BEF 2011/32 – The Wire Book [Czech Republic]
Readers of Michal Avjaz are on familiar ground when, in his story ‘The Wire Book,’ lengths of wire bent into whole sentences are discovered lying on a seabed, and later turn out to be the work of the dead son of a country’s new president. The wire book is entrusted to a team of restorers all sworn to secrecy regarding its contents, gagged until the ‘book’ is cleaned of clinging sea creatures and ready to be shown to the public. That day comes some months later and a deal is brokered to publish the book that the people have been waiting so eagerly for, ready to be moved by the stirring words and themes of justice and freedom from tyranny one would expect from a martyr. But what’s this? The novel defies all expectations, confounding critics and advocates alike. Experts can make no sense of it and so, like hermit crabs, empty it of meaning and fill it with their own. The first two sentences freed from the metal tangle will serve to indicate the general tenor of the novel:
As Richard’s car plunged toward the green hillside of the Chapultepec, a dark figure holding a sub-machine gun leaned out of the back window. There were three flashes and the sound of three short bursts of gunfire.
Car chases and gunfights and demons and roadside motels are the stuff of the novel and to the noses of the educated such genre trappings are as odious as the sea-slime that the words once hooked. Like hermeneutists they stood ready to receive the message and enlighten the myopic masses as to its meaning, but the message was not one they had prepared for.
The relationship between power and literature is one Ajvaz returns to time and again in his fiction, a theme generously furnished with example after example throughout history. Since before Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the Decalogue, writing has held great – and to the illiterate often magical – power: to write something is enough to make it true. Blasphemy and treason are the two sides of the coin with which the unwary pays with his life: church and state, from Akhenaten’s monotheism to the socialist realist literature of the Soviet Union, have long held power by controlling society’s mouthpieces.
Since it was learned that Ernesto Vieta’s so had died a martyr in the previous government’s detention camps, President Vieta’s cult of personality has grown. An unassuming professor, Vieta was little know before coming to power, and his leadership, backed by no strong figure, was uncertain. Appealing to popular sentimentality, Vieta won the support of his people when they heard the story of Fernando who fought and died for their freedom from an oppressive regime. With news of the discovery of the wire book came a fresh wind of optimism. What treasures of wisdom would Fernando’s final work give to the world? What maxims and buoyant aphorisms, what phrases of hope to be clung to in times of unrest and upheaval? Well, none initially. Even the polemicists gentled their words with laments at the writer’s premature death and unrealised potential. But the apologists, sympathisers and sycophants ignored the levity and ostensible superficiality of what was ostensibly a science-fiction romp. Instead they smuggled in their own irony and pointed to their hero’s original genius. This government could not afford to lose such a propagandistic tool as the wire book, after all, and just as “any phrase chiselled into marble will take on the meaning we require of it,” so too will words bent into wire take on any meaning we bend them to. The “book,” not long raised from the sea, is soon submerged again beneath the waves of critics and opportunistic ideologues.
In times of revolution universities are often loci of radical activism. Fearing the muzzle of a new master the intelligentsia fight to keep free of the censor whom they are convinced (and often rightly so) is perched to swoop down on them. As a student in Prague during the Soviet invasion of 1968, and later in the Velvet Revolution, Ajvaz has seen first hand the ways in which literature of any merit, political or no, can be turned out of its covers and chained to the party line. Communism so saturated every level of society that any artist wanting to write a work free from politics and not beholden to conventions of socialist realism was almost always defeated, and where he succeeded he was ignored.
Ajvaz demonstrates this in his story. Although the government who would use it for propaganda purposes appear to be benign (they allow free speech, a fundamental human right) their hands are not without blood on them. Lacking any overtly political theme the government twisted the words of the wire novel into their own, and though they spared the actual physical “book” itself, their touch was no less damaging or violent. But isn’t this just what any of us do when we read? you say. Don’t we interpret a writer’s work in our own way, getting it more or less wrong in the process? Certainly, I reply, but the ignominy here is in its presentation as an “official” reading. Reading and, more so, writing is an explicit act of freedom, Ajvaz knows. That act of freedom attains a greater significance when the writing is produced from a place of detention where the only pen is a stick or a finger and the only paper a shifting, wind-swept sheet of sand, or the wind itself. When there is an officially sanctioned, correct way of reading something there is no reading at all. The irony at the core of Ajvaz’s piece is that in turning the wire book to their own purposes, the government has become the very regime they would claim it vilifies.
‘The Wire Book’ is translated from Czech by Andrew Oakland.
This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press. There will appear on this website just such a review until the entire book is done.