“… it always pops up, the same question, cleverly calculated from my date of birth, about Communism, whether I remember the food lines, the vinegar on store shelves, the fall of the Wall and all the other bloodcurdling stuff they didn’t have over on its other side. Of course I do, I say with a mix of triumph and pain, as if I were just then supposed to pull up my sleeve to reveal something like scars from the kiddie internment camp or the marks from when the police beat me during an interrogation and wave them before the eyes of my interlocutor like a wad of photos from some exotic trip. Yes, my dears, I was there, back when you had no idea about anything: while you were scarfing down those dainties in little tissue-paper cups, I was fighting on the front lines of childhood! Here are my scars from drinking vinegar straight from the shelf! Say what you want, you may have every other kind of scar there is, but you don’t have these.”
So says Dorota Maslowska in Faraway, So Ugly, a piece included in the new Words Without Borders anthology The Wall In My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall famously fell twenty years ago, but this is really too simple a symbol to stand for the vast adjustments that took place all over Eastern Europe as the great dream/nightmare of Soviet Communism disappeared. For greater understanding — what did these critical days feel like? and what did the Plastic People of the Universe really have to do with it? — we need the power of fiction and poetry and art. I haven’t seen the final version of this book yet (full disclosure: I am a proud member of the Words Without Borders team) but I know I won’t be disappointed.
I recently glanced at a new translation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, a classic novel I’d never read, with little intention to put my other reading aside and dive in. The opening scene of a peasant hiding a fugitive under her skirts in a potato field near Danzig drew me in, and then her grandson got a tin drum on his third birthday and before I knew it I’d blasted through the whole amazing novel. I now have a new favorite writer on my long list. What a talent! Grass’s taste for sensitive and affectionate perversion amidst the trappings of human frailty reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving, and I now realize the extent to which both of these writers must have been inspired by this book. The new edition also contains some extra material about how Breon Mitchell’s new translation expands upon the classic Ralph Manheim version. I can’t speak to the differences, but the new translation sure does deliver the goods.
I’ve also been reading Ralph Manheim’s translation of Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete, though Lind’s shrill dark comedy and heavy Kafkaesque attitude make this a tougher read than Grass’s graceful Tin Drum. Joshua Cohen’s introduction explains the surprising life story of this Jewish/Austrian writer who assumed an Aryan identity and hid inside Nazi Germany through the course of World War II working for another “Nazi” who, in a twist that reminds me of Ian McEwan’s The Innocent, turned out to be a different kind of double agent. Despite the author’s beguiling back story, I had trouble digging into this novel (politically-tinged surrealism is often a painful grind, which may be one reason Kafka’s best pieces are so short). Still, this novel stands as another piece in Central Europe’s historic puzzle.