Underground or a Hero of our Time (Андеграунд или Герой нашего времени)

Vladimir Makanin

Vladimir Makanin

After all the years (decades!) we have been standing in queues, we still have not managed to get used to them. They wear us down, they wear us out, we can’t take any more breathing down each other’s necks while placidly shuffling from foot to foot. The idea seems inapplicable to us that in those tedious moments of queueing yesterday and today the most important thing in life is taking place within us: our soul is living.
Needless to say, we know (we have heard) that the Spirit breathes where it will (as it says in the Gospels). Or, even more, starkly, that the spiritual in man is manifested each and everywhere or not at all (Oriental motifs). We find that uplifting. It gives us a warm feeling. We can discuss and even agree with it, but not, alas, live with it. Alas, we want something to look forward to, an enticement, a purpose, a carrot, light at the end of the tunnel, and we want it soon. That precisely is our lives, our un-oriental essence. We want the future. That is why Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square is such a brilliant painting. It says “Stop!”, the message addressed directly to us and our scurrying souls. It hits us and slows us down momentously.

I have often pondered the attraction of this painting. The blackness in the frame is no velvety or starless night sky quietly (very quietly) revealed to a sober eye. There is nothing velvety about it, nothing dark, but what there is are fine, invisible strands of cobweb. Glossy streaks. (I would say a cobweb of light if the threads on the black were the least bit light.) There is no doubt that somewhere beyond the frame is the moon. It is the absence of the moon which makes the painting so effective. The absence of the moon is why night has the the power and passion which the black canvas square projects so dramatically towards us.
In the 1920s Malevich once stood so long in a queue that he had a sense of becoming completely subsumed in it. A queue is the absence of a future in the name of a paused present. That is the ideal: the nirvana of a single colour (which can be black). Malevich, we know, joined the very first queue in Russia (for Lenten sunflower oil), while I joined one of the last (for sugar). Neither was long. In 10 or 15 minutes you would be at the front. Nothing to get too exercised about, but enough to provide a historical parallel of profound equanimity. Shuffling forward a step at a time, because that’s how it is, you queue and shift from one foot to the other, fused with other people, indistinguishable from them, concealed by them. Snail-like you move, barely perceptibly, stirring, not dead. My ego was taking the day off when an argument which had been brewing within the queue suddenly flared up, literally two steps away from me. Some geezer in a flat hat attached himself to us in an attempt to jump the queue. Needless to say people immediately set about expelling him. “I was in the queue behind this citizen! I was! I was! Ask him if you don’t believe me!” The man in the flat hat poked me with his finger. I remained aloof and ignored him.
My silence made people suddenly see me as a trustworthy, neutral eyewitness. “Well, let’s ask him, let’s ask him to confirm it! You weren’t in the queue! You weren’t!” “He’ll say what you want because he’s scared of you, see? But I’m not! I’ll show you!” A wizened red fist engaged with the physiognomy of the old man, which was itself flushed with anger and covered in sweat, and his first yell served as a signal! The argument boiled over into a general fracas, a bloodless fight with a lot of shouting. Immediately, as if (bored) they had just been waiting for this, from round the corner the militia pounced and instantly swept up seven or so people, including me. A sergeant, two burly constables, and some militia backup volunteers. They appeared as if from nowhere and also piled in, providing the backup.

I suppose it was inevitable they would arrest me too, because at the moment of the sweep the people in the queue, who were not so much fighting as jostling and kicking, were still pointing in my direction and saying “It’s not my fault. Ask him. He can tell you!”, which was ridiculous. They had no doubt that he (that is, I, the unspeaking one) would now reveal the whole truth. Their moronic shouting continued even in the Black Maria we were shoved into. “He’ll tell you, you’ll see!”
Once we were out of the Black Maria, we found the police had no further interest in us. They melted away, leaving us to young people who were already eager, if not to feel power then at least to taste it, to know its flavour: the youthful volunteers of the people’s militia. These were lads with sturdy faces. “Come on, you rabble!” one of them shouted cheerfully. (He had a red armband and a large badge on his jacket and was evidently in charge.) His bullying was playful. But to get back to me. I was still keeping my mouth shut and nothing made me stand out from the other six. As if by inertia the others from the queue were keeping me safe.

We were ‘processed for resolution’, that is, questioned by the volunteer in charge. He was around thirty, no longer altogether young, muscular and good looking. He had a broad, flat face which was a bit plebeian but radiated strength in an agreeable manner. There was a dimple on his chin. The procedure was straightforward. The chief volunteer told one of those arrested to sit down at a table, turned their ID over, if they had any, in his hands, and looked into their eyes without saying a word. The person would start whining and complaining, and say his family were waiting for him at home and that they would be worried. The chief volunteer then decided how much to fine him and let him go.
Screw him, there hadn’t even been a fight! There had been pushing and shoving and someone ended up with a bleeding nose. Big deal! It was completely trivial but for a trivial moment the chief volunteer (who wasn’t even a policeman) was invested with power. He was in a position to push you about, or even put you behind bars for an hour or two. The taste of power, the cell so nearby. It was almost tempting. Anything might happen. Not just any old anything but that infinitely diverse anything you come up against in Moscow – unforeseeable, and as chaotically varied as litter or street life.

They were questioning the third man in front of me, and there was still nothing to single me out. I just felt a bit of a chill in my stomach at the prospect of the humiliation I might be facing. (It all depended. I might not be facing humiliation.)

“Name. ID. Why were you in a fight?” “It wasn’t me fighting.” “It wasn’t you fighting, it wasn’t him fighting, but the victim’s face is covered in blood!” “It wasn’t me hit him. Someone pushed him.”

“Who?”
The well-built volunteer with his flat face questioned us one after the other. It wasn’t my turn yet.
I remembered how ridiculously afraid Veronika was of ending up in a police station (although in reality the smart guys away from home who got her drunk were more threatening and poisonous than cops). I focused my attention on Veronika. Increased vulnerability immediately after splitting up was an obvious connection to make. Everybody knows about it and so do I. I calmed myself by asking why I should even care what happened to bloody Veronika. I could get by without her. There were even some pluses. My blood pressure was back to normal, I no longer had a pain splitting the back of my head from ear to ear. I was no longer depressed. My right eye didn’t hurt. There was a lot to be said for the new situation. Veronika was now just a memory. After all, there had been others.

I was distracting myself (but my heart was beginning to pound), step by step I was getting closer to the questioning, to the table with the sturdy young tough behind it.
“And I don’t suppose you punched or hit anyone either?” he asked, and smiled. (The last person before me.) That sarcastic smirk was going to be too much. I thought it would be best just not to react. I would say nothing. I would give in. I would lower my greying head to the table (or bury it in my knees). I would clutch my head and lower it without saying a word. Anyway what need does he have of me? I am old enough to be his father. I am thin and have hunger in my eyes. A little derision, a little humiliation. Well, what of it? Let him have his fun.

I tried to communicate to him (by telepathy) that he shouldn’t mess with me when it was my turn.

“What are you shaking like that for, gramps? Got cold feet now? I bet you were all as bold as brass in that queue, weren’t you?” chiefie sniggered. The old man being questioned (still one person to go before me) nodded dog-like and, going with the flow, agreed, as if to say, “Yes, that’s what we are like. Cowards, all of us.”
“What do you expect? Queues are just like that,” the old man suddenly sparked. The chief volunteer (his elbows on the table, sprawling on the chair) contemptuously sparked straight back at him: “What do we expect? A fine, that’s what we expect!”

The old man shook like an aspen leaf. Prices had gone up. (People were terrified of inflation, more than they needed to be.) “What?! What do you mean, you bugger!” “Bugger yourself! What I mean is that if you were in a queue you’ve got money.”

Chiefie knew exactly how to get at people. He would get at me because I had no fixed abode. Not because I was always living in hostels, because I wouldn’t tell him that (Why raise dust where you have landed?). “You’re a dosser?” he would ask and I would not know what to say for fear the next question might be a damaging, “Well, tell me, you old stray, where do you sleep at night?” With that he would really have me. He would sense I was holding something back, that I do in fact have a den, a warm place of my own. And in that case there might be a cut in it for him which I could be forced to share!

Chekhov put it well when he said he had squeezed the slave out of himself drop by drop. He was well advised, though, not to say what he filled the space with which they left behind. With words? With supposedly ‘unslavish’ literature? That is the expectation. (The original sin of writers. They even take a pride in it. Myth-making!) Most unfortunately, however, our post-servile void gets filled up with whatever comes along. That is the deal: you squeeze the slave out of yourself and all sorts of stuff rushes in to fill your (post-servile) vacuum, and you have no say in what it is. You aren’t even aware at first of the presence of something alien in yourself.

As he sat there at the table he was simplicity itself. He wanted to check my conformability, a legitimate and almost natural desire for a militia volunteer hoping shortly to become a real cop.

If for any reason the person being questioned took too long to whine and squirm, chiefie would frown sternly: “What? Aren’t we going to say anything?” The victim would instantly see what was expected and start whingeing about everything and nothing. First about life in general and how shitty it was, about how he just couldn’t get things sorted, how he’d been anxious in the queue that the food might run out, and his wife was waiting for him, and just let him go, friend, let him go home, please!

Pause.

“I like that! You want to go home!” And chiefie, hesitating for just the right amount of time during that pause and after suitably berating his victim, lets him go. All he wants is for you not to stand on your self-respect, to feel for a moment just what a pathetic worm you are. Just for a moment. It’s an understandable and perfectly straightforward wish. Let’s play losers’ chess!

“Next!”
Without having the rules explained, everyone knew you had to whinge and beg chiefie to let you go. It was just role play and you shouldn’t try to be clever. Or did one of these sad old gits really want to spend an evening behind bars (with the drunks picked up at the metro)? He was fining us 100 rubles or 300 rubles, not all that much back in those days. One man had playing cards with naked women on the back. Chiefie looked at them, fanned them out, didn’t bat an eyelid, and confiscated them.

This time the next one was me. I sat down opposite him, second from last. No need to hurry over me.

“What’s your job?” “I don’t have one,” I said. My nerves (foreboding) kept me from being straight with him. I didn’t want to say, “Watchman,” to listen to his jeering, and the prefatory snigger which meant, ‘Nowadays your lot are all watchmen’.
He turned my passport over in his hands. I am registered at the address of my wife and grown-up daughter. My first wife, that is. I haven’t lived there for a long time (I dumped my family. Did a runner. Rolling stone), but the registration was in order. Moscow.

“What are you doing so far from home, buddy boy?” (Not in my local district!) He used that tone with everybody. What was it to me? “No reason.” The curtness was unexpected. I wasn’t making excuses. He registered that.

He said nothing, glanced at me (not looking at me directly. I wasn’t worthy of that. A flicker of the eyes), as much as to say, ‘I’ve been waiting for you for a long time, (you pathetic wimp. Loser’s chess? Or not?’) It’s not easy to make me do something I don’t want to. He was waiting. The young volunteer (sitting next to him), who’d been chewing his lips because of all the surplus energy in him, was still for a moment. His cheekbones stopped bulging.

Chiefie said nothing and then that smile I so disliked appeared, almost a sneer, which seemed to say, ‘You’re not asking me to release you. You’re not saying anything. I’m not saying anything either. That’s fine by me. Let’s just sit here like this, then, shall we?’ (Perhaps I’m exaggerating. I tend to, but the pause was certainly going on a bit.)
He could, he had every right, to wait as long as he liked, smirking or not, for my crestfallen explanation, but the smile disappeared. (The young volunteer beside him started chewing his lips again.) I didn’t react. I did not look down. I focused on the dark partition behind chiefie’s back, on the overcoats hanging there. I was looking at the coats but I was seeing those lips of his, with the hint of a smile (perhaps I was imagining it) playing on them, now beginning to twist derisively. I was seeing his lips and the dimple which cleft his chin when he smiled. Chiefie was not one to bully people for no reason. (I even thought to myself that he was ‘not one of those’.) But he was one of those who know very well that they can amuse themselves at your expense with impunity. He knew I knew that, and he also knew that, like it or not, I was entirely in his hands. He was savouring his moment of power. He seemed to be probing, waiting to find something out.
Afterwards I could find excuses for him. (I’m always good at blaming myself.) He was keen to join the filth. Instinctively, he was on the lookout for someone with something to hide, somebody who somehow had slipped away from the regime into a cool, dark niche. Chiefie saw his job as being to provoke people (like me) into insubordination. The provocation (probing) he offers every day is not just rudeness: it is his profession, a foray, if you like, and all the more likely to succeed because a person who wants to hide will, as a rule, try to defend himself without taking account of the element of provocation. The level playing field only seems to be level. It is a dangerous game but it is what chiefie is paid to do. It is preventive policing. It is the human essence of chiefie, his function. (And also, alas, his shame: such a burly, good looking man, in the prime of life and far from stupid, is a function.)

I remember in the two or three minutes of that silence I even thought, ‘He should lose that phoney smile. What’s it for? He doesn’t humanly need another person to connive at propelling themselves towards humiliation.’ (I didn’t see that that was precisely what he needed, that it was his function.) ‘He shouldn’t. Why does he do that?’, I continued. They had brought us back to the station irreproachably, almost arm in arm. They hadn’t knocked us about or bawled us out or been objectionable, and even imposed the fines very correctly, with the implied injunction that we should not push each other about and fight in queues in future. It had all been entirely fair, only now we could do without this pressurising and smirking. That’s what I was thinking, entirely calm, as if weighing up their pros and cons. At the same time I could not take my eyes off the dimple which had reappeared (in the wake of that smile) and was trembling on his chin. Wickedly tempting. Right in front of me. Glistening in the lamplight. I was not even aware of the moment I punched it. I suddenly lunged at his chin across the narrow table.

His head jerked back. After a moment of shock, the volunteers rushed me from left and right and pinioned my arms behind my back. After hitting him, I was a bit stunned myself.
Pain, however (they were twisting my fingers), awakens the instinct to fight back. I tried to drive them off, lashing out, spitting, yelling, “You bastards, you bastards!” (An old denizen of the underground has every right to punch a man in the face for smirking like that!) They hit me, threw me to the floor, twisted my arms, but without really knowing what they were doing, until an energetic fellow with a (phallic looking) truncheon piled in and belaboured my back with it. I saw stars and blackness but managed not to lose consciousness. They shoved me into a cell behind the partition (a half-cell: you couldn’t stand up straight in it), a low, dark hole in which, when my eyes got used to the darkness, I counted three people flat on their backs, drunk or severely beaten.

I sat there (blind in the darkness), beating my fist on the floor, still raging and shouting “Bastards!”. They swore back. Of course they wanted to teach me a lesson I wouldn’t forget, but chiefie, even after being punched on the jaw, controlled himself. “Corm down, corm down,” he said (with his bitten tongue). “I’m terring you, corm down. Reave him for now.”

They (he) had a choice. They could frame me for starting the fight in the queue, additionally charge me with obstructing the police (in this context they could be regarded as real policemen), and pack me off to court. To these boys, however, retribution after months of judicial delay was little more comprehensible than an abstract painting. The case would take forever (and, anyway, what sort of satisfaction would they get from a court case?). I would be given a piddling little sentence and what sort of retribution was that? Beating my liver and kidneys, punching me straight in the heart with two of them holding me and a third doing the work, that was more like it, that was worth the effort. It wasn’t enough but would give at least some sense of closure to their fledgeling authoritarian souls. They would have got even. Leave him for now.

Needless to say, they wanted no witnesses and I was only second last. A trivial detail, but sometimes a comma can be the saving of you (referring here to being second last for questioning). Behind me, wringing his hands, there was still one sad elderly geezer they had scooped out of that disorderly sugar queue. Perhaps, also, there was one of the volunteers (too young, or new?) whom chiefie would have preferred not to have as a witness. For now somebody was a hindrance. I don’t know why. All I did know was that they (he) would cook my goose in the very near future.
They dismissed the last one, threw his faultless passport back at him. “Clear off. Go on, get out of here!” Choked with joy for a moment, he raced to the door. The volunteers crowded round their chief (three of them, with their red armbands, considerably aroused). Seated at the table, he proceeded to instruct them in a low voice as to what they would now do. Two, very young, stood back.

Vladimir Makanin

I could see them all through the bars and knew I was in deep shit. Perhaps these two younger ones (if only by their presence) would keep them from killing me; I deliberated rather abstractly, as if considering the fate of some other bloke. I gingerly felt my hand, which had been hurt by the door. Suddenly, however, the whole lot of them were distracted. I was reprieved by the arrival of a police car, or perhaps two judging by the sound. A tall policeman in a smart new uniform came in, an officer (from my dark nook I could see his lieutenant’s pips clearly), and ordered them, “At the double, all of you! Let’s go!” He added something (hurriedly) about firearms. Someone replied and he said irritably “Well, be quick about it, lads!”) The scraping sound of chairs being pushed back, exclamations, everybody preparing to leave, hastened by orders.

They departed. I would keep. They could beat me up tomorrow. Their boots clattered on the stairs. Beyond the last step their boots sank into soundless non-being (in soft earth). They had gone, leaving behind only one of the juniors. Young, round-faced. I inspected him closely.

While the gallant volunteers were trying to heave me in behind bars I (foolishly. No, in a passion) kept wedging first one then the other foot against the door frame. I resisted, an enraged old fool. In the fairy-tale, cunning Ivanushka extends his arms and legs to make Baba Yaga think he is too big to fit him into her oven, but the volunteers were smarter than Baba Yaga and in concert rammed the door against my back and bum. I howled and was finally precipitated into their nook, behind bars. In return I received a magnificent, dark, caged night with a remote square window.

Only two or three silvery threads were floating in that dark window. You surmised the moon but there was no way it could break through into our inky darkness. It was somewhere out there. It had risen and was riding high in the sky, suspended over the roof.

The young guard had turned off the lamp and was sleeping at the table. The situation was clear. I was under lock and key and the morning would be time enough for them to settle scores with me. All I had to do was wait, I told myself. (I had asked for it. I knew who I was dealing with.) But, no. What was stirring me up was that I didn’t accept this. I still wanted to break out, to get away before the morning’s reckoning. I wanted out right now.
I started prowling. In the darkness of the cell (a stinking little do-it-yourself hutch) I crawled as quietly as I could, at the speed of a wary snail. The nearest drunk was snoring. I crept and, like a predator, synchronised my breathing with the overtones of his snoring. Another half step. I crept up on the side he was facing (the side the smell of raw vodka came from) and very, very stealthily felt his pockets. Sod all. Paper, rubbish, matches in three crushed matchboxes. Why did he need so many? The other trouser pocket was underneath his body and I had to turn him over. It was empty (I breathed out.) I looked up and peered into that world, so near and yet so far, on the other side of the bars. My jailer was asleep. Invisible moonbeams flowed from the window and by their glittering threads I discerned him sleeping at the table, face down in his arms.

I crept over just as stealthily to the second drunk. He was lying in his own vomit, which actually raised my hopes that they might have been too disgusted to search him. There might be an empty flask (which could be used to strike a blow), or a decently long apartment key you could clench between your fingers like a blunt knife. Instead my hand felt something sticky. Damn. The pocket was empty (and had been searched). Not even a lousy fountain pen. Metallic small change. Unable to face putting it back in his pockets, I arranged the coins on his puke-sodden shirt like medals. Rest in peace, soldier. We shall never forget you. The third (last) drunk was in a corner, up against the bars. Vexed, I crawled over to him more quickly this time and suddenly (already reaching for his pockets) realised he was awake. He had been watching the whole time and was quaking with fear. “I haven’t got any money. None,” he offered in a strangled, barely audible whisper. I did not stop to explain what I was looking for but ran my hand over his pockets anyway. They were empty. I felt his breast pockets. They were empty too. Then I heard a gushing: he had pissed himself. A little stream flowed and flowed as neither of us said anything.

I stood up, having to bend my neck down, and very quietly moved over to the bars. They were made of wood. Only the door was made of metal. (My injured hand began hurting again.) I stood, looking. The guard was asleep, his head cradled in his arms. He was young. I tried to recollect what there was around him. A chair isn’t much use for fighting. If it is rickety it will fall apart, although then you can use the chair leg. The decanter? They might have removed that. What else? There is no holding a really angry man. This dozy young bollockhead would be no match for me. What else, what other objects were there? I strained my memory, remembering the wait to be questioned. I had stood there, shifting from foot to foot, for really quite a long time. What had I noticed? Come on! The queue of people who had been arrested was to the right, their ID was lying there. A notebook, passport particulars.

“Hey, boss!” I shouted. I shook the wooden bars again. “Boss!”
The sleepy boy looked up and switched on the lamp. There! That was my weapon! My eyes looked around feverishly to see how I could best grab the lamp. Could I grab it without having to pull out the flex, which was short and plugged into a socket near floor level? (It might get stuck and give the youngster time!)

He turned his round face to me enquiringly. “I need to pee. Take me to the toilet.” He said sleepily, “There’s a bucket in the corner. Pee all you want.” “And I’m really thirsty, parched. Boss!”

He was coming towards me now. If I rushed straight at him I could take the feet from him, if, of course, he would just open that door with its iron bars. That, however, was not what he had in mind. I jumped back just in time as he slammed his fist through the square on the door, straight at my eye. He missed and grunted. Without a word he turned and walked away. “I am thirsty, you bastard! Thirsty!” I yelled, but he didn’t even turn his round face towards me. He switched the light off as he went into the next room and closed the door firmly behind him, in order not to hear if I started ranting and yelling and rolling about on the floor. Get on with it, pal! Get on with it, you old parasite, as one of them said when they had locked me up and I started kicking the bars.

What else could I do? Nothing, other than calm down and settle my pounding heart. I stared from my god-forsaken corner of the planet into the darkness of the night as if it were light near the moon. (I was looking for my black square. I already knew its magic.) My heart did not stop pounding but it sank and did slow a little, and then a little more, and as if from heaven a feeling came over me of redemption, from nowhere, of the minutes ceasing to pass, of life faltering. Not life itself exactly, but its long prose, its everyday reality now magnificent in its stillness. There! Time stopped juddering and flowed.

Possibly in the chaos of those first hot-blooded minutes behind bars my ego had shed what remained of a long-standing but already peeling vanity and thwarted ambition. I won’t surrender, I won’t give in to them! (Perhaps also the last remnants in me of the former writer.) The husk, the human integument, that was what was coming adrift, seeking for itself, and at the same time for me, a worthier narrative in order, if possible, to save face and simultaneously my life. ‘Nice one,’ I said to myself. ‘Relax. This is you. That is your body. That is your life. That is your ego. Everything is just where it should be. Live!’ With a lightness of heart I sensed that I was separate from my narratives, as a worm is separate from the earth to which it is bound. ‘Now it is you who are the narrative. A worm crawling separate from and at one with its earth. Live!’

The impassioned efforts to break out of the cell (just as soon as he opened that metal door) struck me as absurd, as did my plan of hitting him over the head with the table lamp and my concern about being hampered by the plug and flex. Everything I had been visualising vanished like a bad dream, or worse, a bad movie. I cooled down. (Perhaps my blood pressure suddenly fell.) I stopped gesticulating. Random thoughts stopped intruding. Like a dug-up worm I had been writhing (no more than that) and trying to crawl away, forgetting that soil is everywhere. Just soil, earth the prose of life, and an ordinary human cell with a barred door and an unobtrusive bucket in the corner for urine. With ordinary drunks sprawled in the darkness who ought to wake up and come to their senses. And I should sleep now. (Yes, lie down and rest my head on my arm.)

The prose of life, it had to be admitted, was sweet. As promised, it casually bestowed a drawn-out, perhaps eternal sound, lulling my ear with soft, rhythmical vibration of the air: a muffled snoring, mine. I was sleeping. Being itself, swathed in sweet, compelling sound, was rocking me as I slept. From a distance, on the other side of the door, like an echo, I heard the fresh, youthful snoring of the volunteer cop guarding us. He snored, I echoed, we communed.

Waking for a moment, I made out in the darkness the drunk who had peed himself in fear and was now in some complicated way trying to change out of his underpants. The unsteady, unhappy sight of a man dancing around on one leg and trying to get the other into his trousers. Darkness. Magnificent, impenetrable darkness. Falling asleep again, still aware of the black square of the window, the invisible moon. Even unseen it rode in the sky, over the roof, high above the building.

Sample translation by Arch Tait