Read an Excerpt The Architects
By Stefan Heym
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Chapter One She loved this fur.
It was as if it had a life of its own. Julia hugged it about her, nestling in it and feeling the warmth of the coat and the warmth of her body merge. It gave her a sense of being protected, something that went back to dimly remembered times: being tucked in a soft blanket, a cocoon to curl up in, and voices whose tones she no longer could recall whispering forgotten words to her.
The snow, which had been coming down since late afternoon, had stopped falling. It glistened under the arc lamps, turning the street and the parking lot opposite into a silver plain on which the automobiles gliding up soundlessly and turning off to be ranged by green-caped policemen drew curved patterns. People moved over it as if it were a thick rug, converging on the broad sweep of stairs that led to the entrance of City Hall. Through the glass of the door Julia saw the noncommittal faces of the two black-clad young men who inconspicuously scrutinized those entering. But even this was part of the festive atmosphere and belonged with the segments of light streaming through the Gothic latticework of the high windows, with the red and gold of the flags set against the crisp, clean white, with the swish of the women's taffeta and the rustle of their Chinese brocades as they passed her.
Julia saw Arnold waving at her from the parking lot. He was stepping gingerly so the snow wouldn't get into his patent leather shoes. He wore no hat; indeed, he didn't own one; on the few days when the weather in this part of the world turned really cold he put on the old fur cap he had brought with him from Moscow. His hair was as full as ever; a few years ago it had turned gray at the temples-diplomat's gray, he called it, making of it no more than he did of the difference between her age and his. She watched his progress across the street from which all common traffic was blocked: the policemen, whether they knew who he was or not, saluted him; and a number of the guests who, in view of the hour, had been displaying a sort of well-tempered hurry, paused to greet him: "Good evening, Comrade Sundstrom!" or "How do you do, Herr Professor!"
Watching it from the broad steps of City Hall, Julia was aware that some of this was deference, and very German, yet she gloried in it: The city held enough evidence in stone and concrete of his right to recognition. She loved him very much at this moment, and not for his success and the general respect he enjoyed, but because he was so certain of himself, so strong and self-contained. And so entirely hers as he came up to her and lightly placed his fingers in the crook of her elbow and told her, "You look positively radiant, dear."
The two black-clad young men held the door open for them. He acknowledged the service with an affable wave of his free hand and steered her to the ground-floor cloakroom. The little old woman behind the counter left other people unattended and rushed to take his overcoat and then waited as he removed Julia's fur wrap. With a brief checkup at one of the huge mirrors on the lineup of his medals on the black of his tuxedo, he offered Julia his arm, and, repeating, "Positively radiant!" he guided her up the wide, carpeted stairs.
She was conscious of the glances following them, the eyes that swerved from him to her and remained fixed on her. She had intended to be no more than background and tried to control the swing of her haunches.
"Happy?" he asked her.
He looked at her. Did she know how desirable she was?
"Shouldn't I be happy?" she said. "This is your day!"
He frowned, half irony, half deprecation.
"And there are the lights," she went on, "colors, people.... There's a difference between an architect's conception and the way a room looks when it's filled with life. That's when you see if you've worked well or not."
She was a little too eager, he thought-naïve, you might say, like the youngsters who came streaming upon the Party's appeals to break new land in Siberia or rebuild the ruined cities of the Ukraine. It showed the education they had received, always with the common cause, the common goal in view. "And this," he inquired, "measures up, in your opinion?"
She stopped a few steps below the landing for a slow, sweeping survey. She had done part of the work on the interior designs of the reconstructed City Hall, which had been half demolished by the bombings. She saw the purple lines of the drawings emerge through the marbles and bronzes, but he gave her no time to find her answer; he appeared, in fact, to have forgotten his question-up ahead, their faces creased in frozen welcome, waited the hosts of the evening.
The Lord Mayor, Comrade Riedel, gazed at Julia from drooping eyes; his bluish lips and receding range of chins moved as if he were speaking while he limply shook her hand; his wife remained a pale blotch of face. Then Julia moved on to Elise Tolkening. Dumpy to the point of deformity, her barrel shape defeating the cleverest dressmaker, Elise had held Comrade Tolkening through all those years when other comrades, back from exile or rising from lowly jobs, turned from the arthritic hands and age-lined faces of the companions of their former struggles to marry their secretaries.
"Perhaps, Comrade Sundstrom," Comrade Tolkening was saying, "we can find a few minutes for one another during the evening."
Tolkening had a way of beaming at a person shrewdly, as if they shared a common confidence. This time, the beam included Julia. Her heart gave an extra beat: Berlin had decided! As through a haze, she saw a fresh batch of guests move toward the banquet hall-wasn't that John Hiller among them, the sarcastic mouth, the narrow, boyish shoulders?-had Arnold arranged for his invitation? Then she was swept into the banquet hall and jammed into a melee of bodies that, though rooted as if by magic, were straining toward a common objective.
This wasn't her first reception. The initial crush would ease as soon as the official speeches were made and the official toasts drunk; but she hated the undignified pressure toward the long rows of tables laden with saddles of venison, and huge platters of crabmeat and smoked ham, and bowls of oranges and bananas that had been imported for the occasion. Arnold, an old hand at public functions, braced himself against an onslaught of uniformed chests and balanced the two glasses of wine he had retrieved. Julia tried to get to him. She felt the corner of the table jabbing her hip. She saw a blue-veined, red-nailed, be-ringed hand scoop up three, four, five oranges and drop them into a large, gold-embroidered bag. Then the loudspeakers bellowed inarticulately, the intermittent crescendos recognizable as Comrade Tolkening's rhetoric. The answering speech of the leader of the Soviet delegation, hidden from Julia by the crowd, was briefer, but not brief enough; a good many people, determined to get their share, had grabbed silverware and plates on which they were piling mounds of food.
A familiar voice spoke of feeding time at the zoo. Julia turned to find Axel von Heerbrecht grinning at her. What did he know, she thought-this spoiled man whose slick commentaries on the radio devastated the actresses of the city's drama theater. What did he know of the hunger of people, which she had experienced the larger part of her life? ... How many years was it since the war? Ten, going on eleven. Of these ten, how many had been lean ones? And those people gorging at the tables-how many of them had been stunted not by a few years of doing without but by a lifetime of it!
"Hello there!" Heerbrecht's eyes were roving over her. "We've organized a niche where you can at least stand without being jostled-Käthchen Kranz, and Warlimont of theYouth Organization, and your friend John Hiller...."
She suppressed a wince. John Hiller had his desk in a studio adjoining hers, but she didn't count him among her friends. "I had better wait here for my husband," she said.
Heerbrecht bowed slightly. "Shall I look for him?"
"Thank you!-it won't be necessary-" Julia saw Arnold extract himself from the crowd, the two wineglasses, still full, in his hands. "Oh, Heerbrecht!" he greeted offhandedly and offered Julia one of the glasses. "I tried to get here," he shrugged, "but I was engulfed and ended up at Comrade Tolkening' s table...."
Heerbrecht wrinkled his short, stubby nose into a snort. "Then may I congratulate you?"
Sundstrom was piqued. "I didn't go there to sit at the table; I was thrown against it."
"You misunderstood," Heerbrecht said coolly. "I was referring to the new honors in store for you."
Sundstrom hesitated. Then he smiled and handed the glass he had reserved for himself to the commentator. "Cheers!"
"Cheers!" Heerbrecht, face impenetrable, clinked glasses with Julia and smiled back at Sundstrom. After some polite moments, he left with an equally polite apology.
Julia glanced at her husband. The flat taste of the wine still lay on her tongue, and she was afraid that her sense of happiness had become a bit scuffed. Arnold's coloring, perhaps, was more florid than usual, but his calm expression reassured her. "Shall we eat?" he said.
The rush for the food had abated. The majority of the guests stood about, struggling with the problem of how to hold their plates and simultaneously cut the roast beef. Arnold took a round-about lane to one of the center tables. Dispensing greetings and smiles, he threaded his way past Karl-August Mischnick, the poet laureate, who combined the pompousness of a public figure with the dirty skin and noisy manners of a bohemian; past the internationally recognized physicist Professor Louis Kerr, who, slightly besotted, was followed about by his sad-lipped, sapless wife; past Comrade Leopold Bunsen, chief editor of the Party's district paper, whose narrow, fat-embedded eyes winked with deceptive merriment. Meanwhile, from a balcony loge, a regimental band began trumpeting, the red-and-white-striped shoulder pieces of the musicians moving in rhythm to the silver-tasseled conductor's precise baton.
But she kept silent. She supposed that this had to be, and had to be done in this manner; she was part of his life and his life was part politics.
"You'll feel better once you eat," he consoled.
But the tablecloth was littered with crumbs, drips of mayonnaise, orange peels, dirty dishes; the skeleton of a roast hare, bare but for bits of gristle, completed the melancholy still life. He managed to scrape up some food for her and himself: a spoonful of her-ring salad, a few slices of wurst, a quartered pickle. "They'll bring around frankfurters later," he said. "And I can tip the headwaiter when I find him. The personnel always keep some choice bits in the kitchen."
"We didn't come here for the food, did we?" she said.
He took her plate, put it aside, and kissed her hand, emotion mingling with an old-fashioned gallantry that somehow suited him. Julia let her hand remain in his. A few seconds passed before either grew aware of the sudden space about them.
She looked up. Comrade Tolkening was beaming at them, flanked by Elise and by two Russians from the Soviet delegation in whose honor the reception was being given. A nondescript young man, probably the interpreter, tailed them.
"Sorry to interrupt, Comrade Sundstrom," Tolkening gestured a feigned regret. "But I should like you to meet the leader of the delegation come to visit us-"
"Oh, I know Comrade Krylenko!" said Sundstrom with a nostalgic smile. "The years have been kind to us both...." Hands outstretched, he wanted to advance to the red-haired, rotund man whose smooth face had betrayed no reaction whatever to his greeting.
Tolkening stopped him. "I should like you to meet Comrade Popov," he said pointedly. And turning to the other Russian who stood beside him, dark eyes motionless above deep rings, Tolkening continued, "Comrade Popov, may I present Comrade Professor Sundstrom, chief architect of our city, and his charming wife." The interpreter was mumbling along. "Comrade Sundstrom, as you may have understood"-this was all the riposte he chose to administer after the faux pas-"has lived for considerable time in the Soviet Union."
Julia felt her cheeks burn. But then she saw that Arnold was extending his hand to Popov and smiling with his usual calm. Popov shook the hand and told Tolkening in Russian, "I am acquainted with Professor Sundstrom's work."
The statement, neatly translated, seemed to impress Tolkening. "So you have seen his World Peace Road? It's our showpiece here."
"As yet, we haven't had the opportunity," Popov explained. "It's on the delegation's program, I am told."
To all intents, the awkwardness of the Krylenko incident was forgotten. Julia, relieved, listened to Elise Tolkening solemnly expounding, "This is the street on which Peace came to this city, in the person of Comrade Stalin, on his way to Potsdam. That's why we chose it as the first to be cleared of rubble, the first to rise from the ruins, wider, airier, more beautiful and splendid than any street this city ever had, the first street of socialism. That's why we renamed it World Peace Road. Our Karl-August Mischnick wrote a poem to commemorate the day the street's first building was finished. On the suggestion of Comrade Tolkening, the poem was set to music, and choral societies all over the Republic are singing it. I'm sure Comrade Tolkening can arrange to have recordings given to the delegation and a set of photographs that show the changing face of the street...."
Popov heard the translation through. He thanked Elise and assured her that the delegation appreciated any information that would help it to get a full picture of the great efforts of the city's working people and their Party. "As to Comrade Professor Sundstrom's work," he reverted to his subject, "I have studied some of the designs he did in Moscow."
"You're a colleague?" asked Sundstrom in Russian, not waiting for the interpreter. "Architect?"
Julia wondered at the weariness in his voice.
"Construction engineer," Popov informed.
"In the Ministry?"
Popov, the lines sharp on his face, appeared not to have heard. He turned to Tolkening. "I've always admired Comrade Professor Sundstrom for his many-sidedness. You rarely find so much of it in an architect."
Comrade Tolkening studied the interpreter as if something beyond the translation should be read from the young man's bland expression. "Ah, well," he said then, having made up his mind. "Comrade Sundstrom?"
Julia knew that the moment had come for the promised disclosure. Everything in her tensed.
Suddenly she felt Elise Tolkening's surprisingly light hand on her wrist. "Come, child!" Elise said, sympathy in her low voice. "The men want to be alone...."
Like a short, stubby tugboat, she nudged Julia along. Julia didn't know whether to laugh or cry. In the end, gratitude won. There were times when you sensed the woman's personality behind her unfortunate appearance.
Elise Tolkening dropped her among a covey of officers' wives, German and Soviet, who had been instructed by their men to show an interest in one another. She tried to listen to the stumbling efforts at conversation, but her mind kept revolving about the other thing. For months now, ever since Arnold had told her that Tolkening had mentioned a possible National Prize, she had waited for the decision. Outwardly, Arnold was indifferent; he insisted the prize didn't count-the work did, and he made her feel like a child hankering after a bauble. But it was important-public recognition, encouragement! Not only for him. For her, for the entire collective that had built the Road, for everybody, from architect and draftsman down to the hod carriers. There were always the voices you couldn't pin down, denying what was obvious to any person of honesty and goodwill: that the Road combined the spiritual essence of the people's aspirations with the best traditions of the past and symbolized something noble and worth the struggle.
Excerpted from The Architects by Stefan Heym
Copyright © 2006 by Stefan Heym. Excerpted by permission.
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