Alexeï Berg’s father is a well-known dramatist, his mother a famous opera singer. But during Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1930s they, like millions of other Russians, come under attack for their presumed lack of political purity. Harassed and proscribed, they have nonetheless, on the eve of Hitler’s war, not yet been arrested. And young Alexeï himself, a budding classical pianist, has been allowed to continue his musical studies. His first solo concert is scheduled for May 24, 1941. Two days before the concert, on his way home from his final rehearsal, he sees his parents being arrested, taken from their Moscow apartment. Knowing his own arrest will not be far behind, Alexeï flees to the country house of his fiancée, where again betrayal awaits him. He flees, one step ahead of the dreaded secret police until, taking on the identity of a dead soldier, he enlists in the Soviet army. Thus begins his seemingly endless journey, through war and peace, until he lands, two decades later, in a snowbound train station in the Urals, where he relates his harrowing saga to the novel’s narrator. An international bestseller, Music of a Life is, in the words of Le Monde, “extremely powerful . . . a gem.”
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I could quite easily pinpoint the date of that encounter. It goes back at least a quarter of a century — more precisely, to the year when a celebrated Russian philosopher, then a political refugee in Munich, coined a phrase that quickly gained currency, an expression thinkers, politicians, and even mere mortals would go on using for a good decade or more throughout the world. The extraordinary success enjoyed by his formula stemmed from one palpable merit: in two Latin words the philosopher had succeeded in summing up the lives of the 240 million human beings who, at that time, peopled the land of my birth. Men and women, children and adults, old people and newborn babes, the living and the dead, the sick and the healthy, innocents and murderers, the learned and the ignorant, workers in the depths of coal mines, cosmonauts in their celestial orbits — these and thousands of other categories of people were all linked to a common essence by this innovative expression. They all began to exist under one generic name.
Both before and since this inspired invention, people have endlessly dreamed up combinations of words to characterize the country in question. "The Evil Empire," "barbarism with a human face," "the shattered empire" — each of these locutions made its mark on Western minds for a time. Nonetheless, the Munich philosopher's definition was by far the most often quoted and the most enduring.
To such an extent that, barely a few months after the phrase made its appearance, I heard it on the lips of a friend who, like me, lived on the banks of the Neva, and like so many others listened secretly to Western radio stations and had heard an interview with the philosopher. Yes, to such an extent, in fact, that once, when I was returning from a trip to the Far East and was held up by a snowstorm somewhere in the heart of the Urals, I recalled this term, extolled in the West but prohibited in our country, and spent part of the night applying it to the passengers who surrounded me in the waiting room of a dark, icy railroad station. The term coined by the philosopher proved to be devastatingly telling. It embraced the lives of the most diverse individuals: two soldiers, hidden behind a pillar, taking turns drinking from a bottle; an old man who, since there were no more seats, was sleeping on a newspaper spread out along one wall; a young mother whose face seemed as if it were glowing slightly, lit by an invisible candle; a prostitute watching at a snow-covered window; and a great many others.
Marooned there amid my fellow human beings, some sleeping, some wakeful, I was privately marveling at the philosopher's perspicacity. ... And it was at that very moment, in the depths of a night cut off from the rest of the world, that the encounter took place.
Since then a quarter of a century has passed. The empire whose fragmentation was predicted has collapsed. Barbarism and evil have manifested themselves under other skies as well. And the formula invented by the Munich philosopher, who was, of course, Alexander Zinoviev — the defining phrase, almost forgotten today — simply serves me as a signpost, marking the moment of that brief encounter in the muddy tide of the years.CHAPTER 2
I have just awoken, having dreamed of music. The final chord fades away within me while I try to focus on individuals amid the living, breathing mass packed into this vast waiting room, in this mixture of sleep and weariness.
A woman's face, there, close by the window. Her body has just been giving pleasure to one more man; her eyes are searching among the passengers for her next lover. A railroad worker comes in quickly, crosses the room, leaves through the big door that leads out onto the railroad platforms, into the night. Before closing, the door hurls a violent flurry of snow into the room. The people settled near the door stir on their hard, narrow bench, tug on their coat collars, shake their shoulders with a shiver. From the other end of the station comes a muffled guffaw, then the crunch of a fragment of glass beneath a foot, an oath. Two soldiers, their shapkas pushed back on their heads, their overcoats unbuttoned, beat a path through the mass of huddled bodies. Snores call out to one another, some of them comically in harmony. The wail of an infant rings out very clearly in the darkness, fades into little whimperings as it sucks, falls silent. A long argument, dulled by boredom, is taking place behind one of the pillars that hold up a varnished wooden gallery. The loudspeaker on the wall crackles, hisses, and suddenly announces, in astonishingly soothing tones, that a train is going to be delayed. An ocean swell of sighs ripples through the waiting room. But the truth is that no one expects anything anymore. "Six hours' delay" — it could be six days or six weeks. Numbness returns. The wind whips heavy white squalls against the windows. Bodies settle down against the hardness of the benches, strangers press close together, like the scales of a single protective shell. Night fuses the sleepers into one living mass — a beast savoring, with every cell in its body, its good fortune at being under cover.
From my position I can hardly see the clock that hangs above the ticket windows. I turn my wrist, the dial of my watch catches the glow from the nightlight: quarter to one. The prostitute is still at her post; her silhouette stands out against the window made blue by the snow. She is not tall, but very broad in the hips. She towers above the ranks of sleeping travelers. It looks like a battlefield strewn with dead. ... The door leading to the town opens, new arrivals come in, bringing with them the cold and discomfort of open spaces scoured by snow flurries. The human protoplasm shivers and grudgingly makes space for these new cells.
I shake myself in an attempt to wrest myself away from this conglomeration of bodies. To wrest those immediately around me from the blur of the whole mass. The old man, who has just arrived and lays no claim to a seat in this crowded station, spreads a newspaper out on the tiled floor, filthy with cigarette butts and melted snow, before lying down, his back against the wall. The woman whose features and age are concealed by her shawl, an unknowable being swathed in a huge, shapeless coat. A moment earlier she was talking in her sleep, a few pleading words that doubtless surfaced from many years back, from her life long ago. The only clue to her humanity I'll ever have, I muse. This other woman, this young mother, bowed over the cocoon of her baby, which she seems to envelop in an invisible halo made up of anxiety, wonder, and love. A few steps away from her the prostitute is busy negotiating with the soldiers: the two men's excited jabbering and her whispering, a little disdainful but warm and as if moist with luscious promise. The soldiers' boots clatter on the flagstones; one can sense, physically, the eagerness her body provokes, with its broad, heavy backside and thrusting bosom under the coat. And there, almost on a level with the boots, the face of a man asleep, partly slipped from his bench, his head thrown back, his mouth half open, one hand touching the ground. A dead man on a battlefield, I say to myself again.
My efforts to salvage a few individual figures from the anonymity of the whole begin to flag. Everything merges in the darkness, in the murky, dirty yellow glow from the streetlight outside, in the nothingness that extends, as far as the eye can see, around this town buried beneath a snowstorm. A town in the Urals, I say to myself, trying to link this train station to some place, some direction. But my geographical impulse turns out to be ludicrous, a black dot lost in a white ocean. The Ural Mountains, which stretch over a thousand (two thousand?) miles. This town somewhere in the middle of them, and over to the east the endlessness of Siberia, the endlessness of that snow hell. Instead of locating them, my mind mislays both the town and its station on a white, uninhabited planet. The shadowy beings around me on whom I have been focusing melt once more into a single mass. Their breathing blends together, the mutterings of nocturnal narratives are drowned out by the wheezing sounds of sleep. The murmur of the lullaby, recited rather than crooned by the young mother, reaches me simultaneously with the whispering of the soldiers as they follow hard on the prostitute's heels. The door closes behind them; a wave of cold sweeps through the room. The young mother's murmurings take shape as a faint mist. The man sleeping with his head thrown back utters a long groan, sits up abruptly on his bench, awakened by the sound of his own voice, stares lengthily at the clock, drifts back to sleep again.
I know that the time he has just seen on it made no sense to him. He could not have shown more surprise on learning that a whole night had gone by. A night, or a couple of nights. Or a month. Or a whole year. A snow-filled void. Totally off the map. A night without end. A night discarded on the verge of time ...
Suddenly this music! Sleep retreats like the undertow of a wave in which a child grasps at a half-glimpsed shell, as I do at this cluster of notes, just heard in a dream.
A sharper cold: the door has opened and closed twice. First, the soldiers coming in and disappearing into the darkness. One can hear their embarrassed laughter. A few minutes later, the prostitute ... So I had dozed off for the duration of — of their absence. "Of their couplings!" a voice exclaims within me, irritated by that prudish "absence."
This is certainly a place to dream of music. I remember how at nightfall, when there was still a slight chance of my getting away again, I ventured onto the platform, superstitiously calculating that I could will a train to arrive by scorning the cold. Bowed down under the violence of the squalls, blinded by the volleys of snowflakes, I tramped along beside the station building, but hesitated to venture any farther, so much did the far end of the platform already resemble a virgin plain. Then, noticing a faint rectangle of light in one of the outbuildings swamped amid the dunes of snow, I started walking again, or rather swaying, as if on stilts, plunging in up to my knees, striving to place my feet in a set of now almost obliterated footprints that had followed the same course. The door beside the little lighted window was closed. I took several steps toward the tracks, which were already invisible beneath the snow, hoping at least for a mirage — a locomotive headlight in the white chaos of the storm. My only consolation, on turning my back to the wind, was recovering my vision. Thus it was that this man suddenly caught my eye. It looked as if he had been thrown out of the little annex. The door, blocked by the snow, had resisted him, and to escape he must have flung himself against it with all his might. Several times, perhaps. Eventually the door had given way, and he had toppled out into the night, into the storm, his face buffeted by snow flurries, his eyes dazzled by the white flakes, losing all sense of direction. Disconcerted, he took a moment to close the door again as it dragged against a thick layer of snow. During these few seconds, while he was pushing at the door, I saw the inside of the little place. A kind of hallway flooded with bright light, lemon colored from the bare bulb, and beyond it a room. And, framed by this inner doorway, I saw a flash of ponderous nakedness, the massive whiteness of a belly, and most notably, the rough gesture of a hand that grasped first one breast, then another, vast breasts, worn out by brutal caresses, and thrust them into a brassiere. ... But almost at once, with a screech of panic, a woman had appeared on the threshold, muffled up in a padded jacket (the keeper of the storeroom, who rents it out as a trackside love nest, I said to myself), and the door had closed with an angry slam.
The human mass sleeps on. The only new sound is of munching in the darkness: the old man, stretched out on his newspaper, has propped himself up on one elbow, has opened a can of food, and is lapping it up, as people do who have very few teeth left. The metallic clatter of the lid being closed makes me wince at its grating ugliness. The man lies back down, seeks a comfortable position, with much rustling of sheets of newspaper, and soon begins to snore.
The judgment I have been trying to keep at bay floods in on me, a combination of sympathy and rage. I contemplate this human matter, breathing like a single organism, its resignation, its innate disregard of comfort, its endurance in the face of the absurd. Six hours' delay. I turn and study the waiting room, plunged in darkness. The truth is, they could all easily spend several more nights here. They could get used to living here! Just like this, on a spread-out newspaper, backed up against the radiator, with nothing but a can of food for nourishment. The notion suddenly seems to me perfectly plausible — an all-too-plausible nightmare. For in these small towns a thousand leagues from civilization, this is what life consists of: waiting, resignation, hot stickiness in the depths of your shoes. And this station besieged by the snowstorm is nothing other than a microcosm of the whole country's history. Of its innermost character. The vast spaces that render any attempt at action absurd. The superabundance of space that swallows up time, that equalizes all delays, all lapses of time, all plans. "Tomorrow" means "someday, perhaps," the day when the space, the snows, and destiny allow it. Fatalism ...
Mainly from vexation, I take a turn along the well-trodden paths of the national character, those accursed questions of "Russianness" that so many brilliant brains have grappled with. A land outside history. The crushing inheritance of Byzantium. Two centuries of the Tartar yoke. Five centuries of serfdom. Revolutions. Stalin. "East is East" ...
After a few such laps around the circuit, the mind comes back to the dull geniality of the present day and lapses into helpless silence. These fine phrases explain everything and nothing. When confronted by the evidence of this night, this sleeping mass, with its smell of wet overcoats, weary bodies, alcohol fumes, and warm canned food, they fade away. For how can one sit in judgment on this old man as he lies there on his open newspaper, a human being touching in his resignation, and quite insufferable for the same reason, a man who has certainly been through the empire's two great wars, survived the purges, the famines, but who nevertheless thinks he deserves nothing better than this resting place on a floor covered with spittle and cigarette butts? Or the young mother who has just metamorphosed from Madonna into wooden idol, with slanting eyes and the features of a Buddha? If I woke them up and asked them about their lives, they would unflinchingly declare that the country where they live is, give or take a few delayed trains, a paradise. And if in steely tones the loudspeaker were suddenly to announce the outbreak of war, the whole mass of them would set off, ready to endure the war as a matter of course, ready to suffer, ready to sacrifice themselves, with an utterly natural acceptance of hunger, of death, or of life in the filth of this station, here amid the cold of the great plains that stretch out beyond the tracks.
I tell myself there is a name for such a mentality. A term I have recently heard on the lips of a friend who listens in secret to Western radio stations. A formula I have on the tip of my tongue, that only fatigue prevents me from calling to mind. I pull myself together, and the phrase, luminous and definitive, bursts forth: "Homo soviéticas!"
The force of it pins down the whole impenetrable collection of lives around me. Homo sovieticus covers this human stagnation, down to its tiniest sigh, down to the clink of a bottle against the edge of a glass, down to the pages of Pravda under the scrawny body of the old man in his threadbare overcoat, pages filled with stories of targets achieved and perfect bliss.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Music of a Life"
Copyright © 2011 Andreï Makine.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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