May 2016

Kevin Frazier

fiction

Heresy and Provocation by Tero Nauha

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In Poland, at a factory in Bobrek, the workers bundle their clothes into their jackets and then hang the jackets from the highest ceilings. They do this to keep the clothes out of reach, away from the rats and the thieves.

Heresy & Provocation is set in a world where the rats and the thieves are winning, and where everyone feels paranoid and cheated. Many of the Soviet Bloc's working-class areas went straight from the ravages of crony communism to the ravages of crony capitalism. The dark joke at the core of Tero Nauha's book is that the ravages continue, and now affect not just Polish factory workers but nearly all people everywhere. Nauha's eerie contemplation of industrial and personal decay is centered in Bobrek, but the wreckage has become international. It can be seen in the tent cities and bankrupt newspaper offices in America, the ghost estates in Ireland and Spain, the sheet-metal shanty towns in Russia. Whether we belong to the angry left or the angry right, or sway somewhere in-between, few of us feel safe, secure from losing whatever we've got -- assuming we're lucky enough to have anything at all. In one way or another, more and more of us are now dangling in midair, like those jackets hung from the ceiling.

The main character in Heresy & Provocation has an Ahab-like obsession with capitalism. He's not Polish: he's a performance artist from Finland, and has come to Bobrek for his work. Unlike Ahab, however, he finds his obsession embarrassing and self-defeating. He feels it makes him absurd. "I think performance artists are douchebags," he tells us at the start. He adds: "In its onerous need to provoke, performance art makes a caricature of itself."

Bobrek, he notes, has also become a caricature. It "has been depicted in many films throughout the socialist period," but now the earlier stereotype of "the proud working class hero" is "nowhere to be found." Instead, contemporary Bobrek "could be regarded not as a city but as a fog." He sees this fog as the embodiment of "immanent capitalism," the capitalism that lives inside his thoughts. Capitalism has grown in his mind until it becomes, like Moby Dick, terrifying and all-encompassing.

His capitalism is less an economic presence than a philosophical and spiritual one, and Heresy & Provocation is less a novel than an intricate vision of how his ideas oppress him. He thinks the fog comes, in part, from the way we've dug up and transformed the physical world to give form to our desires: "The materials of consumption, such as coal, anthracite, and carbon have become immaterial, complex atmospheric phenomena suspended in the air near the earth's surface." This fog surrounds him even while his own feelings help bring it forth: "A petrified puff of smoke, it's not that our labor has become immaterial, but that our sentiments have become materialized." Characteristically, he finds the fog expanding the more he thinks about it. What starts as a low-lying haze spreads until it can't be escaped. He writes: "When fish move through water, however they move, there is no end to the water. When birds fly through the sky, however they fly, there is no end to the sky."

In the pain of his entrapment, he ends up declaring that he will now "initiate the world of hallucinations" and search for what he calls "the unprecedented," for moments that don't belong to the fog. His belief in the unprecedented is an act of faith. It stems from those times when he senses "an ineffable reason underlying all things." And yet the hallucinations he offers us -- elaborate contemplations of the body, the mind, the dangling clothes -- are meant to complicate our reactions. Are they further manifestations of capitalism's mist, or are they hints of the unprecedented? In the last chapter he announces: "I hallucinate a monster of the unprecedented future. My hallucination is Capitalism. My orthodoxy is Capitalism." But does this mean his faith in the unprecedented has been a delusion all along, just another route back to capitalism? Or does it mean instead that he has now reversed his relationship to capitalism, has reduced capitalism to a fantasy while he has at least partly escaped its hold on him? The ending feels like both a triumph and a defeat, and the book's final cruel joke might be that he can't tell one way or the other. Nauha's achievement as an artist is that he makes this climax moving and exhilarating, regardless of how we work it out intellectually. The book leaves us not with an abstract riddle but with a piercing revelation of a soul split against itself, divided between euphoria and despair. Unexpectedly, we come to care about this self-lacerating character, and come to see how much of our own fears and doubts he gives back to us.

Heresy & Provocation explores its obsessive ideas with grim humor, and approaches them more as states of mind than as philosophical assertions. Early on, Nauha reveals the gap between the performance artist's beliefs and the view of him held by the book's other key character: a Polish woman who helps out with the shows at a local cultural center. Nauha doesn't sugarcoat his individuals. He accepts their flaws, seems fascinated by their shortcomings. The Polish woman doesn't destroy our appreciation of the performance artist, but she does give us a much-needed entry into his weaknesses and limitations.

We're introduced to her when she narrates the second chapter: "I have an old brick house and a barracks for my home. I have no work, no cinema, and no gallery. I have problems, alcohol, assault and battery. I have incest, glue, drugs, and hepatitis. I have ammonium in the backyard." Immediately she feels the performance artist's condescension toward her. She can tell he assumes his right to colonize her, the license of a man from a wealthier nation over a woman from a poorer one. "I am just a ghost," she tells herself. "I am the object of your desire." He wants to tell her what she should think about her own country. He also wants to make sure he comes off well in the process, even as he stops her from explaining herself. "I am the spectral one," she decides, "the one whose voice and answers you halted. But I keep hovering as a doubt in your fogs and mists, a budding question about if I was treated humanely enough." The next chapter, with its shift to the third person limited, reasserts her view of him: "He is judgmental. She finds it boring. She is bored. This is absurd. He is talking about Pussy Riot and Taksim Square. She glances at her phone." He tries to impress her with his mother's working class background. She thinks: "She does not need to hear this, but he continues." One of the questions left hanging at the novel's end is whether all the performance artist's mental contortions have carried him closer to other people or further away. Has he disappeared into self-absorption, or is he now able to see beyond it, maybe even able to listen to what the woman might say about herself? Nauha doesn't push us toward an answer. He leaves it up to us to decide.

Heresy & Provocation is written in English, though Nauha is Finnish and the book comes from the Swedish publisher Förlaget. Nauha's style here is much more than fluent -- it's fearless and inventive. He freely shifts narrative viewpoint and tone, and mingles an abstract philosophical register with sharp physical descriptions and deft insights into his characters' most intimate feelings. There's too much theoretical jargon for my taste, but Nauha knows what he wants, and he holds the book together by not wasting time on anything that bores him. He isn't interested in dialogue, scenes, plot. He also avoids making essays out of his philosophical points. The book moves along on its own terms, immersed in the swirl of the characters' thoughts. The language is flexible. Its rhythms are unpredictable, churning. When the performance artist imagines shadows in the fog, Nauha writes:

The shadows cast through in three dimensions, illuminated by light that passes through gaps in matter; melancholia of the immaterial lithos anthrakos; shadows beaming in a direction parallel to the light source… The good luck of the anthrakos has expired, a deadly fog haunts the terrain of men… Dragged over the coals for no reason by the orthodoxy. Consumption of immaterial goods has been materialized through the petrified lightning of sufficient reason… And then, some sinister melancholia -- resilient like ruby, anthrax, bitumen -- resists the shadows of our contemporary transcendental philosophy and our faith in revolutions and exploitations.

The sentences fight against any quick understanding, but Nauha's writing has so much going on in it that you start to enjoy its sheer abundance. Here, for instance, "lithos anthrakos" gives rise to "the good luck of the anthrakos" and then to "dragged over the coals" and "anthrax." We feel the connections before we make sense of them: their odd music helps the links form in our minds. Lithos anthrakos was the name Theophrastus gave live coals, and coals were once a standard New Year's gift for good luck. When Nauha says the good luck of the anthrakos has expired, he means the luck of the coals has run out, along with that luck's traditional guarantee of warmth for the coming year. Since Poland is one of Europe's top coal producers, this ties the passage to the Polish woman's thoughts about the performance artist's power over her. "I am the burning coal," she thinks, "to warm your winter's night in Europe." The reference to being dragged over the coals comes, of course, from the Catholic Church punishing heretics, raking them across the coals of a slow fire. The image adds to the tension between the Polish woman and the performance artist: Poland is traditionally Catholic, Finland traditionally Lutheran. Also, the shift from lucky live coal to unlucky dead coal carries us through the torture of heretics -- here, disbelievers in capitalist orthodoxy -- and toward the "sinister melancholia" that's as resilient as anthrax. "Anthrax" is placed between "ruby" and "bitumen" to remind us that the original Greek meaning of anthrax is, again, live coal, taking us back to Bobrek's mining industry. At the same time, the later meaning of anthrax as a disease and bio-weapon lends the ruby and the bitumen a destructive strength, death within burning life, and heightens the melancholia's force.

Nauha's prose is lush with these verbal connections: his words are constantly growing together and winding around each other. Heresy & Provocation begins as a straightforward attack on capitalism, but its richest resources turn out to be poetic and suggestive. It enters levels of fury and pain that have less in common with agitprop than with the mystery at the book's center, the "reason behind why things are as they are." The performance artist might lose faith in this mystery, but Nauha never stops pursuing it, testing his words to their limits, in the hope that "everything may collapse or emerge without reason." This is a spiritual hope, a mystic's hope, and Nauha must know it takes him far past the focus of most political art. But this is where he wants to travel, and it's thrilling to see him make such a wild rush into the dark. It's like watching someone step through a door and suddenly vanish, disappearing into the stars. You want to follow, but you don't know if you can, or even should.

Heresy & Provocation by Tero Nauha
Förlaget
ISBN: 978-9176111796
104 pages