Disappearance by Trifonov

The first half of the 20th Century affirmed humanity’s capacity to rise above difficulties. The exploitative order was directly challenged by the building of a really-existing alternative to capitalism in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe while various movements for national liberation multiplied in what were then the oppressed colonies and semi-colonies of the Western powers.

Yet this very same period also carries memories of the most extreme inhuman excesses that found the most poignant expressions in the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews, and the Soviet “Gulag Archipelago.”  Among the three, perhaps the most tragic would be the Soviet experience, not because it was the most “evil” from some vaguely moral perspective. It was tragic because the conjunction of a number of subsequent objective and subjective factors dissipated the genuine outburst of Utopian potentials from the October 1917 Workers’ Revolution.

One of the many literary texts which I think[1] successfully dealt with this exceedingly complex period of history is Yury Trifonov’s Disappearance. Trifonov wrote the autobiographical novel on and off for a period of twenty years. The novel, about a boy growing up during the turbulent years of 1937 and 1942, was not published until six years after Trifonov’s death in 1987.

Contrary to the stereotype of the Soviet-era writer as epitomized by the figures of Nabokov, Pasternak, or Solzhenitsyn, Trifonov curiously did not fit the usual image of the émigré or underground writer. Among his contemporary writers, Trifonov had more or less fewer troubles with the authorities. One reason offered to account for this in Ellendea Proffer’s brief introduction to Disappearance is the fact that Trifonov’s style of writing “tended to mislead both critics and readers alike into thinking they were dealing with a writer who was perhaps unusual, but nonetheless orthodox at his core.”

While Disappearance could not have been published in Trifonov’s lifetime due to the provocative nature of the book’s theme, in a way, the same could be said of the style used in framing of the novel. There is a subtlety in Trifonov’s writing which seems to make harmless in Disappearance what could be deemed as offensive in other texts.[2] This very same logic worked in Disappearance because of the device of having the narrative unfold through the eyes of a young boy. The novel’s narrator, who is omniscient and selective, takes the boy’s perspective as its central point.

Yes, important events happen. There are the accounts of familial squabbles, the usual socialist realist scenes from the workplace, the intrusion of historical events, places, and figures into the lives of the main characters, the dense cloud of intrigue in the context of the Soviet Show Trials, and etc. But these are filtered by the point of view of the boy, who cannot yet comprehend the full meaning of his experiences. The young child still has to master the rules and prohibitions pertaining to the field of language and culture, to which he is subjected to.

A telling scene, for example, shows the boy listening to his parents and grandmother discussing at the dining table the disappearance of a family friend. The adults, failing to notice the child listening in their midst, argued amongst themselves if they should help the friend’s relations and so on, as another, opposing the others, interjected that the disappeared was always-already of a dubious class background. It was only the belated discovery of the boy’s presence that ended their talk.

The novel’s jumping back and forth the years 1937 and 1942 occasionally disorients – an effect which in turn adds to the novel’s general atmosphere of horror which at the same time is indescribable because it is beyond the boy’s understanding. This structure of contrasts between the two years, wherein historically the former marking the height of the “Stalinist purges” and the latter marking the farthest advance Hitler’s armies gained into the Soviet Union during the Second World War, also functions to encapsulate the growth of the main characters within a definite passage of time.

From a formal stance, these devices succeed in placing a heightened sense of questioning not only in the boy, from whom the readers perceive the progress of the story, but the readers themselves. Disappearance is not simply another account of life in Moscow during the purges and the war. The novel’s title I think, does not only refer to those disappeared, those detained, those executed, or those forced to labor in penal camps, those whose situation can be likened to the hundreds of cases of forced disappearances and political killings in the Philippines today.[3] Rather, it serves as a focal point for several threads that appear in the novel. Disappearance, for instance, also reveals how the commitment of the veterans of the revolution to building a new society was channeled towards the struggle against the enemies of the regime, both real and perceived, and how this eventually led to the decimation of their very own ranks.

Disappearance portrays the tragedy of the Soviet experience. It gives a glimpse of that truly sublime tragedy which was the gradual and brutal disappearance of the emancipatory possibilities opened up by the October Revolution and the subsequent construction of socialism.[4]

[1] My knowledge of Soviet literature is not that extensive. I am basing this opinion on what I’ve read so far.

[2] Solzhenitsyn, for example, literally screams in his great work the Gulag Archipelago. Any soviet official, moreover, who reads Bulgakov’s works, would not find the satirical attacks amusing.

[3] Several human rights organizations have recorded more than 1,000 cases of political killings and 200 cases of forced disappearances since the assumption of power of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

[4] A historical process aptly described by Mao as “the restoration of capitalism.”

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