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« What's Wrong With the World | Main | To Be and to Have (Être et avoir) »

Bend Sinister

There is a certain tinge we recollect in bright colors, and that tinge is the love of persons relegated inexorably to our past. What we have lost over a lifetime will define us far more precisely that what we have gained. By this simple truism I suppose one can conclude that a priceful sportscar wrapped around a lamppost will constitute, to the plaintive materialist, a more substantial agenbite of inwit than the beautiful sedan he ended up driving for a good dozen years thereafter – but no more of this silliness. You and I have both loved and lost; we have both loved for reasons unknown to us and reasons imposed by us; we have both loved and laughed and loved and cried bitterly, oh so bitterly; and we have both loved knowing that love would be all the more annihilative were there nothing beyond our crepuscule but nox perpetua. A soft and comely path to this novel

Our protagonist is Adam Krug, a philosopher of genius whose insight is reflected by his actions and thoughts instead of snippets from his tedious tomes (I say tedious in the same vein that all philosophy without art is tedious, and all art without moral grounding is a sham). Krug has recently parted from his wife Olga, who dies as the story begins and leaves her beloved with something divine, their now eight-year-old son David:

All he felt was a slow sinking, a concentration of darkness and tenderness, a gradual growth of sweet warmth. His head and Olga's head, cheek to cheek, two heads held together by a pair of small experimenting hands which stretched up from a dim bed, were (or was – for the two heads formed one) going down, down, down towards a third point, towards a silently laughing face. There was a soft chuckle just as his and her lips reached the child's cool brow and hot cheek, but the descent did not stop there and Krug continued to sink into the heart-rending softness, into the black dazzling depths of a belated but – never mind – eternal caress.

David and Krug will join hands many times in the novel in the best type of father-son relationship: one based upon mutual respect, interest, tenderness, and a mother and wife who adores them both. David will ask about his mother, whom he has not seen well in weeks, and wonder aloud whether she may be elsewhere in the universe. And for his part, Krug will belay the climbing rope with the intention of pulling David up with him to some ethereal summit safe from harm, from death, from evil, from everything a father might wish as far from his child as possible given the physical obstacles.

The physical obstacles, one notes, are plenty. Krug, a polyglot of East European extraction has the distinct misfortune of inhabiting a nameless police state whose demagogue dictator was once his classmate and the butt, in every sense of the word, of his ridicule and violence. It will be assumed that Krug's early victories over Paduk, the bloated, pasty, and rather androgynous tyrant, will not be duplicated in the latter half of his existence; it will also be assumed that Paduk has forgotten neither the grievances suffered at the large, virile hands of a man his superior in every way imaginable except in cruelty, nor, for that matter, his nickname, the Toad (since he is also called "paddock" at one point, the derivation seems clear). Our Toad is a rather remarkable fellow, but not in any fashion that you or I would care to admire:

Paduk's father was a minor inventor, a vegetarian, a theosophist, a great expert in cheap Hindu lore; at one time he seems to have been in the printing business – printing mainly the work of cranks and frustrated politicians. Paduk's mother, a flaccid lymphatic woman from the Marshland, had died in childbirth, and soon after this the widower had married a young cripple for whom he had been devising a new type of braces (she survived him, braces and all, and is still limping about somewhere). The boy Paduk had a pasty face and a grey-blue cranium with bumps: his father shaved his head for him personally once a week – some kind of mystic ritual no doubt.

Without belittling the hobbies of Paduk père (I, too, dine meatlessly), one understands the caricature more from what this childhood probably lacked, that is, the genial warmth so prevalent in a loving family devoted to genuine self-betterment. After Paduk's father created the padograph, an odd contraption devised to mimic human calligraphy, its sales numbered in the low thousands, with "more than one tenth ... optimistically used for fraudulent purposes." In their inevitable tête-à-tête, Paduk will offer Krug a padograph, among many other, far more useful implements, in an inevitable attempt to avoid the inevitable fate of those brave political dissidents who will not cower to the broad band of mediocrity that is the true mantra of all totalitarian regimes. Krug will refuse, we will join him in splashing the wine in the flaccid face of his alleged benefactor, and both he and we will pay dearly.

The plot? It is not much because Padukgrad – ah, it did have a name after all – has little to offer in the way of intrigue and much in the way of sadistic efficiency. Krug will ignore advice from trusted friends to quit his native land and these friends will miraculously disappear. He will also prowl about remembering Olga at certain locations (including one very late and very ill-timed revisiting), love his son dearly and tenderly, spit on the mindless thugs dispatched to intimidate him, ponder the mysteries of Hamlet in many tongues (an important if recondite middle section), revise his own philosophy of consciousness, that while eloquent has, by his own admission, very little to contribute to an already massive edifice, and wonder what would have happened had David been sent abroad, safe and warm if parentless and alone. He ponders these matters and one other matter:

And what agony, thought Krug the thinker, to love so madly a little creature, formed in some mysterious fashion (even more mysterious to us than it had been to the very first thinkers in their pale olive groves) by the fusion of two mysteries, or rather two sets of a trillion mysteries each; formed by a fusion which is, at the same time, a matter of choice and a matter of chance and a matter of pure enchantment; thus formed and then permitted to accumulate trillions of its own mysteries; the whole suffused with consciousness, which is the only real thing in the world and the greatest mystery of all.

So they will flutter and fly off from a city named Padukgrad, a capital of another nation torn to shreds by human vanity and terror, the three blue butterflies that exist in a peaceful land in peaceful times, far away from the endless ocean of man's divisions and strife. And there, all the mysteries from all the times they have spent together and apart may very well converge.

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