‘The egghead republic: a short novel from the Horse Latitudes’

by Arno Schmidt, Translated by Michael Horovitz. London: Marion Boyars, 1979. £5.95

 

Patrick Parrinder

 

Of all fictional forms, the utopia (in which category I include anti-utopias) has been least exploited by twentieth-century experimental writers in English. The utopian works of Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Jack London and others are prophetic in content and yet largely conventional in form. The stylistic challenge presented by any tale of the future in which the narrator is not a time-travelling emissary from the present—that of the emergence of a future language or dialect controlling perception and expression—has been largely ignored. Orwell relegates the ‘Principles of Newspeak’ in Nineteen eighty-four to an appendix and, like Huxley in Brave new world, restricts its appearance in the main narrative to a few easily-grasped concepts and slogans.

 

Huxley and Orwell keep linguistic and narrative innovation to a minimum so that they may be seen to contribute to the ordinary discourse of their society; thus they are able to deliver lurid warnings which do not compromise their standing as politically responsible, rational intellectuals. Yet the discursive rationality of their approach becomes the vehicle of artistic and intellectual shallowness (as in Huxley’s vacillation between the twin poles of Brave new world and Island) or of a profound imaginative duplicity (as in the contrast between surface and latent content in Nineteen eighty-four). A different attitude, which exploits gratuitous invention and linguistic play to mask any ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason,’ is to be found, no doubt for sufficient political and social reasons, in the science fiction and utopian fiction of Central and Eastern Europe.

 

Arno Schmidt (1914-79) is regarded as Germany’s foremost experimental novelist, and The egghead republic (Die Gelehrtenrepublik, 1957) is the first of his works to be translated into English. Its disjointed paragraphs relate the disconcerting experiences of Charles Henry Winer, a journalist who in the year 2008 travels across the Hominid Zone, a post-nuclear wasteland in the western United States, to visit IRAS (the International Republic of Artists and Scientists), a closed colony of geniuses selected from all parts of the world to live on an artificial floating island in the Pacific. Winer’s progress is at once funny, bizarre, and predictably disillusioning. The Egghead Republic, he discovers, has split into two hostile camps occupying the ‘left’ and ‘right’ sides of the (elliptical) island. The Free World artists have gone to the island to be pampered and idle, while the Communists have been put in uniform and dragooned into novel-writing collectives. The scientists on each side are developing new means of filching each other’s geniuses, and of artificially breeding the geniuses of the future. Our hero escapes just as peaceful coexistence finally breaks down, and jets back to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where his original MS is translated into German (publication in a ‘dead’ language being the preferred alternative to total suppression), while a suitably doctored version is put out for public consumption.

 

The hard-boiled and quick-witted Winer is not exactly a modern Candide, but, like Candide, he is allowed his brief vision of the realms of gold. The Hominid Zone which he must cross to reach IRAS is a radioactive corridor populated by grotesque new species, among them the centaurs with whom he briefly enjoys sex and companionship. Though its landscape is that of a wild and dangerous cactus desert, the Zone has much the same mythopoeic significance as Orwell’s Golden Country and Voltaire’s Eldorado. Winer’s sojourn there is overshadowed by his impatience to reach IRAS, a macabre place which bears no resemblance to the Elysian Fields portrayed in the official propaganda; nor is there any going back. The Egghead Republic is by no means without literary precedents, but the most obvious parallels are with German, and global, political realities; here is a ‘United Nations’ administration in nominal control of a divided city and a divided state. It should be noted that Schmidt’s tale of a playful utopia and a grimly topical anti-utopia could probably only be held together by a surrealistic narrative method such as he employs: and any initial doubts as to the method’s success are swept away as the book proceeds. For all its inventiveness, The egghead republic can give the reader only a very partial view of the scope of its author’s powers. Suffice it to say that it challenges comparison with the works of Zamyatin, Capek, Stanislaw Lem, and the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, in the front rank of modern European science fiction and fantasy.