Shortly after Nikita Khrushchev delivered his 1956 “secret speech” at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, the text of the report reached the United States by way of Poland and was published in the New York Times. The first secretary's denunciation of Stalinism thus ironically becomes one of the earliest and best-known specimens of the phenomenon of tamizdat—defined as writing from Eastern Europe illicitly smuggled out and published abroad. This essay critically examines the West's and specifically the United States' fascination with tamizdat as symptomatic of the broader politics of representing life behind the iron curtain. It argues that Philip Roth's sustained professional engagement with the Czech socialist experience can be read as his critical refusal to take part in the dominant U.S. narrative of Eastern European suffering and oppression. The essay analyzes Roth's 1985 novella The Prague Orgy and the theoretical implications of the book's central plot device—the narrative of a failed tamizdat mission. The article argues that Roth's work exposes the patterns in which tamizdat, together with the fate of the Eastern European political émigré, becomes a homogeneous, metonymic image for the totality of life under Communism. In The Prague Orgy, Roth situates himself in stark opposition to the representational practices of Milan Kundera by resisting the easy sensationalism of such “writing for the West.” Roth prefers to give voice to an array of internal Czech positions, central among which is that of the dissident author Ivan Klíma. Ultimately, Roth's resistance to stereotypical discourse on the socialist Other comes at an important sociocultural moment in the 1980s, when other American intellectuals prefer the security granted by the narrative of tamizdat.
Joseph Benatov; Demystifying the Logic of Tamizdat: Philip Roth's Anti-Spectacular Literary Politics. Poetics Today 1 March 2009; 30 (1): 107–132. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-2008-005
Download citation file: