What Do You Want From Death?
Novels that teach history by telling the life story of an individual can be fascinating journeys into humanity’s misadventures. Likewise, they can also be equally tragic and entertaining. Two such books that fit all of these adjectives and more are Michael Moorcock’s Byzantium Endures and Marc Estrin’s Insect Dreams: The Half-Life of Gregor Samsa. The stories of these two characters are wittily relayed and perceptive each in their own way. Both are simultaneously stories of the century just past; that graveyard of millions via mustard gas and the atom bomb, revolution, counter-revolution and world wars. Naturally, the main protagonists meet a number of captivating and unique characters as they stumble, forge, fly and otherwise do through time.
The reader meets Moorcock’s protagonist, Colonel Pyat, as an old man in one of London’s ethnic neighborhoods; a neighborhood changing ethnicities as he grows closer to death. He is a cynical old man, albeit with a sense of humor that is occasionally wicked and often just appreciative of the absurdity of the human endeavor. Estrin’s protagonist Gregor Samsa is also appreciative of that absurdity, especially given his removal from it. He is, after all, that cockroach introduced to the world by Franz Kafka in his story “The Metamorphosis.” At one time a human, Estrin’s Samsa spends the rest of his life as a cockroach, arguably trying that entire time to become human again.
There are substantial differences between the worldviews of these two characters, despite their similarities. Moorcock’s Pyat finds humor in humanity’s folly but cannot help but to look for blame. Like so many others throughout history, especially in that most recent of centuries, he places that blame on the same groups so many have found convenient: primarily Jews, Asians and Africans. In other words: The traditional Other in European history. He has little concern for anyone that does not fit his chauvinist approach and prides himself on his Orthodox faith and his Slavic ethnicity. On the other hand, Estrin’s Samsa is the essence of the other. Clearly not human in appearance, his emotions and intellect are immediately suspect. Upon his transformation from human to insect, his only recourse is death or life as a freak. Indeed, his first job upon leaving the rooming house he once lived in is in a sideshow along with a number of other freaks.
Pyat is an arrogant egocentric protagonist full of prejudices and assumptions about humanity. Some of those assumptions are based on his life experience. Many more are based on the class he strives to become part of. Despite his humble beginnings, those experiences provide him with a viewpoint of one who is in power. He has no use for the Russian revolution and prefers the counterrevolution of the aristocracy and its foreign imperialist allies. Gregor Samsa is his opposite. The fact of Samsa’s non-humanness makes him appreciate humanity more than most who have never known any other form. He is the Other in every sense of the word. Yet he is the other who transcends his otherness but does not forget it. He is not the African American who mouths the words of the white man after gaining his favor. He is not the Jew who becomes like those who have burned millions of his predecessors. No, his otherness provides him with a perspective that prevents his moving from victim to executioner.
Pyat’s escapades take him from his mother’s home in Kiev to the universities, bars and brothels of Petrograd and into the desolate death ridden countryside of the Russian civil war. As noted earlier, Samsa’s begin as part of a carnival freakshow in wartime Vienna. From there, he flies across the Atlantic, invents the concept of risk analysis for Charles Ives’ insurance firm, attempts to make love to Alice Paul, becomes a family friend and consultant to President Franklin Roosevelt and ultimately ends up working on the development of the first nuclear weapons at Los Alamos in New Mexico, which is where he takes his life. Moorcock’s Pyat is surrounded by the hideousness of modern warfare at the century’s beginning in this first installment of the colonel Pyat quartet. Estrin’s Samsa is literally in the center of an explosion that will make previous horrors of combat seem almost humane in contrast.
What with Pyat’s distaste for much of humanity and cynical disregard for their state of existence, one might think that his was the darker tale. Samsa, while easily more likable and at first impression a more lighthearted soul, is actually the troubled representative and denizen of the century. Upon further thought, it is exactly that which makes Pyat unattractive that ensures his durability in a century of hate, genocide and disaster. Samsa’s irrepressible optimism and larval innocence render him dead almost as soon as his transformation is complete.
Unfortunately in terms of this review, Moorcock’s book is but the first of a quartet. Meanwhile, Estrin’s narrative is complete. This leaves the reader unsure where Pyat’s path of cynical self-assurance will take him as he travels into the century. Estrin’s Samsa, on the other hand, by deciding his fate, ends the narrative and his existence, seeming to say that the only real liberation from the madness of the modern world lies in death. Since this is so, it becomes important to Samsa that he determine how and when his death occurs instead of leaving it up to other human forces over which he has no control. By doing so, his hope is that his death will have some meaning.
There is a poem by the US poet Randall Jarrell titled “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” In this poem, Jarrell defines the emptiness of death in modern warfare in a simple line: “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.” His compatriot, the Baltimore-born poet Karl Shapiro, goes even further on this theme in his poem “Auto Wreck;” placing the entire scale of our lives into the meaningless of that frequent event. This kind of death, he writes
… spatters all we knew of denouement
Across the expedient and wicked stones.
In a contradiction that defies the miracles of modern technology and the possibilities for a long and meaningful life, it seems that the primary accomplishment of modern life is how meaningless it has made death.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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