Jen la teksto de prelego de Trevor Steele en Sidnejo la 2an de junio 2013.


Let me start with a confession. When Dmitry invited me to speak on the history of Esperanto literature, my first thought was – I know so little about the subject!

Some years back I saw a TV interview with a French author who was asked what he thought of the latest trends in French literature. He shrugged his shoulders in a Gallic fashion and said: “I have no idea. I don’t read books, I only write them.” I thought then that he was just giving us an example of French wit – but now I know he was not!

When I came back to Australia after my first long visit to Europe I was a newly-baked Esperantist. I had a teaching position in Innisfail, a small town a bit to the south of Cairns in far north Queensland. In those days I really did read a lot of Esperanto literature, original works, reviews, summaries, etc. Every second week, after getting my pay cheque, I would write to Tom Elliott, our very active libroperanto, and order a stack of Esperanto books.

In 1981 or thereabouts I started my first novel in Esperanto, Sed nur fragmento. I think it is true to say that since then I have not read much in Esperanto except the occasional book, the obligatory 5 or 6 magazines I subscribe to, and even them I read often only partly. In the meantime I have written over a dozen books and numerous articles and reviews and short stories. I really can agree with the French author. I knew more about our literature in the 1970’s than I do now …

Another thought came to my mind when I got Dmitry’s invitation: the literature of Esperanto is now so vast that nobody can give more than a tiny taste of it even in a fat book, such as that of Geoffrey Sutton’s Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto. One of our early intellectuals claimed in the 1920’s that he had read everything worth reading in our language. Well, I think that was an idle boast even then. Today only a crazy person would make such a claim.

And let us rejoice that our literature is now so big. It is in fact bigger than that of many of the world’s languages. Our literature has always been of vital importance for the survival of the language. Many Esperantists rarely meet others personally and rely on books and periodicals to stay in touch – at least that was the case in the pre-internet era. It may still be true that Esperanto is more a written than a spoken language.
Another preface: that there is a literature in Esperanto is a miracle unique in human history. Imagine: until July 1887 the language existed only in the head of one man. Today that literature, contributed to by people from every continent, is a permanent part of humanity’s cultural landscape. Even if the language itself were to die tomorrow its literature would still exist.

Very briefly: why did Esperanto succeed where hundreds of other attempts at a planned language have failed? And, I might add, keep on failing even today? Was Zamenhof so much more brilliant than his rivals? He was certainly intelligent, but crucially he was also a man of literature who knew that his language would live only if it could generate its own literature. His tiny First Book contained a bit about the language’s grammar and word-building systems and a few texts. There was one short letter – after all, letters would be the first form in which the language would take off. But more importantly, there were samples of literature. He translated the Our Father and the start of the book of Genesis, a poem by Heinrich Heine, then he added two poems he had written himself. Other languages are only spoken for millennia and only gradually acquire a written literature. Esperanto reversed that trend: there was written literature before anybody spoke it!

Later Zamenhof went on to very ambitious translations: the Old Testament, Hamlet, works by Gogol, Molière, etc. I am pretty certain that no other inventor of a language understood the importance of literature as LLZ did. And that could be why there is so much emotion attached to Esperanto: it is not the result of some laboratory experiment, but a full-blooded language that has fired generation after generation with love and zeal.

And think of the people of both sexes who have contributed to our literature. First of all people from every corner of Europe, which was after all the birthplace of the language. But both North and South America have contributed, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Israel, Iceland, more and more Africa – as yet the Arabic speaking world has had little to say. Even Australia and New Zealand have had their writers. No other literature can claim anything like that: people from all over the world, sometimes talented, sometimes not, have written in a language that is not their native tongue but whose facility allows them to make it their own.

There is one curious corollary of that wide scatter of Esperanto writers. The famous Hungarian Esperantist Kalman Kalocsay complained that he was a “poet without a people”. He was exaggerating: there were some people all over the world keen to read his works. But I know how he felt: from correspondence I know that there are people in many countries who read my books. There may even be some in Australia, though apart from the Adelaideans I cannot be sure; and nobody in our street in Adelaide has any idea that I write in a strange language.

When we talk about Esperanto literature, what do we mean? Are dictionaries literature? What about computer terminologies? Do the products of our diligent esperantologists and historians and the efforts of our book reviewers rate as literature? How about the many periodicals that still function despite the onslaught of electronic literature?

For the purposes of this talk I’ll stick to a rather conventional definition, for which we have no adequate term in English, so we use the French belles lettres, which are called beletraĵoj in Esperanto. That is to say, fiction, whether in verse or prose form or as the dialogue of a play.

At the start of its life, Esperanto produced more translated than original literature, and that is hardly surprising. At first it was thought that Esperantists had to prove that their language could express whatever the other languages did, and the models of the classics were the challenge. No translation can reproduce 100% of what a good original says, but we can be thankful for the efforts of our pioneers. They had to solve problems – every translation is a series of problem solutions, good, bad, or indifferent, and our early Esperantists did a rather good job on the whole and expanded the linguistic possibilities available, and that made it much easier for original writers to exploit those solutions and carry out further experiments. Today in our Esperanto writing we can to some extent imitate, for example, dialects or slang or simply incorrect language. If the earliest writers had taken such liberties they may have alienated their readers and killed the language, which had still very delicate roots.
Today, I think it is fair to say, translation has lost its dominant role, though it does continue. And so it should, because one of the roles of Esperanto is to link the cultures of the various nations.

Another thing that stands out is that in its early years Esperanto produced poetry that was of a higher standard than its prose. Possibly one reason was that a novel or a play, for instance, may take years to write, whereas most poems are written in a fairly short time. Being all amateurs, Esperantists could not give the time necessary for a major work. That too must be qualified: e.g., Grabowski’s translation of the Polish epic Pan Tadeusz (Sinjoro Tadeo) was a gigantic undertaking, as was Zamenhof’s translation of the Old Testament.

I’ve been beating around the bush till now. So what is the core of my talk? If I were to try to name every author in Esperanto, even without mentioning their works, we would be here till tomorrow evening – at least I would be. You can find a fairly exhaustive list in Esperanto en perspektivo, which goes up to 1974. Josip Pleadin’s book, Ordeno de verda plumo, came out in 2006. It gives thumbnail sketches of the lives of selected authors and a list, without comment, of their major works. The book has 270 densely printed pages. Geoffrey Sutton’s encyclopedia limits itself to far fewer authors but does include some reviews of the works: it has well over 700 pages.

So do not fear: I’m not about to give you an exhaustive history of every work written in Esperanto. But I’m taking advantage of the offer of Dmitry to vary the topic, and I’ll stick to what I know best: novels written in Esperanto, and then only a few of them. To anyone who knows our literature it must seem sacreligious to leave out people like Grabowski, Kalocsay, Waringhien, Auld, de Kock, Ragnarsson, and Marjorie Boulton and other distinguished poets, and to give time to lesser writers, but that’s what I’ve done.

So for the rest of this talk I’ll deal with a series of what I consider the most important novels written in Esperanto. I have a wee problem here: most reviewers would say my own writings, which are now numerous, are among the most significant of the last 30 years. Maybe so, but I’ll leave commentary on my own work to others.

In a way my task would be easier if I stuck to poetry. You can usually quote a whole poem, but with a novel you have to quote something that you think is characteristic of the work. Whenever I am asked to choose a page or so of one of my novels as a quote, I find it very difficult to decide, since no piece of a novel is complete in itself. But let’s do what we can.

The first full-length novel in Esperanto as far as our researchers are concerned has a very unusual title: Sen titolo, that is, Without a Title. The book itself had an interesting history. It may have been written (except for its last chapter) as early as 1903, but could not appear until 1995. Its author was IVAN ŜIRJAEV (1877 – 1933), a Russian orthodox priest. Probably he wrote the final chapter in 1919 during the war between the Reds and the Whites. He could not get his work published in the Soviet Union. Only by good luck did the manuscript, written in ink and scarcely legible, reach the Esperanto Museum in Vienna, where the director, Herbert Mayer, edited and published it in 1995.
We know very little of the life of Ŝirjaev, but he was an indefatigable contributor to Esperanto periodicals and a propagandist for the language, especially among Orthodox pastors. The novel purports to be a manuscript the author has found in an old book store; he merely prepares it for publication. However, it is probably to a great extent autobiographical. It tells, in 217 pages, of one year in the life of Joĉjo, a young man studying in an Orthodox seminary to be a priest who also becomes a fervent missionary for Esperanto. A further clue to the autobiographical character is the name of the main character, Joĉjo. Ŝirjaev’s name was Ivan, the Russian equivalent of the Esperanto Johano (the English John). A diminutive of Johano is … Joĉjo.
And indeed it is obvious that much of the novel is based on close observation of the world around the author. Listen for example to this rather beautiful description:
[Joĉjo] sat down on a garden bench and started to admire with love the flowers which, like a luxurious multi-coloured carpet, lay near his feet, striking his gaze with a freshness of colours and a grotesque combination of hues. Tall proud peonies and mallows ostentatiously and boastfully presented their large resplendent flowers which looked out from abundant, sap-filled foliage. Not less attractively, but more modestly, many-coloured asters, like playful girls, now hid themselves behind neighbouring flowers, now smiling cunningly wagged their heads. Graceful delicate stocks, white as the first snow and as bashful as brides in the luxury of their wedding garments, emerged by their whiteness and picturesque wrapping from their little leaves so similar to the locks of some blonde beauty.

When I first started reading Ŝirjaev I was put off by his stereotyping of some of the characters. Joĉjo and Olnjo, the girl he loves, another Esperantist, in fact all of the Esperantists, are noble helpful persons, while the enemies of Esperanto are uniformly nasty types. A cousin of Joĉjo mocks his learning of Esperanto and advises him not to waste his time but to learn German instead. There are similar scenes today in Russia, but the language recommended is not German!

What I cannot convey now, because I am speaking English, is the specific archaic quality of Ŝirjaev’s language. The version that appeared in 1995 was to some extent updated, and one critic called the published version unfaithful to the original. Since I have not read the original I cannot comment except to say this: yes, Esperanto too, like all languages, has developed. The language we write and speak now is not quite the same as that of 1900 – and yet we of today have no difficulty whatever in understanding the first writings. When Esperanto first appeared, some critics confidently predicted that it would soon splinter into mutually incomprehensible dialects – that has proved to be an incorrect predication.

Herbert Mayer, the librarian who edited the novel, thought Ŝirjaev was our “hidden Dostoyevsky”. I doubt whether many others would agree, but it is good that we can now enjoy his work despite its being very much a period piece both in style and content.

Ŝirjaev was, it seems, a very likable person. Suspecting he would never be able to publish his own major work, he nevertheless rejoiced when the French author HENRI VALLIENNE (1854 – 1908) succeeded in having his novels published (thanks to the fact that at that time the French firm Hachette thought Esperanto would soon sweep the world and so it supported the language). It is poignant that Vallienne, himself a doctor, was confined by illness to a bed when his works were published, and he died shortly after. His two main novels were The Castle of Prelongo (515 pages) and Ĉu li? (Was it Him? – 447 pages).

Vallienne is far more dated now than Ŝirjaev. William Auld called his novel “serialised sensationalism”: “crime, arson, mysteries, ravished maidens, mistaken identities, elopements, false courtroom verdicts, a man who commits adultery with his own wife, not knowing who she is, etc.” We get the idea. Some of the operas composed in that era have similarly tortuous and not very credible plots. Vilmos Benczik thought Vallienne a relatively good entertainer, but says his plots are often “ridiculously unlikely”. Amusingly enough, the Portuguese critic Gonçalo Neves stated that if anybody was courageous enough to write a script for a TV series based on Vallienne’s novels it would be a great success.

Here is a taste of Vallienne’s Ĉu li?
When Beatrice reached the door of her house, Peter wanted to take leave of her.
“Come upstairs for a moment,” the young woman said, “I have something I want to tell you.”
Pricked by curiosity Peter […] obeyed her.
When[…] Beatrice […] penetrated her apartment she sent away [the maid] Victoria and invited Peter into her bedroom.
“Sit down,” she said, “and listen to me, and don’t say anything. Because I already know everything you can say, I warn you that all of your protests will have the same value for me as the noise of the wind blowing in the hearth.”
While Beatrice was talking she started removing her clothes as though Peter were not present.
The young man watched her actions; and that look, which was inquisitive, seemed to demand an immediate response. […]
Beatrice looked at him with a mocking smile but said nothing.
She unbuttoned her dress and slipping out of it, she spread it on a canapé, not quickly, taking care not to crumple it.
After that, having her shoulders covered only by a simple scarf, she sat on Peter’s knees, and grabbing him in a full embrace she loudly kissed his lips, stuttering: “Highly beloved, at last I’ve found you!”
[Peter] tried to release himself, but not very energetically.
Et cetera. I’m sure you want to know what happened next, but you’ll have to track down the book for yourself.

A very different tone was struck by the German turned Englishman, HEINRICH AUGUST LUYKEN (1864 – 1940). Luyken was a stern evangelical Christian whose books all have as their basic plot the victory of Christian piety over religious doubts or heresy. At the same time Luyken was a clear writer and had an elegant style. His best work was Pro Iŝtar (For Ishtar), set in ancient Babylon; the values of a modern conservative Christian are not egregiously out of place in that biblical setting, where one of the main characters is the biblical Job. I remembered reading with pleasure this book when I was a very new Esperantist. Whatever of the Puritan morals, the clarity of the style attractively reproduced the bright sunshine of Babylonia. Here is a sample:
Venus was already a brilliant star in the darkening western sky, and nature, inclined to take her repose, was wrapping herself in silence when a rider on a camel approached the side gate of Zalmuna’s farm. The rider and his animal were covered in dust and therefore it could be supposed that they came from afar. Although the man looked old he slid off the camel with remarkable agility. Carrying a sack over his shoulder and leading the camel by its bridle, he approached that part of the mansion occupied by the servants.

“Hello!” the man cried.
As soon as he heard the sound of approaching feet he took on the appearance of a feeble old man tired after a long journey. A woman, no longer young, opened the grill and looked at the visitor with almost open displeasure. Ignoring the woman’s bad mood Lemuel – for it was he, skilfully disguised – greeted her with humility mixed with a seemingly artless dignity:
“Peace be to this palace, woman. I have come to ask after the wellbeing of my mistress Zalmuna the Beautiful. I am Yashab, son of Yoktan and a merchant from Uzal. Please inform your mistress that I am awaiting her benevolence according to her command.”

The Dutchman HINDRIK JAN BULTHUIS (1865 – 1945) was a bureaucrat and translator who eventually got a reputation as an author in Dutch as well as Esperanto. His best known work in Esperanto estas La vila mano (The Shaggy Hand). I notice that he is often judged more for his political and religious beliefs than for his competent prose. The Marxist Nekrasov praised Bulthuis’s ability to tell a story (even if the action moves very slowly), but condemns the petit bourgeois ideology. William Auld, a professed atheist, did not like the “unnatural dialogues” of Bulthuis, but I think Auld was annoyed by the introduction of paranormal elements. A contemporary of Bulthuis, and himself a writer, K.R.C. Sturmer, was far gentler: he thinks Bulthuis, a man whose life was largely uneventful, was good at presenting the country life scenes of the northern Netherlands, even if “his leisurely descriptions drive some readers to distraction”. Here is a passage from La vila mano:

Alings laughed about all that talk of a shaggy hand and called those men idiots and superstitious, he called them people without a firm willpower and a solid character. Alings not only mocked about that absurd shaggy hand, he even provoked it, daring it to come and extend itself across his shoulder. He also thought about those two women, the stranger Dorothy and Truda.

He thought: Everyone has a bastard, but aren’t the girls themselves to blame? Why do they look for relations with men above their rank? Why don’t the examples of other girls deter them from having similar relations with men? Everyone knows of course that a rich lease farmer or a landowner cannot marry an ordinary servant. So they should look after themselves […]
[Alings starts ploughing when a black cloud appears close to him]
The black cloud became blacker and blacker, from time to time it was about to touch the ploughman’s head, but he wanted to pay no attention to it, he was the irresistible Alings, he was afraid of nothing, so why should that cloud, however extraordinary, annoy him? […]
Alings no longer paid any attention to the horses or the plough […] He felt that the hand, the terrible shaggy hand that he had laughed about was about to attack him, and for the last time he tried to frighten it off, but instead of fleeing it hastened to him and extended itself across his shoulder. His heart contracted with terror, sweat wetted his forehead and dripped from there onto his long red savage’s hair …
Now to somebody extremely well-known in the Esperanto movement, an actor, a poet, a teacher, an editor, and a wandering missionary in the cause of Esperanto, as well as being a prose writer. GYULA BAGHY (1891 – 1967), known as Julio, was like a pop star because of his popularity. I’ll jump over his poems and plays, which were in fact superior to his novels. Perhaps we live in a more prosaic age; sometimes we are a bit embarrassed by Baghy’s emotional work, but it seems he, who unashamedly used terms like “la verda koro”, was just what the movement needed in those grim days as Europe drifted to its second horrific war. Auld named Baghy “the most popular speaker of Esperanto after Zamenhof” and “our most romantic author”. Much more negative was the judgment of another Hungarian, Lajos Tarkony: he described one of Baghy’s novels as “thick syrup”.

Two events were crucial in Baghy’s life. He was a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army of the First World War and spent some terrible years in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp. The second event was his learning, in the P.O.W camp, of Esperanto and his new mission in life. In two novels, Viktimoj (Victims) and Sur sanga tero (On Bloodsoaked Earth) he dealt with that time as a prisoner. The two immediately made him a favourite author.

Another strand of Baghy’s work deals, often critically, with Esperantists themselves. His satirical poem “Estas mi esperantisto” (I am an Esperantist) will probably always be read.

But another of his novels may eventually have more appeal. It divides the critics into firm supporters and detractors. In Hura! there is none of the sentimental Baghy, It is a biting satire on political developments in interwar Europe. It presents a small urban society as an example of the stupidity of politics on national and international scales. Here is a snippet from Hura! The mayor – his name is Jenlafiŝ, which means “this is the fish” – is sitting in his office, pretending to be very busy when the chamber maid approaches with a message:

“Sir, Mr. Jonathan Krak, the city’s notary, is here. He most definitely wants to speak with your Excellency.”
“Tell him I am very sorry that I cannot receive him. Today there will be an inquiry, or more accurately a banquet that his Excellency the Minister for Finance and I are now arranging. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Your Excellency, but …”
“What but? There is no but! Because of all this work piling up I no longer now where my head is, so!”
“Very well, I’ll tell him, but in my opinion he wants to talk about a very important topic because he looks very agitated and brought his scribe with him.”
“Really? His scribe? Probably those damned liberals want to grind pepper under my nose again. Well, I’ll put a stop to them! Let in that Krak fellow… Just a moment, Lida. What sort of person does he look like? A liberal?”
“I don’t know, Your Excellency.”
“No, of course not, how could you know? But why are you grinning?”
“For no reason. But I thought he must belong to Your Excellency’s party.”
“Yes? Why did you think that?”
“Well, they both seemed very timid.”
“But … Bring in Mr. Krak immediately!”

The chamber maid went out. The mayor sat down at his desk and pretended to be fervently studying a memorandum of the city’s sewage cleaners. He had enough time, because the notary with a humble bow walked into the room. Mr. Jenlafiŝ straight away recognised in him the spinelessnesss of the urban officials, and with an easy smile offered a seat to his guest.

The notary sat down. The disagreeable duty had produced pearls of sweat on his forehead. He wiped them away and with respect fixed his eyes on His Excellency the mayor. Jenlafiŝ felt sorry for him, remembering the remark of the chamber maid. In fact he was a fellow party member. Only his party members could look so frightened. In a friendly manner he placed his hand on the notary’s shoulder.

You can be sure the message of the notary will bowl over the apparently so self-assured mayor.

Yet another Hungarian now demands some attention. SANDOR SZATHMARI (1897 – 1974) wrote much more biting satires than Baghy. The reason Szathmari became an Esperantist is interesting. Because his father had a job that took him to several parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the boy Sandor became acquainted with the animosities between the various language groups, Hungarian, Slovaks, Rumanians. He thought it was ridiculous for people to oppose others just because they spoke a different language, so he learned a non-national language.

Szathmari wrote much in Hungarian and Esperanto. He chose for his major work the genre science fiction. His view of mankind was very sobering: man’s nature is fatally flawed and so he will never be really happy. Our technology, he thought, has taken over and enslaved us. That was not in line with the superficial optimism of the Communists who took over in Hungary as a result of the Second World War, and there was no way he could get his main work published in that country until the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Eva Tofalvi called him “the Esperanto Orwell”, and there are some similarities between Orwell’s 1984 and Szathmari’s main work Vojaĝo al Kazohinio (Voyage to Kazohinio). However, the main similarity is with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – Szathmari’s traveller is called Gulliver – and with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
For Szathmari the plot is not very important. He is much more interested in the ideas or lack of ideas or stupidity of the characters. There are no memorable individuals, only a traveller and groups of persons who in their own way are leading a dystopian life. The best summary of the work I have stolen from William Auld:

Gulliver (the traveller) finds himself in the perfectly rational world of the Hins where, for example, there is no money – one receives everything necessary, and in turn simply contributes work to the society – and annoying taboos, like sexual modesty, are unknown …

Auld goes on to explain how Gulliver finds the Hin concept of life unacceptable: they are intolerant of individuality and art and questioning. So Gulliver goes on to visit the Behins. Auld’s summary continues:

Alas! He is unable to understand … because the Behins are not only completely anarchic but also have their own logic which is contrary to Gulliver’s […] Behinian society turns all Gulliver’s prejudices on their head such that he cannot do otherwise that act incorrectly […]
Szathmari criticises our society from two flanks … He is critical of the contemporary world, and he certainly does not find a solution in the frigid reason of the Hins or the mad disorder of the Behins.

So let us hear a bit of Szathmari straight. He – or Gulliver – is among the Behins, the anarchic ones:
I remember how much the cultured and humane society of my fatherland was indignant at the purposeful crippling of feet of Chinese women. I do not know what they would think if they knew that the world has an area even darker than dark Asia, where not the feet of a person are crippled, but the head, or more accurately, the God given brain, such that it becomes unusable. With crippled feet you can still live, but if the foot, the hand, the tongue and all of our organs serve a crippled brain, life cannot be anything but a series of grotesque and senseless sufferings, after which death is a salvation […]
What I was first shown in the courtyard was a long wooden structure with about 50 latrine alcoves. I conjectured that there were a minimum of 1,000 children held there, though I did not know where, because the only thing I could see was a small steel-like building behind the latrines [...]
Among the children the prok was going about with fiery, angry eyes. He was a professional whose job it was to repeat lies to the children until they finally believed them. The method reminded me of an old acquaintance of mine who trained his dog by throwing a piece of meat and saying, “Bad! Very bad!” and the dog had to turn itself away from the meat. I wondered what sort of society dogs would have if they were guided by such dogs […]
When that word was said the children had to leap up, put their left palm on the middle of their back, while they shoved their right hand under the left knee and grabbed their left ear. To my question why it was necessary to impose such abnormal poses on the children I was given the answer that the children had to become accustomed to good order.

It is a relief to leave behind the dystopias of Szathmari and talk about RAYMOND SCHWARTZ (1894 – 1973). Schwartz was a very witty man; nobody has equalled his ability to juggle in an amusing way with the language. I might just mention his poem “La diversaj aĝoj de l’ homo” (The diverse ages of man) as an example of his sparkling wit. He founded a cabaret in Paris called La verda kato (The Green Cat), where he and other talents gave performances that surely must rate as among the highlights in the history of entertainment in Esperanto.

Schwartz wrote some novels including Kiel akvo de ‘l rivero (Like Water in the River), which some critics have named the first high-quality long novel in Esperanto. It consists of three parts: in the first we have an ironic but loving presentation of life in the officially German province of Lorraine, whose inhabitants are very much French at heart. The central event is a wedding, and only at the end of that part does Pierre, the younger brother of the bridegroom, emerge.

The second part, obviously heavily autobiographical, presents Pierre’s life in Paris and his year in Berlin. At the time French was the most prestigious language, and Frenchmen were regarded by German women as the world’s most attractive men. Pierre enjoys his surroundings very much. This section of the novel also describes life among German students, with their heavy drinking and latent violence that sometimes erupts in duels. Unfortunately for Pierre the year is 1914, and while he is still in Berlin the First World War breaks out. Suddenly many regard him as an enemy of Germany, and only through the help of his German girlfriend Annemarie does he succeed in sneaking back into France.

The third part of the novel seems to have been written in a hurry. All critics agree it is below the level of the other two. Very briefly: Pierre after WW1 is not able to remake contact with Annemarie. He does not know that she has borne him a son. Then comes WW2 and through a series of scarcely credible coincidences Pierre is reunited not only with Annemarie but also with their son Paul, who had been a fanatical Nazi for most of his life. And they all lived happily ever after.

It is true that Schwartz is better at painting the milieu than the characters. For that reason I consider the first part, where the characters do not really matter and the environment is everything, the best part of his novel. Let us now listen to an extract from the first part:

At the front walked Bertringer, leading arm-in-arm his daughter, the radiant Lisette in her bridal ornamentation. The train of her veil was being carried by two little girls, happy and proud of their office. After them came in pairs, arranged by age, all the relatives and friends, with the youngest first, among them the badly educated Dédé. Dédé looked to be sulking in an unpleasant way. His offer to carry Lisette’s train had been rejected […]
At the tail walked the bridegroom with his mother on his arm. Louis with all his strength supported his mother’s weight with the pious intention of avoiding the excessive pressure of her new shoes. Despite that Madame Touchard suffered quite a bit, as only someone who has experienced the torture caused by the sun’s shining on new lacquered shoes can understand […]
At last they entered the church. The tall man in his dignified uniform who, in Autrecourt and in all of France and in many other countries is known as the “Swiss”, had already been waiting at the threshold for some time. In Autrecourt it was the long chap Gaspard who served on Sundays and feast days as the Swiss. At first he accepted the role only reluctantly, because he was not a fervent churchgoer. But he was definitely needed because he was the only man who, because of his stature, could decently fill out the costume bequeathed by his deceased antecedent. Afterwards he got to like the beautiful uniform which doubtlessly further emphasied his manly superiority. How many kneeling women secretly sent ardent glances at him between the decades of the rosary.

I have to mention the main work of the Russian communist VLADIMIR VARANKIN (1902 – 1938), Metropoliteno (The Underground Railway). It has a complex structure, based around the construction of an underground railway in Berlin just before Hitler took over and in Moscow. In both cases the construction represents a technological achievement that contributes to the progress of humanity. Despite the obvious socialist realism framework Varankin depicts real people, and the book is not straight ideology.

I regret I cannot quote from the book because my own copy seems to have become lost. But I’d like to make one comment. Varankin was intelligent and sensitive and a sincere communist, not an opportunistic one like most of the big men in the party. He genuinely believed communism was going to create a better world. For his honesty he was to be tortured and murdered in his thirty-sixth year during a Stalinist purge, along with all the leading men of the Esperanto movement in the Soviet Union. Esperantists were people with international contacts, and therefore suspect to the paranoid monster ruling the land. What a tragedy was that whole gigantic historical development!

JOHN FRANCIS was an Scotsman born in 1924 who died last year. He first came to international notice as a member of the famous “Skota Skolo” (Scottish School) of Auld, Rossetti, Dinwoodie, and Francis, that gave a new direction to Esperanto poetry. Francis was to go on to write some novels, of which the main one was La granda kaldrono (The Great Caldron), dealing with the fortunes of a family in the two world wars. Francis’s hatred of war is the main theme, and he tries to show that by jumping from the First World War to the Second and back again: the horror is the same despite the change of scene. Here is a snippet:

Despite the medication Johnny’s pains got more and more tormenting. Not so much in the legs, except on the surface, but other body parts be had not been aware of announced their suffering existence, and his face was constantly in great pain. In the back and lumbar region there were dull pains that troubled him […]
Meanwhile a movement of the arm across the body made him aware that the front part of his trunk was aching under bandages. Obviously the anaesthetic had gradually worn away; so he could feel his body because all of his senses were more acute, but was it only his imagination that made him think the senses were dull in the area of his genitals? He tried to imagine that was not the case, but the doubt continued. Could he still expect to have a love life? […]
What happened to the other machine? He tried to remember whether he had seen anything during the crash, but could remember nothing but the earth rising up. Had it smashed because of his stupidity? In Johnny’s mind conjectures, fears and excuses were swirling. He impatiently waited for the arrival of his visitors, and simultaneously prayed that he would be sent off to some unlocatable hospital where they could not find him. He wanted to hear what had happened to the other machine and explain the malfunction of his radio, but he was afraid of their reproaches and, even more, their possibly insincere condolences.

If I had time I would include something about the German who called himself JEAN FORGE, the Hungarian ISTVAN NEMERE, the Swede STELLAN ENGHOLM, and the Scotsman CEZARO ROSSETTI. But I’ll finish this brief summary with a woman, Anna Löwenstein, born in England but now living in Italy with her husband, the well-known activist Renato Corsetti. Anna writes first in English, then translates her novels into Esperanto – I do the opposite, always Esperanto first. Anna’s two very long novels are called La ŝtona urbo (The City of Stone) and Morto de artisto (Death of an Artist – the artist is the Emperor Nero). Since I have not yet read this second novel, I’ll confine my comments to the first. When Anna was young she visited Rome and was overwhelmed by the so-called Eternal City with its long history. That inspired her to write the very moving portrait of a Celtic woman whose home is in southern England until she is captured by Roman soldiers and carried off to Rome – the city of stone – to be sold into slavery. There she loses even her name. Though she will never again see her country, an aching nostalgia for the places she once knew persists even though for most purposes she becomes a Roman, wife of the Greek slave Filono and mother of a boy called Oresto. She is an observer of the newly arrived sect of Christians and the fire that destroyed most of Rome, and Nero’s subsequent persecution of the Christians.

Anna Löwenstein is a declared atheist, and her figure Bivana – or Barbara, as she is called in Rome – is rather hostile to the Christians. Her son Oresto becomes a fanatical Christian, and we are left with the supposition that perhaps it was Christian fanatics and not Nero who burned down the city.

Anna succeeded in creating three-dimensional figures, and obviously she did a lot of research to prepare her novel. Let us conclude with a scene just after Bivana’s arrival in Rome, when the captives are about to be bought by slave owners:

That scene was repeated and repeated. A girl or woman was chosen, various men yelled something, and then somebody sprang onto the podium and led her down into the crowd. Several women were accompanied by little children, and there were even some children just by themselves. Once three children were offered together. A terrible scene ensued when the oldest was separated from the other two. They all cried and clung to each other, and it was necessary to separate them by force. The oldest could not have been more than eight years old […]

Finally a man approached our group. He examined us and fixed his eyes on Boksila. She pushed herself backwards when he approached, but it was clear to everybody that resistance was hopeless. He unhooked her chain and led her forward. The usual cries came from below, and soon someone came up and took over Boksila. She turned to look at us with weeping eyes while she was being led off. I have no idea what happened to her after that.

One after the other we were taken forward. Three of the young girls were taken by the same man. I would have envied them for the fact that they could stay together if it had not been for the strange reaction of the men on the square below. When the man came up from the crowd to take them, everyone started to chuckle and yell out in a nasty way … But there was no time to meditate on that, because now the man in charge approached Albila and me. We caught each others’ hand in terror, but he firmly yanked her by the arm. She threw a last look of despair across her shoulder, and he made her go down. Then it was my turn.