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Outburst 5: Notes From Underground: The Continuing Adventures of an American Academic Trapped in Central Europe

What is mundane? Is it what goes unnoticed? What is unmarked?

But unnoticed by whom? Unmarked by whom?

For government purposes every collection of diverse individuals, every administrative district may count as a unity; yet, within any group there will be diversity: New-comers, speakers of minority languages, devotees of minority religions, and countless other sub-groups. And for each of those possible categories, there will be the possibility of differences in what gets noticed, what gets marked. Those with less power are prone to notice social facts, especially injustices, which the more powerful simply fail to see. Thus, the category of the mundane is a complex category, a concept whose meaning is not determined until certain parameters are set. And any setting of those parameters would, in a methodologically rigorous world, be justified.

For the past five years I have been mostly living and working in Central Europe, and as a foreigner with a partial mastery of the local language, I inhabit an amorphous borderland between the socially integrated and the total outcast. Anecdotal evidence suggests that my experience differs only by degree from what every newcomer or immigrant experiences. A Canadian friend who lives in Prague but grew up surrounded by Czech immigrants in Canada once told me that immigrants always complain about their new country.

In my experience as an “ex-pat,” the things which you, as a partially adapted visitor, notice, are often things which local people consider unworthy of comment. This is frustrating for two reasons. First: there is the intrinsic madness of much of what passes for normal and is not noticed or commented upon locally. My apartment building stands atop a hill in a long row of apartment building in a densely populated neighborhood. And the grassy hill sloping away from my row of buildings down to a major street where a tram runs is, in effect, a toilet for all of the dogs cooped up in the many apartments in the neighborhood. The grassy hill is pretty much covered with dog excrement. Dogs of all sizes and varieties—including attack dogs and (given the size of local apartments) surprisingly large dogs—are extremely popular here. And the “pooper scooper” is unknown. On top of the problem itself, there is the frustration of needing to remain silent. A foreigner who points out that this is a sub-optimal situation runs the risk of being labeled an ungrateful guest.

Second: my daily life, my own mundanity, is that of a foreigner working at a University Which Would Be A Distance Learning Pioneer. And that life represents only one of the many possible daily experiences of life in the borderland between East and West, between what was the old Socialist System’s central planned economy and today’s enormous underground (“black”) economy, with hospitals, schools, and governments on the verge of collapse. For an accurate picture, one must add to this stew an influx of foreigners, among them many Americans, who are happy to get away with things they could never do at home, people who are able and willing to exploit the situation. Thus, the mundane, the everyday, the unnoticed in this part of the world includes many transactions which would be considered corrupt or questionable elsewhere. But locally, many such transactions are common and unnoticed.

I do not wish to wax moralistic. What counts as corruption depends upon who is doing the counting. To the best of my knowledge, people in the United States don’t usually talk about “corruption”; they speak instead of the need for campaign funding reform—itself a pretty euphemism. But, from the perspective of other countries, it is hard to see that the problem with campaign financing is anything else but a corruption problem. Similarly, official US ideology says there is no racism problem. Occasional riots (L.A., Cincinnati) are marked as anomalies. It is tempting to suppose that when justice is at issue, principles whose verbal expression are indefinite and undefined get filled in and defined by the decisions of those with power. Just as the resonances and unspoken implications of such phrases as “Eastern” or “Central Europe” seem to be determined by those living in the other part of Europe.

My final thought on this general theme will be this: No matter how much Kafka you read beforehand, you simply cannot imagine the unpredictability of life in this part of the world. I offer a small bit of documentation in the form of Milan Kundera’s story “Nobody will laugh.” I first read this story when I was a student in the US, and at that time the Berlin Wall was still standing. Today it seems to me that the story contains certain universal elements which have survived the “fall of communism.”

Kundera’s protagonist is a teacher at a university, where he is visited by a man asking him to read his manuscript. The hero finds the manuscript uninteresting and unoriginal, but wishes to spare the author unpleasantness. So, he avoids him. But the author persists. The hero arranges with his students to hold his lectures at a mutually agreeable time which is different from the officially posted time. Eventually, though the hero tries to cover his tracks, he is, finally, tracked down. Along the way, desperate just to get rid of this man, the hero suggests to the man’s wife that he (the persistent author of an inferior work) may have had impure thoughts about the hero’s girlfriend. At that point, the wife’s response accelerates the chain of events until, at the end of the story, the hero loses his apartment, his job, and his girlfriend.

The logic of Kundera’s tale is clear. It starts when you try to avoid an unpleasant experience. You take counter-maneuvers, which necessitate further maneuvers, until you wind up in an unwanted and unexpected situation.

Yet, I believe this not merely the logic of the communist past. Whenever I have unburdened myself of such experiences by sharing them with friends who have lived here all of their lives, their response is, typically, understanding—nods of comprehension and laughter. And that comprehension is the surest sign that such experiences are not unusual.

The author lives in the capital of a small country in Central Europe where he is employed by an American University.

Author: Mark Lovas

Published inOutbursts
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