Horst Bienek

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Bienek, Horst 1930–

Bienek is a Polish-born novelist, poet, essayist, and screenwriter now living in West Germany. Formerly a student of Bertolt Brecht, Bienek writes an experimental fiction, at times mingling narrative, poetic, and documentary styles. The effects of four years spent in a Siberian labor camp can often be felt in his work. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Paddy Beesley

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[Horst Bienek's determination in Bakunin: An Invention] to level stridently with the reader at every turn reminds one most of the Pompidou Centre: all the lines of construction, all the cables and conduits bringing essential supplies, are deliberately displayed and painted vivid colours. Nothing is hidden, nothing extenuated: we follow the author as he visits Neuchâtel to research into the great anarchist writer, as he interviews people who fail to remember anything, writes chivvying notes to himself, makes lists of further reading, examines his own motives, quotes from Bakunin and Turgenev's Rudin, then loses interest and sends his books back to the library. There is some play between the anarchist's vigour and idealism and the present writer's lassitude, but little else within the knowing and self-conscious shell of the form. A bookseller who is interviewed remarks at one point that the artist who really wants something new must be an anarchist; and it's more than possible that Bienek, by writing a book about not being able to write a book, is trying to create the first example of anarchist fiction. He certainly knows how to lob a bomb at the powers of concentration. (p. 407)

Paddy Beesley, in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 25, 1977.

Michael Porter

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Bienek is a typical example of the type of author who feels compelled to write because he ponders about some extraordinary personal experience and its consequences—in his case, the loss of freedom and the reduction to sub-human conditions during a four-year stay in a Russian prison camp in the early fifties…. [In Gleiwitzer Kindheit: Gedichte aus zwanzig Jahren] this event lingers on and works as a structuring element…. Unfortunately, though, Bienek's talent is not great enough to transform personal experiences into excellent poetry. Literarily, almost everything in this volume is secondhand and has been said more convincingly by somebody else…. Even worse, the further Bienek leaves his prison time behind, the less he has to say; and so he wanders about trying desperately to find messages, some kind of important revelation that nature might have to give him. For the reader, this search turns out to be repetitive and boring…. (p. 273)

Michael Porter, in Books Abroad (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring, 1977.

Peter Lewis

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Bakunin defies categorization, but Horst Bienek's description of it as 'An Invention' is preferable to other possible labels, such as "non-fiction fiction", "fictional non-fiction", "documentary novel" or "anti-novel". Its structure is poetic rather than conventionally novelistic, and although it contains a narrative it is really a collage, consisting of passages from Bakunin's own writings, books about him, historical studies of Tsarist Russia, nineteenth-century memoirs, Turgenev's Rudin (with its fictional portrait of Bakunin), and even a Berlin police report on him, not to mention left-wing slogans …, a passage written in verse, and the narrative itself complete with transcripts of conversations. Bienek's "invention" … records the failed attempt of a modern German anarchist to discover the whole truth about Bakunin, especially his "retirement" from revolutionary politics towards the end of his life, and to write his biography. This is why it sometimes reads like a piece of research in progress or notes for a Ph.D. thesis. In his quest for Bakunin, the modern anarchist...

(This entire section contains 653 words.)

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visits places where the great Russian anarchist lived, especially Neuchâtel in Switzerland, and tries to find people who can shed even a dim light on events a century earlier. As the "invention" progresses, the contemporary anarchist merges to some extent with his quarry (both are referred to as 'he') and the gradual abandonment of his self-imposed task together with his growing political disillusionment seem to parallel Bakunin's own failures, disappointments, and eventual exclusion from the movement he had done so much to create. In his adherence to anarchism the modern German is pledging his commitment to a philosophy of action, but he finds himself trapped in a world of words, of revolutionary rhetoric and slogans, of books and libraries, and fails to act when the opportunity presents itself…. We finally see him deliberately breaking a beer glass in his hands at a café and cutting himself badly; his one act of "liberating" violence is directed against himself. Not for him the anarchist martyrdom of an heroic death in an assassination attempt but a self-inflicted wound apparently born of despair about the very possibility of revolution. (p. 59)

Amongst other things, Bakunin is a critique of biography and history. Its failure to provide a coherent biography of Bakunin … amounts to a recognition that the search for historical truth founders on the impossibility of ever being able to know the whole truth and that the biographer or historian is a fabricator who deceives us into believing that his "lies" are truths. Bienek, on the other hand, is a self-confessed inventor who offers us the "lies" of fiction as a better way of approaching the truth, about both Bakunin and modern revolutionaries; the truest poetry is, after all, the most feigning. More importantly, the "invention" is an exploration of Bakunin's ideas and idealism, and of their relevance today. Historically the concept of "revolution", as opposed to "rebellion", is recent, and this book is about the current crisis in revolutionary thought and action at a time when it is no longer possible to be politically romantic or naïve except by almost wilful self-blinding or irrational doublethink…. Bienek illuminates the paralysis afflicting many intellectual revolutionaries today, aware of the ease with which Western society accommodates and sterilizes revolutionary ideas, even turning revolutionaries into harmless bourgeois cult figures—the book contains a fine ironic passage about Bakunin being a suitable subject for an exciting Hollywood historical romance. The resulting frustration can easily lead to nihilism, a betrayal and perversion of the revolutionary ideal in that it releases the violence of despair, not the violence of liberation…. Bakunin ends, like much of Brecht's work, not with assertions but with a challenge. Bienek's elliptical and "experimental" methods certainly justify themselves, and he succeeds in putting into just over a hundred pages what a more conventional treatment would not have done in five or even ten times the space. (p. 60)

Peter Lewis, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 18, No. 3 (1977).


Bienek, Horst (Vol. 7)