“Underground papers” were once defined by Kingsley Amis as “newspapers sold outside Underground stations.” It was nice deflation of the Western left’s self-deceiving belief that it was fighting a similar oppression to that endured by the peoples of Eastern Europe and thus entitled to borrow their samizdats and Charter 77s for domestic use. In truth they could hardly even imagine the reality of “really existing socialism” with its occasional outbursts of naked brutality and, more especially, with its everyday pedestrian repression of all individuality, hope, and free expression.
Those leftists who risked crossing the Iron Curtain had one of three sorts of experience. Most were happy to be deceived by the regimes’ Potemkin generosity. Some, briefly distressed by what they saw beneath that façade, rationalized away their distress on returning to really existing liberty. (For a brilliant depiction of this, see Malcolm Muggeridge’s Winter in Moscow, where his Walter Duranty character smoothly explains to himself that the starving people he has just seen are merely isolated cases of malnutrition among social elements resisting the new system of socialist agricultural distribution.) The rest, few in number, came back disillusioned to the extreme point of embracing anti-Communism. Most other people, including those politically unsympathetic to Communism, simply had no idea of what life behind the Curtain was like.
Roger Scruton’s new novel deals with the reality of “really existing socialism” as it was experienced by those who could not even visit something different. It takes place in the city of Prague under the “normalization” period after the Soviet invasion of 1968, and it opens with a small scene of quite minor cruelty for those times. Its central character, Jan Reichl, returns home to find the secret police rifling through the apartment he shares with his mother for the evidence that will be used to convict one of them for possessing samizdat literature. The search is needlessly destructive since Reichl’s mother has already confessed to them that she had typed the offending documents, in part truthfully, in part evasively, since she is protecting her son who left his own work, Rumors, on a bus, which led the police to their apartment. She is taken away and Reichl, a.k.a. Honza to his friends and “Comrade Underground” to his potential readers, lapses into a passivity and alienation even deeper than usual for him.
Reichl’s customary alienation has several sources. Because his father was arrested, imprisoned, and effectively murdered by the state as an enemy of the people (for holding a literary reading circle), he is barred from university and allocated to the job of factory cleaner. He is thus “alienated” by the government in much the same way as Jan Masaryk was “suicided” by it. But he cultivates his own alienation by attentive reading of the books his father had hidden in a trunk. These include the classic Czech- and Hapsburg-era writers, but those which merit particular mention in his narrative are Sartre’s Nausea, L’Étranger by Camus, and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.
Reichl’s response to the arrest of his mother is only slightly less detached than the opening words of the Camus novel: “Mom died today. Or yesterday maybe. I don’t know.” He does not feel what he expects to feel. He is also particularly drawn to “the “strange cantankerous tone of voice” of Dostoevsky’s anti-hero. He comes to believe that the real oppression is not that emanating from the regime but rather that from inside the mind—a “disease of the will” which traps people in endless disappointment as they hope for things they know will never happen. In short, Reichl is educating himself to be not merely a dissident intellectual—that was always likely—but perhaps even an angry young existentialist trembling on the verge of nihilism. He retains something of that discontented tone, qualified but also intensified by regret, as he narrates his own story two or more decades later from a quiet academic perch in a Washington D.C. suburb.
He recalls the two ways in which he expressed his thoughts and feelings of that earlier time. Taking Dostoevsky very literally—and this is a novel in which metaphors sometimes prove to be literal descriptions—he travels endlessly on the subway. There he imagines the lives of others traveling and at times even achieves a kind of imaginary sexual congress with a beautiful girl. We have all done that, of course, but not with the obsessive (and generally pointless) intensity of Reichl. His second mode of expression is his attempt at samizdat literature, Rumors, about which we learn surprisingly little. Just how good is it? Others are quoted as praising it, but since Reichl is quoting them, that testimony may be dubious. He never quotes it himself. That may imply doubt of its quality.
Still, it is Rumors that brings Betka to his door and awakens him from his solipsistic trance. Betka is a beautiful and soulful young woman who is an inspiring but elusive presence in the dissident world. He had seen her earlier on a train and, for the first time in his career as an imaginary seducer, followed the object of his interest back to her house. She draws him back into life outside his apartment and also into a world of philosophical and literary rebels against the Communist idea as well as Communist reality.
The situation of these rebels looks hopeless to Reichl, as to most people at the time. They are few in number, engaged in seemingly impractical forms of resistance (philosophy lectures, retreat into religious comforts, linguistic deconstruction of Marxist terminology, etc.) and the recovery of lost cultural traditions, which the regime despises rather than forbids. Each one of them—the philosopher, the linguistic parodist, the priest—is admirably imaginative and thoughtful in a particular way. All of them help Reichl and guide him towards a better understanding of the common plight. None of them proposes to bomb or murder innocent people—or even guilty ones. And as matters turned out, their activities were very practical in gradually eroding the moral foundations of Communist belief and thus preparing the ground for successful popular resistance when the historical opportunity arose. Indeed, they lead to a small practical success in the narrative when dissident contacts with the U.S. embassy make Reichl’s mother a heroine of human rights via the “propaganda” of Radio Free Europe that he had earlier discounted, and she receives a very light sentence as a result.
At the same time, the dissidents are slightly sad, a species endangered by liberal democratic political evolution. They were the inhabitants of someone else’s Marxist fantasy of a society without conflict. They resisted what was for them a nightmare, and they showed skill, insight, and moral courage in doing so. But those skills of intelligence and imagination were designed for the nightmare rather than for the everyday, pedestrian, market society that was just over the horizon without their knowing it. They had not prepared themselves for that world, and they were lost and uncertain in it. Reichl describes how badly they adjusted to the realization of their hopeless hopes. The priest in whom Reichl had discerned deep and attractive mystical insights is overheard parroting the clichés of a tired American liberalism to his audience of post-Communist young people. The parodist has nothing much to parody. Absorbent liberalism means that the dissident philosopher is now merely one voice in a discordant mass chorus of commentators. And so on.
At least that is how the discontented Reichl tells it. And here the author seems to be in agreement with the narrator. Roger Scruton was himself an active patron of the Central and East European resistance movements. He delivered lectures and smuggled forbidden books to the dissidents, and he organized others to do the same. He understood what was at stake. He is rightly an admired figure in the region. But he does not idealize his former collaborators and students to the point of ignoring the fact that many lacked the practical skills, abilities, and outlook suited to a modern society. He sees, for instance, that though Václav Havel was a heroic symbol of resistance, it is Václav Klaus who had the economic knowledge and political skills to transform the Czech economy, to resolve the national tensions between Czech and Slovak peacefully and with successful results, and to bring people with him through the shocks. Idealism and practicality are both needed. But when one is mistaken for the other, then confusion ensues.
That is where Betka comes in. For almost all the novel, we see Betka through the distorting lens of Reichl’s spectacles. He is in love with her from the first, and they have a passionate connection, but he misunderstands her from the first, too. We are warned of Reichl’s lack of insight about those he loves on page two when, remarking on his mother’s confession of responsibility to the secret police, he says that she “had prepared this sacrifice . . . in those long months underground, when I had lived with purely imaginary companions and forgotten the only real one.” Later he discovers a deeper religious commitment in his mother than he ever realized when they were living together, and they are reunited on a different basis of love and knowledge.
No such happy ending emerges from his misunderstanding of Betka. She is depicted almost throughout as the mysterious Eternal Feminine: beautiful of course, loving too, but also elusive, and perhaps faithless. How does she move with such elegant security through so many social and political minefields? Where does she live? What does she do for a living? Why is she reluctant to discuss the matter? Is she the beneficiary of favors from foreign visitors? Or does she have a protector in the nomenklatura? And if either of these, what favors does she offer in return? Reichl gradually extorts answers to most of these questions from her as they grow closer, but the answers seem only to lead to more questions of the same kind. And these lead to further questions.
In one idyllic visit they make to the Moravian village where Betka grew up, she shows him lovingly the signposts and monuments of its traditional church-soaked culture which she respects and wants to preserve. For her—and initially for Reichl—their visit and love-making there is a kind of marriage. She hopes that it will dispel his jealousy and distrust. But it was a village of the Sudeten Germans who were driven out in 1945 in one of the largest forced emigrations in history. She is the granddaughter of one its despoilers. With all her pious regard for its traditions, is this not another sign of her living in a kind of falsehood, billeting herself in another’s home, and praying to its household gods?
Reichl tortures himself with these jealousies to the point where he refuses a very modest request—that he should accompany her to the opera—which has for her a significance he only discovers later. She can’t explain; he can’t trust. A declaration of love and loyalty at that point would mean everything. It would hold out at least a promise for their future. But he is fixated on his suspicions and surrenders to his own internal nihilism.
When the denouement occurs—which I won’t spoil here—we see that Betka’s apparent mystery and elusiveness were in fact highly practical and necessary maneuvers that a tough self-reliant woman with serious responsibilities for others had to take in a society rife with betrayal and suspicion. She guarded secrets, but they were secrets about others she was not free to disclose. She took risks, but they were taken to protect the interests of people dependent on her. She sought support from Reichl, but his self-absorption meant that in the end she had to depend on herself.
Twenty years later, Betka confirms this impression of her character by succeeding in the very arena where Reichl has languished ineffectively. She is now a distinguished lecturer in the field of dissident literature. She has written generously of Rumors and urges Reichl to publish the work under his own name. She delivers a lecture to the college in Washington, D.C. where he is precariously employed. But he avoids meeting her and at the close is relapsing into the same kind of passivity that overtook him following his mother’s arrest.
Prague in this novel is a kind of Purgatory. Its inhabitants are separated from each other by the distrust inculcated by a regime that would be threatened by human affection and solidarity. Reichl’s distinctive tone of voice as the narrator suits this city very well. It accurately diagnoses the distortions imposed on the Czechs by socialist politics, but it too is distorted by his separation from the Czech past and from the religion of his mother. He is Dostoevsky’s modern man—the classic alienated intellectual—overly dependent on his own intelligence, without roots, and strangely querulous in his inner imaginings. He glimpses what has been lost and destroyed. But he cannot make it his own. He lacks what Betka has and what gives her strength to survive and prosper: piety, an affection for household gods, a belief that altars should be tended, a love for a despoiled Christian civilization of the recent past—not her own perhaps, but one she can love, respect, and even inhabit. These affections make her in the end a luminous heroine rather than a mysterious one.
Whether America, where Reichl and Betka end up separately, probably forever, will justify his resentments or her faith remains to be seen.