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Book Review : Ripping the Safety Net of Middle-Europe Nationality

July 14, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

In the Labyrinth by John David Morley (Atlantic Monthly: $15.95)

"I hadn't quite finished my breakfast when the doorbell rang. My wife had just poured me a fresh cup of coffee, half a slice of bread and honey lay uneaten on the plate in front of me. . . . A young man in uniform standing outside asked me if my name was Joseph Pallehner. I said it was. The young man told me I was under arrest." Then Pallehner, who, as a young German businessman has managed to survive World War II by prudently just doing business, and keeping himself to himself, gets gobbled up in the great Mouli Grinder of Life.

He is taken to jail, questioned by an American, made to wait in the first of a series of holding rooms with "men of a great variety of nationalities and from all walks of life--German, Czech, Russian, Hungarian, stateless persons, politicians, generals, administrators, currency smugglers and black marketeers," all of them there for some reason or no reason; all of them washed into this jail like flotsam left over from the shipwreck of the war.

If luck had been with Pallehner he would have been released the next day, but then, of course, there would have been no book. "In the Labyrinth" is based on a true story: The author interviewed the real "Pallehner" and many of his cell mates, and what follows is a re-imagining of seven years that defy all powers of imagination.

Not a Political Person

The paradox that "informs" the incarceration of Joseph Pallehner is that, while living the life of a political prisoner, he is not a political person at all. Never, through the course of this narrative, does he admit to having committed any kind of real crime, and half his cell mates echo the same feeling. They haven't committed crimes against the state, they simply don't care about the state, which to a certain kind of government is the very worst crime.

This gets ahead of the story. Pallehner, once he leaves his American captors in Occupied Germany, is sent east, to Czechoslovakia, where, in fact, he spent much of his early life and most of World War II. He arrives in Bratislava--close to the mid-point of that long, thin country--a kind of ad hoc boundary between the Czechs and the Slovaks; a city also known as Pressburg to the Germans and Pozsony to the Hungarians. That, too, points to the kind of "history" that fathers the events taking place in this story.

Czechoslovakia is only as old as Pallehner himself. As a country, it was created as a convenience to world leaders. In both wars (and the Cold War to follow) it functioned as a kind of geographical railroad crossing of peoples and nations. Pallehner, as a businessman, has had to speak four languages: Slovak, the language of the working class in the eastern half of the country; Czech, in order to do business with the people in Prague; Hungarian, since this land had once been part of a "stylish Hungarian monarchy"; and German, of course.

Pallehner considers himself German: "My first loyalty (in Bratislava) was to the ethnic German community, not to the state of which I had nominally become a citizen. . . ." This is a short book, but pages of it are taken up with the Democratic This and the Socialist That; the squabbling and jostling of political parties, the chaos of it all--which suddenly becomes unimportant and really stupefyingly irrelevant: first, because of the German power-grabs in World War II, and then because of the Russian enclosure of the country.

Meanwhile, here's Pallehner, in Leopoldov Prison, trying to stay alive, sentenced to six years for something he not only didn't do but can't even comprehend. In jail as well as out, he tries to avoid trouble; to "keep his nose clean and move up," so to say. He's forever getting involved in prison "businesses," building pigsties with soft-handed priests as his construction workers, or pulling carrots outside the gates of the prison and leaving half of them in the ground in his effort to keep up, or working in the laundry where the acid in the air eats away his flesh. He steadfastly tries not to escape, though when his friends do, he's shackled and thrown into a dungeon for a month, just . . . because.

It's the author's perception (remember, it's John David Morley, speaking through Pallehner) that "the more the country's social and political system came to resemble a prison, the more accurately the prison within that prison reflected society outside." Indeed, after his six years, Pallehner is released (sort of), and put in a holding camp for Germans where he can visit widows in town and gorge himself on illicit sex, French pastries and roast goose. That's still a prison, the author insists; freedom comes only in being where you want to be and doing what you want. Why, this volume asks, are so many people of so many stripes so fanatically dedicated to withholding that freedom from those they have power over? (Morley refrains from answering the question.)

"In the Labyrinth" is marked by great elegance of style. It continues traditions set by Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" and Cummings' "The Enormous Room." Like those two classics, it states the horrors, but cannot begin to explain them.

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