Friday, 19 February 2016

Konstantin Paustovsky: The Story of a Life, Excerpt

Lenin began to speak. I could not hear well. I was squeezed tight in the crown. Someone’s rifle butt was pressing into my side. The soldier standing right behind me laid his heavy hand on my shoulder and squeezed it from time to time, convulsively tightening his fingers….
He spoke slowly about the meaning of the Brest-Litovsk peace, about the treachery of the Left Social Revolutionaries, about the alliance of the workers with the peasants, and about bread, about how necessary it was to stop the endless meetings and noise in Moscow, waiting for no one knew what, and to start to work the land as quickly as possible and to trust the government and the party….
The heavy hand was now lying quietly on my shoulder, as if resting. I felt in its weight something like a friendly caress. This was the hand the solider would use to stroke the shaved heads of his children when he got back to his village.
I wanted to look at the soldier. I glanced around. It turned out to be a tall civil guardsman with a blond unshaven face, very broad and very pale, without a single wrinkle in it. He smiled at me in embarrassment, and said:
“The President!”
“What president?” I asked, not understanding.
“The President of the People’s Commissars, himself. He made promises about peace and the land. Did you hear him?”
“I heard.”
“Now, that’s something. My hands are itching for the land. And I’ve straggled clean away from my family.”
“Quiet, you!” another soldier said to us, a frail little man in a cap.
“All right, I’ll be quiet,” the civil guardsman whispered and he started quickly to unbutton his faded shirt.
“Wait, wait, I want to show you something,” he muttered as he fumbled inside his shirt until he pulled out, at last, a little linen bag turned black with sweat, and slipped a much-creased photography out of it. He blew on it, and handed it to me. A single electric lamp was flickering high up under the ceiling. I couldn’t see a thing.
Then he cupped his hands together, and lit a match. It burned down to his fingers, but he did not blow it out. I looked at the photograph simply in order not to offend the man. I was sure it would be the usual peasant family photograph, such as I had often seen next to the icon in peasant huts.
The mother always sat in front — a dry, wrinkled old woman with knotty fingers. Whatever she was like in life — gentle and uncomplaining or shrewish and foolish — the picture always showed her with a face of stone and with tight-pressed lips. In the flash of the camera’s lens she always became the inexorable mother, the embodiment of the stern necessity of carrying on the race. And around her there always sat and stood her wooden children and her bulging-eyed grandchildren.
You had to look at these pictures for a long time to see and to recognize in their strained figures the people whom you knew well — the old woman’s consumptive, silent son-in-law — the village shoemaker, his wife, a big-bosomed, shrewish woman in an embroidered blouse and with shoes with tops which flapped against the base calfs of her legs, a young fellow with a forelock and with that strange emptiness in the eyes which you find in hooligans, and another fellow, dark and laughing, in whom you eventually recognized the mechanic known throughout the whole region. And the grandchildren — frightened kids with the eyes of little martyrs. These were children who had never known a caress or an affectionate greeting. Or maybe the son-in-law who was the shoemaker sometimes took pity on them quietly and gave them his old boot lasts to play with.
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