Brecht at Night (Baltic Literature)
by Mati Unt
Reviewed by Karen Vanuska
The Quarterly Conversation
If you leave out enough, then that one word, for instance night in the phrase when night falls, will begin to reverberate. It will correspond exactly to what the reader is imagining, become its equivalent. Because inflation is the death of every economy. Words can drop their retinue and meet one another with the greatest dignity imaginable. And it is quite wrong to think that classics in this instance have forgotten about the reader, quite the opposite -- they respect the reader.
-- from Brecht at Night
Every once in a while you stumble upon text within a novel that utterly describes the experience you've had while reading that novel. Such is the case with this quote from Mati Unt
's recently translated novel Brecht at Night
. Actually, "novel" is too narrow a term to define this work. Unt dances along the edge of biography and history, using fiction to fill in the gaps and to give the work its form. If while reading this book you are overtaken by the urge to check Wikipedia or search for biographies on Brecht at your local bookstore, don't. Mingling humor and pathos, Unt's recreation of Brecht is more vivid, more alive than you'll find in any of those sources. And, more importantly, surrendering the tenuous thread that divides fact from fiction is what immersing yourself in this work is all about. Brecht at Night
is Unt's last novel and only-post Soviet work. Unt was an Estonian writer of fiction, plays, and criticism who wrote and published most of his work while Estonia was still a Republic of the Soviet Union. To engage in truth-telling artistic enterprises of any kind during this era, Soviet writers such as Unt needed to be downright sneaky in their use of imagery and metaphors. It comes as little surprise then that Unt could not resist retelling events surrounding the annexation of his Baltic homeland by taking a slim chapter from the life of German playwright Bertol Brecht. Here he brilliantly plays with narrative's very structure to mix fact and fiction, and art and history. The result? A work that fills you with that excitement you feel when conquering a particularly challenging puzzle, that feeling that your brain has had a workout and is all the stronger for it.
While awaiting a visa to immigrate to America, Brecht accepted the invitation of Finnish playwright (and Estonian by birth), Hella Wuolijoki. Brecht, his wife, his children, and his oh-so-convenient mistress/secretary arrived in Helsinki in the spring of 1940, just after the conclusion of the Winter War with the Soviet Union, during which the Soviet Union lost twice as many troops as the Finnish yet still managed to eek out an advantageous peace treaty. Though in life Brecht had a penchant for bourgeoisie living and was a doubting Marxist -- he had his misgivings about Stalin but saw him as a better alternative than Hitler -- in art Brecht sided with the plight of the workingman. During his stay in Finland he worked on the play The Good Person of Szechwan
, a parable about gods coming to earth in search of a good person. It is this chapter in Brecht's biography that Unt draws upon in Brecht at Night
Throughout this work, Unt has much fun at Brecht's expense. Many of his pokes come within italicized passages dripping with irony, such as in this passage where he introduces Brecht by saying,
When Brecht notices --
This abbreviation could well denote the famous German author and stager of plays. But I am principally using it to shorten his name....I have obtained all the information here from various sources but I am intentionally absolving myself of the responsibility of writing what could be termed a "documentary novel." I exaggerate here and there, but this is done deliberately. We all know that famous people do not have the right to an authentic biography. Take Hamlet! Who cares now who he really was!
In Unt's hands Brecht becomes more clown than artistic hero. While on board the ship taking him to Finland, Brecht sees some Finns spitting into the water and has an urge to write a poem. He is paranoid that he will be captured by Hitler, who he refers to as What's-His-Name. And he is obsessed with seeing the world dialectically: when thinking of his upcoming meeting with his benefactor, Hella Wuolijoki, Brecht imagines her rotund figure then thinks of her as "a socialist and a capitalist at one and the same time. She is everything at one and the same time, both traitor and patriot." And then Unt steps out from behind the curtain to say,
In Brecht's beloved dialectical style we can list here a few binary opposites which have nothing to do with Hella.
Lion and Lamb.
Master and Slave.
Light and Darkness.
Slipped like a poem into the narrative, these lines carry the themes that Unt weaves into the remainder of this work. Lions, Masters, and Darkness -- like Hitler and Stalin -- which devour Lambs, Slaves, and Light -- like the Jews and the Estonians.
Brecht stands near the center of these forces of Light and Darkness, almost bewildered and distracted by mundane details like whether he should stay in a hotel or an apartment. Grete, his secretary, mistress, and "little revolutionary," is by his side, copying pieces of his play, fixing the blatant faults, and listening. Brecht worries that, though setting the play in China permits him "to use a variety of Chinese theatrical effects," the setting has its problems because "flirting with China is something the rich do in large numbers, but with quite a different aim in mind to that of Brecht." This is one of the few points in the text where Unt softens his tone and seems to commune with Brecht as a fellow playwright.
Near the center of this work, Unt shifts the focus of his italicized passages away from Brecht to narrate the events of late spring through midsummer of 1940. Unt uses these passages, as well as headlined sections such as "Churchill's Famous Phrase and What Happened Next," like news broadcasts to keep the reader alert, to keep her from being lulled into Brecht's more languid world. While Brecht struggles to write a play, the nations around him are struggling to hold onto their sovereignty in the face of Hitler and Stalin's powergrab. In a playfully bitter tone, Unt describes the Soviet's first moves in taking over independent Estonia.
A treaty, which states that Russia will expand its bases in Estonia, is signed.
To the treaty a list is attached giving the forty-two places in Estonia where Russian troops will be stationed.
Here in our novel, it is only worth mentioning the places nearest to where our good friend Brecht is staying.
Let's mention a couple. Where do the Russian forces go to?
Unt gathers the forces of war in his narrative and sets Brecht adrift for a while, turning to questions such as: What is the writer's role in history? Are writers obligated to tell the stories of cruel leaders or their victims? These questions overtake the narrative, overtly consuming the remainder of Brecht at Night
Exactly halfway through June. Brecht has not left Helsinki. Other Germans, however, are constantly in motion. They are like quicksilver. Now they are only twenty kilometers from Paris. Albert Camus (in his diary): "Finished the first part of the Absurd. Human beings are wiping their own dwelling houses off the face of the earth, set their own fields on fire and sprinkle salt over them so that they are rendered unusable by others." Why are the Germans twenty kilometers from Paris? Or why would the French -- for the sake of argument -- be twenty kilometers from Berlin? All because of the lunacy of national leaders. The masses carry out what they are ordered to do. Then people write about these crazy people in the history books. A man with one leg and his belly ripped open who is thrown into a ditch at the side of the road doesn't get into the history books. That's what the spirit of history is like.
Unt pushes Brecht even further into the background and adds a new narrator, the Estonian M. Unt, a "jovial Social-Democrat who is no relation of mine." This Unt becomes the icy voice that describes the machinations leading to the downfall of Independent Estonia, from the shutting down of the Estonian-British Cultural Society to the deaths and imprisonment of nearly every official of the Independent Estonian government.
Eventually, even this Unt's voice is silenced, replaced by "Documents, Interlude I," a thirty-page section devoted to documents from various archive sources interspersed with Brecht's poems from this era. Chilling lists speak to the banal details of taking over Estonia: what to do with deposed officials, how to procure food and assistance from the locals. These documents are history stripped of a writer's romantic lens. Amidst them Unt intersperses Brecht's poems in a purposeful arrangement that pits history against art. For example, after a section entitled "Page from the List of Books in Estonia to be Destroyed" Unt inserts Brecht's Poem No. 2 as follows:
When the regime ordered that books with dangerous knowledge
To be burnt in public, and from everywhere
Oxen were forced to take
Carloads of books
To the bonfires, a refugee poet,
One of the best, discovered a list
And looking at it became angry when he saw that his own
Books weren't on it. He rushed to his desk
With wings of rage, and wrote a letter to the powers that be.
Burn me! He wrote, his pen flying over the paper, burn
Unt's use of both the content and the structure of this narrative to disclose his themes challenges the reader to fill in gaps, to find those places where, as in the opening quote, "Words can drop their retinue and meet one another with the greatest dignity imaginable." Art and history are intertwined for the very reason that the artist cannot be divorced from her times. Ultimately, through the juxtaposition of Brecht's poems and historical documents, Unt illuminates the complexities of the relationship between art and history.
Before Brecht returns to close the novel as the hero of a Finnish parable (extending the theme of art and its influences in one more enticing direction), Unt includes a letter he wrote to an actress about some of his struggles as he wrote Brecht at Night
. Along with some reflections on the effect of the Soviet Occupation on Estonian literature, Unt reveals what I believe is the answer to why he chose Brecht, and not an Estonian artist, as this narrative's hero.
Brecht, who lies buried along with Hegel in the same graveyard, perceived the world differently, as something that develops.
For example, he enjoyed dialectical thoughts.
A couple of random quotes:
"Without dictatorship (without suppressing the peasantry who do not support industrialization) you cannot create a situation where dictatorship is superfluous." Or: "There is no freedom at present in Russia, only liberation." Or: 'The Ding an sich (thing in itself) is immeasurably inconvenient." Or, more about dictatorship: "You have to support dictatorships that tear up their own roots." Or, the idea that popped up from somewhere that "causality (the interplay of cause and effect) should only be acknowledged where it can be detected."
In Brecht's dialectical approach to the world, Unt finds a way to reap meaning from the seemingly senseless acts of World War II. Master and Slave, Lion and Lamb, Light and Dark -- what lies between is art.
Narratives that describe the machinations leading up to Poland and France's collapse into the cups of Hitler's hands are ubiquitous; narratives that describe Stalin sweeping the trio of Baltic nations into his dustbin are not. Through the hiding of facts among fiction and fiction among facts, in Brecht at Night
Unt not only engages and educates readers about a little-known chapter of World War II history; he also poses the kind of meaty thematic questions about art and war, power and powerlessness that readers love to devour in their literature. Brecht at Night
is not an easy read, but the rewards are deep. Karen Vanuska is a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a regular contributor to Open Letters: A Monthly Arts and Literature Review. Her fiction has appeared in UC Irvine's Faultline and her creative non-fiction in a recent issue of The Battered Suitcase.