Imagine that you’re sitting on a bus and the passenger next to you begins to tell you the story of their life’s obsession. At first you listen with a kind of suspended curiosity; you have a few minutes to spare, perhaps you’ll learn something interesting. After a few minutes you realize the story’s going to be about something you’ve never had the slightest interest in–Iraqi politics, say, or abstract expressionism. But just as you’re about to interrupt the speaker and explain that you’ve reached your stop, you discover that you’re completely caught up in the narrative. And so you sit back quietly and listen.
That’s as close as I can come to summarizing what it’s like to read one of Lawrence Weschler’s collections of nonfiction narratives, which he divides into the loose categories of “cultural comedies” and “political tragedies.” Weschler, a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, writes about people you’ve never heard of whose lives are consumed by something you don’t know anything about: a teacher at an agricultural college in Bangalore, India, who believes it’s his life’s mission to bring worldwide attention to an unknown painter in New York; a Czech dissident who spends 20 years smuggling writings in and out of Czechoslovakia and then, after the Velvet Revolution, is accused of having collaborated with the secret police; a rocket scientist turned banking expert who wants nothing more than to join the circus; a Danish cheese magnate who envisions building a modern art museum on a ramshackle country estate. These are charming, eccentric, infuriating, and exacting characters, and Weschler invites us to follow them in the mad pursuit of their obsessions. Invariably the journey turns out to be both fascinating and profoundly moving.
“If I were to think about how my writing has held together, I like to take things you’ve never heard of and through sheer narrative energy get you through the first few paragraphs,” Weschler told me in a conversation a few months ago. “You had no interest in reading a long piece on the subject, but the narrative takes you in, and about halfway through you discover it’s about the most important thing on earth.”
Weschler has recently published Calamities of Exile, a collection of three nonfiction novellas about political exiles whose attempts to defy the totalitarian regimes in their homelands end in calamity. The book begins with the story of Kanan Makiya, the thoughtful and loyal son of Iraq’s most famous architect, whose two pseudonymous books document the political and aesthetic atrocities of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Makiya’s task, harrowing in itself, is complicated by the great love and loyalty he feels toward his father, who is designing monuments for Hussein. As Weschler writes, “[Makiya] was pursuing a conceptual deconstruction of the regime for which his father was simultaneously busy elaborating visionary constructs.”
Next we meet Jan Kavan, the impossibly stubborn and cantankerous Czech expatriate who spent two decades aiding and abetting Czech dissidents, returned after the Velvet Revolution to join the new parliament, and was then denounced in that same parliament as having been a longtime collaborator with the StB, the old regime’s secret police. As the narrative reconstructs what Kavan says happened 20 years previously, and what his accusers say happened, we begin to understand the complexities of evaluating the moral conduct of the citizenry in a totalitarian state. Not only is it difficult to find someone who hasn’t been compromised in some way, but the investigations of character that swept the Czech Republic in the early 1990s tended to rely on the records kept by the previous regime–which had plenty of reasons for falsifying them.
The final piece in the book tells the story of Breyten Breytenbach, a painter and poet who baffled apartheid-era South Africa by being both its premier Afrikaner writer and a savage critic of its racial policies. Weschler tells of his exile from South Africa, his secret return in a monumentally inept attempt at revolutionary organizing, his arrest and later confession and apology, the nine years he subsequently spent in prison, and what all of this meant to his surreal and disturbing art. Breytenbach is in many ways the most perplexing and compelling of the three exiles in the book, at once foolish and insightful, courageous and craven. It’s only because Weschler is such a deft and perceptive narrator that you end up forgiving even Breytenbach’s most appalling lapses, on the grounds that, as Breytenbach writes in one of his poems, “no one is guilty of innocence.”
Weschler says that he saw the three pieces as a triptych fairly early on, and as he points out in his preface, there are remarkable parallels between them, both in coincidental details and in the moral ambiguities perpetrated by both exile and totalitarianism. In each story, the protagonist finds himself pressed into inadvertent collaboration with the very forces he’s trying to overcome. These are tales about how difficult it is to do the right thing, or even to know what the right thing is. Just as importantly, they are also great stories, eminently readable and graced with a compassionate understanding of the many ways in which both people and nations can misbehave.
The pieces that make up A Wanderer in the Perfect City are what Weschler describes as “cultural comedies,” many of them written as a kind of reprieve from the emotional demands of the political tragedies. Once again these are tales of complicated, charming, and obsessive people, whose lives suddenly become consumed by an unexpected passion, and once again Weschler’s skill as a storyteller makes certain that their passions become ours.
The best pieces in the book make you feel as if you’ve just spent an evening with one of the most interesting people you’ve ever met. In that way they are a kind of antidote to the celebrity profiles that now plague even the pages of the New Yorker; we are interested in these people not because of who they are but because of what they say. “Slonimsky’s Failure,” for instance, is a whirlwind frolic through the life of a prodigiously talented Russian intellectual who has been a successful composer, conductor, musical lexicographer, and promoter of avant-garde music, but who considers himself a failure because, he says, he doesn’t have any self-discipline. Weschler allows us to delight in the manic whimsicality of a man who possesses an eidetic memory for both music and trivia, is capable of conducting two orchestras in different tempos at the same time, spoke to his daughter almost entirely in Latin for the first five years of her life, fills his musical encyclopedias with a wealth of sly puns and cunning commentary, and is so compulsive that he can’t throw away his daily paper until he’s corrected all the errors contained within.
One of Weschler’s gifts as a writer is that he knows when to get out of the way and let his subjects talk, and most of the pieces are filled with long quotes. When he does intervene, he does it so subtly that we’re tempted to take his observations for our own. In “Shapinsky’s Karma,” he tells the story of Harold Shapinsky, an unknown painter who is suddenly discovered by the art mavens of the world thanks to the efforts of Akumal Ramachander, an Indian schoolteacher. Akumal’s chutzpah is entertaining enough, but Weschler also infuses the story with keen political and psychological observations. As the story unfolds, we see how both Shapinsky and Akumal have been constrained by the rigid stratifications of their home countries–the New York art world in Shapinsky’s case, the Indian caste system in Akumal’s–and the liberation of each becomes that much more poignant.
Akumal’s insistence that it was his karma to discover Shapinsky, and Shapinsky’s karma to be discovered by Akumal, reminded me of an observation Weschler made. We had been talking about the allure of narrative, the reason we want to be told stories even if they are sad and disturbing, as Weschler’s accounts sometimes are. “The thing that’s scarier than the scariest story is that there is no story,” he said. “The really scary thought is that it’s totally random. Generally we live in a chaotic world and the only thing that gets you through the day is the tendency to impose order on it–to turn it into a story. Then you can light a fire and tell stories to each other.”
Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas by Lawrence Weschler, University of Chicago Press, $25.
A Wanderer in the Perfect City: Selected Passion Pieces by Lawrence Weschler, Hungry Mind Press, $16.95.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Terry Furry.