There are three things to bear in mind as you set out to read the Tiberius Caesar.
1. The whole Trilogy is a politically entangled work
On its literary merits alone, Jacek Bocheński’s Roman Trilogy remains even today (I am writing this in 2023) one of the greatest literary works to have come out of Eastern Europe since World War II. But to most minds, it remains entangled with the history of the anti-communist struggle for freedom and democracy. And therefore, I should tell you that story in a nutshell:
Like many young people who came of age during World War II under German rather than Russian occupation, young Jacek Bocheński went through a period of youthful enthrallment with communism and Marxism-Leninism. But gradually, as he watched the communist system in Eastern Europe settle in for a permanent dictatorship (rather than the originally promised “passing phase”), he became disillusioned with both the ideology and its practice. Wishing to distance himself from the regime, he gave up his work in journalism and decided to escape from the ugly present and turn to a remote, abstract subject unrelated to current events. His idea (totally wrong it turned out later) was to write commentaries on the books of Julius Caesar. (What can possibly be political about a book two thousand years old?)
In the resulting Divine Julius, Bocheński produced a literary masterpiece: a picaresque account of how a cynical but charming villain overthrows a republic. The book is written as a kind of how-to manual: You want to overthrow the Republic and become a god? This is how you do it. Its innovative prose, the beauty of the language (just reread the section describing Caesar and Cleopatra in Upper Egypt, pages 141-142), its many profound psychological insights, and witty essayistic asides launched the book to spectacular critical success. But within a few months, the book was suppressed by the censors and taken off the market: too many readers (including those in the communist party headquarters) recognized the mechanisms of manufactured consent described in the book as familiar and very close to home. Unwittingly, Jacek Bocheński found himself celebrated as a critic of the regime.
Perhaps in part in response to the government suppression of Divine Julius, Bocheński the man began gradually to transform into a more and more vocal critic of the regime, eventually becoming one of Poland’s leading dissident figures. His subsequent publishing history became entwined with the political struggle unfolding in Poland.
All successful, long-lasting dictatorships use the mechanism of ebb-and-flow of oppression—alternating periods of “tightening of the screw” (less freedom, more oppression) and “thaw” (more freedom, less oppression)—as a way to modulate and control the general mood of the populace. In periods of “thaw,” Bocheński’s books were published, and in periods of “tightening of the screw,” they disappeared. Indeed, their appearance in and disappearance from bookshops became a kind of barometer of the current “oppression climate.”
The second book of the Roman Trilogy, Naso the Poet, was published in a period of “thaw” (1969) but first the censors submitted it to thousands of cuts and revisions—a clear indication that Bocheński was now under special supervision. Lesser men in his place may have taken the clue that they should mend their ways. But some authors might take it as a challenge. Temperamentally, Bocheński belonged to the second cohort. He felt compelled to undertake more acts of civil disobedience, and, among other sinds, signed some high-profile protest letters.
Eventually, in 1976, the hammer came down: the office of the censor put Bocheński under an interdict: not only would no works of his ever be published, but the very mention of his person in any media was strictly forbidden. (A damnatio memoriae, just like Ovid’s—Naso the Poet thus became a kind of Chronicle of a Death Foretold). In response, like many great writers before him, Bocheński turned to self-publishing: he co-founded and co-edited an illegal, independent, uncensored, underground publication Zapis. The students in my high school passed this contraband around—copied in garages somewhere on some primitive copiers, some copies barely legible, all of them dog-eared—from hand to hand, taking it home for our parents to read.
I believe I read the first fragments of Tiberius Caesar in Zapis. I read others after emigrating from Poland in the Paris-based pro-democratic Polish literary publication Kultura. Like most of us, I knew the book was coming, and I waited. And waited. And waited. But the political events of the 1980s which involved Bocheński in full-time dissident activity, were not a period conducive to the production of demanding literary work. Bocheński did not return to Tiberius Caesar until after Poland regained its independence (1991), finally completing it only in 2008.
Given the modern-political relevance ascribed to Divine Julius by the book’s readers (“Julius Caesar is Gomułka! Cicero is Iwaszkiewicz!”—Gomułka was the dictator du jour in Poland, Iwaszkiewicz the intellectual accommodator du jour), it is small wonder that references to modern politics gradually thicken in the Trilogy as it grows and that, in its final volume—Tiberius—they become almost omnipresent. (In his defense, Bocheński says: “Our style is given to us”).
But readers of the Trilogy should keep in mind what Bocheński has consistently said: “I did not write these books to criticize the communist dictatorship or any particular political figure. I wrote these books to show the mechanisms that rule all dictatorships everywhere: terror, manipulation, corruption, betrayal, secret police, informing.”0F From Tiberius’s Rome to Argentina.
The scene in Tiberius in which the author is interviewed by a media person (“Public Space,” Tiberius Caesar, pages 255-256) makes just this point: the journalist wants to know how to tie specific parts of his novel to specific political positions. She doesn’t care about the historical Tiberius, she doesn’t care about the literary value of the work. She wants a current political soundbite. This whole section is the author’s way of saying: wrong, wrong, wrong. That’s not what I am trying to say.
2. The Trilogy is polyphonic
Each volume of the Trilogy is written in a slightly different style. While Divine Julius is ironic, picaresque, at times hilarious:
Would you like to become a god? It has been done before, you know, there are techniques.
Naso the Poet—a novel about a poet—is very poetic: there are parts of the book that contain some of the most gorgeous writing to have come out of Poland in the last century. Like this:
There was always the question of whether the windows should be opened or closed. When closed, they protected against the heat, but when opened, they gave the pleasant illusion of a breeze. A brief moment of reflection before settling down on the bed. Lazy heaviness and an uncertain sense of reality. What about this window? All by itself, the hand made a slight movement and pulled the latch with an unclear intention. Only then it turned out that one shutter would remain closed and the other slightly ajar.
And Tiberius is—well, more about that later. First, let’s talk about polyphony.
One way to capture a slice of the universe is to write dialogue, in which one person says something and another responds. This technique seeks to disentangle the confusing human behavior around us into a number of different component parts and describe and define each in its own terms. Plato was not the first writer to do this, but his example inspired two and a half-thousand years of literature which has divided speech into discrete statements, each separated out by quotation marks and ascribed to a specific speaker. Thus, in a dialogue written by Galileo,1F we have the Copernican system, represented by one speaker, debating the Ptolemaic system, represented by another.
But while this is a useful analytical technique, it does not capture the texture and feel of the universe. This is not how humans behave or speak. Humans speak in disjointed phrases, in a kind of cacophony of views and reactions, a cacophony not only taking place all around us but also within us, since we, each of us, often experience conflicting emotions and find we hold contradictory opinions (unawares).
Bocheński’s writing style sets out to capture that cacophony, by removing the quotation marks, not assigning the speech, by mingling two or three voices in a single paragraph, letting each speak—sometimes shout—through and past each other. (See the Assumption of Power in Tiberius, pages 148-153).
This is not a technique much seen in English literature and is one of the greatest difficulties of this prose, both to Bocheński’s translators and editors and to his English-language readers. And the way to deal with this prose as a reader is not to look for sense and order, the way one might read Jane Austen, say (“he said, she said”), but to let that cacophony wash over you and let its overall impression slowly emerge—the way you might read Faulkner or Joyce. This is not easy prose, but it isn’t written this way for show. It is there for a reason because politics, like all life, is confused and cacophonous and we all have to cut through the noise.
Bocheński is a good guide on how to do this, but only if you listen/read carefully. He has an important message, but the message does not lie on the surface. It comes to you after you have read it all, perhaps twice, and slept on it for a few days. (See section 3).
The polyphony of Tiberius Caesar
Now, back to my point about Tiberius Caesar.
I have already noted that there is something unique about Tiberius Caesar in the whole Trilogy. And the uniqueness comes in this: in Tiberius Caesar, unlike in the other two volumes, Bocheński allows the modern readers of his prose (he calls them “participants of my guided tour”) join in in the general cacophony of voices. And the result is… embarrassing. His modern readers debate Marxist theory, feminism, sexual liberation, and recent history in the way in which most people debate them: haphazard, confused, and shallow. These are not my favorite parts of Tiberius, and had I been its editor I would have cut them out. I already know the men in the street don’t have anything profound to say about Marxism, or feminism, or—anything.
And yet the text is there for a reason, and I think (and it is a dangerous thought) that they are there because—while preparing the Trilogy for its English publication, I have read every single academic paper written about it (Bocheński has become a bit of a cottage industry in Eastern Europe). And by and large, I was underwhelmed. My impression was that, just like the members of Bocheński’s “tour”—that most academics did not understand the Trilogy.
They may have doctorates and professorships, but none of this makes their reading more profound than yours or mine. One professor wrote a famous paper about the “commodification of history”—the idea was lifted directly from Bocheński’s text where he calls different interpretations of history different “products.” (And probably does so ironically, tongue-in-cheek). And that’s fine as far as it goes, but the point is that Bocheński is a profound thinker and writer and he does not want to tell you, he wants to show you.
If you can read it on the surface, you have just missed it.
3. The hidden messages of the Trilogy
Bocheński shows you and it is your job to see. Take your time to think about it. The exercise is worth the effort.
For instance, a lesser writer may have ended the story of Cato’s death (the Epilogue of the Divine Julius, pages 177-188) with words like “and all that nonsense was in vain.” Or he may have said: “Defeated and forced to commit suicide, yet has Cato won a great moral victory over Caesar, for, until this day, we talk about him with admiration.” But Bocheński does not do any of this easy stuff. He ends with the words: “he ripped the wound wide open with his bare hands and died.” It’s up to you, reader, to figure out how you feel about that.
Neither does Tiberius spell out its main message. It just portrays how Tiberius struggled with the challenge of holding power and what the consequences of that struggle were for others. We, readers, get an insight into the workings of his mind. And the picture is terrifying.
But perhaps you are interested in my reading of Tiberius?
In case you are: Tiberius is an intellectual and moral zero. All he knows is how to stay in power at any cost. Look around you. See Lukashenko. See Putin. See Kim Jong Il. There is nothing inside.
And so, while Divine Julius is funny and Naso the Poet touching, Tiberius Caesar is—terrifying.
Tom Pinch The Ardennes National Park
Tiberius Caesar is here.
The whole Trilogy is here.