Antoine Volodine [attributed to Iakoub Khadjbakiro]
from Comparative Biography of Jorian Murgrave
Translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman
Derisory Threat against the Vsemirnaya Pravda
This is now the third time that you have refused to submit to public scrutiny the text The Year of Octobers, which I have explained will make clear several elements of Jorian Murgrave’s political engagement. The author, whose throat was slit and bled dry in troubling circumstances (of which your newspaper will only want to mention the most sensational, useless details), had me solemnly swear to do everything I could to ensure the book’s publication. For that reason, I am pressing once more for you as an editor to make a positive decision. It is not a long-winded work, nor is its literary quality mediocre enough that the Vsemirnaya Pravda could claim that these two or three pages would tarnish the press organ that you have represented with such outrageous passivity. Take the risk of receiving half a dozen letters from disgruntled readers; in exchange you will have offered millions of others a few instructive indications of the twists and turns of Jorian Murgrave’s thoughts.
It seems strange, to say the least, that after having created such an uproar over Jorian Murgrave’s extraordinary capture, you would adopt a stance of silence and censorship on this subject. At first, while leafing through your newspaper these last six months, I had presumed that you simply did not have any material for your articles. The Year of Octobers gives you something. Let us consider it a chapter which, in an imaginary biography of Jorian Murgrave, would be located in all likelihood between adolescence and middle age; it proves indispensable to anyone who wishes to illuminate the ways in which Jorian Murgrave organized his rebellion against the world. It is a political text, clearly demonstrating how the murgrave’s appearance harkens back to the old revolutionary epochs of our civilization. That this would be a dream should not shock us; we have already learned that this non-Earthling knows no barriers between the subjective and the objective, and that he carries the world within himself. Here, between two sleeps, he goes through the steps of taking power; he recounts for unmoving mankind the attack on the palace where the provisional government has taken refuge, but the large insurrectional crowds dissolve in the night. We can also read this as a fable of isolation and solitude: despite all his efforts to connect to the culture of Earth, the murgrave only recreates farcical or grotesque images; his insurrection is one room and one person.
So I humbly ask you to reconsider your position and to publish The Year of Octobers. It is my hope that mere negligence on the part of your secretary would explain the sustained refusal of this manuscript. If, however, you should bury these sheets once more in silence, I can only conclude that you are withholding the clandestine actions of the murgave and his followers. As such, I will find myself obliged to alert the Terrestrial Service Brigade, who would certainly succeed far more quickly than I would in shedding light on your tendencies toward passivity and sabotage.
The Year of Octobers
Through the yawning black window, Thü pointed his finger at the clock’s dull whiteness. No less grimy than the others, the face no less creamy, but without these little pink indentations that had cropped up a bit too often on familiar objects lately. On clothes, masks, and weapons. Like petals. A sort of style, actually. Or an epidemic? A, in any case, dirtiness, it seemed.
The hands moved with their usual speed: between two blinks of Thü’s eyes, they had made ten full turns around the face several times. Time went at odd speeds. That, too: a sickness. Don’t you think so? The time that swelled in your hands, in your head, that overflowed the comforting frame of your skin. More like a bad sickness.
An odd smell, a smell of red. All around there was this smell that surged and receded. Some kind of rocking, as of tide or ship. Nothing particularly new: a smell of red.
We could start a revolution, thought Thü.
In a shard from the broken window, he saw and considered himself. The glass was barely big enough to show his face as round as the moon.
I like masks, Thü thought. And you? Maybe you, too?
Maybe you’ll also be on our side when everything goes who-knows-where?
It was dark enough, and without the light coming from Thü’s shining head, the street wouldn’t have looked like much. Without the dull rays surrounding Thü’s forehead, the street would have been nothing more than a network of black and serrated innards, which, for better or for worse, could have swallowed up anybody walking through without even a fight or the least scream.
I’ve got a huge head in this mirror, Thü thought. Did something change, was there a mix-up in the drug dosage? Did they mix up the bodies? Or rather: was there an error of degree in the swarm of time? The hours rock like waves, the minutes scatter at my smallest gesture, time suddenly curls up in my left hand, like a little warm animal. Or is it actually in my right hand? Don’t really know anymore, don’t really know anymore . . .
All that distorts my face. The mirror is a liar. It sends back the image of a single eye, disheveled and greenish, a well of unknown depths cached beneath a beautiful, silvery, and terrifying eyelid, in the middle of sand. And all around, the round desert of my face. Fortunately it lights all that a little. That’s reassuring.
I like shining, and you, listening to me, dreaming me, what do you think, hiding in the high branches of algae, swaying with the algae in the half-light, your only company being the beams already eaten away by salt and shellfish? What do you think, then? . . . well . . . well . . .
Thü briefly considered his hand covered in a blue wool fingerless glove. It wasn’t a wonderful sewing job. The seams had come apart in three places and his skin showed through, equally as brilliant and yellow as a shellfish.
He hunted through his words.
“You see, the time’s still turning, the wheel’s still turning even when circumstances are favorable. Or maybe this clock’s just a figment of my imagination?”
A sort, in response, of guttural crackling, a full-blown interstellar machine gun: that was the minutes hand moving. Maybe. This was new, the uncertainty of this maybe. How much maybe time should he put up with these queasy approximations? For . . . maybe . . . well . . .
At the slightly husky sound of the voice, Thü turned. The city had plunged into its usual sleep of trash cans and pulverulent weariness.
A smell of red suddenly, no doubt about it. So, if it has to be done, it’ll be done, right? What do Thü think?
In the hollows of his stomach: the feeling of infinite power, of indescribable speed. Time’s sped up for me so much that I could go around the world if I liked, while its inhabitants all wriggled at the most, if pushed, the tip of their big toe. A red feeling of infinite speed.
The proclamation had signaled it: everything is possible.
Up, let’s go! That way, to the town hall. Generally, it’s one of the crucial points.
Thü started walking. On the edge of the sidewalk, in the jumble of abandoned bikes, several dozen fish were slowly twitching, their bellies in the air and their gills agitated. Simply swaddled in their scales, that was what Thü thought of them. Caught for a minute on the city’s coast; a trick that the first dawn’s tide had played on them.
Thü caught the ones that seemed manageable right off. I’ll always have something to nibble on to give me heart for the work, he said to himself while squinting at a nice escablot with lips turned blue in its death throes. He had trouble squinting with his one central eye lost in the immensity of his flat and lunar head.
Ignoring his urge to keep smacking his lips around the fish bones smelling of mud, he pressed forward. Thü can’t imagine in any case that I’ll delay the advent of the revolution because of a cold, hungry impulse, because of a little stringy flesh?
But, but, of course. Because we’re there, best to say it straight out: it’s the cold hunger for weapons that matters right now . . . and . . . well . . . the moment has come to resist the menial caress of fins and to . . . refuse at last the cold weapon of hunger, that’s why it takes . . . well . . . grace . . . if you can rise above these preoccupations of stomachs and fishmongers . . . Did you ever see that?
“A day of revolution!” Thü exclaimed. “What an uprising—it’s positively scandalous!”
He shrugged and the shadow of a bicycle loomed in front of him, a response to the white dance of his face. The path was mostly blocked: the clouds, pulling back, had left nothing behind on the beach but fish and crabs. They had also sprinkled the streets with a bewildering number of squat and calm bicycles, smelling of proletarian bolts and spokes, not to mention all the transparent and crumbly shapes of humans, frozen in twilight sleepwalking. When he moved, Thü managed not to graze any of this bric-a-brac; he had no interest in ruining his gloves.
To get to the town hall, you have to take the rue des Vincents-Sanchaise. If you could possibly imagine the most tortuous and filthy street in the entire city, and its permanent barricades against the police and their dogs, and . . . and on these cobblestones reeking of revolt are serrated and stinking innards in which this whole little world trudges and teems in a perfectly useless and poignant way, contrary to Thü’s good sense.
“Hey! Did you just decide that, instead of staying in your bloody carvings and quietly obsessing over black and red flags, you’d be better off walking right to the town hall? No? Did you . . . Well? Well?. . .”
Thü made a wide circular movement. A sort of dramatic gesture. Five or six transparent shapes were watching him at the entrance to the rue des Vincents-Sanchaise. They were unmoving in their rigorous nonexistence. Frozen in such a small fraction of a second that he’d do better to wrap his legs around his neck than to get stuck in an argument about representations. Thü looked at them and waited.
Although he didn’t admit it to himself right away, he was looking for a weapon. His industrious reading had taught him that a revolution without weapons was a mockery of a revolution; also, considering the unusual nature of the circumstances, knowing that he would certainly take charge of the town hall, he looked vaguely for the tool that would sanctify his takeover. He began looking wanly and furtively through the cracks of the walls and barricades. Even his eyes were gleaming with the prospect of making off with a machete or some sort of modern submachine gun that stank thoroughly of fat. These were the sorts of glimmers hidden in his sole and central eye. And weapons—he saw them, he saw them! Surely you wouldn’t even believe, you wouldn’t be stupid enough to believe that on the rue des Vincents-Sanchaise people fight bare-handed when the police have shown their ugly mugs? But this isn’t the case, I promise you. It’s actually a tradition to go there and meet layabouts selling instruments of death; you can’t take a step without being accosted by sellers offering you the very latest in automatic guns. Thü has always known this. No surprise, then, when Thü makes his way to the rattling cartridges, to the gleam of shining steel . . .
Thü got caught in a bicycle wheel’s spokes and took the opportunity to feel the gray metal against his skin. Was that agreeable? Disagreeable? The important thing was bending down slowly and making his decision. Carefully he pulled out a submachine gun from its dark covering, weighed it up.
“You got it? That’s something you could use to set off a nice insurrection, yeah?”
The street answered him with its dense silence. Here and there he heard the pathetic slapping of a curious flipper, unanswered, against the ground. But on the whole there was mostly silence, harsh silence.
It would be funny, Thü thought as he skirted a crowd floating in the night like a swarm of jellyfish. Slowly and sadly, don’t you see? It’s so clear to see now: an easy victory, easy, and nobody to jolt hatefully as the White Guard takes their last breath, and nobody to cheer on, nothing. No proletarians on the balconies to throw flowers and hurrahs. Nothing at all. Just a little building with a scaly tail where the town hall was.
Quickly he lost his goodwill. If nobody cared about the takeover, then what did it matter, I’m asking—aren’t you just a little curious?
A wave of uneasiness washed over him solidly as he left the rue des Vincents-Sanchaise. Out of sheer bravado, he pressed the trigger of his submachine gun. It was a waste of time: all that happened was a cystic sound and the laborious scattering of some gravel hardly more dangerous than corn kernels. What an impoverishment! The gun couldn’t even shatter a window, and this was supposed to destroy a life . . . hmm . . . hmm . . . but what was I saying? That’s not it at all, I’m getting off track . . .
“What misery? Don’t you think so?”
If he paid any attention to what others thought, he might, at this very moment, have gotten rid of his submachine gun, he might have taken it apart like a lamppost. But he held himself back. Finally, the lesson had been thoroughly absorbed, it was deep in his greenish eye, between the shell and the marrow, it doubtlessly crouched in one of the best strategic corners of his soul: weapons for the revolution! Weapons for the revolution! Well, of course! Antitank guns, heavy submachine guns, mortars, rocket launchers, army tanks, and artillery shells for the revolution!
Thü came to George-Pingre Square all worked up by his speech.
This sounds right, heroic, all that, don’t you think? The closed ranks of the revolution, the indestructible battalions of the proletariat, the thunderous assault of workers’ militias! Wonderful. Crushing all that with the relish of a blancmange, what the devil, sinking your teeth into the flesh of this red reality! Don’t Thü see how beautiful this actually is, in its own strange way? Let that be an example to you, my little boy, instead of standing perplexed in front of your factory’s metal gate, in front of the stopped-up factory smokestacks! And no half measures, either! Long-range rifles, stun grenades for the revolution!
Time, in the meantime, gently whirred deep within Thü’s gut. He knew it but didn’t give any sign of it: I’m carrying time in myself, yes, and I’m the only one with this power, yes, I’m the one who holds time, and everywhere else in the city it’s been taken away, with lots of crumbs left behind. But I’m still not going to admit that hints of happiness are multiplying over the desert of my physiognomy. That would be unkind to the rest of the population and the revolutionary hordes. A little self-restraint is needed.
A round mask gleaming on this marine depth that is the bogged-down world: that’s me, that’s the impending revolution, of course turned into a full moon and nonetheless superior, silvered, dignified, an incontestable revolution. A little respect is needed, isn’t it?
Thü stumbled once again over a bicycle. It was his fault: he had been looking somewhere else. It’s worth noting that he didn’t have great balance to start with, and now, already drunk by inevitable and risk-free success, already intoxicated by a victory won at almost no cost, he was paying far more attention to the reflections of his head in the windows than to the geometric rigor of his walking. He could confirm that the historical consequences would be negligible, on the order of a scar on his knee or a grazed coat pocket. He could also foresee the snags growing bigger on his barely warm blue wool gloves; soon the yellow nudity of his fingers as fragile as sugar would be revealed in its entirety. But nothing that would endanger the revolution. That, at least, was a good point.
However, because of this zigzagging path, because of this silence he was traversing in a roundabout way, Thü wasn’t thinking clearly or calmly.
“It’s not appropriate for the revolution to be as fragile as sugar,” he said to himself.
After some distance, he made it. The town hall reeked of muck and sculleries, but like almost everywhere else, it was imbued with an insistent smell of red.
“That’s good,” Thü said.
Contrary to what he could make out in the other neighborhoods, in the other houses and buildings, contrary to the rules that had made them shadowed and windowless, the town hall was entitled to a little light. No need to examine it closely: a quick glance was enough. To be specific: one of the main rooms was illuminated by beautiful dancing flames; they were sizable bureaucratic candles. You can imagine the scene: several windows reddening like embers in the middle of a black façade, of a night frozen in its bars and its silence.
Thü jumped at the sound of his voice, which now seemed closer than ever, in all likelihood because the moment to take action was becoming clear. Everything seemed abandoned. Everything had been thrust into the terrifying and comfortless atmosphere of the shallows trapped by the slack sea; the darkness was thick, if you ignored the space surrounding Thü’s head as well as the five third-floor windows. Thü kept on the lookout. There had to be something up there that wasn’t working the way it should. A nocturnal gathering of the provisional government, a belated assembly of social-traitor ghosts?
What do you think that could be?
The problem with this phenomenon of time out of joint is this sequence of little aberrations that build up, in the ruins of this inextricable mess, a far more impenetrable labyrinth. Nothing obeys the laws of midday anymore; you start doubting the possibility of another dawn, you deny the prospect of a day lit by the burning sun. Finally, how can you justify these petals or this delirium creeping over clock faces, or these herrings and these scorpion fish flapping a bit hastily on the sidewalks, or this lit-up room on the third floor of the town hall?
Thü surged from plane tree to plane tree up to the railing, every so often pausing interminably; he was only diligently following the instructions of the red militiamen, as they’d been indelibly engraved in his memory. His heart was pounding. The place was very black, like the inside of an unswept chimney. Even if a White Guard somehow not asleep had the fantastical idea to just start monitoring the subversive traces of the night, he’d only see reflections of the moon through the trees. Thü’s muted but shining head, in the distance, was hardly lively enough to suffice as target for a marksman, even if he was crazy.
It’s the decisive hour, Thü thought.
The submachine gun barrel was aimed at the suspicious windows. At the least hint of resistance, the ongoing revolution would spray steel all across this potbellied yellow light, all this shopkeeper and petit-bourgeois tranquility; at the least sign of disagreement, at the least suggestion of protest, the revolution would trumpet its determination and its violence. And make no mistake of it: the revolution now had its weapons, he wouldn’t hesitate to use them.
The gated entrance rose up in front of Thü with a chilling abruptness. Thü let out a curt laugh and swung his plump shoulders bluntly into the complex array of locks. The door gave way under the thrust with a rusty groan.
The smell of insurrection had never been so strong: the perfume of downtrodden faith mixed beneath the cracked windows with the odor of sweaty crowds, of fat glistening on rifles, and of the cartridges strewn haphazardly throughout alleys and mountain ranges.
“Keep watching the windows and cover me,” said Thü in a sudden nervousness that was typical for him. “I’m headed down the lobby.”
Half split in two, he started jogging over the gravel. It must be said that he was as graceful as a rag doll at its limits. The loose stones shifted under his feet with a thunderous roar. As his careful reading had implied, he knew that this attack was a crucial, even epic moment, written with the blood of its people on the creamy pages of history, a moment that would be commemorated in books and manuals. So it was important not to act amateurishly; he had to give this a forceful solemnity that the proletarian poets would know how to harmonize, and a bit of grandeur too—otherwise he risked floundering into a revolting mockery of insurrection, so frequently decried by specialists on that topic.
So he remained faithful to the traditional plan and made his way into the hall as noisily as possible. The open doorway unexpectedly broke off its hinges and shattered across a few marble tiles. The submachine gun reacted with rather effete submission to the pressure on its trigger, and he had to keep shaking it just to make it crackle a bit in the silence.
The town hall reeked of wax, plaster, and glue: the odors of the wealthy and the bureaucrats.
Another world, Thü thought. Really another world. And you, have you already been in this fortress of bourgeois power? Well? You standing in front of the milling machine, have you already dragged your shabby and muddy old shoes over these smooth, smooth, smooth squares? You’ve already given free rein to your submachine gun’s coughing, I have to say, here specifically, at the huge marble staircase, at the gilt-framed paintings, at the hessian-lined hallways, at the padded doors, numbered according to codes Thü doesn’t know? No? Then . . . well . . . look . . .
Thü leaped forward. His head was buzzing like a wineskin full of bees.
He had to capture the third floor in an ambush.
He didn’t know why, but there was some confusion between the outside world and the susurrus of ideas crashing into each other within Thü’s head. Reality, unreality, and memories were muddled together for several minutes that couldn’t be properly expressed. The air was lukewarm and compacted, the stairs crumbling like a hunk of freshly turned earth; running meant feeling the harsh caress of a wooden pulley system on his face. A sensation of spontaneous heat prevailed, but it was streaked, how should he put it, by a mesh of coarse and brutal veins, a subterranean and merciless glowing, hmm . . . hmm . . . it was all hardly describable . . . not very clear. And more than anything, perfectly symbolized by the globe representing Thü’s head. A phosphorescent circle at the center of all this murky darkness—that was Thü’s lunar face. Lunar and wavering, as he’d already noticed, because of emotions and the halting ascent up the steps.
Thü caught his breath on the third-floor landing.
“Wait! It’s over there on the right, he said . . . There’s light coming from under the door . . . over there, there, see? . . . You’ll see! They’re not expecting us. . . . It’s clear that whatever happens next will be pretty interesting. Maybe . . .”
Because, if you’re one of those who gets all wound up for no reason, even when you suddenly see the yawning array of fifteen or so provisional-government bureaucrats shocked out of their lazy yawning by the unexpected incursion of a workers’ brigade, if you’re one of those who no matter what has a sad look on principle, if you waver at decisive moments, I mean if your peals of laughter don’t punctuate the torrents of spent cartridges as plastered skulls scatter with the dazzling mirrors that reflect back a good 230 times your effortless smile, the whiteness of your bared teeth, if your nostrils don’t constrict even a little at a rare spectacle, if a ray of ancestral joy doesn’t crush for a moment the laborious theories that make up the muted and muffled future you’re opening the doors to, my little boy, if you’re going to mope around in a rut of repressed screams, it’s best to tell you right away . . . hmm . . . there’s nothing to do here, in this hallway, with me . . . uh . . .
But of course, that’s it, get out of the way now to let the ongoing revolution get through, you idiot. . . .
A little vertigo was still trickling down Thü’s arms, from his shoulders to the tips of the knit gloves, and he very much needed this whole impassioned speech to get his bearings in the darkness and resolutely make his way, step by historical step, toward the threshold of the meeting room. Yes, this whole impassioned speech, and also the hot and coppery sensation of cartridges ready to bloom, so prompt, despite the submachine gun’s weak performance, to warm the heart and hands.
He set himself precisely in the middle of the door. His gait was suddenly stumbling. A detail had upset the sublime aspect of the moment: a jar of preserves had been knocked over by accident on the floor, and Thü awkwardly tried to clean the intrusive stickiness off his soles.
“You’ve been caught red-handed,” he grumbled while wiping his shoes against the wall. “So, for you, is it the bourgeois hour for tea and bread and butter, for stuffing yourself in the living room?”
More than the sugar, however, his emotions had glued his feet to the ground.
Emotion, wait, put yourself in my place, it’s perfectly normal: the final phase of the insurrection! A kick to a door, taking care that it doesn’t fall on your face, a few solemn words, and in a second something will collapse, will tumble into the hell in front of you, something that will always turn away; you’ll never see it again except in books or on films where straw colors tremble, and you’ll be there, you, somewhat balanced on something that will come, that will establish itself, that will still obey a few of your gestures if you want it to and if you pay it enough attention, if you don’t rush impatiently. Do Thü understand?
Stretched to the breaking point, thrumming, a violin string, Thü pressed down on the doorknob and pushed open the door. At first glance, the room was deserted. Thü glanced quickly and headed toward the table covered with a green tablecloth, toward the chairs arrayed prosaically, each one facing a hand rest next to which a candlestick gleamed. The air stunk of chloroform, rancid flesh, and a horse’s breath: it hadn’t been long since the meeting had finished. And here, one last whiff of the old world, thought Thü. On the walls and on the chimney, aside from portraits of ministers, the paintings represented, of course, inquisitions and manhunts.
“I declare the downfall of the provisional government,” Thü said. “Its members are now under arrest and may present their defense to the people’s tribunal.”
Despite the lack of response in the empty room, he suddenly felt bubbling up within himself the historical significance of the moment.
He symbolically threw his weapon on the table and nervously smoothed out the tails of his coat with his gloves, more to compose himself than to make sense of the numerous folds that covered his sides and shoulders. The silhouette reflected in the mirror seemed rather dubious and dreary the more he looked at it.
“The insurrection has been a success,” he added in a hoarse voice.
At that point, he saw by the windows large jars of preserves locked up, he was absolutely sure, because they contained every one of the members of the government. They must have shut themselves up, in the pitiful hope that the revolution wouldn’t force them out. They must have sensed the impending end.
When the smell of red became unbearable to les messieurs des petits-bourgeois’s delicate nostrils, Thü thought, what remains for them to do, really, but to obediently throw themselves into the trash bins of history?
More or less. On the still-damp labels Thü deciphered the names that confirmed his hypothesis. This one was Jacquou Necroman; here Jerome Broad; there Sylvain Netwing; and the last one was Vassili the Chancellor. In a sense there was no sweeter pleasure than to know they were there, packed like sardines, with all their debauched accomplices, in their aromatic oil and vinegar, fated to become mere entries in an anthology of enemies of the triumphant proletariat, and already eliminated from the historic scene where now the battalions of ordinary workers were boldly entering.
Thü expelled a long breath from his belly, which so much adventurous speed, so much enthusiasm had caused to ache and burn. Standing in front of his indisputable victory he swayed and reeled, suddenly exhausted and unable to express anything beyond waiting.
Now there’s nothing left but to wait, he said to himself.
Of course there would always be a moment when time clicks back into place. There would be a sort of stampede in the sky, and like an ocean’s swell in the streets, and behind Thü’s shoulder blades a warning swarm, understand? A call. A swarm that warns of huge wildlings racing through the alleys of power, and the hurried swims around the reefs, and the joyful clash of unleashed forces. The powerful revolution’s awakening, if Thü’d rather.
With hundreds of colors and sounds and smells of all sorts, as Thü liked . . .
Then the neighborhoods that are dark and silent for now will fill with a growing murmur: “The insurrection was a triumph! The insurrection was a triumph! Hey! Didn’t you hear yet? The insurrection was a triumph!”
Thü looked with his one eye through the window. The night was still total and gradually began to invade the town hall as the candles went out.
“Look!” said Thü.
In the direction indicated by his yellow, wrinkled finger, the sky was reddening a little, above the rue des Vincents-Sanchaise.
“Hey there! It’s coming!” Thü said.
An immense exhaustion overcame him; it was time to go back to sleep.
Everything will come together quickly, he thought, squatting close to the fireplace. As if he were bewitched, he stopped fighting against the drowsiness.
What use had this been, what use would all this be? he wondered. Things, umm . . . yes, of course, things . . .
Don’t you think so? His head bobbed from left to right like a lantern surrounded by shadows.
If ever the time turns red . . . tomorrow . . . If ever the barricades . . . hmm . . . hmmm . . .
Then his face began to fade, his own light dissolved, gradually as he fell asleep.
He dreamed that he was a snowman.
Let’s put it this way: the sky was extinguished over the rue des Vincents-Sanchaise.
*This piece is also available in Issue 56 of Hayden's Ferry Review, which can be purchased from our online store.