What Voices Carry: On Christos Ikonomou and Yuz Aleshkovsky
By Leeore SchnairsohnOctober 18, 2019
Good Will Come From the Sea by Christos Ikonomou
Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage by Yuz Aleshkovsky
IN MARCH 1956, William Faulkner published a letter in Life magazine expressing his anxiety about desegregation. Citing crimes and crises like the lynching of Emmett Till and the furor over Autherine Lucy’s admission to the University of Alabama (she’d been expelled just a week earlier), Faulkner argued against moving too quickly to establish equal rights for Black Southerners for fear of riling up violent White tribalism. Against the Supreme Court’s ambiguous mandate to desegregate “with all deliberate speed,” Faulkner urged the tide of equality to “go slow” in order to preserve a “middle of the road” in which Southern liberal values might be allowed to develop at their own pace while tensions were kept below boiling. The White Southerner needed time to “assimilate” the arc toward equal rights. After all, the end of segregation meant the death of a culture, no matter how hateful: if the White Southerner were railroaded into the future by federal edict, if he was not allowed to recognize on his own the “obsolescence in his own land which only he can cure,” a long-festering social disaster would be guaranteed.
One of the many responses to Faulkner’s letter was James Baldwin’s essay “Faulkner and Desegregation,” published in Partisan Review in fall 1956. Addressing the civil rights crisis in the South, Baldwin acknowledges the difficulty of fundamental change: “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it,” he writes, “the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” In order to survive change with soul intact, a person would need to relinquish his dreams and his privilege “without bitterness or self-pity […] set[ting] himself free — for higher dreams, for greater privileges.” Baldwin’s evidence is his own life, and he draws on it in order to speak to White Southerners in a common language of crisis.
Yet in the case of desegregation, argues Baldwin, history demands that the spiritual needs of the White South not be met, even though this ensures that the South will fail to change in a “real” way and forsake what is “higher.” This is because the White South would never willingly alter its “mad […] social structure,” which is marked by “a species of defiance most perverse when it is most despairing.” This is the same tribalism to which Faulkner points when making his case against provocation — and deferring to it, as Faulkner does, leaves out the Black Southerners, whom his letter mentions only in passing. Baldwin wonders “just what Negroes are supposed to do while the South works out what, in Faulkner’s rhetoric, becomes something very closely resembling a high and noble tragedy.” Casting the South as a site of high tragedy was Faulkner’s primary literary mode; it let him hack out a stage for liberal values in the South’s dark and thorny history. But for Baldwin, the tragic mode is inapt to the historical moment. In the fight for civil rights in midcentury America, the individual will was not set against the arc of fate, but was in tune with it. The struggle’s mythology was not Greek but Mosaic: its hero a visionary and its catharsis legislative.
Part of the problem is Faulkner’s insistence that the South remain able to determine its own meaning; while for Baldwin, to insist on that meaning is to ensure that injustice will continue. Baldwin reveals Faulkner’s middle of the road as an incoherent position, blazed between the Nobel laureate’s opinion that “to live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or color is like living in Alaska and being against snow” and his near-simultaneous assertion that he’d fight for Mississippi if a new Civil War were declared, “even if it meant going out into the streets and shooting Negroes.” Baldwin asserts this is not hypocrisy: “Faulkner means everything he says, means them all at once, and with very nearly the same intensity” — and thus “has perhaps never before more concretely expressed what it means to be a Southerner.”
This expression of the South is inherently contradictory, and as Baldwin hints, takes the terms of tragedy. Faulkner’s letter argues that even those White Southerners who defend equality across races are beholden in a deeper sense to what he calls “blood and kin and home.” To “fight for Mississippi,” for him, is not to pull willingly for the cause of race hatred, but to honor his tribal affiliation though it contravenes his personal morality. Faulkner later tried to apologize for the Mississippi comment by claiming he was drunk when he made it, but that’s exactly the point: in amplifying the voices one tends to mute while sober, drink doesn’t make one incoherent but reveals the contradiction at the heart of one’s tragedy.
Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son,” published the previous year, famously ends with a statement of contradiction. “Notes” is about Baldwin’s coming of age, and reckons at once with the death of his father and with his first experiences as a conscious, responsible subject of racism. From these two crises Baldwin builds a threshold onto adulthood, realizing he must henceforth “hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition”: first, to accept “men as they are” and “injustice [as] a commonplace”; second, to “never, in one’s own life […] accept these injustices as commonplace but [to] fight them with all one’s might.” If these ideas in opposition make up a paradox more than an incoherence, it is because their author recognizes their contradiction even as he grants them equal power. Baldwin’s is a sober judgment, though it has also come through the crucible of blood and kin and home.
Faulkner’s position, on the other hand, is incoherent, not because it hangs between opposing forces but because (as he admits under his breath) one of these forces — the pull of the tribal — ends up the stronger. Thus Faulkner’s middle of the road is historically contingent, which weakens it as a philosophical position but strengthens it as a barometer of the real political climate (or, as Baldwin puts it, of “what it means to be a Southerner”). The ethic of the tribe says that if you can’t identify with someone, they’re not worth listening to. Baldwin’s ethic of paradox exceeds the tribal, claiming that you can’t even identify with yourself. The implication is that it’s all worth listening to.
Sensibly, and generously, Baldwin reads Faulkner’s incoherence through the mode of paradox. The central contradiction in “Faulkner and Desegregation” is at least as pronounced as that in “Notes of a Native Son.” At the opening of “Faulkner,” Baldwin claims that any “real” change in the White Southerner must come without spite and be effected from within, in freedom. But his position against Faulkner, in the rest of the essay, is that the South cannot be given that chance. This is not just a paradox, but a fault: the kind of fault it is useless to censure and wise to heed, as in geology. To accept the argument of either author is to recognize the fault in his text as part of my own fate.
II. The Greek Faulkner
What does it sound like when coherency is lost, and what does it mean to accept this loss as fate? When Faulkner spoke of fighting for Mississippi, he was invoking a tribalism rooted in history, an immanence of the past in the present both inimical and significant (what Baldwin described mistrustfully as “high and noble tragedy”). But the cultural crisis in which we find ourselves 65 years after Faulkner’s letter to Life doesn’t look so much like tragedy as it does like carnival. On the tragic stage, order is upended in order to be set right again, by killing or unmanning a hero superfluous to a higher will. Carnival, on the other hand, laughs at heroes and spurns authority. It brings with it no formal checks and balances: unlike tragedy, it can’t stop itself. What it offers, for better or worse, is a superfluity of voices that for the moment of performance penetrate and deflate any hegemonic voice from above — or, more appositely here, from behind.
The contemporary fictionist Christos Ikonomou has been hailed as “the Greek Faulkner,” because like the American master he delivers stories of the marginalized, the underdogs, weaving together a provincial cosmos from a panoply of nearly palpable voices, finally insisting in his fiction on “the indestructibility of man” (la Repubblica, June 24, 2012). When Faulkner traveled to Greece in 1957, he mused that the ancient gods seemed to have absconded, leaving “a sense of a very distant past but there was nothing inimical in it.” This sounds like quite a relief — but Ikonomou, who is not a tourist as Faulkner was, and who writes from the depths of the Greek economic crisis, finds nothing good in the gods’ departure. Even tragedy, with its clean lines, would be a relief next to the dark carnival forces that support the realism of Ikonomou’s fiction. It can indeed be argued that his stories animate what is indestructible in man — but “man” himself turns out to be eminently destructible: what is indestructible is his need to sing heroes and tell stories even though he’s forgotten how. For Ikonomou — certainly in his newest collection, Good Will Come From the Sea, translated by Karen Emmerich — the last bastion of the human being is his voice, and the book’s primary anxiety is the threat to that voice.
Though Good Will Come From the Sea is technically a collection of short fiction, its structure is built on enough unities as to suggest a novel. The four narratives take place on the same tiny Greek island and feed off the same tension between the island’s native “rats” and a group of “foreigners” who have immigrated from other parts of Greece in search of better lives. This island is not only a microcosm for Greece during the economic crisis, but for any culture whose myths have been impoverished, and for whom a capitalist teleology has failed to fill the gap. Each story is devastating in its own way, and each places the human voice under direct threat. The first, “I’ll Swallow Your Dreams,” is told by a narrator who continually clutches at the reader’s lapels even though he holds no hope of being understood or even heard: “The only reason I’m telling you now,” he confides, “is that it’s late at night and no one’s listening and the wind just whisks my words away.” The possibility emerges later that there’s no interlocutor at all, and the narrator is actually speaking to the wind. He alternates between telling the story of Tasos, a grocer who insistently stands up to the island’s dominant gang of “rats,” and lamenting the loss of the language and the faith in story that would have allowed him to tell Tasos’s story right.
Tasos’s fate at the hands of the rats is grotesque: they tie him up and drag him all night behind a boat; they strap him to the hood of a car and run him through a car wash, maiming him horribly and permanently. Yet Tasos refuses to stop crossing the rats in his mission to break their monopoly on the island’s produce. When given a chance to go out in a blaze of glory, though, Tasos declines. He chooses to disappear rather than leave a lasting image. The story’s narrator is thus ambivalent in his admiration, and confused about how to sing Tasos’s tale. In a refrain that recurs through the story, he gives a complicated complaint: that Tasos has misplayed his role as hero, that “we all expected the end to be more manly, more heroic” — but also that “our” own idea of hero is no longer valid: that the hero has yet to be conceived who is “not a war hero but a hero for what comes after the war.”
“I’ll Swallow Your Dreams” is told in sorrow over the loss of myth. While Tasos never had a chance to break the rats’ hold on the island, he could at least have left a good story to hold on to. As the narrator fails to sing his hero, he succeeds in mapping the deep and complicated wound that the loss of the song has left. It’s no accident that this story is followed by a topographical description of the island — which, moreover, is shaped like a pair of handcuffs. Story and language are both handcuffed. No one knows what a hero is anymore, no one knows how to breathe life back into a dead language. Even obscenity, the last refuge of poiesis, has lost its creative power:
Sometimes we joke that we’ve invented a new language, Shitlish. […] I think that’s the most frightening thing of all. That we curse and swear from morning till night. That we wake up swearing and fall asleep with Shitlish on our tongues. […] Ever since we came here, we’ve slowly stopped talking the way we think, and now we think the way we talk. […] What I mean is, if you get used to calling all women whores and all men assholes and all children brats, you slowly begin to believe that’s how it really is …
This brand of obscenity deprives the world of character, rather than granting it. It is a retreat from creation, when creation is what is needed: “You have to create a new story,” the narrator declares. “If you want to survive, you struggle to make that story […] You have to fight that fight. […] And in order to create that new world, you first have to create a new self. New eyes, new ears, a new tongue.” Good Will Come From the Sea finds its characters in the middle of this creative crisis, a war on significance whose end is not in sight. None of Ikonomou’s heroes have a chance at combating the injustice they see, but they act for good, each in his imperfect way, testing the limits that evil lays over them, and simultaneously testing the power of language to tell stories and appoint significances. These tests end up largely as rebuffs — the voices eaten by the wind — but, as la Repubblica hints, they keep on speaking. At these points of testing, and of failure — in which the creation of new selves is still a matter of blood and deformation — Ikonomou lets loose astounding images. An imprisoned scorpion attacks and devours a wafer soaked in wine. A paraplegic pulls himself up a flight of stairs with a giant knife in his teeth. A grieving father kneels on a cliff’s edge at daybreak and howls for his vanished son. A kite hung with flaming lanterns soars out over the sea on a whipping wind. These images, I believe, are flareups of poiesis. They are protests against the loss of story, and reach into the primal place in our souls that we also call private, where the obscene and grotesque collaborate with the prehistoric and chthonic to form images. Even the terrifying ones are signs of hope. An image can be buoyed by a furious wind, where words are torn apart.
“The Greek Faulkner” label is a pithy sales pitch, but it gets in the way of the text. At a reading in San Francisco, Ikonomou tried to explain why he set all the stories in Something Will Happen, You’ll See in the Greek port of Piraeus. “I didn’t want to do something like just a chronicle,” he begins. “I’m always trying to have a wider perspective. So […] I used this place as a base to open up to.” Now the moderator interrupts: “Like Faulkner! Right?” Ikonomou responds: “Faulker … Again” (Literary Hub). The moderator was gesturing to the fictive county in Mississippi to which Faulkner turned in order to draw universal stories out of deeply emplaced subjects. But Ikonomou’s wind-blasted islands aren’t blessed with the mythopoeic humidity of Yoknapatawpha. The troubling gift of images is that they won’t tell a story on their own. Ikonomou’s narrators know this; they gesture in regular rhythm to interlocutors who won’t listen or don’t exist, and are left as groundless as their heroes. They are holding their place in time, holding open the margins, birthing images against the day that a story will be found, and listened to. If we let ourselves listen, if we put Faulkner away, we will hear a text that implicates us, though it is not about us.
III. Somewhere Over the Transom
Back home, the storytellers are as industrious as ever. Carnival here has its daytime as well as its night, and the departure of the gods means freedom as much as it means anything else. Nearly 15,000 people attended this year’s Conference of Associated Writers and Writing Programs in the space-station hulk of the Oregon Convention Center; amid half a thousand panels and some hundred readings there was much to study and to overhear. A popular theme among the panels was the concentration of authors from marginalized communities in the fields of speculative fiction — fantasy, science fiction, magic realism — fields that require the creation of new and alternative worlds. I counted 14 sessions (including mine) that were dedicated to exploring this trend. There were panels on speculative fiction by queer writers, trans and non-binary writers, Latinx writers, writers of the African diaspora, Asian-American writers, Indigenous writers, QTPOC (queer and trans people of color) writers, and women writers of the Pacific Northwest, as well as panels that didn’t focus on a specific community or a specific margin.
One of these panels was called “Centering the Othered,” hinting at a principle that undergirds the whole trend. When a margin is placed at the center of an artwork, it skews the dimensions and subverts any presumed order. The torque it applies to the topography demands the creation of new landscapes. This is why the connection between speculative fiction and marginalized authors makes sense: in theory, at least, the experience of marginality seems to set the right conditions for mythopoeia. As I took into account the multiplicity of identities busy creating these new stories, I envisioned a thousand Greek islands each working on its own version of how Odysseus should be sung: each island deserving of its own version, each preferring it to Homer’s.
As an emergency fill-in, unprepared to address any marginal anxieties that fuel my own fiction, I talked instead about Faulkner and the unconscious. I was particularly interested in his claim that The Sound and the Fury emerged piecemeal from the demands of a single image. To hear Faulkner tell it, the novel’s formal amazements, along with the orchestral mastery needed to deploy them, were invented to meet the demands of one irruptive image. Without any hope of completing the manuscript, never mind selling it, he worked in an atmosphere of freedom far greater than his experience as a writer had so far allowed. I hoped in my remarks to expand the idea of marginality to the unconscious and its wealth of irreducible images, in order to lay a couple of theoretical bricks in the bridge between margin and creation.
I was caught off-balance when another panelist, who is transgender, explained to the room that her stories are not for cisgendered people. It threw me in part because I am cisgendered, had read this author’s work in preparation for the panel, and a few hours earlier had talked to her about one of her stories. It felt insulting to be consciously excluded from an author’s intended audience — as if my imagination couldn’t be trusted outside my cultural categories. Back at the Airbnb, I picked up a book I intended to review — a new translation of two short novels by the underground Russian writer Yuz Aleshkovsky — and found just such a challenge to my imagination. A subject of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, Aleshkovsky typed up his manuscripts in secret and distributed them to his friends. As hopeless cases, bound for a readership no wider than this secret circle, the novels were free to be as arcane and private as the author wished, and as filthy as the breadth of his imagination (and his ear for music) would allow. The fraught privacy of their composition, it seemed, lent them their particular brand of freedom. It’s not unlike the bounded freedom of carnival, when carnality and chaos are granted one week of the year without policing. An official who listens in on the revels must be willing to endure insult.
The novels, Nikolai Nikolaevich: A Science-Fiction Story and Camouflage: A Medical History, were composed in the 1970s and have just now been translated into English by Duffield White. Aleshkovsky’s vocabulary, his references, and even his narrative modes are tuned toward a very local audience, and it’s easy to see why the novels had to wait some 50 years to be translated. The English-language edition is spackled with footnotes, none of which are superfluous. Yet thanks to the author’s vision and the translator’s talent, the text survives its emigration. Each novel is told in first person, by a charismatic and often obscene narrator who gets progressively drunker and more needful of his listener. Both narrators insist on their right to tell their story, and on our obligation to remain with them in the bar. Aleshkovsky may not have intended us to read his novels. Yet there we are, and the voices he inscribed are trying to pull us in.
Nikolai Nikolaevich begins with the narrator assuring you his tale will not be boring. “If you do get bored,” Nikolai explains, “it’ll mean you’re a complete dickhead and don’t understand a damned thing about molecular biology or the story of my life.” He then holds our heads underwater for a hundred rollicking, obscenity-rich pages that chronicle a Moscow genetics lab’s plans to Sovietize outer space by sending up Russian sperm in rockets. Nikolai, an unreformed petty thief, is hired to provide semen (once daily) and observes from his workstation as the lab slogs though political infighting and scientific chicanery.
The novel is set in the years surrounding Stalin’s death in 1953, and dwells in particular on the fall of Trofim Lysenko, the pseudo-geneticist who revised Soviet agronomy along Marxist-Leninist lines in the 1930s. Lysenko proposed that acquired biological characteristics were potentially heritable — essentially, that plants could be educated into serving people’s needs across the USSR’s various climates — an ill-founded theory that ended up causing famines throughout the communist sphere. Nikolai Nikolaevich’s vision of science clearly parodies Lysenko’s criminal quixotism. As Nikolai explains his understanding of the mission:
Their idea was to send my sperm to the Andromeda galaxy in a glass test tube that would be like an impregnated belly. Nine months later, just like that, there’d be little Nikolai Nikolaeviches on planet Andromeda! A hundred or so would be born right away, and they’d fucking well adapt fast to their new surroundings. You don’t believe that could happen? Well, dickhead, try buying a live carp, freeze it, and throw it into the bathtub. You’ll see: it’ll come back to life.
Nikolai meets the lofty scientism of the USSR with a geyser of absurdity, most of it profane. “All of Soviet and world science,” he declares, “is nothing but jacking off.” The novel is liberally seeded with curses and sexual obscenities, which provide something like a dramatic superstructure. As they accumulate, the obscenities become operatic, the imagery baroque. On Nikolai’s first workday producing sperm, for example, he puts himself in the mood by recalling an orgy he instigated while serving time for petty theft, and is encouraged as “my little snot-nosed one started moving his head around in all directions like a cobra hearkening to a flute.”
Aleshkovsky writes with the authority of an ex-con (as a young man he served four years for “borrowing” a party official’s car) as well as an expert in mat, the Russian treasury of obscenity which is at once a literary discourse, a centuries-old folk tradition, a vital vernacular, an argot of the exiled and marginalized, and a multiheaded political tool. Susanne Fusso, in her introduction to the translation, expands on the importance of mat as a “language of dissidence” inside Russia from time immemorial. She quotes the novelist Andrei Bitov, who, in an essay on Nikolai Nikolaevich, declares: “[T]he noble crystals of mat, the only natural and inherent part of the Russian language that has been preserved in Soviet language, continue to send us the light of human speech, like extinguished stars in the darkness of a planetarium.” (Nikolai likes planetariums, by the way: “You’re sitting in the easy chair with a light buzz, and it seems like you’re the only one on the whole earth. At that moment, there’s not a fucking thing that you, wretched creature, could possibly be in need of.”)
Prose this insistently anarchic of course could not be published, or even acknowledged to exist, in the USSR in the 1970s. Bitov writes that Aleshkovsky wrote Nikolai Nikolaevich without any idea of publication but rather for fun, to be shared with two or three friends to whom he read the manuscript aloud: in fact, Bitov says, the story took shape in letters between these friends (“quite like how literature itself got started”). Fifty years on, though, it seems mat doesn’t occupy the same place in Russian conceptions of dissidence, in part because obscenity is no longer so much a private affair. In Viktor Erofeyev’s deep and expansive introduction to mat in The New Yorker from 2003, he notices a demystification of obscene language, overheard in the speech of teenagers: “For the youth of Moscow and other big cities, it is often merely an instrument that enables them to discuss openly the matters of gender and sexual activity.” The obscene is defanged, instrumentalized: a sign that space for public discourse in Russia has become more neutral. On the other hand, the mat scholar Anatoly Baranov observes that the same teenagers use mat indiscriminately “because it is a reflection of their reality, a reflection of how bad they feel. […] Then, as with drugs, you have to use the words more and more often to produce the desired effect.”
This insight seems to be about language set free. In Soviet times, repressive cultural forces pushed free language like mat into the margins, where it could do the work of creation; now, what used to be carnival talk can be spoken anywhere at any time, and having lost its former discursive character joins the background noise of lived experience. Must language, and experience, be defanged when they are brought in from the margins? Of course not — the freedom of language and experience to be heard does not imply their liberation from natural and earned constraints, and thus the loss of their character. The subjection of experience to any but the most legalistic language guarantees this. Liberty of the kind granted by legislative equivalence — or logic, or consequence, or any of the underpinnings of rational thought that the Soviets tried to destabilize — is different from the liberties of language, which is always chasing truth as it seeks to express it, and often destabilizes received rationality for its own ends. The first kind of liberty is an ethical expedient and sign of justice. The second is ethically suspect and makes stories that last. Neither needs the other, exactly — the descriptive mat of teenagers will survive without the creative mat of Aleshkovsky, and vice versa. But a word spoken on any stage wants to be overheard, regardless of the intentions of its author. Listening to the word not meant for us is one of the duties of intellectual freedom. It does more than show us the other in ourselves: it shows us the actual other, with whom there is no identification, and reminds us of our responsibility to them.
Leeore Schnairsohn’s fiction, reviews, and translations have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, The Write Launch, the Slavic and East European Journal, Canadian-American Slavic Studies, Portals, and elsewhere. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, with a dissertation on Osip Mandelstam, and teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.
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