THE USE OF MAN
by Aleksandar Tišma
Trans. by Bernard Johnson
New York Review of Books, 368 pages
reviewed by Jamie Fisher
Would it be easier to begin this review by telling you what The Use of Man is not? A few significant items come to mind.
It is not, for example, one of those dull sagely books that emerge periodically out of certain segments of Eastern Europe. A glum Times article from 1997 identifies Aleksandar Tišma, a poet and novelist who died in 2003, as a “Balkan Voice of Reason and Despair,” “a rare voice of reason in the rump Yugoslavia’s depleted cultural scene, a writer whose despairing fiction about the Holocaust echoes his deep gloom about the future of Serbia.”
Certainly it’s easy to see this consensus view of Tišma in his quick, masterful description of Novi Sad, the Serbian city where his greatest novels are set. Its men come home frustrated from work, beating and impregnating their wives then heading to the tavern, yearning to become millionaires or corrupt police. The whorehouse, Tišma writes, constituted the cultural apogee of the city, “a summit for the whole of Novi Sad.”
Nor is it pornography. One of the major themes in The Use of Man is the use of women by men. Most of Tišma’s men are womanizers, none more confirmed than the central character Sredoje. As a boy, he dreams of lording over “sweet-smelling” slave girls as a pirate brigand; as an adult, he uses his policeman status to coerce frightened women into sleeping with him. The other main character, Vera, attempts to save herself as war approaches by separating from her family, escaping with a local official to Budapest. She attracts him by tanning in the sun, relying only on “her own healthy, supple body, in which she had full confidence.” In the long, dismal postwar economy, she will eventually prostitute herself in exchange for gifts and favors. For preoccupations like these, the author has been accused, on occasion, of “eroticizing the Holocaust.”
So Tišma has been pinned down as a clear-sighted pessimist and a cold-eyed pornographer; Claire Messud, in her admiring introduction to this volume, does Tišma one worse by praising the book for demonstrating something called “our frail humanity.” About the post-war love affair between Vera and Sredoje, she writes, “The weary embrace of two battle-scarred souls—these are the fragments we have shored against our ruins. This—like literature, potentially everything and nothing—is all we have.”
The problem with an assessment like this—obsessed by ambiance, mislead by the timeframe of Tišma’s novels—is that it damns with faintly lugubrious praise. Tišma comes off sounding wise, perhaps, or even correct, but too gummed up with sad righteousness and generalities to produce anything readable. As the novelist once said, of his childhood devotion to Proust and Mann, “I read them because they were interesting, not because they were great literature.”
The other way to begin, of course, is to tell you what the book is. If Middlemarch was, in Virginia Woolf’s eyes, the only British novel written for grownups, The Use of Man feels like a treatment of World War II written for grownups, rather than for “mature audiences.” Its sophistication lies not in its willingness to deal with harrowing material, but in the way it works at a finer grain than good or evil. One of Tišma’s short-story collections is called The School of Godlessness—less, I think, because godless events happen than because Tišma believes that there is no God to lay down His judgments for us. The author isn’t interested in plain-vanilla evil, because once we call a thing good or evil we abdicate our responsibility to reason with it. It becomes indigestible. Or worse: easy.
So first, and most significantly, let us establish that the compulsively readable Tišma did not traffic in generalities; I’m not sure he would have known “our frail humanity” if it bit him on the rump of Yugoslavia’s depleted cultural scene. For Tišma, individual peculiarities and psychologies are not overwhelmed by some general default psychology of war. He is concerned with individuals rather than masses. What makes Lord of the Flies so alarming is its characters’ brutal sameness, the implication that disaster is the great leveler which makes madmen of us all; what make Tišma’s alarmingly fresh and terrifying is their vital particularity.
And how entertainingly. The Gloomy Serbian Prophet angle makes the author sound repellently one-note, and entirely misses Tišma’s comic genius as a storyteller and character-maker. There is a broad but manageable cast, with Vera and Sredoje dominating the narrative, and each character proves to be a bouillon cube packed tight with stories and aspirations, unfolding at Tišma’s touch.
So we meet Vera’s brother Gerhard, who has proposed to his friends that they kill his SS-officer uncle and “seize his weapons, thus beginning their flight from the German Occupation with a deed of daring. None of the group could resist this attractive idea.” All of which would be terrifying if it weren’t so naive, hopeful, and childish. They can’t decide between rat poison, stabbing from behind, shooting the man with his own revolver; it feels like an outtake from Tom Sawyer, or a Nazi edition of Clue.
Or Vera’s early boyfriend, Milinko. Messud identifies him as “the closest thing to a hero in the novel,” possessed of “a near-American belief in possibility,” but he isn’t really the closest thing to a hero, just the closest thing to an uncomplicated character—fatally unimaginative, an adherent to the religion of middle-class work-ethic and sensibility, a blank-minded Candide. His faith in a world that operates intelligibly makes him peculiarly unfeeling. The suicide of his father, for example, a ragey drunk policeman, leaves no psychic scars on young Milinko: “Instead, it simply strengthened his conviction that evil must always succumb to virtue.” By the end of the first chapter, Milinko has come to the cruelest ending of any character in the novel: he dies alone in a hospital, limbless and speechless. So Tišma demolishes Milinko, rejecting the simple, dull worldview that makes his heroism possible. He is decent, but ultimately uninteresting, and—for Tišma—not worth knowing.
Look instead at the beautifully petty Nemanja Lazukić, Sredoje’s father. Nemanja, the greatest comic character in the novel, and very possibly one of the greatest comic nationalist figures of postwar literature, marries with the intention of having three strong Serbian sons, “three heirs to his name, and as many daughters as necessary until that goal was reached.”
When the war begins and the Germans bomb Belgrade, his instinctual reply is “Good. Everybody will hate them now.” As the family flees Novi Sad, Nemanja responds to his wet shoes by stuffing them with handkerchiefs. “‘Like socks!’ he said, almost with satisfaction, and walked, at first with an uncertain step, then more confidently, his calves bared and the white handkerchiefs flapping, their corners dragging on the ground and rapidly turning gray.” This is the same man who, before the war, believed that sending his son Sredoje for German lessons could prepare him for “hand-to-hand combat” with the entirety of the Teutonic race. He likes to make decisions; they allow him to deny his powerlessness.
The relation between power and powerlessness sits at the heart of the novel. As far as charges of eroticism go, the best aphoristic retort to Tišma’s critics might be Frank Underwood’s: “Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Tišma’s interest in sex is more deeply an interest in the idea of power, and the arenas—war, bureaucracy, sex—in which manipulation is most transparent.
As the war approaches, Vera recognizes the emptiness of her Jewish father’s assurances, and of Milinko’s. “She began to think everyone was pretending, boasting of a power they did not have, while those who had the power did not talk but simply made use of it.” Her failed attempt to seduce a bureaucrat and flee with him may be tawdry, but it is pragmatic and independent-minded. You get the sense that if Vera got holed up with Scarlett at Tara, she would have come up with something more effective than curtain dresses to get them out of it.
Although often victimized, the novelist’s women are never solely victims. Like Nemanja, they are fully fledged characters—memorable, bold, dramatic, impatient, timid, and lusty. They are both incredibly assertive and too often pushed around. Prostitutes, Tišma once said, “give the feeling of incredible strength.” It’s worth noting the ambiguity of Tišma’s title: in The Use of Man, characters use as often as they are used. The doomed German tutor Anna Drentvenšek may allow herself to be extorted by an absentee husband, but Tišma explains that even as a young child abandoned by her mother, Anna had been “extraordinarily careful of her behavior and of the way she spoke, and insisted on having what was hers, asserting herself despite her isolation and the moral shadow hovering over her.”
Anna Drentvenšek’s notebook provides the structuring framework for the novel. Tišma presents Anna’s life in particular as determined by male authority, from the “all-knowing” clerk who sells her the notebook to the haughty doctor whose confidence clips her life short. On her deathbed after a failed gallbladder operation, she asks her student Vera to burn the notebook. But “she could not bring herself to burn it unread. Once it was read, the knowledge of its contents prevented her from burning it at all.” Vera places the notebook between two textbooks—“burying it, as it were, instead of cremating it”—and writes “on the next empty page, in her own rounded characters, the succinct, tombstone-like inscription: ‘Anna Drentvenšek died December 19, 1940, after a gallbladder operation.’”
Tišma then pushes us four years ahead, when, as a soldier in the Partisan army liberating Novi Sad, Anna’s other student Sredoje incidentally discovers the notebook in Vera’s house. The notebook will bring Vera and Sredoje together for the first time since the war began.
But The Use of Man is not a comprehensive treatment of World War II. Tišma is too masterful a storyteller to content himself with straight chronology. Nor is it that chilly creature, the Holocaust novel. The losses of the Shoah were massive, and have inspired masses of generalized treatments, beginning with the premise that we will end in unimaginable suffering and back-solving the characters who will illustrate it; it’s worth remembering that individual suffering, too, is incomprehensible, and that our most enduring works of Holocaust literature have been monuments to idiosyncratic, and individual, experience: Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, or Anne Frank’s diary. World War II, for his characters, is a part of their personal history; they have not been dreamt up in order to illustrate the war’s brutality, or the incomprehensibility of mass suffering.
Our only exposure to the Holocaust itself, for example, is a brief chapter that begins with the Jews of Novi Sad being rounded up in the synagogue and ends with Vera’s liberation. Although the chapter is narrated in the first person, from Vera’s perspective, the overall effect is to emphasize the individuality of suffering. “During our last night in the barrack,” Vera says, “I woke up and heard [my father] weeping, but said nothing, thinking it better for him to be alone with his trouble.” The reader feels a little jolting strangeness; how odd, after the intimate crowding of the past few pages, that her father’s trouble should remain singular.
The truth is that despite the “we” that opens this section, there is never a “we,” here or anywhere else in the book. Tišma is deeply suspicious of mass histories and mass emotions; earlier in the novel, after retaking Novi Sad, Sredoje “sensed vaguely that a horde of uninvited guests, himself included, was trampling on something that was his.” Instead Tišma writes, very emphatically, about individuals.
Before the war, Vera and Sredoje had taken dancing lessons together. For Vera, growing up—as Tišma did—in a household of mixed languages and faiths, dancing fulfills her desire to be, for once, sincere and limited in focus, part of one thing rather than many. She and Sredoje dance, “holding each other around the waist, around the shoulders, breathing against each other’s cheeks, burning each other with the coals of their closeness.”
It’s the most positive communal experience in the book, and even this is threatening and strange. Vera’s brief ability to vanish into the shared mechanics of dancing color, slightly, the news of the German army’s advance. After the war, attempting to write a short biography of her experiences for the Young Communists, Vera “was surprised by how little there was to say once she had given the details of her family:”
So much of her suffering, she realized, was general, and the personal could not be recounted… The crucial events, it seemed to her, ought to be described in the minutest detail, but they were in disorder, unconnected, and connecting them to memory would cause immeasurable distress. She tried to generalize, but that didn’t work, for her generalizations quickly degenerated into half-truths and therefore falsehoods.
The experience defeats her; her interest in joining the Young Communists is dashed.
Tišma was reluctant to affiliate politically; although he supported democratization during the Yugoslav Wars, he distrusted “fanaticism” of all kinds. As a novelist Tišma doesn’t believe in the coordinated emotional response any more than he believes in the coordinated dancing of Vera and Sredoje, or the coordinated mobilization of Germany. Reading The Use of Man, we suspect that he is like Vera: he wants badly to believe in communalism and shared experience, but is aware that both are impossible. In a late interview, Tišma was asked about the postwar “collective feeling” in Novi Sad. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s a mentality thing, personal.”
This, it seems, is the significance of Anna’s private notebook, which begins and ends the novel. What Messud calls Tišma’s commitment to literature—all those shored fragments— is more precisely a commitment to private lives. Tucked in between lamentations for her poor health, Anna writes of a neglectful lover: “God, I wish for only one thing—to know what he thinks of me.”
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer, Chinese-English translator, and budding manuscript conservationist working out of Philadelphia. She graduated recently from the University of Pennsylvania, where her majors were Linguistics and East Asian Languages & Civilizations. She can be reached at email@example.com.