Thursday, 15 October 2009

Hallgrímur Helgason: The Author of Iceland - 7


The train slowed down, and somewhere out in the night the bark of a dog was heard, then a rifle shot. I transferred myself fearfully to another compartment, but then got into still more trouble when the train guard saw I was in the wrong seat. Next thing, I would be hauled off the train at the next station. Then I would have fallen out of the Great Manuscript and would naturally have ended up like Stjáni. How on earth could people think it was possible to run a society in which a quarter of the inhabitants were made to work as prompters and see to it that their fellow citizens didn’t fluff their lines? And what kind of character was it who saw it as their life’s work to supervise the work of others? A mediocrity took power in every field and gave birth to an even lower type of human being. The Soviet Union was a society upside-down. The gangs that inhabited the sewers of other countries were in power here. Gunmen and bandits sat at the palace table while the most capable scholars and intellectuals of the age were kept in thumbscrews down in the dungeons. As soon as the walls came tumbling down, the presidential candidates were fetched from prison.

At Bolshevo we were shown round a prison. A model prison, it was supposed to be. The corner of shame at the Sunday school. The refectory was magnificent, looking like a Moscow underground station, where the inmates sat dining to cello pieces by Tchaikovsky that hung high up on the walls, and they were also allowed to read the newspapers. We nodded all along, myself and a man from a Scottish newspaper, two Finns and a Dane, a whole delegation from Bulgaria. But after our host, the party stalwart of the district, had been speaking for 12 minutes, the Scotsman nudged me: some of the prisoners didn’t seem to have noticed us, and were just continuing to read their newspapers. But now we observed that one of them, an intelligent-looking, grey-haired man with yellowish skin, was holding his newspaper upside down. He saw that we had noticed, looked up from the paper, and our eyes met. After that, I remembered those eyes once a year. They said: “Everything’s upside down here. Everything’s wrong here. It’s dark at noon here. Don’t lie. Don’t tell them back home that everything’s fine here. Look at me. Don’t lie.”

I saw those eyes every year for twenty-five years. It took me twenty-five years to understand what they were saying. “Don’t lie”. I lied. I told the truth about all the lies I was told. I lied. I bore false witness in the court of history. I painted an icon of the Devil. And for that I was punished.

Stalin was unadulterated evil, the Devil himself in human form. He had his best friends shot at special ceremonies and didn’t go to his mother’s funeral. “I’m not going to cross all those mountains for the damned whore, though of course it will be better to sit with her now than when she was alive.” He made an excellent impression. His hair neatly combed, and unostentatiously dressed. I greeted him. I shook his hand.

Axel and I heard him speak at what they called an “election meeting” in the Moscow Opera. I published that speech in full in Adventure, alongside a two-page profile of “the genius in the Kremlin”. As a speaker, the Leader was totally relaxed, and could indeed be quite reassured about the results of the forthcoming elections. As luck would have it, no one had stood against him. He called them “the freest elections that have ever been held in the world”. Everyone was free to elect him. When the meeting was over we were shown into a high-ceilinged intermediary room, a great banqueting hall, with a fine, thick, ornamentally patterned carpet. Here there were delegations from every other planet in the in the solar system of socialism. All of them very pre-schooled, and very schoolteacher-like. Here you had one country headmaster after another, gentlemen from Viborg, Aalborg and Helsingborg with round spectacles and bald Lenin heads. And they all had nicknames like Otto, Felix, Jan or Karl. The revolution devours its children, but first it baptizes them.

The crowd went quiet when Joseph entered the hall, waited a little, allowed himself to be introduced to people with a few words, shook their hands and was quickly lost from view. It seemed to be pure chance that Axel and I were introduced to him. “This is a Comintern worker from Iceland, and a young author who is writing a book about the Soviet Union…” “Hello,” I said, like the fool of history. He didn’t say anything. Showed no expression. Did not smile. But looked me in the eye. A calm and kindly look, secure in the knowledge that he could have one killed. I stared at his pockmarked skin. He smelled of strong tobacco. And shook my hand. Stalin gave me a handshake.

Fifty years later my hand still shakes.

translated from Icelandic by David McDuff

The Author of Iceland - 1
The Author of Iceland - 2
The Author of Iceland - 3
The Author of Iceland - 4
The Author of Iceland - 5
The Author of Iceland - 6

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