July 2017        

The “unreliable narrator” goes to Russia

Jenny Farrell

Liam O’Flaherty’s lifetime coincides with momentous events: the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the emerging Irish state. He wrote the first Irish anti-war novel, wrote of resistance during the famine, and produced the first novel in the state to be banned.
     Satire is something O’Flaherty excelled at. About the time he travelled to Russia, and wrote I Went to Russia, he produced two other pieces of highly satirical writing: A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland (1929) and the virtually unknown A Cure for Unemployment (1931).
     O’Flaherty left London for the USSR on a Soviet ship on 23 April 1930. From the first paragraph he says he “set out to join the great horde of . . . liars who have been flooding the book markets of the world . . . with books about the Bolsheviks.” From that moment, O’Flaherty employs an unreliable narrator, a “gentleman” with socialist leanings.
     Diplomatic relations between Britain and the USSR were newly re-established after collapsing in May 1924. The first five-year plan was propelling the USSR into becoming a leading industrial state. Stalin was in power.
     O’Flaherty’s narrator is “here in Russia, where the greatest experiment in social equality ever made by man is in full force.” He lampoons the Russians’ enthusiasm for their revolution and yet expresses appreciation of social progress, while O’Flaherty satirically undermines his speaker. He presents him as torn between enthusiasm and bewilderment when faced with the realities of Soviet socialism:
I was surprised to find two separate modes of thought working simultaneously . . . One mode was antagonistic to Russia and to Bolshevism. It wished to take me home at once . . . The other . . . suggested I should . . . become an adventurer in the Soviet Army.
      As the narrator awakes the next day, “reality struck me with unpleasant force and I longed for home.” Such ironic destabilising repeatedly removes apparent terra firma from under the reader.
     Another example of the narrator’s ambiguity is towards women. While he frequently expresses male-chauvinist views, he also acknowledges the emergence of a new kind of woman.
Dunya was the first real Russian peasant I had ever seen . . . I saw a difference between her and our own peasants which made me see the real basis of Bolshevik power. The woman’s brow bore no trace of the fear that is constant in the faces of our peasants. Fear of God, fear of the lord, fear of the government, fear of the earth? She had somehow become free and she was aware of the fact.
      The speaker ponders the Western stereotype of communism: loss of individuality. Yet O’Flaherty describes the beauty of life in its individual, living detail as his narrator travels. We find it in the description of Dunya or of the Chief Engineer, “a Cossack,” in whom he recognises a “hereditary horseman.”
     The speaker meets both people on the ship that takes him from London to Leningrad. This ship becomes a symbol for the revolution. Not only Dunya and the Engineer impress our Western traveller but also the equality he encounters:
they all talked and laughed as they ate. Among them were engineers, mates, electricians, wireless operators, all bronzed, powerfully built, healthy. No two faces belonged to a single type. Some were Jews. Others were Slavs. There was a Cossack and a Lithuanian and a Tatar from Tiflis [Tbilisi]. But they had a common vitality, a common exuberance . . .
      The third mate is a woman. Not all of them are communists: the Cossack admits he “fought against them.” There is no difference in status, and a visit to a Norwegian ship proves the enormous social difference between these two societies.
     The speaker disembarks in Leningrad, takes the train to Moscow, meets people who show him around, and visits his publishers. Here O’Flaherty greatly satirises his narrator’s perception of Soviet society and people, by feeding all the Western expectations. However, a fear expressed by some Russians of police surveillance is not satirised, simply recorded. Also, there is fear of war.
     Near the book’s end, the narrator flees from the literati to find real Soviet life:
I hid myself from all my intellectual friends and went among the masses, as the Communists say; but as I did not speak the language, I was severely handicapped. I learnt the utter idiocy of those ladies and gentlemen, who attempt to write books . . . after a nodding acquaintance.
      This statement and the frequent assertion that he is here to write “a Book of Lies” satirically subvert the apparent purpose of the book.
     O’Flaherty concludes with an uproarious list of things his speaker claims he did:
I played the accordion at dances in private rooms and at factory outings. I went on a binge with an ex-prince, who had become a journalist, with a popular Soviet novelist who had been a Cossack, with a Kulak, with cab drivers, with odds and ends of humanity to be met in public houses and at street corners.
      This book is a double satire based on an unreliable narrator. With the benefit of hindsight we see its tragic background. The Russians’ fear of surveillance had a very real cause. The expected war took place, at great cost to the Soviet people. However, the speaker’s anti-Jewish stereotypes not only contradict O’Flaherty’s encompassing vision of human beauty but make for difficult reading and in their own way become part of the tragic backdrop.

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