Paris, Jun 19, 2019
The Female Body, Communist Governmentality and the “New Wo/Man”
A Review on Klara Buda’s Novel Chloroform
Although Chloroform is Klara Buda’s first novel, the ability of the Albanian-born author to mold words as if they were made out of Play-Doh has been long in the making. Her writing prowess stems from her extensive experience as a journalist for Radio France International in Paris. Set in Communist Albania under Enver Hoxha’s brutal regime, Chloroform provides a compelling insight into the project of the “new man.” It focuses on the oppressive system’s efforts to establish a novel kind of society by molding, surveying, and controlling the utmost intimacy of its citizen-subjects’ bodies and sensibilities. Figuring out the dispositions of the population, while ferreting out enemies and isolating or annihilating their individuality, goes hand in hand with questions regarding the production and reproduction of this “new wo/man”: What attributes should she/he have? What bodily fragments are his/her constitutive parts; which parts are to be tolerated, which ones not? Which are deemed worthy, which are to be punished or disciplined, and which go to waste? It is within these liminal crevices of an authoritarian regime’s calculated economy of producing uniformity and controlling “excess” that Buda’s Chloroform is situated.
As Chloroform is a historically contextualized work of fiction, it neither describes real events nor makes any allusion to real-life situations. Buda’s novel centers on Alma Fishta and Marenglen also known as Qani or Qeni. The daughter of an elite communist party member, Alma is part of the nomenklatura but has fallen into disgrace by engaging in a relationship with a dissident of the regime, resulting in her becoming pregnant with his baby. Marenglen (a portmanteau of Marx, Engels, and Lenin) is a morgue supervisor and polyhedric character who provides the paperwork that will supposedly help Alma get an abortion. Even though the narrative initially seems to revolve around the issue of abortion (which was illegal in Albania and Romania, the only two Eastern European countries to prohibit it), it becomes clear that control over female sexuality is merely an entry point into a much broader reflection on Communist governmentality. The power and ability to structure the possible field of action of others, as Buda seems to tell us throughout the book’s fictive Albanian case, reaches well beyond the popular Foucauldian panopticon metaphor. Buda’s subjects are disciplined (that is, self-governed) less by the inner consciousness of fear of being observed by the all-encompassing panopticon (as Foucault suggests) than by the gaze of others. This seems to second anthropologist Katherine Verdery’s recent research on the Romanian Securitate; as Verdery argues, Communist surveillance practices turn each and every person into a micronic panopticon, causing the all-encompassing central power to lose its significance. The indirect, observational behavior of penal practices aiming at surveilling the body’s productive and reproductive features thus becomes an ever-enduring active enterprise carried on by the individual.
A dense, colorless, and sweet-smelling liquid, whose vapor depresses the central nervous system and allows for the performance of various otherwise painful procedures, chloroform is used by the author as a metaphor on a multitude of levels. First and foremost is the analogy of the regime functioning as an open-air opiate, where entrapped subjects have no way of opting out. Second, the author herself seems like the invisible hand that administers the chloroform. Some suffer and die under the lethal dose (like Luiza Kodra, the pregnant woman from northern Albania, whose death results in Alma’s alias identity; some get just about the right dosage to understand that they need to protect themselves from manipulation (Alma, who amphibiously moves in and out of phases); for some, like Marenglen, even high dosages of chloroform cease to have any effect; and to some others (the veterinary students), chloroform shows no signs of ever being administered. Third and finally, by applying the stream-of-consciousness narrative mode, which exposes the characters’ internal monologues as well as their thought processes, the reader is shown that part of the dialogue that cannot be articulated because of superimposed censorship or self-censorship. In their unspoken speech, printed in italics in the book, the characters create the illusion of a foggy or drunk atmosphere. Some sentences are suspended, interrupted, left flapping in the wind. Applying the stream-of-consciousness narrative puts Buda in the company of William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, to name but a few. However, in her case, the ability to expose the inner monologues of people caught in a tightly knit web of surveillance enables Buda to perform a Nietzschean act of “liberating” the subjects/characters and imbuing them with an agency that they may have lacked in real-life circumstances.
Chloroform may be seen to deal with existentialist ideas about the liminality of life and death. Alma may be seen as a Kierkegaardian character – an individual who struggles to give her own life meaning, in spite of the many existential obstacles and distractions put forth by life under Hoxha’s Communism, such as angst, alienation, absurdity, boredom, and despair. Alma is an existentialist; we see her struggling to carry on with her pregnancy, which, until later in Albanian history, would have been unimaginable and against all “moral” expectations. Continuing in the existential vein, Marenglen is a Kafkaesque and Nietzschean character. He leads the most surreal and oneiric scenes of the novel as a kind of Nietzschean Ubermensch, defining the nature of his own existence despite the encapsulating life circumstances into which he is thrown. As a morgue supervisor, Marenglen invents his own values and creates the very terms under which he excels. Further, like a mutilated person in body and soul, the necrophilic new-man-turned-grotesque, Marenglen performs subtle acts of resistance against the regime: he sews hymens shut or surgically removes them. His resistance becomes even more subtle, as we see him returning dignity to the disfigured, mutilated and deformed cadavers whose visages have been marred by the authoritarian regime.
In Chloroform, characters act only as “pretexts” – like accessories. And it is precisely here that it becomes possible to witness Buda pulling a conceptual-art card on us. Without aiming at transgressing disciplinary boundaries, venturing out into conceptual art may help to shed light on what is at stake in the novel. As artist Sol LeWitt, the founder of the conceptual art and minimalism movement has put it, in conceptual art, ideas, plans, and decisions are made ahead of time; their execution is only a perfunctory affair. Unlike the conventional modes of narration, where the characters experience some sort of development in the course of the story, Buda’s characters seem not to be intended to undergo any such evolution, for they may already embody the conceptual idea in themselves, to begin with. Thus, Chloroform has the appearance of conceptual art that has been written down. Here, ideas-in-themselves – masked as characters – are the Perpetuum-mobile that set the narrative in motion. They take precedence over any aesthetic or material concerns. Marenglen’s range of action has been framed from the outset; the same is true of Alma. The veterinary students, who are seemingly caught in the most boring of everyday activities, do not join forces in resistance against the regime. It is only then that Play-Doing with words, which frees them from any overly – excessive articulatory weight, becomes possible. Yet, this does not imply the death of the author. The novel is caught in suspense between seemingly independently working concepts/ideas and the ever-powerful hand of the author.
In closing, as this Albanian novel is being prepared for translation into English, Chloroform (or, if you will, Klara-form), is most likely to set the tone for future literature from the “Post-Communist” European area. It is Buda’s remarkable ability to tip-toe on eggshells, carefully avoiding any moral stances, that allows us for a moment to de-contextualize the novel from the specific place of Albania and from the historical context of Communism.