Friday, September 19, 2008

Bakunin, An Invention by Horst Bienek

(Book Review)

A while back, I was surfing the net, and following random impulses (as you do). I was looking for interesting reading material when the question popped into my mind: Hey, I wonder if there’s any sort of historical fiction about the life of Bakunin. That would make for some interesting reading.
(Mikhail Bakunin, for anyone who doesn't share my obscure interests, is widely regarded as the founder of the anarchist movement (and Karl Marx’s rival for control of The Workingman’s Internationale).)

I did a couple of searches on Amazon, and this is the only thing I came up with. So I decided to give it a try and ordered it.

It interesting book, if nothing else. It’s so full of randomness, it’s a bit difficult to describe succinctly. The cover jacket contains a quotation reading, “This is not just a documentary, not research, nor is it a novel.”
The quotation which Bienek uses to open the book probably sums the whole book up as well as anything. “The story of this book amounts to this: that the story it was to tell doesn't get told.”

This book is not the story of Bakunin, but rather the story of a man who wants to write a biography of Bakunin. Although even then, the word “story” is misleading because it implies some sort of narrative structure. Perhaps more accurately, this book is a series of random glimpses into the thought process of a man who is trying to write a biography of Bakunin.

Bakunin’s biographer is never named, but only referred to by the pronoun “he”. This occasionally causes confusion, because the book will jump back and forth in time without transitions, and sometimes I wasn't sure if the “he” being referred to was Bakunin or his biographer.
It’s possible some of this could be a result of the translation (the book was translated into English from the original German) but I suspect the ambiguity is somewhat intentional. This is one of those books where not everything is revealed to the reader, but where the reader must use their own imagination and insight to complete the brief glimpses the author gives.

Bakunin’s biographer is primarily interested in Bakunin’s later years. In particular he focuses on the botched revolt in Bologna in 1874, when Bakunin was 60 years old, and on Bakunin’s retirement from the Jura Federation (and from activism) the same year.

Bakunin’s biographer (who, from the brief glimpses we get of his personal life, we infer is a middle aged activist himself) is interested in the life of a revolutionary as he gets older.

No, he [the biographer] had never intended to write a biography of B [Bakunin], not from the very beginning; it was solely the later B who interested him. An ageing Revolutionary: there is nothing more tragic, and at the same time more ridiculous.” (p.39)

And on the following page:
“This picture, he said once more, just imagine it; B, the revolutionary, tormented by cardiac asthma, old, with a bad bladder, deserted by his friends, alone with passionate and still fanatic hate which he cries out in his letters to a distant friend in London…” (p. 40)

The biographer will occasionally let his mind wander and reflect on his own life of activism, and the way he feels cut off from society. He is both proud of his alienation from bourgeois society, and at the same time desperate to be included, and he sometimes infers this inner struggle onto his sketches of Bakunin

(I’d be curious to know how much of this book is autobiographical. It certainly has an authentic feel to it, and the little bit of information about the author, Horst Bienek, included on the cover jacket tells us that Bienek himself has a political history, and was about 40 by the time this book was published (1970—in the original German). However with no more information to go on, I suppose the golden rule of reading is always to assume it’s not autobiographical unless you have concrete proof otherwise.)

The book is filled with quotations and excerpts from a number of different sources. Many of these quotations aren't even related to Bakunin, at least not directly. Most of these quotations share a common theme, but are often inserted abruptly into the book without much transition, giving them a feeling of randomness. For example, pages 17-19 are filled up with an excerpt from Vera Figner's memoirs (Vera Figner was one of those involved in the Assassination of Tsar Alexander II). A couple pages later, page 21 is filled with slogans written on the walls of the Academy of Arts in Munich on July 17, 1969.

The longest quotation is 8 pages of excerpts from “Rules for Revolutionaries”. The authorship of this document is somewhat in dispute, either written by Bakunin, or by his disciple Nechaev, or by them both in collaboration. After mentioning briefly the controversy behind the authorship, the nameless biographer proceeds to quote large sections of it, while wondering to himself whether he could ever live up to the incredibly high standards set by this revolutionary catechism.

He looked in amazement at the sentences piling up before him. He would not have been capable of this asceticism and devotion. They were rules for the ‘Order of Priests of the Revolution.’” (p.71)

This book was written during the height of the New Left in Europe, and it contains brief references to student protests in Munich, Jimmy Hendrix, and figures like Danny Cohn-Bendt and Rudi Dutschke. But these are very brief references, and the book avoids becoming boxed in as a time piece.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts is when the biographer imagines Bakunin’s life as a Hollywood movie:

“It won’t be much longer until Hollywood films the life of B. What a subject! B in the salons of Berlin, at Tieck’s, Varnhagen’s, at Schelling’s, B hikes with Herwegh and Weitling through Switzerland. B visits Marx and Proudhon in Paris, he participates in the February Revolution of 1848 in Paris, goes from there to Breslau to be closer to the insurgent Poles. He is in Prague for the Pentecost Revolt—he had come as a delegate to the Congress of Slavs, now from Clementinum he is leading the resistance to Schwarzenberg’s troops. In the May Revolutions of 1849 in Dresden he again mounts the barricades, he belongs with Heubner, Rockel and Richard Wagner among the most active revolutionaries. He is arrested in Chemnitz. The Saxon and Russian prisons, the Siberian exile. The flight across Amur to Japan. B in Europe again, he goes to Herzen in London. His activity in the Internationale, in Zurich, Geneva, in St Imier, the clash with Marx and the schism. B in Lyons and Marseilles. B in Bologna for the revolt that fails before it even really begins. His flight, his resignation, his illness, his death in Berne…
“Doesn't that sound fantastic, he head shouted…, he even had a title for it already: A LIFE FOR THE REVOLUTION or even better THE SATAN OF REVOLUTION, what a box office hit. Enough time had passed now to welcome a rebel home to bourgeois society by means of the cinema. Yes, yes, but there were still afraid of Dutschke…”

Indeed, put like that, it does sound like there could be more than enough exciting material for a good Hollywood biopic, if someone ambitious wanted to bite off the project. Although it’s now 40 years later, and Hollywood still isn't showing any signs of interest in Bakunin’s life story.

…Still, in a world where Jack Reed, Abby Hoffman, The Chicago 10, and Che Guevara, The Black Panther party , and others can all get the Hollywood biopic treatment, why not Bakunin?

Link of the Day

Bonus Link: More Japanese Music on Youtube
Although most of the Japanese music I listen to is oldies, this song "Tokyo" by Hirakawachi 1-chome is one of my favorites even though it is a bit more recent.
I first heard this song over the loudspeaker when I was in the CD rental shop, and immediately fell in love with it. I rented the CD they were advertising, copied the song onto one of my mixed tapes, and then returned the CD back without bothering to write down the name of the artist.

I regreted that for a long time afterwards, because I really liked the song, but I could never track down the artists. (They were popular in Japan, but they never got super popular. And there are tons of songs named "Tokyo" which makes it difficult to sort through).

As a result for a long time I'd be playing the tape in my car, and people would say, "hey, this is really cool. Who is this?" And I'd say, "I don't know."
But, with the magic of Youtube, I was able to track them down again.

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