Motherland

In sleep, right arm thrown out, to touch the emptiness and smile contentedly.
"... My Motherland is Solitude"

 

Highways, delineated with a French curve, do not restrain the flight of the imagination. It runs wild to find the solitude to work in. This Land is poised on its edge. Lay it flat, smooth it out and it would make a huge, flat country, a whole continent. Then the faces of the inhabitants, tending now to be in profile, would turn wide-cheeked and round. Then thousands of kisses could fit on the faces of the local women, where now a sharp splinter of lip fits half a kiss, two thirds at a push. This Land is like a horse thrown over onto its back. Its body performs the act of breathing not along the horizontal, but vertically. The wind does not beat into the face, the riding cloak does not stream out behind.

I came here a long time ago for only a couple of days, but stayed on somehow. At first I phoned my family often; they asked when I would be back. Without doubting my own sincerity I told them: in a week or two. But after I started writing the Chronicle I put off my departure until the spring. I had brought ten shirts with me, convinced they would be enough for three weeks. Mother ironed and folded the shirts. She kept saying as she wiped the dust from my suitcase: mind you change your shirts, now, and buy some more if you run out. I wore those shirts out long ago, and the last time I spoke to Mother on the phone, about three years ago now, I told her I'd done as she said; I'd bought some shirts.

0h, how transparent and pure the healing mountain air is. Out of it pour valleys and cliffs; it sharpens the shape of the nose, it gives wings to the lungs; because of it the heads of children and old men burst, like lightbulbs. 0h, tear your gaze from your phials and pipettes, your beakers and retorts, you crazed seekers after the elixir of life, take churns and pitchers, double-framed windows and head for the mountains! The mountain air is being given away. Any more for any more? The caravans stretch for miles, loaded with air, heading for every corner of the globe. But can you really keep a foothold on the twisty pathways along and above a ravine, can you really catch hold of your own slender scream drowning in the hot tumult of a boulder-cramped, glutinous stream?..

Mist, bleating sheep, washed-out patches of mountain. Memory, sharp as sheep's cheese. Father is saying something inaudible to Mother, while she smiles and strokes his revolver. He has taken off his Sam Browne, his holster is unfastened. There is a hint of smoke, or sweat is it, in the odour of the salty tasting leather belt. In the corner the karakul Father brought lies tossed in a heap. It looks as though it is breathing. We know already; the tailor will be here this evening to measure across our shoulders and round our waists with his tape, finger the silk for the lining and then leave, muttering his calculations. No, never will our whole family step out, the envy of all the other garrison families, enveloped in karakul. Never the tailor reach out for his reward. Never Father return from a raid. But why am I recollecting all this here, in the Land of peace and quiet?

The local language here is silence. The echo of silence is the language of the local poets. I had to live in Land for many a long year before I came to appreciate the properties of soundlessness. The Landers have about three hundred variants on the meaning of a silence: a raw silence (biting the lower lip), an outraged silence (a thumb stretched back to the limit), an obedient silence (clenched buttocks), a disappointed silence (the chest remains absolutely still), a loving silence (eyes screwed up painfully) and so on. In practice, Lander poetry is impossible for foreigners to understand. The only thing comprehensible about it is its compositional principle; a disappointed silence, for example, is not indicated by some corresponding mark or gesture, instead a completely different sign is used, even though a disappointed silence is what is meant. A masterpiece of Lander verse is a poem in which all the signs fail to match their traditional meaning. Such masterpieces can only be interpreted by reference to the context of life and poetry as a whole. Additionally, all this is complicated to an extreme degree by capricious metrics and prosody. The length of the caesura is variable; it can be equal to the flutter of an eyelash or the fall of an autumn leaf to the bottom of an abyss. The lulls and pauses are easily explained by the innumerable gaps and emptinesses in the landscape: whether broad summits or sheep flecked across hills or the spread fingers of a hand (lustful silence). And yet this is far too simple an explanation, because there is absolutely no reason to believe that locality and way of life determined poetry, and not the other way about. There is no such thing as Lander prose.

The mountains are pierced by tunnels. They stretch for months. You can buy a ticket for September and emerge somewhere on the coast in the second half of April. There are hundreds of stories about such journeys. What could be more appealing, and more terrifying, than to live by feel! The train includes a church carriage, a security carriage, an alms-house carriage. Couples who have fallen in love through the touch of fingers and hands, who know each other only by physical contact, as a rule are afraid of the journey's end. They plead, offer their valuables, fall at the feet of the engine drivers: for the love of God be generous, reduce speed, put on the brakes, turn back, we are so afraid of seeing each other. The engine drivers are implacable. The number of suicides in the tunnel is considerably higher than in the world outside. But the marriages solemnised in the church carriage are much more stable than those performed anywhere else. The rumble of the trains reaches the Landers, but they never use them.

I came to Land in search of solitude. The writing of the Chronicle is nothing more than pretext. Back home other people's words got in my way. My brain functioned outside the laws of friction and gravity. Almost every word I heard or saw evoked landslides, avalanches in me. I failed to grab hold of a saving branch or root hanging over the ravine, I was tossed from side to side, carried along by the current, sucked into whirlpools. At work, all my efforts went into concealing every trace of the constant cataclysms within me. Children, my children, became more and more intolerable. There have been psychological investigations analysing in pretty fair detail the origins and sources of children's word creation. But I was not interested in research. I knew that what was happening to my children, especially my daughter, was something similar to what had happened to me. But how easily and naturally they accepted it! I floundered about in the current in desperation, while they obeyed instinct and yielded to it, and sometimes it seemed as though it was they who steered the current, that its great bull neck obeyed their frail knees. At home I scarcely ever removed from my ears the repulsive pink plugs I had bought at the chemist's. Yet here we are, departure. A gigantic leap. Breaking the sound barrier. Finally exhausted, I was washed up on the shore, onto dry land, terra firma. Now I see with crystal clarity, like on a map of the heavens, cold, incandescent words, connected in time and space.

Every midnight I take a walk. It is an old habit of mine which I should have broken a long time ago: after all, in Land the streets are no less empty at night than during the day. On the verge of sleep, I often repeat to myself the words of a forgotten poet: "My motherland is solitude. I am an emigrant." How he would have envied me!

A few days ago something barbaric happened. I was returning home in the evening. Suddenly two Landers wearing top boots and equipped with shotguns and game bags emerged out of a spinney to the right of the road. Gun dogs trotted alongside. I did not manage to get a good look at them because I immediately took to my heels. I heard the guns go off. At first, I hid behind some hayrick or other, then made a dash for a wire fence, jumped it, tripped and fell, completely spread-eagled. The dogs yapped piercingly. A boot in my side prodded me to my feet. They tied my hands, led me somewhere a long way off. In a cave, in pitch darkness, they stripped me and kicked me out.

"In the first glimmerings before dawn his naked, lacerated body pushed its way through a thicket. His swollen tongue poured out a torrent of invective."

Of a morning the Land women beat their feather beds and eiderdowns. Each blow sounds crisp and precise in the air. Feathers and down, trembling in time to the blows rise slowly upwards. A smell of sperm tickles the nostrils. Swissshhh! Swissshhh! Swissshhh! Their faces, as though a continuation of the nose, go blue with frenzy. The dry lashes come thicker, faster until at last they mount into a rumble of landslides, a roar of avalanches, a groan of awakening glaciers. The passionate work of cleansing and redemption is in progress. Every time, I can barely restrain myself from throwing myself at one of the Land women as she falls exhausted onto a feather bed with her bottom in the air.

I missed my chance. It came almost immediately after I arrived in Land. One morning I met one of the local women on a deserted path. It seemed as though we had often encountered each other here before. But this time she stopped. I was taken aback. Her blueish neck, flowing into her chin, swelled. Something, either a word or a soundflickered across her lips. Screwing up her eyes, she stretched out a clenched fist and then opened it. Her palm was black with a crushed mass of frost-wrinkled olives. I either failed to understand, or pretended not to understand, blurted out something on the lines of "Excuse me" and sidled past. I have not seen her since.

There are no mirrors in Land. Once a year, in March, the spring rains are sheer and heavy enough for you to see your reflection in them. For some years I despised these rains and sat them out at home. Later, though, I even began to look forward to them. My looks improved, I think. My skin became smoother, my lips grew redder, my hairline stopped receding. Even so, I always recognise my own face: my forehead, so wrinkled it looks as though someone's been trampling across it in boots, bushy brows, hollow cheeks, cleft chin. Only somebody who loved this face would have the courage to kiss it. How madly you were in love with me! What else could be the explanation for those innumerable moist "hellos", "byes", "mornings". Because the rain moves, I am constantly afraid that the reflection all of a sudden will melt away. I watch greedily, unable to tear my eyes away, and while one of my faces reflected in the rain peers intently, the other slips downwards and, mingling with the clay, ants and the reflections of thousands of Lander faces, falls, bubbles and bursts into myriads of splatters.

When night comes, I take a walk. Hair and brows immediately swell with dew. My throat tickles with stars. I listen to the banter of springs and can tell the difference blindfold between Milky Settling's and Baldy Foothill's or Jaggy Gaptooth's. I always have an answer ready for unexpected questions, just in case. For example, if a patrol, always a foursome, was to come up to me suddenly - they always do it suddenly - and ask with their careful enunciation; "What are you doing here" and add some such verb as, say - "walking?", quick as a flash I baffle them, since subtleties of language are beyond them, with; "I'm not walking, I'm strolling". And if they should say; "What are you doing here standing?", my reply would be; "I'm not standing, I'm pausing". And while they're trying to work out the precise difference, I'm on my way. It cannot be excluded, of course, that a question might not follow and that the foursome might prefer direct action. I have no idea what I would do then. But every night my desire to hear the springs' banter once again overcomes fear.

They drink a cheesey home-brew. Personally, I find it spiritually and physically uncongenial. You get up in the morning with the feeling that you have consumed nothing else all your life. Even your urine smells of it, while your excrement turns almost white. There are simply no other drinks. But I have found a way out, it seems. There are wild grapes growing on a tiny patch of ground not far from the Boiling Geyser. Nobody has ever yet done anything with them, so several times a year I pick five or six big baskets of grapes. To look at, the pathetic bunches are reminiscent of flat pieces of karakul; the actual grapes are small, with big pips, but that is all there is. At home, I press the grapes in a wooden tub using the time-honoured method. The aroma of crushed fruit fills the room and hangs in the air for a long time. At these times I live in some sort of divinely shifting world, and I even found myself trying to touch my sticky shins in my sleep. I even keep the pips until they are rotten. As the young wine ferments in tall bottles, I can feel something seething and frothing inside me, too. I try to walk as carefully as can be so as not to spill and I hope to God I don't crack. When the wine is ready, I spread a tight, white tablecloth, put out a crystal goblet on the table and slowly pour. If it were not for this pallid landscape outside my window, if it were not for these blueish faces, if it were not for this tense, slightly cheesey silence, my wine might not, perhaps, strike me as so irritatingly astringent, provocatively red, stupendously clear.

My Motherland is Solitude
My Motherland is Solitude

Mine is leather, yours velvet. Hands remember this best of all. Yours, too? I find the memory painful, but I cannot restrain myself. An hour's walk from my house there is a glade scattered with boulders. Each boulder is covered with a layer of moss, penetratingly green, like eyes. I come here when the memory of you is intolerable. I screw myself up and stroke the moss. My fingers do not hurry. Black circles blind the eyes. All the sharpness of my vision is concentrated in my hands. I crawl from boulder to boulder and you are everywhere. Yes, it is you. Yours is velvet...

Stop. Stop. Stop. "Where" no longer exists for me. I have finished with it once and for all. Mountains, I despise you. Sea, you are worthless. Gorges, get out of my life. No more shall I be tempted by the question of where to go, where to live. I have always been looking for a place. I did not want all that much; to find the ideal proportions of blue, moisture, love, light, wine, and that each of these elements should be perceptible at every moment, though it should not be possible to separate any single one out. I would have drunk wine, but this would have been with love, I would have looked at the sky,but it would have seemed as though wine was flowing over my body, I would have drunk wine, but would have seen how the sun shone through my branch-like palm. Now I only have "when". I sit with my back pressed up against the hot bricks. On the table lie the scribbled pages of my Chronicle. I try to look into the future; waking up at the moment when everybody, absolutely everybody is asleep. No. To live at just one time of the year. In which then? When the winemakers are unlacing their boots, of course. In my mind I go over moments, months, times and find when to take shelter, when to find a haven.

"... At the close of the first decade the continent was covered with a rime of fear. The people gathered round bonfires, anything to avoid being on their own. They spoke in whispers. Only madmen and children shouted; the lunatics were immediately driven away in vans to asylums. Efforts were made to explain to the children the necessity for maintaining silence, but the fervent whisperings of their parents only excited them. The least tractable were dispatched to boarding schools. There, behind sound-proof walls, they shouted themselves hoarse. In the first glimmers before dawn the sound-proof boarding school walls grew incandescent with the shouting, yet remained impervious. Gradually, only the wisest children were left with the adults. They whispered with their parents as equals and were so sensitive in their reactions to the waves of fear that it seemed even more palpable. Ghostly trolleybuses and taxis soundlessly and slowly, overcoming the resistance of the dense air, slipped through the streets of the town. It was as if they were powered by the wind, a cosmic wind. The passengers became infected with an illusory feeling of protectedness, as though they were merely onlookers, observers. They did not want to go outside and some chose a mobile death from starvation. Taxis occupied by corpses drove around with a yellow light showing. With every passing day yellow was more in evidence, brazenly supplanting other colours. Whispering was supplemented by the rustle of leaves, of the rain, flapping posters, flags. At the bonfires, poets constrainedly declaimed their verse, overloaded with sibilants, but their mutterings and whisperings were in ugly discord with the fullness of their thoughts and feelings. The more inspired the poets, the more the people hated them. The children were the most implacable of all: they drenched the poets with spit, and if a man covered with phlegm approached a bonfire, they all immediately formed a tight circle round the fire giving the stranger no choice other than to walk away, spluttering a torrent of abuse. Eventually the war between the children and the poets ended in the total humiliation of the latter. Towards the end of the second decade, the whisper had gone almost completely out of use. The language of deaf mutes was everywhere triumphant. At first people took private lessons with deaf mutes. Deaf mutes were in great demand. Everybody envied them, thought they were marvellous. Children learned sign language in a matter of days. There was talk of setting up a council with membership restricted to deaf mutes and children. But everything gradually settled down. Many people learned to speak with faultlessly accented gestures. The language of the deaf mutes proved to be exceptionally expressive, rich and unambiguous. It breathed new life into the theatre and playhouses were packed to bursting. Tragedies were acted out in perfect silence and one could only judge the degree of passion aroused from the dry explosions of applause. The language of the deaf mutes became the Latin of the Decade Age. A man's eduaction was judged by his ability to gesticulate. Beautiful fingers became a guarantee of success with men, while heavily veined wrists guaranteed success with women. It was as if people strove to dispel the fear with their hands and in this they succeeded to some extent..."

Slices of blue with wisps of fog. A scaly lake. Stone bell towers. Look where you will, there can be no mistake.

He pants and sweats profusely as he climbs higher and higher, trying to achieve the peak of delight, the summit of joy.


© Igor Pomerantsev

Translated by Frank Williams

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