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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries from March 1, 2010 - March 31, 2010

Tuesday
Mar302010

Zangwill's Bow

Outwardly I was calm, and spoke to the people about me as usual.  Inwardly I was on fire with a consuming scientific passion.

It is probably advisable not to reveal which character in this book, the first full−length locked room mystery novel of the kind subsequently made famous by this writer, is responsible for the above quote.  Unlike the masterworks of Carr, Zangwill has little interest in the actual logistics of the crime.  There is no Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale or any other cozy and flawless figure to work out the kinks of some of the most ingenious mysteries ever devised (unfortunately, as can be expected, Carr’s page−turners suffer greatly from a lack of character development; I say this having last read them almost twenty years ago).  Instead, we have a slew of Dickensian caricatures: Mortlake, Wimp, Drabdump, Grodman, Constant, Crowl, Dymond, Spigot, Crogie, and the underappreciated poet and ghost writer Denzil Cantercot whose “epic poem” is “morbid from start to finish … [with] ‘death’ in the third line.”  They bandy about the trendy issues of the day — religion, money, and social reform — in broad confirmation of William James’s adage on what some people call thinking.  But before all that, there is the matter of the crime.

The victim is Arthur Constant, a lovable young fellow known both as an altruist and a citizen of upright moral principles.  One morning at seven o’clock, he is found with his throat freshly cut in his bed by his landlady Mrs. Drabdump and the retired detective Grodman.  All accesses to his modest boarding house accommodations are locked from the inside (his room’s old door gave way to such a scene).  By all indications, he had no reasons to end his life and even fewer that would provoke a murder, as he was

A man who had never made an enemy even by benefiting him, nor lost a friend even by refusing his favors … a man whose heart overflowed with peace and goodwill to all men all the year round … a man to whom Christmas came not once, but three hundred and sixty−five times a year … a brilliant intellect, who gave up to mankind what was meant for himself, and worked as a laborer in the vineyard of humanity, never crying that the grapes were sour … a man uniformly cheerful and of good courage, living in that forgetfulness of self which is the truest antidote to despair.

It may be surmised that the only possible motive is deception; in other words, that someone so unabashedly interested in the Brotherhood of Man might have concealed a dark inner life.  Unsurprisingly, a woman surfaces that links Constant to another young man, and a tenuous thread is drawn through the otherwise unconnected events.  An arrest is made, followed by a glorious trial (an echo of an equally entertaining inquest earlier in the book) and a quick juridical decision.  As is so often the case in murder mysteries, that decision is reached only four−fifths through our novel, which leaves just enough time for a couple of characters to probe the matter more deeply.

What is remarkable about Zangwill’s novel is how unremarkably its scenes unfold.  In a Victorian London less sultry and more talkative than the one popularized by the residents of Baker Street, the crime initially garners great attention:

The mystery was the one topic of conversation everywhere — it was on the carpet and the bare boards alike, in the kitchen and the drawing room.  It was discussed with science or stupidity, with aspirates or without.  It came up for breakfast with the rolls and was swept off the dinner table with the last crumbs.

In time, however, it becomes yet another incident that, upon mention of the deceased or consideration of his deeds, makes people more thoughtful but not stop going about their business.  Everyone misses Arthur Constant but there will be other Arthur Constants.  Given the novel’s inexplicably silly name, a reflection of the age’s yellow press sensationalism, the whole business might sound hollow to our modern sensibilities.  So when one character claims that “the key to the Big Bow Mystery is feminine psychology,” we wonder to what extent that has changed in the last hundred years.  Maybe not as much as you might think.

Thursday
Mar182010

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Whenever historically-minded scholars try to pinpoint the beginnings of the detective story, they often find themselves pondering the meaning of the terminology we apply like a cookie cutter to any tale that contains an initially unsolved crime.  To be sure, there are stories in which the only person who does not know what has occurred is the same poor soul entrusted with an official investigation; other narratives move from one mystery to one another so that, in the end, we are neither closer to solving these conundra nor quite certain what to make of the circumstances that have obtained.  An example of the former type is this well-known detective series; an example of the latter is an anagram for what has been termed the postmodern.

Now readers of these pages might have an inkling as to what I think of postmodern literature (never mind manifestations of its visual arts, which are best left unmentioned): with few exceptions of brilliant creativity such as this novel of genius, most attempts are laborious endeavors to mystify and obscure the truth behind a parade of parlor tricks that, upon close inspection, do not add up to much at all.  Their aim?  To point out the inherent contradictions in our system of values that lead them to assert, with no iota of conviction one way or another, that what we see and think and feel is not only relative, it also does not make any sense.  Since life doesn't make sense, and art is known in many circles to be nothing more than an imitation of life, it similarly has no such obligations to conform to logic.  Purveyors of such rot are easy to identify: they will tell a story that seems to contradict itself and when you ask for explanation, will inform you are too stupid to understand their charlatanism, I mean, their subtlety; they will waft around cocktail parties half-drunk and recount degrading stories of famous artists' lives, perhaps because their own lives, while degraded by no hope or imagination, are not nearly as interesting as those of the people they mock; and they will publish ironic and wholly nonsensical articles filled with neologisms and jargon that reference one another to make it seem as if there lurks a network of like-minded critics who collectively march towards truth, when their real destination is darkest oblivion.  What these second-raters do not understand is that true art does not destroy, it builds; it builds on the accomplishments of its forerunners and anticipates to a great extent its successors.  And all successors to the detective story owe something to this odd but rather amazing tale.

Our narrator – he remains unnamed throughout – tickles our fancy with an introduction both poorly organized and completely fascinating on the nature, as it were, of logic.  He begins this discourse with an observation about that supposedly most intellectual of childish pursuits, chess:

the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess.  In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play.  If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat.  The possible moves being not only manifold but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers.

This setup suggests that the meaty portion of our narrative will provide evidence of such an approach – which, as it turns out, it does and does not – but what happens next is much more interesting for the history of letters because our narrator turns out to be our Boswell.  He quickly shifts into an introduction of a certain Auguste Dupin, a Frenchman of “an illustrious family,” who “had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it, and he ceased to bestir himself in the world, or to care for the retrieval of his fortunes.”  With a bit of shrewdness and understated austerity Dupin is able to maintain himself on his intellectual interests with “books as his sole luxuries.”  Starving intellectuals are unfortunately nothing new to either literature or life; but the acuity of Dupin’s reasoning is more than unusual and something akin to phenomenal.  To prove this claim our narrator then devotes another dozen paragraphs to Dupin’s amazing deduction that culminates in the observation, “he is a very little fellow, that's true, and would do better for the Theatre des Variétés,” a tactic that will remind the reader of this later work.  Yes, Holmes is a direct descendent of Dupin, and even goes so far as to criticize Dupin for precisely the trick of deductive reasoning (in the form of intrusive commentary at just the right time) that Holmes would make famous.  That does not stop Dupin, however, from making a name for himself.

The eponymous "murders" are some of the famous ever committed and involve an old woman and her daughter, a locked apartment on the fourth floor of a Paris building, a passel of witnesses who all claim to have heard a foreigner speaking "in a shrill voice" at the time of the murders, although they cannot agree at all on what language he spoke, and a sailor on a Maltese vessel.  One part of the solution, which is both ingenious and preposterous, would be copied in a Holmes story and, alas, the culprit can be easily ascertained through an image search of the title on the intergalactic weapon known as Google.  Nothing more should be said except one line from Dupin:

Coincidences, in general, are great stumbling-blocks in the way of that class of thinkers who have been educated to know nothing of the theory of possibilities – that theory to which the most glorious objects of human research are indebted for the most glorious of illustration.

How strange, then, that this maxim, so well-kept and yet so very trivial, doesn't actually apply to the case in question.  Could we have detectives of integrity rather than opportunity?  Perhaps at the very beginning of it all.

Tuesday
Mar162010

Solaris (Солярис)

Night is the best time here; night somehow reminds me of earth.

The final, grandiose scene in this film will be derived from its opening in a way that is admittedly less surprising than thrilling. We begin on a lush country estate as a man in his forties, somewhat heavy-set, handsome, and with a peremptory stare, walks around a large and fecund pond. What he first espies beneath that pond compared to what lies there towards the end may have ignited a few film studies papers, but we need not belabor such secondary detail. He is a microbe within a universe moving through a wonderland where he is barely noticed; his steps are silent because an echo implies impact. He approaches a house, his father's, only to find his mother and a stranger glued to the television. 

Our wanderer is Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist who will be participating in a Soviet space mission to a place referred to as Solaris – another planet or realm, the matter is not easily resolved. His last day on earth, so to speak, is spent predominantly with his father (Nikolai Grinko), a tall, dismissive man who may remind the American viewer of this actor. That same day, planned as a pre-departure of quiet reflection on a peaceful estate, Kelvin's father also invites Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), a former military pilot. Apart from indulging the father's lifelong habit of belittling his son's importance ("It's too dangerous to send people like you into space," he tells Kelvin, "space is too fragile"), the purpose of the invitation is to watch a video of Burton's testimony before the space authorities for whom Kelvin will also make an evaluation. Burton testifies that in the course of his mission on a search party near Solaris – officially an "oceanic planet" – he fell into the thick fog that has begun many tales of mystery. After that fog had lifted, if it was fog at all, he espied something treading the waves, something he dubs "repulsive": a thirteen-foot-high naked baby boy coated with the slime that one might associate with birth. Whatever one may say of Burton, he is certainly not confident; he is also far too sensitive about his own personal opinions to make a good soldier. His ideas are rejected and roundly mocked, and Burton, now bald after the incident a few years ago, can only quip that whenever the "Burton Report" is mentioned only laughter can be heard.

Almost all reviewers of Solaris who know the original novel emphasize that Lem's book did not contain this prelude on earth, and for very good reason: Lem was far more interested in the vicissitudes of the human brain than the human soul. For all its monsters, meteors, and machinery, the vast majority of science fiction has always parlayed simple, melodramatic plots into allegedly original work – but this is a conversation for another day. Some science fiction tales do tackle legitimate philosophical and spiritual problems, often in the form of space travel with ultimately the following question in mind: if we can reach the heavens, does it mean there is nothing beyond them? The argument is not only one of sense and perception, but of ethical implications because, as Burton points out as any spiritual person would, "knowledge is only valid when it's based on morality." But Kelvin wants nothing of this and we soon learn why. Ten years before his upcoming space mission, Kelvin's wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) committed suicide for the most banal of romantic tragedies – unrequited love. Whether this extinguished any faith Kelvin might have had in the immortality of the soul cannot be determined from the opening scene, nor from Burton's subsequent teleconference from a car in a modern metropolis where he confesses that Fechner, the object of the search party, had a son identical in all but size to the creature treading the water. This concept is reinforced upon Kelvin's arrival as he is greeted by one of the three remaining persons in the space station monitoring Solaris, the cyberneticist Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet).

A correction, only two remain – alive, at least. The surviving passengers are Snaut and the astrobiologist Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn). A third scientist, Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sarkisian), a physiologist and former colleague of Kelvin's, has already committed suicide by the time the psychologist enters the station. Gibarian is considerate enough to leave Kelvin a video detailing his slow descent into a miasma completely divorced from any hints at insanity. This circumstance allows us to ponder Snaut's strange words (Snaut is also responsible for this review's opening quote) to Kelvin upon the latter's arrival: "If you ever see something other than me or Sartorius here, just remember that you are no longer on earth." Kelvin nears a window and gazes upon Solaris in one of the breathtaking glimpses at the ocean planet, and then spots something moving behind him. Sartorius, clearly the guts and glory behind this operation, warns him of the shocking nature of what he may see in the station, visions at once real and completely synthetic – and we come to the secret of Solaris that is hardly a secret at all. In response to the radiation with which it was bombarded, or maybe not entirely in response, the ocean enters the consciousness of all those aboard the station and triggers materializations of their conscience. The subject matter can only be derived during sleeping, although a later development in the plot shows that an encephalogram during waking hours can be just as decisive. We see Sartorius with a pygmy or dwarf that he tries at one point to impute to Snaut; and while we do not quite know what plagued Gibarian before his death, he had the rather awful impression that he was the only one affected. It is for that reason, one supposes, that one morning Kelvin wakes up and finds Hari staring at him alive and well. The first part ends on this note – more specifically, it ends with Hari asking Kelvin, "why won't you look at me?" – and here our revelations should end as well. 

What is a man of science to think of such a manifestation? A great deal, as it turns out. Before leaving earth, Kelvin nonchalantly pitches a large number of his university papers and keepsakes into a bonfire, to the horror of his onlooking parents (here we also first see a photograph of Hari and some of their correspondence). Much later, Kelvin dreams of a scene not unlike the icy landscapes of some of the Dutch Masters of yore in which another bonfire is lit, if only to warm his tired bones. The transformation of Kelvin, a staunch non-believer, into someone who accepts the unimaginable is one of the greatest metamorphoses cinema has ever offered. Instead of the anger and disdain that usually accompany claims to the existence of such phenomena, Kelvin does not disbelieve as much as fear (witness what he does to Hari's first "materialization"). He fears his own role in her death, the evidence of a sort of heaven – Hari and the rest of the so-called "guests" cannot and perhaps do not exist outside of Solaris's force field – and the bewildering realization that conscience may well be the metronome for all of eternity. So when Hari asks Kelvin in front of a mirror (a shot used repeatedly in the film's promotion) whether he knows himself, he replies "Of course, like all humans." And if that were indeed the case, then far fewer of us would ever go to sleep.                

Sunday
Mar072010

The Red Flower (part 3)

The conclusion of a story ("Красный цветок") by this Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

V.

That whole night he didn't sleep.  He had plucked the flower because in such an action he saw a heroic deed that he was obliged to perform.  When he had first looked through the glass door, the scarlet petals had attracted his attention, and from that moment on he seemed to understand what he had been put on earth to achieve.  In that bright red flower resided all the evil of the world.  He knew that opium was made from poppies; perhaps this thought, growing and assuming monstrous dimensions, led him to create a horrible and fanatical specter.  In his eyes the flower embodied evil itself; it fed on all the innocent blood ever spilled (that's why it was so red), all the tears, all the rancor of mankind.  A secret and horrible being, Ahriman, the adversary of God, in harmless and innocent guise.  It had to be plucked and killed – but that was not enough: it could not be given the chance to spill all its evil into the world as it expired.  For that same reason he had hidden it against his bosom and hoped that the flower would lose all its power by morning.  All its evil would then be transmitted into him, into his chest, his soul, and there it would either triumph or be defeated – in the former case, of course, he would die, perish, but he would die as an honorable warrior, the first warrior of mankind because until now no one had dared combat the world's evil all at once.

"They didn't see it.  But I saw it.  Should I let it live?  No, death is better."

And he lay there exhausted by his invisible, non-existent battle, but exhausted nonetheless.  In the morning the medical assistant found him barely alive.  Despite his state, after a few hours the excitement prevailed and he jumped out of bed and began walking around the hospital as he once had, conversing with himself and the other patients in a louder and more disconnected fashion than ever before.  He was not allowed into the garden.  Seeing that the patient's weight was still diminishing and that he was still walking and walking and not sleeping, the doctor ordered a large subcutaneous dose of morphine.  He did not resist; fortunately by that time his thoughts had somehow subsided owing to the operation, and he soon fell asleep.  The insane movement had ceased, and the loud melody born from the rhythm of his spasmodic steps that had constantly accompanied him now vanished from his ears.  He forgot himself and stopped thinking about anything at all, even the second flower which he had to pluck.       

Three days later, however, he plucked it – plucked it right before the eyes of the old guard who had not managed to warn him.  The guard gave chase.  With a loud, exultant howl, the patient ran into the hospital and, racing into his room, hid the plant against his chest.

"Why are you plucking flowers?" asked the guard running up to him.  But the patient was already lying on the bed in his usual pose with his arms crossed; he then began to utter such amazing nonsense that the guard merely removed the paper hat with the red cross which he had forgotten in his hasty flight then exited the room.  And the invisible battle began anew.  The patient felt like evil was escaping the flower in long, serpentine streams; they wound themselves around him, squeezing and constricting his limbs and saturating his whole body with their horrible contents.  He cried and prayed to God in intervals between the cursing he directed at his enemy.  By evening the flower had wilted.  The patient stomped the blackened plant into smithereens, then collected the remains from the floor and took them into the bathroom; the amorphous green mound was then tossed into a scorching stone oven heated with coal.  For a long while he watched his enemy hiss, disintegrate, and finally turn into a snow-white pile of ashes.  He blew on the pile and it all disappeared.

The next day the patient felt much worse.  He was horribly pale, his cheeks were sunken, and his fiery eyes had fallen deep into their sockets; although now erratic and staggering, he continued his mad pace around the hospital, speaking without stopping.

"I don't want to have to resort to violence," said the senior doctor to his assistant.

"Yet we have to stop his crazy work.  Today he weighed ninety-three pounds.  If this keeps up, in a couple of days he'll be dead."

The senior doctor thought it over.

"Morphine?  Chloral hydrate?" he asked, only half-inquisitive.

"Yesterday the morphine did not do the trick."

"Order him restrained.  Although I doubt he'll recover."

VI.

And the patient was restrained.  He lay in a strait-jacket on his bed, tightly fastened with wide strips of sackcloth to the bed's iron bars.  Yet his rabid movements did not decrease but grew in number.  In the course of many hours he had stubbornly tried to free himself from his fetters.  At length, having jerked powerfully, he ripped one of the knots, freed his feet and crawled out from beneath the rest of his bindings.  He then began to walk about the room, his hands still tied, screaming wildly and incomprehensibly.

"O damn you," cried the guard, entering room.  "Who the hell helped you?  Gritsko!  Ivan!  Come quickly, he's gotten loose!"

The three fell upon the patient and there began a long struggle, fatiguing for the attackers and torturous for the man trying to defend himself with the faint remainder of his dissipated energy.  Finally they threw him in bed and tied him up more tightly than before.

"You don't understand what you're doing!" said the patient, gasping for air.  "You will die!  I espied a third, hardly blooming flower, and now it'll have already blossomed.  Let me finish the matter!  I must kill it, I have to kill it, kill it!  Then it will all be over and everything will be safe and sound.  I would send you, but this is a task that only I can complete.  You would die from the mere touch."

"Pipe down, sonny, pipe down!"  said the old guard who remained to watch over the bed.

The patient suddenly fell quiet.  He decided to deceive the guards.  They kept him bound the whole day and left him in such a condition overnight.  Having eaten his dinner, the guard laid down a covering near the bed and then stretched out atop it.  A minute later he was soundly asleep, and the patient got to work.

He contorted his entire body so as to touch the horizontal iron bars of the bed.  Once he felt them with the palm of his hand hidden in the strait-jacket's long sleeve, he began rubbing his sleeve against the iron quickly and with some force.  After a while the fabric gave way and he was able to free his index finger.  Then everything sped up.  With intelligence and flexibility incomprehensible to a healthy person, he untied the knots behind his back, pulled off the sleeves, untied the strait-jacket, and then listened for a long time to the guard's snoring.  But the old man was still sleeping soundly.  The patient removed the strait-jacket and untied himself from the bed.  He was free.  He tried the door: it was locked from within and the key probably lay in the guard's pocket.  Fearing to wake him, he did not dare rifle through his pockets; he then elected to exit via the window.

It was a quiet, warm, and dark night.  The window was open.  The stars shone against the black sky.  He gazed at these stars, distinguishing the familiar constellations and taking joy in the fact that they seemed to understand and sympathize with him.  He saw the endless flickering rays they were sending him and his mad decisiveness increased.  He had to unbend a large iron bar, crawl through the narrow opening into the back alley overgrown with shrubs, and cross the high stone fence.  Here would come the final battle, and afterwards death itself.

He tried to bend the thick bar with his bare hands but the iron wouldn't yield.  Then, having twisted off a string from the strait-jacket's sturdy sleeves, he hooked it onto an outstanding spear-shaped part of the bar and hung on with his full weight.  After some desperate attempts that almost exhausted the remainder of his forces, the spear bent and a narrow passageway became open.  He squeezed himself through, scratching his shoulders, elbows and bare knees, then crawled through the bushes and stopped before the wall.  Everything was quiet.  Night-lights shone from within the window of the great building; in those lights no one was discernible; no one would notice him.  The old man on watch at his bed was likely still soundly asleep.  The stars gently flickered in rays which penetrated him to his very heart.  

"I'm coming to you," he whispered, gazing up at the sky.

Ragged after his first attempt, with broken nails and bloody hands and knees, he began looking for a comfortable spot.  Several bricks had fallen in the place where the fence joined the wall of the morgue.  The patient groped around these cavities and took advantage of them.  Then he clambered up the fence, grabbed one of the elms' branches growing on the other side, and silently slid down the tree to the ground.

He dashed off to his familiar spot near the porch.  The flower was darkened by its little head, having rolled back its petals, and now stood out clearly against the dewy grass.

"The last one!" the patient whispered.  "The last one!  Today comes victory or death.  But for me it is all the same.  Wait for me," he said, gazing at the sky again, "I will soon be with all of you."

He ripped up the plant, tore it to pieces, crushed it, and, holding it in his hand, went back to his room the way he came.  The old man was still sleeping.  The patient, hardly reaching his bed, collapsed upon it senselessly.

The next morning they found him dead.  His face was serene and bright; his wasted features and thin lips and deeply sunken eyes all reflected some kind of proud happiness.  When they put him on the stretcher, they tried to unclasp his arm and pull out the red flower.  But his hand was stiff and unbending, and he bore his trophy to the grave. 

Saturday
Mar062010

The Red Flower (part 2)

The second part of a story ("Красный цветок") by this Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

IV.

He realized he was in an insane asylum; he even realized that he was ill.  Sometimes, as during that first night, he would wake amidst the silence after a whole day of rowdy movement feeling the break in all his limbs and a strange heaviness in his head, yet remain fully conscious.  Perhaps it was the absence of impressions during the dead of night and early morning, or perhaps the faint churnings of a newly wakened human brain that led him to understand his position, almost as if he were healthy.  Then day broke, and the light and the re-animation of life in the hospital conspired with images and thoughts in a violent wave to seize him anew.  An unwell mind simply could not handle these sensations, and once again he became mad.  His state was a strange medley of correct judgments and absurd notions.  He understood that all those around him were also patients; yet at the same time, in each one of them he saw a face secretly concealed or concealing, a face he knew before or about which he had read or heard. 

The hospital was full of people from all eras and all nations.  Here were both the quick and the dead, both the strong and famous of the world and soldiers killed in the last war and resurrected.  He saw himself in a magical circle of spells that contained all the power of the world, and in a haughty moment he saw himself as the center of this circle.  All of his fellow inmates had gathered there to carry out one task, which now appeared to him confusingly as a gigantic enterprise directed towards the annihilation of all evil on earth.  He did not know of what it would consist, but felt within himself a sufficient vortex of forces to see it to fruition.  He could read the thoughts of others; in objects he could see their entire history; large elms in the hospital garden recounted to him detailed legends of what they had witnessed; and the building, which was indeed constructed quite a long time ago, appeared as the work of Peter the Great who, he was convinced, had lived in the hospital during the time of the battle of Poltava.  He read this on the walls, on the crumbling plaster, on the shards of brick and tile he found in the garden; the house and the garden's entire history was inscribed upon them.  He populated the mortuary's small edifice with tens and hundreds of long-dead people and stared fixedly at the window giving out from its basement onto the corner of the garden.  And in the uneven reflection of light in the old, dirty and iridescent glass, he saw familiar features which he had seen at some point before in portraits.

In the meantime, the weather had become clear and fine, and the patients had begun spending the whole day outside in the garden.  Their area was admittedly not very large yet it boasted a thick growth of trees, and flowers were planted in every possible nook and corner.  The supervisor obliged everyone capable of working to contribute to the gardening tasks.  Those selected would spend their whole day scattering sand upon the path, planting and watering flower beds, cucumbers, watermelons, and cantaloupes, and digging them up with their hands.  In one corner of the garden arose a thick cherry tree; beyond it were alleys lined with elms; and in the middle, on a small, artificial hillock lived the most beautiful flower in all the garden.  Its bright colors grew on the edges of the upper square, and in its center bloomed a rare object, a yellow dahlia bursting with red dots.  It at once rose above the garden and comprised the epicenter, leading one to notice that many of the patients bestowed upon it a mysterious significance.  To the new patient it also seemed like something out of the ordinary, some palladium of garden and building.  Along each path the patients' hands were hard at work, and here you could find all sorts of flowers encountered in non-Russian gardens: tall roses, bright petunias, bushes of tobacco and smaller, pink flowers, mint, marigolds, tropaeolums, and poppies.  In that same place, not far from the porch, there grew three poppy bushes of a particular species.  This species was much smaller than the normal flower and distinguished itself by the extraordinary brightness of its scarlet color.  This flower was not lost on the patient when, that first day after his arrival at the hospital, he gazed through the glass door out onto the garden.

Going out to the garden that first time, and not even descending from the porch steps, he looked most of all at these bright flowers.  There were only two of them; by chance they had grown apart from all the others on an unweeded patch and were thus encircled by thick orache and some kind of ruderal species.

One after another the patients came through the doors where the guard was standing.  The guard gave each of them a fat, white pointed paper hat with a red cross on the forehead.  Hats such as these were used in the war and purchased at an auction.  Yet our patient, of his own free will of course, attributed a particular and mysterious significance to this red cross.  He removed the hat and looked at the cross then at the poppy flowers.  The flowers were brighter.

"It is winning," said the patient, "but we'll see about that."

And then he went down the patio.  Looking about and not noticing the guard standing behind him, he crossed the flower bed and reached out his hand towards the flower, but could not make himself seize it.  His outstretched arm, then his whole body felt very hot and prickly, as if the powerful push of some unknown force were emanating from the red petals and piercing his body.  He came closer and reached out his hand to the flower itself, yet the flower seemed to be defending itself against him and releasing a poisonous, deadly odor.  His head began to spin; he took one last desperate lunge and even had the stem in his fist, when suddenly a heavy hand was laid upon his shoulder.  The guard had found him.

"No plucking," said the old Ukrainian.  "And no walking on the flower bed.  We find a lot of you nutcases here, each one after a flower, and soon you'll have carried off the whole garden."  He spoke persuasively and did not remove his hand from the patient's shoulder.

The patient looked him in the face, silently freed himself from his hand and, quite upset, walked down the path.  "O unfortunate lot!"  he thought.  "Don't you see that you've gone so blind as to become its protectors?  No matter what it takes, I will put an end to it.  Not today, however, because tomorrow we will evaluate our strength.  And if I die, well, then, it would be of no consequence, I suppose ..."

He strolled about the garden until evening, making acquaintances and having odd conversations in which each of the interlocutors heard only the answers to his own mad thoughts, expressed in silly and mysterious words.  The patient walked with one inmate then with another and by the end of the day had become convinced that, as he said to himself, "everything was ready."  Soon, very soon, the iron bars would crumble and all the inmates would escape here and fly to all the ends of the earth.  And the earth itself would tremble and shake, discarding its own shell to blossom in new and miraculous beauty.  He had almost forgotten about the flower.  But as he left the garden and climbed up the patio, he again espied those two red corners amidst the darkening and bedewed grass.  Here the patient separated from the crowd and, having passed behind the guard, began to wait for the opportune moment.  No one saw how he crossed the flower bed, snatched the flower, and hurriedly concealed it against his chest under his shirt.  And when the fresh, dew-laden blades touched his body, he gained a deathly pallor and fiercely shut his eyes in horror.  Cold sweat appeared upon his brow.

Lamps were lit in the hospital.  While waiting for dinner most patients decided to lie down a bit, with the exception of a few more agitated inmates who hurried along the corridor and through the halls.  Among them was our patient with his flower.  He walked with his hands convulsively crossed against his bosom, from all appearances fully prepared to crush and smash the plant it concealed.  When others came his way he walked quite far around them, afraid to touch the edge of their clothing.  "Don't come any closer, not any closer!" he yelled.  But such exclamations provoked little interest or attention in the hospital.  And he kept walking faster and faster, taking longer and longer strides, and spent a good hour or two in a frenzy.

"I will tire you out.  I will suffocate you!" he said softly and maliciously; occasionally he would gnash his teeth.

Dinner was served in the dining room.  Several painted or gilded wooden tureens full of watery wheat porridge were placed on large, uncovered tables.  The patients sat down on benches and were each given a slice of black bread and a wooden spoon.  It was about eight men to a tureen; a select few were allowed better food and served separately.  Quickly swallowing his portion brought to him by the guard who had summoned him back to his room, our patient was not satisfied and walked into the common dining area.

"May I please sit here?" he asked the supervisor.

"Did you really have no dinner?" the supervisor said, pouring a second portion of porridge into the tureens.

"I'm very hungry.  And I do need to build up my strength.  All my sustenance comes from food: you know that I don't sleep at all."

"Eat, friend, eat as much as you'd like.  Taras, give him a spoon and some bread."

He sat down next to one of the cups and devoured a large amount of porridge.  

"Now then, that's good, that's a good amount," the supervisor said at length, when everyone had finished eating and our patient still sat there scooping porridge out of a bowl with one hand, the other still pinned to his chest.  "You'll overeat."

"Ah, if you only knew how much strength I needed, how much strength!  Farewell, Nikolai Nikolaevich," said the patient getting up from the table and squeezing the supervisor's hand quite firmly.  "Farewell."

"And just where are you going?" asked the supervisor with a smile.

"I?  Nowhere.  I'm staying here.  But maybe we won't see each other tomorrow.  I thank you for your kindness."

Again he firmly squeezed the supervisor's hand.  His voice was trembling and tears appeared on his cheeks.

"Calm down, friend, calm down," the supervisor replied.  "Why such gloomy thoughts?  Now you go lie down and you'll sleep well; you really ought to sleep more.  And if you sleep well you will soon get much better."

The patient was sobbing.  The supervisor turned to the guards to tell them to clear off the dishes and leftovers immediately.  A half-hour later everything was asleep in the hospital apart from one person lying still fully dressed on his bed in a corner room.  He was shaking as if he had a fever and convulsively constricting his chest which to him seemed stricken with poison of unheard-of malignancy.         

Thursday
Mar042010

The Red Flower (part 1)

The first part to a short story by this nineteenth-century Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

To the memory of Ivan Turgenev.

I.

"In the name of His Imperial Highness, Emperor Peter the First, I declare an inspection of this psychiatric hospital!"

These words were uttered by a loud, sharp, ringing voice.  The hospital clerk registering the patient in a large, dilapidated book on a table covered in spilled ink could not restrain a smile.  But the two young men accompanying the patient were not laughing: they could hardly stay on their feet from forty-eight hours without sleep, as well as the madman they had just led in from the train station.  At the penultimate station his attack of madness had grown even more intense, and they had pulled out the strait jacket from somewhere, summoned the conductors and police, and gotten it on him.  In this way they had taken him into town, and in this way they had reached the hospital.

He was a frightful sight.  Cut broadly from rough canvas, his gray jacket had been torn to shreds in the attack and now partially covered his frame; long sleeves pressed his arms across his chest and were bound behind him.  His inflamed, pinned-open eyes (he hadn't slept in ten days) burned with a hot and motionless luster, nervous convulsions made his lower lip twitch, and his curly unkempt hair fell in a crest upon his forehead.  In quick, heavy steps he paced from one corner of the office to the other, examining with great curiosity some old document cabinets and oilcloth chairs, and now and again stealing a glance at his companions.  

"Take him to the ward.  On the right."

"I know, I know.  I was here at your hospital last year.  We took a look around the whole place.  I know everything and it will be very hard to fool me," said the patient.

He turned towards the door.  The guard swung it open before him.  With the same quick, heavy, and decisive gait, his mad head raised high, he left the office and almost took off in a run to the right towards the ward of the mentally ill.  His companions barely managed to follow him.   

"Call ahead.  I can't.  My hands are tied." 

The concierge opened the doors and the companions entered the hospital.

The hospital was a large stone building, the product of some old public works.  The ground floor was composed of two large rooms – one a dining room, the other a common area for calmer patients – a wide hallway with a glass door leading to the flower garden, and twenty-two separate rooms in which the patients lived.  Here two dark rooms were also built, the first lined with straw mattresses, the other with boards, in which the rowdier patients would have to sit, and an enormous, gloomy room with arches – the bathroom.   The upper floor was for women; from there came discordant noise in howls and yelps.  Originally the hospital had been designed with a capacity of eighty people.  But since it was the only hospital serving a number of surrounding districts, up to three hundred patients would stay there; a few smaller, closet-like rooms were fitted with as many as four or five beds.  In winter, when the patients were not allowed out in the garden and all the windows were tightly locked behind iron bars, the hospital grew unbearably stifling.    

The new patient was taken to the room that housed the baths.  To a healthy person the impression that it made was not a pleasant one, so it took even greater command of a disturbed and excited imagination.  It was a large room with arches and a sticky stone floor lit by a single window in one corner.  The walls and arches were painted in dark-red oils, and on the level of the dirt-blackened floor two stone baths had been built that resembled oval pits filled with water.  A large copper stove with a cylindrical cauldron for warming up water and a whole entanglement of copper pipes occupied the corner next to the window; to the disturbed mind, all this possessed a fantastic and extraordinarily gloomy character.  The fat guard running the baths always seemed to be chuckling to himself, his own dark physiognomy heightening the impression.

So when they took the patient into this frightful room to give him a bath and, in keeping with the hospital director's system of treatment, to place some Spanish fly on the nape of his neck, he suddenly became furious and horrified.  Stupid thoughts, one more monstrous than the next, swirled around his head.  What was this?  The Inquisition?  A place of clandestine punishment, where his enemies had decided to do away with him?  Perhaps even hell itself?  Finally it dawned on him that this was some kind of trial or ordeal.  They stripped him naked despite his desperate resistance; yet with his strength doubled by his illness, he wrested himself free of several guards who fell on the floor.  Four of them ultimately seized him by the limbs and laid him in the warm water.  To him, of course, the water seemed boiling, and in his mad head flashed a disjointed notion about trials, boiling water, and red-hot irons.  He choked on the water and convulsively thrashed his arms and legs about, which only led the guards to grip him more tightly, and, gasping for breath, he screamed something discombobulated which no one could properly hear, much less understand, but it contained both prayers and imprecations.  He screamed until he was at the end of his tether and, finally quiet, burst into hot tears.  Then he uttered a phrase completely disconnected from what he had been babbling about before:

"O Saint and Great Martyr Gregorii!  Into your hands I deliver my body.  But my spirit – no, no, no!"

The guards held on to him even though he had calmed down.  The warm tub and the bubbles with ice caressing his head had taken effect.  Yet when they pulled him out, now almost unconscious, from the water and placed him on the stool so as to apply the cantharides, the remainder of his strength and mad thoughts again erupted.

"For what?  For what?" he cried.  "I never wished any harm upon anyone!  Why kill me?  Oh oh oh!  O, Lord!  O, you martyred before me!  I beg you, save me!"

The stinging touch to his nape made him beat himself in despair.  The helper could not hold or manage him and did not know what to do.

"There's nothing you can do," said the soldier conducting the operation.  "It needs to be wiped clean."

These simple words drove the patient into convulsions. "Wiped?  Wipe what?  Whom do you want to wipe?  Me!" he thought, and in mortal terror shut his eyes.  The soldier grasped a rough towel at both ends and, squeezing with great force, quickly rubbed it over his nape, ripping off the cantharides and the top layer of flesh from the blister, leaving a bare red indentation.  The pain from this procedure would have been unbearable for a calm and healthy person, but to the patient it seemed like the end of all things.  His whole body burst forth, out of the hands of the guards, and his naked body tumbled upon the stone slabs.  He thought they had cut off his head.  He wanted to scream but could not.  They took him to his cot in a state of oblivion, which led to a deep, long, and almost death-like sleep.

II.

It was night when he awoke; all was quiet.  From the neighboring room he could hear the breathing of the sleeping patients.  Somewhere far off a strange monotone voice was talking to itself – the voice of another patient ensconced for the night in a dark room; and from above, from the women's ward, a hoarse contralto was singing some savage tune.  The patient listened closely to all these sounds.  He felt an odd weakness, almost ruin, through his limbs; and his neck was aching horribly.

"Where am I?  What's wrong with me?" were the thoughts that occurred to him.  And with uncanny clarity, the last month of his life came to him, and he understood he was sick and what his illness involved.  A series of silly thoughts, words, and acts came to him as well, causing his whole body to convulse. 

"That's it, of course, thank God!  That's it!"  he whispered and then once again fell asleep.

The open window with the iron bars looked out upon a small back alley between some large buildings and a stone fence.  No one ever ventured into that back alley, and it was thickly overgrown with some shrubs and lilac blooming gloriously at that time of the year ... Behind the bushes and directly across from the window a high fence shimmered in the darkness; behind it stared the elevated treetops of the great garden, translucent and flowing in the moonlight.  On the right a white building shot towards the sky – the hospital – with its windows and iron bars illuminated from within; on the left was the blank white, moonlit wall of the morgue.  The moonlight trickled through the bars of the window into the room and onto the floor, and lit part of the bed and the pale, tortured face of the patient and his closed eyes.  Now there was nothing mad about him.  There was only the heavy, dreamless sleep of the tortured, without the slightest movement and without almost any breathing.  For a few moments he woke up in full possession of his memories, as if he were healthy, but in the morning he rose again from his bed in his prior state of madness. 

III.

"How are you feeling?"  the doctor asked him the next day.

The patient was still under the covers and newly awake.

"Great!" he replied.  Then he jumped up, put on his shoes and wrapped his robe around himself.  "Excellent!  There's just one thing – this here!"

He pointed to the nape of his neck.

"I can't turn my neck without pain.  But that's alright.  Everything's fine once you get it – and I get it."

"Do you know where you are?"

"Of course I do, doctor, I'm in an insane asylum!  But you see, if you get it, nothing else really matters at all.  Really nothing."

The doctor looked him straight in the eye.  His handsome, well-groomed face with his arrogantly combed little golden beard and his calm blue eyes staring through gold glasses was unmoving and impenetrable.  He was observing.

"Why do you keep looking at me?  You will never peer into my soul,"  the patient went on, "but I can clearly peer into yours!  Why do you do bad things?  Why have you gathered this band of unfortunates and kept them here?  But I care not: I understand everything and am serene; but they?  What purpose do these tortures serve?  He who has understood that there exists a great and common idea in his soul cares little about where he lives or what he feels.  Or even whether or not he lives ... Do you see?"   

"Perhaps," the doctor replied, sitting down in the chair in the corner of the room so that he could watch the patient, who was pacing quickly from corner to corner, slapping down his enormous horse leather shoes and waving the flaps of his robe in wide red stripes and bright colors.  The doctor was accompanied by the medical assistant and the guard, both of whom were still standing at attention in the doorway.

"And I have it!" the patient exclaimed.  "And when I found it, I felt like I had been reborn.  My feelings became sharper, my brain was working like never before.  What once I  would achieve through a long road of deductions and guesses, I now recognized intuitively.  I really did attain what has been worked out by philosophy.  Within me I endure great ideas that say that space and time are merely fictions.  I live in all centuries.  I live without space, everywhere and nowhere, as one wishes.  And for that reason I don't care whether you keep me here or release me, whether I am free or bound.  I noticed here others like me.  But for the rest of them such a position is horrible.  Why don't you free them?  Who needs ..."

"You said," the doctor interrupted, "that you live beyond space and time.  Nevertheless, would you not concede that you and I are in this room now –" the doctor took out his watch, "on May 6, 18*** at 10:30?  What do you think about that?"

"Nothing.  I don't care where I will be or how long I will live.  If I don't care, does that mean that I am always and everywhere?"

The doctor smirked.

"Odd logic," he said, getting up.  "Perhaps you're right.  Goodbye.  Would you like a cigar?"

"Thank you."  He stopped, took the cigar, and nervously bit off the end.  "This helps me think," he said.  "This world, this microcosm.  On one end you have alkalis, on the other acids ... Such balance in a world in which opposite beginnings neutralize one another.  Farewell, doctor!"

The doctor moved away.  Most of the patients were waiting for him leaning out of their bunks.  No authorities would ever demand such honor from their subordinates as our doctor-psychiatrist asked of his madmen.  

Left alone, the patient continued pacing sporadically from one corner of the room to another.  They brought him tea.  Without sitting down, he downed a large mug in two gulps and ate a large piece of white bread in what seemed like a split-second.  Then he left the room and for several hours, without stopping at all, he walked with his fast and heavy gait from one end of the building to another.  The day was rainy and the patients were not let out into the garden.  When he began looking for the new patient, the medical assistant was directed to the end of the corridor.  He stood there, his face pressed to the glass of the glass garden door, staring at the flower.  His attention was drawn to its extraordinarily bright scarlet color, one of the types of poppy.

"Please weigh yourself," said the medical assistant touching him on the shoulder.

And when the patient turned towards him, the medical assistant almost recoiled in fear: what wild malice and hatred burned in those mad eyes!  Once he saw the medical assistant, he immediately changed his expression and obediently followed him, not saying a single word as if he were immersed in deep contemplation.  They went on into the doctor's office.  The patient stepped onto a platform of smaller, decimal weights; the medical assistant weighing him entered one hundred nine pounds in his log book next to the patient's name.  The next day it was one hundred seven, and on the third day, one hundred six.

"If this keeps up, he won't survive," said the doctor and ordered him to be fed in the best ways possible.  But despite this order and the patient's unusual appetite, he was getting thinner every day, and every day the medical assistant would enter an ever lower weight in his log book.  He barely slept at night and spent the day in uninterrupted movement.