Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Václav Havel, Kang Zhengguo, and prison literature

Never were more writers incarcerated around the world than in the twentieth century — the century in which totalitarianism reached its apogee and regimes all over the world painstakingly devised, honed and perfected techniques to suppress dissenting thought. Prison literature as a genre really took off in the twentieth century.

Here is Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and later president, on the carefully vetted missives he wrote to his wife (he was only allowed one four-page letter every week, without any scratching out or corrections) while incarcerated for subversive activities by the Communist regime between 1979 and 1983. These were later collected and published as Letters to Olga:

The letters gave me a chance to develop a new way of looking at myself and examining my attitudes to the fundamental things in life. I became more and more wrapped up in them, I depended on them to the point where almost nothing else mattered. All week long I would develop the essays in my head - at work, when exercising before going to bed - and then on Saturday, amid constant interruption, I would write them out in a kind of wild trance. Later I discovered ways of writing out a rough draft, but then the problem became where to hide it, since searches were part of the daily routine. In Bory I hid my rough drafts in a mountain of dirty sheets stained by millions of unborn children, and I would revise them during the noon break, while trying to avoid being seen by informers. Once I'd written out a fair copy, I couldn't change anything or cross anything out, much less copy it again. I'd hand it in, and then there'd be a short, suspenseful wait: would it get through or not? Since I wasn't allowed to keep a copy, I eventually lost track of what I had written, and which letters had been sent - which is why there are so many gaps, repetitions, and flaws in logic. In time I learned to think ahead and arrange my thoughts in thematic cycles, and to weave the motifs in and out of them and thus - in a rather uneven fashion - to build, over time, my own little structure, putting it together something like my plays.... The letters, in fact, are endless spirals in which I've tried to enclose something. Very early on, I realised that comprehensible letters wouldn't go through, which is why the letters are full of long, compound sentences and the complicated way of saying things. Instead of writing 'regime', for instance, I would obviously have to write 'the socially apparent focus of the non-I,' or some such nonsense.
To wriggle past the censorious gaze of a regime that has twisted and perverted language, Havel must encode his thoughts in an obfuscatory idiom that sounds to his captors like something they might say in all seriousness. And yet, at other times, he feels that exasperation that all writers feel at having put down a wrong or an imprecise word, and tries to revise his drafts even though he risks being discovered by informers! There are layers upon layers of irony in this little account.

But the privations of extreme states of confinement can also make something that was previously routine and humdrum suddenly sacred, wonderful, to be lingered over for hours. Here in Kang Zhengguo in his recently published Confessions, his memoir of a life spent in Chinese prisons and labour re-education camps for alleged "thought crimes", on the bliss of food in prison, the psychological sustenance provided by the anticipation of mealtimes, and the invented rituals of eating:

Two inmates [from each cell] had the job of serving breakfast first thing in the morning. [...] If they came back in with the basin saying that today's gruel was thick, or that the ladles had been full, or that they had gotten some doughy clumps, our faces lit up with joy. If they had not done a good job that day, we would sigh with regret.

[...] We were forbidden to doze on our bunks during the day. According to the rules, we were supposed to sit quietly and reflect on our errors, study Mao's works, or read the single copy of People's Daily. However, we did not always obey the rules. By about two o'clock, when the morning's watery gruel had passed right through us and we were famished again, we could smell the aroma of the preparations for that day's dinner. Standing on a pile of quilts, Number Nine craned his neck to look out at the tiny window at the chimney smoke and predict what we would get. He pointed to the three chimneys on the kitchen roof and said that since the second one was belching smoke, dinner would be steamed buns. This verdict was based on long experience, and sure enough, at dinner we each got a brownish wheat bun and a bowl of slightly watery vegetable soup.
Zhengguo writes that during his early days in prison, when he had some reserves of body fat still on him, he had found the food so unappetising ("it reminded me of pig fodder") that he could never finish his share and instead gave some away to one of his cell-mates. But now:

The bitter boiled turnips tasted good to me, and the salty broth, flecked with a few drops of oil, impressed me as a perfect balance of color, fragrance, and flavor. [...]

Some of my cellmates had unusual eating habits. Number Nine seemed to derive spiritual sustenance from keeping one steamed bun in reserve at all times. He always waited till he got a fresh bun before eating the old one he had saved and then hoarded the new one in a special bag that he hung on the wall. I could not imagine why he bothered to do this. He got no more food than the rest of us and always had to eat cold, stale buns. Perhaps the momentary illusion that he had an extra bun was comforting. Number Seven was a very particular diner. After spreading a clean handkerchief in front of himself, he julienned his bun painstakingly with a piece of string, which he called his bun cutter. Then he set the strips of bun out on his handkerchief like a heap of french fries and used a tiny stick to spear each one into his mouth and chew it slowly. After the rest of us had gobbled up all their food, he would still be savoring his sumptuous feast of bun strips.
[...] As the guards said, "If being in jail was a picnic, wouldn't everybody want to come? A little bit of hunger and suffering will teach you who's boss."
And finally, here is a marvellous passage from Havel's essay "Stories and Totalitarianism", which explains how the totalitarian state, with its insistence on a single master narrative, is grimly opposed to the realm of "story" and the freedom and plurality of meanings that realm implies:

Every story begins with an event. This event - understood as the incursion of one logic into the world of another logic, initiates what every story grows out of and draws nourishment from: situations, relationships, conflict. The story has a logic of its own as well, but it is the logic of a dialogue, an encounter, the interaction of different truths, attitudes, ideas, traditions, passions, people, higher powers, social movements, and so on, that is, of many autonomous, separate forces, which had done nothing beforehand to define each other. Every story presupposes a plurality of truths, of logics, of agents of decisions, and of manners of behavior. The logic of a story resembles the logic of games, a logic of tension between what is known and not known, between rules and chance, between the inevitable and the unforeseeable. We never really know what will emerge from the confrontation, what elements may yet enter into it, and how it will end; it is never clear what potential qualities it will arouse in a protagonist and what action he will be led to perform by the action of his antagonist. For this reason alone, mystery is a dimension of every story. What speaks to us through a story is not a particular agent of truth; instead, the story manifests the human world to us as an exhilarating arena where many such agents come into contact with each other.

The fundamental pillar of the present totalitarian system is the existence of one central agent of all truth and all power, an institutionalized "rationale of history," which becomes, quite naturally, the sole agent of all social activity. Public life ceases to be an arena where different, more or less autonomous agents square off, and becomes no more than the manifestation and fulfillment of the truth and the will of this single agent. In a world governed by this principle, there is no room for mystery; ownership of complete truth means that everything is known ahead of time. Where everything is known ahead of time, the story has nothing to grow out of.

Obviously, the totalitarian system is in essence (and in principle) directed against the story.
The translations of Havel are by Paul Wilson and that of Zhengguo by Susan Wilf. A short review of Zhengguo's book I've written is here.

And here are two old posts each citing an example of prison literature: Ganesh Gaitonde's description of days in captivity in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, and "Nazim Hikmet in prison".


Anirudh said...

I really liked the passage from Confessions.

And it is good to see you posting more often.

A_N_Nanda said...


I liked the entire post, but nevertheless, the passages from Confession are too evocative.