Hard To Be A God (1964)

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Second time with the Strugatskys after Roadside Picnic (third if you count Alexei German’s Hard To Be A God adaptation).

Picked this up to see if I could unravel AG’s film. One of the most striking differences is the use of internal monologue:

Too bad that the psychological conditioning peels off like a sunburn, that we fall into extremes, that we’re constantly forced to remind ourselves: grit your teeth and remember that you’re a god in disguise, they know not what they do, almost none of them are to blame, and therefore you must be patient and tolerant. (45)

I like that AG worked to submerge this kind of reflection, to tell the story (his own story, which doesn’t take much from the book) visually. But its undeniably refreshing to be given access to Anton’s thoughts, which opens up a sympathetic channel to the world of Arkanar before (as in the film) the detail can rush in to clog it.

There is also restraint that helps the story’s development (which runs parallel to the film): the kingdom’s descent into feudal-fascistic pogroms and anti-intellectual purges. Rumata observes an “inexorability” that was palpable in the “angry mobs”, the “inexplicable port closure”, the increasingly epidemic alcoholism, the disappearance of terrified peasants (72). Writing at the dawn of the Brezhnev era, the S’s reach more explicitly back to the dawn of fascism (with references to the Night of the Long Knives, Ernst Röhm, etc.) than Stalinism (see also A’s vision of a properly effective industrial revolution of “ten thousand hammerers” on 185), but there is also a sense of “utopianism”, of Arkanar being everywhere and nowhere. My favourite moment was the chilling anthropological assessment of the hostage doctor Budach:

Evil is ineradicable. No man is able to decrease its quantity in the world. He can improve his own fate somewhat, but it is always at the expense of the fate of others. And there will always be kings, some more cruel and some less, and barons, some more violent and some less, and there will always be the ignorant masses, who admire their oppressors and loathe their liberators. And it’s all because a slave has a much better understanding of his master, however brutal, than his liberator, for each slave can easily imagine himself in his master’s place, but few can imagine themselves in the place of a selfless liberator. That is how people are, Don Rumata, and that’s how our world is. (206)

B is almost a kind of holy fool here: he speak from below and well before R but with Londonian precognition, which unsettlingly pushes the books internal history (one that froze before the Renaissance could happen) into our own. The passage continues with R allowing B to interrogate him as if he were God, recalling “The Grand Inquisitor” and various promethean analogues (which tie in with the knowing Arata’s request for R to give him the gift of technological “lightning”). Overall this discussion is like a briefer but equally wise equivalent to the long chat between Red and Noonan in RP; both are central, effective, philosophically direct pitches.

Don Reba is much more interesting here than in AG. I like the way his power and malicious influence is counterbalanced by R’s historical perspective:

Reba is nothing, a tiny speck in comparison with the enormous influence of traditions, the rules of the herd – sanctified by centuries, unshakeable, tested, accessible to the dullest of the dull, freeing one from the necessity of thinking and wondering. (85)

They try and analogise him to “Richelieu, Necker, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Monck,” but the most frustrating aspect of his savage coup is how pathetic he is. (220) He’s kind of a Great Man and a No-man altogether, eventually engulfed by the repressive tide that he sets in motion.

Unfortunately HtbaG is also a pretty canonical justification for Waterstones lumping sci-fi and fantasy onto the same shelf. There’s lots of neo-arthurian galavanting and folkloric waffle which is personally pretty cringeworthy and therefore doesn’t inspire the effort required to keep track of terms. (interesting how different this and AG’s film are, but that what puts me off both is the ultimately stultifying detail) Did raise an interesting question about childishness and imagination though. The preface is like Stand By Me but you can’t tell how old Ru and the others are, and there is an interesting perspective on children in A:

For Rumata, who rarely interacted with children, the ten-year-old prince was the antithesis of every social class in this savage country. It was ordinary blue-eyed boys like this one, identical in every social class, who would grow up to be brutal, ignorant, and submissive men; and yet they, the children, showed no traces or beginnings of such rot. Sometimes Rumata thought it’d be great if all the people older than ten years of age disappeared from the planet. (144, EM)

Prefer the more pulpy and energetic Roadside Picnic but looking generously on this because a) I thought it was more successful than AG’s film; b) I enjoyed it despite it being firmly outside of my usual bracket; c) I read it lightly and quickly as a distraction from my thesis, which emphasised its entertaining side above the philosophy.

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