PERSONA NON GRATA
Translation Copyright ©1997 by Benjamin Sher
(Russian text published in Kontinent #49, 1986)
Dedicated by Sasha Sokolov to Irina Ratushinskaya
"Everything went according to plan, didn't it, my Lord? Under a cloudy sky, he ranted and raved, confounding the real with the unreal... Oh, my God, why, why have you done this to us?"-- Irina Ratushinskaya
What a pitiful blunder! Instead of being born and raised in incomparable Buenos Aires, where people greet each other not with "Como està Usted?" but with the neighborly "How is the air?" to which a man replies: "Gracias, gracias, muy bueno," and where the paper boy, hands free, zooms on his bicycle through the streets, ostentatiously reading the latest issue of Hoy without so much as a dictionary, and where the street car conductor, an ordinary, everyday conductor, declaims passages from Octavio Paz to his passengers; instead of making your earthly debut among these refined, well-read people, a citizen in the name of Jorge Borges, but hold on--instead of being born in Uppsala, in indescribable Uppsala, or anywhere nearby, in the land of gloomy, Gothic wisdom, where you could have enjoyed the reputation of Professor Lars Bakström, where you could, in fact, have become Professor Bakström himself, where you would be casting hypnotic spells in the name of delightful Aurora, she of the glorious family of Borealis, this enchantment being nothing less than svensk poesior again, with all due respect for Athens or Rome, --instead of being born in ineffable Jerusalem, where you could have had a glorious childhood dodging ascetics weighted down with fetters and legends on the Via Dolorosa, by God, never mind Jerusalem--we'll wait till next year! Come to think of it, you could have made your appearance not far off, in unsightly Bethlehem, reeking with the smell of those juicy falafels, or, then again, in Afula, teeming with the mules and past glory of the Jordan Valley or in merry old Sodom, where you could have chatted your life away in the language of Ecclesiastes like a true master of Amos Oz's guild, in a word, instead of coming into the world in any of the above-mentioned places or in any place smacking of the sublime or the otherworldly, you were born and drew your breath the Devil knows where, you babbled, muttered and complained, you spun nonsense, hacked out potboilers, fell in love and ranted and raved in the most ordinary Russian and, suddenly, in no time at all, you discovered that you were who knows who, whoever you please, in other words, none other than yourself. The horror of it! Confronted by this fact, you felt yourself a victim of fortuitous circumstances, of times and doings, manipulated by others' egos. You were caught, from head to toe, in a sticky web, in the tissues of fate woven by the accursed Parcae! "Look down on me," you howled at them. "Look at what you've turned me into! I am swaddled like a baby in your cocoon. Unbind me here and now! How humiliating this is. Where is your much-vaunted nobility? What do you think I am, a fly?! Do you hear me?" Apparently not. Looks like they couldn't care less. Who would have believed it?! It was no picnic. That's how you joked in your youth. That is, not you, but others. But you, who understood the cocoon in all its ugliness, you were in no mood for rejoicing or merrymaking. On the contrary, the noose of an a priori idiom pressed against your neck, and you fell into a chronic sullenness. And if, at times, you smiled, then only out of courtesy and sardonically at that. But life assailed you on all fronts. To get out of your depression, you went after a job advertised on a bulletin board, where the postscript solemnly warned: "Abandon all hope, men with weak nerves!" And that is how you landed a job in the morgue. From an orderly you worked your way up to laboratory technician. Among other duties, you shaved your clients' heads and assisted at post-mortems. To say that an autopsy is not pretty would be a cunning understatement indeed. What humanist could even distinguish this ritual from sheer mockery of the deceased but for the state's medical certificate? Nonetheless, the ritual was sacred: no one who croaked on the hospital bed was ever exempt from--in the language of cynics--this necrological procedure, that is, no one but cadavers with political clout. This powerlessness of the dead mirrored the powerlessness of the living. And both were in bondage: you were the slave of an official idiom, your clients the slaves of a lethal speechlessness. You haven't forgotten the nightingale gardens, have you, where, under the canopy of a starlit Symbolist night, you regaled the beautiful ladies with your plaint against the vulgarity, corruption and malignancy of all life. But even in death there is no escape. For even death cannot give us free will. And you set out to seduce the beautiful ladies with verses oozing with professional grief: "Along the palace's smooth enamel/A midnight skeleton did stalk and whirl/From its height in a pale orange dazzle/The moon shone indifferently like a pearl." These self-lacerations of an overwrought genius brought our beauties to a state of exaltation. Moved with compassion, you plied them with the customary "sweets" and reaped a harvest of hearts. Oh, how much balm did these beauties offer you in those youthful Russian nights for your sonorous 'open sesame.' And how the lilacs raged along the shores of the sunrise! And how the tomcats, implacable as the Fates, their ears turning pink in the rays of the sunrise, watched over the iridescent fish in the aquariums. And still, you felt cheated of your fair share. You longed for other shores, where other, different open sesame's are the custom. "Ich liebe dich, s'agapo, te amo," the heroines of your daydreams whispered in your ear. But then your dreams turned into nightmares. "Come on now," you said then to a figure wearing a mask and an inquisitorial cloak, "where is our free will?" You mouthed your words feverishly, as if they were pouring out of your bowels, as if Dostoevsky were confessing on Freud's couch. "There is no free will," the dark figure replies coldly and with a haughty mien. "But without free will there is no freedom," you counter, "and without freedom there is no happiness, don't you agree?" "You may be right," the Inquisitor allows, "but whatever gave you the idea that you had a right to happiness in the first place?" "A right to happiness? They say that no such right is needed. If a moth is born for flight, then a person is most definitely born for happiness." "But you are not a person," the grim Inquisitor suggests, "you are nothing but a discarded persona fit for maggots." "How dare you! How crude can you get? Et cetera." His mask fell off. The willful figure of the usurper. The mournful, gray eyes of the basilisk. The unsmiling mouth of the hangman. The palpitating tongue of the iguana, cloven once, twice, thrice, ad infinitum. "For God's sake," you cried out, "who are you?" "I am the Inarticulate Word. I am the word that has existed since the beginning of time, the primordial 'I am.' I am your enemy. I am a whip. I am bondage, I am dispossessedness, I am the forget-me-not of the valley: She loves me/She loves me not. 'I am'--you'll learn to put up with this transcendental pain. You'll come to love it, and soon you'll soar. And, flying over this vale of tears, you will begin to prepare 'being' as one would a corpse. You will disembowel it by stripping the fresh, steaming, bleeding intestines of all their essence. May the bird of heaven that forever feeds on the liver of the Fire-Thief never swoop down on it. No, transform it, piece by piece, drop by drop, into tissues of living prose. Be patient, persevere, and I shall arm you with wing and pen. For I am your immemorial tongue." By virtue of the law of communicating vessels, of substances and states, by virtue of a law dating from such and such, dream and reality imperceptibly flowed into each other as if this were taking place in the topsy-turvy Oblonsky household, where Oblomov, the wonderful, lazy nobleman-dreamer, a regular boor, would drop in unannounced, without his cuff-links, without so much as ringing the bell. Stamping his feet, he'd swagger into the room, whistle, swear, drain one glass after another and proclaim: "Down with the baroque, long live the rococo!" An example we should emulate with every fiber in our bones. Still, you were never well received at the Oblonskys', and so it was out of the question for you to follow in the footsteps of your idol. Casting your ambitions to the wind, you followed the dictates of your native idiom. You endured patiently. You worked hard. Your occupations embraced everything under the sun. In fact, you might well have eclipsed the superstars of this human farce, were it not for your predilection for minor roles. On the other hand, you made yourself a most charming supernumerary, the virtuoso of the single episode. No Olivier ever delivered a coat or stumbled or upset a tray with such finesse as you have. And there was no dearth of such episodes. Like a sentimental author nostalgically fondling the many volumes of his complete works, you ran your fingers through your theatrical wardrobe in your spare time. You could have dressed up every pauper in Rio's carnival with these costumes. How you loved them all: the smock of a lab technician and the suit of a clerk and the uniform of a circus janitor or of a theater fire marshal and the sleeveless shirt of a stoker and the frock-coat of a chimney-sweeper and the dark coat of a jockey and the apron of a street vendor and the field jacket of a huntsman and the jacket of a dog trainer torn and tattered by the dogs themselves and the overcoat of a private and, finally, the blessed strait-jacket. It was no ordinary article of clothing. It was a relic. Paradoxically, this humble and unassuming strait-jacket symbolized your gradual emancipation from the prejudices of the sociopolitical order. Fitted out, you set out on a journey that brought you eventually into the company of citizens and lords of the earth. It was in this strait-jacket that you were hauled away on a gloomy, Tolstoyan morning from the soldiers' loathsome barracks and dumped into that most free of all state institutions, the psychiatric ward. Adorned with a red cross, the ambulance car pushed on to the edge of the square, where the troops were being drilled. And, led through the lines of the honor guard, you shouted to the king's subjects, cheering them on and instilling in them pride for their monarch: "Down with the rococo and the baroque! Long live surrealism!" And it was in that same strait-jacket seven hundred and twenty nine injections later that you appeared before the High Commission. "Well, then," the Army's physicians inquired. "Are you aware of the fact that you are no Dali?" "Yes, sir!" you replied, "for now I am a wondrous cocoon that has arisen out of a simple midnight larva. What a splendid metamorphosis. Look at me: I have become a chrysalis. Like Rodin's statue of Balzac. My profound gratitude to all of you. I am comfortable. I don't need a damn thing anymore and in my heart of hearts, where I once felt constricted, there is now an infinite expanse. Or, perhaps, an infinite coziness. Still, the wings of alarm hover over my head. Has Salvador Dali been informed of this transformation? I must send him a telegram: 'URGENT. STOP. IT IS AN HONOR TO INFORM YOU. STOP. I AM NO LONGER A MAGGOT. STOP. I'VE METAMORPHOSED. STOP. YOURS TRULY. TERRIFIED CHRYSALIS.' Be so kind as to send him this telegram. Only, I fear that Maestro Dali will be unable to bear this loss. After all, Dali and I were such kindred spirits in the past." He is sobbing even now. Your strait-jacket is turning darker by the minute from your tears. Soon after your discharge, you marched in this garb through the streets of your unloved city in protest against the conquistadorial policy of late-Medieval Spain and against Amerigo Vespucci, in particular. You purloined the strait-jacket from the madhouse and brandished it triumphantly like a banner carried off by a scout from enemy headquarters. This was the banner of the moral majority waging an undeclared war on the Artist. In accomplishing this feat, you made a dent in the body of the Soviet Hydra. Of course, there was another reason for rejoicing. I mean, of course, the psychiatrists' prognosis, which read: "Good-for-nothing. Grounds for prognosis: The ravings of a nonentity suffering from delusions of grandeur." How you rejoiced! How you celebrated! In your strait-jacket you rubbed elbows with the beaten but not quite finished-off geniuses of the fine arts, with aesthetes daring to utter sedition in huddled public squares and languorous salons. "Along the palace's smooth enamel/A midnight skeleton did stalk..." Oh, precious jacket! It was in this strait-jacket that you consumed your youth as a cigarette that burns a hole through and through. How careless you were! Isn't it obvious that one must handle such things with care? After all, we are talking about a relic! And so you distinguished yourself in it as a schlemiel, as a bouncer, as an artist's model, as a perpetual student and as a very clever John. Toiling away patiently, you became the representative of your extra-class, the class of the superfluous in their own land. It was in this strait-jacket that you joined the lowly ranks of the glorious Order of Drummers of Retired Goats, you attached yourself to the rebellious, the restless and the idle, to truth-seekers and holy fools with their idée fixe, all led by the master himself, Señor Quixote. A drummer by God's favor, a drummer to the marrow of your bones, you proclaimed yourself an eternal foe of whatever you didn't like. Never mind that in your cocoon state you found it inconvenient to beat the drum. There was no need to bother. You were now an outstanding theoretician of the drum, its courageous ideologue. Fighting for the rightful cause of the Sacred Goat, you pounded away, not by beating with drumsticks against its hide but with your heart against your ribs, with your blood against your temples and the membranes of your ears. You drummed your howl into the ears of others. On your deathbed you will say: "Scouts' honor, I was a pretty good drummer before God. When I die, bury me with honor. But, no need to go to the expense of making me a shroud. Wrap me in my strait-jacket and that's that, a memorial to that fabled period of my life when I lived and struggled and beat the drum, and, if you like, when I would give myself over to thinking." You thought like a chrysalis. You were an individual, all right. But even more, you spoke for a whole generation, for a whole class. There were many like you, far more than the costumes in your wardrobe or the roles you played on stage. Once, you looked back and understood what the great American dreamer Walt Whitman knew a century ago, namely, that you were not alone. You contained multitudes. You were the mass. There were so many of you, enough for a battle scene in a movie. But who cares about such a crowd scene when you could fill up a good hecatomb. And you realized that, like you, nearly everyone is wrapped in a cocoon, in a sackcloth very much like yours. And you were horrified for the sake of your ill-fated people, born into its strait-jacket. And its language became bitter to you. That which seemed during the delirium of your empty youth as the mantle of the Grand Inquisitor was in fact the same red strait-jacket: the same as yours or anybody else's. And that was fulfilled which was prophesied by him in the terrible visions of your early years. You grieved for this people, you shared their burden and, finally, you came to love them. They dissolved in your blood and became pollen on your wings. For in those days you broke out of the chrysalis, no longer a discarded persona but a lofty person, and you soared up. Not like Nabokov's magic butterfly but as a sullen, gray nocturnal moth, soaring on an endless wave of alarm. Is it not better to soar morose and gray than not to soar at all? Acting thus, you became conscious of yourself as a puny but free moth possessing the idiom of your native land. Beating your wings, you soared higher and higher. Still, as before, your language trailed far below in the dust of a vale of tears. Or else it lay like a corpse without rights, the victim of a lethal speechlessness. And the obtuse, wingless lab technicians in their red smocks poked fun mercilessly at this corpse. "Oh, you hapless, impotent, stupid, cocooned Russian language," you said to yourself, paraphrasing Turgenev. And you prayed: "Oh, Lord, preserve and forgive this native idiom of ours, for we possess no other. Preserve and have mercy on us, who are the anxious bearers of this idiom, as we make our way feebly among the languages and peoples of this world. From Uppsala to Buenos Aires. Preserve us, sullen and gray, who bear upon our wings the dust of our primers and chronicles, the ash of the Apocrypha, the soot of lamps and candles. Have mercy on us and on those who seek to break out of their dire straits and soar in our wake. And on those who do not seek to. And on those who shall never soar. Look down on us and on them. Speak to us in your lofty Esperanto. Give us a sign. Fortify us. Teach us. Confirm for us the primordial 'I am.' Reassure us that it is no longer a dream. And if it is a dream, awaken me and reveal yourself, to me, a mere moth fashioned of dust and ashes. Whisper to me, oh Lord, through a fallen leaf, a manuscript sheet or a bamboo grove." And you wondered aloud: "Why have you done this to us, oh Lord?"
Originally published in The Journal of Literary Translation (Fall, 1989, vol. 22, pp. 226-232), this work has been thoroughly revised. My thanks to Columbia University for permission to reprint my translation of Sokolov's work.
December 3, 1997