Books+ Spring 2024

Escape Hatch by Vladimir Makanin

Today is Palm Sunday, which is when Jesus and his followers walked into Jerusalem, where the Romans would eventually nail Christ to a cross. Or so the story goes. 

I went to church this morning--presbyterian, liberal--and we had a guest preacher who spoke about the symbol of marching in our society. Her sermon began, amazingly, with her playing "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from Les Miserable, and the rest of the sermon continued on that same theme: the role of marching in bringing together a community for traditional rites, marching as a stand for justice, and marching as an expression of power. The preacher didn't shy away from overt political stances. It was a gloomy message from a Revolting Christian (her words, not mine). A meme stuck on a loop: The world is broken, and the default movement is to march against. Against, against. I heard a nostalgic message, reflexive. Passionate. Empathy without boundaries, a toy soldier marching in circles to the cultural wind-up of the late 20th century.

At the back of my head, I also heard a different voice. This one noted that, while many of her observations were true and fair, she missed another role of the march: the mob. This oversight is a bit extraordinary given that she began her sermon on the barricades of the French Revolution. Why do Americans (and Brits who grew up on American TV, as this preacher described herself) always forget the mob? The moment when the march turns into a stampede that can't be stopped, even if the people in the crowd want out. People often die before that march ends (in more ways than one), not just Jesus. They aren't resurrected either. Most likely, they are never to be spoken again, even when the mob finally dissipates. The Chinese and Russians know this most acutely.

And so, on this Palm Sunday, I sat in the pews of the church remembering a decidedly unreligious book that is a bleaker sermon for modern times. Vladimir Makanin's Escape Hatch was originally published in 1991. I read it in the late 1990s in a college seminar on Soviet science fiction (perhaps the class that has stuck with me the most despite the professor being unremarkable and the topic being unrelated to my major). Here's a description of the novella from Publisher's Weekly (along with another Makanin story):

Solzhenitsyn meets Kafka in two novellas of surreal bleakness that mark Makanin's U.S. debut. The first, "Escape Hatch," takes place in a city where society has broken down-through war, civil conflict, riot or perhaps just entropy--but a where a cafe-rich consumer society exists pleasantly-and literally-underground. Makanin's stoic everyman hero, Klyucharyov, survives as a refugee, a middleman between the ruined surface and the nostalgically normal bunker community connected by a secret shaft which, to his despair, begins to contract and close off. 

The image of the dark underground of cafes has always stuck with me, along with the equally disturbing image of the unstoppable running mob that makes the surface of the city unlivable. The mob can't stop and, if you get caught by it, you're lost.

The threat of the mob is not the message of Palm Sunday any more than the inherent righteousness of the march, as far as I know. But it's a good day to reflect. Where are we marching to? What and who are we trampling along the way? Have we become the tyrannical mob? Would we be able to stop even if we wanted to? That last question is the one so many of us have forgotten to ask in the last few decades, caught up in the accelerant technology of social media and increasingly unmoored from the stabilizing forces that we used to take for granted. Do we know when our march should end? Are we stuck in a mimetic loop of protest? Are we in the underground city of Escape Hatch, running out of air? Where will there be to live after we succeed? Do we remember how to live?

It's a beautiful day out in March. The world is in passionate bloom. Perhaps there are other things to see when we walk. A march, however inspiring, doesn't lend itself to seeing.


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