Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Short-a-Day: Valery Bryusov's "The Republic of the Southern Cross"

Republished (from Russia, 1905) in A Public Space, No. 4, 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 83.

[Part of the FOCUS: Antarctica series.]

An entertaining, newspaper-like account of the last days of a fictional empire located in Antarctica, calling to mind the similar work of Steven Millhauser, who is, at times, a fellow feulilletonist. First, we learn of its founding: "A development from three hundred steel works established in the southern polar regions. In a circular note sent to each and every government of the whole world, the new state expressed its pretension to all lands, whether mainland or island, within the limits of the Antarctic circle, as also all parts of these lands stretching beyond the line." Though this revisionist history is unlikely, Bryusov's choices are written as if they were both possible and reasonable, which assists him as he lays out the unique architecture: "Because of the severity of the climate, an impenetrable and opaque roof had been built over the town, with powerful ventilators for a constant change of air." Remember: speculative fiction must be based in something real, and comedy must be rooted in something serious before it gets distorted.

And so, after establishing the uniformity of their demanding political hierarchy -- he calls this "extreme democracy" -- he spends the next sixteen pages describing how the Republic fell prey to a new type of disease: mania contradicens, or more casually, "the disease of contradiction." There's no direct meaning given to any of what follows, just a series of unfortunate (and clever) events, but one reading is that this culture, stifled by a communistic lack of choice and tricked into obeying the party line by dime-a-dozen spies, can only find freedom by losing their own self-control, thereby doing the opposite of what they had to but secretly did not want to do. Considering that the final few pages consist of political satire -- they "elect" a "dictator" -- it's not hard to imagine that Bryusov was extrapolating some circumstances from his own life in Russia (of which I admittedly know very little).

What I can vouch for is the story itself, which reads smoothly and holds up, even a century down the road.

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