I have been thinking of silence for days because I must speak of the noise that invokes it, and that noise is the most opulent censorship, the great hand that imposes itself on the mouth, the hand that forces us to remain silent because silence is also a form of perpetuity. Do not say, do not lie, do not suspect, do not foster mistrust in your thoughts. Mind you: every uttered word will become libel used against you—it’s time you get used to fear.
What to do when forced silence is imposed as a State policy? The Greeks have almost all the answers: we must approach Ulysses, the patron saint of difficulties. This was understood by writers and filmmakers from Eastern Europe when the Iron Curtain blocked their horizon. Who does Slawomir Mrozek mock when he writes The Elephant? Why is the regiment of private Ivan Chonkin so intently pathetic in The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin? What does the corpse of a whale exhibited as a monstrous attraction in the middle of a remote and frozen town? A whale come out from the pages of Lászlo Krasznahorkai and filmed by Béla Tarr. Whom do the silent hordes that unleash violence in Werckmeister Harmonies represent? Who is the recipient of the detailed notes on the life of its neighbors written by the alcoholic doctor of Satantango, the novel by Krasznahorkai (The Melancholy of Resistance) adapted to film also by Béla Tarr? Interpretations remain suspended behind each story; it is the reader’s/viewer’s responsibility to understand what happens. Sometimes, not everything can be said.
Communism was, at the time, the Cyclops that ruled over the aforementioned artists’ countries—that experience is their main meeting point. In the face of the dogmatic and stagnant wall of fundamental and irrefutable truths, discourse ought to be reinvented; that is, narrating and filming in code. The Czechs were experts in these trades; they had to be, not all were willing to immolate themselves like Jan Palach—the young man who set his body on fire as a political protest against a Soviet regime that was immune to the collective moan of one of its colonies.
Filmmaker Jirí Menzel uses humor to unveil one of communism’s reformist practices: implementing tabula rasa to the trades of men and putting them all, without distinction, in a factory or a farm to work as laborers under the quasi-religious songs of the party. In Larks on a String, a philosophy professor, a prosecutor who advocates for the right of convicts to defend themselves, a bourgeois musician who plays the sax, and a cook attached to the religious belief not to work on Saturdays, are part of the work crew at a scrapyard, an allegorical place where the old is melted and the new is recast. Menzel’s film cost him a ban on directing for a few years, and Bohumil Hrabal, the writer from whom Menzel borrowed his works for filmmaking, was silenced editorially during the early 1970s and his books were collected from bookstores and libraries. Historically, the censors’ efforts have been titanic and useless to cover the sun with one finger, for it is known that prohibitions often increase curiosity: Adam bit the apple, Lot’s wife looked back, the books of Hrabal were read in clandestinity.
But the Cyclops seems to be an animal unwilling to extinction. The world has seen him fall and has celebrated his annihilation; but he is reborn, reinvented, strengthened, and we remain the little men who try to finish him off before he finishes us.
The Language of the Cyclops
How to tell what cannot be told? How to live by a language based on assumptions, half-truths, and concealments? A society subjugated by an intruding power that meddles even in the corners of the house gets used to living in parentheses, to breathing in square brackets, to coexist within quotation marks, to take refuge between ellipses. Such a society gets accustomed to speaking in shortcuts.
When power wants to rise as a totalitarian power, the pretension includes language. Under this type of ideological domination, language is rarefied and some of its particular traits atrophied: the prerogative to name the world, the ability to unveil truth. Language certainly becomes a prisoner, obscured and domesticated under the interests of power.
When reality begins to lurk the stability of leaders in totalitarian regimes (or faded copies of these regimes), the leaders or the party unlock yet another level in their twisted control game and go beyond: they aim at that reality and confront it with a reality made of appearances—that is, with their own reinvention of reality. In this regard, Václav Havel writes The Power of the Powerless—the little book of reflections that, in order to go unnoticed by the Czech communist government, was printed under covers that displayed sweet sixteen alluding imagery, harmless covers that look like booklets for young women’s notes. About the totalitarian move, Havel says:
As the interpretation of reality by the power structure, ideology is always subordinated ultimately to the interests of the structure. Therefore, it has a natural tendency to disengage itself from reality, to create a world of appearances, to become ritual. In societies where there is public competition for power and therefore public control of that power, there also exists quite naturally public control of the way that power legitimates itself ideologically. Consequently, in such conditions there are always certain correctives that effectively prevent ideology from abandoning reality altogether. Under totalitarianism, however, these correctives disappear, and thus there is nothing to prevent ideology from becoming more and more removed from reality, gradually turning into what it has already become in the post-totalitarian system: a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.
Within this pseudo-reality, a manipulation occurs, a perversion of language. In Venezuela (even if there isn’t a full-fledged totalitarian regime), the regents salivate when they dream of absolute control of our lives. For years we have endured a forced interference upon speech. A dictionary of revolutionary language could be made with all the reinventions it has undergone, along with a compendium of mantras and slogans to protect us from evil, from the dark forces of the empire that are always stacked against us.
Writer Luis Moreno Villamediana makes language, its crystallization, the motif of his short story «El colocador» [The Placer]. The story takes place in a suspiciously fictitious society where Anton Abish, a mediocre and dull man, finds employment as a placer, whose function is to set off the circulation of certain words that are given to him:
—Each placer receives two words. His duty is to attend to the specified places and look for conversation with whoever is there. He must use the assigned words amidst of what’s being said.
—Very good. This way we all talk the same—said Uncle Anton.
—Precisely. The best societies function as one soul.
Throughout the narrative, the placer starts to get into a spiral where absurdity imposes itself and language is corroded until reduced to a void of meaning, chatter, fuss. That’s the language of the Cyclops, the monotonous chatter, the gospel of the single language against which we must fight.
May Ulysses assist us.
About the author:
Carolina Lozada (Valera, 1974) holds a degree in Literature from the Universidad de Los Andes. She has been awarded in the I International Short Story Contest El País Literario for her story «Viejo bar. Viejo tango» (Madrid, 2005); the Oswaldo Trejo Municipal Narrative Prize for the book Memorias de azotea (Mérida, 2006) and the Solar National Narrative Award with Adictos y transeúntes (Mérida, 2007). In addition, Historias de mujeres y ciudades (Mérida, 2005) won a publication mention in the I Salvador Garmendia Narrative Contest (Caracas, 2006) and an honorary mention in the II Antonio Márquez Salas Narrative Contest from the Asociación de Escritores de Mérida. Her book La culpa es del porno appeared in 2013.