Our mother/daughter book club just finished reading Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys’ historical fiction account of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ocean liner sunk by a Soviet submarine. I would never have picked this book up on my own; I tend to avoid the devastatingly sad subjects, especially when reading with my daughter. But we both loved the story, that’s the beauty of book clubs.
On a January night in 1945 over 9000 died; the ship sunk within ten minutes of the torpedos’ strikes. Most of these people were war refugees trying to escape Stalin’s invasion of Germany. They had already experienced most of their worst nightmares coming true; they were victims of incredible violence and rape, losing their family, friends and their homes. Sepetys resurrects the experiences of those who did not live to tell their stories (in the back of her book she lists her extensive research and mentions a museum in Denmark that is filled with the objects from the wreckage that washed up on shore).
As our group discussed the book, one scene in particular stayed with each of us. The day that the boat was about to leave, crammed with over 9,000 people, those left on shore were attempting to toss their babies up onto the ship. Even if they couldn’t be saved, they hoped their children might. But the ship was so high, they missed and their babies bounced off the side of the ship and plunged into the icy sea.
The scene is haunting for many reasons, but mainly because it captures the complete loss of order and normalcy. The fabric that holds society together has been destroyed. Nevertheless, Sepetys sprinkles the book with scenes of redemption, small acts of kindnesses that keep the flame of humanity alive. One of her most endearing characters is the “Shoe Poet,” a wise old cobbler who keeps the group going with his humor and strength. Even as hope is lost, he carries it still.
That’s how I felt listening to Christopher Merrill speak last Wednesday at Trinity University. Merrill is a poet, essayist, journalist and translator with two books on the Balkan wars. He travels the world extensively as a champion of free speech; he has seen firsthand the effects of violence and oppression.
In 2017, Trinity University Press published Merrill’s latest book, Self Portrait with Dogwood but last week, his talk focussed instead on many writers who have lived through totalitarian and fascist eras and how they fulfilled their writer-role as witnesses. Merrill read from a selection of these writers, who he called “tutelary spirits.” I had not heard of many; their struggles seem distant and long ago, and yet Merrill was reading them to address a contemporary subject, “Being an Artist in the Era of Trump.”
There’s another word for fake news: it’s called propaganda. Propaganda is insidious; it can be a harbinger and aid to totalitarianism. (This week, Madeleine Albright is publishing Fascism: A Warning. Albright, whose family escaped fascism in Czechoslovakia, notes that “facism can come one step at a time and go unnoticed until it is too late.”) As an example, Merrill observed that this year, on Palm Sunday, 20 million Americans tuned in to 60 Minutes to listen to porn star Stormy Daniels tell the world how she spanked Trump before she had sex with him, a once unimaginable seduction of America’s attention.
According to Merrill, the “bombastic simplicity” of Trump’s tweets functions as a form of propaganda, while “the truth is always more complicated.” He compared it with the propaganda that was happening in the Nazi era, reading from the journal entries of Victor Klemperer in I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941.
One week earlier, Merrill had been with the International Writer’s Program (IWP) in Rwanda, where propaganda was utilized in the genocide of the Tutsis. As director of the IWP and the initiator of getting Iowa City designated as a city of literature in UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, Merrill’s life work centers on the important role of not only free speech but the vital function that literature plays, especially during times of war. He described the important function of “poet diplomats” such as Czeslaw Milosz, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Saint John-Perse and that, in turbulent times, people turn to poetry instead of the news as a form of solace and truth-speaking.
David Michael Hertz’s Eugenio Montale, The Fascist Storm and the Jewish Sunflower chronicles the tale of Montale, an Italian poet and 1975 Nobel Prize winner, and his muse Irma Brandeis. Merrill traced Montale’s career and life as an example of how he lived in paradoxical times, and also mentioned his 1925 essay, Style and Tradition, and book of poetry, Cuttlefish Bones, as antidotes to propaganda.
The Polish poet who lived during the Nazi occupation, Zbigniew Herbert, wrote Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems. Calling it a “manual for all writers,” Merrill read from a poem of the same title. The last few lines bring Syria to mind and exemplify the timeless misery of war: “we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death/worst of all the face of betrayal/and only our dreams have not been humiliated.”
In Russian poet Anna Achmatova’s “Requiem,” she bears witness to the era of Stalinist Terror, when both her husband and son were imprisoned. Her husband died and her son spent the majority of his childhood in Soviet labor camps. Achmatova survived and chronicled it, though her poetry was continually censored and lambasted by the Stalinist regime.
Sepetys gives voices to the silent dead, manufacturing their stories from an unknown past. Her work is fiction and yet, ironically, it brings context and immediacy to the writers Merrill discussed. Even as their lives and words seem distant, their experiences are not. The same brutality of war, violence and oppression still exists. Merrill’s evening gave heed to the enduring gravity of their words.