Alexander Boldizar, The Ugly (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016), 372 pp.
This is a “Slovak novel in English” in a rather different sense from the ones I’ve discussed so far. The author is a Slovak national, and the hero is a Slovak from an imaginary tribe of Siberian Slovaks who got tired of capturing that vast snowscape at the end of World War I, so they got off the trans-Siberian railroad and stayed put in an idyllic valley called Verkhoyansk. According to Business Insider, the real valley of Verkhoyansk is “the most miserable place in the world,” which makes it for sure a genuine choice of oppressed peasantry.
That part about Slovaks (and, we must admit, Czechs) capturing Siberia is actually true, though little known. The part about some Slovaks staying in Siberia to create a unique culture of honor raids, non-introspection (except on mountaintops), boulder-throwing, and peaceable promiscuity is not. But it’s a fantastic—in both senses of the term—pretext for a bit of alternate history.
Further, this “Slovak novel” is in English because it was written in English. Boldizar has spent a good chunk of his life in English-speaking nations and his mastery of the language is extraordinary. As a native anglophone who has fumbled my way into Slovak, I’m impressed, humbled, and not a little jealous.
The story is two plots about a year apart in time braided together, both starring Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth. The first plot, told in the third person, relates how Muzhduk left his Siberian valley, where he'd learned many languages from robbing Soviet libraries, to pursue the mastery of words at Harvard Law School so he could protect Verkhoyansk from deceptive American lawyers trying to turn it into a butterfly sanctuary for the rich. The other plot, told in the first person, is Muzhduk in Mali trying to track down his missing sweetheart who is or isn’t helping in a civil war between tribes. (Note: Boldizar both attended Harvard Law School and got involved in civil strife in Saharan Africa.) The shift in narrator perspective was helpful for sorting out the two stories, though I don’t think the first-person section was as successful: I had a hard time connecting its language and emotion to the other Muzhduk of the third-person story.
The common thread between the two stories is the Law. More to the point, it is the insanity of the Law; the manipulation of the Law by powers to put their will over on others. At first blush Harvard appears to be the overregulated place, dying a thousand deaths of casuistry and the fanatical competition of those who don’t even know what their goal is anymore yet demand the blush of righteousness that the Law bestows on them. Mali by contrast appears to be the underregulated place where there is no rule of law, just the arbitrary opportunism of the Mobile Customs Brigade or the law of the jungle, which is sometimes small children with hands in pockets to retrieve coins, sometimes angry monkeys, sometimes Blue People with machine guns. Then again, as you read along, you realize that Harvard is a jungle, too, and Mali is as full of inscrutable laws as any number of legal tomes.
Here the fact that the author is Slovak is noteworthy. There is certainly plenty of fodder in Slovakia’s own recent history to talk about an absurd, insane Law and its failure to do what it proclaims, as illustrated so beautifully in The Taste of Power or The Year of the Frog. We capitalist, democratic North Americans certainly relish our tales of communist excesses and atrocities—and I have to say, after reading extensively about communism in the past few months, with good reason. But the temptation to turn communism’s failures into corresponding capitalist successes is dangerous. So it’s all the more striking that an author in a recently post-communist nation put the magnifying glass not on the easy target of Stalinism but the more obscure skewings of truth in the “progressive” West and the developing world.
Thus, Boldizar’s amazing feat in this novel is to make you think that the Verkhoyansk method of solving problems by fistfight, sex, or climbing a really tall mountain is by far the most reasonable approach. In fact, this exemplifies for me what is the most brilliant thing about the novel: it is the best, most colorful, and most accurate depiction of what cultural confusion feels like that I have ever read. A solid American institution that has produced more Supreme Court judges than any other school looks entirely insane when seen through Muzhduk’s eyes. Democracy becomes a matter of despair. The academy, absurdity. Yet everyone else seems not only to accept it but to excel in it, always one step ahead of Muzhduk, for reasons that never resolve into clarity. If you have ever been culturally confused, you will savor this; if not, you should read it anyway so you can even begin to grasp why “foreigners” behave so strangely. It’s probably because you behave so strangely and don’t even realize it.
The same cultural confusion is there in the plot set in Mali. But it’s not worse. It’s of the same degree and kind, only in a different location. I found the parallelism deeply gratifying. Why do they talk in riddles in the killing heat of Africa? Who is the good guy and how would you know? Is it being drugged, malaria, or just all the word games that are making Muzhduk hallucinate—if that is actually what is happening? Distressing, perplexing, but no more so than getting a juris doctor in Boston.
Of course, all this amounts to plenty of barbed sociopolitical commentary. It is an ill-kept secret that government (our government’s) aid to developing nations might possibly be making things worse instead of better. After following Muzhduk’s footsteps through the Sahara, my inclination is to say we only make it worse; let’s pull out and let them sort things out on their own. Probably not a real solution at this point, but dropping our illusions about our righteous ability to intervene is all to the good.
Sharper still, though, is the critique of the law as the holiest of civic institutions upholding the holiest of form of government. During Muzhduk’s time at Harvard he ends up in a “relationship” with a woman named Oedda, maybe or maybe not a professor, who puts him through a number of painstakingly described sexual acts. These might qualify as pornography if the intention were to titillate (and, appropriately, there is a legal discussion of pornography among the characters), but the scenes are so repulsive in their sheer weirdness that I can only conclude, at risk of imposing too much symbolism on a largely absurdist work, that Oedda = Law, and thus the “relationship” is really about Muzhduk getting screwed by the Law. It’s an apt metaphor.
The final absurd touch is the happy ending. Muzhduk does get the girl, they do return to Verkhoyansk, apparently even with the intention of monogamy, and there is a baby on the way who will not be Muzhduk the Ugli the Fifth but Samson the Happy. But how often do we get happy endings anymore in literary, modernist, or absurdist novels? It’s the final twist, and if not altogether convincing, nevertheless delightful. But I may be swayed by the knowledge that author Boldizar has a son whose name is Samson. I wish father, son, and mother much happiness—and as much distance between them and the Law as between Harvard and Siberia.