Science fiction is not the first thing one thinks of in connection with the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, though the Nobel Prize for Literature has in fact been awarded for science fiction poetry — Harry Martinson’s Aniara was an epic about a spaceship. Then again, many English speakers probably don’t primarily associate Milosz with poetry either, but with The Captive Mind, his damning critique of the moral crisis of artists under authoritarian regimes.
That book had, however, science fiction elements in its discussion of the ‘Murti-Bing pill’ — which reconciled the vanquished to their conquerors (lifted from Insatiability, a utopian novel by Stanislaw Witkiewicz, published in 1930) — and the Islamic notion of ketman, an aspect of taqiya which closely resembles Orwell’s ‘doublethink’.
This slim volume, posthumously published in Polish in 2012 and now translated, does not suggest that Milosz would ever have been paired up in an Ace Double with the likes of EE ‘Doc’ Smith. But then the same could be said of his contemporary and compatriot, Stanislaw Lem, best known as the author of Solaris (Janusz Zadjel is probably the only other figure at all familiar to English-speaking SF readers).
An excellent translator’s introduction from Stanley Bill acknowledges that even within
Poland’s highly literary tradition of science fiction writing, it is difficult to imagine this archetypal European intellectual immersing himself in the world of space travel and alien planets.
If the science fiction fan, undeterred, dismisses this as the usual academic snobbery (Bill lectures at Cambridge) and pushes on,
Milosz’s opening lines don’t promise much more:
To the curious reader of the future, I commend these chapters from a science fiction novel that will never be written. Why will it never be written? Because I don’t feel like writing it.
That may indicate why Milosz’s publisher, Jerzy Giedroyc, had his doubts when he saw the manuscript in 1972, and The Mountains of Parnassus languished in a box until after the author’s death. Even so, it’s a pity.
True, despite the cover bearing the words ‘a novel’, there is no definition elastic enough to qualify it as that. There are half a dozen vignettes: sketchy attempts at world-building, incomplete descriptions of techniques of governance, complaints about technology and theological meditations. Despite Milosz’s antipathy towards postmodernism, the effect is reminiscent of Italo Calvino or Alasdair Gray in their ironically lapidary moods. Milosz’s future monuments, however, are more deliberately fragmented.
His three main subjects, a teenager whose suicidal tendencies vanish when the Higher Brotherhood of Nirvana begin vaporising citizens at random, a cardinal grappling with the simultaneous necessity and futility of faith, and a member of the Astronauts’ Union, who abandons the guild’s effective immortality after time dilation cuts him off from human contact, are all beset by accidie.
Modern life in Parnassus, under a government which ‘cocoons’ the populace, is intolerably monotonous for the few eccentrics against whom ‘preventive measures’ are necessary, but modern art, insisting on its superiority over ‘so-called life’, is more intolerable still.
‘The truth can never harm,’ Milosz asserts, but if he rejects the idea that it is relative, he doesn’t hold out much hope that we’ll ever find our way towards it. Faith and ritual might be the only escape, if only we were capable of believing and acting properly — though he has little hope of that either. The future’s Liturgy, offered as an appendix, declares that: ‘Nature will not save us. We know this full well,’ but Milosz continues:
And what does it matter, brothers and sisters, that our faith is weak,
neither moving mountains nor saving us from death,
when we have been given a sign, a vision of our true essence,
in the first glimpse of the unaccomplished kingdom?
It seems an appropriate conclusion for an unaccomplished novel. Unaccomplished, that is, as a novel; the writing, though uneven, is in parts as accomplished as Milosz’s admirers would expect. What’s more, as Milosz puts it, the reader may
appreciate a certain triumph of the author worthy of imitation — namely, that instead of adding yet another novel to the surfeit of them assailing the shelves of the bookstores, he has managed to restrain himself in time.
The fact that he never bothered to write it should not be taken as an indication that we needn’t bother to read it. They may be scraps, but as the cardinal argues, so is scripture. If art these days is an enterprise doomed to failure, as Milosz suggests, a trip to Parnassus in his company is still a stimulating outing, even if the gods and muses are in hiding.