The Dystopia Files: Bend Sinister
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1947 novel Bend Sinister doesn’t focus on class war, a projected future or the awakening of an individual under authoritarian rule. It follows an exceptional man’s loss of all that makes his life worth living. Though the book’s protagonist, Adam Krug, is finally crushed by the stupidity and brutality of a police state, the narrative concentrates on his psychic condition, with little attention given to class or politics beyond a farcical sketch of the political ideology and rise to power of the dictator Paduk. If there is any dystopian element here, it’s the ultimate destruction of the hero, a profoundly intelligent, conscientious and cultivated man, under the barbarous and pseudo-efficient regime that seizes his nation.
Nabokov had no intention of prognosticating the direction of civilization. As stated in the Introduction of my Vintage International 1990 edition, his political nightmare was a composite of those already encountered: “…certain reflections in the glass caused by the idiotic and despicable regimes that we all know and that have brushed against me in the course of my life: worlds of tyranny and torture, of fascists and Bolshevists, of Philistine thinkers and jack-booted baboons.” Rather, his story follows the arc of the classic tragedy: the downfall, or, as the title suggests, the sinister turn, of an exceptional man under conditions beyond his control.
Krug, the renowned philosopher, author and professor, the loving husband and father, in refusing to publicly support the regime of the grotesque tyrant, Paduk, suffers the coercions of a state at war with its own people—the abduction and torture of relatives and friends, the cooptation of colleagues and, eventually, in a snafu, the murder of the person most dear to him, his son. The bungling incompetence of officials, enforcers, spies and functionaries that eventuates in Krug’s insanity and death serves no useful end. His family and friends are executed, Paduk’s agents are executed, Krug goes crazy and is shot, and the regime comes off as more asinine than ever.
The story is fairly simple. Krug leaves his wife dying in the hospital to return home through a city just conquered by Paduk’s Party of the Average Man and its soldiers of sub-average intelligence. Krug’s colleagues at the university call him into a meeting to sign and present a letter pledging their support of the new regime, whose leader, Paduk, was Krug’s schoolmate. This he refuses to do, partly because he has no interest in it, partly because as a child he had regularly bullied Paduk by sitting on his head, and partly because he trusts that, as an internationally celebrated philosopher and author, he’s too valuable to assassinate. So he tries to remove his son, David, to his in-laws’ house in the country, where his in-laws are arrested. He then visits his best friend Ember, who, during the visit, is arrested. These arrests failing to leverage Krug’s support, Paduk calls him into a meeting and promises him material and social advantage in return for his delivery of a speech in support of the new regime. Again Krug refuses. After a period of living under surveillance, he undertakes to flee the country but is arrested before the appointed departure date. Agents mistakenly send his son to a prison for the criminally insane, where the boy is sacrificed to violent sexual sadists as part of a government experiment. Unaware of his son’s fate, Krug pledges his support in return for his son’s release. However, on finding his son molested to death, he loses his mind. Paduk, in his consistent idiocy, continues to leverage for Krug’s support by ransoming the lives of his imprisoned friends and relatives. Krug, by this time delusional, charges Paduk in the prison yard, where the exchange has been staged, and the guards shoot him.
The events outlined in this skeletal synopsis take up only a small fraction of the book. Most of the narrative is occupied by Krug’s thoughts, observations, reflections and dreams. The book delivers a darkly comic critique of authoritarian rule in its cast of brute-stupid enforcers and corrupt, cruel and ethically vacuous agents, and in the great leader himself, who is the issue of social failure. Paduk, onetime butt of his schoolmates’ pranks, son of a crackpot inventor, starved of a mother’s love and glutted on a father’s eccentric ambitions, is an odd mix of naiveté and complacency, ignorance and superiority. Nicknamed the Toad, he’s the picked-on kid who grows into the vindictive autocrat. His Party of the Average Man is founded on an ideology called “Ekwilism,” one of those ridiculous reductions of humanity into an homogeneous mass the better to rule it.
Nabokov occupies Krug’s experience of the once-bullied Toad’s rise to power and his own unspeakable grief at his wife’s death, professional destruction and his friends’ imprisonment in a third-person narrative so close to its hero that it registers as the first person. He thinks Krug’s thoughts, dreams his dreams and reflects his reflections. He even dedicates a whole chapter to a mini-treatise on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as if the license to represent a man’s inner life were also a license to talk shop. That is, Krug, cast as an academy man inasmuch as Nabokov was, displays his author’s erudition.
Overall, Bend Sinister is a mix of high-modern technique and personal tragedy. Internalization of the voice to mimic the protagonist’s mind, allusions and references to belle-lettres, symbolic descriptions and tangential reflections that require translation from the arbitrary into relevancy, and a plot that does little but slope into grief, madness and death make this a difficult read. I guess the necessity of being “difficult” has been around a century or so and is now the standard by which literature is judged to be “literary.” However, for this reader, the difficulty of interpreting this literary literature is too often more significant than the interpretation. I guess I found Bend Sinister a bit too academically ostentatious and lyrical for my taste, which, admittedly, is more de vulgari eloquentia.
©2012 Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.