J. Bernlef is above all an acute observer, and perception is central to his novels. In Out of Mind, his best-known title, he enters the mind of a man with dementia, drifting beyond the boundaries of sight and language. In his subsequent book, the prize-winning novel Public Secret, set in the early 1980s in an Eastern Bloc country indistinguishable from Hungary, the author remains in the background, dispassionately registering events.
A crew is making a film about Tomas Szass, a famous dissident writer. The way the film takes shape and the behaviour of the director, the editor and the production assistant reveal different attitudes to the psychological terror pervading the country. ‘Films are made on the cutting table,’ Eisenstein famously said. Here the same material is used to produce two films, one censored and public, the other uncensored: ‘Public Secret’.
Bernlef is careful not to pronounce judgement but reveals, like Czeslaw Milosz and Milan Kundera before him, the mechanisms at work in a repressive society. He demonstrates how such a society places the writer in an impossible position. Tomas Szass walks the thin line between lies and truth, courage and cowardice, the route to intellectual schizophrenia. ‘The place of the writer is hell,’ the fictional author says somewhere, but ultimately Bernlef portrays him as ‘a shellfish in need of a shell.’ An astute observation.