Calamities of Exile Summary
by Lawrence Weschler

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Calamities of Exile Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Exile was originally a form of punishment. The archetypal Babylonian exile was a punishment for Jewish uprisings. Among the ancient Greeks exile was a punishment for homicide (see, for example, Oedipus Rex). Among the ancient Romans, voluntary exile was an alternative to capital punishment. Around the eighteenth century, Europe began to exile its criminals to penal colonies in America, Australia, and Siberia. Throughout history, political exile has been a punishment for being on the wrong side.

In some ways, exile is a punishment worse than death: one lives on without the familiar surroundings that help define one’s existence—places, culture, often one’s language and family. In ancient Hebrew society, one was forced “beyond the pale” to live among howling beasts. In old Anglo-Saxon society, one became a wanderer racked by memories of the warm meadhall. For African captives who survived the Middle Passage, exile was part of the suffering associated with American slavery.

In the modern world exile remains a form of punishment, but the meaning of exile has vastly expanded. Most modern exiles are escapees from repressive regimes, as apparently were the Viennese grandparents of Lawrence Weschler, to whom he dedicates his book Calamities of Exile. The subject of his book is three such escapees, identified in his evocative section headings: “Oedipus in Samara: Kanan Makiya in and out of Iraq,” “The Trials of Jan K.: Jan Kavan in and out of Czechoslovakia,” and “A Horrible Face, But One’s Own: Breyten Breytenbach in and out of South Africa.”

The story of Kanan Makiya derives its title from the fact that his father, Mohamed Makiya, was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s favorite architect. In 1989 Kanan Makiya, living in the United States, published his book Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil. The pseudonym obviously shielded the author and kept open the possibility that he could return home, but it was also a necessary protection for his family still in Iraq. Yet at the same time that the book attacked Saddam Hussein and his regime it also attacked the author’s prominent father for pandering to the regime. Maybe that was another reason for using the pseudonym.

Eventually the father also fled Iraq, the son revealed his pseudonym, and other details of their relationship with the Iraqi regime and each other came out. Their story introduces what Weschler, in the dedication to his grandparents, calls the “complicated” nature of exile. One of the themes running through Calamities of Exile is the complications that exile causes within families, as some members flee, others remain behind, and some even side with the oppressive regime. Another theme is the conflicted feelings of the exile. It seems that one can never quite free oneself from entanglements with the homeland, no matter how horrible it might be. Or maybe one does not want to.

In the case of Kanan Makiya’s father, it was not merely that doing business with a dictator was profitable. It was also a matter of pride, as strange as that sounds. Steeped in Islamic history, especially as it centered around Iraq and Baghdad, Mohamed Makiya was motivated by intense nationalistic and cultural pride. Thus, he jumped at the chance Saddam Hussein gave him to rebuild Baghdad to its former glory. To him it was insignificant that his visions of architectural splendor coincided with those of a dictator. As he stated, “I’m an architect. . . . I love to create, and these were the greatest opportunities of my creative life. . . . I was in the position to be doing all of it for my country.” His case illustrates how people’s frame of reference remains tied to their cultural roots: One first seeks honor in one’s own country. However, for Makiya as an architect and for the writer Breyten Breytenbach, the cultural ties were even more important as the prime source of their artistic inspiration and creativity.

“The Trials of Jan K.,” the story of the Czech Jan Kavan, also contains a complicated father-son relationship, but the story is most significant for what it shows about the nature of totalitarianism. As the title suggests, Communist Czechoslovakia was truly Kafkaesque. The extensive reach of the Czech secret police, known as the StB, is omnipresent in the story. Maintaining the massive infrastructure of agents, informers, collaborators, recorders, and archivists must have eventually contributed to economic disaster. In the story half the population seems to be keeping tabs on the other, with secret agents doing double duty as neighbors and friends—or pretending to be neighbors and friends, just as people brought in for questioning sign confessions implicating others or pretend to become collaborators in order to go free.

It is not surprising that the secret police collected a dossier of hundreds of pages on Jan Kavan, who, from his base in London for some twenty years, ran the biggest smuggling operation in and out of Czechoslovakia, founded and ran a press agency steadily attacking the regime, and under assumed identities slipped in and out of Czechoslovakia several times. What is surprising is that after the Communist regime fell in 1989 and Jan Kavan returned to Czechoslovakia, he was officially charged with being a former secret police collaborator. Apparently his own success worked against him: How could anyone do all Kavan did without working hand in glove with the secret police? However, this bizarre thinking is consistent with the widespread belief in Czechoslovakia that the 1989 anti-Communist revolution had been staged by the secret police just so they could go on running the country. Such suspicions and second-guessing illustrate the mess that totalitarianism can leave. As a number of Czech politicians and intellectuals in the story say, after decades of living in a Kafkaesque society, the Czechs were still in the process of trying to rediscover their moral bearings.

In the book’s third section, “A Horrible Face, But One’s Own,” the themes developed in the previous two sections become intensified. Family relations are all over the political spectrum, the artist as a young man cannot abide exile, and the totalitarian reach becomes intimate. The story of these complications is illustrated by three paintings of Breyten Breytenbach, a visual artist as well as a writer. The first painting, titled “A Family Portrait,” is actually Breytenbach’s slightly surreal portrait of himself at three stages: a smirking boy, a smiling but scared young man (two hands cuffed together and his third hand reaching out to shake), and a scarred and subdued older man (left eye almost closed, the right hand a bird’s head). The second painting shows an orange in four stages of being consumed. The third painting, created just after the artist’s release from over seven years in South African prisons, is another self-portrait, this time of the artist as a battered-looking older man with eyes totally closed (consumed?).

In contrast to Jan Kavan, Breyten Breytenbach must have been the most inept spy ever. A South African artist and writer living on the Left Bank in Paris, he lacked any aptitude for espionage. Yet in his writings he repeatedly attacked South Africa’s apartheid regime and its ruler, John Vorster, to whom he addressed the famous poem “Letter from Abroad to Butcher.” Increasingly, Breytenbach felt that expressing political commitment in his writings was insufficient; he must also commit himself. Thus, he joined a branch of the African National Congress (ANC) in exile, which sponsored “his training in the techniques of conspiracy, smuggling, and subterfuge.” Eventually Breytenbach allowed himself to be persuaded that he was the right man to slip back into South Africa, manifesto in hand, and organize underground opposition to the regime. However, even before Breytenbach caught the plane in Rome, the South African police were on to his assumed identity and his plans—perhaps tipped off by a member of his own group or a rival faction of the ANC. The South African police allowed him to enter the country, followed his movements for weeks to identify his contacts, and finally arrested him in the Jan Smuts Airport, where his attempt to exit the country unfortunately coincided with the arriving flight of John Vorster and an airport bristling with security officers. Breytenbach relates these and subsequent events in his The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1983).

In Calamities of Exile, subsequent events reveal a personal, even intimate, side of totalitarian regimes. For example, Breytenbach’s arrest and conviction definitely complicated relations between him and his family. His brother Cloete, a press photographer, had been traveling on the plane with Vorster; another brother, Jan, was a South African military hero, founding leader of an elite unit then storming through neighboring Angola. Yet Breytenbach’s brothers, sister, and stressed parents stuck by him, even if some of them happened to be on different sides politically. Also sticking by Breytenbach was his Vietnamese wife in Paris, Yolande, who traveled back and forth for years and eventually won his early release from prison.

Much less savory were the relations Breytenbach developed with his captors. Of particular interest is the relationship with his lead interrogator, Kalfie (Little Calf) Broodryk, who played mind games with Breytenbach, got Breytenbach to dedicate a book of poems to him, and finally helped persuade Breytenbach to abase himself at his trial (to no avail). Droves of young ladies showed up at his trial to follow it with more than juridical interest. In prison, Breytenbach served the early part of his time on death row or in solitary confinement. When Yolande visited him, the guards eavesdropped on their conversations and later entertained Breytenbach with details of their “full body search” of her. One friendly young night guard, Pieter Groenewald, smuggled paper supplies to Breytenbach in prison and letters and artwork out, and the two passed the long nights together spinning wild plans for escape, sabotage, and other such exploits. Unfortunately, the young guard conveyed all these plans to his superiors, which resulted in further charges of terrorism against Breytenbach.

Of most interest is the love/hate attitude of the regime itself toward Breytenbach. As the foremost writer in Afrikaans, the language with which the regime identified, Breytenbach remained a cultural icon at the same time he was a nemesis. In exile, he collected literary awards from the country while attacking it. He made triumphal literary tours of the country immediately before and after his imprisonment. Throughout his imprisonment, his poems remained in literary anthologies used in schools. The regime’s behavior toward him exposes inherent contradictions that perhaps foretold its downfall, as though it survived only by means of self-inflicted wounds.

Through its three narratives, Calamities of Exile provides a close-up personal view of the nature of exile and totalitarianism. Despite treating only three examples, the book is also a reminder of all the exiles among us, refugees from repressive political regimes around the world. These are only the political exiles. If the meaning of exile is extended metaphorically, then it seems that in the modern world exile has become almost a way of life. Few people stay where they were born (and perhaps grew up); if they do, their birthplaces are usually transformed around them. Mobility and change— across borders, cultures, languages—define modern existence. What this permanent exile means for the sense of self has not yet been worked out, but books such as Calamities of Exile can give readers an idea.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, February 15, 1998, p. 956.

Boston Globe. June 7, 1998, p. C2.

Chicago Tribune. May 31, 1998, XIV, p. 9.

Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, March 15, 1998, p. 394.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 1, 1998, p. 5.

Mother Jones. XXIII, September, 1998, p. 82.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, June 28, 1998, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, March 9, 1998, p. 54.

The Spectator. CCLXXX, April 25, 1998, p. 38.

The Washington Monthly. XXX, July, 1998, p. 51.