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The Walls Behind the Curtain

0 Comments 🕔23.Oct 2013

Harold Segel’s anthology of gulag writing, The Walls Behind the Curtain: East European Prison Literature, 1945–1990, makes an overwhelming impression due to both its size and scope.  The book includes selections from 46 writers from Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia – most published in English for the first time – and a range of stories, sometimes beautiful and uplifting, but also often grotesque and appalling, classed with those we know about Stalin’s gulag. The book is especially shocking for this reader due to the fact that while we might think of Stalinism as a phenomenon of the past, of our parents’ or grandparents’ generation, the terror in East Europe began in the late 1940s and resulted in some of its worst atrocities during many of our own lives, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

That the scope of this horror is still shocking to me attests not only to my own ignorance, but also to the fact that information about the phenomenon has poorly penetrated into our collective field of vision. Harold Segel, professor emeritus of Columbia University and author of The Columbia Guide to the Literatures of Eastern Europe since 1945 (2003) and The Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe since 1945 (2008), in addition to monographs on such subjects as Renaissance culture in Poland, Soviet theater, modernist and avant-garde puppetry, and turn-of-the-century cabaret, has done a great service in selecting and translating this volatile and important material, and in supplying an informative short introduction to the volume, and to shorter ones to the individual national gulags and writers. The scope of his achievement is all the more impressive in that in only a very few cases were materials reprinted from existing translations and that the great majority Segel translated from 12 different languages: Albanian, Croatian, Czech, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, and Slovenian.

The anthology is divided by country, in alphabetical order, with the literary selections ordered by the authors’ dates of birth. These selections – fiction and non-fiction – include poetry, essays, short stories, letters, and passages from novels, memoirs, and diaries.  The volume also features several dozen very effective black-and-white works of graphic art by the Albanian artist Maks Velo, veteran of the infamous hard labor camp at Spaç. These drawings tend to the crude and abstract, but are usually sufficiently representational to convey powerful violence, pain, and dehumanization. They serve as an effective counterpoint to the texts, offering at times some relief – or distraction – as they require one to halt and contemplate their symbolic meaning and effect.

Velo is also a contributing writer. In a prison sketch about how he heard the news of Enver Hoxha’s death in 1985, he comments: “This dictator ruined his own country like no other conqueror in history. After his death, Albania has emerged as from a long illness where the real patient is the human being” (48). This brief statement may be taken as emblematic of many of the entries in The Walls Behind the Curtain: strikingly written, with philosophical overtones and a hyperbolic twist that invites engagement (was Hokha, say, worse than Husák in Czechoslovakia or Ceaușescu in Romania?), and an enduring concern with the fate of the national psyche that most writers in the collection share.

A short review of this anthology does not permit even a listing of the contributors’ names and titles of their works, not to mention a discussion of its often extremely powerful and moving contents. There is rich material here for a wide variety of analyses, including comparisons between writers, genres, and national responses to the gulag.  The allegiances of the various writers, when relevant, are themselves complex, and span committed communists (e.g., Stalinists imprisoned in Yugoslavia after Tito’s break with Stalin), independent artists, intellectuals and cultural figures, scholars, dissidents (communist and anti-communist), priests, and politicians, arrested in different types of purges and repressions.  These differences fade, however, under the leveling experience of prison that narrows aspirations to a struggle for physical and spiritual survival. Gruesomely noteworthy are the accounts of Tito’s island prison camp, Goli otok, by the Bulgarian Venko Markovski and the Serb Dragoslav Mihailović, and tales of the grotesque ‘Piteşi Experiment’ in Romania that subjected inmates “to horrendous physical and psychic torture in order to transform them into loyal, unquestioning citizens of the communist state” (264). Among the most memorable texts for me were Karel Pecka’s short stories, some of them smuggled out of the Bytíz u Přibami labor camp in the late 50s; Jiři Mucha’s account of trying to write while deep underground in a collapsing coal mine; and Jiři Hejda’s “Sonnets Chanted in a Whisper in the Shadow of the Gallows.” While much of the poetry must surely lose impact through translation, I found most moving bare verse like Hejda’s, “rhymed casually / and in solitude, without paper, in darkness // and from memory” (94), which has a narrative foundation.

To a large degree, The Walls Behind the Curtain may serve as a microcosm of East European history under communism, or even as an introduction to it, insofar as the gulag may arguably be seen as communism’s most characteristic institution. It also makes us privy to often unspeakable suffering that nevertheless begs to be spoken and shared. While we may bless the fact that this ugly chapter of human history is over (at least in Eastern Europe), it may also inspire some nostalgia for the time when the existence of unquestionable evil provoked an even more powerful faith in the most basic human values. The anthology has informative notes and an index, but lacks a bibliography of East European prison literature in English and existing secondary materials on the subject. This would have made the volume even more useful as a text, which could well provide the basis for a college course.

And, lastly, a few words from the artist whose images are included in the book, four of which are featured above:

“The cycle Communist Dictatorship includes about 150 paintings, mainly black and white using Chinese ink and lavi, and very few with colors. The cycle is composed in three groups: Prosecution, Jail, and Life in Dictatorship. The artist’s obligation is to feel and fixate the epochs. I tried to do this on the behalf of those who suffered and died in the dictatorship without having seen a good day. I experienced and transmitted, in art, for other people to more easily understand that dictatorship should not be allowed.” – Marks Velo

Reviewed by Marcus C. Levitt of the University of Southern California

The Walls Behind the Curtain: East European Prison Literature, 1945-1990
By Harold B. Segel
University of Pittsburgh Press
Paperback / 448 pages / November 2012
ISBN: 9780822962021


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