Tag Archives: Stalinism

Catalonia: I find these photos GENUINELY TERRIFYING — “¡Basta ya con Cataluña!”

31 Oct

Supporters of Catalan independence outside the Catalan parliament in Barcelona during a speech by Premier Carles Puigdemont on whether he would declare independence from Spain, October 10, 2017

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Catalan nationalist

These are photos of a jubilance that one imagines accompanied the Emancipation Proclamation or sees in images of the Liberation of Paris or of the Greek flag being raised over the Acropolis in 1944 or of V-J Day or the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Instead, they’re photos of a sociopathic hysteria: of a people with one of the highest living standards in the world, with their language and culture (a word I’ve come to hate) fully un-threatened, living in a region with the absolutely highest level of autonomy than perhaps any region of any other state in Europe, or even the world, cumming in the streets because of an absolutely meaningless independence they think they’ve won in an increasingly interdependent world.  Meanwhile their “leaders” are having their moules frites in Brussels.

Really, they scare me.  The affect is so off, the affect level so incommensurate to the stimulus, that it suggests the haunting spectre that even people in one of the most liberal, progressive of human societies can be convinced they’re victims of something.  And like the convert, beware the victim.

There’s a name to that spectre and the victim narrative that is now haunting not only Catalonia and Spain and Europe and American democracy, but the entire world: identity politics.  As Mark Lilla has already said — please read the piece — the main problem with identity politics is that they don’t do politics: Mark Lilla’s “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics”.  It’s nonsense.  It’s a waste of all of our time, something even more precious than our energy and our resources and brain cells.  It’s a lame Fifth Avenue parade that’s supposed to actually express the soul of a particular segment of human civilization.  It’s an adolescent acting out of culture in a Mardi Gras costume in a deadly serious arena of politics that can quickly get dangerous.  And cultures that deserve to survive, will, by definition, do so on their own and don’t need constant “Pride” parades and manifestos and events and pointless — and dangerous — referenda.  (It’s bad enough to give the demos something complicated to think about; giving them an easy yes-no question is potentially fatal to any polity.)

Andrew Sullivan did a really good job in his  “I Used to Be a Human Being” for New York magazine last year, describing how being hooked up to a screen and keyboard all our lives makes our brains oatmeal, and how blogging all the years he did for his Daily Dish started to have physical health consequences for him, physical consequences that he could only deal with through treatment of his mind and soul.

I’m not in danger of that — usually.  One, I’m too lazy.  Two, I don’t “cover” running stories like Sullivan used to do on his Dish, in what really was a border-line manic-obsessive fashion.  Rather, I jump here and there, back and forth, with now and then ruminations that are all kind of “evergreens”, to use journalist sprache.

But as the child of a family that suffered terribly as an ethnic minority under a Stalinist regime, as a member of an ethnic group that was once spread all over the eastern Mediterranean and was then locked up in the pigsty of a nation-state, as an ethnic-American who always felt the world outside his window was sort of a foreign country, I’m acutely sensitive to issues of pluralism and how they should be negotiated and they strike incredibly powerful chords in me.  And they’ve made me a defender of minority rights but an even more intense critic of self-determination.  It’s not pluralist for every two-bit tribe of Balko-somethings to have their own country; you’re destroying pluralism that way — and the “way” always involves violence of some sort.  WHICH IS WHY I STILL GET SO FREAKED OUT ABOUT YUGOSLAVIA.

That’s also why a story like Catalonia can consume me for weeks if I let it.  And this post was actually meant to declare that I will not myself be writing or quoting or even linking to anything that has to do with the issue — at least until something substantive happens — which may be tomorrow…  I still have some identity politics/multi-culti-bashing pieces knocking around inside my head, but they’ll be dealing with other parts of the world.

Because Catalonia — which infuriates me — and Spain — which I love — are two players that can completely eat me alive if I let them.  For other gold-and-red semiotics, see my Bodegas.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Bodega 10

This is one of the most moving things I’ve seen

29 Oct

People are reading the names of victims of Soviet repressions at KGB HQ in Moscow for 12 hrs today. Livestream here

See “Родные” — “Close Relations” — at the MMI in Astoria

23 Sep

Bad translation.  “Pодные”…”rodnye” means intimate, familiar, related; by extension born-beloved, dear one, cared for, same root in Russian as parents, birth, homeland, Christmas…wouldn’t be surprised if it has the same Indo-European roots as “root”.

Rodnye Vitaly Mansky

Vitaly Mansky‘s documentary is being screened this coming weekend and the next at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.  (See schedule. It’s two train stops into Queens, guys.  Then you can have a nice dinner for half of what you pay in Manhttan at a good friend and koumbaro‘s place: Mar’s.)

“In this follow-up to his award-winning documentary Under the Sun, filmmaker Vitaly Mansky examines Ukrainian society amidst the 2014 national election, a period rife with political chaos and growing uncertainty over national identity and integration. As both a Russian citizen and native Ukrainian, Mansky deftly underscores personal and political complexities as he visits with relatives living in Lvov, Odessa, the Crimean peninsula, and the Donbass region, and in the process discovers a wide and disorienting spectrum of outlooks and affiliations, including his own sense of ongoing exile and unease. Close Relations is at once an intimate family portrait and a graceful journalistic endeavor, a movie of the intense present that illuminates a place caught between a troubled past and an anxious future.”

Watch the trailer below.

Lots of moving, “disorienting” footage.  Also, lots of humor, which reminds us that so much of a certain ironic, sardonic take on the world — a viewpoint “from a certain angle”, as E.M. Forster said of Cavafy — that we in the United States think is particularly Jewish, is really just a trait common to all eastern Europe, even Greece, or perhaps just a trait common to the powerless everywhere:

“Crimea was a pity, but the Donbass…they can have it.” *

But I think the most important moment in terms of geopolitics comes at 1:15:

“So Ukraine decided to join NATO.  Isn’t that its own business?”

“Nyyyyyet!”

…comes the reply without a moment’s hesitation.

“Nyet” with its palatized “n” and final “t” is one of humanity’s great no-words.  Like “yok” in Turkish, it literally means “there isn’t” or “Il n’y a pas”.  But while “yok” has a kind of know-nothing passivity about it, “nyet” is an active “Halt!  No way you’re going further down this road.  There’s no access.” **

That moment in Mansky’s doc is why, despite widespread support for a Putin I find repulsive, I can’t get as angry at Russians as I get at Trump Americans and Türk-doğans; because Russians aren’t stupid.  They’re not as smart as they used to be in the old days, при коммунизме, when everybody knew not to believe any-thing.  They now believe all kinds of nonsense.  And they went and got religion on me too, which is one of my life’s greatest watch-what-you-wish-fors.  But they’re still pretty intelligent about the world.

I can’t get inside Putin’s head, like Ben Judah convincingly does in what’s still the best book on the Путинщина, the “Putin-ness” or the “Putin thang.”  Judah’s thesis is that Putin is really just a nebech apparatchik who others put in his place and who now — having trampled over so many people on his way up — is terrified of stepping down and that the macho persona he so tiringly projects masks mega insecurity.  It almost makes you feel sorry for him.

But this relative of Mansky’s and her coldly realpolitik “nyet” tell you why he has so many Russians’ support.  Because it means: nyet, you can’t tell me that the U.S. and NATO suddenly developed a major crush on Estonia and Georgia; nyet, you can’t suddenly tell me you’re interested in Ukraine too, because this was already starting to feel like a corporate raid on all the old girlfriends who dumped me, but Ukraine, especially, is like hitting on my sister; nyet, you can’t moan and groan about how we’re violating a basic credo of the European Union by changing borders, when neither Russia or Ukraine are part of the European Union and you wouldn’t even have considered Ukraine — with its resources, access to the Black Sea and huge Russian population —  a candidate if it weren’t a way to totally encircle Russia; and, nyet, you can’t tell us that you’re not still treating us with a Cold War mentality that you inherited from an Anglo tradition of Great Game power struggle that doesn’t apply anymore and is now completely counter-productive.

At least talk some truth and maybe we can get somewhere.  And then I’ll reconsider breaking up with Putin.

In the meantime, we can try to think of everyone as “close relations.”

For more on these issues see: The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia… from a couple of years ago, and more on the imperative to engage Russia in Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything“.

Putin Judah Fragle Empire

************************************************************************************* * The Donbass, the river Don basin is part of southeast Russia and the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine where the current conflict is centered.  From The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia“:

“Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia…

“The independent “frontiersmen” mentality of the Russians of these areas, a sort of Russian Texas  — among its ethnic Cossack peoples especially — should not be underestimated and should not be disregarded as a possible element in the current conflict.  (See: And Quiet Flows the Don at Amazon and at Wiki.)”

“Новая Россия,” (Novaya Rossiya), New Russia, is not a Putinism.  It’s a name for these lands that goes back to Catherine the Great and the first serious subduing of Cossack rebelliousness and settling of Russians in the region in the 18th century.  It was part of the Russian empire’s most fertile grain-producing regions and then the scene of crazy industrialization under the Bolsheviks; maybe it was once a sort of “Russian Texas” but now it’s more like a sort of Russian Rust-Belt.  Hence, the “they can have it” comment.  The Soviet Army, decapitated by Stalin’s purges of its most talented and experienced, and ill-prepared and ill-equipped, only made the Nazi sweep through Ukraine grind to a halt once the Germans had made it this far east and after hundreds of thousands of Russian men had already been sent to a meaningless death and the Nazis had swept the old lands of the Pale clean of Jews through massive massacring and mass executions which were an integral part of the military strategy of the eastern front; many military historians believe that if the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union hadn’t been slowed by German troops stopping every other community to round up and shoot its Jews (a method/process that killed more Jews than the gas chambers did), they might have been successful in beating the coming of winter and more successful in their campaign long-term.  The region then became the scene of brutal attrition warfare, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad (now reverted back to its original name, Волгоград / Volgograd on map below).  This left the region seriously trashed and so huge numbers of Russian workers were settled there post-WWII, Russianizing the Ukrainian far east even further and setting the stage for today’s conflict.

Map of the Don Basin.  The grey line shows the border between Russia (РОССИЯ) and Ukraine (УКРАИНА) and the broken grey lines in Ukrainian east indicate the Lugansk (Луганск) and Donetsk (Донетск)

Don_basin

** “У меня денег нет” (“U menya deneg nyet”) in Russian is the same structure as the Turkish “Benim param yok” — “I don’t have any money.”  Though Russian has a verb for “to have” like other Slavic languages, these structures both mean, literally: “By me there’s no money” or “My money isn’t there/isn’t by me.”  Wondering whether it’s a construction Russian acquired through contact with Tatar.  There is apparently a phenomenon where languages effect each other and transmit certain properties between them, though there’s no large bilingual population to bring them together and though they’re not genetically related, at least not closely.  The absence of an infinitive, for example, in modern Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian/Vlach, though each are from different Indo-European families and more closely related languages have an infinitive, is one good example.  Also, Yiddish “by mir” (as in “By mir bist du shayn”) which is like the Russian по-моему (“according to me”) — for me, in my opinion.  Though German uses “bei mir” also to mean same thing.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

To the Messenger and Co. — An Isaac Bashevis Singer story…

5 Jan

…full of the pain they don’t know and the humor they’re lacking…

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The New Yorker last week published a story of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s: “Job–to anyone who wants to read it because they haven’t hidden it from non-subscribers.  Mostly I want to dedicate it to the Messenger and his parea.  It’s a tale told to Singer by someone — I dunno if it’s a fictive character or not — in the 1970s.  It was written by Singer at the time, but was not translated from Yiddish to English until March-July, 2012 by David Stromberg.  Much like Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate (which I touch on briefly here), it deals with the suffering of a twentieth-century Jewish everyman, sandwiched between the nightmare of Nazism and Stalinism, with bitter, caustic humor completely intact (which Grossman couldn’t really do).

Why do I dedicate this to the Messenger?

Because I remember distinctly in one late-night email battle-session, when he wrote me: “And why is it so wrong for bourgeois guys — like the both of us [his emphasis] — to have an ideology or an ideological schema?”  It’s a slightly tricky question to be asked in Greek and to have to answer from a Greek-speaker but native English-speaker’s perspective, because the word “αστικό” in Greek means urban and urbane and bourgeois, in its socio-political sense, all at once, so it’s difficult to separate.  But I quickly clarified the difference between my ethnic-American, working-class New York borough background and his petit bourgeois Athenian upbringing.  And yet I couldn’t put into words — or rather — couldn’t, at the time, find an example or definition to support the difference I was trying to establish.

But we can sort of close in on what I meant…  Someone — Simone Weil, Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Rebecca West, Walter Benjamin, the great Hitchens, historian Timothy Snyder…I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember — said: “The twentieth century is when ordinary people realized that bookish young men who read big books full of big ideas could have a total and devastating effect on their lives.”

Or in the words of Singer’s Job: “Our young little Stalinists, the onetime yeshiva boys and simple idlers, hounded me to the point that I started longing to go back to Russia.”

And that’s where it lays.  It’s Singer’s Job that makes the knock-out realization:

“I’ve realized one thing: the worst people are those who want to save the world. Among simple folk—merchants, skilled workers, the so-called little man—one can still find decent people. But among those who want to bring about the coming of the Red Messiah there is no truth, no compassion. What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?”

Of course your messianic vision doesn’t have to be Red; the Messenger’s is vehemently non-Red.  But that’s one thing that he never understood.  That that hue doesn’t matter.  That after a certain point he — he and his nationalism and his cronies’ nationalism — became the enemy for me.  The “worst people” are the ideologues.  After liberating him from the petit bourgeois prejudices he had been raised with, and becoming a model of “Roman-ness” for him, I didn’t realize that I had created a Frankenstein.  And he has never realized that he’s the enemy to me.  The people who tortured innocent women in our family like our aunt A. and killed heroic young men like our uncle S. and others, who looted and burnt down my mother’s paternal home, who imprisoned and persecuted and exiled my maternal uncle L. for decades, the people who tormented my father and his family and his extended clan for decades, who threw my grandfather into a prison camp in Albania and then into a mass grave somewhere, who isolated my grandmother in one room of the house her husband had built for her, who separated her forever from her only child, who created the pall of depression and unspoken sadness that hung over my family all my life…  Those people weren’t Albanians to me.  Or Muslims or communists or fascists or Turks or anything else or anyone else that the Messenger loves to hate.  They were petty little ideologues like him: bookish nerds who feel empowered by imposing their ideological hard-ons on innocent people, and making them suffer intolerable suffering in the name of their grand ideological vision.  “What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?”  He’s the enemy.  But he doesn’t get it.  Y de allí his shock when I lay into him.

The other money quote from the Singer story:

“…I’d arrived at a certain philosophy: We can’t live openly in this world. We have to smuggle ourselves through. People, like animals, must constantly hide themselves. If the enemy’s on the right, you go left. It goes left, you crawl right. This very philosophy—you can call it cowardice, it doesn’t bother me—has helped me. I knew where the informers were and I avoided them. A lot of leftists—half-leftists and converted leftists, so to speak—went to Vilna or Kovno, but I went on to Russia, not to the big cities but to little towns, villages, collective farms. There I found a different kind of Russian: generous, ready to help. There they laughed at communism.”

Laugh at these people.  Russians’ and especially Jews’ saving strength.  That’s all there is to do.  Until they knock on your door.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

giagoulaMy grandmother (click)

 

And the whole article, since The New Yorker is being so unusually generous about it:

August 13, 2012
Job
By Isaac Bashevis Singer

Translated by David Stromberg

Editors’ Note: This story, by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), was first published in Yiddish in 1970, and is appearing here in English translation for the first time. (See the translator’s note below about how it came to light.) Singer published more than sixty stories in The New Yorker, beginning in 1967; we’re grateful for this chance to present his work once again.

****

Being a writer for a Yiddish newspaper means wasting half the workday on people who come to request advice or simply to argue. The manager, Mr. Raskin, tried several times to bring this custom to an end but failed repeatedly. Readers had each time broken in by force. Others warned that they would picket the editorial office. Hundreds of protest letters arrived in the mail.

In one case, the person in question didn’t even knock. He threw open the door and before me I saw a tiny man wearing a black coat that was too long and too wide, a pair of loose-hanging gray pants that seemed ready to fall off at any moment, a shirt with an open collar and no tie, and a small black spot-stained hat poised high over his brow. Patches of black and white hair sprouted over his sunken cheeks, crawling all the way down to the bottom of his neck. His protruding eyes—a mixture of brown and yellow—looked at me with open mockery. He spoke with the singsong of Torah study:

“Just like this? Without a beard? With bared head? Considering your scribbling, I thought that you sit here covered in prayer shawl and phylacteries like the Vilna Gaon—forgive the comparison—and that between each sentence you immerse yourself in a ritual bath. Oh, I know, I know, for you little writers religion is just a fashion. One has to give the ignorant readers what they truly desire.”

A wise guy, I thought. Aloud I said, “Please, sit down.”

“And what good will it do me to sit? Let me first get a good look at you. Right here is where you write? Right here, next to this little table, is where the goods are fabricated? This is where your holy spirit, so to speak, makes its appearance? Well, it is what it is. And, anyway, how do people write all these lies? With simple pen and ink. Paper is patient. You can even write that there’s a festival in Heaven.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“My name is Koppel Stein, but you can call me Job, because I’ve suffered as much as Job, and possibly even a little more. Job had three friends who came to console him, and in the end God took it upon Himself to offer a word of comfort. Then He repaid him twice over: more donkeys, prettier daughters, and who knows what else. I haven’t been comforted by anyone, and the Almighty remains silent, as if nothing had happened. I’m Job squared, if one can put it this way. Do you have a match? I’ve forgotten my matches.”

I went out and brought him matches. He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke right in my face.

“Forgive me for speaking to you this way,” he continued. “As they say, it’s my troubles speaking. You know it down to the last letter: ‘blame not a man in his hour of sorrow.’ The other day you complained in your write-up about a reader who’d held you up for six straight hours. I’ll keep it short, though how can one shorten a story that’s already lasted more than forty years? I’ll give you just the bare facts and if you’re no fool it’ll be as they say: ‘a word to the wise is enough.’ I’m one of those crazy people—this, it seems, is what you called them—who want to save the world, to institute justice, and other things of that kind.

“With me it started when I was still a little kid. Our neighbor Tevel the Shoemaker worked straight from the first rays of the sun until late into the night. In the winter I heard him banging on nails when it was still dark outside. He lived in a tiny room. He had everything there: the kitchen, the bedroom, the workshop. That was where his wife, Necha, gave birth every nine or ten months, and there the infants died. My father wasn’t much richer. He was a teacher. We also lived in a single room and had so little to eat that we might as well have deposited our teeth in the bank.

“Early on I began to ask: how is this possible? My father answered that this was God’s will. And I came to despise—with a thorough hate—the very same God Almighty who sat eternally in his seventh heaven, showered with respect and greatness, while his creatures suffered and died. I won’t get into details—I know from your work that you’re familiar with these details and even with the so-called psychology of such things.

“In short, I was about fifteen when I went astray. We had a political group in town where we read Karl Marx and Karl Kautsky and even got our hands on a brochure by Lenin—in Russian, not in Yiddish. In 1917, when the Revolution broke out, I was a Russian conscript. I managed to catch some lead near Przemysl and was laid up in a military hospital. What I went through in the barracks and on the front you probably know yourself. No, you know nothing, because my greatest sorrows came from my own mouth. I told everyone the truth. I spoke against the officers. To this day I don’t understand why they didn’t have me court-martialled and shot. They must have needed cannon fodder.

“Kerensky called for further fighting and I became a Bolshevik. I ended up in Poltava, and there we went through the October Revolution. Mobs set upon us and we were chased away. Who wasn’t there? Denikin, Petliura, others. I was eventually wounded and discharged from the Red Army. I got stuck in a little town where there was a pogrom against the Jews. With my own eyes I saw how they slaughtered children. I lay in the hospital and got gangrene in one foot. I’ll never understand why, out of everyone, I came out alive. Around me people died from typhoid fever and all kinds of other diseases. For me, death was an everyday thing. But despite all this my faith in man’s progress became stronger, not weaker. Who started wars? Capitalists. Who incited pogroms? Also they. I’d seen plenty of wickedness, stupidity, and pettiness among my own comrades, but I answered myself ten times a day with the same refrain: we are products of the capitalist system. Socialism will produce a new man—and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, my parents died in Poland, my father from hunger and my mother from typhoid fever. Though possibly also from hunger.

“After the mobs were driven out and things subsided into some kind of order, so to speak, I decided to become a laborer, despite the fact that I could have taken a government post or even become a commissar. By that time I was already in Moscow. I’d studied carpentry in our little town, so I entered a furniture factory. Lenin was still alive. For the masses, the big holiday still held sway. Even the New Economic Policy didn’t disappoint us. How do the Hassidim put it? ‘Descent for the sake of ascent.’ To stand and hear Lenin speak was a compensation for all the suffering and humiliation. Yes, suffering and humiliation. Because in the factory where I worked they cursed me and called me a ‘dirty Yid’ and mocked me no less than they had in the barracks.

“I was constantly hounded—and by whom? Party members, fellow-workers, Communists. They took every chance to tell me to go to Palestine. Of course, I could have complained. You heard of cases in which workers were put behind bars for anti-Semitic acts. But I soon realized that these were not isolated incidents. The entire factory was saturated with hatred for Jews—and not only Jews. A Tartar was no less inferior than a Jew, and when the Russians felt like it they made mincemeat of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles. Try sweeping away a trash can. I saw with sorrow that the Revolution had not changed all the drunkenness, debauchery, intrigues, theft, sabotage. A doubt stole into my heart, but I kept it silent with all my powers. After all, this was still just the beginning.

“I promised you to be short and this is what I’ll do. Lenin died. Stalin took over. Then came the plot against Trotsky—who for me was a god. Suddenly I heard he was nothing but a spy, a lackey of Pilsudski’s, Leon Blum’s, McDonald’s, Rockefeller’s. There are hearts that burst from the least worries, and there are also hearts as solid as a rock. It seems I have a stone there on my left side. What I’ve put up with, I only wish upon Hitler, if it’s true that he’s still alive somewhere, and that someone is hiding him in Spain or Argentina. I shared a room—actually a cell—with two other workers: drunks and scoundrels. The language they used—the smut! They stole from my pockets. At the factory, they called me Trotsky more than once and pronounced the ‘r’ with a Yiddish accent. Then came the arrests and the purges. People I knew—idealists—were taken away to prison and either got sent off to Siberia or rotted in jail. I began to realize, to my horror, that Trotsky was right: the Revolution had been betrayed.

“But what is a person to do concretely? Could Russia endure a new revolution, or even a permanent revolution? Can a sick body stand one operation after another? As my mother, peace be upon her, used to say: If a dog licked my blood, it would poison itself….

“So the years passed. Permanent revolution is impossible, but there is such a thing as permanent despair. I went to sleep in despair and awoke in despair. I was drained of all hope. Yet Trotskyist circles sprang up regardless of the persecution. The old conspiracies from the Tsarist times repeated themselves. The Revolution had fallen with a thud, but humankind doesn’t resign itself. This is its misfortune.”

II

“In 1928, I came back to Poland. So to speak. I smuggled myself across the border, helped by my fellow-Trotskyists. Each step involved the worst of dangers. I forgot to tell you that while still in Russia I’d been held at Lubyanka for seven months precisely under the suspicion that I was a Trotskyist. There wasn’t a single night in which I wasn’t beaten. Do you see this crippled fingernail? This is where a Chekist stuck a glowing rod into me. I had my teeth knocked out and those who did it were my fellow-proletarians, a curse upon humankind. What was done in prison can’t be put into words. People were physically and spiritually degraded. The stench of piss pots made you crazy. In a prison you can find all sorts of people. There was homosexuality as well as outright rape. Yes, be that all as it may, I smuggled myself into Poland and came to Nieswiez—perhaps you’ve heard of this little town? As soon as I crossed the border, the Poles arrested me. They later let me out, but then I was put behind bars again.

“This was in 1930. I’d been given a contact among the Trotskyists in Warsaw, but they ended up being just a few poor youths, workers. The Stalinists considered it a good deed to denounce Trotskyists to the authorities, and most of them were imprisoned in Pawiak or Wronki—a terrible prison. In Warsaw, I tried to tell them about what was going on in Russia, and don’t ask what I had to put up with! Our young little Stalinists, the onetime yeshiva boys and simple idlers, hounded me to the point that I started longing to go back to Russia. I was beaten, spat on, and called nothing but a renegade, fascist, traitor. A few times I tried to speak to an audience, but thugs from Krochmalna Street and Smocza Street came to shut me up. Once, I was stabbed with a knife. There is no worse lowlife than a Jewish Chekist, Yevsektsia member, or plain Communist. They spit on the truth. They’re ready to kill and torture over the least suspicion. I already understood that there was no difference between Communists and Nazis, but I still believed that Trotskyism was better. Something had to be good! Not everyone could be evil.

“Up until now I haven’t mentioned my personal life, because in Russia I hadn’t had any personal life. Even if I could have sinned, there was nowhere it could be done. With several men living in a single room, you’d have to be an exhibitionist. I witnessed both sexes in their utmost shame and misery, and I, as they say, lost my appetite. Hundreds of thousands of illegitimate children were brought forth—the homeless—who in turn became Russia’s curse and peril. When a woman went to buy bread, they fell upon her and stole it from her. Very often they raped her too. There was no lack of downright thieves, murderers, drunks. The Revolution should’ve brought an end to prostitution, but whores loitered all around the very Kremlin. In Warsaw, I met a Trotskyist woman. She was hunchbacked, but for me a physical defect was no defect at all. She was clever, intelligent, idealistic. She had a pair of black eyes and from them all the sadness and wisdom of the world peered out—though where in the world is there wisdom? We became close. Neither of us thought much of the idea of going to a rabbi. We rented an attic room on Smocza Street, where we started living together. That’s also where we had our daughter, Rosa—naturally, after Rosa Luxemburg.

“My wife, Sonia, was a nurse by trade—a medic and a compassionate caregiver. She spent her nights with the ill. We seldom had a night together. I couldn’t find any work in the Polish factories and earned a little by repairing poor people’s furniture—a closet, a table, a bed. I earned peanuts. As long as there wasn’t any child, it was still bearable. But when Sonia was in her later months it became difficult. In the middle of all this I was arrested. I’d been denounced by my Jewish and proletarian brothers, who’d invented a false accusation against me and actually planted illicit literature. What do you know about what people are capable of doing? Some of them later fell in Spain—they were killed by their own comrades. Others perished in the purges or simply in Comrade Stalin’s labor camps.

“The entire trial against me was a wild invention. Everyone knew this: the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge. They put me together with people whose faces I’d never seen and said that we’d planned a conspiracy against the Polish Republic. The policemen—guardians of the law —gave false testimony and swore to lies. In prison, the Stalinists hounded me so much that each day was hell. They didn’t take me into their circle. Among the civilians there were rich people, especially women, who brought political prisoners food, cigarettes, other such things. They even provided lawyers free of charge. But since I didn’t believe in Comrade Stalin, I was as good as excommunicated. They played dirty tricks on me. They tore my books, threw dirt into my food, they literally spat on me a hundred times a day.

“I stopped talking altogether and went silent. It got to the point that I became like a mute. In order not to hear their abuse and curses, I used to stuff my ears with soft bread or cotton from my coat. They even persecuted me at night, all in the name of Socialism: a bright future, a better tomorrow, and all their other slogans. The tortured themselves became torturers. Don’t think that I have any illusions about the Trotskyists. I’ve realized one thing: the worst people are those who want to save the world. Among simple folk—merchants, skilled workers, the so-called little man—one can still find decent people. But among those who want to bring about the coming of the Red Messiah there is no truth, no compassion. What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?

“It got to the point that the Polish prison guards began to stand up for me and demanded that I be left alone. I started asking them to put me among the criminal offenders, and when they at last obliged me the comrades exploited it and organized a protest demonstration opposing a political prisoner being put among criminals. In other words, they wanted me nearby to torture. This is how they behaved—those who ostensibly sat in jail for the sake of justice.

“Sitting among the thieves, pimps, and murderers was hardly a delight. They eyed me with suspicion. There prevailed an old hatred between the underworld and the politicals—ever since the times of 1905. But, compared with what I endured from the Stalinists, this was paradise. They stole my cigarettes and made off with portions of the packages that Sonia sent me, but they let me read my books in peace. Instead of ‘fascist,’ they called me ‘idiot’ and ‘good-for-nothing,’ which did less damage. It even happened sometimes that a thief or a pimp would pass me a piece of sausage or a cigarette from his own stash. What was there to do in the cell? Either you play cards—a marked and greasy pack—or you talk. From the stories I heard there, one could write ten books. And their Yiddish! The politicals babbled in the Yiddish of their pamphlets. It was not a language but some kind of jargon. The thieves spoke the real mother tongue. I heard them use words that astounded me. It’s a shame I didn’t write them down. And their thoughts about the world! They have a whole philosophy. At the time I went to prison, I still believed in revolution, in Karl Marx. I had all kinds of political illusions. Back outside I was completely cured.

“While I sat in jail, there developed in Poland a growing disappointment in Stalin. It swelled to the point that the Polish Communist Party was thrown out of the Comintern. Many of my persecutors had taken off for the ‘land of socialism’—where they were liquidated. I was told about one sucker who, having crossed the border, threw himself down and started kissing the ground of the Soviet Union, as Jews of yore used to do when arriving in the Land of Israel. Just as he lay down and kissed the red mud, two border guards approached and arrested him. They sent him to dig for gold in the north, where the strongest of men didn’t last more than a year. This was how the Communist Party treated those who had sacrificed themselves on its behalf.

“Then a new curse wriggled its way in: Nazism. It was Communism’s rightful heir. Hitler had learned everything from the Reds: the concentration camps, the liquidations, the mass murders. When I got out of jail, in 1934, and told Sonia what I thought about our little world and those who wanted to save it, she attacked me like the worst of them. The fact is that while I sat behind bars I’d become a kind of martyr or hero for the Trotskyists. I could have played the role of a great leader. But I told them: dear children, there is no cure for the human race. It was not the ‘system’ that was guilty but Homo sapiens itself, in the flesh. When they heard such heresy, they shivered with rage. Sonia informed me that she couldn’t live with a renegade. I’d had the luck of becoming a renegade twice over. It was a separate issue that, while I sat behind bars, she had lived with someone else. Hunchbacks are hot-blooded. There’s always a volunteer handy. He was a simple youth from the provinces, I think he was a barber. Little Rosa called him Daddy…”

III

“Don’t look so afraid! I won’t keep you here until tomorrow. You went away to America in 1935, if I’m not mistaken, and you know nothing about what happened later in Poland. What took place was an absolute breakdown. Stalinists became Trotskyists, while Trotskyists went into the Polish Socialist Party or the Bund. Others became Zionists. I myself tried to turn to religion. I went to a study house and sat myself down to learn the gemara, but for this one must have faith. Otherwise it’s just nostalgia.

“The anarchists raised their heads again—some of them still stood by Kropotkin, others became Stirnerists. We had guests in Poland. Ridz-Szmigli had invited the Nazis to hunt in the Białowieza Forest. Then came the Stalin-Hitler pact and the war. When they started to bomb Warsaw, those who were strong enough ran over the Praga Bridge and set out for Russia. Some had illusions, but I knew where I was going. Yet staying among the Nazis was not an option for me. I came to say goodbye to Sonia and found her in bed with the barber. Little Rosa started crying, ‘Papa, take me with you!’ These same cries follow me still. They torment me at night. They all perished. No one remained.

“I was in Bialystok when a number of Yiddish writers from Poland all at once became ardent Stalinists. Some lost no time and began denouncing their colleagues. People knew me as a Trotskyist and I was heading for certain death, but by then I’d arrived at a certain philosophy: We can’t live openly in this world. We have to smuggle ourselves through. People, like animals, must constantly hide themselves. If the enemy’s on the right, you go left. It goes left, you crawl right. This very philosophy—you can call it cowardice, it doesn’t bother me—has helped me. I knew where the informers were and I avoided them. A lot of leftists—half-leftists and converted leftists, so to speak—went to Vilna or Kovno, but I went on to Russia, not to the big cities but to little towns, villages, collective farms. There I found a different kind of Russian: generous, ready to help. There they laughed at communism.

“Until 1941, people got by somehow. When the war arrived, a famine broke out. Refugees on foot arrived by the millions. Others were brought in freight trains. Millions of Russians went to the front. I starved, slept in train stations, passed through all seven circles of Hell, but I avoided one thing: prison. I kept my mouth shut and played the role of a simple person, someone half-illiterate. I worked wherever possible. On collective farms and in factories I witnessed the thing called the communist economy. They simply destroyed the machinery. They ruined raw materials. It couldn’t even be called sabotage. It was a simple beastly indifference to anything that didn’t directly relate to them. The whole system was such that either you stole or you were dead. I entered a factory and the accountant, a fellow from Warsaw, conducted his accounting on books by Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy. He scribbled his numbers—obviously false—on the margins and above the printed type. You couldn’t get any blank paper there. People lived on stolen goods sold on the black market. You can’t grasp it unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes. If not for America—and had the Nazis not been such ferocious murderers—Hitler would have got as far as Vladivostok.

“I didn’t live—I smuggled myself through life. I became a worm that crawled from here to there. As long as it wasn’t trampled, it crept on. I was astonished to realize that the whole country was like this. We became like the lice that infested us. Until I arrived in Russia for the second time, I’d still had something in me that could be called romanticism or sexual morality. But with time I lost this, too. Millions of men lay scattered on the fronts and millions of wives lived with anyone who would take them. I slept with women whose names I didn’t even know. In the night I had females whose faces I hadn’t seen. I once lay with a woman on a bale of hay. She gave herself over to me and cried. I asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’ And she wailed, ‘If Grishenka only knew! Where is he, my little eagle? What have I made of him!’ Then she nestled up to me, crying. She professed, ‘To me you’re not a man but a candle for masturbation.’ She suddenly took to kissing me and wetting me with her tears. ‘What do I have against you? You’ve probably also left someone behind. A curse on fascism!…’

“In Tashkent, I got typhoid fever, which was later complicated by pneumonia. I lay in the hospital and around me people were constantly dying. Some Pole spoke to me and started telling me about all his plans. All at once he went silent. I answered him and he didn’t respond. The nurse came in and it turned out that he’d died. Just like that, in the middle of speaking. He suffered from scurvy or beriberi, and with these diseases people died, so to speak, without a preface. I became indifferent to death. I never believed this would be possible.

“You shouldn’t think that I came here just to get into your hair and tell you my life story. The fact is that I’m here and this means that I smuggled myself through everything—hunger, epidemics, murder, destruction, borders. Now I’m in your United States. I already have my papers. I’ve already been mugged in your America, and have already had a revolver held to my heart, too. A survivor with whom I crossed here on the ship has already worked his way up and owns hotels in New York. He took straight to business, forgot all the dead, all the killing. I recently found him in a cafeteria and he complained to me about his falling stocks. He married a woman who’d lost her husband and children, but she already has new children with him. I talk about smuggling myself and he’s a born smuggler. He’d already started smuggling in the German DP camps, where he waited for an American visa.… Yes, why did I come to you? I came with an idea. I beg you, don’t laugh at me.”

“What’s this idea?”

He waited a moment and lit another cigarette.

“You’ll think I’m crazy,” he said. “The idea is for all decent people to commit suicide.”

“Is that so!”

“You laugh, eh? It’s no laughing matter. I’m not the only one disappointed in the human race. There are millions of others like me. As soon as there is no longer any hope—what’s the point of hanging around to suffer fruitlessly and in vain? I read your writing back in Warsaw. I read you here. You are, as far as I know, the only writer who has absolutely no hope for mankind. You’ve lately taken to praising religion, but your religion is a religion of despair. You reduce everything to one point: this is God’s will. Perhaps God wants humankind to put an end to itself? I beg you, don’t interrupt me! There are scores of movements, who knows how many religions and sects—why shouldn’t there be a movement that preaches suicide? How long can you smuggle yourself only to be crushed in the end? My feeling is that millions of people are ready to end it all, but they lack the courage—the last push, so to speak. If millions of idiots are ready to die for Hitler and Stalin and all kinds of other scourges, why shouldn’t people want to perish as a protest? We should frankly throw back at God this gift of His: this despicable struggle for existence, which in any case ends in defeat. First of all, people must stop having children, bringing into the world new victims. Let the scumbags hope, let them fight for bread, sex, prestige, for the fatherland, for Communism, and for all kinds of other isms. If there remains among the human race a remnant of common sense, it should come to the conclusion that all this filth isn’t worthwhile.”

“My dear friend,” I said, “suicide can never be a mass movement.”

“How can you be so sure? What was the Battle of Verdun if not mass suicide?”

“People there hoped for victory.”

“What victory? They stationed a hundred thousand men and were left with sixty thousand graves.”

“Some survived. Some received medals.”

“Perhaps we should create a suicide medal?”

“You’ve remained a world-saver,” I said. “Suicide is committed alone, not with partners.”

“I read somewhere that in America there are suicide clubs.”

“For the rich, not for the poor.”

He laughed and exposed a toothless grin. He spat out his cigarette butt and stepped on it.

“So what should I do?” he asked. “Become rich? Perhaps I should. It would, actually, be like Job.”

****

Translator’s note:

Beginning in his early years in the United States, Isaac Bashevis Singer earned his living churning out texts for the Yiddish-language daily Forverts—an assortment of fiction, essays, journalism, advice, and memoir, often published in a hurry, under several pseudonyms. Later in his writing life, Singer worked on translating into English those stories he considered worthy of republication, editing and correcting them in the process.

When, in the course of my doctoral research, I came across the story “Job” (“Iyov”)—first published in Forverts in 1970, and later included by the late scholar Khone Shmeruk in a Yiddish collection titled “Der Shpigl” (“The Mirror”; Hebrew University, 1975)—I was convinced I’d find the story in English translation. Its themes of political disillusionment coupled with an inextinguishable search for salvation were tied to Singer’s larger body of work, and the story’s artistic accomplishment was confirmed by its inclusion in the Yiddish collection. The biblical title also indicated its potential significance. But I found nothing: not in any of Singer’s English-language collections, not among his uncollected or posthumously published stories, and not in the Isaac Bashevis Singer papers at the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. It seemed I’d have to read “Job” in the original.

I’d studied Yiddish, but my vocabulary was still relatively limited. To understand anything beyond the main premise, I had to look up words in the dictionary. As I began writing them down, I realized I was on my way to translating the story. I shared my translation of “Job” with a few colleagues in Jerusalem, and reviewed it with Eliezer Niborski, a young Yiddish teacher and native speaker. We were all struck by the story—especially its sharp yet compassionate final exchange—and surprised that it had yet to be published in English.

I decided to take another look at the list of the Singer papers in Texas. Knowing now what the story was about, I noticed a folder entry among Singer’s unidentified works that caught my eye. I ordered a facsimile of this typescript fragment and, as I suspected, found that Singer, together with Dorothea Straus, had indeed translated “Job”—but that the translation was not complete. The fragment of Singer’s translation attested to his distinct and idiosyncratic mastery of English, which I felt compelled to acknowledge in my rendition of the story. I ultimately decided to introduce the author’s hand by incorporating some of Singer’s own word choices—while also aiming to avoid mimicking or impersonating his singular English style.

Arrangements were made to publish my translation of the story. I showed it to Robert Lescher, the literary agent for Singer’s estate, who gave me some insight into Singer’s publication process. Mr. Lescher said that, after they’d begun working together, in 1970, Singer would bring his stories into the office. Mr. Lescher would comment on them, sometimes Singer would make changes, and only then would they be submitted to various editors for publication. At The New Yorker, Singer worked with the fiction editor Rachel MacKenzie to get a story into its final shape.

Mr. Lescher had minor reservations about a few lines in my translation where he felt the language didn’t flow. Based on his suggestions, I made a handful of adjustments that required my straying very slightly from the literal text. We were wary of editing a great writer who was no longer with us, but felt we could fine-tune the translation: ultimately, the responsibility falls to the translator to make decisions based on the original Yiddish text, whose publication Singer had approved.

A couple of days before the story was set to appear, I found myself again working with the folder list of the Singer papers at the Ransom Center. Looking for something else altogether, I came upon yet another entry among the unidentified works that caught my attention. I realized that it contained more, though still not all, of Singer’s translation of “Job.” The rest of the manuscript had apparently not been lost—it had merely been separated from the other parts and stuffed into a different slot.

The publication of “Job” had turned into a literary experience reminiscent of a chaotic Singerian universe—where coveted objects are misplaced, or purposely hidden by imps, only to reappear just before it’s too late. I used the additional pages to reconstruct some of my initial translation solutions—though again avoiding the temptation to replicate Singer’s signature linguistic choices in English. With the help of Arcadia Falcone of the Ransom Center, I am working to locate and reunite the missing pages of Singer’s translation of “Job.” And as in a Singer story, the story of this translation is yet to be continued…

— David Stromberg, Jerusalem, March-July, 2012

Photograph of Isaac Bashevis Singer by Bruce Davidson/Magnum.

Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather

17 May

Mana kai babas mikrosThe most recent picture of my grandmother to resurface, with my father as a baby, she in somewhat less then the full-out finery of the photo at bottom with my grandfather included, but with her good sash and her mecidiyia around her neck and forehead in any case.

Probably the saddest of all the stories I got bombarded with while in Derviçani this time was one told to me by my cousin Chrysanthe, shown here in this picture with the Coke can (below) with her daughter Amalia and her two grandsons, cracking Easter eggs at the Monastery above the village on Easter Monday where the dancing takes place.  (See Easter in Derviçani” — the stunning young girl behind them is my niece Marina — click)  

Augaimg_0102As our house was pretty much just off the village’s main square, most of the afternoons my grandmother could be found sitting on the stone bench in front of the house watching people. Try to imagine her about forty years after the above photo was taken, but not quite as old yet as this last one we have of her. (click)

giagoula

Spiti DervitsianiOur house today (click).  Built by my grandfather with blood and sweat shed in the slaughterhouses of Buenos Aires.  The village collective confiscated it and allowed my grandmother to live in only one room, keeping hay and seed and agricultural implements in the other three odas.  It’s lain abandoned since her death.  But someone always burns a cross on the top of the doorway at Easter.  This year I got to do it myself.

My grandfather dead in some prison camp in central Albania, my father, the only child, in America, letters getting through the censors only every so often, she was lonely, despite the hordes of family she had to take care of her. People say she would beg to hold any baby that someone brought by: “I just want a baby to wet me,” she would say, “and let it be someone else’s.”

But around Easter my cousin Chrysanthe says: “She would tell us quietly to come inside, and she would open up a little sentouki [chest] she had with a pile of bright red Easter eggs inside.” This was in the mid-sixties, when Albania, recently aligned with a China in the midst of its brilliant Cultural Revolution, had prohibited any form of religion whatsoever and dyeing Easter eggs could land you in jail, even the parents of the child, in this case, if they knew and hadn’t reported it. “And I would say, ‘oooooyyyyyy Kako [auntie]*, can I take one?’ and she’d say, ‘No canım, we’re just going to keep them here and you’ll come and we’ll look at them and we’ll play with them and have fun and then we’ll put them back in the sentouki and you won’t tell anyone, ok?’”

This is what those systems wasted their energies on, in case you’re wondering how it is that they collapsed like a house of cards from one day to the next after destroying the lives of millions: forcing old women to dye eggs in secret. No one ever knew where she got the dye from or how she even got so many eggs together at one time. She probably denied herself the product of the chickens she was allowed to keep to have enough eggs for Easter. Soon after, they prohibited private poultry and confiscated bostania too (kitchen gardens), even if they were part of your house’s immediate property, and all food items had to be gotten from the village collective, but I think some local Party member with half a soul let her and a few other old people keep theirs.

There’s a partly satisfying coda to this story though. Below is my grandmother, Martha (Mantho) with her favorite sister Alexandra (Leço).

ManthaLechoTheir maiden name was Çames — and you can deduce for yourself what it might mean that Çam is also one of the major tribal sub-groups of southern Albanians, the ones who lived in what’s now Greek Epiros and were massacred and driven out by Greek nationalist forces during WWII for supposedly (and if they did, totally understandably) collaborating with the Germans. Their father, my great-grandfather GianneÇames** came to the United States in 1895 and opened a fruit store in Mystic, Connecticut (the willingness of these men to just up and go off to places that must have been to them the equivalent of Zambia to us has always astounded me). A few years later, he brought three of his sons over, my grandmother’s brothers, and during the summers he used to send them down to Watch Hill, Rhode Island, a very understated, high-WASP resort on the far western shore of the state, to sell popcorn and cotton candy on the beach. But from these modest beginnings they eventually opened the Olympia Tea Room in 1916, which is still there and was quite the poshest place to eat in town for decades — and has suddenly become re-hip again. For better or worse, you know I’ve taken you seriously as a friend when I’ve dragged you down to Watch Hill to make you pay homage, as if it were my village; for my father, cut off from his own for most of his life, it was.  So the Çamedes ended up being people of some consequence in Derviçani; to have been given a Massios daughter as a bride, my great-grandmother Kostando (those who know will know what I mean), you have to have been, and their house was not just a prosperous one, but one always open to all, the “peliauri” – courtyard – where my father grew up, always swarming with women and children and guests and the whole mahalla coming in and out all day.

OlympiafrontThe Olympia Tea Room, “est. 1916,” Watch Hill, Rhode Island and general view of the town’s harbor below (click on both — I don’t know who took this Olympia photo but it’s great — thank you).

Watch_Hill_HarborYet my great-grandfather Gianne married off his two favorite daughters to two men without much wealth or property, my grandfather NikoBakos and my great-uncle MihoBarutas (Michales). And I think it was on their sheer reputation as outspoken men to be respected and feared – and in our parts, even today, you still have to be both – or, as men period, that he did so; my grandfather was tall and handsome but not to be messed with – “his word was law through all the villages of Dropoli” – I was told on this trip,*** and the Barutaioi are proverbially unafraid of anyone or anything.  Ex-Ottomans will know that the name itself means “gunpowder,” and that’s all you need to know.

KakoLechoLaloMihoBarutasMy great-aunt, Kako Leço (above) and my great-uncle Lalo Miho Barutas.  I wish we had a picture of them younger but no one can seem to locate one. (click)

Family(My grandparents and my father in what I suppose must have been around 1931 or ’32.  If you look carefully you can see that the photo is a Photoshop job of its day; my grandfather was photographed in Buenos Aires and the photograph later attached in Albania; it’s always been a metaphor of an inheritance of absent fathers for me.  My grandfather was known as Djoumerka, a high mountain range in southern Epiros because he was so tall (but see more on that below).  My grandmother’s outfit in this picture — all made possible by rich WASPs in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, early globalisation — was described to me once by a woman, my Theia Vantho, whose memory I would never dare to doubt: the vest and sash were a maroon-purplish velvet embroidered with gold thread, which would have looked most like this kind of work, but with a deepr, more puplish hue:

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(click)

The apron, green silk with heavy multi-coloured embroidery, the outer, mid-hip length vest, what was known as the “şita,” barely visible at the sides and mostly decorated to be seen from behind, was white woolen felt, trimmed in red and black.  The medallions embroidered on either side of the vest were not traditional and generally it was seen at the time as hubristically opulent, so much so that the kind of mean tongues that flourish in small communities like this attributed the misfortunes of her later life to her excessive pride as a young woman. Click, double if you wanna see the details.)

Of course these are not qualities that get you far in a totalitarian regime like Hoxha’s Albania, except blacklisted, sent to jail or into internal exile or killed. And that’s what happened to them. Both branches of the family and by association the whole network of related clans suffered greatly during communist rule and yet held together. The Çames gene is a strong one, and anyone who is from a big family knows how certain emotional “affinities” – in this case the love between the two sisters – end up being transmitted down specific threads through generational lines: my Kako Leço’s son, Vangeli, a first cousin of my father’s who my father barely knew, is my favorite uncle in the village: the Baruta patriarch now, he’s also a man to be respected and feared, who started from less than zero when the communist regime fell apart and is now a highly successful entrepreneur with a business that reaches Albania-wide markets. His daughters — especially one in Tirane, Calliope (she’s shown in the passing of the Light photo in “Easter in Derviçani,“) — are my favorite cousins, and one of Calliope’s sons, also Vangeli, named after his grandfather, and destined to be an equally formidable personality, is my favorite nephew.

My Uncle Vangeli spoke his mind as much as one could all during communist times and how he escaped harsher punishment during those decades is a miracle of sorts. But underneath the fear of the Party, older fears and structures of respect were still operating, I think, and that’s what saved them. One of the village informers, the usual squirrels in those systems who will tell on others for an extra ration of food — what in the Soviet Union was known as a stukach in Russian, a “knocker,” i.e., someone who comes and knocks at night to tell his superiors the information they want to know, or a sapo, a toad, in Latin America, another continent blessed with the necessary abundance of totalitarian experiences to develop such terminologies – had the misfortune of living next door to my uncle, and he would try to threaten them occasionally, but my uncle was unafraid of even getting into fistfights with him when necessary, so nothing ever came of it.

And back to Easter eggs. By ’88 or ’89 things had started, like all over Eastern Europe, not so much to relax, but to show such obvious signs of cracking apart that, as my relatives put it, “the fear started lifting.”  The Barutaioi started dyeing their own eggs during Holy Week, though there was still no functioning church or any open observation or acknowledgment of the holiday.  But on Easter night, after the Resurrection, when they had cracked and eaten their eggs, they would take the shells and throw them over the wall into the Party snitch’s front courtyard…  Forget empty tombs and angels in white and “Τι ζητείτε;”****  How’s that for some “good news” on Easter morning? And being a Jungian believer that no symbolism is accidental, I can see the cracked red shells in my mind, like splatters of the blood this guy had on his hands — though this is a person obviously too much of a hayvani to have been affected much I imagine. For to be a Christian in a village like Derviçani, and have people throw Easter egg shells at you on Easter Sunday, and not immediately find a bridge to jump off of, or a quiet corner to blow your brains out, you have to have a fairly huge hole where your conscience or any sense of shame should be. He’s still around. They’re still neighbors. And my Uncle Vangeli smiles and greets him courteously on the evening passegiata in the village square.

And my grandmother’s hidden eggs have been vindicated.

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*”Kako”– aunt, and “Lalo” — uncle, are two of some of the Albanian words we use in our villages, though most people today just say “theia” or “theio” in Greek.  I’m the only one who still says Kako and Lalo and they all get a big kick out of it.  Ismail Kadare has a hilarious character named Kako Pino in his book about his native Gjirokaster, Chronicle in Stoneso I don’t know if it’s maybe a local usage only, or only a Tosk word (the southern ethnic/linguistic division of Albanians) because my nephew Vangeli in Tirane uses the Turkish “teyze” when he talks to his aunts.

** This is how we say (or again, said…) our names in the region: the first name, undeclined, attached as a prefix to the family name.  This is probably a left over from the day when there were no family names and only Muslim-type patronymics were used: your name and your father’s attached after.  So instead of “NikoBakos” I would have been “NikoFotos.”  Thus the oldest historical ancestor in my mother’s family, the Giotopoulos, was GioteStauros — his father Stauros is almost a sort of mythical character lost in time — and after GioteStauros, the family started calling themselves Giotopoulos, “son of Giotes.”  Women in this heavily gendered world were never known by their first names outside their immediate households, but by their husband’s name with a female suffix attached; thus my grandmother was “NikoBakaina” or even the more Slavic “NikoBakova.”

***My grandfather, it’s turned out, was quite the guy.  Absolutely fearless in a way hard for us to comprehend, he was a kind of village rowdy as a kid (the guys of Derviçani are known as such even today and their arrival in the cafés of neighboring villages in the evenings is said to be slightly unwelcome because it often means trouble; apparently they drink a hefty amount so they spend a lot of money and that’s good, but the local girls like them and that combination doesn’t always end well.)  And he would even engage in some occasional sheep rustling with a buddy of his — not for the material gain, but because it was a kind of male rite of passage in the region, as it was till recently in parts of Crete (see Michael Herzfeld’s The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village” — below; let’s not mistake this with resistance to Ottoman or Muslim hegemony, as people love to do with the banditry traditions of the Balkans; it was pure thievery).  But if there were some lira to be made in the process, that was no problem either.  His nickname Djumerka, may not have come from just how tall he was, but from the fact that under the hire of a certian Ismail Ağa from Argyrocastro (Gjirokaster), he and a buddy of his (this buddy’s grandson remembered the ağa‘s name) went down to the Djumerka mountains when they were teens and stole the flocks of another rich Turk, an enemy of Ismail’s, from those parts and brought them back to Gjirokaster for him.  Given the chaos of late Ottoman times in the Balkans, this is not entirely the superhuman feat we may imagine it to be, not in terms of law enforcement at least, but we’re talking a great distance of extremely rough, high terrain and it was impressive enough to have entered the village’s legend canon.  Then he up and went to Buenos Aires in his early twenties and worked in the slaughterhouses there; Argentina is on my list of “to go” places partly or mainly because of that; I would give anything to find out even the tiniest detail of what his life there was like.  And then when he came back, with no more than an elementary school education, I think, and his pure charisma, he organized and led the delegation from the Greek-speaking villages of Dropoli to the King, Zog, in Tirane, to protest the closing of their Greek-language schools.  The campaign was successful.  Elementary school education in Greek resumed and he soon after went to jail for the first of many times.

In the late 1950’s is when he went to jail for good and never came out and all we know is that he was buried in a mass grave somewhere in central Albania.  People in the village talk a lot about who snitched under custody on those occasions; neighbors and relatives were often taken together, so everyone would eventually find out.  If you could live with yourself afterwards, you could give false testimony about someone else and get off easier or be released or maybe just get the beatings to stop.  I turned it into a ritual questioning this time when I was there, of anyone I could, because I had to know: “Lalo, my grandfather never gave false witness against anybody to save his hide, did he? No.  Lalo, my grandfather never…? No.  Lalo…? No.”  When I got the third “No” from my Uncle Vangeli this time I was satisfied.

This is all hard stuff to live up to.  When they’re thrilled to have NikoBako come to Derviçani, I’m actually ashamed, because they really see him.  I’m just a cipher — a proud one, yes, but just a representative of someone I could never be.  Half of the time, with all my family on both sides, I’m living off of credit from my mother’s kindnesss and generosity and half the time off of my grandfather’s toughness and bravery and my father’s stoic bearing of the torch.  If you think it’s great to come from this kind of stock and have these kinds of tales to tell, think again.

**** “Τι ζητείται τον ζώντα μετά των νεκρών;  Τι θρηνείτε τον άφθαρτον ως εν φθορά;” — “Why do you seek the Living among the dead? Why do you lament the Incorruptible amidst the rot?” the angel asks the women who come to the grave on the day of the Resurrection, is my favorite verse of the Easter Canon.

Note: For those of you who made it this far with me on this post, thank you.  I hope it wasn’t boring or embarrassingly personal.  I thought a lot about whether I would ever get so deep into this stuff on this blog and decided to just go ahead.

Addendum: For the person who asked how my father can have been an only child and I can have all these hundreds of aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews, that’s because in Greek every indirect relative of an older generation is my aunt or uncle (even if he’s not my parent’s sibling but third or fourth cousin), and anyone of my generation laterally is a cousin and any children of those cousins, who may be third or fourth or fifth cousins, who are of a younger cohort, are my nieces and nephews.  My father was an only child; but my grandmother one of eight.  So out of those eight branches come this plethora of kin.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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