Victor Serge


Chelkin, the assistant accountant, spent two days a week behind a booking-office window, telling people there was no money. A drooping moustache, flabby cheeks, puffy eyelids, a bulbous red nose, the shadow of a dejected glance darting behind old pince-nez made him look vaguely like a seal. Colleagues pretended to make a mistake sometimes when they brought him papers.

'Here, comrade Seal.'

He looked at them briefly then, more dejected and more seal-like than ever, and his glance, which was hardly noticeable but which was unpleasant, made the practical jokers think quickly of apologising - thoughts they didn't give way to. (2) Not worth the bother making a fuss over a fellow like that, eh?

The chief accountant said, 'Chelkin's sharp.'

Chelkin instantly weighed up the applicant or the payee he had to rebuff, reassure, ignore or - in the last resort - pay (as the case might be).

From their apathetic, penetrating, disconsolate, angry, furious, exasperated features, his wonderful gift estimated trusts, institutions, associations, workplaces, hidden and evident economic powers capable of activating the telephones, the press, the Workers' Inspectors, the Commissions, the Party Committees through a psychological error on his part. There were patient queues at his window. They waited till he had finished copying six figure numbers on to a schedule. In a silence of exhortation they handed him papers which all begged for money due, money, money, money!

He replied, 'Wednesday 16th. Next', and the next - Red Knitting, Production Co-operative of the Hospital of Army Pensioners from the Civil War, a thousand roubles, heard himself repeating mechanically for the seventh time, 'No money.' The State Bank gives none, what can we do about it?

Uncomplaining, the man from Red Knitting gave way to Engineer Bravkin, six hundred roubles, but a flushed face where the little eyes seemed like coals.

'Go and see the Chief, whispered Chelkin.

The Agricultural Yards demanded five thousand roubles, payment already a week late.

'Go and see the Chief.'

The Chief's gift was secondary. Reckoning on the immediate vehemence of Engineer Bravkin, and just to see the decisive gesture with which he threw his briefcase in an armchair, the Chief offered him a giro for two hundred from the Savings Bank.

'Can't give more till a week's time, I've no liquidity.'

'Three hundred', demanded the Engineer.

Right. Ah! ha! The Agricultural Yards got two thousand five hundred at once for the Ministry of Agriculture has an interest there and the newspapers ...

At four, Chelkin coldly closed his window in the faces of the last payees who were left breathless by his impassiveness. 'Dirty seal!’

He didn't condescend to raise his eyes from the list of refused payments.

The other days Chelkin looked over sixty columns of figures between nine in the morning and four in the afternoon under a lampshade of newspaper. He smoked a little, indiscriminately, the most unspeakable cigarettes sold at the bar under the stairs beside the urinal. He was a model employee, though non-Party. It was he who discovered transfers for thirty thousand roubles more than the deposits and credits in the accounts of the Goats' Cheese Trust; he who found the mistake of one hundred and thirteen thousand roubles in the current account of the Regional Management of Collective Farms. But as he never asked, his pay hadn't gone up for two years.

At twenty past four the Seal tidied his papers, penholder, pencils and got up. He toddled alone up the street which was full of tram bells ringing and Fords cutting through a straggling crowd on the road. Cabs carted unbuttoned drunks cautiously along. Chelkin went through the hectic jazz of the city like a deaf man. Now and then crowds stood still in long queues in front of the bakers' shops and, on that particular day, at the doors of the Fish Association. The empty shops of the Milk Association were shut as usual. The portraits of the Party leaders faded in the shop windows among war masks, dummy grenades, trench slits and bottles of insecticide. The shop signs danced their white, black or gilt letters overhead but their bold and intricate appeal surprised no one. Chirpotreb -Mostorg - Narpit - Izoguiz - Khimtrest - Partizdat - Moskva Moskvochvéi -Rayono - Kraikolkhoztzentr - Svinovodsoyiouz - Oblénergestroi, offices, offices, directives, circulars, regulations, reconstruction, reprganisation, investigation, verification, checking (arrest), examination, distribution, conference, resolution, quarterly plan, annual plan, Five Year Plan, first alternative, third alternative, four years, three years, failure, failure, inquiry (arrest), success, victory! victory! America surpassed, Mosgort trial, five shot, they ganged up to steal from these almost empty shops; the shop reserved for former Red partisans gets margarine; the only reserved shop where shirts can be found is the Central Committee's, I assure you...(3)

'Fedor Fedorovich, I've kept a place for you, a good place, you're 344, come without fail before the stroke of midnight.'

Chelkin thanked his neighbour. A long line of men smelling of rancid sweat and stirred earth stood close to the walls under this main entrance by the side of a shop belonging to the Association for Wines and Spirits where a lorry load of alcohol was expected the following morning. The eyes of the neighbour - Makar Juravlev, carter - gleamed in their red slits, with a massive hand he stroked his short beard like withered grass.

'Fedor Fedorovich, I think the old woman is getting ready to give up the ghost, her time has come; and, d'you know, that scoundrel of a woman doctor is already looking enviously at the room. Wait and see, wait and see, she won't get it, brother, I can tell you that...'

Not an evening, here below, is man sure of being at peace. It's going to be a long story. Chelkin lumbered home to get a few hours' sleep before coming back at midnight to take up place 344 in the queue in front of the shop.


The roof draws people together like unhappiness: without uniting them. Old Anissia had occupied the best room in this flat since bygone incidents which certainly went back five to seven years, that's to say to the other side of several completed stages. They had even tried to get her out of it by accusing her of having been the former proprietor; but she had then produced from the drawerful of fading papers a requisition order dated 1920, a certificate of ownership for furniture bought for 40 million before the monetary reform, a certificate of good citizenship testifying that her son, Red combatant ... - and papers in the name of the real proprietor, a grain merchant who disappeared in March 1919. A little later, when the third law on rents restricted to nine square metres the living space allotted to every citizen and paid as a percentage of his wages, the extra having to be charged at thrice the full price, the President of Accommodation Co-operative No 1248, Proletarian Victory, had tried to move Anissia to a damp little room on the ground floor.

'I know the law’, said the old woman, 'and you don't scare me, citizen! I'll pay the surcharge. I've seen creatures like you in my century. I've seen them all right! I read in your eyes, scoundrel, I see everything that writhes with sin in your soul like snakes in a pond...'

Her broken voice still uttered harsh outbursts, her gathered face, wrinkled around the two horizontal lines of the eyes and the mouth, sometimes lit up with a keen, almost spiteful, intelligence, despite a customary expression which was plausible rather than pleasant. (4)

Old Anissia lived on almost nothing; she went for her bread herself though Grucha, turner Guriev's wife, who lived in one of the opposite rooms in the corridor, had offered to bring it for her several times.

'No, my dear, as long as my feet will carry me, and they'll carry me fine right to my coffin, I'll go for my bread myself because that's the will of God.'

She sometimes waited long hours for it with the other folk in winter, in snow and in darkness. A stale odour spread from her, of wasted flesh ready to crumble into dust. She wore very old clothes without shape or colour; and dirty, but made of fine materials selected in lootings in the past (or bought from the bourgeoisie at the markets, for it's true that 'everyone gets his turn to wear fine clothes, according to the Gospel'). No one went into her room; behind the door, a screen hid the interior. People knew that this room was hung with the images of saints, that there were beautiful ones which would be worth foreign currency, yes, indeed, fit for export! Anissia never opened her windows. The panes were covered with a film of dust; close air, like the air breathed in winter in the churches, moved from her room to the Juravlevs' when she went in or out.

The Juravlevs lived in the old dining-room of the flat, a poorly-lit room which only let in daylight through a high, narrow window giving onto the yard. Anassia had to cross their room to come and go. Makar Juravlev prized this disadvantage which reduced his rent by a third. His three children slept at night in a corner on mattresses rolled out on the bare floor and rolled up during the day. Dirt, primitive life, the foul hovel smells of an ill-kept isba (5) prevailed behind the thick canvas curtain which separated the Juravlevs from the corridor. However in some respects they were the richest of the residents in this flat; they had wood for a whole winter, in chunky well-cut logs, piled up to the ceiling and covered with grey rags so as not to be noticed; and among these logs there were also, hidden, some bottles of 'the bitter water',, the bracing 'bitter water' which, it's said, primitive people call fire-water.

The five Juravlevs hated the old woman for five different reasons which were doubtless only five facets of this infinite hatred of their neighbours which poverty breeds in men.

Makar hated the lady she had never been.

Andreyevna, with her hollow chest and cheeks and chapped hands, Andreyevna, whose bony face and jerky movements showed the tiredness of a drudge, envied Anissia's spacious room, lit by two windows designed to save two children from TB.

Dunka, their niece, whose little breasts were round and firm under her blouse and who placed her big, bare, pink feet with widely-spread toes on the dirty floor, feared the old woman's black look.

Of the two little children, aged six and nine, the smaller dreaded the weird creature who crossed their lodging several times a day in silence, and the bigger, who always tried to make her trip as if by accident, read in her a defenceless being who could be made to suffer with impunity - and what more tempting? He slid bits of dirt under Anissia's door, he soiled the padlock which the old woman opened when she came home, and then he pretended to sleep in his corner, really observing the old woman's expressions, and disappointed to see her reveal neither surprise nor anger.

Whether they sang, or fought, or bawled here, at her door, whether the kids made their usual row, only complete silence ever came from Anissia's, broken at familiar times by singular murmurings; at these moments which everyone knew through having spied on her time and time again, Anissia was going round her images, Saint Glebe, Saint Serge, Saint Nicholas, Saint Eudaxy, martyr, Saint Prascovy, three times martyr, Saint Helen, Saint Dimitri the Assassinated, Saint Dimitri the Victorious, Saint George the Knight, Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the Sinner, Saint Mary, Mother of God, Christ the Saviour, a little Saint Serge dressed in silver blessed by Laura, a Virgin brought home from Kazan, a miraculous little image of Saints Boris and Glebe given by old John from Kronstadt, all the saints, all the martyrs, thirty large and sixty small images which made her room, under the dust and on a leaden, grey day, an oratory tragically poor and oddly rich. She slept on a pallet. She kept vigil in a low, shapeless armchair in front of Saints Boris and Glebe. Little red lamps burned night and day under certain images. Twice a day, once a night, she went round her icons crossing herself; to almost all she pressed her dried lips, and her muted voice emitted a long, mysterious murmuring which made Makar Juravlev, former Red partisan in the Urals, laugh derisively.

'Old fool! She-devil!'

He spat, he was thirsty. And thinking about it sometimes, half-drunk, he raised shapeless fists and began to tell his mates great, overwhelming truths in a distracted manner: 'I'm aware we've been in darkness for centuries and centuries, yes indeed, comrades! What can we do? What is to become of us? What can I do about it? It's our soul that's been enslaved, our soul, get that! Someone took up the accordion to let the music dispel the anguish.

On the other side of the door, old Anissia pardoned the offences and prayed, without understanding any longer and for years the exact meaning of the words she uttered, for the innocent put to death, for the children without bread, for the poor prisoners, for the sailors at sea, for the dead, for so many dead she had to name that she never managed to name them all, and her lapses of memory wrung sighs from her. When she went to church on feast days, Anissia left very early so that no one knew where she was going; why offend people if they don't believe, that's to say if they have a different faith from yours? And she hastily went through the Juravlevs' room, so silently, so absently that the watchful little hatreds dozing round her door didn't have time to be roused.

One night, they heard her coughing, next day, she didn't go out for her bread. In the evening, after a cheerless day, she let Grucha in and asked for a little warm water. Once out of the room with the icons, Grucha beckoned Andreyevna into the corridor with a nod - and there, very quietly:

'She's very bad, she's going to die. I'm afraid.'

The two women looked at each other in the half light and turned pale, with big eyes.

'Don't tell anyone, Grucha, Gruchetchka, I beg you! Anyone ...'


The old woman is going to die, let's keep it well, this secret, one more secret in the city and not less keenly guarded than those of Red aviation and chemistry which must render us invulnerable to the attacks of imperialism. Above all, Grucha, the woman doctor must know nothing about it! Nor Adam Pfaff, this bluffer, this poser with dangerous connections, and who writes in the newspapers. Nor Babin, you understand, for you know where he works. You've seen the rations he brings back. A chicken a week, soap, sugar, ham. Who gets ham, tell me? He must have an important post down there and then he always has his revolver, it seems he's been seen getting out of the black car behind the street corner, I've been told it's he who went to arrest the old man from over the way last year, at whose house they found thirty roubles in small, silver coins. They can do anything, those ones, and they have heaps of types to put away, he must know nothing about it, nothing! The old woman is going to die, hush, silence, feign surprise instead: 'Why hasn't she gone out to-day?" But she has, come, now, I caught a glimpse of her on the stairs.'

Opposite the wide canvas curtain like a faded felucca sail, which separates the Juravlevs' interior from the corridor, opens a broad double door, formerly white, now economically turned into two narrow doors. This room has been split down the middle by a thin wooden partition so that every noise is common to these two rooms, even the deep breathing of sleep. There two couples know all there is to know about each other.

Grucha goes in and gently closes the door on the secret. It's light and clean here, the white pillows are piled up on the well-made bed, the President of the Executive, with a fine patriarchal beard, smiles in a colour-print for the Republic loves its peasants. They're well off, there's butter in a glass jar on the windowsill. Gurcha is hale and hearty, a little stout, fleshy, plump-cheeked; she reminds one of a ripe fruit. Broad in the beam and heavily-breasted, standing on the floor like a ploughman, arms dangling. What to do? This Juravlev, sharp with her elbows and sharp with her eyes, what will she do with the secret? Will they dare, Makar may dare, Makar will dare, there's the enemy. The door creaks, Guriev comes in. Without saying 'Good morning'. You mustn't say 'Good morning' to your wife so that she'll have more respect for you. He puts two kilos of green apples on the oil-cloth on the table, the shock-workers' ration distributed from the shop reserved for the works.

'And the preserves?'

'We'll have to go without the preserves, they're for the technical staff now.'

As big, blond and strong as she, Guriev takes his stand likewise on deep Russian soil even in this room in the heart of the city. A sniffer's nostrils, rough brow ridges bristling with tawny eyebrows. The secret rises to the lips of the woman, inclined by a quick movement towards the man. From the movement springs a tenderness, from the tenderness, a mistake:

'Darling, listen: old Anissia's dying.'

The blood rushes at once to her husband's face, he bites his lips, he has lifted his hand in a great surge of rage, as if to strike:

'Fool, triple fool'.

Too late, the mistake is irrevocable. They listen, tense, and they hear the page of a book being turned slowly over on the other side of the partition. This faint, ordinary sound doesn't deceive them. A second later and Marlene, in the neighbouring room, begins to hum the March of Youth. The hypocrite has certainly understood. Through the thin white board which separates the two rooms, Guriev thinks he can see Marlene and Pilenko exchanging significant glances.

'We know the secret, let's pretend to take no notice. Anissia's kicking the bucket, Anissia's kicking the bucket.'

And Guriev sees almost correctly. The secret's out. On the other side of the partition, Lisa Marlene hangs on a line in front of the window the holed lisle stockings she has just washed on the sly under the pencilled notice, ‘No washing.'

'Anissia's dying.'

Lisa's hand remains raised in suspense, the young woman has turned right round to her companion, lying behind her on the unmade bed, his Treatise on Geometry in his hand. Over their lithe, muscular bodies both wear the same thin, white and blue striped sports jerseys, both are alike, different through something elementary in their movements. Lisa raises her eyebrows. Tolia purses his lips, rounding his mouth on an 'oh-oh' kept in. And to put the neighbours on a false scent, he slowly turns over the page of his treatise. Lisa hums:

Never, never the Communards

The room is bare. Brochures pile up on the floor beside Pilenko's badly-worn boots. Clothes like a battalion from Aviation-Chemistry hang on the door. The black bread is on the windowsill, with the stove, the tinplate teapot, the inkstand, the toothpaste, the powder-box with the contraceptives. What holds pride of place in the room is a striking poster on which two trains at full steam ahead race on the sparkling rails of history. Driven by a monocled engineer with a shark's jaw like Tardieu, the green train of world capital is puffed out and the abyss lies in front; the red train is going to pass it, emerge into the full light of day because the Chief whose low forehead, clipped moustache and pipe stand out in profile above -above the sun even - has told the Sixteenth Congress: 'Catch and pass, that's our slogan.'

With a movement of his back that makes the bed creak, Pilenko stands up again. There he is upright, coaxing, holding Lisa by the hips.

'Lise, Lison, Lisette, the main thing now is that the old woman doesn't kick the bucket before tomorrow night; Kostrov doesn't return till the day after tomorrow.'

Kostrov is the secretary of the Young Communists, the captain, organized providence.

On the other side of the partition, Guriev senses with his nerve ends rather than hears an indistinct movement: they kiss. With his head suddenly shot back into his shoulders, Guriev looks at his wife, proud creature, as ample as a mare and smelling of spring in the armpits.


The world is changing, we're present at the birth of a new world. It's been in all the papers, every day, for a very long time. (And the papers can lie with impunity, it's true.) The little, old churches of the silent alleys are caving in under the picks of the demolition squad. Enormous rectangular buildings are going up over the whole city in glass and reinforced concrete. Illuminated signs announce the Arts Olympiad. Muffled explosions resound on the river bank and prolong the rumblings of thunder on the boulevards. The blowing up of the ancient cathedral of Saint Saviour has been completed: a Workers' Palace is going up on that spot for the festivals of the future, bigger than the Coliseum and the Vatican of Rome, than the Capitol of Washington, than the new Parliament in Canberra, than the Palace of the Heavenly Son in Peking, than all the cathedrals of the Kremlin and Saint Vassili the Blessed taken together.

But what does the wife of the carter, Makar Juravlev, familiarly called Andreyevna, ant in this anthill, see, tell me, of the transformation of the world? Doubtless that's why Mr Herbert Hall, the old socialist who has travelled for thirty years from luxury hotel to luxury hotel, by Pullman express, has much more correct ideas than hers on these matters. She would willingly agree about that: he's a cultured man, this gentleman, a very great writer, and I'm only a poor, ignorant woman. Citizen, I can only say this; that I paid four roubles a pound for soap at the market and that this soap doesn't lather but burns the hands, see how red mine are, and this soap ruins the linen; I've counted several new holes in my old rags. And they're asking fifteen roubles for re-soling my eldest's shoes; where do you think I can get them together? (Where get fifteen roubles together in the transformation of the world?)

Andreyevna hung the linen to dry on lines stretched across the room, stuffed the two kids with a darkish macaroni, knotted a red shawl round her head, a shawl round her neck, listened a moment to Anissia's profound silence with her ear glued to the old woman's door, covered with a tattered fur-lined coat the two little ones, lying naked, pink as angels or piglets, on a mattress glossy with dirt, and set out on her other daily task through the deafening symphony of the city.

It might have been five o'clock, the air was mild after the winter, the trams carried their compressed loads of human bodies; a District demonstration, for the loan, against the war or for the reprieve of the negroes condemned at Scottsborough (U.S.A.), passed amid the loud noise of a brass band. Andreyevna didn't envy the foreign technicians, dressed in fine materials from beyond the seas or rather from beyond the frontier, who were coming out of their reserved shop where there was everything: preserves, real herring from Kerteh, butter at twelve roubles! For they were men from another race, arrogant and well-fed, recognisable at first glance from the bearing of their heads, the confident movement of their shoulders and the thickness of their broad soles. Andreyevna glumly envied a woman like herself who came out of a mysterious shop, also reserved -but for whom? Go and find out then! - trying the weight of at least three pounds of fresh beef in her hands, a nice ration indeed!

The skill of Andreyevna and Dunka lay in keeping places in three queues ten minutes from one another so that they only needed half an hour to put in an appearance there. Dunka stood by outside the baker's without a number; she was only about the hundredth, she would come back for seven o'clock. Andreyevna waited three hours for her sugar outside the Co-op in the still twilight, amid uncomplaining conversations. It's no bother now, summer will soon be here, we hold our own more easily in the summer months. Look how mild it is! We're almost having a rest here in the street, doing nothing. If only we could sit down ... They certainly ought to serve out of turn the women who have varicose veins, ruptures or babies in their arms, but don't try mentioning it, you would hear protests! Twice Andreyevna left to take a look at the shop of the Fish Association. They were organising there already for the following day, she was among the first. Women showed their wrists marked with the ink stamp in large figures: 82, 124, 840, their numbers in the lines out of sight at the back of the yards. The gossip in the lifeless crowds was as monotonous as autumn rain under a leaden sky.

All at once a jarring loudspeaker bawled out the evening news: Shootings of workers in Germany, ten thousand sacks of coffee burnt in Sao Paulo, disastrous new drop in the price of wheat in France. The shock-brigades of the Donets enter into a solemn contract. Thaelmann makes a speech at the Palace of Sport. The German revolution... They spoke in low voices here, under the loudspeaker which clashed like a motor, about the destitution of the countryside, the crazy wheat prices, a hundred and forty roubles a pood in Odessa, a hundred in the Nijni region, illnesses, epidemics, crimes, calamities - and the good rations they get at the ball-bearing factory...

Andreyevna came home late, dead beat. She had the sugar, had to think of paraffin. Dunka would go and sell the sugar at the market to buy potatoes. A railway worker friend promised Makar bacon, stolen no doubt from cases, for some of 'the water of life' - but how stop Makar himself drinking the treacherous and precious 'water', which isn't 'of life' but of oblivion and is preferred to everything? Makar was snoring, drunk, forehead damp, beside the little pink angel-piglets. The electric light made the big, satiated bedbugs scatter in all directions round their radiant skin. In the other corner Dunia was fretful and dreaming aloud. Andreyevna switched off the light, stepped over her husband's warm body and stretched herself out against the wall near the children.

The silence woke her up about three o'clock. It was an extraordinary silence, miraculous or terrifying. The light breathing of the human beings near her, the sniffling of Makar who wasn't snoring any longer, her own racing, then slower heart-beats were lost, as if a great metallic bell was lowered on the house, cutting it off from all the noises of the world; and this silence came from next door, in other words, from death and abandonment, from abandonment in death. It was Anissia's last sad silence. Andreyevna was transfixed by it. Lying open-eyed in the darkness, it is terrible to listen to the universal silence in which a creature is dying. Andreyevna was caught in the throat by a tearful uneasiness.

'Poor, poor, poor Anissia, abandoned by everyone.'

She inexplicably pitied herself still more than the old woman. She got up in her nightdress. Her bare feet drew up the coolness of the floor. For a long moment, she listened to the overwhelming silence. And she was relieved to see a strip of light glimmering under the door of Dr Anna Tikhonovna Kurleva's room at the end of the corridor.


With hands and face hardly less white than her overall, Dr Kurlova received a score of patients from ten o'clock till noon. Clinic rules assigned her eight an hour, which allowed less than eight minutes per patient. Seven or eight minutes to gauge the illness hidden in the individual, the impairment, the wear and tear, the struggle of the organism, the sometimes indiscernible deficiency, and respond to the looks which surround you in a kind of entreaty.

'Well, that won't come to much, everyone's had it, get dressed, next please!'

Of these eight minutes, she spent more than four filling in the sheet of statistics and the individual card which the offices then mislaid half the time. Kurlova examined, sounded, assessed with professional movements and releases of almost automatic ideas, all these bodies moulded for the most part by an enormous and brutal thumb.

Rickets bent the bones, heavy food with low calcium content made stomachs distend, miscarriages and infections injured wombs, airless rooms shrank the lungs, degenerations caused by alcohol, syphilis - and semi-starvation and worms - appeared in asymmetries of face, deformations of ears, atrophies or hyperaesthesias of reflexes. Bodies that looked healthy concealed hidden lesions. Sometimes Kurlova's little, dark eyes lit up suddenly with an intense brightness which made her patients uneasy. There they read an unsparing compassion as if mixed with anger. Behind the puny shoulders of the little shop assistant, bent double on her chair, like someone under torture, Kurlova saw the alcoholic ancestor, the hysterical mother, the room with seven metres of habitable surface, the seventy copeck fish-head soups in the restaurant nearby, the empty chemist's. The lack of medicines presented a prescription problem in every case: no codeine, no quinine, no bromide, no glycerine, no chloral, no veronal, no luminal, no analgesics; neo-salvarsan rare, anti-diptheria vaccine rare, tincture of iodine and aspirin intermittent.

'And rest, peace and quiet, good food, fresh air more than anything else', that's what it would have been necessary to say to the exhausted worker whose throat had packed in, to the girl apprentice-student whose eyes were fringed with styes, to the young mother sucked down with boils, to the rheumatic housewife subjected to the endless standing in the streets, to ...

Kurlova then made six home visits in her district. She went on to the Joint Production Committee where the question of sending her for a year to central Asia or six months to the Autonomous region of the Kara-Kalpaks came up all the time. When she got to the buffet, there was nothing left but curdled milk and sandwiches made with a little rectangle of black bread and a little slice of cold sausage nicknamed 'Marussia's Colic' by ill-disposed people. The new sub-manager had her served with a written reprimand for being twenty minutes late in the morning, forgetting that she'd put in almost an hour of extra visits the night before in order not to put off women workers on nightshift. Besides he announced that 'any relaxation of the discipline of the medical personnel would in future lead to sanctions which had become obligatory.'

Kurlova blanched, on the stairs, lips shaking, reading this typewritten notice pinned up next the wall newspaper. The wall newspaper advocated the proletarianisation of the clinic, denounced the non-fulfilment of the work plan for the past half-year, reproached an old woman doctor with dozing off at meetings, Kurlova with missing a recent demonstration ('no doubt preferring the cinema to carrying out her social duty'), and the medical personnel with not subscribing enough for the building of a fighter plane.

'Liven up your wall newspaper. Fight to ensure first place for the clinic in the subscription competition for the Loan! 100%'

Kurlova remembered the worker who asked her a few minutes ago, unruffled, grey about the mouth:

'What's the chance of recovery, 50%, 60%, 70%?'

'60%', said Kurlova, exaggerating by half.

Doctor Ignati, who came down limping, greeted Kurlova with an unpleasant, sympathetic smile and, turning round suddenly, said:

'Oh, I must say to you, Anna Tikhonovna, take care of the cotton wool, we've had none in for ten days.'

She took the tram with the dock workers who sometimes passed on their lice to her. To get on the car, chock-full at this time, she had to get into position to be swept along by the men's rush to the footboard. Packed among these rough muscularities, breathless, Kurlova felt a human cluster knot violently behind her, above the void. Travelling through human magma kneaded by the Red tramcar, in a din of grinding old iron, rattling windows, continuous ringings and irritated voices, demanded such an effort to keep all her overcoat buttons on by the end of the week (and that wasn't the least stress of the day). But about the middle of the journey, opposite the boulevards, when blobs of greenery rose to her eyes, Kurlova set off quietly on an inexpressible journey in a land of still, green-gilt gardens. A little, lost smile then lit up her irregular face; sparkling circles in shell colours fell silently on the lawns.

The dark stairs and the corridor depressed her for a few minutes. The room calmed her; narrow, papered in a rust colour. The damp effaced some printed flowers. There was only a white bed, a little table covered by a red cloth, some books on the table, little toilet objects, all faded, nibbled by the mould. But all the colour in the world existed in a Crimean landscape. Alupka, explosion of lilacs on the verge of a road like the Garden of Eden; white tip of a minaret in a splendid blue. Andreyevna brought the bread. If it wasn't too cold Kurlova washed, all over, slowly, with the little lukewarm water a basin could hold; and she spoke to herself in an undertone about the day's events, an unusual case, record cards again mislaid by registration, new reorganisation of the services announced before the reorganisation in progress was completed, this boor of a manager, this filthy boor, - oh, but if they think that I'm going to let myself be sent to Kizil-Orda ...

Thus the day's vibrations subsided within her. In refreshing her young skin, the sponge also imperceptibly cleansed her spirit. Washing over, and now perfectly all right, Kurlova put on her warm blue dressing-gown and ran to the kitchen to switch off the ring and take off the boiling water for the tea. Then, under the little yellow lampshade, she opened a Galsworthy novel in English, a language she little understood, but it's better when the images and the ideas come through a haze. Minutes passed. The curtains over the window and the bolt on the door separated this room from the world. And the gates of the golden gardens opened again. How tall the ferns were, what flowers ... A man with neither name nor face, a man who was only a kindly presence waited at the turning of the lane.

'It's a physiological dream', thought Kurlova, and she stretched, she sighed, she went with closed eyes, entranced, towards this presence, there, behind the bend in the lane.

The door was scratched softly as cats do. Andreyevna at this hour?

'Come in, Andreyevna, what's the matter?'

Dazzled by the lamp, Andreyevna had the expression of a hesitating, poor woman. What was she doing, why? The great silence drove her just as the wind drives a dry leaf.

'Sit down, Andreyevna, yes, on the edge of the bed.’

No, she didn't sit down, wearing her dirty petticoat, on the white bedspread. Her reddish face lit up from below was all edges, points, bones of chin, nose, cheeks, swept-back look. (6)

'Come now, Andreyevna, what's happened? Is he drunk?'

'He's drunk, yes, but that's nothing.'

'The children?'

'No, it's not the children.' Now it was the moment to stop keeping the secret; but Andreyevna, wet with cold sweat from the nape of her neck to the small of her back, only said a name and was miraculously relieved.

'Anissia. '

The terrible silence ceased, everything became natural. The doctor had her fine tanned complexion, the tap dripped audibly in the corridor, a car went by in the street.

'I think Anissia 's dying, Anna Tikhonovna, come. But say nothing to anyone, (7) understand, Anna Tikhonovna, I beg you. Makar wants the room for the children, he's right, isn't he? They'll be so much better with two windows. Only, if they know, everyone's going to interfere! We won't have the room, that's for sure, they'll write that I'm a deacon's daughter again, and it's not true, not true.'

'I'll say nothing to anyone, Andreyevna, my dove, I'm as silent as the grave.'

Andreyevna's room smelled of the warm-blooded beast, couched in his lair. In Anissia's, an odour of dead things prevailed. The very dirt vanished into dust. A thin church taper burned in front of the image of the Virgin, amid a grey haze. At her feet, in the shadowy light, Anissia was stretched out, wearing a black dress, on a bed that couldn't be made out. Andreyevna took the taper. The peaceful face of the old, sleeping woman came out of the darkness and haze like a death mask. But her breathing was clear. The doctor examined this still living mask closely.

'Air, Andreyevna, go and open the dormer.'

The freshness of the night came in with the starlight. Kurlova weighed up somewhere, deep down, in a tenseness of her whole being, what life remained under this waxen mask. By its fixity, her abstracted look resembled the look of the saints in the images.

'Perhaps it's not the end', she said, very softly.

The hour struck in the Saviour's tower clock. Sounds of a strange musical purity floated in the night. They seemed to come, through vast spaces, to die out here in a silence all at once separated from anguish and become infinitely simple.


It's a large black and gold clock face, erect in the blue night, at the top of a pointed tower in old red brick, which crowns a portal dazzling with light. A restrained, Gothic wrought ironwork, in gold, blazes above the embrasures. The square never sleeps. At its two ends, the Saviour's Door and Saint Nicholas' Door open on tunnels of an incandescent whiteness to a forbidden city. The sentries who guard these entrances seem on the point of disappearing, caught in the luminous gulf. Throughout the square, floodlights train their light on the Kremlin wall, on the tombs behind a screen of trees, on the low mausoleum, studded with gleaming dark stones, on the stone platforms' bizarre fancy needlework close to the ground. Important site in feudal times, entranced at night by electricity, bristling with Italian towers which have huge, black, two-headed eagles in the forefront. A red flag illuminated by invisible lamps wavers above the dome. International, O Commune of the world! Fifteenth century fortress, planned by the Fioravantes (8) and the Solaris for Ivan Vasil'evich the Great, the Crafty, the Cowardly and the Silent. Place of intrigues and of domination, city of despotic fear, place of festivals, riots, processions, executions, triumphs, city in the city sealing off today the heart of the revolution (a chrome steel heart with unbreakable springs), temple and tomb mingling the oldest lie with the sternest truth, setting, staging of history but where an immense force ferments secretly like spring in the soil.

Underneath the square there is a vault, separated from the world by hand-polished granite blocks, and in this vault, leaning on their rifles, men watch over an embalmed body which has lost substance, weight, brain matter - removed for the Institute of the Brain - spirit, and reduced to a colourless face, changed beyond recognition, but astonishingly recognisable, and to feeble hands such as neither the living nor the dead have. All the old painted images from Palekh, Novgorod, Suzdal and Vladimir pale before this subterranean image.

This square stands and rules in the dead of night, from the depths of the centuries, which are garishly illuminated in the middle of the dark city. The projectors leave the old Cathedral of Saint Vasili the Blessed hanging in the darkness on the edge of an abyss, a pile of crouching shadows one would wish to forget.


Babin went along the square every evening. He heard the hour strike. The clear sounds halted him at the edge of a pavement. He understood the fortress and the Mausoleum, he approved of the granite platform from which to talk to the masses; he hated the church. He compared the black Cathedral to a crouching monster in a state of suspended animation. (9) The sober bricks of a barracks, built on the other side of the crenellated wall, on the site of two monasteries and a church with low gilded domes, pleased him as discipline clearly understood, order, hygiene, correct theory. They say American millionaires come and buy Gothic and other antiquities in Europe, ship them stone by stone in numbered cases, and rebuild them at home in California. Let them buy that sort of thing, the Republic needs foreign currency! Let them take away the nine oppressive altars, the twelve bulls with barbaric variegation, the old bricks, the old colours, the iconostases, curios of superstition, and let us erect on this site thirty storeys of reinforced concrete, glass and crystal.

'I digress. Disastrous the balance between fodder and wheat. No concession to the Right deviation where the lot do a bunk! Curb discreetly. If we're at war by the end of the month, we'll have to give in to-the nonentities. If not, the arm-lock, (10) it s the only language they understand. Grain works, that's the real solution to break their vast pearly strike; machines, good centralised organisation, piecework, fixed wages. Intensive mechanised farming with military discipline. Collective farms? I agree. Only: managed by whom? If by the peasants, these will be associations as self-seeking, almost as troublesome (as soon as they've learned to stick up for themselves) as the wealthy villagers we had to bump off in the end. If by the workers, where do we get hold of these workers? How do we stop their assimilation? The experience of the 25,000 is conclusive: far from great, the results.

Nothing's settled. False, the figures for the autumn sowing - so all the plans for spring storage are made false. A grand trial as a warning to others is due, and without softening, make some heads roll where it hardly matters, they don't give a damn; with the amnesties, everyone knows that a ten year sentence... I'll take it up with the Committee. The main thing will be to choose the Region well. Impossible to drop the idea, however, that would put everything back into the melting-pot. Nothing to give the countryside; the figures for light industry are clear, no matter how disguised they may be. A piece of sabotage here, certainly, and three pieces of stupidity. A trial would be needed here, too, but it's no longer the line, pity, let'.s skip that. There'll be no option to taking the wheat left to the peasant. Extend the plan for requisitions. It won't be easy, no.'

A comrade's face, disfigured by a frightful wound at the base of the nose, wavers a moment in the transparent darkness of the street. By candlelight, he had been writing down the membership of the collective farm at the back of an isba. An invisible mouth blew out the candle, an inexorable voice cried, 'Get out!', and he found himself alone in the darkness before he understood what was happening. He hesitated a second in front of the little blue window, open on the trap, and on a clear sky sown with wan stars. The barrel of a shotgun was aimed at his head from three feet away. (11) He received the heavy shot full in the face, too low to lose all his sight or his life, just high enough to lose half his taste for life, for no woman will want to have anything to do with him in future.

Another face flings, 'Hi there, good evening, Babin! Meet!' - that face is well made up, an actor's bluish cheeks, tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles, the broad smile of a wonderful jaw, this suit under a marvellous travelling cap which must have come straight from Berlin - and, after all, she's a really pretty little woman, of the kind of Music Hall girl that Adam Pfaff, lucky fellow! takes for a walk on his arm. From the inside pocket of his mid-season overcoat, which has also come straight from Berlin, Adam Pfaff takes an oblong package which he brandishes victoriously in the air: ' Port wine.'

They plunge into the dark stairs, sticky in places. They'd look like people having a fling if Babin, buttoned up tight in his spotless uniform, with his cavalryman's powerful broad shoulders and the self-confidence of a Secret service agent, didn't ponderously bring up the rear.


Adam Pfaff opens the door and puts on the light. In the middle of the corridor Kurlova stops, surprised, charming in her dressing-gown, her neck slender and very white. Babin caught up with them in two strides.

'Don't run away, Anna Tikhonovna!'

He catches her arm as if they were going out together. The uniform, the thickset stockiness, Babin's powerful neck domineer over her, and it's not unpleasant, though he certainly belongs to the Special Branch. Kurlova smiles listlessly.

'Still a physical feeling...'

All got up in German things, Adam Pfaff leads his pretty visitor, with the dyed hair and too much rouge, to his poor little room at the end of the corridor between the bathroom and the kitchen. On the way he turns with a supple movement to brandish his bottle of port wine which obviously comes from the shop most reserved for foreign specialists.

For an instant Kroll's timid shadow comes between Kurlova and the man who whisks her peacefully away. Babin lives in Kroll's room next to the Juravlevs. Everyone still says, 'Kroll's room', and Babin, himself, isn't at all offended by it. The memory of a taciturn person, hard up, wearing pince-nez, whom they felt had lived here for years, is so slow to disappear. Kroll went away one night about this time between two thickset, stocky men like Babin. It was the time of the sabotage business when all the technicians were going. Nobody was surprised.

After six months he telephoned in a strangely young voice for his manuals, his slide-rule, his safety razor and his linen to be sent to the prison.

'The couch can stay.'

Apparently he's now in charge of the working of a new mine at the end of a 300 kilometre track which crosses steppes and forests between the Yenesei and the Ob. Unless this is the other Kroll who was involved in the third case of the Plan Committee for no one knows which of the two died of typhus in transit. The room remained under seal for seven months and then Babin came and took off the red seals. He sleeps on Kroll's couch.

Lit by a bulb of 200 candle-power, Pfaff's poor little room is an odd place. It's like a very run-down liner cabin, a plagiarist's nest in a cinema studio, a croupier's room in an exotic gambling-den in Kharbin or Macao. Streaked silks from the Caucasus are hung on the walls to hide the moulds. An archpriest's cope in heavily-embroidered brocade covers the half-stripped bunk, with sheets of doubtful cleanliness. There are English magazines with fine heads of blonde Amazons and horses, foreign journals, Waterman ink, Gibbs soap, pipes, a pile of the Berliner Tageblatt in a corner on the floor with the old socks, the month's sweepings, empty cigarette packets, Camel, Capstan, Gitanes, Troika, as if a succession of stony-broke tourists had come here to empty out their pockets. And that is all there is to Pfaff: a miserly Creator could have made him out of parings of men collected in all the capitals of the two old worlds, bestowing on him barely as much soul as there is tobacco in the fag-ends under the settee.

The glory of the best-paid publicist in the world, reflecting this evening on Adam Pfaff, makes a chorus girl who earns 180 roubles a month hang on his arm.

'Have you read La Gazette du Soir, Babin?'

'It's there, Anna Tikhonovna.'

'See, on the front page, under the blurred portrait of the white-bearded old gentleman, my interview with the great man. In the event of war, Herbert Hall promises sensational revelations on imperialism. "The great writer's declarations no longer leave the slightest doubt about his attachment to the working class. He would like to live his whole life among the heroes of the Five Year Plan. Humorously, he hopes that the triumphant proletariat takes the King of England's crown off his hands."'

Let's digress on the glory. Adam Pfaff tempts us. Let’s listen to him retell the interview, quite differently from what it was, of course. Let's fly, with a flap of wings, to these cosy summits whence the established reputations pass judgment on the affairs of this world we live in. Let's visit the Grand Hotel.

'The great mart told me ...'

Pfaff isn't making fun of himself, he's never more serious than when he's lying. He struts in front of the blonde chorus girl with the dyed hair, who feels faintly nauseated to such an extent, quite needlessly, that she would leave at once if he hadn't promised her a clothes voucher. Like a fool, she is ready to burst into tears, and she mustn't cry on account of her make-up. She has drunk too much in a few minutes, that's certain, and hasn't eaten enough for days. The map of New York on the wall opposite takes her attention, it's exasperating.

'Pack in the dumps, Lili', shouts Pfaff, 'it's a relic of the past. Our modern generation ...'

Babin pours the port wine into two filigreed Odentol dentifrice glasses and two old goblets from Daghestan in engraved silver.


At the rate of three a day, including Sundays, Herbert Hall has an average output of 1095 witticisms a year, i.e., at least 38325 in 35 years. Thank God, there are tricks of the trade. You recycle the same remarks a few years later; you do it automatically when you think you're being serious; the public do it for you and you let them since you must allow the rich; you end up with inexhaustible resources of stupidity, your own and others. And then, when you make so many dollars a month, as an old humorist, no matter what you say, people laugh. They pay to laugh, at least there's always that joke between them and you.

The author rated at 38325 witticisms at the lowest estimate received Mr Adam Pfaff with a slightly pompous heartiness. His bulbous nose revealed a touch of impatience perhaps: he twitched.

'Ah! La Gazette du Soir. The most interesting in the world.'

The following little routine has been successful time and again.

'After the Cincinatti Job which we edited in 1885, three practical jokers and a thief ...'

When Pfaff doesn't understand, particularly English, he continues knowingly. Smiles stream down the great man's fluffy beard. 'Master, dear master ...'

'Would you have been happy to live in the land of the builders of socialism?'

Herbert Hall is famous for the instant reply. An inner trigger works and..

'All my life from the baby's bottle till tomorrow evening inclusively, for ... But I shall return, my dear colleague, like the swallows in spring.'

You must always promise to return to the houses where you dine. Very bravely, Pfaff now plants his Machiavellian question, calculated to embroil the famous man with the Crown, compromise him irretrievably in the eyes of the international bourgeoisie or expose his petit bourgeois intellectual reservations.

'Master, what do you think of the King?'

New trigger. The nasalized sentences flow in a continuous soft stream; 'He's the most unfortunate Republican in the Kingdom. Only world-wide Revolution could put an end to his misfortune. Make it as soon as you can my young friend, with your eager comrades, wouldn't this be an act off compassion towards this very kind man? He has only one fault: he’s a very bad poker player, but as everyone, except myself, tells him he's a very good player, he believes it.'

Impervious to doubt, Pfaff is only scatter-brained. By good luck his questions are written down.

'Master, what would you do in the event of war?'

His snowy beard thrusts out quixotically. The upturned hands of the famous humorist express a tempered anger. He looks around for the stopper of the carafe on the table.

'I shall fight for peace, I shall make war on war, I shall disclose certain shady bits from the other Great War, I shall relate what Lord Grey told me one day at table at the Marchioness of Londonderry's, I...'

He really has too much to say, he stops dead because a very tiny green gnat has settled on the stopper of the carafe. It's as if the tap of sentences has suddenly been turned off. The interview, which had only amused him for a moment, begins to annoy him. Get it into your head that a popular author has to look after his publicity as much as his digestion. A constipated Shakespeare might not have written A Midsummer Night's Dream. Nature intends you to spend a few minutes a day in the toilet, something agreeable besides and even tinged with pleasure, why not agree? The publicity mode demands that the well-known writer sacrifices a quarter of an hour every day of his life to these little bores who are equally obnoxious in every latitude.

But it's time this one was going! I've already seen these tortoise shell-rimmed spectacles in New York, Berlin, Dublin, Paris, Warsaw, in Cleveland prison, in the West-Hill madhouse, the UFA studio, at the chiropodist's, in all the hotel offices. Perhaps it's not worth while being at sixty-five

the highest paid writer on the planet and coming to see at close range a degenerating Revolution, which really lacks all comfort, in order to give thirty seconds more to this petty, probably idiotic, careerist. Sad to find this type still here. The kind hardly changes. Distressing. No, amusing.

Nice old boy, hard of hearing, but how well he heard! The kindly-disposed great man has Adam Pfaff's name spelled in order to dedicate an enlarged portrait to him. 'To my dear colleague Adam Pfaaff' - the name is misspelt without cause; it might have been amusing to put in a singing series of 'a', Paaaaaaaf - 'hoping he becomes an old hand.' And the great man gets up, tall, frail and shaky, the bit of forced labour over. Go to the devil, young man.


In the engraved silver goblets from Daghestan, the port wine has an almost black, thick blood shade; it's cloudy and reddish-brown in the filigreed Odentol glasses stolen from a sleeping-car conductor.

'Babin', says Kurlova, in her most neutral tone, for it's a matter of duties, 'you're the responsible tenant, you'll have to telephone the district doctor; old Anissia is very low. I don't have the right to attend her, I don't belong to the district.'

Anissia? What? What about her room then? Pfaff closes his eyes to cover up his alertness, and, also in a neutral tone, asks, 'You think the old woman's going to kick the bucket?'

Kurlova shrugs her shoulders. What do I know? Babin drains his goblet. The light falls fully on the broad, almost square head of the red-faced, well-fed man, weathered in the open air.

'If she kicks the bucket, Babin, I rely on you to keep the room for me. I've had enough of this hole. My rights are unquestionable: writer and ex-serviceman. I can go ahead of my turn.'

Babin's professional coolness is never at fault. His heavy step in the stairs makes you think of an arrest, his massive self-possession -like this, elbows on the table, head up, mouth shut, look penetrating but unostentatious - of an interrogation. He twitches imperceptibly. You, ex-service? Oh, yes, you got yourself called up for reporting in the Far East. He goes 'hum’ or 'brumm', a sign of assent or a little suppressed cough in his goblet. As you please.

A soldier with serious facial injuries, whom no woman wants any more, (12) rises up in front of him while he casts a sidelong glance at Lily. If I told you the kind of man he is, comrade Lily, comrade cheap little tart, would you sleep with him in spite of his harelip, his toothless gums, his split nostril, his half-shut eye which looks at you like a self-reproach? If I told you there's no one more reliable in the Party, more staunch for the Revolution, more loyal, loyal to death, for heaven's sake, than this pal? If I told you the tenth part of what he has done in his life? If I told you that just now he spends his nights on a table in the offices of a Trust, that the Control Commission is inquiring into his work in the countryside because he carried out the directives too well and all the cattle in the place have been slaughtered and the directives have changed? Babin gets annoyed with himself, says nothing, looks angrily at Lily, brings his eyes back to Kurlova, who is pale, not pretty, but ...And, as massive as in his Special Branch office, he says:

'I don't understand you, you doctors. You're concerned with people whom society has no more need of, whom nobody needs any more, who don't, as it were, need themselves any more. You can't love your patients, you hate them sometimes.'


Kurlova corrects herself more firmly.

‘No. Never.'

'You're concerned with man when he lands in the rubbish. If you were only overhauling the machine, you'd be in the logic of production. But I bet you're not thinking of the factory when you're attending a turner. (Kurlova smiles). So what are you interested in? I'd envy you if I wasn't afraid of veering off with you into absurdity.

'Man? The military commander knows soldiers whom he has to send into battle: the soldier never wants to get killed, no ideology, no propaganda would make him do it if there weren't the patent reality of the death penalty behind the watchwords. The works manager sees that workers whom he has to get to work are always inclined to cheat about the hour or the piece. The Party secretary sees members, more or less genuine, more or less disciplined, whom he has to enrol, direct, supervise, use. The Political Branch knows shady characters, suspects, accused, enemies, spies, traitors, double agents, that's all precise, concrete. Where is man? You cast the same glance at the wound of a traitor, a deserter, an important specialist, a hero of labour. You attend a useless old woman as you would attend the man who is most essential to the State.

'You add up social duties and needs to release the entity 'man'. The rich man is a reality, the poor also, the soldier, the condemned, the worker, the technician are beings of flesh and bone. But man, show me him!'

Kurlova can't debate. Usually, Babin is silent. She's astonished he's talking so much. How well-fed he looks! Is there perhaps a hidden anxiety under his apparent impassiveness, a doubt under his assurance?

'You've lost man', says Kurlova, 'you're not alone. We'll have to find him again, that won't be easy.'

Perhaps, deep down within himself, he was waiting for a reply; she notices that something becomes clear inside him.

Pity he can't tell everything he knows in the hearing of non-Party people.

'Lost man, you say? Let's skip that. Your health!'

'We'd found the masses. Sometimes we advanced under enemy fire without firing back. Under pain of death, don't fire a shot before getting the precise order. Don't give this order without absolute necessity, mortal peril. War without killing. Immense, implacable strength which controls itself, asserts itself, encircles masses, captures, convinces. Order and cleanliness in the occupied villages. The young peasants had never seen anything like it. In addition, never before had doctors, more powerful than magicians, bent over their wounds; prisoners fed before ourselves, worked on by agitators, treated as lost brothers found again, disconcerted, bowled over, beginning to understand that the enemy' isn't the enemy but the generals, the landowners the rich. The Party cells mushroomed in the concentration camps. You can't know what the birth of the masses is like, you haven't seen what I've seen: thousands of men from the Khailar, wearing the old fur-lined jackets of Chang-So-Lin's army, raise their hands to vote for our anti-imperialist revolutions, and these yellow hands stay up as if they were going to set. Some of these men were Invulnerables, for they knew how to ward off the bullets. A few, we knew, were still fighting against us in secret by means of charms. The annoying thing was to get a brochure that day on the Paris Commune instead of the leaflets we were expecting. So explain Paris to the Invulnerables!

We were marching towards socialism. But this pale young woman with the tanned look, restfully warm, the desirable lips (refused), parted on an indulgent smile (indulgent towards him who is strong, of the Party, and knows his worth so clearly?), what motivates her in life?

'The revolutionary conscience', Pfaff puts in, casually, beaming in front of a star's portrait in a magazine.

Kurlova laughs, not very loudly, always seeming to make excuses for laughing.

'We've just had a rise of 9%', she says. 'If I worked forty days without eating or paying my rent, I could almost buy myself a pair of shoes.'

Babin doesn't like this remark.

'The wages policy can only be what it is. Since the State can't pay everyone well, it pays most to those whom it needs most.'

He   blushes a little because he feels too fat, buttoned up tight. (13)


Makar Juravlev was dreaming. It was Anissia's funeral. The pope was singing the Requiem Mass. Makar understood the liturgy very well. 'Rest with the Saints...' A moving male voice rang out. Makar wept, still drunk. In his sleep he wept real scalding tears which his wife didn't wipe away for fear of waking him up.

'Poor man, how distressed he is.'

Then Makar heard the spadefuls of earth falling on the coffin of the meanest quality, greenwood indifferently painted yellow, the lid secured by a few nails. Four nails per dead person, what a senseless waste when nails are lacking everywhere? The spadefuls made the wood resound, these were feet, feet in the corridor; they were meeting in the kitchen, whispering, plotting against Makar, once again, to stop him getting the empty room. They all have a spite against Makar, these damned bastards, they're plotting to give the room to the doctor, for, with or without pince-nez, intellectuals come off best, it's well-known. Roused to indignation, Makar woke up, so sure of the reality of his dream that he didn't think it had been a dream. He put on his trousers in the dark, slipped in a bottle which he had taken from behind the logs, and tiptoed down the corridor. They were plotting at Pfaaf's beside the kitchen. (14)

Makar glued his ear to the door. The doctor was saying, he heard every syllable, 'You've lost man.’ Tart! Tart! It wasn't enough for her to want the room, she wanted Makar's ruin in addition, she was looking for the man, the witness obviously, the witness against Makar, you she-devil! intellectual's mug! we know what you're like, all of you! Filth! Filth! The witness to say that Makar had served in a White Army before becoming a Red partisan in the Urals, but you won't find the witness, there are no more witnesses, and if there was one, I'd ...Makar swallowed his saliva with his rage. He had to be artful and silent. He went and knocked quite gently on Chelkin's door.

Chelkin was asleep, contented after a peaceful close of day in communion with his bottle of grain spirits. The volumes of the big Brockhaus-Efron dictionary with the green edges enclosed his horizon. Thick account books were piled up on both sides of the desk.'Account books of my life.'

Chelkin kept them punctually up to date. 'Receipts and expenses', social role, private life. Social role: Subscribed to the loan ... facilitated (15) the payment of a cheque from the Management of the Milk Co-ops ... demonstrate from nine to five ... bought a Car raffle ticket as a contribution to the development of the roads network, one rouble (see 'Private Life’, folio 41). The same event appeared in a different light in the other account book.

'Office-boy Bulavin's funeral in Vagankov cemetery. Noted the poor state of the roads in the suburb. Road-making must be encouraged. Write off as a loss the three roubles loaned to Bulavin.'

'Koloss cinema: 'The Ruts of Life", love story. Ideologically correct, but boring.

The writing was careful. A title in half-round-hand preceded every thought.

'Life's like a dark corridor. What's behind the back door?'

Elliptical passages were full of secret intentions: 'Slept badly four days. The flesh rebels. It wants to live too. Recalled Rozanov, adore organs. Abject-Nine o'clock. And we went into a dark yard. Heavy drops of rain fell. Smell of turned earth. A dog strayed. First it seemed vicious, then pitiful. And we, human creatures, are like stray dogs. And we found a corner under a porch of a church which was in the process of demolition. There was the whiteness of the plaster, like the whiteness of a bed. And the dog had followed us and was looking at us. And I was ashamed, I wanted to chase him away. But she said, "What nonsense! There's prejudices!" And I was ashamed in another way. She added, "The dog is better than man." When we left, the dog was no longer there.' The 'A's at the beginning of the sentences were designed lovingly.

'Thought. And there is no joy in anything. And the thirsty man only finds brackish water to drink. And his throat becomes bitter. And woman is only an impure vessel.'

These passages were spaced out. A single reference came up all the time, gradually filling the pages.

12 Drunk.

17 Drunk.

21 Drunk.

26 Drunk.

Wearing white pants, and with a drooping moustache, Chelkin opened the door without saying a word to Makar. The electric light on the desk was switched on. The green lampshade cast a dim light in the room like the bottom of a pond. Chelkin yawned, disgruntled. His unconcerned head was like a sea monster's. In a low voice, Makar said, "It's a serious matter, Fedor Fedorovich. Sit down, take your pen, write.'

Makar put a litre bottle on the account books of a life. Chelkin clucked his tongue, his eyes lit up. All the same there are lucky days. He pulled on his trousers, for writing imposed a decent rig-out.

'It's for Anissia's room.'

Makar's beard was a dirty flame red. Dead leaves burn like that. And the smoke from his mouth masked his look, making his face greyish.

'Nobody will get the room but me', he said. 'But they're plotting already, toads! toads! You're going to write. Makar's going to serve them a pair of little denunciations from what I know of them (which will go far). Write, brother.'

Chelkin laid a sheet of 1926 notepaper on his blotter, you'd no longer find anything like it in the whole of Moscow unless at the People's Commissars, calmly dipped his pen in the ink-well and designed in his finest half-round-hand, right in the middle of the page a title more grave than many Thoughts:


'How gloriously you write!' whispered Makar, excited.


Day broke, turning blue, and was brilliant all at once. Anissia lay, motionless, amid the silence of the images. The film of dust which covered the panes subdued the light. The saints receded in the gloom. These images were painted stiffly. The neighbour women came to see the dying woman. Grucha raised her head to let Andreyevna drop a little lukewarm milk into her mouth. Grucha's plump hands had a vivid flesh-tint against the yellowing temples of the old woman. She sipped. A ray as fine as a silken thread broke through the haze that overlaid her expression like dust on the panes.

She murmured, 'God will reward you.'

Grucha laid her head down gently on a darkish little pillow which already bore its impression. And yet this light skull had the hardness of stone. It moulded her bed, it would soon mould the earth, for today's coffins don't have to last very long.

'We must leave the dormer open,' said Andreyevna.

Muted noises of axes and hammers came in through the window. The open air muffled them. Scaffolding dominated the whole area, forming a kind of vast square cage around a high frame of reinforced concrete, clad with stonework. A kind of rectangular tower, fifteen storeys high, was rising from the ground above the squalid yards, razing clusters of little, century-old houses with a victorious thrust. At the top waved a red flag, quite fresh, quite brisk, catching the radiance of the sun and the sky in its folds.

Two gangs of builders were vying enthusiastically up there. One team was of German masons, good, level-headed, methodical workers, enviably well-fed and quartered, who refused salt pork, clamoured for potatoes, complained about draughts, were inclined to scorn the Russians and to admire the Great Plan as though it was the Battle of Tannenberg. The other, young Communists and small peasants from Kostroma who were seeing the great city for the first time, devoured fine wheaten pastries, sourdough, salt cucumbers, joyously smoked thick choking strands of tobacco wrapped in newspaper and mused over an issue of boots.

Plasterers, joiners, stucco workers, glaziers, locksmiths had already completed the fitting of compartmentalized offices, partitioned off, labelled and numbered thirteen storeys below. Among bricks and drums of cement, under the very scaffolding, an old lorry, scarred by twenty street accidents, was being unloaded somewhere. Typists and housewives, called out on the day of rest for six hours of voluntary work, carried armfuls of blue dossiers, rolls of plans, the brochures of a mobile library, the placards of the latest demonstration, the red streamers for the Tenth International Youth Festival. Few housewives had come for they had something better to do, if you think about it, hunting for sugar and soap for example, and they weren't afraid of losing their lousy job at seventy roubles a month, i.e., six pounds of butter; jobs are everywhere, potatoes are scarcer. Tidier and more timid, the typists took the hardest part of the work upon themselves because they had to, while deploring the wasted day and wearing out their shoes, disaster! From top to bottom, this was the life of the new building.

At the very top, under the red flag, the foreman Gottfried Muller, from Weeding, his thighs sheathed in a pair of ribbed-velvet knee-breeches which everyone in the rival team envied, philosophised on socialist emulation.

'Wunderbar! Wonderful! What can be elicited from man!

He was basically a Social Democrat, and dissatisfied. Percentages danced before his eyes to the rhythm of the bricks laid here by the hands of his mates - Gesellen - there by the young Communists and the little lads from Kostroma, not bad types, fair-haired rustics, covered with freckles.

'2565 bricks laid in 255 minutes per man, that's the 1930 norm tripled; the Russians are only reaching 256%. Sehr gut, I admit you can make both gangs run and sweat blood, but how long can 'that last? And if they always went at that rate, how long would a man last, was denken Sie?'

He talked wildly, he spoke to himself, both carried away and vexed, grappling with a great, enigmatic interlocutor who was perhaps the Revolution, the Republic, Bolshevism, das Bolchevismus, the Party - or simply the latest circular of the Central Committee on the Shock Brigades, or again the city spread out around the scaffoldings as far as the eye could see. Look at it: suffused with sunlight, as capriciously coloured as a carpet from Azerbaijan: look at its bursts of greenery, on the hills, its alleys, its bulbs of churches, blue sprinkled with stars of gold, grey, green, red, gilt, mellowed, sparkling, its forty times forty churches, which would make at least eight thousand towers, turrets, bulbs, onions, cupolas. Plenty (16) work for the demolishers! They're signing on.

The city on the march here, on the march down below, on the march on these gaping boards (botched like the rest, these scaffoldings), on the march in all its alleys, on the march in all the hearts; the white battlements of Kitai-Gorod, the white battlements of the Kremlin, the surrounding wall with nineteen Italian towers, closed on the Russian Cathedrals, the Treasury, the Hall of Facets, the huge bell fallen, cracked, which never tolled, the fat, impotent old cannon, which will never fire - fiasco of the obese -the Jesters' Hall, the Seat of the government, the flats of the members of the Politburo, their telephones, their secrets, their decrees: and the queues (17) in front of the Co-ops this morning?

It all exists. Crisis of food supply, shortage of tinfoil, shortage of alloy, shortage of raw materials, lack of manpower, 'we're signing on! we're signing on!', overcrowding, the city's filled to bursting with men, crowds stagnate in the louse-ridden markets (typhus is rampant), its stations haul in peoples on the move, it isn't a city, it's a world on the march; victory bulletins from the factories, red notice board, honour, black notice board, censure; new honour for labour, alarm signal, setbacks, the Plan triumphs, the Plan fails, exhort each other to achievement, to victory, to socialism, this city is a vast trireme of which we're the rowers,- sing, rowers, one more effort, one more, the harbour's getting nearer (the end is near for those who're dying, honour to them, oblivion on them), row, let's row. The presses copy the song, the airwaves broadcast it, the screen stamps it on the brains, the poster screams it, come along, comrades, in chorus; not far from here, d'you see, behind this proud square tower, fifteen storeys high, completely new, is the internal Prison. Let's talk about construction. The Metro's beginning. Haussman was timid. The factories are re-tooled. Figures for progress, 300%, 600%. Handsome young black men, whose soft leather jackets remind you of America, walk on the boulevards with love-struck white girls, proud to please these strangers. The future organisers of the Soviets of the Yangtse Kiang study the resolutions of the enlarged Plenum of the Executive of the Communist International. Foreign tourists, rolling in dollars, travel from Trusts to museums, from churches to palaces, from statistics to Utopia, from scenery to mirages, from mirages to real marvels (but they're what they see the least), in the best-padded Lincoln cars, afterwards to write books and books, as false to the life of this country, to the suffering of these men, to the achievement of these men, to the poignant, relentless, unbearable, inhuman, astonishing and magnificent truth of this time, as false as the prose of the literary men of the rear to the reality of the Fire of the Great War.

A view of the horizon for two hundred kilometres from the top of these scaffoldings. Above the aerodrome you see heavy, grey birds taking off with well-poised flight, you see the balance-sheet of the epoch being written on the old earth in lasting symbols, - you can also see, down below, at the bottom of the dark well of the impasse, people moving about like slaters really, emerged for a moment (from under a stone. The eczematous facades condense) (18) in their greyness half a century of indigence. Windows have the empty sadness of lack-lustre eyes. Here are Anissia's two windows, Chelkin's window, Kurlova's window. Below, at ground level, three metres from the cesspool which hasn't been emptied this year, a man-slater comes out of his dank hole, sniffs at life, sees the joyous, little red flag at the top of the building under construction, forgets it, forgets the sun and the sky over his head and, borne by a hidden and stubborn force, goes towards another hole opposite.


It's Vassilchuk. He squats with his kids in an old sewer out of which he has made a kind of room for himself. Foul smells come in through the cracks in his floor. The dampness spreads enormous greenish flowerings on the ceiling. The District Sanitary Commission has twice noted the loathsome unhealthiness of this lodging. But where can they shove Vassilchuk,, his three kids, his poor women companions who change every three months since none of them can take any more? He recruits them at the peat bog where he works. Non-drinker, which tempts. Loving his kids, hard-working, silent, low-browed, one eye closed, jaw jutting out, suddenly he says one evening to a dog-tired woman:

'Don't be afraid of my head. I'm not a bad man. The children are looking for a mother. Try.'

Something in his voice entreats. His arms hang like a gorilla's. The woman tries, and it's true that Vassilchuk isn't a bad man, you'd end up getting used to him, but can't live in this hole, no, better the peat bog again, the hut open to the wind, no matter what.

Vassilchuk has nosed out that there's something new. Old Anissia's window's open, that's not normal. Pfaff went to the house Office early in the morning. Makar Juravlev came a moment later. Then Guriev. And Pilenko. Vassilchuk goes to see. As he's uneducated, they don't suspect him, papers lie about. Now he reads very well the least legible writing, but better they know nothing about that. Let's read.

Adam Pfaff asserts his rights as an ex-Serviceman and as a writer placed in truly unacceptable conditions of work to claim, in accordance with the Law of the ... with the explanatory circular of the ... and with the decree of the Soviet, the first vacant room of the Housing Co-op.

Makar Juravlev writes, 'I, genuine proletarian, son of a poor peasant, in production for twenty-five years, non-Party but loyal to Lenin's cause for life ... I live with my family, four persons in a dark room, with no door, and which serves as a passage ...'

Well, well, what do you need, drunkard? Anissia's room, it's written out in full, Anissia's going out feet first. Guriev puts at the top, Application of twice prize-winning Shock Brigade worker Guriev. In this: capacity, he claims the room out of turn. He lives with his wife in a room of eight square metres, hardly big enough for one.

Pilenko, his neighbour, invokes the same reason but underlines for the eyes of the Committee 'the necessity' of encouraging the formation of proletarian cadres of socialist technique, in conformity with Comrade Stalin's six points. Signed: Pilenko, student at the Institute of Agronomic Plans, worker, son of workers, member of the Young Communists;(19) [Marlene, student in the faculty of Statistics at the Economics College, member of the Young Communists.]

'Whose daughter are you? since you don't say?' thought Vassilchuk, looking at this signature.

He crosses the yard again, wrapped in thought. His application has been filed for a long time. If someone's expectation is riveted on the House Committee, this band of rascals, it's certainly his; the room, they'll knock it down to the highest bidder. He stops in the middle of the yard. Here are the grey windows, closed on the agony of old Anissia. But his attention will give him away. Vassilchuk turns slowly on his heels. There's the red bunting above a scaffolding of the new City. The German gang takes the lead up there, twelve pairs of hands skirting the tower outlined against the sky, rising and falling rhythmically above the City, without apparent haste. You'd think they're kneading bread. Vassilchuk remembers a nest of little rodents he found in a wood. The dumb creatures were better off there, warmer, more comfortable than his children above the gully-hole. The nest smelt of the wild, to his children rises the rottenness of the bowels of the City. Vassilchuk feels his determination coming to a head. Build, you lot, up there! They who build are the brothers of those who take. Vassilchuk's going to take.

This very morning the Criminal Investigation Branch received a denunciation signed by Guriev against Makar Juravlev, 'former White bandit'; illicit trading in alcohol. The hiding-place behind the logs was described precisely. An enquiry was ordered.

The Political Branch received two hand-written denunciations signed 'Makar Juravlev'. The first revealed that Dr Anna Tikhonovna Kurlova, divorced former wife of a counter-revolutionary officer shot for crimes against the dictatorship of the proletariat, was indulging in distinctly anti-Soviet propaganda at the hospital; the second that the journalist Adam Pfaff was re-selling articles bought from foreign tourists at speculative prices, witness a pair of yellow gaiters recently sold by him for eighty roubles to citizen N. living at ...

The deputy chief clerk of the sub-section of the Register of Files immediately sent for the file Kurlova, Anna Tikhonovna. Divorced from an officer shot in the Crimea with other prisoners of war. Re-married a Communist. Divorced again. Subject of an enquiry following a denunciation for counterrevolutionary remarks at the hospital. A confidential note by a cell secretary confirmed the matter.

'Declared her objection to interrogating the victim of an accident before giving him First Aid; added that she isn't concerned about the social origins of a patient. Nurse M. who denounces her through jealousy, daughter of a rich peasant herself and divorced wife of a horse dealer, has refused to subscribe to the Co-op loan.'

The deputy chief clerk of the sub-section shrugged his shoulders, but, on principle, added the new denunciation to the old. The paper about Adam Pfaff was directed to the Informers' Branch.

The District Youth Committee phoned the House Committee about midday to support Pilenko's request. Adam Pfaff pursued from office to office the assistant editor of a mass circulation official sheet, an influential man whose signature could ensure success. The influential man had to be at three meetings at the same time: at the Extraordinary Paper Committee, at the Commission for the Reorganisation of the Associations of Proletarian Writers, and at the Central Headquarters for Censorship. Moreover, he was said to have been summoned to the Control Commission and to be in a very bad mood. Pfaff fell back on the Secretary of the Journalists' Bureau who signed everything he was asked because his signature, his seal, the Bureau note-paper, everything, in short, was worth nothing.

At five o'clock the District Youth Committee received a fiercely-documented anonymous denunciation of Lisa Marlene, 'two-faced petit-bourgeois element who dishonours the Youth flag by persecuting a poor old woman whose room she wants, insults the glorious memory of the counsellors of the world proletariat, Marx and Lenin, by dragging through the mud of her intrigues their names shortened to Mar and Len; isn't really Marlene but Troitskaya, being the younger daughter of an archdeacon of the Simbirsk diocese; pretended to break with her father before changing her name by publishing the following announcement in The Evening Gazette for 10 December 1929: "Troitskaya, Lisa Alex has no longer anything in common with her ecclesiastical and obscurantist father" - but, in reality, hasn't stopped sending this class enemy parcels of dry bread, salt and matches every month, thus hypocritically supporting the religious counter-revolution in a region where collectivisation has met with strong resistance.' Passed on with a view to investigation to the Committee of the Young Communists cell in the Faculty of Statistics at the Economics College.

About three o'clock Guriev dragged off the house manager and the treasurer of the Housing Co-op to the local pub where they had a long discussion. At the end they exchanged hearty handshakes, like merchants, deal done. Vassilchuk saw them from the street through the glass.

He'd made his plan, he got ready to charge through these cobwebs. In his chest he had a loud, terrible laugh. No one would get Anissia's room except himself, let them sell it and re-sell it. He watched, observing the comings and goings, the looks, the windows. He had a great idea: send his little Peter to play with the little Juravlevs.  'You'll report everything you hear.' As soon as the old woman was no more, God rest her soul, Vassilchuk would fill his trunk rimmed with cast-iron and, pushing his kids in front of him, climb the sticky stairs, making for the light of a room with two windows where you could live humanely (and re-sell for two thousand roubles). He had to get there at one go, put down the trunk, sit on it. 'Here I am!'

Showing respect for the dead woman, he'd wait silently for the ratification of his right to be the first occupier. His children would spend the night in the corridor, he wouldn't stir, he wouldn't budge. When the militia stepped in, the law would be on his side, since a tribunal decision is needed to put out the de facto occupier of accommodation even if his possession is illegal. Match won, for behind him a mate from the adjoining site whose family lived 'nowhere' ('we're like the birds of the air, citizen') would take over the cramped, mouldy dog-hole with the nauseating smells at the same time. Vassilchuk's heart thumped with loud, regular beats for he was a calm, obstinate man from the fertile plains of Zaporozhye where there is a virile race of men.

Who'll count the circles that a stone ripples out in the water? Men's deeds spring from each other like that. Around the expectations dependent on the uncertain breathing of old Anissia, other expectations formed. If Juravlev secured Anissia's room, who would take Juravlev’s? A whole invisible swarm of interests, hopes and intrigues surrounded this house. By a remarkable rebound, a letter even left the other side of Moscow addressed to the other side of Eurasia, Khabarovsk on the River Amur, on the frontier of the Great War in the Far East which can break out at any moment. Beyond Khabarovsk, in a hamlet of the Kura, inhabited by Goldes fishermen, a woman would read words full of promise, "You can come back after the thaw, light of my life, I think I'll have a room.'


Four Primus stoves hummed mischievously in the cramped kitchen, between the WC which had needed unblocking for two days (but the house manager made fun of it) and the bathroom cluttered with odds and ends. Four women were getting meals ready at the four stoves. And they became identified with the stoves, and the hissings, sizzlings, low flames mingled with their very lives. The doctor's stove had the anaemic's short and irregular little breath. Gruchals stove gave out a strong flame, very low, consuming, white with rage, and the full-cheeked, red-armed, tawny-eyed Grucha held back odd gestures of anger. Andreyevna's stove, the dirtiest, the oldest, with buckled bases, covered with a layer of dust so thick that the copper could no longer be seen, seemed only to maintain by dull habit its reddish flame which would certainly manage, in the end, to cook a dark porridge of seeds.

Brand new, but already neglected, Lisa Marlene's nickel-plated stove proclaimed, with rumblings of the motor and a brisk flame, privileged connections in the Committees of Aviation-Chemistry, the cheerful readiness of life in the Brigades of Enthusiasts, the pleasure felt in roasting a carp coming out of the special, and secret, ration of the Youth leaders. Marlene, in uniform skirt and sports shoes, 'brand new!' The impudence of showing off like this, every month, with new shoes since they can't be found anywhere any more! She does it on purpose to annoy us but we'll get our own back for that some day. And her fish, tell me, shouldn't they be ashamed, that makes fish for them twice a week, when my husband, who's in the best Shock Brigade in the factory, hasn't had meat for a month! Marlene reflected, whistled under her breath, smoked and peeled her potatoes. Now and again she stopped, put her fag-end on the edge of the table, looked up at the ceiling and seemed to be saying a prayer to herself.

Grucha openly turned away at that point so as not to see the affectation that made her want to slap that fuss-pot. However Lisa closed her eyes the better to repeat the rules of differential calculus. An arrogant voice suddenly put to flight the numbers conveying extremely small differences: '... and I_ tell you that it's Lisa who doesn't know how to turn off the tap, no matter how often she's been told, but she's always miles away. Hi there, Lisa, the sink's going to run over, it's your turn to clear it, my girl.'

Grucha launched the attack gladly, sure of her facts, certain and prepared to fight, yes, in order ro have the sink cleared at once, for she couldn't wait, she wasn't known for thinking, she had to wash her dishes. The sink was gaping, gurgling, like a gully-hole. Grucha would gladly have plunged Lisa's pretty mug in it,  seized by the smooth, slender nape of her neck.

'Serpent's neck!'

At the very idea Grucha spread out and clenched podgy strangler's fingers over her potato scones.

Andreyevna could cry without being seen, deep down within herself. She cried. She guessed why Anna Tikhonovna's stove had almost exploded this morning while a high, fan-shaped flame suddenly brushed the doctor's face. Andreyevna still sniffed a persistent odour of singed hair in the air. And it was Kurlova's day for sweeping the corridor, and Makar had forbidden his wife to sweep it, as usual, instead of 'that pale scum whom I'll end up grabbing by the hair, you'll see.' The militia had come to make enquiries about them from the caretaker. An intense fury was brewing in Makar, he would come home drunk. She didn't dare disobey him though she had her own idea about Anna Tikhonovna. Everyone has his own sorrow, no need to say more. Now Andreyevna heard the doctor sweeping along the corridor. The brush knocked against the woodwork, Kurlova's shuffling step came nearer.

Andreyevna wouldn't dare look her in the face again after behaving towards her like that, and Grucha noticed it, understanding something, hateful Grucha, full-breasted, thick-necked Grucha, flourishing like a cow.

'It's the Gurievs who denounced us', thought Andreyevna, guided by the victim's infallible instinct. She didn't feel any resentment over it, she was ashamed rather. Her shapeless, old worn-out shoes, her bare feet, unwashed for a fortnight, her clothes going to rags, her pointed thinness, the bitter curl of her neglected mouth, everything about her, she felt, admitted that Grucha was right, Grucha whose silk stockings affronted her with good reason. And she was ashamed for her Makar, hairy up to the eyes, who trailed after him, in the violence of his gestures, smells of horse dung, horse sweat, human sweat and alcohol. Guriev, who shaved every week, looked down on him with reason as a factory worker, owner of the Shock Brigades card, and someone who had been invited to join the Party.

For two days Anissia had only had a little lukewarm milk. But when the two women went in to see her, she stirred weakly and then opened her eyes. Their dull silver shone brilliantly. They certainly saw everything in the room, they understood a great many things. Every time they crossed the threshold of this room Grucha and Andreyevna felt reconciled by a shared concern born of the growth of the horror of death and the exhaustion of a hopeless piety. They seem to see a normal expression like the continuation of life reappear on the wizened face of the old woman. A new fear made them uneasy, unavowable and already mingled with resentment. If she recovered, the bloody old woman, no one would get the room! The same infuriated satisfaction meant they didn't dare look at each other.


Anissia rose, dressed again, said her prayers, relit the little extinguished lamp in front of the image of the Virgin. It was a profound moment when she opened the door noiselessly and appeared looking like herself on the Juravlevs' threshold. As usual she went through without saying a word, saving her breath. Every eye watched her this time. Makar, the two frightened children who thought she was 'almost dead', Dunka in awe. Andreyevna beaming, compressing her flat chest with both hands, tightening her lips not to let her gladness shine out, even putting her hands to her face to conceal the forbidden joy. Her whole being cried out: death's leaving, death's going away, live Anissia, live, live!

Anissia, however, as if apologising for living, said, 'I'm going to get my bread', and even showed the pink card she was holding in her childlike hand.

At this moment the man with serious facial injuries rang. Seeing him so erect in his uniform, revolver in his belt, Grucha immediately understood that he had come for the room, ousting all competition, armed with the seal and signatures of the Political Branch.

'Is it right here', he asked,  'that an old woman used to live, called ...?'

'She's still living there1, Grucha replied slyly.

'All right! I'll wait.'

'Well, comrade (it's better to say 'comrade' than 'citizen' to these men in uniform), you'll wait a long time, for there she is.'

We find a dead person while looking for a living person more often than we find a living woman when we come to take over a dead woman's room. The man with serious facial injuries had a really frightful rictus when faced with this supreme ill-luck. His face seemed to have been lacerated in every direction by a monstrous claw. The rictus deflected one whole deformed side, while the other kept the rigidity of a mask.

'Long life!' he said to old Anissia who passed in front of him, pretending not to see him.

Curious women's faces appeared at the bottom of the dark corridor from which there came the irritable sputtering of the stoves. Two swarthy brats looked on, almost naked, with runny noses, glued to the wall by their grey shirts.

With his one terribly penetrating eye, the man took in the corridor, the faces, the chests near the doors. One full of greasy dishes, a pile of dust-covered old things at the bottom, where a bicycle wheel stuck up. Without ventilation the air in this human burrow stagnated, and it wasn't the air of the city, it was a stale, warm air, something between the air breathed in the zoos and the air in the unpleasant spots in the peat' bogs. Foul corner. There are just as swampy, gloomy and treacherous places in the jungle of the Lenkoran. The path gets lost, the reeds hide the sun. You feel caught by the bush, trapped by the sinking, the mosquitos, fever, poisonous insects, snakes; the wet foliage, the close air, the green light, the pungency of vegetal decay which rises from ground swollen with water would gently make you drowsy before choking you. The path would be easier to find there than here.

In the yard, the man with serious facial injuries raised his one eye to the adjoining scaffolding, topped in mid-air by a joyful little red flag. Joy when, once out of the jungle, you suddenly catch sight of the mountain. The very blood stirs in our veins. Well designed the scaffolding, squared the masonry, fifteen storeys at least; Saint Barnabas, his little blue onions cut off, his railings torn down, his door gaping, should topple over easily nearby. Vassilchuk was looking too, an ironic smile stamped on his pursed-up face. Mistaking this expression, the man with serious facial injuries exclaimed cordially, 'We're building!' and passed.

The day's augury was as unpleasant as a crossing in the jungle. Appear before the Commission, hear himself again reproached with 'Left deviations which are really Right deviations', reply in vain that he had twice warned about the certain slaughter of the cattle if the February directives were carried out. Go and tell the Head that the matter isn't settled yet, confront his evasive, cowardly look, beg for an advance of a hundred roubles, notice in all the shop windows the black plaster on his nose, surprise the women who turn away quickly with expressions of distaste and fear. And what else? All right, all right. We're history’s manure. Let us be so knowingly.

He went away with the resolute step of a man who has no more to lose than one eye and everything else. And altogether it doesn't weigh very heavily. Mustn't worry.


Moscow-Leningrad, September 1932.

Translated by John Manson 


(1)  From Le Tropique et Le Nord (Tropics and North), Maspero, Montpellier and Paris-, 1972. The first edition was published in Esprit (Paris) in April and May 1936. 

(2) The Esprit edition has '... 'a laquelle on ne cedait d'ailleurs pas'. p. 58

(3) Translator's note
The Russian terms above mean roughly Mass production; Chief commerce office in Moscow; Public canteens; Art Council; A group of factories producing chemicals and manmade goods; State publishing houses; Moscow and Muscovites; A district centre for public education; A district centre of collective farms; A committee responsible for consulting peasants on how to breed pigs of different kinds; A committee responsible for building hydro-electric stations supplying densely-populated districts with electricity.

(4) Translator's note
The first edition of 'The Saint Barnabas Impasse' in Esprit, Paris, April 1936, continues the description of Anissia's appearance in the same sentence, after a semi-colon: '; and her big black mouth, tightly shut, revealed a cold spite, guarded perhaps, allayed perhaps, forgotten perhaps, but present with life itself, all the life we have in ourselves until the last heart-beat.'

p.62 '; et sa grande bouche noire, fermement fermée, décelait une rancune froide, peut-être gardée, peut-être éteinte, peut-être oubliée mais présente avec la vie, toute la vie qu'on porte en soi jusqu'à la dernière pulsation du coeur.' 

(5) isba - Russian peasant house made of pine logs.

(6) Translator ' s note
I've inserted some words from the first edition here (which are necessary for the sense). These words are 'was all edges, points, bones of chin nose.' The full sentence in French: 'Son visage roussâtre éclairé par en-dessous n'était qu' angles, pointes, arêtes du menton, di nez, des pommettes, du regard en flèche . ..' p. 75   ,

 (7) The first edition has, 'Mais ne dites rien à personne, à personne, ...' p. 76

 (8)  The reference is to Italian architects.

 (9)  In the first edition there is another sentence here. 'How hard they are to kill, these old monsters!' 'Qu'ils ont la vie dure, ces vieux monstres!'

(10) Maspero has 'le pigne'. The first edition has 'la poigne' which sense demands, p.78

(11) The sense here demands the substitution of a sentence from the first edition. 'Il recut la grosse grenaille en plein visage, trop bas pour perdre toute la vue ou la vie, juste assez haut pour perdre la moitié du gout de vivre, car pas une femme désormais, ne voudra de lui.' p. 79

The same sentence in Le Tropique et Le Nord is: 'Il recut la grosse grenaille en plein visage, trop bas pour perdre la moitié du gout de vivre, car pas une femme désormais, ne voudra de lui.'

(12) The first edition has '... dont pas une femme ne veut plus ...' p.79 whereas Maspero omits the 'plus'.

(13) Translator's note
The first edition has a longer ending to this section.

(He blushes a little because he feels too fat, buttoned up tight in his uniform, as powerful as a large watch-dog with a glossy coat. And he deliberately confronts a reproach that Kurlova perhaps doesn't think of aiming at him.)

'We can't do anything about it. It's the general line. It's correct.'

All that talk makes the chorus girl yawn.  pp.181-2

The author's intention seems to have changed here. In the Maspero edition Pfaff blushes; in the first edition the reference is to Babin, who wears uniform whereas Pfaff doesn't.

(Il rougit un peu de se sentir trop bien en chair, sanglé dans son uniforme, vigoureux comme un grand dogue au poil luisant. Et il affronte posément un reproche que Kourlova ne songe peut-être pas à lui adresser.) - Nous n'y pouvons rien. C'est la ligne générale. Elle est juste Tous ces propos font bailler la girl.  pp.181-2

(14) The first edition has 23 lines before 'Makar glued his ear to the door'

 (15)  'facilité’ in the first edition.  P183

 (16) Between 'cupolas' and 'Plenty' the first edition has '; let's allow that a quarter may have been demolished, there remain twelve hundred churches and six thousand towers, turrets, bulbs, onions, cupolas.' - admettons qu'on ait abattu le quart, restent douze cents églises et six mille tours, tourelles, bulbes, oignons, coupoles.' p. 187

 (17) Between 'queues' and 'in', 'in the streets, how many thousands of queues'/ 'dans les rues, combien de milliers de queues' p. 187

 (18) The words inserted have been omitted from the first edition. A complete line was missed, i.e., 'de dessous une pierre. Les facades eczemateuses condensent'

 (19) The words within [...] are necessary for the meaning of Vassilchuk’s question. 'Marléna, étudiante a la faculté des Statistiques de l'Ecole Superiéure d'Economie, membre des J.C.'  first edition, p.190.