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Against Simplification

NEW YORK – It is said that Americans have a genius for simplification. Gradually, however, the quest for it has become a global trend, one that continues to conquer new territories, just as blue jeans once did.

The speed of our daily life is visibly increased – and not for the better – by this unstoppable evolution. The tyranny of pragmatism seems to mark all of the complex dilemmas of our time. Too many valid choices are ignored or skirted through the routine of short-cuts.

Nowhere is this trend more damaging than in today’s mercantile approach to art. Even the much-praised notion of competition seems fake and cynically manipulated by the “corporate” mentality that now pervades the world of culture – by the financial pre-selection that determines what publishers, producers, and other impresarios will support. Just imagine what might have happened with the works of, say, Proust, Kafka, Musil, Faulkner, or Borges had they been subjected to mass-market competition like shoes or cosmetics.

Culture is a necessary pause from the daily rat race, from our chaotic and often vulgar political surroundings, and it is a chance to recover our spiritual energy. Great books, music, and paintings are not only an extraordinary school of beauty, truth, and good, but also a way of discovering our own beauty, truth, and good – the potential for change, of bettering ourselves and even some of our interlocutors.

If this respite and refuge is gradually narrowed and invaded by the same kind of “products” as those that dominate the mass market, we are condemned to be perpetual captives of the same stunted universe of “practicalities,” the ordinary agglomeration of clichés packaged in advertisements.

I was thinking again about these old and seemingly unsolvable questions during my re-reading of a quite challenging novel by a close friend and a great writer, not very present in the vivid landscape of American letters of today. The theme, style, and echo of his work says a lot, I think, about our simplified world.

The novel is blinding, by Claudio Magris. Hailed in Europe as one of the great novels of the twentieth century, Blinding arrived in America only after a great delay, and never received the attention that it deserved. Unfortunately, that is no surprise. The number of literary translations done nowadays in the United States is, according to a United Nations report, equal to that of Greece, a country one-tenth the size. Imported books are thought to be too “complicated,” which is another way of saying that literature should deal with simple issues in a simple way, obeying the rules of the mass market, with its tricks of packaging, accessibility, advertisement, and comfort.

At the core of Magris’ book is the destiny of a group of Italian communists who travel to Yugoslavia after the Second World War to contribute to the construction of a socialist society, only to be caught in the conflict between Stalin and Tito. They are imprisoned for their Stalinist allegiance; when they are finally allowed to return to Italy, their old comrades refuse to accept them.

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The book’s plot spans two centuries of revolution. Then, suddenly,

“The party vanished, overnight, as if all of a sudden a giant sponge had drained the entire sea, Adriatic and Austral, leaving litter and clots of mud, and all the boats stranded. How can you go home again if the sea has been sucked down a vast drain that opened up beneath it, emptying it who knows where, into a void? The earth is arid and dead, but there won’t be another one, nor another heaven.”

The solitude of the individual facing his faith alone, without collective illusions, and forced to do something with himself in the arid, noisy world tells us something important about the exiled world of modernity and its complex and contradictory problems.

Magris’s novel is not only an important literary achievement; it also has a deep connection to the dangers that we face now, particularly the wave of fanaticism, from Mumbai to Oslo, in the name of a holy war against the “other.” Are all the extremists searching for a new coherence, for a lost illusion of togetherness and a new hope of resurrection?

Can we ever forget September 11, 2001, the start of a bloody century in which the mystical force of hatred and destruction has recovered its strength? Are Osama Bin Laden’s minions, the bloody Hamas-Hezbollah battalions, or troubled loners like Timothy McVeigh, Theodore Kaczynski, and now Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik, the “heroes” of our contemporary nightmare? Is this the “rebel” response to an overly globalized, incoherent, and ultimately disturbing reality?

If so, their barbarism demands scrutiny – in relation to both historical precedent and to our modernity – rather than merely being labeled “monstrous” (though it certainly is that). The new religious militants, fighting in the name of their particular and peculiar God, seem as fanaticized as the Fascists, Nazis, and Communists of earlier decades.

Magris’s main character is a rebel in more than one embodiment: as Salvatore Cipico, one of the inmates in the communist concentration camp in Yugoslavia; as Jurgen Jurgensen,  ephemeral king of Iceland and a convict forced to build his own jail; and as Jason, the mythic adventurer searching for the volatile truth.

A multilayered and complex chronicle of the devastating tragedies of the twentieth century, Blinding is an insistent, informed, and irreplaceable incursion into the moving landscape of the human soul, its wounds and voids, its vitality and versatility, its deep distortions and its unpredictable dynamics. It is a fascinating story about the conflict between ideals and reality, or Utopia and humanness; about being faithful to a cause and betraying it; and about sacrifice and solidarity.

It is also a rich and original literary achievement that challenges today’s consumerist ethic. By renouncing simplicity, it also repudiates today’s prevailing confusion of information with literature, of facts with creativity, and best-selling products with true works of art.

Norman Manea’s latest novel, Vizuina (The Lair), was published in Romania in 2010, and will appear soon in Brazil, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the US, and elsewhere.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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