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from the November 2014 issue

The Prodigal Father

Tomáš Zmeškal’s father was a Congolese intellectual who traveled to the capital of Communist Czechoslovakia in 1959 to win support for the soon-to-be independent Republic of Congo, but never made Prague his home. In Socrates at the Equator: Family Reportages (2013), Zmeškal uses a mix of reportage, memoir, and journal entries to describe his search for his father and his encounters with his father’s family in Congo itself.

A writer can rarely stop paying attention to the language people speak. A professional deformation, a sort of neurotic self-harm through words, since for an author, language is the most important thing. The most important conversations I had with my relatives about my coming to Congo always had a tone of importance to them. My coming there was important, and so it was spoken of in that way. Notice what register of language people are using with you, I used to tell my students at university. Is it ceremonial, familiar, official, frivolous?

But my family wasn’t the first African family I knew. Without realizing it, I had been studying Africans my whole life. That doesn’t mean I understood them, but my whole life I had been collecting knowledge and personal experience, which unconsciously had risen to the level of generalization in my mind. Every bit of information was engraved there, never to be forgotten. My father, I suspected, might be the same as them, so what were they actually like? It still surprises me what an extensive repository of information I carry around in my skull on the Africans I’ve met. That subconscious storing away of facts, of unsubstantial details, of absolute trivialities was consistent, whatever the occasion we met and in whatever country. Whenever I was introduced to anyone from Africa, a recording device started up, taking down everything meticulously. To a certain extent, of course, it was part of a phenomenon that every prose writer goes through. Namely, that phase of boundless observerdom which every beginner is condemned to initially, at least until he finds his own voice, his own themes, until he discovers what his writing is actually about. George Orwell wrote that true literature begins when the author breaks free of the first person and enters the third. This view might not entirely fit with contemporary literary theory, but it’s an incredibly powerful one for assessing an author’s attitude toward himself and his themes. For highlighting the psychological gap between narcissism and literary tradition, dating at least as far back as Balzac.

In any case it was clear from my first encounters with Africans that African Americans or Afro-Brits were of no use to me. There was no point observing them, or storing away information about them in my memory, since they were the same as any other American or Brit. Of course a person’s history and experience are always individual, but I didn’t meet a single Afro-Brit or African American who, for example, regularly dyed his hair, or had a wide-ranging knowledge of men’s fashion, which was basic information for every African I knew born in Congo, Gambia, or Senegal. Africans from Africa were different.

Sometime around 1984, I was introduced to a few African students in Prague. Michael, from Gambia, was studying tropical agriculture and going out with a girl from Ireland (I’ve since forgotten her name) who was employed by the International Union of Students, which at that time was rumored to be a base for Communist secret services and spies of every ilk. To this day I don’t know whether or not it was true. Anyway, one year Michael invited me to a New Year’s party at the dormitory in Suchdol, where he lived. I showed up with my girlfriend, Kateřina. It was the first time I tasted fufu and the first time I realized that Africans were different. Before we went to the party, Kateřina’s parents had expressed vague concern that something might happen to her. I didn’t understand quite what they meant, but in the hermetically sealed Czechoslovakia of those days, fear of the unknown and all sorts of vicious rumors blossomed happily. There was plenty of eating, dancing, and drinking at the party, but nobody dared so much as ask Kateřina to dance. I didn’t like dancing too much, preferring to gab and find out what fufu was made from. I came to realize Africans had a different system when it came to relationships. After we arrived, Michael took me aside and told me he had a lot of friends coming, “but if anyone wants to dance with Kateřina, they have to ask your permission. If they don’t ask, just tell me and I’ll straighten them out!” In fact Kateřina knew how to take care of herself and didn’t need any help from me, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized from my perspective Africans were more like Italians, Greeks, or Spaniards—in short, Southerners—than like Central Europeans. Including the fact that, even on the steamiest summer day, no native Roman, for example, would be caught dead in shorts. The only people who would do that were those funny foreigners from America, Germany, or Bohemia.

I was aware of the fact that when my Congolese relatives spoke about my visit to Kinshasa they spoke in the language of the Bible, a language of respect and dignity. It didn’t surprise me, since I read African newspapers on the Internet every now and then, from Nigeria and Ghana, mainly, their polished English interwoven with Old Testament comparisons and New Testament metaphors. Familiarity with the Book of Ecclesiastes was practically a requirement. Yet it was while talking with them that the New Testament parable about the return of the lost son sprang to my mind. The problem was that the story told in the Gospel of Luke, better known by the title “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” didn’t fit at all, despite its being one of the most popular stories of return in the New Testament. Today it would certainly earn any copywriter a bonus, or at the very least a day off. Medieval literature called this type of story an exemplum or allegory, and in Czech the term podobenství, meaning “parable,” came into use; common to all these stories is that they are trying to say something important. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the story of two brothers. One asks his father for his future inheritance, sells it, and travels abroad. He squanders all the money and ends up in poverty, even stooping so low as to herd pigs, which for a Jew in ancient times was a major disgrace. At last, realizing the error of his ways, he goes back to his father, despite the deep sense of guilt he feels for having abandoned him. His father receives him with open arms, at which point the other son, who has dutifully remained by his father’s side the whole time, objects. He doesn’t understand why his father shows such affection for the son who squandered everything. But the father says: “Your brother was dead, and he has come back to life. He was lost, and he has been found.” This is meant to demonstrate the warmth and kindness of both the father and God the Father toward his errant son, and by extension all of humanity. It is stories like this that make me glad religion exists. Any religion at all.

Despite all the biblical metaphors that my Congolese relatives used to assess our situation, however, this one didn’t come up. As if there were no text in the Bible that could be used to draw an analogy. No biblical text of a great return or a great family reunion that we could appropriate from a more general context to apply to our own. In short, everyone there was too familiar with the New Testament, and recognized its limitations.

Every now and then I find myself wondering what the return of the lost or prodigal son is saying. That the father relied on his own authority over God’s? That he was capable of forgiveness? That bad investment decisions don’t pay off? That people should sit at home and not take risks? That the whole allegory describes the state of God and man? That God is always willing to accept sinners and fools back into the fold?

Like any allegory—like any sacred text that is part of our cultural canon and whose meaning relies on institutions that fight ceaselessly for the authority to interpret them—the story may be interpreted, in the positive sense, or deconstructed. But it wasn’t my father’s story. In this case, it wasn’t the son who abandoned the father, but the father who abandoned the son, and we were all well aware of that. The problem wasn’t so much the allegory of the prodigal son as that it was nearly impossible to find an example of the opposite in the Bible. The fact that fathers abandoned, or were forced by circumstances to abandon, their families wasn’t mentioned in any canonical text. It struck me as odd. How could there be no sacred text describing the opposite experience, that of children being abandoned by their fathers? After all, it’s been going on for centuries. Ceremonial language obscures reality. Language can either expose or conceal. Stories may both clarify and mislead, and symbols are oftentimes useless. Parables aren’t capable of illuminating a personal story, mine or my father’s, let alone our shared story. And yet the case of the prodigal son still kept springing to mind, if for no other reason than that I couldn’t find its opposite anywhere, the antistory, the story of the prodigal father.

Even before I realized I was making the typical atheistic mistake of ascribing greater weight to religious phrases than they actually possess, I sent an email to my friend Petr, who had a degree in Protestant theology and had worked three years as a pastor. He still found religion exciting and could talk about it for hours. I asked him if there was any example of the opposite in the Bible, either in the Old or New Testament, anything like a story of the prodigal father. Petr’s answer was both extensive and detailed, but could be summarized in three words: No such thing. There really was nothing about the relationship between a father and a son in the sense I was thinking of. Petr cited Noah, Laban, Juda, Abraham, and of course the sacrifice of Isaac. But that’s another story. Those are other stories. It didn’t surprise me, and I wrote him back a few sparse sentences that couldn’t compare with the essay he had sent me. Still, I couldn’t let go of the feeling—yes, the feeling; it was nothing more specific than that. Several months later, entirely by chance, I came across the topic again while reading the letters of the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

I knew and admired the films of Pasolini, but the one that absolutely enchanted me was his 1970 feature-length documentary Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana (Notes for an African Orestes), which I saw in 2003. In it, Pasolini documents his preparations for a planned but never completed film version of the Oresteia set in Africa. Probably the most eloquent sequence is the one in which Pasolini invites African students in Rome to a large auditorium where he explains to them what he wants to do and why he thinks the only authentic setting for this bloody political family tragedy today (i.e., the 1970s) is in Africa, where there are still states fighting for independence, for the right to determine which direction their countries will take. He then asks the students what they think of his idea. After a painstakingly polite start to the discussion, the African students destroy Pasolini’s notion of Africa and his interpretation of the play. All of a sudden they start talking about an African society that is faced by a nearly insurmountable mountain of problems. I was shocked when I saw Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana in 2003, thirty-three years after it was made. The African students in that nameless Roman classroom described all of the problems African states are still dealing with today and probably will still be dealing with for generations to come. That was the first lesson I took from it: nothing going on in Africa today would have been any surprise to Africans in 1970. The second lesson, however, was an even bigger one. Pasolini listened attentively, answering their questions, and when it was clear the African students had reshaped his vision, he posed a question to them: How do you think this subject should be filmed, and is it even possible? Pasolini took his audience as an equal partner. To this day, the intelligence of that creative debate remains unsurpassed. I had never seen anything like it before, and I fear I never will again. Creative intelligence, defined as absolute openness to other points of view, no longer exists today. All we do is shout over each other. Listening is a vanished art. We haven’t listened for ages. Which is probably why in my weaker moments I believe the emotional insight, intelligence, and precision in describing society attained by cinema in the 1960s will never be surpassed, let alone equaled.

Ten years later, a copy of Pasolini’s letters came into my hands, and in the very first one he writes about what I was thinking:

      One of the most mysterious themes in Greek tragic theatre is the way that sons are predestined to pay for the sins of the fathers. It does not matter if the sons are good, innocent, pious; if their fathers have sinned the sons must be punished.
      It is the chorus — a democratic chorus — which claims to be the depository of this truth, which it pronounces without introduction and without illustration, so natural does it find it.
I confess that I have always accepted this theme of Greek theatre as something outside my knowledge, something that happens ‘somewhere else’ and ‘in another time’. Not without a certain scholastic ingenuousness I have always considered such a theme to be absurd and, in its turn, ingenuous, ‘anthropologically’ ingenuous.
      But then a moment came in my life when I had to admit that I belonged inescapably to the generation of the fathers. Inescapably because the sons are not only born; they have grown up, and they have reached the age of reason; their fate, therefore, begins ineluctably to be what it must be by turning them into adults.
      These last years I have studied these sons for a long time. In the end my judgment, however unjust and pitiless it may seem, even to myself, is one of condemnation. I have tried to understand, to pretend not to understand, to rely on exceptions, to hope for some change, to consider the reality young people represent historically — that is to say beyond subjective judgments of good or evil. But it has been useless. My feeling is condemnatory. Feelings cannot change: they are historical. It is what one feels that is true (in spite of all the insincerities we have have within us). In the end — that is today, at the beginning of 1975 — my feeling, I repeat, is one of condemnation. [emphasis in original]

This letter captured the same feeling I had felt, even though it had nothing to do with me. Maybe it was older than Christianity, then. A feeling that could be pondered and formulated. A feeling of absent fatherhood and sonhood, a feeling full of contradictions and ambiguities. The contradictory archetype of the father I had experienced was a screen on which the feelings of others were projected. As Sartre wrote: L’enfer, c’est les autres — Hell is other people. Why is that? Maybe because chance, formerly known as fate, is so simple and ordinary that nobody takes it seriously. Maybe because historians don’t understand chance. The Bernoulli family of Swiss mathematicians didn’t begin to study chance until the early eighteenth century. We say science disproves myth, but few people act in accordance with it, and even fewer feel it. Again, the feeling that there was no counterstory led me back to something I at least had some experience with. Myths always lie a little, to make them more impressive. Just a little, but still. Whereas for me accuracy is the most important thing.

From Sokrates na rovníku: Rodinné reportáže. © 2013 by Tomáš Zmeškal. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Alex Zucker. All rights reserved.

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