Novel, "Fiction LTD" series, Polirom, 2005, 264 pages
The demonic, the rational and irrational, the fantastical and the derisory all join hands in this novel by Nichita Danilov, in order to reconstruct a universe that is in appearance extremely logical, but where any truth can become possible. Structured as a dialogue between Masha, an ordinary woman, and the Extraterrestrial, a strange and highly original being, who has come down from the world of essences and “pure alcohols,” as he himself says, the novel speaks, sometimes with humour, sometimes with great sadness, about a recent history of the brutalities and atrocities of totalitarianism. The Extraterrestrial, a charismatic and often extremely surprising, omniscient character, although one who is at the same time eager to discover new meanings in the stories he is told, initially appears in Masha’s eyes as a kind of shadow of the Antichrist, if not the Antichrist himself. However, as the dialogue between the two develops, we discover in the Extraterrestrial a witness implicated in the recent past and in a present not yet free of the shadows of the Twentieth Century. The slippage into the fantastic, spiced with a hefty dose of humour in places, is a necessary and welcome safety valve to release the pressure of the absolute evil the story on no few occasions describes. Babulya Tatina, Hippolit Subotin, who are like the spirits or mad gods of the place, Gligore, old Bertha, Fevronia and Nikanor, as well as a number of fabulous animals, to which can be added the Increate and his twelve rats dressed in apostle’s garb, constitute part of the gallery of characters who, with simple humour, with irony and absurdity, counterbalance the tragic in this breathtaking novel.
„There is one thing I cannot get out of my head,” said the visitor, continuing to unwind the skein of his thoughts. “Wherever I go, whatever I do, the same scenes keep coming back into my memory. Always the same images seemingly wrenched from a bad dream. I see rivers and mountains and endless plains rolling to the horizon, and a train that advances across the steppe. Well, Mashenka, this train, how shall I tell you, has implanted itself here, in my breast… I carry it with me everywhere. And even when I am thousands and millions of light years from earth, I shall never be rid of these images. It is almost as if I can see it now, a small station not far from the Dniester and a throng of folk pressed together on the railway line. There must have been eight or nine thousand souls. Men and women, old folk huddled against the cold, dressed in tatters, with a mass of bundles at their feet. A soldier patrols the length of the platform. Reaching the end of the train, the soldier climbs up onto the locomotive and from there, he gives the prisoners a short speech. He’s short, lively, his sparse moustache twisted up Cossack-style, and a little tipsy. He tells them : ‘Esteemed comrades, I see that you are tired and hungry. Do not worry, by and by, the Soviet State has not forgotten you. You will sleep and eat your fill.’ The little soldier coughs into his fist, gives a ‘hmm,’ and then continues : ‘With seven loaves and a few fishes, your friend Jesus fed four thousand people, he even gathered seven baskets of crumbs at the end of the feast. Of course, these are nothing but simple stories, in which your grandparents and great-grandparents believed. We have abandoned them. We are transforming the stories into reality. We don’t go in for cheap fairground conjuring tricks. It’s either black or it’s white. For us, things are clear. The Soviet State will give you much more. Each hostage will receive the ration he or she is due : two fishes per cap or bonnet. I say cap or bonnet because, let it be very clear, for us all people have the same right to live and to labour, regardless of whether they are men or women. Consequently, have you understood ?’ The crowd murmured in unison : ‘We understand…’ ‘As well as “we understand”,’ says the soldier, ‘you ought to have added “your honour.” But I’ll let that pass. You still have time to learn. So, you will now receive two fishes to quell your hunger for the time being. And then each time the train stops, we’ll give you as much fish as you like.’ ‘What about water ?’ some voices shout. ‘You will be provided with water,’ the soldier answers them merrily. ‘We’ll give you water, of course we will ! Uncle Joseph Visarionovich doesn’t like to know that a person is suffering from thirst. You will reach the end of the journey sated and rested. Do you understand ?’ ‘We understand !’ they all shout in a chorus. Some of them, heeding the advice, are mindful to add ‘your honour’ after ‘understand.’ ‘That’s more like it,’ the soldier rubs his palms. ‘I see that you are starting to acquire some good manners, aren’t you ?’ ‘We are, we are,’ a number of women’s and men’s voices accompany him. ‘Then shout after me : Long live the proletariat ! Long live Comrade Stalin ! Long live Comrade Lenin ! Long live all-triumphant communism !’ The prisoners, young and old, without pausing to think, repeat the little soldier’s words, they each receive two frozen salted herrings, the soldiers shout all aboard and they climb into the wagons. The troopers, cracking jokes all the while, inspect the train with agile eyes. They close the doors with iron bolts, bend down to have a look underneath the train, to make sure that no one has hidden under the wagons, run up and down, testing the axles with a hammer, and finally, after a protracted wait, the train sets off. After an hour of travelling through scorching heat, for it is now noonday and the sun is writhing against the sky like a lump of flame, the boxcars are sweltering and the people raving with thirst. In their haste, apparently, the soldiers forgot to distribute the prisoners their ration of water. In the red velvet-lined protocol carriage, which had once been in the service of the tsar, the soldiers fall to drinking vodka and champagne brought from the front, and thus they continue to revel until they reach the destination, leaving the prisoners to the mercy of the Lord. Meanwhile, the latter become desperate. The prisoners kick and punch the planks, scratch the tin roof, shouting with all their might to be brought water. After the hurriedly gobbled herrings, the roofs of their mouth and their throats turn into a dried up riverbed. To quench their thirst, they drink their own urine and, with their tongues, they gather beads of sweat from the wagon. The train stops at a station every now and then. The guards, groggy with drink, walk down the track, inspecting the wagons, checking the axles, talking among themselves. They exchange all kinds of lewd remarks, thus mocking the prisoners who are at the height of despair. They pretend not to hear the groans and shouts of agony from the ‘goods’ they are transporting and which they call ‘herring.’ After the locomotive refills with water and coal, the train sets off. And so it happens again, at every stop. Withdrawn in their compartments, the soldiers eat herrings, olives and even Manchurian caviar. They have a delicate mission to fulfil and the reward is in keeping with the work. What can I say, Masha, soldiers are young men, who don’t have many problems of conscience. The harebrained soldiers revel, they make fun of the prisoners, they drink, they play the harmonica, they play chess and backgammon. They have provisions aplenty, while the hostages perish of thirst locked in the wagons, which are so solidly built that not one screw, not one slat will budge from its place, and their fingernails are torn to the flesh. They are dirty and tired to death. The train travelled for two weeks on end, stopping once or at most twice a day at increasingly wretched stations. And in all this time, not a single drop of rain fell. By day, the scorching heat was terrible, at night, it cooled a little – and towards morning, dew would form. The hostages poked their blackened tongues through the cracks and soothed their agony. For the first three days, the shouts and the groans of the prisoners could be heard as a continuous rumble, on the fourth day the lamentation began to fade. After a week, the groans could no longer be heard at all and the train advanced over the endless steppe, leaving behind it the stench of putrefying corpses mixed with the smell of burning coal – all accompanied by the merry din that burst forth from the carriage reserved for the soldiers. It was a horrifying smell, which imprinted itself on your clothes and penetrated to your bowels. To escape from the stench, but also from the tomb-like silence that enveloped the boxcars, the soldiers drank all the more heavily ; they binged day and night, rarely getting off the train. The refuelling was now done by the engine drivers, who hurried past the wagons wearing gas masks so that they wouldn’t be infected. When the train reached its destination, the hung-over soldiers got off, pulled back the iron bolts, unloaded the corpses, and buried them not far from the embankment. They scoured the train, sprinkling it with quicklime, and then they made the journey back. Of the eight thousand people, not one was left alive… These images do not leave my head. I have them before my eyes even now. The stench still persists in my nostrils. I carry it everywhere with me. Yes, strange things, very strange things happen here in your Russia,” sighed the Extraterrestrial. “Very strange…”
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth