Stefan Andres: Wir sind Utopia (UK: We Are Utopia; US: We are God’s Utopia)
This short novel is Andres’ best-known work. It was first published illegally in Germany in 1942, while Andres was living in Italy. It is set in a monastery during the Spanish Civil War. A group of prisoners has been brought to the monastery which is being used as a prison, the monks’ cells being ideal for prisoners’ cells. One of the prisoners seems to look around and is soon brought back into the group by one of the guards. However, when inside, he looks at the pool and the Lieutenant goes to question him. It turns that the prisoner, now known as Paco, was once a priest in the monastery. The lieutenant talks to him, even bringing food and drink to his cell, including a knife to cut the food, and learns about him. Paco was once Father Consalves but had renounced his faith and had lived as a sailor for the past twenty years, excommunicated from the church. We learn a lot about his time in the monastery. He had been a very idealistic young monk, wanting to change the world – to make it into a utopia. His superior, Father Damiano, had advised him to be more realistic. Don’t forget. No-one has yet been able to reform the world into a utopia, not even He Himself. However, Father Consalves is not convinced.
The lieutenant has a guilty conscience. He had ordered the monks in the monastery to be killed. The surviving nuns are now criticising him and he feels very guilty. I am a devil, he says to Paco. He wants Paco to grant him absolution but Paco tells him that he cannot, as he is defrocked and he is not allowed to. However, the lieutenant persists. When the lieutenant leaves him in the cell, leaving the knife behind, Paco puts it in his pocket. He can see the machine guns lined up outside, waiting to kill all the prisoners, as the occupiers have to beat a retreat and do not want to leave behind a large amount of men to help the enemy. He also can hear the distant artillery, which he knows is the artillery of his side, approaching the monastery. Paco ask to see the lieutenant, ostensibly with the excuse of asking for a cigarette. The lieutenant lights up a cigarette for himself and says he will only give a cigarette to Paco in return for absolution. Paco chides him for bribing a priest for religious absolution for a cigarette.
In their discussions, we learn that both are troubled men. Pedro, the lieutenant, has never been a happy man and has been a cruel man, too, torturing animals when young. Indeed, Paco suggests to him that the best absolution for him is death and recommends it. Paco, as we know, is a defrocked priest, a man who has been looking for freedom and truth and conspicuously unable to find either. His closest to freedom has been on a boat when the barked orders of the third or fourth officer can become a routine which is easy to follow. But he has tired of that life. In the army, he has killed four men, four fellow Spaniards, as he tells himself, and death holds little fear for him, certainly less than it does for Pedro. When the phone rings in Pedro’s office, and Paco is told that he has to go and grant general absolution to his men in the refectory, he does not flinch from his duty.
Though a short book, it is a very fine book. Though set in the Spanish Civil War, it was written in World War II, when Andres and his wife, from a Jewish family, had left Germany and had gone to live in Italy. The inevitability of death, the issue of personal conscience and the futile search for a utopia on Earth, not to mention the brutal decisions that have to be taken by quite ordinary men, when it comes to the life of others, are all raised here and we know early on that it is likely that the only victor will be death and neither God nor men will be able to create a utopia on Earth any time soon.
First published 1942 by Riemerschmidt
First English translation by Gateway Editions in 1950
Translated by Cyrus Brooks (UK); Elita Walker Caspar (US)