. But if one day he least expects it a good friend of his gets into a dispute with a Bolshevik woman and gets moved out of his apartment—losing in both the dispute and the move—Istrati, very much despite himself, must read a sentence against his beloved Soviet. For Istrati, in a country that is trying sincerely and practically to establish democracy, it’s inconceivable for there to be a catfight or—better to distribute rooms to those who need them—for this or that fellow to be inconvenienced in a more or less questionable way. As of the Russakov affaire, everything excellent about the Soviets becomes a hellish ignominy. Generalization is a typically reactionary mania and indulgence.

Most men go about things as Panait Istrati does, and base their political behavior on mawkishness. Hence, they cannot manage to take part effectively in the organization and workings of the State, and democracy is impossible. They do not want to believe that history is made not with mawkishness—tears or smiles—but with intelligent acts grounded in objective and implacable reality and in a scientific and global perspective on life.
Istrati’s friend Russakov, the man who was inconvenienced “in more or less questionable fashion” (he lost his apartment and members of his immediate family were deported to Siberia) is the father-in-law of Victor Serge, one of the three authors of Vers l’autre flamme, the book, signed Istrati alone, that excites Vallejo’s wrath and makes of Istrati, as volume editor Linda Lê puts it, “the whipping boy of the entire French Left.”

Later Latin American writers are more forgiving of Istrati’s apostasy than is Vallejo. In Diary of Andrés Fava, for example, Cortázar writes: “I’m sitting in Plaza Once—not Plaza Miserere—and I’m reading Panait Istrati, not Jean Genet, whom I am reading.”

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Panait Istrati in English

Panait (or Panaït) Istrati, once well known to European readers for his tales and short novels of vagabondage and adventure, fell out of favor with his Marxist champions--among them Henri Barbusse, the well known author of the World War I novel Under Fire and the French Nobel laureate Romain Rolland--after he published an early denunciation of the Bolshevik regime. At one point during the sixteen-month stay in the Soviet Union in the late nineteen-twenties that would lead to Istrati's denunciation, Russia Unveiled (written with Victor Serge and Boris Sourvarine), and his ultimate isolation, a Soviet official responded to one of Istrati's observations with the old saw "you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." "I see the broken eggs," legend has Istrati responding, "but where's this omelette of yours?"

Barbusse and others (including the Peruvians César Vallejo and, to some extent, the essayist José Carlos Mariátegui) subsequently vilified Istrati, calling him, often in the pages of L'Humanité, the daily paper of the French Communist Party, then aligned with Stalin, a "bourgeois turncoat" and worse. Istrati, sick and friendless, was forced to leave France for his native Romania, where, still relatively young, he died in a Bucharest sanatorium.

But in the few years between his return to Romania and his death, Istrati, now highly disillusioned, managed to write several more books. It is translations of several of these darker tales (beginning with The Sponge Diver) that Fario has begun making available for eReaders). Likewise newly translated--and for the first time--are the tale "Bakâr" and the short novels Mediterranean (Sunrise) and The Thüringer House, the latter the tale of a young servant, Adrien Zograffi, who comes of age both politically and sexually in a bourgeois household headed by rich grain merchants. Here, Adrien describes Lina, a frequent visitor to the Thüringer kitchen and childhood friend of Anna, the mistress of the house, she herself a former maid who had married her employer:
Lina was beaten and loved by someone she didn’t love because, leaving her Aleco one day, she had married a rich tavern-keeper from outside the city who satisfied all her whims but was very strict when it came to love. He spent all day at his counter, but he kept an eye on his wife’s windows and had a shotgun by his side. And as soon as he saw a man in the street who seemed to be looking too hard at those windows, he would raise the rifle and simply take a shot at him, though he aimed only for his legs and his weapon was loaded only with dust shot. Then, going back to the accomplice, he would grab her by the hair and drag her across the courtyard to the wine storeroom, where he would lock her up, without food or bed, for twenty-four hours. It was inevitable. But just as inevitable and regular, despite the thousands of precautions of her husband, was the revenge taken by Lina, who would suddenly disappear for an entire week, abandon herself to mad debauchery with lovers, and return one fine morning at dawn, escorted by a gypsy musician playing a slide trombone loud enough to bring all the suburb-dwellers out into the street. Lina was oblivious. Serious, slightly drunk, a geranium bloom over her ear and a cigarette in her lips, she would move forward like a queen, trailed by the gypsy, who, his eyes popping out of his head, was blowing hard enough on his trombone to raise the dead.
“No, Madame Charlotte, it’s not the same,” she said sadly.
Of all Anna’s friends, Lina was the only one who envied her nothing, apart from her beauty.