Born to Run: On Jana Beňová’s "Away! Away!"
Jana Beňová | Away! Away! | Two Dollar Radio | December 11, 2018 | 112 Pages | Translated by Janet Livingstone
People in relationships ask “where do you think this is going” when really they’re asking “where do you think you’re going.” In Jana Beňová’s Away! Away! (Two Dollar Radio, trans. Janet Livingstone, 112 pgs.) well, I bet you can guess her answer. (Hint: it’s “away.”)
Meet Rosa. She loves Son until one day she doesn’t. She walks to work then walks past work and keeps walking until she’s running away; she’s on the road (“I’m saying that I am, unfortunately, much more like Kerouac than Ginsberg”). Son is confused and Rosa’s inability to explain her behavior doesn’t lessen her commitment to the shtick.
Rosa briefly shacks up with Corman then Pierre. We don’t really care about them because Rosa doesn’t either. To her these flings are ferrymen escorting her to wherever (nowhere, the next fling) and away from her old life—to which she’s called back by death. Son’s sick; it starts with blindness but who knows where it’ll go (“I thought they were gunk on the window or a flock of birds. Crows. Ravens? How long does it take to accept: they’re inside your eye….Don’t worry. I won’t burden you”). Rosa returns to Son, but keeps wandering, and she grows older and sicker with him. Then The End at 112 short pages.
If that doesn’t sound like much plot it’s because it’s not; what actually happens in Away! Away! is Beňová’s language. She shifts from first to third-person, refuses quotation marks, and temporally jump-cuts in the space of a paragraph. The book’s form mimes the maddening effect of Rosa’s flippancy. We’re never led in one direction for long; it’s almost as though the author is trying to throw us off her trail. Simultaneously, Beňová’s style incites in us the same intoxication Rosa must feel: a rush of fleeting impressions and underlying dread, the thrills and worries of a runaway. In a way, Away! Away! is a Pinocchio story (Pierre is, after all, a puppeteer).
Rosa is a Romantic. She hates cities (“Some praise cities—Paris, London, Prague. For me, however, nature is more important....God’s country”) and the trappings of middle-class stabilities (“All that’s left is to choose the most aesthetic suicide: marriage + 9 to 5 office job or a revolver”). She believes freedom is a free-fall. While this Romantic impulse has organized stories of modern-day malaise before, what’s refreshing about Away! Away! is this: Rosa sees no need to justify her wandering, not even to herself. It’s not deep or profound, running away isn’t a “personal truth”—it’s raw desire, hilarious in its inexplicability. It’s as absurd as anything else.
Away! Away! is Nobody Is Ever Missing but with a looser style, more fuck you and less admire me: it’s honest about its central principle which is “Whatever.”
So that’s the fun side of flippancy, the scamper into anything, the excitement. But throughout Away! Away! what we really experience is the other side of flippancy: entropy. Travelling Europe, exchanging one plot or person for another (“Every person is a plot, Corman claimed”) is enervating, depressing. The only way away is into something else. Within the beautiful paranoid dream logic of Away! Away! is Rosa’s exhaustion and resignation. What can she do besides go away?
Halfway through the novel we read “Don’t go anywhere! Stay here! Where are you going! Just go then! Just go! Grrrgrrrgrrr.” The implication’s clear. When we stay or sit we’re dogs. And though dogs are loyal, they’re only that way because they have masters. Rosa’s motto is the end of that Tennyson poem that’s quoted in Hollywood movies and sitcom series finales: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Obviously, it’s stupid. Just Google image search and you’ll see:
I could go on but I won’t because the point is clear: the freedom cri de coeur is hackneyed, another oh I don’t love you anymore and need to go on an adventure plot. Think of it at this point as a smooth jazz cover of “Born to Run” that your Lyft driver plays before they drop you off, after which they’ll pick up someone else and you’ll order another Lyft (or Uber): the gig economy of the heart. Serviceable redundancies.
But Beňová knows this. She remixes the facile elements of “love on the run” the same way Truffaut does in his Love on the Run. In both we have a loveable protagonist, multiple romantic entanglements all of which result from the protagonist’s inability to commit—a childlike Romantic impulse to transcend, an impulse which guides the lives of adults who should know better (“The Child is father of the Man”), a recklessness made charming by the main character’s naïve faith in their own innocence—and, finally, a wry author (auteur) who is telling us this story to lightly chide us for having desires at all: all desires, Beňová and Truffaut suggest, are as arbitrary, ridiculous as those of Rosa or Antoine Doinel.
Really we’re not born to run but to die, like Lana says. All our hand-me-down wants are ways of ignoring the fact that one day we’ll die like dogs. Where will we all go, one day? Away. The gift of Beňová’s novel is the omniscient lurch of her prose (a multi-party stream of consciousness). Away! Away! combines its characters’ voices to form a a choral imploration to the reader: sit down and sympathize with these people who make mistakes because they are so afraid of death, the end of the book. People abandon each other because they’re afraid of being pinned down in an identity: locatable, inanimate. Why begrudge them their selfishness on grounds of its absurdity when what they’re up against is even more absurd than that? (Hint: it’s death.)
Another translation of Beňová’s title Preč! Preč! is “Get Off! Get Off!”