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a sample of blocks

In the short Dutch novel "Blokken" ("Blocks") by Ferdinand Bordewijk, the main character is the State, a communist totalitarian regime. The State forbids any individualism, hence the story has no individual characters.

Except in one place, where a dialogue of rebels is recorded. One says:

Man is a born discoverer. He made a discovery, the most terrible of all times: he found the finiteness of the universe. He abolished God. The astronomical scale became nothing. And man, who needed an idol, took himself. This idol, projected into the abstract, became the State. But when there is no room for God in the universe, because man has scoured it, I see God outside the universe. This universe is spatial and temporal, that much is now certain. This universe cannot but be small, because we have discovered its structure. But we can believe in big things. My faith has grown. My belief is that the universe is connected, beyond sense perception, to other universes into a new unity in the fourth dimension, and this again to others and so on to infinity and boundlessness. And that, perhaps, is God.

The State, a-religious, reacts thus:

The execution took place ten days later, on the population’s day of leisure. The sentenced limped to the scaffolds. Their eyes were hideous. Their eyelids had been cut off, then their eyes radiated with a high-power quartz lamp. After ten minutes, there were utterly blind. There was a woman among them.

Their blindness made them file meekly and helplessly between their guards, along streets full of onlookers, who followed them. The Council had disfigured them to make them repentant. They were repentant.

The above is a sample of the translation of "Blokken" Peter Shenk and i attempted, and finished yesterday. A complete and presentable draft of it at least, with some polishing to do.

Update: I've added a short introduction to the book, discussing its relation to new realism and its position as an early dystopia...

an introduction to blocks

The Dutch short novel 'Blocks' ('Blokken', 1931), by Ferdinand Bordewijk, is a unique though somewhat forgotten work of fiction. It was originally published in a collection of three short novels, with 'Grunting Beasts' ('Knorrende Beesten', 1933) and 'Bint' (1934). While 'Bint' is still comparatively widely read – it is a high school favorite for being short – 'Blocks' is usually only remembered as "that other story in Bint."

All three stories, however, are stylistic gems of a rare kind in Dutch literature. 'Blocks' especially deserves to be read as a nightmarish science-fiction story that predates the similarly themed 'Brave New World'. In its own way, 'Blocks' still has the power to evoke the life-strangling evil of totalitarian regimes.

bordewijk & the new realism

Ferdinand Bordewijk (1884-1965) is one of the big names in twentieth century Dutch literature. He was born in Amsterdam but lived in The Hague for most of his life, working as a lawyer and school teacher, and writing numerous novels and short stories. He was awarded the prestigious P.C. Hooft Prize in 1953 and the Constantijn Huygens Prize in 1957.

Bordewijk is best remembered today for his novel 'Character' ('Karakter', 1938). An unsentimental Bildungsroman bearing the subtitle 'Novel of Son and Father', 'Character' chronicles the long struggle of a son trying to make a career as a lawyer while being obstructed mercilessly by his father. The father sums up his hard-boiled philosophy when he states: "I'll strangle nine tenths of him, and the one tenth I'll leave him will make him great." 'Character' was successfully, if somewhat loosely, adapted into a film, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1998.

Though much of Bordewijk's oeuvre can be called magical realism (he wrote many 'Fantastical Tales'), he is also regarded as the most influential exponent of the Nieuwe Zakelijkheid (New Realism) in the Netherlands. A modernist movement of the interbellum period, the Nieuwe Zakelijkheid aimed to use the arts to reflect the many technological advances and new pace of life of the time. Its mission was to portray modern society in an objective, detached and documentary way. (Literally, the word 'zakelijkheid' translates as 'businesslike-ness.')

In the visual arts, the Nieuwe Zakelijkheid was connected with the Dutch movement 'De Stijl', which strove for pure abstraction and universality, and had in the painter Piet Mondriaan and the architect Gerrit Rietveld its most famous adherents. In literature, the Nieuwe Zakelijkheid came to mean chiefly a new writing style: clear, sober, concise and functional. A major influence for Dutch writers was the novel 'Das Leben der Autos' ('The Life of Cars', 1930) by the Russian author Ilja Ehrenburg, which took the stylistic ideal to its extreme with an almost unreadable enumeration of facts and names.

Bordewijk's collection of short novels 'Blocks', 'Grunting Beasts' and 'Bint' came to be regarded as the most prominent Dutch representative of the Nieuwe Zakelijkheid, and they gave rise to what has been termed Bordewijk's ‘reinforced concrete style’. The language is terse, blunt and stripped bare, characterized by ellipsis and asyndeton. The imagery is complex and symbolic, often surrealistically so. Paradoxically, in view of the Nieuwe Zakelijkheid ideals, Bordewijks prose, though detached, is anything but objective, nor is it always crystal clear. In places, it seems to mock as much as use the realist style principles.

the state & the individual

Another testament to Bordewijk's ambiguous attitude towards modernity is the fact that 'Blocks' is dedicated to Sergei Eisenstein and Albert Einstein, whom he calls "masters of horror". Embodying the spectacular advances in mass communication and physics of the time, Eisenstein and Einstein also point the way to a future where the collective rules over the individual and mankind's mastery of the laws of the universe has made religion obsolete. 'Blocks' is the extrapolation of such a future.

Lacking a conventional story, 'Blocks' presents a vision – a montage, to recall Eisenstein – of a totalitarian state ruthlessly repressing all individualism. This State, led by an anonymous Council, "considered itself to be the most perfect order attainable on earth, and established for earthly eternity." It can be regarded as the principal character, since, apart from a few rebels, 'Blocks' contains no individuals whatsoever.

The State's relation to its citizens is stated unequivocally from the start:

The State denied all individual values, above all the value of the individual. The individual had only one significance to the State, the danger he posed to the State. It was then that the State saw him as a human being. To the State, human being equaled enemy.

In this State, where "wanting different was a violation, doing different was a crime," a few people, mysteriously referred to as the Group A, dare question the State-prescribed ideology. In a monologue that reads like a spirited response to Einstein's relativity theory, one of them states:

"Man is a born discoverer. He made a discovery, the most terrible of all times: he found the finiteness of the universe. He abolished God. The astronomical scale was reduced to nothing. And man, who needed an idol, took himself. This idol, projected into the abstract, became the State. But when there is no room for God in the universe, because man has scoured it, I look for God outside the universe. This universe is spatial and temporal, that much is now certain. This universe cannot but be small, because we have discovered its structure. But we can believe in big things. My faith has grown. My belief is that the universe is connected beyond sensory perception to other universes into a new unity in the fourth dimension, and this again to others and so on to infinity and boundlessness. And that, perhaps, is God."

The State, however, reacts swiftly and ruthlessly to these rebels. The uprising is repressed with all its military might, and the capital's historic center, which the State perceives as a hotbed of rebellion, is demolished and replaced with the same building blocks as the rest of the city. The former city Core is made into an asphalt plaza. During all this, the population suffers from lack of food, water and heat.

Ten days later, the State ceremoniously executes the principal instigators of the rebllion:

The sentenced limped to the scaffolds. Their eyes were hideous. Their eyelids had been cut off, then their eyes radiated with a high-power quartz lamp. After ten minutes they were stone-blind. Among them was a woman.

Their blindness made them file meekly and helplessly between their guards, along streets swarming with onlookers, who followed them. The Council had disfigured them to make them repentant. They were repentant.

With these five people – they are mentioned by name – the only individuals in the story die, and the State's reign is again uncontested.

But the idea of individuality proves much harder to eradicate. To make this point, Bordewijk sets up an elaborate play of symbols. The most obvious symbols are the blocks from the title, referring to the style of architecture as well as to the rationalist philosophy of the State, which seeks to turn its citizens into "numbered bricks in a collective block." By contrast, all round forms, which remind of the human, irrational form, are banned. This antithesis can be extended to include male versus female, where the State is male and the female connotes life, fecundity, organic growth – in short: life and humanity. (Note, for example, that Bordewijk explicitly mentions that there was a woman among the rebels.)

On this symbolical level, 'Blocks' continues subversively to contest the State's supremacy. The final chapter, for instance, describes a military review, with the Council watching the State's gathered military strength from above, out of the windows of an airship. The Council notes some irregularities in the military organization, but it also spots something else:

And then, looking down, they saw, on the roof of a new building block of the Core Plaza, the beginnings of a dome like the first breast-swelling of a female child.

blocks as an early dystopia

'Blocks' has been regarded as criticizing communism, and its message could be summarized as the impossibility of eradicating human nature, no matter how hard 'the system' tries to snuff it out. As such, 'Blocks' belongs to a long literary tradition of dystopias, or negative future visions, of which Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' (1932) and George Orwell's '1984' (1949) are probably the most famous examples. Another early example that deserves mention in this context is Fritz Lang's silent film 'Metropolis' (1927).

The word dystopia was coined to contrast utopia, the name given by Thomas More to the ideal society of his invention. Dystopic fiction has come to be a distinct branch of science-fiction, characterized by the portrayal of a (near) future society of oppression, either overt or disguised as a utopian paradise. The depicted world, often dominated by advanced technology and repressive ideology, echoes our own but has been extrapolated to serve as a warning. It usually features a non-conforming protagonist who rebels for change, with varying success.

It is interesting to note that 'Blocks' was published one year before 'Brave New World,' which is thematically closely related. Both works, however, are predated by the Russian novel 'We' (1920) by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which is generally considered to be the godfather of the genre. Huxley maintained he was unaware of 'We,' as witnessed by a letter from 1962, where he writes:

Oddly enough I never heard of Zamiatin’s book until 3 or 4 years ago... 'Men Like Gods' [H.G. Wells, 1923] annoyed me to the point of planning a parody, but when I started writing I found the idea of a negative Utopia so interesting that I forgot about Wells and launched into B.N.W.

Zamyatin later commented: "... [it] proves that these ideas are in the stormy air we breathe."

Even so, it seems likely that Bordewijk was influenced by 'We' when he wrote 'Blocks,' as evidenced by a number of striking similarities in the story. To name just one, in 'We' the citizens of the State have no names but are known by a combination of a letter and three numbers (e.g., the protagonist is called D-503). In Blocks, the State is working on a system "to take from man the last of his personality, name and surname, and replace these with three letters and a number."

However, the greatest quality of Blocks lies in the way its 'form follows content', with a unique style that fits its subject matter as if the work itself was written in the dystopic society it describes. Its motif of the square (rational, collective, inhuman) repressing roundness (irrational, individual, human) is reflected in the angular, impersonal writing. But subversive natural imagery creeps even into the telegram-style sentences describing the State's victory over nature, such as when a landing helicopter-type aircraft is compared to a bird seeking its roost.

Quotes from 'Blocks' are from the English translation by myself and Peter Shenk. (Copyright owned by the heirs F. Bordewijk.)

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four comments

repentant? cool woord, ik zou het in het nederlands niet weten... wat is Bintje in het Engels?

p (URL), 17-04-’05 10:05

'Boetvaardig' is what the Dutch text has for repentant. Very biblical ;) And yes, Bint might be our next challenge... No idea how to translate that tho.

bv , 17-04-’05 10:38

Well maybe you can use 'de beverlander' another kind of dutch potatoe. Beaverlander will probably get you a bigger target audience, title-wise.

p (URL), 17-04-’05 10:44

'Bint' turns out to be a word in english too... See: http://www.answers.com/bint

bv , 17-04-’05 11:53

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