The story follows two separate protagonists who never meet. The first is Candide, who is a pilot what has crashed into the Forest (capital F intended), and is trying to find his way out. The second is Peretz, who is stuck at the Administration which has been set up to research the Forest. He too, cannot seem to be able to leave.
While it was written in the 1960s, it was not published until 1988. As the Administration is a bizarre and meaningless jumble of which Kafka would be proud, it is not hard to imagine that Soviet authorities would not have been impressed with this obvious dig at them, hence its delay in publication. It’s probably the most surreal book of theirs I have read, and it is hard to have any definite conclusions on what it all means.
Candide finds himself in a world of forest, where people live in small villages, and need to be constantly on the lookout for the forest’s dangers, such as Deadlings (creatures who burn you if you touch them), aggressive vegetation that overruns everything if given half a chance, strange purple gas and so on. The people in the villages talk incessantly, constantly repeating themselves and rambling on about nothing. They seem to feel that this is necessary and right, referring to Candide as ‘Silent Man’ because he doesn’t do this. Candide knows he did not start in the Forest and wants to leave, but he finds it extremely difficult to hold on to this idea. He says to himself that he is going to leave the day after tomorrow, but every day he is still saying it’s the day after tomorrow ie the day never comes. He finds it hard to think and remember his life from before. He realises that the other people he interacts with have the same problem, and that’s why they ramble on about nothing. The people in the Forest can live and thrive on what the Forest provides them. At one point they talk about the clothes they wear having been grown, because they can’t understand why Candide’s clothes won’t grow when cut up and planted. They are not able to understand anything that hasn’t been grown, such as Candide’s clothes, and the scalpel Nava finds:
“What a horrible thing … or maybe it’s not a thing? Maybe it’s a plant? Look how dry it is here – maybe it grew here.”
They don’t have to work for anything, all they need to do is protect their village from being overrun. They are pragmatic about this possibility too, saying they will just move and live elsewhere if the village is covered by mushrooms or changed in some way. The Forest is constantly in flux:
one day something’s a road, the next it’s a river
Everyone Candide talks to tries to dissuade him from taking action. Eventually he meets a group of strange women who seem to have some control over the Forest (or perhaps have merely become part of it). They can conceive without men, can control the deadlings, and have become so distant from anyone else that they barely perceive Candide as being real. The Forest seems to be a single organism, as can be seen by the cloaca observed by the researchers, both eating and giving birth. The vegetation, the women, even the villagers, are all part of it. Everything Candide tries fails, and he cannot escape the Forest.
Peretz is caught in an absurdist farce at the Administration, an organisation supposedly dedicated to investigating the forest. This institution seems far more interested, however, in the idea of bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake. Peretz comes there because he is interested in the Forest, but he is never allowed to enter it, and it would appear that most of the Administration never enter the Forest. One thing that amused me greatly is that there is a character in this story called Bootlicherson. He is the main representative of pointless bureaucracy, endlessly citing rules and writing down notes about everyone. Peretz is told off for not filling out a questionnaire he knew nothing about, and then is asked:
How many total miles did you travel between the ages of twenty-five and thirty, a) on foot, b) using ground transportation, and c) by air.
He of course has no idea, and Bootlicherson expresses great astonishment about this. Someone else in the group snaps at Peretz to make something up, which he does. Everyone is quite happy with him giving nonsensical answers to all the remaining questions, and everything is fine.
Everyone in the Administration (except for Peretz) receives instructions via telephone. He is told that none of this will make sense unless he listens through his own telephone, but no one will tell him where it is to be found. He has no real role or business there, and constantly tries to see the Director in order to get permission to leave, but everything he tries is for nothing. His only trip into the forest goes as far as a research station where he and others collect pay, and they observe an amorphous mass that is constantly generating new life forms, and seems to be the heart of the Forest. Finally Peretz is informed that he is the Director and is in charge of everything. He still doesn’t know what he is supposed to be doing.
What does it all mean? Who knows? My theory is this: The Forest is primal Chaos, without order or plan, simply generating life, self-replicating, if you like. The Administration is Order gone mad, existing simply to perpetuate itself, and without reason or meaning. They are opposites, but can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Neither makes any sense, neither has any real function. They exist merely to exist, organisms that eat and breed, humans being merely cogs in the machine. How many of us exist, rather than live? It is hard to find meaning in your life when you are not even sure what that meaning is supposed to look or feel like. Candide and Peretz, in their own way, are trying to struggle against this pointless existence, trying to find meaning in the meaningless. Candide wants to catch one of the women and question her, but then questions himself.
…they are the happy damned, because they do not know that they are damned; that the strong ones of their world only see them as a dirty tribe of rapists; that the strong ones have already targeted them with clouds of controlled viruses, armies of robots, and the walls of their forest; that everything has already been decided for them; and that – this is the most terrible thing of all – the historical truth here, in the forest, isn’t on their side.
Peretz, meanwhile, is told he needs to sign an order that states:
… manifestations of randomness of any kind, shall be considered illegitimate and contradictory to the ideals of orderliness, while complicity with randomness (probabilitism) shall be considered a criminal offence, except when the complicity with randomness (probabilitism) does not entail serious consequences, in which case it shall be treated as a gross violation of manufacturing and administrative discipline.
When he balks at this because it makes no sense, he is told he must give an order, any order, because that’s the way the Administration continues. Sarcastically, he suggests one of the teams kill themselves, and is appalled when his order is taken seriously. One wonders if the fate of anyone who tries to leave or question is to be made director. What happened to the last guy?
Ultimately they are both doomed to failure. There is no meaning to find.
As you can see, you won’t finish this book expecting to understand it. However, I found it a great read, due to its weirdness and sheer absurdity.