August 2014

Will Mawhood


The Use of Man by Aleksandar Tišma, translated by Bernard Johnson

A Google Image search for Novi Sad, Serbia brings up more or less what you'd expect: sunlit shots of expansive Central European squares, churches of many shapes and sizes, adverts for the nearby, unwelcomingly-titled EXIT rock festival. But persevere for long enough and you get into the old photos, the ones that show off its former identities. Especially evocative is one taken, I would surmise, sometime in the first two decades of the century, at the time when the city was an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A tram rattles down a row of dusty shop fronts through sepia's eternal late afternoon; people stand alongside, frozen into indecision, scattered in clusters around the street. The first-floor wall of a shop is exposed by the lowness of adjoining buildings, and reveals the ends of painted Hungarian words. The city of which this is a slice seems composed of musty corners. A few sentences at the bottom in Hungarian and German gloss the image, helpfully identifying the city (Ujvidek-Neusatz) and street.

The photo is old and damaged: the edges of buildings give in to white space, some kind of liquid has been thoughtlessly spattered across the top. But what's interesting is the stamp that obscures a small part of this decaying scene: in no-nonsense Cyrillic, with instantly squelching, running ink someone has pressed down Новиcад (Novi Sad in Serbian). It's hard to know whether this was done by the postal service of the time, or if some other person a little later had intentions of symbolically claim a hostile past, but if nothing else, it's a powerful and revealing image. Central and Eastern Europe are littered with countries that have grown and shrunk and often disappeared, all with their own golden ages and their own periods of humiliation. Most now feel cramped, nursing repeatedly hurt pride and unrealistic irredentist dreams, laying claim to contentious historical figures and symbols. The result, even after a long awkward peace, is a lot of submerged conflicts, expressed in the form of a lot of reasonable, fair people who suddenly and alarmingly lose their sense of balance when talking about one particular group; a lot of minorities marooned on the wrong sides of borders.

The postcard seems like a transmission from the world Aleksandar Tišma writes about in The Use of Man. Born in the Vojvodina, the extraordinarily diverse region of which Novi Sad is the capital, long part of Hungary and now a place where no fewer than six languages hold official status, he was a resident for most of his life in Novi Sad. Tišma's physical existence was a disavowal of nationalism given physical form: the son of a Serbian father and a Hungarian Jewish mother, he wrote in Serbian but also translated from German and Hungarian, the other principal languages of his city. He was to live to see a resurgence of these old and destructive national feelings: in the early 1990s, when he was in his seventies, he temporarily exiled himself from his home country when Serb nationalism began growing to ominous proportions.

The Use of Man is his third work to be translated into English, following Kapo and The Book of Blam; all three concern themselves primarily with World War II and its effect on the region. With only this knowledge of its contents, I was immediately brought up short by the title: seemingly mundane, it actually has implications of incredible bleakness. It is comforting, undemandingly inspiring to feel that life or humanity has a meaning, even if we have little hope of finding out what it is, much less so that we have a use. The title seems to be promising a malignant-God's eye view, of someone out to get their money's worth. This, it seems, will be no tale of the human spirit triumphing over terrible adversity.

The Use of Man tracks the progress of a small group of inhabitants of Novi Sad -- German and Serbian and Jewish, or all of the above -- from the late 1930s, through the Nazi occupation and into the establishment of Communist Yugoslavia. The novel is formless, interested more in characters than plot, openly contemptuous of the conventions of narrative. After the initial pre-war chapters, which present adolescent frustrations and intrigues and the frustrations and intrigues of their parents in just about equal measure, we bid goodbye to chronological structure. The events of the war and the peace that follow are not so much shuffled around as assembled almost at random, snatched from their original order and pasted back in, flashing in almost like unsummoned memories of trauma.

Tišma also throws in weird semi-encyclopaedic chapters every now and then, which take a sudden cross-section through the narrative, and list for us the physical appearances of all the principal characters, the appearance of Novi Sad in different weathers, or places that are significant in the narrative (including, crushingly, "the hospital at Sauerkammermunde" and "the concentration camp at Auschwitz"). Thus it is that, around a third of the way through the novel, the settings and means of death of all of the principal characters are set out -- most during the war itself, a few shortly after; none making it beyond twenty years from the opening. This strategy is brutal and seems cynical, taking full advantage of the deity-eye perspective implied by the title, but it is understandable. In a story dealing with these people at this particular period of time narrative progression seems almost an irrelevance, given that most of these stories will end the same way.

He has fascinating and incisive things to say about identity and prejudice, although they are often deeply disheartening. He's sharp on the incredible contortions that people manage to undergo to keep their prejudices intact, and maintain their idea of themselves as balanced, intelligent people. The Germanophobe father of one of the main characters, Sredoje, when confronted with generous, well-educated Germans in Belgrade "regret[s] his early prejudice," and for a very brief mid-sentence moment, the reader exhales in relief: here, amidst the bloodshed and brutality, some sustenance for humanists. But he continues, crushingly: "the local Germans of Novi Sad were responsible; they were dull and small-minded, obviously degenerate, not like these 'real' Germans." Ethnically-based prejudice has hardly been overcome in the sense of the very concept being exploded; it has simply been further qualified and specified. A little later we find Vera, Sredoje's sometime partner, defending her old German teacher's prejudices, which are revealed after they discover her diary after the war: "Vera retorted that he hadn't understood it properly: Fraulein didn't like men who told lies, particularly if they were of a different origin, not because they were of a different origin." The comedy is coruscating -- clearly, by being Jewish, the liar is simply adding insult to injury -- and all the more disturbing coming as it does from one of the more sympathetic characters.

The Use of Man also provides a fragmentary account of the Yugoslav war experience, a complex mess of shame and brutality, sudden reversions and unexpected, sweeping changes. One sentence of this chronologically unbound book simply details matter-of-factly the appearance of the different soldiers seen on their streets since 1940: Serbian, Nazi, Yugoslav. The appearances may have changed relatively little, but each represented a different template to which residents were expected to fit themselves. The pressure to edit one's personality and -- especially -- one's past, in order to satisfy the dominant philosophy is quietly made apparent. Vera, having survived Auschwitz, finds herself under suspicion for the simple fact that she survived and was not entirely broken by her experiences: when her job is under threat, her boss, Jurkovic, tots up her net ideology score, giving her a pass for having a family member who was a martyr to the Serbian cause, subtracting points for the collaborators in her family, and noting suspiciously that "it was not altogether clear how she had come back from the camp alive and in relatively good condition." The dead seem to be more obedient and thus more useful.

But as well as being a tale of the drama and pain of a complex and horrifying war, this is the story of a city, located on alternating sides of the imaginary fault line that separates Central and Eastern Europe; all the characters have in common, ultimately, is their residence in Novi Sad. The city itself is characterised in a variety of ways -- loved intermittently, but mainly hated and resented by its inhabitants as a trap and a barrier, stagnant and obtrusive. There is a very perceptible underlying preoccupation with dirt and disorder that surfaces with almost obsessive frequency. In some cases this is a consequence of the war: when Vera takes a trip to Belgrade under the occupation, she observes it transformed into a "junkyard," its constituent parts scattered everywhere. "The surviving inhabitants poked around the still-smoking ruins, retrieving an undamaged picture, a chair in one piece, a jar of jam miraculously unbroken." There's surely a bleak little joke there: a miracle of disorder is the only one these characters get; the only miracle Serbia gets is one that could not possibly matter to anyone. Powerfully, on returning from a trip to visit her mother in Germany, she observes how the "spick-and-span," "orderly," "neat" towns and farms are replaced by detritus and disorder upon crossing the Yugoslav border. It is at this point that she is shocked out of her previous reverie, when the carriage suddenly fills with dirty, friendly peasants, loudly eating and drinking and sleeping. There is a sudden, dubious epiphany as she realises that all her life she has unknowingly been surrounded by the stench of sweat; it is only the fact that this pungent smell was absent in Germany and Austria that has made her notice it. When she thinks of Novi Sad, what comes to mind are not family, friends or memories of happiness or sadness, but the degradation of things: cracked streets, remnants of a dead past, disorder, decay.

This is perhaps why so many characters yearn for the certainties of Germany, which in the pre- and post-war passages, often appears as a beacon of order shining at the edge of a chaotic region. Many characters view German culture as expressive of logic, humanity, culture, cosmopolitanism, and -- that word again -- order. When the teenage character Milinka, idealist and absorber of knowledge, learns that his friend is to receive German lessons earlier than had been planned, he experiences "a rush of excitement that made his mouth dry." The Yiddish speaker Robert Kroner, who dies in a transit camp on the way to a concentration camp, has memories of reading imperfectly-understood German literature rendered in a "disciplined succession" of Gothic print, which he felt had an enlightening and uplifting effect: "he read aloud to himself in bed before going to bed, as if reciting a prayer learned from his mother." Characters, whether of nationalistic feelings or not, are keen to assign themselves to "the great world" represented by German speakers; one character sniffs about Belgrade that "Central Europe ends at Novi Sad,"; Vera's mother, after her marriage to a German, passive-aggressively redefines herself, signing herself as "Tereza Arbeitsam" even in her personal letters to her daughter.

But despite this yearning for order and sanity on the parts of the characters, it is perhaps the chaotic, mixed-up nature of the Vojvodina that is responsible for the most genuinely comforting thoughts in this troubling novel. Common generalizing, ethnic slurs and ignorance are easy to keep up, but genuine bulging-eye fanaticism is a real strain to keep up; certain characters try very hard, but have decided trouble. It's perhaps too pat to say this is simply because the resident races have been too closely twined together by centuries of living cheek-by-jowl, but one of the most memorable, and darkly comical scenes in the book comes out of an attempt to put these tangled skeins of culture to some kind of use. Sep Lehnhart, a young, directionless German from a rural village, for whom Nazi "thought" provides some order and something to aspire to (as well as tragi-comic delusions of superiority), is sent by his mother to stay with his older sister in Novi Sad. Inconveniently, she is married to a Jewish man, Robert Kroner. Sep seems to ignore this, providing a strange unwanted mentoring service to his nephew, Gerhard, and clearly very fond of the youngest children of the family as well. One of the strangest illustrations of this overlapping of loyalties, wilful ignorance of contradiction comes in a conversation he has late at night with Kroner; tipsy, apparently conscious he is speaking to a Jew, he sets out the Nazi ideology, and explains, in graphic detail, what will happen to those who cross them. But his account of the future ends, seemingly to his own surprise, with defeat -- the Jews are always too many, they can never ultimately be destroyed. At this point, in a bizarrely pathetic gesture, Sep is aware of a yearning for reassurance from Kroner: "He looked at Kroner plaintively, hoping for a word of comfort. Hoping for him to say: "No, no, you're wrong. One day they will be wiped out." It's simultaneously disturbing and oddly comforting: but either way, Sep's failure as an ideologue and the difficulty of fanaticism in such an area is writ plain. Apart from one horrifying chapter, the only one that deals explicitly with the Holocaust, Tišma sticks doggedly to a third-person perspective, despite the proliferation of identities and viewpoints, which seems to me to represent an insistence that even in this part of the world there is some possibility of objectivity of common ground, life in such a society does not have to be reduced to a mess of competing claims and resentments.

If there is redemption in this book -- and I was not utterly consumed by despair at its end -- it is in its willingness to tell the truth, not to bend its characters to the end of a philosophy or ideology: The book ends, not with two lovers united against the odds, but with the end of a relationship between one intermittently sympathetic character and one totally unsympathetic character; a relationship not totally transactional, but neither totally based on emotion and compatibility. And, thanks to one of Tišma's great encyclopaedic spoiler chapters, we know, as they don't, their final ends and resting places. And yet, their failures prove in some odd way saving, if not to them, then to us. Tišma's characters are likeable or dislikeable, idealistic or cynical, but rarely, if ever, types, and even more rarely successes: the most comprehensively drawn Nazi in the book is a callow fantasist put up by his Jewish relatives; Vera finds a job after the war, seeming to slot into the Communist system, but even defeated and almost destroyed, never believes in it. But in an age desperate to mould people into pliable, efficient tools, there is a kind of wonder in this; in failing for the most part to be tools, to be more or less than what they are, they succeed in being human. Ultimately, and thankfully, man has no use, and that is where fiction comes in.

The Use of Man, in short, is a brilliant book.

The Use of Man by Aleksandar Tišma, translated by Bernard Johnson
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590177266
352 pages