Friday, 30 January 2015

Chapter 10

DANIL lived in a maid’s room at Professor Lytaev’s. Evenings, before going to sleep, he read love notes that had been left in the night table drawer by a brunette. Some of them were formal, written on paper decorated in the upper corner with coloured flowers: “Dear Mademoiselle Agrafena Prokhorova, allow your most obedient servant...,” ending with a contorted invitation to a birthday party. “With respect, your sincere perpetual admirer…” The writing was that of one of those public stenographers who used to keep stands in the market places.
When Danil came home early enough he would find two old men absorbed in their spoken meditation before a window which was still milk-white. The tea in the glasses took on a tint of wine; Vadim Mikhailovich Lytaev was saying:
“…Peter’s mount has got back into stride. Russia is beginning her revolution again. After Peter, she drifts slowly back into her past again. The Czars only borrow two things from the West: uniforms and money. Behind their false front the old Russia subsists: superstitious, bent under the yoke, floating her huge rafts down the Volga with the same songs as in the sixteenth century, still dragging the wooden swing plough through the fields, building the same houses as a thousand years ago, getting drunk the same way, Christianity celebrating pagan festivals during Easter, making love to fat, painted women and beating them from time to time, deporting or immuring heretics… This old country is still there, deep down, under a thin layer of burning lava.”
The historian, Platon Nikolaevich, answered:
“That is so. And the lava will cool. And when the lava is cool, the old earth by its fermentation alone will crack open the thin layer and once again push its old, eternally young green blades into the sunlight. Ashes make good fertiliser. After each era of disturbances, Russia begins living again according to her inner law like the plants which spring back after a storm. This land “Where Christ trod on every clod of earth” binds her wounds and continues her mission, which is neither that of the West nor that of the East, but hers alone. Even in those disturbances, which are alike from one century to another, old Russia remains faithful to her law…”
 “Platon Nikolaevich! This year, while Lenin was speaking in the assemblies, they burned a witch alive a hundred and eighteen versts from Moscow. Two hundred and thirty versts away, in order to protect a village from an epidemic, naked virgins were harnessed to a plough, following a custom which may go back to the Scythians, and dug a furrow around the fields and dwellings. We are darkest Asia. We can only be pulled out of ourselves by an iron fist. Peter is the model and precursor of the Revolution. Remember this: “Constraint makes all things happen.” He founded industries, ministries, an army, a fleet, a capital, customs, by means of edicts and executions. He gave the order to cut off the beards, to dress European-style, to open this window on Europe in the Ingrian swamps. The earth was bare, but he said “Here will rise a city.” He caned his courtiers, drank like a trooper, and ended his life full of suspicion, doubt, and anguish, smelling treason everywhere (and it was everywhere, like today), trusting no one but his grand inquisitor, thinking even of striking the Empress. And he was right. He left a country depopulated in places, bleeding and moaning under the effort, but St. Petersburg was built! And he is still the Great, the greatest, because he hounded the old Russian, even his own son, because he wrenched this ignorant, passive, bloated old country around toward the future the way you pull up a restive horse with bit and spurs. I hear an echo of his edicts in today’s decrees. All this can even be expressed in Marxist terms: the rise of new classes.”
Platon Nikolaevich resembled Lytaev in a multitude of contrasts: in his immobility; in his face, which was as full as the other man’s was sharp; by his faith, which was as solid as the other’s was anxious. The mould of a face mask resembles the face because it reproduces its harmonies in reverse… Platon Nikolaevich answered slowly, for they spoke to each other mainly to affirm a living thought which, though expecting nothing from men, still felt the need for the ephemeral finality of expression.
“No, Vadim Mikhailovich; Peter, like the people in the Kremlin, is only an accident – perhaps a necessary one in the accomplishment of certain developments – in the history of Russia. It is Alexis who is right against Peter, just as Christ on the cross is eternally right against the eternally vanquished Anti-Christ. Peter is only great to the degree that in spite of himself he becomes the instrument of a cause which is not his own – when he renews the reasons for living of the old Russia he attacks. This time of troubles will end. The southern Slavs, who have remained healthier, closer to the soil, will re-create order and unity in the faith against the sick cities. We are passing through a sort of dark age and we will be reborn. And we will once again bring light to the West.”
“The question,” said Danil, “will be decided by the sword.”
“No, by the spirit.”
It was their common thought, so much so that of the two historians neither was quite sure who had answered.
“But what is the spirit without the sword?”
“But what is the sword without the spirit?”
Danil saw the same indulgent irony in the eyes of the two scholars. He looked at the books lining their shelves, old books full of facts, of ideas, of things so useless when it is a question of bread, of lice, of blood. In the drawer of a mahogany secretary manuscripts lay sleeping. History: that vile scholar’s lie among whose printed lines not a drop of spilled blood can be found, where nothing remains of the passion, the pain, the fear, and the violence of men! He felt a kind of hatred for these two old mandarins who knew so many dates and theories but hadn’t the least idea of the stench of a sacked town or the look of an open belly full of fat green flies over which poppies droop their heads.
“Dostoyevsky…” began Platon Nikolaevich.
“I don’t read him. No time, you understand. The Karamazovs split hairs with their beautiful souls; we are carving flesh itself, and the beautiful soul doesn’t mean a thing to us. What is serious is to eat, to sleep, to avoid being killed, and to kill well. There’s the truth. The question has already been decided by the sword and the spirit. A sword which is stronger than ours, a spirit we don’t understand. And we don’t need to understand in order to perish. We will all perish with these books, these ideas, Dostoyevsky and the rest; precisely, perhaps, on account of these books, of these ideas, of Dostoyevsky, of scruples, and of incomplete massacres. And the earth will continue to turn. That’s all. Good evening.”

The days got longer, heralding white nights. The snow melted on the steppes, revealing patches of black earth and pointed yellow grasses. Streamlets ran in every direction, babbling like birds. They glistened in every fold of earth. Swollen rivers reflected pure skies of still frigid blue. Scattered bursts of laughter hung in the woods among the slim white trunks of birches. Specks of dull silver seemed to hang in the air. The first warm days were tender, caressing. The pedestrian in the damp streets offered them his face and his soul. His glance clung to pretty white clouds which passed above like cares carried off by a great gust of confidence. The charm of life revived with the little children playing on street corners; it hovered over an empty square above a horse carcass devoured by stray dogs. The animal’s skull emerged, a fresh ivory colour, from a burrow of melting snow. Shreds of hairy brown skin, laundered by the frosts, clung to the crushed rib cage. The five little golden onion domes of a rococo church pierced the pale sky, azure turned white, but an airy white of limpid freshness. One could no longer believe that there was still war, death, hunger, fear, lice. The river, immensely free between its granite banks, carried along huge blocks of ice. The floes moved with soft crunching sounds downstream from northern lakes toward the sea now reopened to the lapping waves, to the living lights beading the foam, to the warm Gulf Stream breezes which, starting from Yucatan and the Floridas, passed over the Atlantic, the fjords of Norway and the plains of Sweden, and came to rest on our icy shores. Atop the golden spire of the Admiralty Building a tiny gilded ship, as light and distinct as an idea, sailed through the sky. The colours of the red flags revived.
The first buds opened in the gardens. Then there was an explosion of fresh green foliage over the rivers and canals cutting through the city. The pleasure of life, suddenly recalled, had an acid taste. The evenings were cold under skies tinted steel blue as from the distant reflection of huge icebergs. There was no more night; dusk dragged on grey, blue, mauve, ashy, pearly, brighter and brighter, to midnight. The sky glowed white until sunrise, captivating every glance, at the end of the sparkling canals, through the black arching branches, above the heads of century-old riders holding in their rearing horses… Couples roamed the riverbanks. The sky poured its brightness down on them, the river encompassed them with solitude. They met with ghostly smiles. They paused before rotting barges abandoned by the boatmen last autumn when the river transports were nationalised. Soon they would be dismantled to make firewood; it would be a rough job. The Poor People’s Committees were struggling bitterly over a possession of these hulks.
A blond adolescent girl with deep blue eyes shimmering like rivulets of melting snow questioned her lover, who wore the ragged uniform of a vanished academy:
“Will you help me?”
He whispered yes as he kissed her ear, for she had given herself to him on one of these days, naïve and willing, bewildered and feverish, in a cosy nook of this rotting barge; the stale smell of the river pervaded the silvery grey of the endless evening. The waterlogged planks yielded under their footsteps. They had come there out of curiosity, unmindful of their joy since their joy carried them along. She had nearly fallen into a dark square hole at the bottom of which the water was lapping. “You see! You see!” he said, alarmed. She laughed. “If you had to count every near miss!” They found themselves suddenly alone. Nothing but the vast empty sky over their heads and the watery ripples below, reflecting through a wide gap in the disjointed planks. “How nice it is,” she said, offering him her lips, and the idea came to her simply that in love you have to give your body; it has to hurt and you feel a little ashamed, but you have to, with eyes closed and lips entwined, and you shudder with happiness afterward just thinking about it… But how do you do it? The books don’t explain it very clearly. – “I don’t know, I’m all embarrassed, forgive me, do what you will with me, I love you, I love you…”
Now her rosy petal-shaped lips mingled ordinary things with important preoccupations:
“We’ll set aside a provision of wood for the winter… Listen, I want to become more conscious; tell me what to read.”

Another couple. She: close-cropped hair under a brown leather cap which gave her small head a sporty appearance; gilded temples and eyebrows and gold-flecked eyes. He: a soldier, the red star encrusted in black leather over his brow. She had just left the District Committee, he had come from the political bureau of the 23rd Regiment; they met on a bench in the Summer Garden, a few steps from the Dutch House built by Czar Peter as a temporary residence while this city was emerging from the swamps and forests, with wooden sidewalks running along muddy streets, huge empty tracts, and parks which were in reality the edges of the forest. The graceful gestures of Diana and Artemises hovered beneath the trees. The severely wrought grille of the garden stood out black against the great pale light of the north. There flowed the river.
Their handclasp was firm. Without apparent tenderness. Nearly the same height, the two breathed the same strength. Her eyes followed the hopping sparrows as she said:  “I’ve been thinking over the theory of imperialism. You were right the other evening. All you have to do is read Chapter Four in Hilferding. But on the problem of freedom I’m the one who’s right. Here…”
She pulled a sheaf of notes out of a pamphlet whose coloured cover showed a globe of the earth covered with chains broken by a red lightning bolt dropping from the milky Way.
“Marx writes: “Value transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic… For those who exchange their products, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.” They believe themselves to be free because they are subject to the action of anonymous objects and not to men. They believe themselves free because they see no master over them. But “the reciprocal independence of person is achieved through a system of universal material dependence.””
“That was valid for the past. By becoming conscious of necessity we become free. Read Chapter XI of Anti-Duhring. By its understanding of necessary historical development, the proletariat, accomplishing what must be accomplished, passes from the realm of necessity to that of freedom. Read Chapter II and Part III.”
She knew what he was going to say, but with what words? She waited for these words and it seemed to her that her chest was bursting with joy.
“Xenia, we are necessary to each other, and we are free because…”
They kept silent until they reached the part of the garden where a great porphyry vase stands on a grey pedestal. Only there did he dare to ask her with awkward detachment:
“Will you come, Xenia?”
She nodded yes, simply, and, so that he wouldn’t see the joy laughing in her eyes, looked into the distance toward the varicoloured bulbs of the Church of the Saviour on the Blood. In preparation for this nod, she had spent a long time this morning washing and decking herself out in fine linen, hesitating whether to take along the vial of French Perfume. Was the use of these luxuries invented by the depravity of the rich not unworthy? Yet the District Committee distributed perfumes impounded by customs to the women activists with the most important jobs. She made up her mind on the basis of this specious argument: it was not a luxury nut a matter of hygiene. Wouldn’t he be angry at this bit of refinement in her? But how he breathed in the fresh smell of her bare arms…
They were leaving the garden. An auto, having passed them, stopped short. A high-booted man with a revolver at his side ran to meet them. Ryzhik was only three paces away when Xenia recognised him.

“You’re taking a stroll? You don’t know what’s going on? Come over to the Department right away. Everyone is mobilised.”
Ryzhik climbed back into the car. Only there did he feel, as one feels a bullet only the instant after it hits you, what a sharp jab had pierced his heart at the sight of that couple. Sprawled on the greasy old upholstery of the Ford, instead of thinking of the Revolution he thought that he was too old and that it was irreparable.

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter. 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Interview

A little after new years day I saw The Interview was uploaded to youtube, originally when the trailer came out I was going to give it a miss since most comedy trailers nowadays put their best jokes in them and I didn't laugh once. But thanks to craziness about Kim Jong Un supposedly not being a fan (I wonder if he got a preview screening) and hacking and alarmist comments that this could somehow provoke a war

A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said in state media that the movie's release would be an "act of war".
He did not mention the title, but a Hollywood movie called The Interview with a similar plot is due in October.
 I decided why not? After all it wasn't costing me anything, and I could always click onto something else if it was awful. I watched the whole thing which honestly surprised me, I didn't like any of the films big jokes but a few quick gags were amusing, and I was genuinely interested to see where the plot was going. Its got quite a few problems besides jokes that go on to long, James Franco seems to be doing an impression of Jack Nicholson's Joker, "First you eat your vegetables, then you get to eat your STEEEEEEAAAAKK!" which I found very distracting. And I don't really care for Seth Rogen, he's one of those actors who seems to be playing himself in every role, just with a different job and circle of friends. I don't dislike him or anything, I think he has the best lines of the two, but I don't think he adds much.
Randall Park (pictured) the guy they got to play Kim Jong Un is very good though, in some scenes he does look very similar to the Great Leader, and his acting is very convincing. He's jokey and charming when the plot needs him to be, and he can snap into sinister viciousness when that's required too. Other than that, its well made, all the sets look convincing except for one though the fake set and dodgy props are deliberate ass they're part of the plot.

Now onto the juicy stuff, the political fallout. First a disclaimer I have absolutely no idea who was behind the Sony Hack and I don't really care, its completely irrelevant to anyone who isn't attached to Sony. Now the only reason I did bother to watch The Interview was because of the absurd political clashes over it. I was surprised by how surprised quite a few media personalities were about the denunciations by the North Korean government, plenty of government officials the world over have shown they have no sense of humour and the DPRK isn't usually considered an exception. I mean just saying you're going to kill the President of the US gets you investigated by the Secret Service so I don't think anyone has the moral high ground in this fight.

And its not like North Korea is unique in attacking media that revolves around killing a head of state, the 2004 game JFK: Reloaded a game about assassinating JFK was denounced by at least two Senators; Ted Kennedy and Joe Lieberman.

Like I was saying I was taken aback by the number of times I saw variations of "haven't they got something better to do?" -the they referring to the North Korean Foreign affairs and diplomats- in western media. I can only assume this stems from unfamiliarity with politicians who work in international affairs, which is kinda worrying since "knowing things"  is the main requirement of news media. Diplomats and Foreign Secretaries are living breathing propaganda machines, their one and only job is to represent their nation in the best possible light, that includes refuting and stifling criticism. Furthermore The Interview was made by Americans in the USA, a nation that North Korea has no official ties or business with, so they really don't have anything better to do there. If it was Russia or China or Iran, you know nations that North Korea does have a working relationship and economic ties, then yes they probably would have better things to do, like investments and rocket sales. Though personally speaking I think the North Korean government should be more worried about what the film has to say about assassinating Kim Jong Un, they outright state that killing him won't solve anything since they'll just replace him with another brother or just another General. You have to expose and publicly challenge the regime to have a chance at fundamental change.

If you were even a little curious I recommend giving the film a watch though feel free to skip the first bit its just "hilarious" buddy antics.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Chapter 9

YEGOR, lying on his belly crosswise on the big bed, considered Danil, straddling a chair in front of him. Yegor was wearing a blue blouse belted at the waist by a silk chord and a pair of long sailor’s trousers. He was beating time on a pillow with his feet, which were clad in simple red leather Turkish slippers. His head appeared enormous. Nose sniffing for a fight. Wide, fresh mouth, high forehead topped by blond tufts. A soft drunkenness, which wasn’t drunkenness but rather an inner instability pregnant with storms about to break, stagnated in his eyes, in the sharp curve of his mouth, in the quick pulse of the veins in his neck.
Danil, seeing his expression harden into that of a high-powered gambler about to stake his bet, sensed an obscure danger approaching. He had come to ask this bandit for arms, munitions, money for the Green partisans hiding out in the forests.

“Your Greens,” Yegor said heavily at last, “are too green. Understand?”
Golden candelabra standing on the piano threw the saffron light of twelve candles into the room. Open tins yawned up from the deal table. There was black bread, bits of dried fish spread out on crumpled newspaper, cigarette boxes full of butts, and little crystal glasses decorated with vine-leaf tracings. Discarded cigarette butts studded the floor on every side. Rifles were stacked against the back of a brocade armchair over which a long black silk stocking lay like a serpent. An enamel washbasin full of toilet water was standing on the white marble mantelpiece. The windows, boarded up on the outside and hung with Bokhara rugs on the inside, gave no clue as to whether it was day or night. Seen from without, the big dead house must seem abandoned. The red seals of the Special Commission covered the doors. The only way in was through deserted, disreputable back courts or a secret opening in the wall of the neighbouring house.
“No,” said Danil. “You…”
Yegor stared into space. His feet beat the pillow more rapidly. He was groping for an idea as, in a fight, he would have groped for something to throw – a glass, an inkpot, a knife. In a different voice, he called: “Shura!”
Shura entered. Noiselessly she appeared at the foot of the bed, a woman wearing a long silk Turkoman dress with wide red-and-blue stripes.
“Take off my shoes and socks. Quick.”
he continued to tap his foot nervously against the rug which covered the bed while she removed his slippers and silk stockings in heavy silence. A bare foot, red, with flat toenails, buried itself in the pillow. Yegor withdrew behind his eyes. Danil felt vaguely chilly.
“Anything else?” asked Shura, who seemed to be unaware of the presence of another man three feet away. She had a thickset face, broad through the cheeks; eyes which slanted toward her temples; thick painted lips whose crimson suggested a scream crushed against that mouth; black hair plastered down on both sides of her forehead; bare arms. She was from Asia.
He swallowed the liquor in one gulp.
“Anything else?”
“Sit there.”
Seated on the side of the bed, the woman at last turned a soft glance on Danil. Yegor seized her knee in a grip like a pincers. “Do you see,” he said to Danil, “how I hold this knee? I felt like grabbing you by the neck that way. You would have removed my slippers, you would have poured me a drink, and if I had s[it in your face you would have wiped it off without a word. Some of them even smile when I do it to them. Enough! Remember that Yegor is in a good mood tonight. You picked a good time to come and tell him lies to his face. I know what your Greens are worth. To hell with them and you too. Now, let’s drink. Pour, Shura. Not those glasses…”
A little crystal glass shattered somewhere across the floor. Shura filled some tea glasses with cognac. In profile, a tall bizarrely striped form, a bare arm, smooth and tawny, a low Chinese forehead under jet-black braids. “You drink too!” Yegor told her. She drank slowly with one elbow lifted the way teamsters drink in cabarets. An ambiguous half smile creased her face. Danil saw warm golden sparks in her pupils. Perhaps it was only the reflection of the candles. Yegor resumed his monologue.
“What were you Greens doing when I was taking the Palace? I may well have been the first man in there, rifle butt forward. You can still see the mark of my rifle on the wall panelling. I shot Paul I in effigy. You can still see the holes in his white breeches. That’s where I aim. You don’t like that?”
“It’s all the same to me.”
“Ah, very well. I took Pavlograd; me, do you understand?”
The dull anger building up inside him vanished instantly, carried away by a sort of fond merriment.
“What’s your name? Danil? Listen, Danil, I set fire to Pavlograd prison. That was a pleasure… Hey, Shura, do you remember back in December, the way we worked in the square at night? That was another good time.”
On those nights their jolly band moved into a huge square bounded by a half-moon of buildings whose windows suggested blind eyes. The arch of Army Headquarters, surmounted by an invisible four-horse chariot, opened like a triumphal gate into a deeper darkness. The breeze blew up a snowy powder which suddenly began to sparkle, suspended within the limits of visibility, when the broad straight beam of a searchlight rose over the Winter Palace. This huge luminous sword cut uselessly through the polar sky. At the bottom of the square, the old Foreign Ministry building bent sharply toward Cantors’ Bridge like a cardboard stage setting. The gang proceeded to the foot of the tall granite column, erected in memory of a forgotten victory, in order to saw off the bronze grillwork. The copper was excellent! Fences were offering a good price for them. Yegor had also thought of stealing the Turkish cannon planted muzzle-down at the corners, but they weren’t offering enough for them. The lights were burning in the windows of the militia post a hundred yards away. A few good pals were inside. – Yegor yawned.

“Danil, you can go tell your people that Yegor says, “up your ass.” He’s with the Revolution, Yegor is. Not the commissars’ Revolution but his own, his very own, which still has some good days and fine nights ahead of it. Pour him another drink, Shura, and then to hell with him.
Danil left. Shura walked ahead, carrying a candlestick. Huge shadows danced noiselessly around them. The young woman drew the light close to her lips, whose irritating red was like a scream. The flame went out, the cold night blew in with a sudden glitter of starlight.
“What stars!” said Danil in spite of himself.
“What stars!” murmured distinctly the irritating lips which had just disappeared behind him.
Stormy chords banged out on a piano were exploding somewhere like an underground symphony.
Yegor paced the room, his hips rolling slightly, gesticulating. And, speaking aloud, he muttered, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…”
Yeah, I took Pavlograd. I set fire to the prison. A little orange cat was caught in the guardhouse. So we dashed up the smoke-filled stairs, Brik and I, and we pulled the poor animal out of the flames, yeah. And then I worked a whole morning behind the wall of a little station – but what station! What station? – shooting the officers who had surrendered the night before. How tired we were afterward! I swam across the Dnieper. They killed Brik. What was the name of that nice old mujik who fed me, dried me, dressed me, hid me? A funny name, a mare’s name… We crashed two locomotives together to block the right of way. That was at Matveevka, yes. What a magnificient thing that was, the crash of those two machines, the speed, the momentum, the power, the screaming boilers and that explosion – black, red, white! I jumped out of the cab just in time, yeah. The precise second! I felt the hot breath of the explosion on my back, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Suddenly he thought:
If they had hold of you now, you’d get a bullet in the back of the neck and it would be all over for you, Yegor.
He cried out in the middle of a lengthy yawn – the yawn of a caged beast.
“Shura, I’m bored…”
Half consciously he opened the piano. His head was ready to explode, it was full of things. How to say them? How to silence them? What to yell? What to smash? He struck the keyboard with both hands, seeking deep rumbling notes, unleashing wild chords, a raging battle, a fantastic storm mingled with inarticulate melodies, ecstacies, and sobs.
With the firm tread of a drunk he walked down the long dark corridor toward the women’s room – the “Bitches’ Barracks” – which was at the end. Whispers were audible through the half-open door.
“Didja hear that?” asked Dunya-the-Snake.
Katka-Little-Apple sighed:
“That’s Yegor going off his rocker. I feel bad for him, poor Yegor, with those restless eyes. Oh, Manya, Manya, he feels the end coming, I tell you, and I feel sorry for him, really sorry…”
The three women were probably squatting, as they always did, on pillows around the little stove. Between the two young ones sat old Manya, wrinkled hands under the candle spreading out toward solitaire cards: Manya reeking of lod age with century – old lizard eyes and an obstinate will to live – eh, why go on living, old witch? Yegor would have wanted to grab his own life full of red strength in both hands and wring it out like a discarded rag and throw it in the face of… in whose face, for Christ’s sake?
Old Manya’s answer filtered out of the room along with a faint ruddy glow:
“Don’t worry about him, Katka. Men are all swine. Spit on them. And then, he’s got his Shura. Too bad for her. God bless her.”
Yegor smiled, relaxed, shoulder blades flat against the wall, body heavy.
“Manya,” interjected Dunya-the-Snake, “tell us about Nice.”
“Another time. Those were different times, my girls, the good old days… But we manage to get along, don’t we? Do you know what Tata is doing? She can’t sleep with the commissars, not with a broken nose and a voice like an old worn-out shoe. But she found herself a racket. She undresses little kids. “Here, little boy, come here. I’ve got something interesting to show you….” – she takes the kid by the hand, all sweet and nice, and leads him into a hallway. Two slaps across his little face and Tata collects his coat, his hat, his gloves, a good day’s work.”
“That turns my stomach,” said Katka. “Poor little kids.”
“They’re gonna croak one way or another,” said Manya softly.
“These days.”
“And anyway,” ventured Dunya-the-Snake, “if they’re the kids of the bourgeois, too bad for them.”
“Shut up, you stupid little Agit-Prop. You know that big building they’re putting up over the canal? Well, a whole gang of kids is holed up there, with Olenka-the-Runaway as their chief. What do you say to that? Ah, now there’s a somebody for all her thirteen years. Looks like a little lamb; sweet, well-mannered and all that, but cunning. I’m sure she’s the one who killed that little boy by the Oats Market. You know what they thought up? They catch cats, they eat them, and sell the skins to the Chinese… They also work poor boxes in the churches and ration cards in the food lines….
“Tell us about Nice, sweet Manya, tell us about Nice,” begged Dunya.
Yegor moved away noiselessly, his head bowed.
It was very late when Stassik arrived. Icicles clung to his burgeoning beard. His old soldier’s coat was stiff with the cold. They sat across from each other leaning on their elbows and drank tea and cognac. Stassik brought the latest issues of the Tocsin published in a Ukrainian village during the passing of a singing army which moved in carts – a machine gun and an accordion in each cart – under black banners.

Yegor glanced at a headline:
More resolutions, more organisations, more conferences even under these midnight banners! Yegor drank, and this last swig of burning liquor seemed in a strange way to sober him at the same time as it made him entirely drunk.
“Put away your papers, Stassik,” he said. “I don’t want to see them. I’m not a believer. All I know about is one thing: the melting snows, the great spring waters, the flooding rivers carrying along granite-hard ice blocks, dead dogs, last year’s garbage, old pranks… it’s a flood, understand, and we’re all rolling down to the sea: ah! How beautiful it is to be carried along and to carry off everything before you! A block of ice, that’s what I am. I’ve got to crash into arches and bridges. I’ve got to hear the barge hulls resounding under my blows.”
“And afterward?” said Stassik.
“Afterward, I don’t give a fuck. Put away your pamphlets, Stassik, I don’t believe in them.”
He took another drink.
“I’m bored, Stassik. Do you believe?”
“In what?”
“In what do you say.”
Yegor’s head felt heavy, ready to fall. He was holding it up with both hands. Wouldn’t it fall anyway, roll across the floor, bounce up like a great soccer ball, and smack its brow against the black-and-white keyboard, there to unleash storms and perish? Stassik, sitting stiffly, black and white, black beard and white skin like the piano keys, was certainly not drunk. Stassik’s hands lay flat on the table, sharp and clear amid the general disorder. He answered with words as blunt as deeds.
“You’ve got a child’s brain in an athlete’s skull, Yegor. “Believe” is an old word, Yegor. I know. I know that man will be free on a free earth. I know that we will all be killed long before that. I know that we will be forgotten. I know that the future will be magnificent. I know it’s time to begin.”
“Yes, yes,” cried Yegor, “you’re right. I believe, too, Stassik.”
He burst out laughing.
“So long as we’re killed beforehand. Are you sure about that?”
“I’m sure of it,” Stassik answered gravely.
Yegor thought his forehead had hit the keyboard. A splendid storm thundered around him. He was smiling, ecstatic, into an immense certainty. Like the sun over the Baltic in July, bursting through the clouds and making waves of light ripple suddenly across the sea. Certainty. He was searching for something in this chaos, as he had been searching in his memory across this seascape: the near-forgotten name of a woman.
“Stassik, do you want some money for the organisation? Take.”
The money was in the drawer of the table. Tea had spilled over the stacks of banknotes, which were mingled with dirty postcards. Stassik began methodically to sort out the dry bills.

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Chapter 8

HIS PAPERS, beautiful job, read: Danil X ----------, company commander in the 1st Kuban Regiment, sent to the centre by division headquarters to procure maps of the field of operations. Signed, for Regimental Commander Shapochnikov; Adjutant Shutko. The misspelled words were there, too, they had a good laugh over them. They authenticated a document better than any seals… His real mission, typewritten in code on a piece of silk, without any spelling errors, was sewn, along with other messages, in the lining of his tunic collar. He was also carrying, at the bottom of an apparently untidy pocket among shreds of tobacco and bits of string, a precious little ball of crumpled paper.

As soon as he left the October Station, which everyone still called – thank God!- the Nicholas Station, Danil rediscovered the city, magnificent after so many devastated villages and provincial towns through which had passed endless hurricanes of cavalry, bombardments, epidemics, and the terrible chill of executions. The third-class waiting rooms spilled over into the corridors, and the station halls were like a nomads’ camp. The masses of people living there were so compressed that aisles formed of themselves between the piles of bodies sitting, lying, and squatting on shapeless bundles, which were less shapeless than the half sleeping forms of the people. Through the acrid brown air you could see mothers suckling their squalling children; mothers with flaccid breasts, cradling sallow children with inflamed red lids closed over their eyes and greenish scabs clinging to their tiny heads among the patches of gold or black hair; mothers singing lullabies to put to sleep these little bits of flesh who clung to life with such inexplicable power, singing lullabies whose rhythm was so sweet that their voices, embittered by anger and unfathomable sadness, rekindled some ember of charm amid all that squalor and animal stench. There were bearded peasants who had been waiting for weeks for God knew what train. Others seemed to be waiting for their neighbour, delirious with Typhoid fever, to die; but every time they got near him he would recover enough of a glimmer of consciousness to swear, with vile curses, that, Name-of-God-of-Holy-Name-of-God, dirty bastards 9and so on), they’d never take him to the station infirmary alive; he knew ll about those miserable hospitals, Name-of-a- Name-of-God, full of dirty sons of bitches who thought of nothing but stealing a poor man’s boots. Thus he was settling his account with that sacred thing called life – which so many great poets have sung – right here. His perspiration-soaked head was thrown back over his sack (flour and salt), his body curled up in the manner of sleeping animals or the young of humans sleeping on the maternal breast. He drooled and groaned in his last agony. His neighbours, a whole family from Kaluga with beautiful grimy children, poured boiled water into his mouth three times a day. “He’s got to drink, poor man!” said the wife. “Ah, how the Evil One torments him! Lord have pity on us!” The father carefully pushed away the hairy, louse-infested head which he sometimes found lolling against the thigh of his oldest daughter, thirteen-year-old Marusia, asleep with her rag doll clutched in her arms. – “What beautiful boots!” observed the sick man’s neighbours, promising themselves to remove them when he died, so as to keep the damned city folk from taking advantage.

The nauseating atmosphere in the darkness suggested a cave of primitive men. Sixteen dialects were spoken there: Polish, White Russian, Karelian, Mari, Mordvian, Bulgarian, Finnish, Chuvash, Tartar, Ukrainian, Georgian, Kazakh, Aissor, Gypsy, Yiddish, German. The Gypsies – those horse thieves!-were universally regarded with mistrust (but where were the horses?); they jealously guarded their corner over which reigned a beautiful dark-gold girl and a magnificent bearded man who must have been a bandit. They sent out their old witches and ragged little girls to tell fortunes in the marketplaces. People whispered that they robbed the crypts in cemeteries. – In that crowd you could buy salt, lard from Little Russia, salt butter marvellously preserved in indescribable rags, grain, rifles with sawed-off barrels and stocks for easy concealment under one’s clothing, identity papers. At night the men mated joylessly with their women: sounds of stirrings, and pantings – procreations of misfortune for the future. One out of a hundred survives, but who can know if he is not the one for whom millions of men are waiting? Never, since the mass migrations invading the old Slavic cities surrounded by palisades of pointed sticks, had such crowds been gathered in such misery – and within each heap of mortal beings, the eternal will to live!
Danil moved toward a door at the far end of the encampment. There, a tattered calico banner proclaimed: “HE WHO WORKS DOES NOT EAT,” for they had cut out the negation “DOES NOT” from “HE WHO DOES NOT WORK.” Danil smiled with satisfaction. AGITATION BUREAU. TRAVEL ORDERS. REGISTRATION.
“Where from?” a man in black leather barked at him.
“From Armavir.”
A green stamp crashed down on his orders. Good.
“The situation out there?”
“Could be a lot better.”
“Same old story, eh?”
The man yawned.
“Four dead from typhus in the main waiting room since yesterday. One hooligansmothered under his blankets by his pals, near the lavatory.”
From a poster on the wall above, a soldier in a scarlet tunic and a sort of pointed cloth helmet (whom the artist had drawn to look like the Chief of the Army) pointed an imperious hand and face toward every newcomer. “HAVE YOU ENLISTED IN THE WORKERS’ AND PEASANTS’ ARMY?”
“Are they enlisting?”
“They enlist. Especially the young ones. The army eats, you see. And then they keep the boots and the rifle and go over the wall.”
The vast circular plaza was nearly deserted. At the far end, near the low domes of a little white church, it opened out into the central prospect, empty of vehicles, extending in a straight line into the distant haze… Vagabonds in dirty rags wandered about in front of the station dragging little sleds behind them. The dirty fog blurred the outlines of objects. A sledge stood waiting hitched to a black horse with protruding ribs. Danil saw a well-dressed sailor emerge from the station, disdainful of the impoverished throng, carrying a red leather briefcase with a silver monogram; a woman was on his arm, dressed in a cloth coat with a wide mink collar, but wearing light-coloured high suede boots and a woollen shawl around her head like a peasant. This couple pushed its way brutally through the throng. Emaciated women, worn to the very soul, turned on them with envious looks. “Go ahead and act haughty, sailor’s girl, we know what you are!”
“Ira, Iris, Odaliska!” cried a shivering urchin wrapped in an old soldier’s coat.
His dark fingers proffered two packs of cigarettes and a little box of candy to the passerby. Next to him, a stiff, skeletal old lady in an old braided hat, both her hands stuffed inside a hairless muff, offered three cubes of sugar, in a saucer attached to the muff.
“How much, madam?” Danil asked her.
As she answered she looked only at the passerby’s hands, for customers would sometimes try to swipe a third of her merchandise in one quick movement.
As Danil moved on, he heard the urchin say to the old lady:
“Open your old peepers there, Grandma, and take a gander. You didn’t see many like that in the salons of your booge-wazee. That’s Yegor you know. The man who escaped.”
Danil turned around quickly. The sledge was already sliding off, carrying away the sailor and his companion. She looked toward him for a brief instant, and Danil saw that she had long, well-shaped, slanted eyes whose warm caressing brown glance was like a ray of sunlight filtering through closed shutters. In the middle of the plaza, on a huge rectangular granite pedestal, sat a square-shouldered, square-bearded emperor, massive from boots to neck, cap screwed down heavily over his bovine brow, fist on one hip; he slouched heavily in the saddle, astride a monstrous beast with a lowered brow, and seemed to contemplate, while digesting his dinner, a world forever limited, while his horse, untroubled, stared into the abyss below. The weight of their power implied an unlimited impotence.
The train from Moscow had been about six hours late. The afternoon was fading. Danil walked up Nevsky Prospect, on which he hadn’t set foot in a year – of course, since the day after his arrest. Czar Peter’s city, he thought, a window opened on Europe. What grandeur is yours, and what misery, what misery…

Nobility and grandeur still showed through the rags and tatters. Laundry hanging from dirty windows right on the main boulevard. Windows broken to allow for the passage of chimney pipes of little iron stoves, spitting out their puffs of dirty black smoke against the facades of buildings. Mud-spattered shop fronts, crumbling facades, shop windows full of bullet holes and held together with tape, splintered shutters; watchmaker’s shop windows displaying three watches, an old alarm clock, and one fancy pendulum clock; unspeakable grocery stores; herb teas packaged to look like real tea, as if there were still fools so stupid as to be taken in by these labels, tubes of saccharine, dubious vinegar, tooth powder – brush your teeth carefully, citizens, since you have nothing to use them on! – A nasty joyful feeling awakened within Danil.

Ah, what they’ve done to you, Czar Peter’s city, and in such a short time!
Here had stood Café Italien, the Salzetti quartet; to the right of the entrance, on the mirrored corner, the prettiest prostitutes had sat smiling out with painted eyes from under their gorgeous hats; some of them spoke French with a funny accent and played the Parisienne even in bed… Half the metal shutters were lowered, the pretty white door smudged with black under the press of dirty hands. HEADQUARTERS, IIND SPECIAL BATTALION, TRANSFERRED TO KARL LIEBKNECHT STREET. CONSUMERS’ COOPERATIVE, 4TH CHILDREN’S DINING HALL.
Danil pushed open the door, but all he could see through the herring fumes and the darkness were some broken mirrors. Farther along was the street of women’s hat shops: MARIE-LOUISE, ELAINE, MADAME SYLVIA, SELYSETTE, aristocratic names taken from novels or the noms de guerre of courtesans. It had been a charming street, inhabited morning and evening by pretty errand girls and elegant ladies. Now sinister, piled high with snowbanks.
Here’s Leger’s, the goldsmith. Why in the Devil’s name have they stuck their bearded Marx in here? (A piss-coloured plaster bust, ghostly behind the half-frozen window.) CLUB OF THE POOR PEOPLE’S COMMITTEE OF THE 1ST DISTRICT.
Not a single car. And yet what a beautiful city it still is! The Alexandra theatre showed its noble colonnades. Anyhow, they didn’t topple the tall silhouette of Empress Catherine in court dress holding the sceptre; but some idiot had scaled the bronze figures and attached a red rag on the sceptre – a red rag which was now blackened to the colour of old blood, the true colour of their red.
The tattered elegance of a slim brunette appealed to Danil. She had the eyes of a sad gazelle; her voice was more common than her appearance. Danil took her arm. They walked up the dilapidated street of hat shops.
“What’s your name?”
In her cramped little room on the sixth floor of a big white house there were worn lace doilies on the furniture. Pictures of young officers were leaning against empty cologne bottles. For months this man had not embraced a pretty, willing woman with clean underwear, lying on a bed with proper sheets. The narrow iron bed with its gilded balls reminded him of another such bed; but one which had been covered only by a pink, badly stained mattress with holes in it, in that pillaged villa on the outskirts of Krasnodar, where a stale odour of rot oozed up from the cellars which nonetheless had been carefully boarded shut. Dunya, a little Cossack girl with warm dry skin, used to come there to meet him, barefoot, naked underneath an old red sarafan with blue flowers. The window was wide open to the soft nights with thin showers of shooting stars. The cool marble hall: vague anxiety of doors ripped from their frames. The voices of buddies, drinking nearby at the Georgian’s tavern, burst in with snatches of the dirty songs which the drunken squadrons sometimes sang at the top of their lungs as they trotted into conquered towns whose silence resembled that of cemeteries.
Where, where, where do we get the clap?
From Seraphita, Se-ra-phi-ta!
“All my white eagles are blennorrheal!” said a jovial colonel. Linked to this memory was a taste of fresh watermelon in the mouth.
“You won’t mind if I don’t take off my boots?” asked Lyda. “See how long they would take to unlace.”
Absently, he shook his head, no. Other images rose up into his consciousness, emerging from depths thick with slime heavier than stones. Even the frenzy of the next moments failed to drive them away. Lyda saw a terrible, absent young face, closed off in an inner convulsion, driving into her, and she was afraid. At last the big male body, with its animal armpit odour, sank down next to her, emptied; but no peace returned to that face. “Where do you come from?” she asked to break the silence.
“From the south.”
He talked in snatches, little by little, into the air. Us. Them. Who? The Reds? The Whites? In war they’re all the same: brutes. Listen to this. What an awful memory: they captured this man in a secret room hidden between walls. A member of the Committee, understand? They tied him to a stake, in the square. The crowd was watching, calm, like him, thinking he was going to be shot. A thick rope was passed around his head; then, from behind, it was slowly tightened like a vice, with the help of an axe handle. Then only, the man understood; in a desperate effort, he nearly broke his bonds; his neck strained and turned blue with the struggle. The rope tightened heavily around his forehead. “Slower,” cried fat Shutko, steady in his saddle, albeit drunk. A curious fellow, Shutko: he could sit his horse perfectly even when unable to stand… The skull broke open like a nut, the rope was red, the body collapsed into its bonds, like a limp sack. An uproar broke out in the square. Everyone ran, the long piercing screams of the women scared the horses… “My horse…”
“You were there?”
Lyda was reminded that she was naked, naked in front of a man who had seen these things, and that the traces of this man’s arms and lips, the seed of his flesh, were on her, in her: it was as if she suddenly felt soiled with blood, brains, body fluids – a dizzying physical revulsion. She reached for her coat and covered herself with it, shuddering, her eyes wide open, no longer brown but black.
If, on the third landing of this stairway, behind a door like any other, the leather trench coats appeared – “Your papers!” “Hands up,” whatever they say – it would be all over, irremediably. All. Every step thereafter would be a step toward… toward what? Better face it, or you’re no good for anything. Toward a revolver held in a monstrous fist in the grim light of a cellar where you enter naked, shivering a last shudder. It took them to think up that one: undressing you. They are shameless. They don’t hesitate to commit any disgrace. – Clothing is precious, of course. And are our sabre executions in front of two-foot-deep trenches dug by tottering prisoners any less abominable? Less. Our bullets are precious. The sabres glittering in the sun recall the massacres of antiquity…. And what if there is no sun, phrasemaker? Danil was still arguing with himself in front of the door which was about to open onto his fate: the end of an adventure or the end of everything.
The rites unfolded simply. Ask for Comrade Valerian: American-style moustache, fleshy nose, close-cropped hair. Say “Prokhor sent me.” Once inside, add: “Allow me to light a cigarette,” and, getting out the cigarettes, drop a wad of crumbled newspaper. Wait.
Valerian carelessly flicked the wad into an ashtray, which a moment later he carried into the next room. Then he reappeared smiling, having matched up the two fragments of a newspaper headline on the open pages of a book.

“Is it true that Kazan has fallen?”
It seemed likely. On the black stock market the value of shares had been rising since the fall of Perm and the defeat of the workers’ councils of Bavaria. The rumour of Lenin’s assassination, followed by a denial, had recently enriched some smart operators for a few days. Shares in societies anonymes, although fallen into the triple anonymity of illegality, emigration, and anonymous death in prisons, still persisted in representing the value of nationalised factories, long-pillaged inventories, and phantom capital. Gamblers with less to lose than those who commit suicide outside casinos still placed bets at each new rumour, on the sticky guards of the Civil War.
An idea cut through Danil’s brain like a knife. We are spilling blood and these people are speculating on every battle, on the firing squads and the hangings, on… And, since he had to answer himself at that very moment, he finished out his thought – but they don’t even know how to speculate they pillage.

He made his report to the Three: Valerian, the Professor, Nikita. The samovar was humming on the table, which was spread as for a feast. – “How many trains did you say?” The Professor was repeating his question; he was a little deaf; gold-rimmed pince-nez, the heavy features of an aging billy goat. Could this asthmatic bureaucrat be one of the leaders of the liberation movement here? - “How many airplanes did you say?” Wasn’t he just asking these questions to give the impression that he understood? They might be the sign of infantile incomprehension. What importance did he attach to these uncertain figures? Just a moment before, the Professor had mentioned “the Yids” in a voice thick with scorn.

Nikita, close-shaven, with a high smooth forehead and porcelain eyes, was smoking as he took notes. The Three spoke little, but Danil learned a great deal. An Esthonian regiment had gone over to the Whites. The fleet on lake Peipus as well. Other great blows would soon be struck: a fortress - another fortress – a regiment – a heavy cruiser… Valerian was examining old railroad maps, on which rivers, as blue as fresh ink, and the straight lines of tracks stood out against the white background.
Then, by the Professor’s way of inclining his wooden face with its prematurely detached chin and sharp nostrils over Russia, Danil discovered in him an ancient hidden power which must make him precious to the others. He understood that the figures fell necessarily into place in his mind the way crystals form around a first crystal. No doubt, no hesitation, no error was possible for this man. No sophism could influence him. No truth other than his own. Danil thought: If I were to cry out to him: “Look at what they are doing, look at what we ourselves are doing. Here’s what I saw. I saw a man’s head split open under the cord. That form of execution has been extinct since 1650! Are we really any better than they are?” – he would merely reply in an absolutely neutral voice: “Second Lieutenant, I believe your tunic is missing a button. Be more careful of your appearance.” And this would be more crushing than any vehement reply.
“We have them at bay,” the Professor concluded.
“No bread. No metal. No combustibles. No cloth. No medicine. In the north, the Americans, the English, the Serbs, the Italians. Here the Finns, the Esthonians, the Whites. To the east, the Supreme Commander. To the west, the Poles. To the south, the Whites. Us – everywhere: in the army, in the fleet, in the economic councils, in the cooperatives. Behind us, the powers. With us, the people, all who are not the dregs of the ignorant masses. Us, the only hope.
“They nationalised the notions business. You stand in line for seventeen hours in four different places to get your seventh and final piece of paper: a ticket good for four spools of thread. And when you get to the store there is no more thread because the last of the stock has been stolen during the night, ha, ha, ha!- Do you know why they made the mails free? Because it cost too much to print up stamps!
“They instituted a free food program for children, but small coffins are at a premium on the market and there’s a line at the cemetery! – and how they ape us! In their trenches the soldiers no longer salute their officers with “Your Honour,” but they cry out in the same voice by God, “In the service of the Revolution!” Jolly service! Every night groups of men desert by fleeing forward toward the enemy, who has bread.”
The conversation had become animated. The Professor was explaining to Nikita that when order was re-established there would be a ticklish problem facing jurists. Which laws to apply to the ringleaders? Common-law crimes, sacrileges, they have plenty to answer for; but in their case the exercise of power has created a new juridical situation. Usurpation.
Valerian began to laugh:
“Martial law, by God! The fewest possible formalities.”
The Professor raised his wooden face, the two sides of which were multiplied into geometrical reflections in the lenses of his lorgnon, and shook his head slowly from side to side.
“The state is based on the notion of right. Regicides, parricides, and the sacrilegious have a right to the safeguard of the laws. According to Roman law…”
Nikita thought about forests. Last year he had walked for five weeks through the forests of the Dvina, sometimes following the trails of great hungry bears in the fresh snow, listening to the wolves howling at sundown, resting under the pines in the awful cold, building himself a fire a rare treat (a dangerous treat, for fire could attract man), learning how to devour the raw flesh of wolves and crows. The silence of the forest was so immense that it seemed to cover the whole earth, to blot out all memory; the pines under first snows seemed in turn white, dappled, blue, dark, darker than night, depending on the hour and the light. The sounds of flapping wings and indistinct animal cries, of broken branches falling, of faint breathing, lingered momentarily and vanished, leaving a sharp, delicate imprint on the man’s soul like the snowy footprints of an emaciated old wolf who passed by a while ago with his tongue hanging out between sharp fangs, making his own mysterious way through the woods, through the cold, through hunger toward his prey or toward death. The man stooping attentively over his trail knew trigonometry and recited Andre Chenier’s poems by heart in the clearings. On the seventeenth day, in the middle of a mortally cold frost, with only seven cartridges left, Nikita saw lines of smoke rising straight up over grey huts squatting like moles on the Russian earth. He turned back with hurried steps, skis sinking into the soft deep snow. Better to stretch out alone beneath one of those ancient pyramidal pines sparkling with diamonds under the rays of the moon and die in peace, of slow exhaustion – better this end than encountering man. And yet he did encounter a man, being unable to avoid him, and the encounter was a fortunate one: they came upon each other, inexplicably, face-to-face in the middle of the forest, two rifles, two wary instincts overcome by surprise, sniffing each other out at a distance of twenty yards like two beasts of the forest. The other man was a forgotten old woodsman who knew nothing about the war, nothing about the Revolution, nothing of the death of the Czar, nothing about anything. Every summer he travelled one hundred versts to the northwest, to a Komi village, to get powder, brandy and matches. Arriving home, alone as always with the silent female who slept at the back of his hut, he would drink for days on end. During these times he would talk out loud, volubly and disconnectedly, dreaming, attempting to sing but remembering only the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer – “Our Father who art in heaven” – and snatches of a sad prison ballad – “Open up the prison door for me…”
The female, too, her spirits warmed by the alcohol, would begin singing languorous lullabies in her Komi language. Then they would fall asleep huddled next to each other on the beaten earth. The door of the hut was open to the green vastness. Birds hopped in and out. Red squirrels plumed with magnificent tails came to stare with their bright little eyes at the strange disarmed sleep of the two human beings. The man had been living this way – nameless, ageless- for years. He barely knew to talk anymore. He didn’t know what a newspaper was. The sight of a lighter impressed him so much that for an instant Nikita feared that he might kill him from behind as they slid along single file on their skis, just to possess this marvellous object which could give birth to fire at the flip of a fingernail. But this solitary figure had lived away from men too long to think anymore of striking his own kind. He tamed squirrels. He derived great joy from spending warm afternoons frolicking with these intelligent little animals. “So intelligent,” he declared, that thanks to them he still retained the idea of intelligence. From him Nikita learned that he had come the wrong way. Snenkursk, the British outpost, was still distant by twenty days’ march that way, toward those constellations, then following the course of the river: watch out for bears… In these forests you needed to get your bearings by sextant, as on the high seas. Nikita went back the way he had come. Now he no longer knew whether it had been a nightmare or a rare burst of sunlight in his life.

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter.  

Friday, 2 January 2015

Darkness at Noon

I recently got round to reading Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, now I'd been interested in reading Darkness for a little while, and by little while I mean a little under ten years. You see back when I was still in the Comp taking GCSE History my history teacher Mr Davies told the class during the Soviet Union module about an account of Stalin's purges. I couldn't remember the name but I remembered two scenes that took place in the book. One involves a conversation in a prison exercise yard, the protagonist (who I couldn't remember either) is talking to a cell mate, asking why he's in prison. His new companion replies that he is a peasant from a province far away, and when a female Doctor came to prick the children of his village for vaccinations he didn't killed her. It seems he didn't understand what was happening and panicked, in trying to protect his children he became a murderer and a "reactionary".

The other part I remembered clearly was an argument during one of the main characters many interrogations. The argument turns to the protagonists watch, the interrogator wants to know when the protagonist received his first watch, the protagonist answer provokes a confession of sorts from the interrogator that he grew up in a village where they still do not know the day is divided into hours and says something like "if you tell the people of my village, the train will arrive to collect the grain at 11am tomorrow the only word they'll understand is tomorrow. They will go to the train station the next morning and just wait for a train to arrive,all day if need be and sleep on the platform floor" These scenes have stuck in my mind ever since and I've now finally been able to lay this demon to rest. It was worth the wait.

The author Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian Communist, after joining the German Communist party in 1931 he soon worked for the Comintern in several roles revolving writing. He wrote a book on the Five Year Plan but didn't get approval so the Russian version was scrapped and the published German version heavily censored. During the Spanish Civil War he became a spy for the Soviet Union using a cover as a journalist for the British newspaper the News Chronicle, he got access to Franco's headquarters in Seville and uncovered direct evidence of the early involvement of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

After that he returned to Spain as a news correspondent but was in Malaga when it fell to Franco's forces, as a result he was held for several months in Seville awaiting execution but a prisoner exchange saved his life. Because of these experiences amongst others, Koestler had direct experience of espionage (coded messages and underground cells) prisons with their interrogations and midnight executions, and the absurdity of Comintern policy during the 1930's and how it dealt with the unorthodox and ignored its history.

The 1930's were probably the most confused period for the Soviet Union and its western parties, in the early thirties Stalin encouraged western parties to focus on attacking left wing rivals, Trotskyists and Socialists mainly. He was not above using tricks and pressure to get his way and could topple CP leaders as far away as the USA (see Jay Lovestone) however once Hitler came to power in Germany to complement Mussolini and disproved the assertion that Fascism was a uniquely Italian phenomenon, that quickly changed.
From left to right: Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, Harpo

The mid to late thirties was the period of Popular Front, now the CP a bitter sectarian in most nations had become an eager facilitator for an alliance of convenience with anyone willing to work with them. And I do mean anyone in Spain the Communist Party worked with POUM a coalition of Trots and Bukharinists both Stalin's main rivals for the leadership of Soviet Union, and Anarchists. In Britain the CPGB publicly supported Churchill and his "Progressive Tories" totally ignoring his bloody past, his Imperialist views and his attempt at the time to build a partnership with the Fascist sympathising Edward VIII.
And in 1939 it changed yet again with the signing of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which meant that officially the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were neutral and hostilities between the two had ceased.
I'm pretty sure everybody knows what happened next. These changes weren't easy or without cost, every time the Soviet Union made a switch and forced its little brothers to come along for the ride they paid quite a price. Many senior figures and activists wouldn't or couldn't make so radical a change and either left or were forced out. The lack of direction and confusion led to a loss of support and faith in some quarters, and the focusing of resources on what was basically Soviet foreign policy killed any chance a Western Communist party had of growing to the point it could seriously threaten their national bourgeoisie or emancipate the working class. Only in Spain were the Communists strong enough to rule, and that was thanks to Soviet Military support, which enabled them to crush their left wing rivals, but even that proved useless since they then lost the war to Franco anyway.

All of this is reflected in Darkness at Noon, while Rubashov is in his cell reflecting on things he recalls his own part in these intrigues and the actions he has done that help cement the rot in the Revolution. As an old Bolshevik he was one of the senior figures sent out into Europe to enforce the will of the party abroad. He also refused to speak out and merely made sure that his outlook matched the Parties at all times. Rubashov isn't an innocent martyr being turned on by a monster, he's partly to blame for this state of affairs and now his creation is turning on him for failing to live up to its exacting if fluid standards. Its an examination of the Russian Revolution and the role of a powerful Party Apparatus, and looks at collective psychology.
 Arthur Koestler (1969).jpg
Arthur Koestler was himself disillusioned with the Soviet Union and left the Communist party in 1938, Darkness at Noon was published in 1941, and it caused quite a stir at the time making him world famous. Since Stalin is dead and the Soviet Union is gone the book has lost some of its appeal, but its still a fascinating look into the mind of a Comintern member and a reminder of the chaos of the 30's that's often overlooked despite being very important. For example had the Soviet Union left the German Communists to make up their own minds, opposition to the Nazi's which had been quite fierce may well have taken precedence over squabbling with the Social Democrats, which may have prevented Hitler from coming to power, or at the least presented his unstable regime with a serious internal opposition that if nothing else would delay his foreign ambitions.

To take another example had the Soviet Union restricted its role in Spain to military assistance, then the Anti-Fascist alliance might of survived, it broke down because the Spanish Communist party attacked the other factions, something they wouldn't have dared to do without backing from the USSR. An independent Spanish Communist party may also have been more willing to grant independence to Spanish Morocco, an important point since Franco depended upon the troops stationed there and the Moorish regiments. Granting independence to a colony that gave them nothing would have meant the Moorish soldiers were unlikely to fight and Franco would have had to keep most of his forces across the sea to prevent an uprising. I could go on, and I know these are speculation on what if, but they do make quite a bit of sense and were at least viable alternatives. 

You can read a PDF version of Darkness at Noon here,  

Search This Blog

#blog-pager { display: block !important; float: none!important; } .blog-pager-older-link, .home-link, .blog-pager-newer-link { background-color: #FFFFFF!important; }