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.”

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