Translated by Soren A. Gauger and Guy Torr
Reviewed by Karen Langley
The boundaries and allegiances in Europe moved and blurred continually during the early 20th century, and many writers fell victim to this fluidity. One such author is Bruno Jasieński; born in Poland in 1901, his family moved to Russia in 1914 (before returning to Poland in 1918). He was old enough to be affected by the First World War, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, as well as the Polish-Russian war, and this coloured many of his writings.
During his peripatetic life Jasieński moved about between Paris (from where he was expelled for writing the subversive novel, “I Burn Paris”), Poland and finally Russia, accepting Soviet citizenship. But his journey to this point took him through a number of beliefs, including a strong link to Futurism, and it is on this aspect of his work that much of The Legs of Izolda Morgan concentrates. It’s a lovely little volume containing a number of short pieces, starting off with two Futurist manifestos; the title story; an essay on Polish Futurism; and three short pieces of fiction, “Keys”, “The Nose” and “The Chief Culprit”.
The opening manifestos spark the interest straight away, serving to highlight the variances between the different types of Futurism. The movement began in Italy, where the members glorified technological progress; worshipping speed and the machine, they saw humanity as subservient. The Russian slant (much admired by Jasieński) saw machines as being useful tools to release humans from bondage. Jasieński initially seems to agree with the dominance of the mechanism:
We stress the three fundamental moments in modern life: the machine, democracy and the crowd.
However, as the book continues, it becomes clear that he perceives Futurism somewhat differently, that his view of the machine age is more ambivalent and that he questions the human ability to cope with it:
The hectic pace of contemporary life, striving with inexorable logic, racing down a slope to a fixed point with the speed of an accelerated transmission, has created an entirely new reality, a reality of white-hot steel shuddering on the verge of hallucination.
The title story is a short dark piece, which opens with Izolda Morgan literally losing her legs in a tram accident. Alarmingly, her lover Berg reclaims the amputated limbs from the hospital and seems more attached to them, as a representation of his love for Izolda, than to the actual thinking, breathing remains of the woman – quite a prescient comment on the objectification of women! But Berg works in a factory, where the huge, crushing machines are intimidating. As he begins to see them as threatening, his mind begins to slip sideways. Becoming involved in uprisings and disorders, he gradually loses contact with reality. The story really crystallises the concept of fear of the machine and could be seen as the point where Jasieński dramatically rejects the traditional tenets of Futurism.
The mistrust of technology is certainly a recurring theme in this carefully edited collection, but the book also reflects Jasieński’s transition to a less specific type of fiction – which is, however, just as thought-provoking and reflective. His essay on Polish Futurism indeed discusses the differences between the different beliefs of the Italian, Russian and Polish groups and seems to try and reclaim a specifically Polish consciousness, at a time when the nation was fragmented by strikes and revolts
The three final stories in the book come from the period when Jasieński was living in Russia in the 1930s – not a comfortable place to be, and the stories are unsettling. The first, “Keys”, is a dark little tale of a corrupt priest who is haunted by the Christ figure on the crucifix in his church. As he gradually deteriorates mentally, it seems that there is no key to heaven to be found on earth.
“The Nose” takes its title and inspiration from Gogol’s great story. In the latter, a nose takes on a life of its own, to comic effect. However, Jasieński’s take is more sinister as he relates how the arrival of the wrong sort of nose in Nazi German can be more than just troublesome…. This is a wonderfully inventive story with all sorts of surreal touches – one of my favourite being the apparent replacement of the Tiergarten with a garden of genealogy, on whose trees can be found miniature images of ancestors.
The final story, “The Chief Culprit” is about war and fighting; and Jasieński must have witnessed enough of this in his time. The narrator too has survived through one conflict after another until his ‘civilisation’ reaches the state of anticipating permanent war – a state which is blamed on the individual.
This is a fascinating collection of pieces, exploring a number of themes from questions of Polish (and Jewish) identity through to predictions of eternal conflict and control of society. The themes are still incredibly relevant today in our society with its dependence on gadgets, and the title story, in which is concentrated all of humanity’s fear and hatred of the machine, contains a stark warning:
We’re nearing the end with mathematical certainty. Soon everything around us will be replaced by machines. We shall live among machines. Our every move is dependent on machines…There is no escape. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner. Anyway, it’s already inside of us. You cannot move a muscle any more without machines. Your parents perhaps could still manage. But you no longer can. You cannot defend yourselves. You can only wait. The poison is inside of us. We’ve poisoned ourselves with our own power.
Even if you have no particular interest in the concepts behind his writings, Jasieński is simply an extremely gifted writer; and the stories are intriguing and thought-provoking and most definitely worth reading for their relevance to the modern world. The book is beautifully produced in hardback, on quality paper with ribbon bookmark, and also contains a helpful afterword by one of the translators.
Bruno Jasieński was long thought to have been lost in transit somewhere in 1939; not until the release of records in 1992 was it revealed that he had been purged and executed in 1938 by the regime he had pledged allegiance to, simply for the ‘crime’ of being Polish…. Twisted Spoon Press are to be praised and thanked for bringing this wonderful, lost author to English speaking readers – I for one will certainly be tracking down more of his work!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is now somewhat nervous of trams.
Bruno Jasieński, The Legs of Izolda Morgan (Twisted Spoon Press: Prague, 2014). 9788086264400, 163pp, hardback.