Monday, 28 September 2009

Hallgrímur Helgason: The Author of Iceland - 4


We took part in it. We placed our words in the balance. We heaved those hewn stones onwards. We spent half our lives building the pyramid that was called communism, to the glory of the man who was never a communist. Who spent half his life shooting communists.

Anyone who was accused had to name another five. Within a very few years the whole nation had become guilty of a conspiracy against one man. The pyramid of communism was built on bullets. Each bullet from the barrel released another five bullets; twenty-five of them in all; and they released another hundred and twenty-five which became six hundred and twenty new bullets which became three thousand one hundred and twenty-five. Bullets fly pretty fast, and within a few years the web was complete: a dictatorship of fear reigned from Minsk in the west to Yakutsk in the east, from the north in Arkhangelsk all the way down to Tashkent.

Communism was a pyramid made of cordite.

When the census was taken in 1936, it turned out that 15 million Soviet citizens were missing. 15 million flies had spun their own web. My gospel was now only 80,000 words long. But under each of those words a person lay buried. I covered 80,000 deaths.

The Adventure in the East. The book I wished I had never written. I once borrowed it from a library, this was many lives later, and lost it. For many years I got regular reminders about my failure to return that book. My failure to return to its subject. In the end I tormented myself by preparing the book for a reprint. ‘Corrections to the language and style’ it said in the preface. ‘Corrections to a life’, would have sounded closer. Did I really have such loathing for myself to get involved in something like that? There are few sorrier sights than an old man of nearly eighty trying to make up for the pranks of his boyhood. It was the summer of 1989. The Wall came down that autumn. The spider’s web unravelled in five minutes. But of course the flies were just as dead as before.

How could I have been so mistaken? I was able to travel widely, I travelled all over the Soviet Union in the winter of 1937-38, but the only word I could find for the society that was the closest thing to hell the earth had ever seen was ‘Sunday school’. I should have been shot for that alone. Shouldn’t I have been able to see through the great illusion? True, everyone spoke according to the author’s script. True, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was completely in the hands of the dictator of the proletariat. True, it was forbidden to make fun of him. True, no opposition to the government was allowed. True, the words ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom of expression’ did not exist in the language. True, some authors were banned. But also true: they were probably not very good. True, Christmas was forbidden. True, everything was forbidden except what the Party allowed. True, necessities were in short supply. True, ten people slept in one room. True, all conversations were monitored. (Even the love talk of a boy and a girl in the middle of the night. There was always someone awake. Woe to anyone who spoke ill of Stalin in their sleep.) True, the Party had got rid of what was called private life. True, one’s whole life was in the service of the Party. True, people didn’t even go to the toilet unless they did so for the Party. True, most would have shat on the Party if they could. True, people were locked up just for saying that the streets of Copenhagen were cleaner than those of Vladivostok. And true, the streets were filled with the most ragged crowd of people I have seen in my life, though I had been in both Naples and Palermo. My friend Axel Lorens informed me, however, that there were far fewer of them than there had been when he was here last, in the autumn of 1935. The ‘dirty folk’ had largely disappeared, he said. The purges had done their work.

(to be continued)

translated from Icelandic by David McDuff

The Author of Iceland - 1
The Author of Iceland - 2
The Author of Iceland - 3

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