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#7 Victor Serge and Neon Loneliness: Unforgiving Years

by Adam David Morton on January 20, 2020

Beyond the six novels written by Victor Serge, that make up the two informal trilogies on the ‘cycle of revolution’ [Men in PrisonBirth of Our PowerConquered City] and the ‘cycle of resistance’ [Midnight in the CenturyThe Case of Comrade TulayevThe Long Dusk] there is Unforgiving Years, which is the last novel he wrote in 1946. It is available as a NYRB Classic and Roy Johnson provides a good introductory overview of the novel.  The book is set in various cities and geographical settings moving from Paris, to Leningrad, to Berlin, and ending in Mexico. Once again, readers are presented with distinctive insights on issues of space and territory, which are integrated throughout the novel and set within specific historical-geographical conditions. The spatial forms of the cities are central to the narrative, including decaying Paris, stoic Leningrad, and stricken Berlin, which are contrasted with the geographic scale and alternative promise of fertile Mexico. Assessing in more detail the forms of these city spaces as well as wider territorial and geographical developments in Unforgiving Years, once again reveals Victor Serge as a pre-eminent theorist of the spatial ordering of power and geography in the novel form.

The novel opens with a slumbering morning street scene in Paris that is awakening to the bleak whiteness of winter and the crisis about to engulf Europe and the world in 1939. The cast of central characters involves the Soviet secret agent D (alias Sacha, or Bruno Battisti); his lover Nadine (or Noémi); Daria Nikiforovna, an ally and soon to be political deportee to Kazakhstan who returns to wartime intelligence service in Leningrad, under siege, to then work undercover as a nurse in Berlin as Erna Laub; and Alain, a French Communist painter. As a secret agent, D is confronted with the air of decaying Paris deriving from his own disillusion with communism. In the dreary rain he casts a despairing glance over Place de l’Europe that intersects the arteries of Paris, itself named after European capitals that are foreign but inseparable from one another. At the Bois de Boulogne, a spectacle of decline that is neither alive nor lifeless, he reflects that ‘everything is falling away . . . the commanding ideas, the Party, the State, the new world under construction’. Amidst the neon signs of Paris and its bright plazas, cafés and boulevards, the secret agent is alienated by the social grandeurs of the city, beneath which lie a sense of decay drifting from the dead leaves, the darkness and gloom, and the nocturnal shadows of autumn and winter.

Amidst the perdition of Paris, trudging past the Boulevard de l’Hôpital that has ‘little character’, its surrounding drab buildings and factories, the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, and the nearby Gare d’Austerlitz station with its brewery trucks, cement mixers, dairy vans, and railroad trucks, ‘space is vast and colourless’. Here ‘Daria and D found a secluded café with tan upholstery, brightened by blue piping. ‘“When, if ever,”’ Daria wondered, ‘“will there be bars like this at home, so cozy and unpretentious that you don’t even notice?”’ In the subsequent dialogue, D responds:

When we’re dead. We had not the faintest inkling of the sweat, blood, and shit that go into forging a people’s well being . . .”

Careful. You’re sounding like a big capitalist. Don’t you think what’s needed is a greater effort of generosity and intelligence? The days of primitive accumulation are behind us.”

Not in our country. And the days of destruction lie ahead.”

At this clandestine meeting, D (alias Bruno Battisti) hatches the plan of escaping from the world of the secret service. Daria queries, ‘“What are we escaping to? I’m talking as though one could escape into space. The whole edifice is collapsing, and the only certainty is the coming war which will be continental, intercontinental, chemical, satanic.”’

Bruno Battisti and Noémi escape Paris for Le Havre, realising that to reside within an ‘urban labyrinth is a safer bet than any distant archipelago’, before boarding with trepidation a ship that will eventually lead them to Mexico.

The narrative then picks up the pilot Klimentii [or Klim] transferring Daria from Kazakhstan, after years of political deportation, back to a war-torn and besieged but stoic Leningrad, described as ‘one big graveyard’. During the return flight, the scene of approach to the city is described. ‘The whitish mist was thinning under the bomber’s belly, allowing glimpses of flat black country with white veins. A wide dark loop sliced through it, like a fissure in the earth’s crust’. The Neva was thus revealed to the passengers’ [see also Conquered City]. A blizzard of snowflakes greats the passenger and the pilot at the airfield, with the whirling snow filling the darkness of night with lightness, thereby ‘making space huge’.

Across Leningrad the broad straight avenues of the city lay crushed by whiteness with Daria asking whether the city has suffered much under the siege. ‘“Not as much as you’d expect”’, states Klim, ‘“At least not the stones. It’s architecture that ensures permanence, after all”’. Parts of Leningrad are declared a necropolis with the dead city including the Tauride Palace, the location where the Bolsheviks first named the Russian Communist Party in 1918. Nevertheless,

The squares stood triumphant as ever, lined with colonnaded palaces, dominated by golden spires, gigantic and deserted. The empire of cold whiteness . . . should some bomb land just then, its nearby explosion was endowed with a natural solemnity that in no way disturbed the dignity of these spaces and architectures.

On the wider landscape of state space, Captain Potapov comments to Daria that in Russia there is ‘“so much space that we can afford to lose territory and troops in the interests of gaining time”’ therefore ‘“we can inflict on our foes the weariness and despair of expanses without roads”’. As Potapov continues, ‘“before overpowering us, the Germans would have to reach Tobolsk, Novosibirsk, the Yenisey; and by then they would be falling prey to our distances and our winters, and still wondering how to reach Vladivostok, how to take the Arctic.”’

As a commando unit conducts a raid across the frozen river Neva and into enemy lines, including Rodion a Gulag escapee [see Midnight in the Century], it is this vast expanse of space that will counteract the Third Reich.  As the mission sets off, ‘the twilight land was beginning to merge with empty space, and space into darkness’. Amidst ‘the absolute silence of uninhabited expanses’ there are ‘distant explosions’ that ‘magnify the silence and the vastness’ of the landscape. At the same time, ‘radar beams were searching through space’ with sound detectors attempting to prevent such attacks. The neologism ‘pan-destruction’ is introduced at this stage of the novel to capture the wider scale of devastation resulting from world war.

Such pan-destruction is a foremost feature in the treatment of stricken Berlin as Daria works undercover as nurse Erna Laub. Against the lightening bolts multiplying through space from allied bombing, ‘the black prostrate city did not cry out, despite the continuous shaking of the ground and the unendurable flashing of yellow-and-gold bursts over by the freight yards’. Subsequently, ‘the darkness spread in stony waves over the gulf of the city, but clouds were crawling like wild beasts over the rail yards and the industrial district emitting dull roars and nauseating smells . . . Sirens proclaimed the all clear . . .’ But Berlin is not alone. The devastated cities of Stalingrad, Warsaw, Coventry, London, Lübeck, and Berlin are all sisters that could easily be mistaken for one another in a photograph.

In Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman relays how ‘A new city – wartime Stalingrad – had been born out of the flames. This city had its own streets and squares, its own underground buildings, its own traffic laws, its own commerce, factories and artisans, its own cemeteries, concerts and drinking parties’. Victor Serge treats the spatial form of pan-destruction in Berlin in a similar manner while also cognisant of the possibilities of redemption and hope that might arise in such contexts of devastation. Serge notes that:

No imagination, however wild or drunk, could ever conceive the wealth of fantastical architectural effects to be found in bombed-out cities. Kids growing up in them may someday, as these visions mature within them, create a new art that will be neither realistic nor surrealistic, for destruction nurtures a special reality basically close to the unreal.

The blank spaces, silences, shadows and secret lights of Berlin are then abandoned for a different geography as Daria escapes on the Swedish freighter Morgenstern (Morning Star) to reunite with Bruno Battisti in Mexico. First she travels to the United States, albeit followed by Stalinist agent Mr. Ostrowiecki, to then journey to fertile Mexico by air, watching the arid land and the ‘whole living map tilted beneath the plane’, before transiting to the fictional San Blas in present-day Michoacán. Once again, Victor Serge touches on issues of geopolitics by communicating the experience and anxiety of the refugee in this exodus. The spatial encagement of territorial borders secured by visas, passports, connections, and chequebooks is detailed. With such barriers to mobility, ‘these nets trap none but the anonymous irregular, stateless refugee’ [see also The Long Dusk].

Yet the geography of state space is treated differently in Mexico. As Don Saturnino, living at Casa de Huéspedes, states to Daria, ‘“It’s a magnificent country, Señora, an opulent country . . . And yet so backward!”’ Spatiality in Mexico is produced through the purple sprays of bougainvillea; fleshy green nopales; yellow campanile; the red as rust stony soil; the tumescent fruit and violet turgescence of banana trees that retain an ‘intense sexuality’; the ferrous earth; the mango trees impregnated by the sun; the fleshy complexions of orchids, and the ‘primeval voluptuousness’ and ‘riotous disorder’ of the fauna and flora, including the ‘phallic spars’ and monstrous trunk of a candelabra cactus. The climate in Mexico, described as ‘a splendidly simple world’, is one of ‘cosmic vigour’, destruction, and fertilisation.

The spatialisation of Mexico is produced and represented here through what I recognise as the tropicalisation of space, defined as a means to imbue a particular space, geography, or state with a set of traits, images, and values constructed through dominant Euro-American cultures. In Mexico there are ‘spaces of pure barrenness’ coupled with ‘radiant space’ that is explicitly contrasted with the yellowed autumn of the Bois de Bologne in Paris and the ‘atrophy of life’.

As the “archaeologist” Mr. Brown, another Stalinist agent, travels to Mexico and completes his deadly assignment to poison Daria and Bruno Battisti, it is this atrophy of life that comes to haunt the spaces of the novel across Paris, Leningrad, Berlin and Mexico. There is simply not enough space for the protagonists in Unforgiving Years to discover the ‘intelligent death’ they seek. Death arrives and space lives on.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (2007); Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011), recipient of the 2012 Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG); and co-author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (2018) with Andreas Bieler. He co-edits Progress in Political Economy (PPE) with Gareth Bryant that was the recipient of the 2017 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for the Best Blog (Group) and the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media.

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