Sunday, 19 July 2015

Chapter 20



THERE were funerals and celebrations. They dug up the hardened earth of the Field of mars in order to lower red coffins, covered with ribboned wreaths and borne on gun carriages, into wide common graves. From atop the granite ramparts, the President of the Executive affirmed the immortality of the working class. A scarlet banner suspended above the mounds crackled in the cold wind. ETERNAL COMMUNIST MEMORY FOR THOSE WHO FELL. Johann Appolinarius Fuchs found this Elzevirian inscription, on which he had worked for three days, rather beautiful. The oppressive cadences of the funeral marches marked the rhythm of the passing troops. The morning was damp; an invincible gloom came out of the earth.  The victors marched past. They didn’t appear to be passing into glory but rather to be returning, exhausted, from regions of misfortune. The men saw war naked, without parades and lies, as it appears to those who fight and want no more of it. Yet they would march with the same firm step to the end of the earth in order to put an end to it. Four thousand men filled the white-and-gold hall of the Opera that evening.
A bitter smell of warmth earth rose up from their grey ranks toward the white goddesses of the vaulted ceiling who held garlands out into the smoky blue. The hands of four thousand men were draped over the armrests of loges and balconies – hands of Riazan farmers, Bashkir shepherds, northern fishers, weavers who had become machine gunners. These clumsy hands knew nothing of eloquent, refined gestures; they were happy to be doing nothing and to possess things peacefully at last for one evening. The stage was brilliant, with a beautiful golden backdrop of painted cardboard. Chaliapin appeared in tails and white gloves, just as he had before the Emperor not long ago, greeting this audience as he had the other (the audience which had passed before the firing squad) with a deep bow and the smile of a masterful charmer. Voices cracked through the hall: “The Knout! The Knout!” Love songs are beautiful, doubtless, but what this audience, this army crowded into a concert hall, likes is “The Song of the Knout.” They know the Knout! Its taste on your back, its taste across your face; and also how to apply the knout, the capitalists know a few things about that! Sing us that one, comrade, and you’ll hear bravos the like of which that other audience- the one that will never return, the one you miss perhaps deep down in your soul, the other audience with its low-cut dresses and its monocles- never gave you! Hands which have moved stones, earth, manure, metals, fire, and blood will applaud you! – And the perfect voice sang out “The Song of Knout.” That’s a song, brothers!
The singer was bowing his way out, wreathed in luxuriant smiles. Encore! Encore! He was about to return to the front of the stage and to give in again to the enthusiasm of the crowd when, from out of the wings, a simian hand grabbed his arm. “Wait, comrade.” With a flick of the wrist, he repaired the crease in his cuff, crumpled by the ungainly grasp of this little, faceless, sunburned old soldier whose eyes were nothing more than dull brown spots. The surprised hall saw a little man dressed in the long coat of the Bashkir Division appear in the place of the great actor. Someone exclaimed: “Kara Galiev!” The soldier advanced upstage with a heavy tread and stopped at the prompter’s box. There, he raised his arm; at its end the hand was wound with white bandages. He was muddy to the waist. It never occurred to him to remove his cap, which was scrunched down as far as his eyebrows. He shouted:
“Comrades!”
What now?  Another disaster?
“… Gdov is ours!”
A new acclamation burst from the warm darkness of the hall. On the stage the handsome singer reappeared behind the messenger from the front. Bowing slightly, sparkling with whiteness, ebony blackness, grace and smiles, he too applauded this obscure victory snatched from the mud of the Esthonian border.
Snow covered the fresh graves which were already half forgotten. Life is for the living and they have trouble staying alive. Once again the long nights seemed reluctant to abandon the city. For a few hours each day a grey light of dawn or dusk filtered through the dirty white cloud ceiling and spread over things like the dim reflection of a distant glacier. Even the snow, which continued to fall, lacked brightness. This white, silent, weightless shroud stretched out to infinity in time and space. By three in the afternoon it was already necessary to light the lamps. Evening darkened the snow with hues of ash, deep blue, and the stubborn grey of old stones. Night took over, inexorable and calm: unreal. In the darkness the delta reverted to its geographical configurations. Dark cliffs of stone cut at right angles lined the frozen canals. A kind of dark phosphorescence emanated from the broad river of ice.
Sometimes the north winds blowing in from Spitsbergen and farther still- from Greenland perhaps, perhaps from the pole by way of the Arctic Ocean, Norway, and the White Sea- gusted across the bleak estuary of the Neva. All at once the cold bit into the granite; the heavy fogs which had come up from the south across the Baltic vanished, and the denuded stones, earth and trees were instantly covered with crystals of frost, each of which was a barely visible marvel composed of numbers, lines of force, and whiteness. The night changed its aspect, shedding its veils of unreality. The North Star appeared, the constellations opened the immensity of the world. The next day the bronze horsemen, covered with silver powder on their stone pedestals, seemed to step out of a strange festival; from the tall granite columns of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to its pediment peopled with saints and even to its massive gilded cupola- all was covered with frost. The red granite facades and embankments took on a tint of pink and white ash under this magnificent cloak. The gardens, with their delicate filigree of branches, appeared enchanted. This phantasmagoria delighted the eyes of people emerging from their stuffy dwellings, just as millennia ago men dressed in pelts emerged fearfully in wintertime from their warm caves full of good animal stench.
Not a single light in whole quarters. Prehistoric gloom.
The red flags over the gates of the old palaces were turning black. Ryzhik no longer kept track of the time. His day had neither beginning nor end. He slept whenever he could, by day, by night, sometimes at the beginning of meetings, when the speaker was longwinded. – Toward midnight, Justas he was getting worried, a hushed voice in the ear trumpet of the telephone communicated to him the results of the Aronsohn raid. “Hello, Ryzhik? That you, Ryzhik? Raid over; picked up three bundles of letters and documents; seized twelve pounds of butter, seventy pounds of floor, two dozen cakes of soap…. Wait a minute, what else, yes, photos, and cans, eighteen of them… - No, no arrests. The bastards flew the coop. they fired a few shots….
- Xenia/ Xenia got two bullets in the belly…” These last two words took on their full meaning in his mind only slowly. They exploded and went out. They lit up again in the depth of his consciousness like the little blue safety lamps in boiler rooms which sometimes indicate that the pressure has gotten too high; danger – then there was the carnal image of a wounded belly. Ryzhik went down to the library. His jaw was rigid, his eyes vague.
Two soldiers were chatting by the light of a night lamp next to the big Dutch earthenware stove. Ryzhik, his back against the stove to let the heat penetrate him, closed his eyes. The night reigned, magnificently silent, over the snow, the ice, the city.
“You look awful, Ryzhik,” said one of the men. “I’m beat myself. Flour was up to one hundred rubles today.”
In the silence which followed, Ryzhik heard bells ringing – bells, bells, bells- jangling, far off, grating, hectic, exasperating, comforting… He ought to say that Xenia… but he didn’t want to say it, and he lent his ear to the bells, the bells…
“We’re in bad shape, with these prices,” continued the heavy voice which had just spoken. “Listen to what this guy’s telling, Ryzhik.”
They listened without seeing each other, for their eyes fixed involuntarily on the flame of the night lamp: a little wick floating in oil in a tin trefoil….. The other man, a foreigner, spoke the mutilated language of an ex-prisoner of war; and he was saying mutilated things, too, of another age, another world. Europe, comrades…. The silent dead factories of Vienna, the poor quarters swarming with rachitic children, the crippled decorated veterans selling matches outside nightclubs on Kaerntnerstrasse. And the execution of the Hunchback, no, not in Vienna, in Budapest, between the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, a celebration just as brilliant for which they fought over invitations… Ah, the Hunchback was magnificent! Even the newspapers said so. The others sang as they waited their turn, you could hear them easily, they didn’t dare shut them up. The society people gave the executioner an ovation. Here.
The man got up and looked inside his tunic for a shapeless billfold from which he removed a piece of paper on which was written a single pencilled line.
“Here’s one of the last lines written by the Hunchback:
“Ich gehe mit einer Alle umfassenden Liebe in das Nichts [I enter with an immense love into the night].”
Ryzhik said harshly:
“Too lyrical. Everything is much simpler. It’s easier to die than…”
And he walked out. He was suffocating. The freezing night cooled his face. Crystal-like bells continued to jingle in the distance, far off. Ryzhik said aloud the three magic words: “It is necessary. It is necessary.” The bells covered them. It is necessary. It is necessary… the world was empty like a great glass bell.
That night only twenty-one carloads of food supplies arrived in the city (three of them were pillaged). Just as long as we hold out until spring! The European proletariat….
Martyshkino, Leningrad, Moscow

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