Sunday, January 5, 2014

Anton Piatigorsky's The Iron Bridge

(My fave read of 2013, first published in subTerrain.)

If permanent character is developed in the first six years of life, as many psychologists profess, the teenage years are the sun, wind and rain for those seeds to break out. There’s a problem with the analogy, though. We don’t often talk of “evil seeds”. In fact, in our current relative universe, evil people are just misguided, misunderstood, or unappreciated. Though it shouldn’t need challenging, Anton Piatigorsky, in his remarkable short story six-pack, The Iron Bridge, necessarily destroys that feel-good idiocy while still paying respect to the historical conditions that allow evil to fester and flourish.

Piatigorsky’s approach, consistent in all six studies, is to create an imaginary slice-of-life plunge into worthlessness and sadism. In four of his stories – featuring Idi Amin, Rafael Trujillo, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler respectively – sadism prevails, shocking in its abnormal manipulative cleverness relative to the age of its future despots. With Pol Pot and Mao Tse-Tung, however, he  concentrates on the sexual naivety and passivity of the lead characters. Some may see this latter contrast as evidence against the mistaken belief in circumstance over evil, but the author wisely shelves those early “seeds” in favour of recent causes which are common to many.

Consider the ruminations of fourteen-year-old Sar – the future Pol Pot – in the brilliant “A Plaything For The King’s Superfluous Wives”. After his humiliating sexual “awakening”, Sar “regards the serene vista before him. How wide the river is. How slow and peaceful”. This leads him to reflect on “the swollen Mekong River” which “reverses the flow of the Tonle Sap away from the sea and back into the great lake”. But if the obliteration of the self takes on a more mundane playing out for the rest of us, for Sar it’s a savage void that will have to be closed, in successive attempts, by the iron bridges of power, money, fame and sex, in results we’re all familiar with.

“Iron” is incorporated into all six stories. Idi Amin’s “gigantic fists clenched into powerful iron balls”. Pol Pot “finds a wrought iron bench beneath an ornate lamppost and takes a seat”. Mao Tse-Tung watches a mosquito as it “taps and taps against the ceiling, pulling away each time as if the boards were made from heated iron”. Stalin, as teenager Soso, faces “the iron-latticed window”. The young Trujillo “grabs his hat and an iron key ring from off a hook”. And the most faithful metaphor comes from the Hitler story, where the future Fuhrer “begins to draw the bridge”, which will, in young Adi’s imagination, “[replace] the present iron monstrosity, which is completely impractical for modern Linz”.

Piatigorski’s unobtrusive merger of fiction and history, both cultural and personal, into the stream of his narratives points to a gathering black cloud on a horizon beyond each conclusion. Aside from the metaphysical and philosophical issues it brings up about the nature and formative influences of dictators, all stories, especially the Stalin and Trujillo entries, are gripping and structurally intelligent.

No comments: