By C.D. Rose
Melville House. 160 pp. Paperback, $16.35
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An Atlas of Extinct Countries: The Remarkable (and Occasionally Ridiculous) Stories of 48 Nations that Fell off the Map
By Gideon Defoe
Europa Compass. 304 pp. $26
Some people want the books they read to tell it like it is. They buy novels about adultery in the suburbs, depictions of economic despair in the Rust Belt, accounts of adolescent angst and confusion, or any number of thrillers, mysteries and love stories that mirror contemporary social concerns and the way we live now.
Relevance, though, often covers a multitude of aesthetic faults – the soporific dullness of being earnest, relentless sentimentality or even a covert didacticism, typically stressing the myriad derelictions to which human beings are all prey. Oscar Wilde, you will recall, argued for the separation of art and morality. It was Stalin who toasted writers as the engineers of the human soul and ordered that their books reflect official Soviet dogma.
Shocking though it may sound, I prefer my reading to offer an escape from real life. Style matters more to me than substance. I instinctively gravitate to whimsy, fantasy, nonsense and artifice, as well as to works that are waking dreams of adventure, derring-do and romance. I prefer the imaginative to the reportorial, the otherworldly to the naturalistic, the playful experiment to the serious undertaking.
Maybe you do, too, in which case you should seek out C.D. Rose’s “The Blind Accordionist: Nine Stories by Maxim Guyavitch,” the latest in a loose series that began in 2014 with “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure.” That ingenious lexicon briefly outlined the lives of 52 writers whose works have all been utterly lost to posterity. For instance, Hans Kafka found that everything he scribbled – including “the grotesque story of a beetle who is transformed into a man” – was completely overshadowed by the work of his neighbor Franz (no relation). The case of Veronica Vass is comparably disheartening: While working as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park during World War II, “she wrote five novels, all of them in a code so complex, so treacherous, so arcane that [Alan] Turing himself couldn’t get past the first few words.”
In 2018, Rose brought out a second book, the memoir “Who’s Who When Everyone Is Someone Else,” which recounts his misadventures as a hapless visiting lecturer at a university in an unnamed Central European city. In his off-time there, Rose went searching for the grave of Maxim Guyavitch, a once-revered modernist master, now decried as an impostor and enemy of the state.
In his new book, “The Blind Accordionist,” Rose assumes the duties of an editor, compiling what will doubtless be the standard collection of Guyavitch’s short fiction. Besides the nine known stories – he rejects “Little Eli’s Shoes” as being of dubious authenticity – Rose also provides a substantial critical apparatus, including a guide to this elusive author’s literary influences and an annotated bibliography of Guyavitch scholarship, “a body of work that abounds in prepositions and hesitations.”
As Rose observes, the nine stories – enigmatic, folkloristic, philosophical, open-ended – reveal Guyavitch to be a deeply European fabulist, one reminiscent, at times, of Gogol, Kafka, Daniil Kharms, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz, Italo Calvino or Georges Perec. Each story, moreover, contains sly intertextual allusions to characters and elements from the others. For example, various paintings described in “The Gallery of National Art” call to mind the plot of “Pilgrim Souls,” the title character in “Peter, Who Thought He Was a Bear” and the bereft protagonist of “The Visitors.” There are quiet literary in-jokes, as well: The name Schartz-Metterklume, for instance, derives from Saki’s deliciously cheeky short story about a quick-witted female trickster.
But who or what is “the Blind Accordionist”? In “The Cardplayers” the phrase denotes a shocking gambit or stratagem in a seemingly never-ending game; in “Sosia and the Captain” it refers to Europe‘s most cunning secret agent; in “Jenny Greenteeth”- an eerie, tragic love story set in a Baltic fishing town – it is the title of a haunting melody. As Rose’s addictive work repeatedly demonstrates, “when things become blurred, they become interesting.”
Gideon Defoe’s “An Atlas of Extinct Countries” goes beyond blurring to all-out disappearance. Not a work of postmodern fiction, it instead assembles short accounts of 48 now-vanished micro-nations and their usually vainglorious founders. Imagine a geographical equivalent of “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure” except that Sarawak, Ruthenia, Dahomey, the Republic of Cospaia and Neutral Moresnet actually existed.
Defoe, who works in film and animation, here writes a revved-up prose a bit like Hunter S. Thompson’s, but more jokey and with an English accent; it took me a while to get used to his sass, but I came to enjoy it immensely. Examples? Here are three: “The indigenous Mapuche peoples of South America hadn’t been treated well by new arrivals to their lands – a sentence so predictable it’s almost not worth typing.” To ensure its independence, the State of Muskogee – located in Florida – pledged loyalty to the British Empire in return for military assistance if needed. As Defoe dryly comments, “Note: if your plan involves the British coming to your rescue at any point, then it is a Bad Plan. Can’t emphasize this enough.” To chronicle a tax haven called “The Republic of Vemerana”- which existed for a few months in 1980 on the island of Espiritu Santo – he begins with a cinematic flourish:
“The Phoenix Foundation sounds like something from the hackier end of the Bond movies, one of those shadowy cabals of evil, big-business types who have meetings in a hollowed-out volcano. Which isn’t too far off the mark … ”
Many of these evanescent would-be Utopias, independent communes and mayfly principalities hardly did more than design a flag and choose a national anthem. Only a few got round to “the duller business of electing a government.” But then, as Defoe usefully reminds us, “countries are just daft stories we tell each other. They’re all equally implausible once you get up close.”
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