Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Boris Pilnyak's The Naked Year

Boris Pilnyak's The Naked Year is a short, elliptical novel depicting the first year of the Revolution.  Pinyak depicts the Revolution in its natural habitat, that is to say, in rural or small-town Russia rather than in urban St. Petersburg or Moscow.  Although Marx believed that the proletariat constituted the truly revolutionary class, Russia's savage fury was, first and foremost, a peasant affair.  This was, after all, where the vast majority of Russia's people lived and worked and suffered.  For generations, peasants had been ruthlessly exploited by a small landowning class, so when the tsar's authority waned, the peasants grabbed land and often brutally suppressed anybody even remotely connected to the rural status quo.  Pilnyak, who was initially well-received by at least some Bolshevik cultural authorities, seems to capture some vital component of the Bolshevik's conception of the revolutionary process.  The landowning class must expire in order to prepare the way for a bright proletarian future.  If representatives of the old order die gracefully, as they do in The Naked Year, so much the better.  After all, beauty, or at least sublime beauty, hurts!  If revolutionary trends confused and confounded members of the gentry or their allies, this was only to be expected. Tragedy--the the laments of a dying class--are, after all, the surest sign that the Revolution was real.  Like the landowners in Chekhov, or the brave heroes of Last of the Mahicans, the truest sign of historical change is pitiful expiration.

If Pilnyak's depiction of the revolutionary dynamic is commensurate with the logic of Marxist ideology, his depiction of revolution as a phenonmenon is compelling.  For Pilnyak presents the Revolution of 1917 as something more than the sum of its parts.  According to Pilnyak, the Revolution can't be broken down into a series of events or a mass of details.  The Revolution is an image or symbol or myth rather than a storyline or or economic event.   But if this is so, how should we interpret the myth of the Revolution?  First, and foremost, Pilnyak's characters seem to recognize that the Revolution isn't, primarily, a Bolshevik phenomenon.   Although the Bolsheviks are referenced on many occasions in The Naked Year, they are clearly overshadowed by the awesome dynamism and scope of Russia's great upheaval.  The Naked Year is, therefore, nothing less than a Russian phenomenon.  In what sense is it Russian?  Pilnyak's characters recognize that the social cataclysm cuts the Russians off from neighboring peoples, especially the European ones.  Whether this isolation is a sign of desperation or hope isn't entirely resolved, but the point is that the Revolution reflects if not shapes Russia's very identity vis-a-vis other nations.  Moreover, The Naked Year reminds Russian inhabitants of their ties to the past and their hopes for a uniquely Russian future.  Revolution functions like some kind of cosmic black hole, pulling the past and the future into its gaping maw.  The laws of time are bent by the gravitational pull of the Revolution's density and energy.  And why not?  If the Revolution has animated the peasants, men and women whose folklore largely alludes even the Orthodox Church, why shouldn't it dredge up something from Russia's most distant past?

The myth of Revolution extends beyond national identity and time.  The Revolution is a vortex around which everything and everyone in Russia swirls. It demolishes some classes, lifts up other ones, and alters all human relations.  Its extreme violence underscores its impersonal nature.  While some may regret losses associated with violent revolt, the image of a new age somehow makes all individual lamentations seem inappropriate, out of place, irrelevant.

Below are a few quotes from The Naked Year:

"Among the house, the shop, the Bible, the thrashings, his wife, Mashuka--forty years passed."

" the forest flared up the red fires of the manor houses..."

"I am dying because I cannot live without vodka.
Citizens and comrades of the new dawn!--when a
class has outlived itself--death to it!  better it should
go away by itself.
I am dying at the new dawn!"

"In the town it's town-like, like any other town."

"a sign of the times--leather people in leather jackets (Bolsheviks!), --all the same size, each one a leather beauty, each one strong."

"Russia agains the whole world?  In Russia isn't there hunger, sedition and murder?--and there will be for twenty years!...Swear--you'll learn the secret!..."

"Twenty years from now there will be a saviour.  Russia will cross breed with a strange nation."

"In this house his youth was spent, which always seemed immeasurably bright and clear--and is now cut off by the gloom of the Revolution."

"Everything is done for!  But what kind of truth has come upon the earth!"

"They called us vultures, but dead bodies are called carcasses when they're skinned!"

"I've done some vile things, I've raped young girls, exorted money, beaten my father.  Do you blame me, Gleb?"  "I cannot.  I cannot judge," answers Gleb, hurriedly."

"..if such a war could take place in Europe, then is it not the aspen stake to all European bowler hat CULTURE?"

"--was our Revolution not a May storm?--and weren't they March flood waters which washed away the scab of two centuries?"

"Russia, you say? --but Russia--is fiction, a mirage, because Russia is the Caucasus, the Ukraine and Moldavia."

"..our government was formed out of a fear of institutionalized government--they ran away from institutionalized government as from the plague! So there!  And then when authority arrived, they rebelled, split up into sects, ran away to the Don, to the Ukraine, to the Yaik."

"And the Revolution set Russia against Europe."

"But revolutions were unnecessary for popular rebellion--alien.  Popular rebellion is the seizing of power and creation of their own genuine Russian turth--by genuine Russians."

"Do you hear the revolution howling--like a witch in a blizzard!"

"Prince Boris does not drink from glasses when he's on a bender."

"I'm twenty-eight.  I've still got some living to do.  Anyone who's alive must go."  "Go where?" "To the Revolution.  These days won't come again."

"I've been all around the world, and nowhere is there a countwy [sic] like Wussia [sic]."

"Let the trains in Russia come to a halt--surely there's beauty in a burning torch, hunger, sickness?"

"Somehwere there is Europe, Marx, scientific socialism, but here beliefs which are a thousand years old are preserved."

"Natalys spoke about the scorching heat, about the Revolution, about the days:  with all her blood she felt, accepted the Revolution, wanted to create it..."

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