The Flayed Dog (note)
By Aidan Rankin
(An analysis of the political background to the novel)
This brilliant, tense and intricately crafted little squib of a novel comes at a timely moment for readers in Western Europe. At a time when the European Union is expanding, in places, to the Russian frontier, the whole concept of Europe as we have understood it in the West is being revised from its roots. Or, to use a fashionable word, Europe is becoming ‘inclusive’. This means that the Western – and especially Western intellectual – vision of Europe, has to be balanced against a very different world view, based on very different experiences, that is prevalent in the East. The Flayed Dog epitomises the Eastern European world view, or rather that aspect of the Eastern European world view that is most challenging to the West. In this respect, it is a para-political novel. It is not about politics, as such, but political and cultural questions pervade it.
The Flayed Dog is the product of Bulgaria , which straddles the borders of Europe and Asia ; it is not a European Union member yet, although it aspires to be. It is a country too little known to the literary circles of the West, although it has produced much, a land of mountains, beaches, Orthodox male choirs of unsurpassed beauty and purity. But it was until recently orthodox in a different sense, being the most conforming of the Communist autocracies, the most subservient to the Soviet overlord. The speeches of Comrade Todor Zhivkov, its then leader, eulogies to soulless collectivism, are valuable as a parody of Marxist dogma, and reveal to us the hole in the heart of the left. During the late 1960s, a friend of mine drove through Bulgaria at the time of the May Day celebrations, en route to Turkey and Iran . He still recalls the red flags and banners, in ironic contrast to the stubbornly empty streets. For the Bulgarian people had, through ancient wisdom in part but also bitter experience, seen through the false ideals of their rulers. With a perspicacity that is light-years ahead of most Western intellectuals, even (perhaps especially) today, they had rejected ideological abstraction, with its inimitable blend of absurdity and cruelty.
Christo Saprjanov’s novel expresses calmly and records that absurdity and cruelty, the black farce of ‘really existing socialism’. It takes us into a world of forced labour, population transfers, ethnic and cultural cleansing, silly slogans about ‘equality’ (now more prevalent on American university campuses than in Eastern European states), hunger, bitterness, resignation, and ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit. This comes about through the sheer survival of individuals in these harsh conditions, ideological and physical. Yet it emerges as well in the persistence, within individuals, of bravery, generosity and kindness, of reaching out to others and retaining a sense of something outside the self, beyond the purely material. The Flayed Dog is therefore about the survival of the spiritual dimension in a brutal and materialistic wasteland. It is also about the superiority of love and friendship between real human beings over the abstract love for humanity on which totalitarianism is founded.
George Orwell once wrote of totalitarianism, whether of Right or Left, as the jackboot stamping on the human face forever. Totalitarian movements are superficially diverse, but share the same contempt for the individual, whether that is expressed in defining whole sections of the population as subhuman (as with the Far Right) or reducing whole categories of human beings to nameless, faceless members of ‘minority groups’ (as with the politically correct Left). As well as arbitrarily classifying human beings, totalitarians pit group against group – class against class, race against race, sex against sex. They devise mythical constructions of power which they hold responsible for the iniquities of the world: ‘Jewish money power’ for the Nazis, ‘bourgeois hegemony’ for the Marxists, black immigration for white racists, white imperialism for the non-white racists, ‘the patriarchy’ for feminists. Totalitarian thought processes of this kind balance the belief in demonic powers with an intense will to power of their own and a belief in their own version of the perfect and the pure. These visions are larger than the individual and so the lives and the welfare of the individual human beings are secondary to the collectivist ‘project’. Totalitarianism is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, rooted in urban mass societies equipped with technology, a strident secular tendency in which the soul is denied. But at the same time, totalitarianism expresses the most primitive and superstitious aspect of the human psyche, playing upon the most basic impulses of fear and domination, anger and greed, sentimentality and cruelty. This is the paradox of totalitarianism’s appeal to intellectuals, which Orwell recognised and feared. In totalitarian movements, the extremes of rationalism and irrationalism intersect. Totalitarianism is the backdrop to The Flayed Dog. In this case, it is Stalinist totalitarianism, although, it could just as easily be National Socialist, or Trotskyist, or even ‘Neoliberal’ in character. The slogans are different, but the results are much the same.
The story of The Flayed Dog, and the story of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, shows that totalitarianism might destroy millions, but it ultimately destroys itself. They show us that the best impulses in human beings can survive where the worst impulses in humanity prevail. In this sense, The Flayed Dog is at once a profoundly pessimistic novel and a story of great optimism, of light in the midst of darkness. More importantly for us as Western readers, it stresses the value of the human scale over the grandiose and the abstract. This reflects the experience of Eastern Europe , for nearly a century a social laboratory for abstract dogmas, fascist and Communist. There, distrust of the Big Idea is ingrained, through bitter experience and shattered illusions. In Eastern Europe , slogans of inevitable progress are viewed with suspicion, grand plans and ‘projects’ distrust or reviled.
It is in the West, by contrast, that many of the abstractions that point ultimately to totalitarianism still find favour. The pursuit of an elusive ‘equality’, in place of fairness and tolerance, and the classification of individuals by ethnic or cultural group are no longer the respective preserves of Marxism and nationalism. Instead, they are both ingredients of a corrupt and mutant form of Western liberalism. This ‘progressive’ and collectivist mindset has risen to prominence both in Western Europe and in the United States , which although founded on the principles of individual freedom, is now increasingly the homeland of group rights. At the same time, some intellectuals who only a few years age clung tenaciously to Leftist dogma now espouse with equal fervour a form of free-market fundamentalism. This ‘market forces’ dogma has none of the intellectual rigour or complexity of Adam Smith. Instead, it is a mirror of the undergraduate Trotskyism of the 1960’s, reducing the individual to a mere economic unit condemning us all to ‘permanent revolution’.
The Flayed Dog shows us that the human being will always be more that an economic unit, that we are not plastic creatures that can be moulded by ideologies. It reminds us that there are ultimate truths that outlast propaganda and bad faith. As such, it is a novel whose time has come, for it contains within it a spiritual power the Europe needs.
Economic Research Council