'A Daze This Side of Death, but That Side of Life'
'The Book of Blam' by Aleksandar Tišma
This Side of Death
Until Roy J. Plunkett, a scientist employed by the chemical giant DuPont at their Jackson Laboratory in Deepwater, New Jersey, accidentally discovered one of its close relations, polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE), in 1938, perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and perfluorooctanoic acids (PFOAs), did not exist in the universe at all, let alone virtually every sort of living organism on earth, including, at one time, 98% of the population of the United States. By the process of bioaccumulation, these toxic ‘forever chemicals,’ on account of their innate chemical stability that allows them to subsist at a greater rate over time than other compounds, and even accumulate over time in the human body by binding to proteins in our blood. As our blood flows, PFCs do also. We break down, but PFCs remain. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, some 48 years after DuPont knew of PFOAs hazardousness and toxicity, coordinated a national production phase-out in 2002, where manufacturing of the chemicals were to be ceased by 2015. Nevertheless, PFCs remain. This is all to say, until a certain time, we weren’t toxic and then suddenly we were. Toxic in trace amounts, yes, minuscule amounts, in most, declining amounts, sure, but trace amounts nonetheless. Something that did not exist until 1938 now exists in nearly every human being on Earth.
That infamous observation of Theodor Adorno is overused and underused, misattributed and misunderstood. It is overused because everyone says it, underused because it is an incredibly powerful observation that cannot be said enough, misattributed because what he is often quoted as saying is not even what he said, and misunderstood perhaps because no one says it in completely the right way. I don’t pretend I will either, but I might have something to add. Theodor Adorno, though he later rescinded this opinion, said that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Many have misquoted this line to state that writing poetry after Auschwitz is ‘impossible,’ though, in my view, the two descriptions are interchangeable. For, if we understand barbarism to take after ‘toxicity,’ and ‘impossibility’ to be something resembling a ‘pure form’ of poetry, the meanings are intertwined; to write ‘pure’ poetry after Auschwitz is impossible, which is another way of saying that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, even when it is still technically possible.
Almost no human exists today without PFOAs within them, even in small, trace amounts. That is what it means that no poetry can be written after Auschwitz; it means no poetry without a trace of the Auschwitz can be written, whether Auschwitz’s existence is recognized and acknowledged or not, just like no human without some level of toxicity in the years after the rampant production of PFOs in the mid 20th century exists. If PFCs are forever chemicals, then Auschwitz—and let us extend it to the entirety of the Holocaust, as Auschwitz is more analogous to an individual PFC—then Auschwitz is a forever place, and the Holocaust is a forever event. Before 1939, the Holocaust hadn’t existed. Now it has. Before the mid 20th century, the crimes of WWII were yet to transpire. Now they have. They may not be being committed now, but they will always exist. They are forever crimes. They are not the sort of things, like PFCs, that go away. But it is true: everything after Auschwitz is stained. It doesn’t need to be ruined, but it is stained. We don’t need to be toxic, but toxic chemicals run through our blood. Poetry doesn’t need to stop, but it is marked. It is affected, irreversibly. As we’ll come to see, after the Novi Sad massacre of 1942, the Danube's blood content can washed away, can be filtered down, but will always exist.
That Side of Life
The Book of Blam is a postscript to the Hungarian occupation of Novi Sad during WWII, told through the mourning, regretful existence of the novel’s protagonist, Miroslav Blam. Blam is the semi-autobiographical portrayal of the novel's author, Aleksandar Tišma. In his introduction to the NYRB edition, Charles Simic quotes Tišma as admitting that all his novels are autobiographical, though “He is not recounting his life but using elements of his experience in them.” Tišma was raised in Novi Sad, and though half-Jewish through his mother’s side, was saved from the Novi Sad massacre by a Hungarian neighboUr who reportedly misled the invaders. Tišma’s survival remained a forceful and recurring source of guilt. Simic cites one of Tišma’s journal entries, where he confesses, “I am a man who stayed in the hole because he couldn’t part company with its warmth.” The Book of Blam is a novel about the effects of being in that hole, and what it is like now to have come out of it.
He lacks the self-confidence or the energy for it; nor does he feel the need. His will dooms him to return to the same old roads and streets, to remain their intent yet listless and melancholy observer.
Aleksandar Tišma, The Book of Blam
Novi Sad, now in modern day Serbia, long in the middle of the tangled complexities of European state and nationhood, historically was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire province of Vojvodina until the region was incorporated into Yugoslavia after WW1. Yusolavia was invaded by German, Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian troops in April 1941, and Novi Sad was ultimately occupied by Hungary soon afterwards. The Germans were far from the only belligerents in Europe during WWII. Almost immediately, Serbs were deported, and Jews were identified to be taken by the Nazis to Serbia and killed. Any Jews and Serbs that were fortunate enough to fall through the cracks were persecuted and often perished in various raids and pogroms, culminating on January 20, 1942, when, in what is now referred to as the Novi Sad massacre, 1400 Jews and Serbs, women and small children among them, were led at gunpoint to the edge of the frozen Danube, shot through their backs, and shoved through ragged holes in the ice into the freezing river.
Miroslav Blam, like Tišma, was saved from death during the war, though in comparison to Tišma, his feeling of guilt is total, his guilt recasts into the dominant element of his life. Blam, except from death on account of being married to a Christian, witnessed the annihilation of his family and most of his community in the 1942 raid. Simic relates another entry of Tišma’s journal, in which Tišma describes himself as “a bug who had survived the bug spray and whose role now is to convey to the descendants of the killers the atrocities their fathers and grandfathers perpetrated on their millions of victims.” Such motivation is the inspirational lineage of the Book of Blam. In the video below, Tišma’s tour of Novi Sad can be loosely followed by turning on CC, and adjusting the subtitles setting to auto-generate to English.
The most important thing to know about Miroslav Blam is that if he was actually himself, if he acted in a way he wanted to act, if he was treated according to his actual religion, he would already be dead. And in a way he is; Blam wants to be himself, wants to have been himself, so in a way he wants to be dead. But Blam is alive, and thus is not himself, because if he was, as we have said, he would be dead. This is the life of Miroslav Blam. Living in a nightmare, Blam’s real life is long abandoned, his real self long given up in exchange for his relative survival. The most important thing to know about Miroslav Blam is that he should be dead. As such, we are reading a biography of someone that shouldn’t be alive; not because he survived a rare illness at birth, not because he narrowly avoided a near fatal accident while a child, but because if he was who he really was, he would have been annihilated, along with his entire family, in eighteen possible ways: gas, gun, drowning, exhaustion from labour, suicide, on and on. He avoided the rightful (not right, not uncruel) fate that awaited him by changing who he was. Now, still, he is not who he was, and lives as someone he is not in a place where his real person once lived. This is what is intended by the line describing Blam wandering streets like melancholy.
As a result, this book takes place in the past, or, anything of substance does. This is why his life is not quite a death-like state, but is hardly a life one either. Blam is suspended in a daze between ‘that side of life’, and ‘this side of death.’ The present is a living out of the past. His marriage, or lack thereof, is analogous to this spectral condition. His failed, though still continuing marriage is representative of his life, in that it is only a name, a fact, a signature on a piece of paper in some record office, and it is dead in every other way. And yet, in truth, Blam’s marriage is the only reason he was able to survive the war, and thus why he is still alive today, not only because Janja is Christian but because the man Janja cheats on Blam with, a Serbian collaborator, who is the real father of Janja and Miroslav’s daughter, also gave Blam a job during the war. Blam is married to a woman who cheats on him. Blam cheated life just as much as it cheats and continues to cheat him now. Blam admits that, “Janja has taken leave of him every bit as inexorably as he had taken his leave of life.” And really, can you be married to a man as good as dead?
Most accurately, Blam’s life can be described as a nightmare that he wakes up from, and nevertheless remains a nightmare. Tišma narrates, “He experiences waking as a lie, yet the dean that waking releases him from is also a lie.” Blam’s life, he knows, is “a whole dreamed life of suffering, which he no longer remembers and whose vestiges are fading, disappearing. He does not want them to disappear. If it is his life, he wants to keep it.” The image of a dream that is not quite a dream, but not quite a nightmare either, and nothing that can be ended, anyway— life that is not quite life—is constantly reinforced throughout the novel. “He is moving among dreams, from dream to dream, and everything not a dream is an illusion.” Blam’s real life has ended. Blam, in the form he wishes, has ceased to exist. The Book of Blam is an exposition of what this is like, and an investigation into how this has come to be the case.
They have no idea what is going on inside Blam; they cannot share it, they would not understand his fear, his terror, his certainty that the patrol will come for him and push him to the railing. What is wrong with him? Is he mad? Or is everyone mad but him? Though it amounts to the same thing. For if he is different from everyone, then he is a monster, a freak, an aberration, ripe for being split open and having his thoughts read, for being crammed into a cage and exhibited in an anthropological rather than zoological garden, exhibited naked, the better to be seen and poked at through the bars until he produces the incoherent howls and shrieks expected of him.
Aleksandar Tišma, The Book of Blam
The above excerpt is taken from one of the first few pages of the novel and foreshadows the soon to be recurring feature of a constant exhibition of Blam in a sort of ‘anthropological garden,’ from which place—suspended, locked in, and tied down—he will be plucked and prodded by the narrator for the reader to witness. Even through such a vigorous analysis, however, Blam will forever remain a sort of imagined, anonymous soul. From the initial position of having no idea what is going on inside Blam, through the events of the novel we understand him more, we understand what he conveys, but he sinks back into silence as soon as the book ends, when the plucking and prodding ends, not least of all because he is willing to admit anything himself.
Blam is living, but not as an identity; he hates when he is singled out as an individual, and counters all efforts ‘to be pigeonholed.’ For instance, Blam avoids direct human contact, especially of his scarce friends, who perhaps know what he once was (and has ceased to be). “He chose the busiest parts of town for his wanderings, places where people were crowds rather than individuals, impersonal, purely physical, and their moving, surging, pushing brought the fatigue he desired, like the wet snow and fierce wind.” Still, as this quote portrays, even in Blam’s desired anonymity, he wishes to accomplish such an anonymity not through solitude, but rather by convergence and congregation; he opts for closeness to others. Most of all, Blam’s desire for anonymity is drawn from his want to avoid recognition, specifically to not to be recognized in his shame, but not wanting to isolate that shame either. “To escape that danger, Blam bends his head and gazes down at the feet of his fellow citizens, which he is less likely to recognize than their faces, and hopes that he is less likely to be recognized.”
Death was his goal as he roamed in search of something impersonal to mask his shame; death was what he sought here in the “acoustics,” in merging with the crowd, losing his individuality and what was left of tradition and memory in the intoxication of music.
Aleksander Tišma, The Book of Blam
In the end, in spite (and because of) all his efforts to hide from us, we do eventually recognize Blam, at least in part, on account of the autopsy that Tišma conducts by the method of placing, between the bars of his cage, various scenes of Blam’s life, past and present (for they are intertwined), in front of him, and recording how Blam responds to the people and situations they bear. Blam does recognize places and people, and knows and remembers more than he lets on to those that remain around him. The memories he avoids activate his overriding senses guilt and shame, and produce unnerving reveries that inspire the scenes of the novel. Through these events, we see Blam both as a coffin that must remain around whatever it unknowingly protects, as well as whatever it may be that the coffin is actually protecting. Blam has been condemned to his cell, alone in the prison that is now Novi Sad (is there any place so full of guilt), remaining there long after the criminals have falsely set themselves free, lest only Blam recognize it. Yes, the guilty have walked free, and the free have become guilty and Novi Sad, the city of Blam’s birth and metaphorical death, has become his forever Limbo, where he will never be found fully guilty in his guilt, and never be let free by his innocence, only be offered a surrounding of continued, constantly renewed shame.
Explanations for Blam’s pervading guilt and shame are not offered by Blam himself. In this way, The Book of Blam is a book that is filled haphazardly, rather than explained in an orderly manner. We know Blam has suffered greatly; we know his family is dead, we know his community has been decimated, etc, but Blam does not account for aftermath himself. It is only the reflexes of memory activated by the happenstance triggers placed by Tišma that form the daze-filled episodes of the novel where Blam is forced to unravel. In this way, the account offered by The Book of Blam is not one that is linear, but instead is a backfilling of Blam’s present condition.
“He does not, of course.”
Aleksandar Tišma, The Book of Blam
This humble turn of phrase is one of the most important conceptions of the entire novel. The Book of Blam is a series of actions Blam should have taken, and should be taking, but didn’t—and doesn’t—and thus the living out of the consequence of such failures. These failed measures accumulate to form an exhaustive record of things Blam should have done. Further, the failure to accomplish any task is a now a given, and the regret manifested as a result is automatic. This inaction is a habit in the past, a certainty of the present, and thus a quality of any future. The train he wants to be on is too far ahead, long departed, so why get on another one? He is left to brood in the station of the past that is no longer physically possible to access. Dominated by regret, Blam’s life is one of guaranteed guilt; in the form of eternal return his life is a cup already filled of guilt that a stream of guilt still splashes down into, spilling excess guilt from the brim of the cup that cannot contain more, but is filled with more still. By this mechanism, there is nothing left of Blam’s personality or identity except guilt of conception without consummation.
Simic relates the anecdote of a friend of Tišma being struck by the the novel’s hero lack to have done any one extraordinary thing. Heroism being defined by heroic action is not a narrative quality Tišma believes in. Instead, Tišma holds that “the heroes of an age are not its winners, but those who bear its wounds.” Blam is one who bears wounds. To wit, the friends he most often has conversations with are dead, yet these conditional, pseudo-interactions shape his current life.
“If Čutura were still alive…”
The Book of Blam is a failure to fulfil the desirable demands of ‘if’. ‘If I were myself, the book wouldn’t exist.’ ‘If I was an honourable son, either my parents would be alive, or I would be dead too.’ ‘If I was a lawful husband, my wife wouldn’t cheat on me, and my daughter would be mine.’ And most strikingly these conditional shortcomings continue, nothing is a lesson learned, nothing strikes the saying, ‘I will do it next time,’ but he is conditioned to not fulfill the higher obligations of his self and that which he knows to be right. Blam is condemned to suffer, and suffer as a coward through his perpetual inaction. And it is not for the lack of opportunity either.
“You’re just guessing.”
“I’m being logical. You should have at least looked into the possibility. You didn’t do a thing.”
Aleksandar Tišma, The Book of Blam
Throughout the novel, an entire set of activities is imagined, usually revolving around administering rightful retribution to those that have wronged Blam’s family, community, and city. The chief subplot of The Book of Blam relates to a man in particular called Lajos Kocsis, a collaborator and profiteer who has stolen the Blam family property, and also very likely to sold the family out to the invading authorities in the first place. Kocsis is a traitor who still walks the streets of the city he helped to usurp. And yet, the only place Blam is able to confront him—this man that has quite literally killed his family—in is his imagination, and not even alone either, but only with the assistance of friends, especially Čutura (If Čutura was still alive…). Ultimately, Blam, Čutura, and Funkenstein—another deceased friend—conspire to entrap Kocsis and arrange a citizen’s court of sorts against him, pressing the long-delayed charges against Kocsis for the first time, a scene Blam hesitates into, even seeming to apologize to Kocsis for the disruption (I’m sure I don’t know…):
Blam, Funkenstein, Čutura vs Kocsis 1 (abbreviations of speakers added for clarity):
Kocsis: “Mr. Blam!”
Blam: “Mr. Kocsis. I’m sure I don’t know...”
Čutura: “Well, I’m sure you will as soon as the trial begins. Lajos Kocsis, you stand here. In the name of this citizen’s court I hereby accuse you of having denounced and defamed Blanka Blam and Vilim Blam, the parents of Miroslav Blam, here present, on 22 January 1942, as a result of which they were shot to death. You are therefore an accessory to their murder. I recommend that you be shot to death. Are there any questions.”
K: “But that’s...”
Č: “Do you deny that the patrol leader asked your opinion of the Blam family.”
K: “Yes! Yes, I do!”
Č: “Nonsense! You’re lying! Which is the clearest proof of your guilt! All the patrols questioned their countrymen about people of other nationalities. Now you tell us what you said about the Blams to the patrol leader, Kocsis, or else!”
K:“I didn’t say a thing, not a thing! I swear! I said they were fine, outstanding citizens.”
Č: “You’re lying again, Kocsis! Which confirms our worst suspicions. Because if that was what you said, the Blams would be alive today. Alive, understand? Their death is proof of your crime.”
K:“I didn’t do anything.”
Č: “You caused the death of two innocent people! You fanned national hatred, intolerance, blood lust, racial insanity; you sought revenge and booty; you aided fascism to cut down two of its opponents. In their name and the name of thousands of other raid victims I pronounce you guilty and sentence you to be shot to death. Here is a pistol, Blam. You will carry out the sentence.”
K: “You must be crazy!”
Aleksander Tišma, The Book of Blam
Blam can’t even confront Kocsis himself, even after others have brought them face to face and given Blam the seemingly easy upper-hand. And still, Blam doesn’t interrogate Kocsis at all—Čutura is does most of the speaking. It is not even Blam who has told us the precise details of the Blam family murder; the revelation that takes place near the end of the novel doesn’t even come from Blam’s own lips, but instead the mental projection of Čutura. And it is Čutura who now hands Blam the imaginary pistol, allowing Blam to carry out the rightful sentence, even just in his mind. And it is Blam who refuses to take it:
Blam, Funkenstein, Čutura vs Kocsis 2 (abbreviations of speakers added for clarity):
Č: “Take the pistol, I tell you. Take it and shoot him. Don’t be afraid. Nobody will ever know.”
B: “Have pity on me!”
K: “Yes, Cutura! Let him go. Please let him go.”
Č: “It’s too late. We’ll end up in prison if we let him go now. Shoot him, I tell you!”
B: “I can’t.”
Č: “You’re the only one who can. And you must. You’re the only one free of guilt; Funkenstein and I lured him here under false pretenses. We could be arrested. So you’ve got to shoot. If only for our sake.”
B: “I can’t.”
Č “Look, Blam, I’m warning you. This is your last chance to be a man. Either you kill him, or I hand the pistol over to him and have him kill you.”
B: “I can’t.”
Č: “Is that your final word?”
B: “It is.”
Č: “All right, then. Let’s see what he wants to do. Here’s the pistol, Kocsis. It’s loaded. Shoot Blam.”
K: “What for?”
Č: “It’s the only way you can stay alive. Shoot Blam. Good. Shoot him again. I can’t believe it. You killed him, and it only took you two bullets...You know, Kocsis, I’m beginning to respect you. I even think you’ve earned the right to live.”
Aleksander Tišma, The Book of Blam
The scene unfolds and ends like an Athenian tragedy. ‘I can’t,’ ‘I can’t,’ ‘I can’t;’ Blam is unable to be brave even in his own imagination. His fantasy of vengeance has somehow resulted in his own death. Instead of killing the the killer of his parents, he allows himself to be killed instead. He does not kill even for his own sake! He does not kill even at the risk of his death! It is the ultimate eternal return of Blam’s guilt. Of course, none of this is actually happening; the scene takes place fully within Blam’s imagination, yet is somehow all the more real on account of this and even more powerful. The quick reflex to reality that occurs at the end of imaginary dialogues like this are relapses that occur many times a day. “If Čutura were still alive;” if Čutura were alive…even if Čutura were still alive Blam still stays in the hole of torture he is so comfortable in. But Čutura is dead, and none of this happens, and even if it were to happen, he would continue to fail anyway.
“But Cutura is no longer among the living, and Blam leaves the square for the former Jew Street, unencumbered by third parties, thinking his own thoughts.”
Aleksander Tišma, The Book of Blam
Again, The Book of Blam takes place in past, like an obituary exists in the present but only describes events of the past. Those that have survived, like Blam, have died in most senses of the word; the present is an illusory sort of living out of a future that Blam wishes never came to pass. Blam lives in regret, in an active state of regret, because the regret is fresh and constantly renewed; the regret has not softened to remorse. Blam’s life is imagining if he gotten on those trains that carried away his neighbours that he should have been on himself. He speaks of these trains, their surroundings, interior, who is in them, what is happening, where they are going. And then there is the relapse; the harsh reality that he is not on any train at all. When the Book of Job is referenced in relation to the novel, one reading is that the book is a ‘modern re-telling of the Book of Job,’ it is in this passiveness of suffering, this stunned and frozen daze of guilt that Blam exists within.
Look at the map of Novi Sad, and you will see a kind of spider’s web intersecting on one side with a broad ribbon in the form of a half-circle but extending evenly in all other directions. The ribbon, usually coloured blue, is the Danube, the city’s permanent eastern boundary and also its womb.
Aleksandar Tišma, The Book of Blam
Yes, that infamous observation of Theodor Adorno is overused and underused, misattributed and misunderstood. So, after Auschwitz, after the Holocaust, after our loss of purity, after we have learned that toxins and plastics course through our body and thrive more than the cells of the body itself—what else can possibly be said? What can be done? There is only marked life, only scarred poetry; so what else can possibly be written?
From one perspective, nothing but this must be said, it must be said only louder, louder still; it must be said in ignorance of what is thusly ignored by saying anything else. For our lives, in comparison to lives that find and have found themselves facing atrocity straight in the face, are painless, meaningless, are a girl playing with her named dolls in her toy house that she shuts the door of when she goes to bed, but sometimes leaves open, so we gaze out at the life that we were modelled after, that we don’t belong to, that we do belong to, that is separated by a plastic wall, tiny windows, and an entire step of reality. We dive into heated, salted pools, while others are shoved into the frozen water headfirst—not altogether different for the scalp is also the point of entry—the ice shattered now, not cleanly, the soldiers have to keep shooting the ice to break it until the bone of the skull forces a splintered hole to be opened, into which you are forced into, hopefully dead by now, wider now, though the width has come at the cost of more blood, which you follow the flow of into the river that now flows of water and blood, and enter into a frozen eternity. There is salt in the water now—not much—the blood of thousands—you can barely see it after a minute—the tears take longer than the bullets to enter and exit the mind. Saltwater streams into a fresh water river and the river becomes a ‘flesh-water steam,’ a fresh-flesh river, a flesh-fresh river, the Danube that runs next to Novi Sad, its womb, its burial grounds.
That the Danube is always this, and because of this we can never swim in it again. And this is why we cannot write poetry again, but please you are welcome to swim. You are welcome to use the water of the Danube for drinking for cleaning to sustain your survival. Know that you drink blood now, even a trace amount, know that you cannot swim but only drown in our humanity’s sorrow, like swimmers who can no longer swim, who swam their whole lives but forgot how to swim, like Blam being alive when he should be dead, when he is dead. We offend true meaning in our attempts art; we don’t deserve to have art—this is what Adorno means.
And yet, and yet it isn’t so easy, no matter if it is true. We come up with poetry anyway, no matter if the poetry we come up with after Auschwitz is stained, like the water of the Danube with the blood of murdered children that it once harboured, then washed away, yet still holds, always holds. We accumulate tragedy through the ages, like the bioaccumulation of PFCs in our bodies, like the river that blood is spilled into. We are filled with plastic, filling with plastic, we are all literally toxic, we are faced with more suffering, in a linear sense, than has ever been accumulated before. And yet. And yet. There is no good next sentence.
And yet, from another perspective, if we remain silent we stand at the precipice, and allow ourselves to be at the edge, and eventually fall into, a more evil abyss. So, however barbaric, however impossible, we must keep speaking. We must keep writing. We must keep living. Such is the condition of the modern writer, and the modern man. Yes, it is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. But it is more barbaric to remain silent. It is more barbaric to stop living on account of our toxicity, for to do that would make us all the more toxic still. Adorno revised his claim to state that, “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.” Such are all of our conditions, marked, scarred, but we are still alive anyway. Such is Mirosav Blam’s condition; Miroslav Blam is one who is left to swim in the Danube, left to roam the streets that have been stripped of their inhabitants. Tišma, faced with the same conditions, took the sorrow and suffering from the world and made a masterpiece out of it. This is the life of Miroslav Blam, this is The Book of Blam, this is the book of all of us that have survived. A marked masterpiece, yes, but a masterpiece all the same.
He will step forward and put his neck in the noose or take his place before the firing squad. He will not dodge death this time; he will close the circle he left open; he will enable a death to happen that must happen; he will reveal another murder, another murderer, another victim—in a man in whom they would not have been revealed, a man who might not even have seen them in himself—as all his people had done before him, thus committing, as he now realizes, an act of the most profound truth.
Aleksander Tišma, The Book of Blam