Thursday, October 17, 2019

Blessed is he who leaves

This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads — this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free peoples to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.

What they want is to create a frozen order, to falsify time's passage. They want for the days to repeat themselves, unchanging, they want to build a big machine where every creature will be forced to take its place and carry out false actions. Institutions and offices, stamps, newsletters, a hierarchy, and ranks, degrees, applications and rejections, passports, numbers, cards, election results, sales and amassing points, collecting, exchanging some things for others.

What they want is to pin down the world with the aid of barcodes, labelling all things, letting it be known that everything is a commodity, that this is how much it will cost you. Let this new foreign language be illegible to humans, let it be read exclusively by automatons, machines. That way by night, in their great underground shops, they can organize readings of their own barcoded poetry.

Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.
– from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

Last weekend I saw Memory Is Our Homeland, a documentary film charting the story of Polish refugees during World War II. This film covered the journey of Poles through Siberia and Iran to Africa. My mother's story is similar, though it veered east to India.

I've always known this story as part of my family history. It's a personal narrative. What this film helped me understand was its broader political significance. Most people don't know the history of the Soviet invasion of Poland and the deportation of Poles by Soviets, because the Soviet government wanted to keep it quiet. How tightly that government (no doubt with a little help from the British) controlled the release of images once Poles were allowed to mobilize. How they propagandized their involvement in the

It's still a bit puzzling to me how it was determined who left and who stayed. (Which was privilege and which was punishment?) Did some people not hear the news in the street? Did they miss the train?

Flipping through Tokarczuk's Flights in recent days reinforces my interpretation of events. They were homeless, even while the tyrants directed their trajectory. The tyrants redrew the borders. It's no wonder people chose not to return, for it would be to a different geography, land they'd never known, under the tyrants' control.

(It's eerie how Tokarczuk reflects many of the issues of home and identity and belonging and memory, as if these attitudes are embedded in the Polish psyche, the cultural subconscious.)
Far from home, at a video rental shop, rummaging around the shelves, I swear in Polish. And suddenly an average-sized woman who looks to be about fifty years old stops beside me and awkwardly says in my language:

"Is that Polish? Do you speak Polish? Hello."

Here, alas, her stock of Polish sentences is at an end.

And now she tells me in English that she came here when she was seventeen, with her parents; here she shows off with the Polish word for "mummy". Much to my dismay she then begins to cry, indicating her arm, her forearm, and talks about blood, that this is where her whole soul is, that her blood is Polish. This hapless gesture reminds me of an addict's gesture — her index finger showing veins, the place to stick a neeedle in. She says she married a Hungarian and forgot her Polish. She squeezes my shoulder and leaves, disappearing between shelves labelled "Drama" and "Action".

It's hard for me to believe that you could forget the language thanks to which the maps of the world were drawn. She must have simply mislaid it somewhere. Maybe it lies wadded up and dusty in a drawer of bras and knickers, squeezed into a corner like sexy thongs acquired once in a fit of enthusiasm that there was never really an occasion to wear.
To what extent are you your language?

If you can't speak Polish, are you still Polish? If you haven't been to Poland in 80 years, are you still Polish? If the only land you knew as Poland is no longer Polish territory, are you still Polish? Yes.

No comments: