In an essay last year on atheism, Roger Scruton, the conservative writer, historian and philosopher, recalled the darkest aspects of late-period communism. ‘Its aim,’ he wrote, ‘ was to replace social life with a cold calculation for survival, so that people would live as competing atoms, in…. absolute enmity and distrust…. where every secret that was peeled away from the other person revealed another secret beneath it…. ‘ Family, religion, your attachment to your nation and its history: ‘Those were the things that people would not exchange or relinquish even when required by the party to betray them. They were the consecrated treasures, hidden below the desecrated cities, where they glowed more brightly in the dark. ‘
Scruton knew very well what he was talking about. In the 1980s he made numerous (and risky) trips to the communist Eastern Bloc, smuggling books and forming contacts for underground universities he’d helped to establish there. Now this same period has produced the novel Notes from Underground, a bleak and beautiful tale in which, from this surface world of fear and non-communication, leading character Jan Reichl makes regular descents into the Prague metro system, where faces wear ‘the mask that everyone adopted… from which no forbidden thought could ever emerge.’ Jan finds the trips a restitution – here he can stand in silence with others, enjoying a ‘solidarity of the shattered’, imagining their lives in ways he will later write down, producing an illicit collection of short stories which his mother will duplicate samizdat-style on stolen paper, landing herself in jail and Jan on the edges of the dissident movement, where his real journey to the heart of things will begin.
Jan’s led into this world by Betka, a young woman who, clutching a lost copy of his book, has simply dropped into his life. Confident, direct and a tantalising mixture of openness and enigma, Betka will give Jan the most intense experience of beauty of his life and leave it cauterised for good. At once bracingly honest yet always half-hidden, Betka is the spirit of the book – a guide into the world of Truth, the dissident’s dissident, tenderly sceptical but questioning nonetheless of all she sees. Notes from Underground is the story, recalled in America 20 years later, of what Jan has lost, and what Betka’s left behind.
As he writes, Scruton atmospherically evokes the strange cocktail of late communist Czechoslovakia, with its flickering streetlamps, its ‘gritty aroma of coal smoke, more a taste than a smell’, its waterlogged potholes and shrieking trams, its academics demoted to boiler-stokers and its priests to construction-workers. Characters are followed by shadowy, trudging pursuers, and conversations hushed and peremptory, like something out of le Carré, likely to be curtailed by both speakers slipping away determinedly, in different directions, into the murk. This is no simple fictionalisation of the past, but a book which shines with moral ideas – the dissident movement is simply the starting point for exploring concepts of truth, sacrifice, and the power of the unseen. There are transcendent descriptions of forbidden, underground meetings with their saints, prophets and priests – phonies too, both Scruton and Betka are quick to assure us – and in a description of Jan and Betka’s visit to her ancestral, rural roots, passages of controlled but revelatory rapture. Sentences jump out at you, most of the deepest insights coming from Betka: “You cannot hurry with words. Otherwise you drop them and they break”; ‘Real people should be distinguished from fakes, she argued, and the difference between them is as great as that between the line of verse that changes the world and the sprawl of words on a sheet of paper.’
‘I am writing of an experience that has disappeared from the world,’ the narrator says, and throughout one feels a sense of elegy – that this is the last gasp of a Europe where words will have true meaning, where ‘necessity’ exists, and where human contact and even everyday objects achieve true significance through their rarity: where truth is anything but relative but something to be sought, identified – if such a thing is possible – and lived in. Meanwhile, with Glasnost, the values of the West encroach, and seem more dangerous than the regime they’re replacing, half-longed for by those against whom they’re stepping up their siege. When the opening up and subsequent Disneyfication of Prague comes – with its pop music ‘in every bar, filling the corners where, not so long ago, we whispered of Kafka and Rilke’ – you feel more than a city has been sacrificed.
This is not an easy book to read – it wrenches you out of everyday life and even a couple of readings make you feel you’ve barely scratched at it – but it is a profoundly rewarding one. Deep and serious things seem to be happening at every turn beneath the lines, and a wealth of Czech culture – folksongs, fairy tales, Janáček, Kundera and Hrabal – spreads its magnetic patterns through the text. The book feels written out of a deep stillness and silence, and demands and repays it in return. The character of Betka, Scruton says, spoke into his ear as he wrote, sometimes in Czech, and you can well believe it. It’s part of the novel’s power that we fall under her spell along with him, led by her strange blend of mystery and self-revelation further and further away from the surface of our daily lives and daily selves. Like all momentous journeys, it leaves you disoriented, changed and seriously doubting your original point of departure. ‘I knew that I was in a consecrated space,’ Jan says at one point, ‘that all thought and speech had a different meaning here, as music has a different meaning when it is breathed into the silence.’ His words are about a ruined chapel, but they describe too our experience of this extraordinary novel, which has a supernatural energy all of its own.
Roger Scruton’s Notes from Underground (Beaufort Books, 2014) is available from Amazon at £10.06. For Roger Scruton’s essay on how the book came to be written – also published on this site – please click on the image below.