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from the May 2016 issue

Magdaléna Platzová’s “The Attempt”

Reviewed by Emma Garman

A powerfully distilled meditation on the competing costs of freedom and dependence.

On the face of it, The Attempt by Czech author Magdaléna Platzová’s (her latest novel and the second to be published in English) is an ambitiously large-scale undertaking. A reimagining of the events and people surrounding the assassination attempt, in 1892, of American art-collecting plutocrat Henry Clay Frick by Lithuanian Jewish anarchist Alexander Berkman, the story is narrated by a Czech historian transplanted to contemporary Manhattan, and thematically framed by the Occupy Wall Street movement. You might expect, therefore, to wade through a glut of historical contextualizing, as well as to be hammered over the head by weighty political concepts and resonances. Instead, Platzová’s ultra-restrained curation of her material, translated with equal restraint and discrimination by Alex Zucker, has excluded every superfluous detail, every hint of preachiness or sentimentality or pat morality. The result is a powerfully distilled meditation on the meaning of freedom, a ferocious complexity lurking beneath its smooth and hypnotically readable surface.

At the beginning of the novel, thirty-nine-year-old Jan Schwarzer from Prague has just arrived in New York, a city haunted by “the ghosts of old Europe,” where “the damp smell of the subconscious wafted up from the drainpipes and ventilation shafts.” Though ostensibly on a historical research scholarship, Jan’s primary interests lie outside the scope of his official work. He wants to delve deep into the history of the Kolman family (Platzová’s stand-in for the Fricks) and that of Andrei B. (based on Alexander Berkman) and his partner in activism, Louise G. (based on Emma Goldman, who, with Berkman, was deported from the US to Russia in 1917).

Overlapping impulses drive Jan. He feels ancestral loyalty to the Eastern European immigrants “who worked until they spat blood” in the Kolman factories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then there is the possibility that would-be assassin Andrei B. was Jan’s own great-grandfather. Also, he is determined to honor the intellectual quest begun by Josef, a novelist for whom understanding anarchism was a life’s work, a tantalizing puzzle he never quite solved.

As Jan doggedly get his hands on archival documents, notes, and letters, the reader gains access to different voices and perspectives, sympathetically rendered and skillfully differentiated. There are letters by Andrei B. and Louise G. and by John C. Kolman’s reclusive, laudanum-addicted wife Alice. A partially written Kolman family history is supplied by Sister Michaela, a present-day Kolman scion who, swapping the fetters of riches for those of religion, has become a nun and renounced her family’s values. “The obscene collection of wealth,” she tells Jan, “can’t be redeemed by collecting pretty pictures, not even if you show them for free!” And the final section of the book is Josef’s fragmentary yet beautifully written novel about Andrei B. and Louise G., bequeathed to Jan along with all his papers.

In between pursuing his research leads, Jan drifts into a fling with a Romanian woman, Ilana, a fellow history scholar who, like Jan, is divorced and living temporarily in the US. Yet whereas Jan, at least initially, is invigorated by his newly untethered existence, for Ilana freedom spells misery. She misses her ex-husband, and her son who lives with him. Most of all, she misses the comforting fixity of a daily routine. Articulating the principal counterargument to anarchism, which she admits to finding alluring as an ideology, she says, “I just can’t bring myself to believe people are actually capable of becoming independent-minded enough to decide for themselves. Most people want to obey authority. They’d rather keep doing the same thing than try to break their habits. Free man is just an illusion.”

She could be directly quoting Erich Fromm, the Frankfurt School psychoanalyst and philosopher whose 1941 book, Escape from Freedom, analyzes the human propensity to quell existential anxiety by submitting to a commanding power (the Nazi Party, for example).

The competing costs of freedom and dependence form the central dilemma at the heart of The Attempt, grappled with by all its characters, either consciously or unconsciously. Platzová pointedly demurs from offering any easy answers. But if there’s a moral to her tale, it’s that historically neither capitalist privilege nor revolutionary radicalism confers true liberation on women. The Kolman wives and daughters are imprisoned in their gilded cages, stunted and controlled. And while the septuagenarian Andrei B. is doted on by a girlfriend thirty years his junior (who longs for him to relinquish his anti-marriage stance), Louise B. (embittered, childless, and rejected by her own younger lovers) feels “cheated.” Gender relations, Platzová implies, might be the most intractable political problem of them all.

When Jan arrives at the Occupy encampment in the novel’s epilogue, he reflects on Ilana’s move to Germany, where her son and ex-husband live. Jan plans to meet up with one of Ilana’s male friends from Romania, which reads as a subtle authorial indictment of the notoriously male-dominated OWS movement. As feminist author Rebecca Traister commented at the time, “This idea that, by its nature, left-wing activism is inclusive is a myth. The left is continually plagued by gender problems.”

Not that Jan is an oblivious and satisfied beneficiary of male privilege. In fact, choosing a male protagonist has allowed Platzová to carry out a particularly nuanced exploration of heterosexuality’s fault lines. Jan has more than a touch of Nice Guy™ about him. Friendzoned by Ilana, he laments that when women begin confiding in him too much, he knows they’ll soon dump him. And Josef, who more than most wanted to embrace the tenets of anarchism, killed himself after the woman he loved, pregnant with his child, wouldn’t leave her husband. Monogamy and commitment might be inconsistent with the ideals set forth by Emma Goldman and her peers, but in the twenty-first century, the alternative path remains challenging.  

“There is no way to live in accordance with our conscience,” Josef wrote on the cover of his novel notebook, a sentiment that Jan sees as his friend’s foremost legacy to him. Still, as he settles down for a night on damp cardboard in Zuccotti Park, the flicker of hope concluding his narrative is the knowledge that, despite everything, people will keep searching for a way.

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