Sunday, December 28, 2008

Imperium




I have, at times, been accused of being some sort of communist sympathizer. These occasions began when I was a teenage transplant to what was becoming an increasingly conservative South. This was the late 1980’s. I was a Yankee, an outsider. After a period of time, I resolved to go to college up North and stave off any urges to assimilate with my classmates, the majority of whom disliked me. So when the label ‘commie’ came my way, I accepted it without protest.
* * *

Years later I would work for Lehman Brothers as a controller monitoring the compensation of investment management brokers. These (mostly) men were given outsized payouts for essentially dialing telephones, playing golf and having steak dinners. The dictates behind broker payouts were rubber stamped by managing directors with little regard for the company making any bottom line profit. Once one of my colleagues confronted a broker about how his personal payout ensured that Lehman made no actual money on the deal he’d made, he replied: “This place is a mall…people like you are the plumbing…I’m Banana Republic.”
* * *

When I was eleven, I watched the 1965 film, Doctor Zhivago. Until that time, Russians were only people I’d see as villains in Bond films or that hockey team we defeated in the 1980 Olympics. Zhivago put a human face to a nation I knew nothing about. Of course, the lesson of Zhivago was that there were no good guys or bad guys in the Bolshevik revolution and behind history there were just ordinary people trying to live and love amid the chaos. The character of Lara, as played by Julie Chrisite, perhaps subconsciously established that I’d marry a blond someday.
* * *

There are volumes upon volumes written about the fall of the Soviet Union. Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick is one I recently pilfered from my father’s library. It is a massive surgical dissection of what happened and what was.

Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Imperium offers a different view with a different style. Kapuscinski spent most of his career reporting from the third world. In Imperium, he is returning home but still retaining the observational narrative that delivers an incredibly human experience.

Imperium begins with his remembrances of his childhood in Pinsk and continues as sort of a travelogue describing the fear and fall of the vastly disparate regions that composed the former Soviet Union. In each region Kapuscinski visits he describes their unique historical particulars and how those particulars were decimated by the Soviet machine, leaving a people numb to our concepts of happiness and liberty.

The most shocking and stark descriptions come from his experiences in post-Gulag Siberia. The people he encounters seem as surprised by their own existence and he is. Kapuscinski writes: “Always, one question comes to my mind: And who were you? The executioner or the victim?”

Imperium was translated from Polish by Klara Glowczewska but the cadence behind Kapuscinski’s voice is retained in this unbelievably moving book.

There is an institutional coldness that defies comprehending in these stories. Each makes me ill at east that I should ever have aligned myself with communism, even among the hyperbolic ranting of my breathtakingly ignorant schoolmates growing up.

1 comment:

  1. What a read. Food for thought for the upcoming Che films. I still teach kids who sentimentalize Marxism the way I did.

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