Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Attention to Detail (Part n)


I am happy to report that I have solved the mystery of why Polish writers are so sloppy about little things like suspension of disbelief. They’re copying Joseph “monachal vaticinations” Conrad. In Under Western Eyes Razumov enters his apartment to find a man called Haldin inside, waiting for him. How did this man get in? He was not let in by the landlady or the “dvornik” – this is spelled out clearly. Perhaps people didn’t lock their doors in those days. A hundred years or so ago there were different notions of public and private space, after all. But the apartment door does have a lock: when Razumov leaves he locks Haldin in. Haldin is on the run (this all comes out in chapter one so I’m not spoiling much). The police are looking for him. He is in great peril… In the circumstances, I would not have agreed to being locked in – particularly since the front door of the apartment has a bolt anyway. Suppose Haldin looked out the window and saw the police arrive? He would be trapped. They would see him coming out the window. No, the door must be unlocked. As you can see, I would have been a lousy conspirator.

Not as bad as Haldin and Razumov, though. Haldin and a now dead accomplice have just killed a Czarist minister at dawn that day. To prepare themselves for the task, they spend the night wandering around Petersburg with bombs in their pockets. Whenever they saw police they let on they were a couple of drunks. Why not just meet at the appointed place a few minutes before the attack? The conspirators roamed around the snowy streets all night long drawing attention to themselves. Razumov is not much better. Haldin persuades him to go and get the help of one Ziemianitch, who has transport. So off he goes to look for the getaway driver in the pub he usually haunts. Razumov is careful to draw as much attention to himself as possible. When the publican tells him Ziemianitch is dead drunk he makes a scene (“You lie!” he shouts, having already bit his lip till it bled.) But the publican is not lying. Ziemianitch is indeed drunk. Razumov tries to remedy this situation by beating the insensible man almost to death (he breaks a pitch fork handle on the man’s back) – in front of the publican, of course.

What modern Polish writers may have missed, though, is that the narrator is telling this part of the story on the basis of Razumov’s diary (that’s right: once police suspicion is firmly fixed on him, he starts keeping a diary). And so, when the text refers to his “cool superior reason” only moments after nearly killing a complete stranger for no reason at all, this is only Razumov’s self-image. (“Razumov” comes from “rozum,” Polish for reason, understanding.) When Haldin goes on about Razunov’s great brains he is probably flattering him: there may be more to this Haldin than meets the eye.

That lets Conrad off the hook for much of book one (or “Part First” as he calls it. Conrad often reads like a poor translation: “I used to take there books,” “Not a few poor people,” “I hear your High Nobility” etc. Part four of the book is called “Part Four”). But there are some niggling doubts: I defy any theatre director to block the scene in the general’s room with Razumov, the general and Prince K–, a scene in which the general sits “before” his desk, in profile to Razumov, and the prince looks at Razumov “round the back of the armchair,” though a couple of mentions later he is standing…

Then there is book two. Here the narrator is speaking for himself. And here, on page 100, is Peter Ivanovitch’s hat standing on the floor beside him and here, on page 107, is Peter Ivanovitch “seizing his hat off his knees.” How did it get there? I think we should be told.

Eastern Europeans and Russians will argue that these are the kind of pettifogging details that only a dull, materialist Westerner would pay any attention to. Of course Razumov’s watch stops on the fatal night. Only a Westerner would remember to wind it. Indeed, the book is more about the Russian Spirit, totalitarianism, the power of the word to destroy and what have you than it is about the details of revolutionary conspiracies or levitating hats. But as explanations go it’s a bit of a cop-out: “you wouldn’t understand because you are a westerner.” Substitute the word “westerner” for, say, “woman” or “culchie” in polite society and see how many nods of understanding you get. In fact, Conrad must be sending up the Russian Soul line of guff with the story of Peter Ivanovitch’s escape from Siberia: he files off one of his leg irons but drops and loses the file before doing the second one. Poles tell a joke of this sort about a Russian caught by the devil to this day…

But words mean things. Is this thing about the bolt/key Razumov’s and Haldin’s incompetence? The floating hat suggests that maybe it is just Conrad’s carelessness and it would be a mistake to read too much into the locking in of Haldin. I’ll leave the last words to Conrad, although I must say I don’t understand them: “Practical thinking in the last instance is but criticism.”

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