I like Brodsky's story when he starts to speak of exile, and how it has been something he goes through even before he leaves Russia—like when he talks about going to Norenskaya in the Russian region of Arkhangelsk. "It was 1965. I was in that village, in that internal exile I had been sent to. I’d written several poems, a couple of which I sent to the man who did the translations of Frost that had impressed me so much."
This turning point happens for Brodsky when he awakens to this love affair with the English language. Moreover this love affair occurs in an internal exile. There is little he can do except farm and write. He recalls, also, that there is very little translation of modern English poetry in Russian, and what they have available in Russian translation were 18th century classics. Translating modern English poetry becomes one of the things that shapes him. Long before the real exile happens he is sent to the North where he starts to consider the vocation of writing poetry.
I quite like how it feels like some sort of pilgrimage that the writer goes through—this visceral moment of solitude. It reminds me of that phrase, the solitary walker, le promeneur solitaire. It is fascinating because the character of the solitary walker is at odds with communal thinking. Solitude begins to shape the development of the artist away from Russian society.
Brodsky finds his solitude through some kind of break: an exile from community; an exile from society. I sense the break from social or group politics here: that he is not writing for any social or political group means that he is, first of all, writing for himself. And that is what makes his poetry political.
The two images of planes on the air field in Entebbe, Uganda, were taken by Malcolm McCrow in the 1960s. There is the possibility that a number of Ugandan writers, artists, and musicians, left on the East African Airways passenger flights out to London, Zurich, Nairobi, Lagos, and Stockholm. It is possible because exile was inevitable for them.
When propaganda literature came into popular circulation in independent Uganda, there was hardly any room left for critical voices, who were silenced and castigated by the Idi Amin and Milton Obote governments. The newspapers “The People” and “The Voice of Uganda” were both considered affiliated with the national state; effectively, their pages are peppered with propaganda.
Critical voices like Abu Mayanja’s in the pages of Transition Magazine were ostracized. And as a result, critics of his ambition had to catch the next flight out on East African Airways or Sabena Airlines. These airplanes, like Cold War fighter models, still appear to be coming out of war and conflict. In this way they also remind me of the large numbers of war veterans that returned from exile in the late 1940s and early 1950s, one of whom is the prolific orator and political leader Benedicto Kiwanuka, whose biography details several trips abroad, on boats and planes. These flights have been written into the lives those who have had to leave home.
There he is as a young energetic soldier on a plane to Alexandria during the Second World War. There he is taking the boat to Durban, leaving his wife and children behind to pursue his studies in law. There he is flying to London from Nairobi with his wife and children. There is his wife Maxencia on the air field in 1961 when he returns from England in negotiations for Independence.
I feel attached to something beyond solitude. Regarding solitude, one of the people that comes to mind is Thelonious Monk, the jazz composer. Another that comes to mind is Billie Holiday singing the jazz standard In My Solitude. I first listened to that song in a space of exile: that is far away from home.
I was searching for what the poet was, who the poet was. And I think that the song, In My Solitude, shows the vocation of the poet as harbouring an infinite character of solitude. "In my solitude, you haunt me, with memories that never died," Holiday sings. I suppose, that is the tragedy of the inability to cope with new environments; the failures of the free man as Brodsky would put it. The overbearing burden of nostalgia.
I was thinking about is the internal exile of a few years that began with the loss of a cabaret card. When his card was returned Monk had sketched out a whole new way of playing—he had reconceptualised his compositions. It's incredible what solitude can do.
"He could sit there for hours," one of the musicians Monk worked with recalls his need for solitude. His sense of ambition, too, mirrors that of the solitary walker, who uses solitude for creative production. The artist has found their voice, or their poetic voice so to speak, in that space of solitude.
In an interview Brodsky talks about how he was arrested for writing his poetry; how translators of English poetry got executed or imprisoned, how people were spying on him. He had this deep suspicion of being spied on; and so it was this that pushed him into a second exile—this time outside Russia.
First of all, the internal exile is a beautiful madness. It is a place that he's been before, up in the bleak mountain ranges. The kind he had seen on the scientific expeditions for mineral discovery of his earlier preoccupation. It is on these expeditions that he starts writing poetry. He finds this space in the mountains and then he is brought there again on a farm, and then discovers that he can explore further this poetic voice through translation of English poetry.
So for him, there's something beautiful and something resiliently powerful about how exile allows for him to find and to trace his voice: his poetic voice, his artistic voice. There are interesting parallels in relation to the metaphor of madness itself: how suffocating the suspicion of Brodsky's writing has become; how suffocating home has become for him.
Gao Xingjian left China and went to France; his journey recounted in a memoir, is anything but straightforward. He'd been working in China and writing criticism on Chinese literature and theatre to an extent that the communist regime wasn't happy with. Like Brodsky, he was sent to a labour camp in the country, and like the Russian poet, this is where his first novel is born.
The novelesque comes to him in the midst of a frightening, daunting break from Communism. He goes from engaging critically with this regime's literature to suddenly discovering that in truth he is incapable of any admiration. This is what propels his turn to the rural.
Brodsky recalls such a dislocation when he writes about the condition of exile, and in his notion of "delaying the arrival of the present." He points to withdrawal from reality—a communist reality perhaps for Xingjian.
He refers to nostalgia as a symptom of this withdrawal from reality, an inability to deal with immediate space. For both authors the linguistic becomes this domain for exploring the fracturing.
For Gao Xingjian, it is the moment in the labour camp, after being detained, that he starts to reflect on Chinese traditions and Chinese culture; that he takes this anthropological journey to the rural parts of China.
If we are to avoid delaying the arrival of the present, and therefore comprehend the space in which we have been placed, we are required to dislocate and disembody ourselves from what we understood home to be. We are required, in this sense, to disembark from what we understood our identities to be prior to exile.
Xingjian's memoir is written from the point of view of the émigré who has returned home—and you get to see the strangeness of disembodied identity. One of the most powerful things about his memoir is that he remembers everything in real time—he has become dissimilated from China's communist reality. In France, he has now garnered acclaim as a writer; in Beijing, he is nothing more than a heretic to national beliefs. Even though it is no longer Mao's China, the tension of what he remembers about that country is always there. We go through moments of sheer beauty or nostalgia, to moments of terror in vivid descriptions of the Red Guard.
Xingjian's struggle with the Red Guard in China is no different from playwrights Byron Kawadwa and Robert Serumaga's with the Idi Amin military regime in Uganda. When reading about the terror and fear that the Red Guard put in the hearts of people, there were clear parallels with the military governments of the 1970s across Africa who used propaganda and violence in ways that bring to mind Communist militarism at its most brutal.
The level of anti-intellectual discourse typical of such militarism drove Serumaga into wordless dialogues on the theatre stage, in which his characters resorted to mime and dance, using their bodies to speak. The absence of sonic language was replaced with the vibrancy of a visual language: dance and the dancer's body became the chosen medium in the hands of Serumaga.
These writers Kawadwa and Serumaga's relation to African politics is not as direct as their contemporaries, like Abu Mayanja's writing about the Uganda Constitution. Instead their chosen alternative political and cultural mediums are closer to the poetic.
When Brodsky describes his love affair with the English language, his sentimental declaration covers up this painful break from Russia. Inevitably his translation of English poetry led him to W. H. Auden, who welcomed him into his own home when he arrived in Western Europe. Masked behind his perfectionism in writing in English is Brodsky's pains to avoid nostalgia, to accept this poetic reorientation to Western Europe.
We sort of lose one thing and cling on as hard as we can to the other thing, and so we develop this manic interest in another thing almost as if to make up for the loss of the original thing.
I think this is inevitably what exile is. In the end, Brodsky has two beautiful sentences that, for me, sum up the experience of exile: Travelling by balloon is always precipitous, and above all unpredictable. Too easily one becomes a play thing of winds.
Images: (c) Malcolm McGrow