Ladislav Mňačko, The Taste of Power, trans. Paul Stevenson (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967).
Ladislav Mňačko did not start out as a critic of communism. Quite the contrary, he was supportive of the regime change in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and looked forward to all the ways Marxism would transform human society and personality for the better, working as a journalist to document the change from the old ways of greed, theft, and exploitation to the new era of solidarity and sharing.
Except… things didn’t turn out that way. The old ways of greed, theft, and exploitation simply became new ways of greed, theft, and exploitation, and most of the time the new was worse than ever. By the time Mňačko wrote The Taste of Power, he was no longer an ally of the cause; it was time to expose the lie for what it was. While other artists living behind the Iron Curtain had tried in various ways to make sense of what had happened to them, Mňačko’s book represented a new departure. As Max Hayward, in his Preface to this novel, observes, “In its outspokenness Mňačko’s novel goes far beyond anything hitherto published in Russia or anywhere else in Eastern Europe.” Slovaks have not exactly been known for the boldness on the world stage, so congratulations are due.
The story of The Taste of Power follows “Frank” (for some reason the names have been anglicized despite the obvious setting in Slovakia), a press photographer, during the two and a half days over which a state funeral takes place. The dead man is in fact a “great man,” a “statesman”—never named but, as we learn, a childhood friend of Frank’s. As Frank observes the various people attending official events, not one of them actually mourning the great man’s passing, he calls to mind episodes from their shared lives. Although at a certain critical point the two men went their separate ways, Frank’s job as a photographer continually put him back in the statesman’s path. They had to reckon with one another again and again, face up to the lost friendship and the choices they made that led to their semi-estrangement.
Frank is pretty obviously a stand-in for the author himself, in the sense that Frank and author alike are continually asking: what went wrong? how did these ideals degenerate into the fearful, dishonest, distrustful society we have now? Frank looks for answers by peering into the statesman’s past. The highpoint for them both was the Slovak National Uprising, a real event that took place late in World War II when some (though certainly not all) Slovaks had had enough of their “alliance” with the Nazis and fought against them with the help of Russians, who turned out to be no better allies in the end than the Germans. It’s clear that this treasured memory of Slovak resistance to Fascism justified no end of misdeeds by the Czechoslovak Communists in real life; Mňačko deftly exposes this manipulation of memory. I suspect this aspect of the novel was one of the most daring things he did, because even now the Slovak National Uprising is one of the proudest national memories, observed annually in Slovakia, and even the weird Jetsons’-style bridge over the Danube in Bratislava is named for it.
The question for Frank (and the author) is, then, how did the great hero of immense courage turn into such a coward? Because that’s what the “great man” actually became, in the end: a coward. Frank wants at first to blame the statesman’s second wife, a knockout blonde who successfully detached the man from his first wife. But that won’t quite do. The first wife was ordinary, but the statesman’s rise through the ranks, greased by the false flattery of people afraid of losing their status, persuaded the statesman that he was extraordinary and therefore deserved extraordinary accoutrements in relationships every bit as much as as an extraordinary house, car, or vacations. Only a good portion into the book do we learn that the first wife was once Frank’s girlfriend, stolen away from him by the statesman when they were still young. It’s the one and only incident in which “competition” could actually take place in that world, and not with happy results!
So then, it’s too easy to blame the women. Frank then discovers in the course of his remembering a collusion between a system built on betrayals and the willing participation of a man who had too great a taste for power. Communism assumed that greatest equity would be achieved if all power were concentrated in the state—after all, the state represents everybody, right? especially when everybody has the right to vote? But the real effect was to spawn a ballooning bureaucracy staffed by people who had no idea what they were doing yet were insulated from the consequences of their own ignorance, which in turn required closed borders and press censorship so no one could say aloud that the emperor had no clothes. Frank sees it all unfold in retrospect:
“…in the end [the statesman] became a sort of panjandrum, an omnicompetent official, submerged in detail instead of determining broad lines of progress. He decided the rights and wrongs of everything, made pronouncements on artistic questions he knew nothing about, presided over discussions on agriculture one day and hydraulics the next… Naturally, each of his failures was somebody else’s fault. As time went on, the whole nation became in his eyes a headless, faceless mass, to be taken by the hand, led, protected and punished, but on no account trusted: doing everything to spite him, envious of him and scheming to deprive him of power. In his later years he had ceased to trust anyone. They had all betrayed, deserted, deceived and disappointed him… It finally got to the point where he was afraid to decide anything. This made him only the more determined to secure his personal position, to usurp ever-increasing powers and to concentrate all authority in his own hands. Not in order to rule—that ambition he had renounced—but in order to maintain and fortify his position, to feel more secure. Nevertheless, he was still afraid…”
The terrible thing is how little it took to bring everyone—not just the statesman—to this position. Marxist ideals, such as they were, got abandoned almost instantly, and everyone was left to survive by hook or by crook, knowing full well that the next man was ready to take him out at the first opportunity. With no public trust, there can be no real change, revolutionary jargon notwithstanding. The result was a stagnation that dragged out for four decades before collapsing.
Mňačko’s novel is not primarily these kinds of ruminations, fascinating though they are, but vivid scenes from the life of the “great man” through the eyes of many people who knew him, as interpreted by Frank. Some of these people give him more credit that he deserves—those unfortunate enough to have loved him—but most are glad he’s gone and all too willing to forget him. It’s a pathetic outcome for any life. What in the end was that power for? The statesman lost it even before he died; now he’s dead; and that’s that.
The novel ends with a surprising coda that puts the statesman in a different light. Now that we have no illusions about him—his hunger for power, his willing betrayal of his allies, his abuse of privilege, his contempt of women, his lack of scruple—we are ready to consign him to the dustbin of history. But then we get a last look at one other character, Galovitch, the stateman’s only real rival in politics who has made modest appearances throughout the story. With the statesman gone, Galovitch will be the undisputed authority in the land.
The thing is—Galovitch is still a true believer; a Marxist fundamentalist, if you will. He’s not in it for the privilege: he’s still with his dumpy first wife, lives in a three-room flat, has a lousy car, never puts any special treat on the government tab. He has no charisma and no flair for anything. His one and only talent is unremitting belief in a system beyond repair. His “virtue,” or better, lack of obvious vice, is the chief asset to his systematic surveillance of everyone else, all in the name of the required communist transformation of society. The statesman may have failed because of the perversion of his human qualities, but Galovitch isn’t human at all. He is pure machine. He is, in fact, the logical outcome of the transformation that communism wanted to undertake, and he is a horror.
As it turns out, Mňačko’s cutting observations of what had become of the so-called proletariat revolution were too strong for his contemporaries to handle. Part of the book got published in Czech (although he was Slovak) in 1967 when the Prague Spring was just a year away, but it was only published in its entirety in German and English that year. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 Mňačko emigrated to Austria and spent most of the rest of his life there. He lived to see the end of communism, but not for long after.
The Taste of Power is a brilliant, step-by-step, episode-by-episode demonstration of an inherently flawed system and its destruction of all that is good in humanity. It makes for an ideal introduction to life behind the Iron Curtain and its cost to the human soul.