Patrik Ouředník’s forthcoming novel imagines one of the most striking phenomena of the nineteenth century: the founding of “free” settlements in North and South America by Europeans aspiring to a “brighter tomorrow.” These literally hundreds of utopian experiments had one trait in common-the rejection of both social and political revolution as advocated by communists, as well as by socialist and social Catholic reformers. The book, to be published in the fall in Prague and Paris simultaneously, has three parts and two narrators. In the following excerpt from part one, the narrator writes his “profession of faith” in 1902, forty-seven years after the events described in parts two and three of the account.
I was born the day the Spanish revolt was suppressed in the bloody storming of Trocadéro. My mother was in the service of a Genovese attorney who got her with child. After she gave birth, he sent her back to Pisa, where she had come from, with a promise to provide for his illegitimate child. And he kept his promise: My mother regularly received money from him for my upbringing and studies. Even later, however, he did not express any desire to meet me.
I have never concealed my bastard origin; on the contrary, I find in it further evidence of how ridiculous it is to divide people into classes, and how ridiculous are those who dream of installing a classless society by diktat, in the foolish belief that it is enough to declare a law for people to renounce the feeling of social exclusivity. Even at the cost of a million lives, one cannot hope to stop the vain aristocrat from filing his nails and admiring himself in the mirror; the upstart twit from setting stock in the twittishness to which he owes his wealth; the semiliterate scholar from holding up his semiliterate narrow-mindedness as a thing to be admired. Remake the world? Did we not learn anything from the French Revolution? There is only one way to create not an egalitarian but a fraternal society, and that is to join forces with those who think the same way and voluntarily build a new world, far from the old one, a world without a past, without hatred, and then-maybe then!-sheerly by virtue of its existence, its peace-loving nature, and its dignity, it will, step by step, influence others to think the same. Perhaps that is precisely what the Quakers were dreaming of when they set out for the New World. But their aspiration was futile from the outset because they brought with them their God, who was even more merciless than the one their fathers had worshiped. Their aspiration was futile from the outset because their aspiration was to live freely in slavery. And in the slavery of the mind to which they so stubbornly clung, they murdered the natives and had slaves of the body shipped in from distant lands. The number of slaves you have reflects the number of times that God has gazed upon you with pleasure-that was their creed.
After studies in Pisa and Perugia, I received my degree as a healer and veterinarian, and moved to Genoa. There, as you know, I enrolled in a course of philosophical studies, which I finished in Lyon. Four years later, fate blew me to Geneva, and a year after that to Vienna, which is where I met you. Of the year and a half I spent there, you know as much as I. From Vienna I made my first trip to Tunis, with the vague intention of forgetting about Europe, but the dismal living conditions there forced my early return to Italy. I settled down in Cuneo and opened a veterinary practice. The following months, I admit, I suffered in agony-your decision seared me like a red-hot iron. Why were we not able to find a way to each other, in spite of my willingness-and, I daresay, your inclination toward me? What was it that kept us apart? What is it that makes a person so obstinate, so aloof? Why is it that people are not closer to one another? Why are the natural aspirations of humans so often frustrated by rules and automatic behaviors to which we accede like unresisting puppets, filled with sawdust and slavishly submissive? Why is it that people are not able to listen to one another, that every conversation is nothing but a pretending of opinions, the result of mindless, ingrained reflexes that have absolutely nothing in common with either reason or emotion? I speak here not of social conventions, which are in and of themselves unimportant, but of humans’ scant longing for liberty. Why is it that people are so afraid of freedom?
From The Opportune Moment, 1855. Copyright © 2005 by Patrik Ouředník. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2005 by Alex Zucker. All rights reserved.