BREATHING UNDER WATER
By Stanislaw Baranczak
Harvard University Press. 253 pp. $22.50
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE OUTSIDE
A Manifesto for Escape
By Andrei Codrescu
Addison-Wesley. 216 pp. $17.95
LITERATURE IN EXILE
Edited by John Glad
Duke University Press. 175 pp. $27.50
IT MAKES for an oddly harmonious group: one collection of book reviews by a Polish poet and scholar now teaching at Harvard; one book-length essay by a Romanian poet and novelist now teaching at Louisiana State University; and the proceedings of a conference held in December 1987 on literature in exile, with participants hailing from Russia, Cuba, Turkey, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Zimbabwe, Poland, Chile, Somalia. Each volume can be read on its own, and -- despite some problems -- profitably. Read together, these three books complement one another in startling and satisfying ways.
For one thing, their authors are talking to and about one another. Stanislaw Baranczak and Andrei Codrescu both discuss Witold Gombrowicz, Czeslaw Milosz and Vaclav Havel. Both write about Joseph Brodsky, whose comments at the Wheatland Conference on Literature in Vienna were among the most stimulating, and Codrescu considers another Wheatland participant, the Cuban-born novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante. The conference volume, Literature in Exile, yields a surprisingly rich intellectual give-and-take. With all their many and substantial differences as writers and their disagreements as political beings, these writers form a genuine artistic comity, if never quite a community.
For another, all three books share certain preoccupations. At the Wheatland conference, organized as a series of short papers followed by often combative discussion, the Czech author Jan Vladislav spoke eloquently of these:
"Our home is the place from which we originate, and toward which we turn to look from an ever-increasing distance . . . This is not only a question of individual memory, for a man's home, fixed in time, is shaped not only by his own history, but also by the histories of those who surround him, by his family and tribe, and by the palpable history of tilled fields, of ancient villages and new cities, and above all by that changeable, unfathomable, mythic reservoir of his native language."
Nation, memory, history and language are the explicit subjects or implied context for the comments of every author represented in these volumes. Generally, those who come from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe feel the loss of language and home audience as a terrible deprivation; exile forces them into the (not always congenial) role of interpreting their former culture for denizens of their new world. At the Wheatland conference the Slavs outnumbered, and occasionally drowned out, those who perceive their emigration quite differently. Romanian-born novelist Virgil Tanase, for instance, deliberately chooses to write his novels in French so as to enter the arena of world literature. But the vast number of transnational Spanish readers as well as his own linguistic proficiency allow Cabrera Infante, who calls himself "the only English writer who writes in Spanish," to ignore the boundaries of what he wittily dubs "S(Iberia)."
History and language shadow all of Polish poet Stanislaw Baranczak's essays, whether their immediate spur is political (Lech Walesa's autobiography, Adam Michnik, the Polish Writers Union) or literary. History is the "spirit of nothingness." Always capitalized, it is a deity that menaces us with its "vagaries," its "bestiality and absurdity," its "omnivorous jaws."
History devalues human beings. The force best capable of opposing its abstract and therefore false allure is, for Baranczak, art. Poetry, especially, can be "History's spoilsport," because poetry represents the concrete, the triumphant individual voice. "A poet," he writes, "who is offended by the course of modern History doesn't even have to write political poetry to find an appropriate response to it. It's enough that he writes his poems well." "Immovable History" is pitted against "Recalcitrant Literature" in a continuing battle, and despite grossly uneven odds, the conclusion is not foregone.
But this kind of abstract summary violates the spirit of Breathing Under Water. Baranczak's essays are built around books, to which he responds with a formidable and specific intelligence and an acute poetic sensibility. As with any collection of review-essays, some repetition is inevitable, particularly since all the essays deal with "East bloc" authors or subjects. He repeatedly contends that Westerners employ a double-standard in judging the East: We regard as natural there, and therefore accept as unavoidable, abuses of power that we would never tolerate in our own societies. His encomia to the heroes of Solidarity seem a trifle dated now that Walesa and Michnik are hurling shards of their clay feet at each other on Polish television screens.
On literature and language Baranczak is brilliant. He never condescends to readers unacquainted with Polish writers, yet provides all the necessary information: he treats us as intellectual equals, if unlettered in certain matters of historical fact. Often, whatever the specific book under review, Baranczak opens up the subject. Eva Hoffman's memoir Lost in Translation affords him the opportunity to muse, with humor as well as insight, on the impossibility of translating concepts from one culture to another. After pinpointing the special quality of Joseph Brodsky's essays and poems, he then teases out more general implications about West and East.
Baranczak has lived in the West long enough (since 1981) to understand a great deal about Western perceptions. Still, his lens is that of an East European, and one who is firmly fixed in the culture of the word. In contrast, when Andrei Codrescu came to America in 1966, he was a 20-year-old rebel, ripe for the turbulent iconoclasm of the late '60s. He embraced it with both fists. He too is preoccupied with language and history, but his vision is bifocal, as much attuned to non-verbal image as to word, and he has become a curious blend of American and Romanian.
Charting his odyssey from East to West, Codrescu recalls his susceptibility to the "mystical potencies of deracination" before he left Romania. He left eagerly, epigone of Romanian emigres Brancusi, Ionesco, Eliade, and landed in an America where, fortuitously, "exile was the status quo . . . Exile was part of the popular culture, and its meaning had been expanded to take in anything from an hour of alienation to a summer of slumming in Europe."
Neither America's innocence nor Codrescu's lasted. If the East squeezes imagination in its brutal State grip, the West, almost as destructive, replaces it with the programmed narcolepsy of television and mass-marketed trash. But Codrescu goes beyond soothingly standard pop-culture bashing to examine what this media metamorphosis signifies. He recognizes, for instance, that Romanian television was "the central nervous system" of the December 1989 revolution, that the medium literally became the message in those tumultuous days. But when the image prevails, it turns natives into tourists who view themselves and their world from the Outside. They -- we -- become Spectators, docile and collective-minded, a different species from the invariably individual Readers who were, once upon a time, "privy to the act of creation." SOME OF The Disappearance of the Outside is hard going. Codrescu's ideas are complex and are presented with little leavening of the wit he uses to such good purpose in his regular broadcasts on National Public Radio. (On the air, his Romanian accent adds an extra twist of pleasure to his clever manipulation of language.) Because of his fondness for the New York School of poets who made him welcome him in the 1960s -- especially Ted Berrigan -- he minimizes their contribution to the rising tide of "overstatement, inflation, megalomania, bathos, and blather." I am unpersuaded by his argument on the political and sexual implications of language in the chapter entitled "Moloch and Eros," and by his conclusion that drugs and alcohol represent humanizing agents, albeit destructive ones, in the dehumanizing environment of urban life.
But that's fine. The last thing Codrescu wants is bobbing, smiling nods. If Baranczak extends what we already know, forcing us to contemplate the familiar more deeply, Codrescu pushes off from the shore of the familiar into sometimes jarringly cold water. In line with his literary modernism, his tastes run to the whimsical, the surreal (about which he writes with great understanding), even the perverse. He means to provoke, and he does. His ideas are worth thinking about. They rile, they ruffle, they excite, they incite. One way or another, that is true for all three of these volumes.
Josephine Woll is associate professor of Russian at Howard University.