Drawing the Curtain

Reviewed by Niall McArdle

The Iron Curtain had a formative influence on Stan Persky. As a child in Chicago after World War II, Persky’s image of that physical division between East and West “was my initiating encounter—the idea, however crude, that there was a flow of events out there that affected our lives here.” Because the Cold War was a dominant fact in so many people’s lives, Persky writes that he “couldn’t conceive of a world in which the Iron Curtain didn’t demarcate its unalterable boundaries.” Persky’s students grew up in a world without it, and when they think about it, it is only as a strange historical fact far removed from their digital-age concerns and globalised outlook, things that Persky still finds baffling.

Post-Communist Stories is a thoughtful, warm, and often wryly funny examination of a topic usually given a sober treatment: the state of the former Eastern Bloc after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps because in his day job Perksy is a philosopher, his tone is one of gentle but insistent inquiry and his approach is that of a curious traveller instead of an academic with a historical axe to grind. He has written a collection of essays charting his encounters in places such as Budapest, Berlin, Sofia, and Vilnius in the early 1990s.

Persky has chosen a distinctive style of writing: the literary travel memoir. While living in Berlin in 1991, he was reading Jospeh Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which got him pondering a trip to Albania (perhaps only a philosopher could find a connection between the inscrutabilities of the Belgian Congo and an Eastern Bloc country so unassuming and with such a boring reputation that Persky was embarrassed to admit to his friends that he wanted to go there.) In Tirana he meets two translators, Simoni and Qesku, men who had translated Communist tracts for the Party, but had also translated works by Dickens, Conrad, and Orwell, and had found a pragmatic way to deal with the absurdity of working with words they didn’t believe. They made dictionaries, looking always for the most neutral way to define something. “Working with words saved us from the situation in which we lived, sort of.”

Words are important to Persky, particularly those of his literary and philosophical forebears. In the book’s outstanding chapter, “Berlin and the Angel of History,” Perksy uses Walter Benjamin as the first of his many guides to the city. Much as Benjamin wished to chart his life’s experiences on paper in a series of signs making up a map of his life, Persky’s idea of the city “is equally built on such personal sites, routes, routines. My private map of the city isn’t wholly constructed from the historical events of the past quarter-century. . . . Rather, it is a labyrinth of the city’s different ways—like the ’ways’ in Proust’s Swann’s Way—to walk from my apartment near Charlottenburg Castle, say, to Savignyplatz, just north of Michael Morris’s former studio on Mommsenstrasse.”

Berlin has a special hold on Persky—he has lived there part-time since 1991—and it is in this essay that the book’s subtitle About Cities, Politics, Desires is most exemplified. He recalls first visiting Fuggerstrasse in the city’s gay district.

I sensed the countless stories that its bars, restaurants, and buildings held, stories of love affairs, disasters of the heart, even the casual encounters that merely raised the participants’ heart-rates for a few moments. This was a history other and older than Communism, its consequences and its end.

Persky relates an epiphany he had while sitting on a stool in a crowded bar:

At that moment, absorbing the flow of information circulating through the bar and at the same time the specificity of the person against whom I was pressed, I had the sense of being ’inside’ . . . a brief instant in which I felt free of a persistent sense of alienation from the world.

The political events of the Cold War were of course supported by propaganda on both sides, and there is perhaps no greater propaganda tool in the modern age—and no greater satirical force—than the political cartoon. Mark Bryant’s collections of cartoons from the First and Second World War are invaluable for the historian and casual reader alike. Lavishly illustrated with sketches, comic strips, recruitment posters, and editorial cartoons, both books provide a lively, extensive look at both conflicts. There are cartoons from all sides; propaganda posters and pacifist cartoons; thoughtful comic strips and barbaric, racist jokes. As well as famous examples, both of Bryant’s “graphic scrapbooks” contain an array of pictures from some lesser-known, overlooked, or forgotten sources.

This review “Drawing the Curtain” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 181-83.

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