The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

In the Soviet Union of the 1970s and early 1980s, there was feeling of utter listlessness and apathy amongst the youth. The authoritarian system seemed well-entrenched, decaying yet tenacious. In those years, the quality of art and literature out of the Russian empire dropped precipitously. Other than a lone Solzhenitsyn, it appeared that there was little creativity about. Even the music was derivative and tired. People retreated more and more into themselves.

Hooman Majd, in his The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, published a little before the electoral events of last year, described a similar apathy amongst the youth of Iran. As long as they could practise their freedoms in the privacy of their homes, they didn't want to rock the boat, demand external liberties, engage in street protests. On the other side, the ruling cliques and their foot-soldiers became a bit more lax in punishing violations of the decency codes. A mutual detente, for all intents and purposes eternal, descended upon the land. There would be no immediate revolt, quoth Mr Majd.

It is a different matter that he was very shortly thereafter proven wrong in this assessment (in fact, he has quickly come up with a sequel - which I haven't read yet - which probably updates his argument).

But before you think to yourself that such ennui only descends upon totalitarian regimes, I'll urge you to read the absolutely superb Berlin Blues by Sven Regener. It is set in the West Berlin of the 1980s, in the weeks leading up to the fall of the Wall. West Berlin, you may recall, was an outpost of freedom surrounded on all sides by the Communist East, an embrace that caused many residents to feel an unconscious suffocation. Not our protagonist, though, who has turned thirty (or will shortly do so), and who expects nothing more from life than to continue to be a bartender, to read books, and to live life without too many expectations. In this, he is no different from his large circle of friends and acquaintances, all of whom stagger through their daily lives with all the insight of a dormouse. This is a funny and affectionate portrayal of a time of stagnation in the West shortly before 1989 when the collapse of Communism suddenly revitalised the people of Europe.

I was far too young in the 70s to experience any of this soul-sucking anomie; in the 80s, it was all high hair and Michael Jackson. Reading about the lives of people only a few years older than I am now brings fresh insight into events that shaped their characters. Sadly it appears that both freedom and the lack of it serve eventually to stifle the lives of the bright and sparky.


mumbai paused said...

You just made me buy both the books. Berlin Blues And The Ayatollah Begs to differ.

Thank you.

Fëanor said...

you're welcome!

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