Reading Divine Julius Then and Now
by the translator
The year is 1979. Eastern Europe groans under Russian occupation. All borders are closed, though each year, a few refugees manage to escape—some over the wild border, others by some administrative crook. Those who do, know full well that their decision is final: once they make their escape, they will be branded traitors and enemies of the people and will never be allowed to return.
Now imagine this.
Somewhere in this Eastern Europe, a boy of 16 is packing his duffle bag for a trip to the West, a trip which he knows is a permanent and irrevocable abandonment of his native land. He leaves behind family, friends, girlfriends: people he will never be able to see again; why, he won’t even be able to write or call. Old places he will never see. His dog. And he goes into a world he has never seen, to make a life for himself among people who will not understand anything he has lived through.
And—what does he pack in that duffle bag of his?
There is not much to put in that duffle bag. What does a boy of 16 own—or need? A change of clothes, a shaving set—this last really an aspirational thing.
And three books: The Odyssey—how appropriate; a novel he was reading at the time; and Jacek Bocheński’s Divine Julius. This last— for him, a book with the status of The Holy Writ, on par with Homer.
Going out into the unknown, dangerous, frightening world, he will take Divine Julius with him. Why?
It is hard to overestimate the importance of Divine Julius for the generation of men and women coming of age in Eastern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s.
The book started as a series of articles in a literary journal: something apparently politically innocuous: commentaries on Latin classics.
Asked recently why he decided to begin his commentaries on the classics with Caesar, Bocheński says the choice was accidental: Caesar’s De Bello Gallico was the book he happened to pick up from the shelf when he looked for something to read on a quiet afternoon. But the project soon became something more serious: a thoughtful reading of the entire literature of the period. And then: an effort to understand the times, the people in it, their passions, their ambitions, their fears, their compromises.
Both the style and the insights of the essays earned them an enthusiastic critical response, and soon the series of articles was re-edited as a novel. Suddenly, there was a lot of buzz about it: people discussed it and passed it in manuscript copy from hand to hand even before it appeared in print. Many critics pronounced it the book of the year. A prestigious literary award was preannounced.
Then: kaboom! Someone at the highest echelons of power read it and disliked it. A secret ukase came from on high: the book was to be killed. There would be no award. Those responsible would be sacked. The book would appear in a small bibliophile edition. It would make a brief appearance in bookstores and then disappear.
Rare copies became hot property. People tracked them down, bribed booksellers to get one from storage, then passed them secretly to each other like contraband.
Sometime in 1963, an article appeared in the American TIME magazine reporting that a book about Julius Caesar had caused a political stir in Eastern Europe and been as good as banned.
“Why?” the article asked. “Was it perhaps an attack on someone in power? But who?” Well, the journalists wrote, Caesar had been bald, so that must be our clue. Perhaps it is a lampoon of a bald East European politician. Cyrankiewicz? Or Gomółka? Or… (holy cow!) Khrushchev?
Readers in Eastern Europe laughed and sadly shook their heads. Caesar had been a good-looking, cultured man: well-read, humorous, a literary star. Comparing any of those three leaders to Caesar would have been praise, not criticism.
We, in Eastern Europe, knew that the meat of the book, the thing that had caused its ban, was not the ruthless figure of Caesar but all that stuff in parts two and four:
1) Caesar’s observation that one best overthrows a republic by gutting her institutions while maintaining their appearance for show;
2) the portraits of the also-rans, the smaller men, sometimes prominent, sometimes talented, who traded in their political principles for a cut of the proceeds of the overthrown republic; and
3) Cicero’s letter to Atticus in which he questions whether such a thing as a good social class can possibly exist.
(In his letter, Cicero referred to the Roman elites who justified their claim to power by calling themselves Optimates, that is, “the best,” but who, in Cicero’s experience, proved not to be very decent men. But a contemporary East European reader of those words might well have been tempted to extend this critique to Marxist-Leninist ideology. That ideology, too, featured a “good” social class: the Proletariat, and justified the communist party’s monopoly of power by its supposed representation of this social class).
In other words, we in Eastern Europe read Divine Julius as a book relevant to our reality and our personal choices. Unlike Caesar and TIME, we did not care about the hairstyles.
Asked about it today, Bocheński says: “I did not intend the book to be a criticism of Polish politics in my time. I meant it to be an analysis of all politics and all governments of all times.”
And indeed, the Soviet system has fallen, and yet, Bocheński’s analysis remains relevant today: look around you and see how educated and talented and prominent men today give up their principles and plot to overthrow their republic in the hope of advancing their careers in the process. For them today, as for Caesar’s men then, the republic is just so much antiquated nonsense ripe for picking.
The subsequent publishing history of Divine Julius became a barometer of the political realities of the moment. Whenever the communist party thought it appropriate to allow a little freedom, the book would appear, usually in small printings (which quickly sold out), only to disappear again when things swung back the other way, and the party decided that that had been enough freedom for the moment.
You see, tyrannies like to play with “the valve.” When the opposition becomes too dangerous to handle, and the mood in the society starts looking like things are about to blow up, a smart tyranny releases some pressure by letting the opposition have a thing: a book or a play or some innocuous street demonstration. It then pronounces itself as liberal and understanding and in agreement with the aspirations of the opposition and—fires a minister or two. And asks: since everything is now going for the better, why continue to rebel? Then, when the pressure eases, the tyranny arrests all those who have come to the fore and turns the screws down again.
Paradoxically, the fact that Divine Julius became embroiled in political struggles in Eastern Europe had a salutary effect on its criticism there. While American and West German critics were free to discuss the books’ political implications, this made their work easy and their output trivial: just talk about the way the book’s topic irritates the country’s leaders.
But literary critics in Eastern Europe, precisely because they were not allowed to mention the hairstyles of their leaders, or Cicero’s damnable sellout of his republican principles, had to write about the book’s literary qualities: the way its style emulates that of Caesar, for example. (In Book Two of the Trilogy, Naso the Poet, Bocheński will emulate the style of Ovidius); its deep—often hangman—irony; its hasty breathlessness; and—its profound sadness: in the end, Cato the Younger becomes god by losing the battle of his life; and Caesar becomes god but fails to vanquish his greatest enemy.
Divinity... is much overrated.