Rather Be Deaf


Recently I was asked if I could name an appealing utopia in literature. The question made me awkward. In truth, »the Isle of Bliss« of which the Romantic poet Atterbom spoke makes me claustrophobic; every fibre of my body wants to flee. Such realms are moreover tricky, as they have no need of electricity. Zero tension in the grid; everything sparkles and scintillates anyway. But only tension generates a desire for change, which is what literature lives off (and, one hopes, on). So I asked to be allowed to cheat. Utopias are probably best left as non-places, I pointed out, which of course is what the word originally means. They are best seen not here but there, not now but presently, or soon, or some time – that is: in the future.

Occasionally, however, hybrid forms occur – utopias which are at once here and somewhere else, fully visible and yet intangible. The book I was thinking of was such a hybrid. In Deaf Republic, Ilya Kaminsky blends poetry and prose in a way that is also theatrical. In the fictitious city of Vasenka, in a nameless country somewhere in eastern Europe, occupation troops kill a small boy, Petya. In solidarity, the city’s population decides to become like the four-year-old: deaf. From one day to the next, everyone stops hearing the soldiers’ orders. Which of course doesn’t prevent the men from doing horrible deeds. But this silent resistance is stronger than guns’ steel. Kaminsky’s people are adept at the art of not listening. And they are sage enough, furthermore, to both laugh and cry, which you need to in utopias. Either alone would be unbearable. I admitted that I am an advocate of such a parallel society. In Kaminsky it is inseparable from the suppressed city, and yet impregnable. Here and elsewhere, too. »To live is to love«, he writes. »But love is not enough – / the heart needs a little foolishness!« Is that not how utopias are kept alive? In defiance and with that chest muscle bursting wild?

If I were to write a utopia myself I suspect it would become a tale proposing to show that finitude is always preferable to communions of eternity. As I see it, both the classless society and the realm of God are dictatorships. But do utopias exist that aren’t timeless, in which each and every one is downed by death sooner or later? How should I know? Even if only one half of me is made of southern DNA I am still too Greek to make do with one god. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the proletariat or the Lord who provide the power and the glory, I prefer gods in the plural. Otherwise I’d rather be deaf.