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NONFICTION : OF PRISONS AND IDEAS by Milovan Djilas; translated by Michael Boro Petrovich (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $17.95; 150 pp.).

December 28, 1986|Steve Wasserman

In this slim volume, Yugoslavia's leading dissident and author nearly 30 years ago of the brilliant dissection of elite power under communism, "The New Class," has written a remarkable coda to his critique of totalitarian socialism. As a Communist activist, Milovan Djilas was tortured and imprisoned for three years in the 1930s by the Royalist government. Later, after helping Tito sweep to power, he found himself increasingly opposed to the oligarchic practices of his comrades. In 1955, he broke with the party. Tito was not pleased and banished him to prison. "Let Djido be cold in prison," Tito is reported to have said. "Teach him a lesson." Djilas would spend a total of nine years in jail.

This book is a series of meditations on his life behind bars, a kind of mini-manual for would-be dissidents. Djilas detests communism, but misses the faith in the "shining future" that gives sustenance to the suffering of believing revolutionaries. He grapples with the problem of how to hold fast to a creed of tolerant pluralism in the face of unremitting persecution. How can liberal convictions provide the political prisoner with the internal fortitude necessary to survive? Djilas wants to preserve dissent from the deformations of dogmatism to which it often succumbs. His life is living proof that it can be done. "Of Prisons and Ideas" is a stirring essay on the dialectics of dissent and the nobility of sacrifice.

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