Authors: Gaito Gazdanov
Translated from the Russian by
We always act as if there were something
more valuable than human life.
ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY
I have searched long and hard for the right words to describe what happened, and, convinced that none of the usual, familiar terms will do, have finally settled on one associated with what seems the least imprecise of realms: death. I died in the month of June, at night, during one of my first years abroad. This, however, was far less remarkable than my being the only person to know of this death, the only one to have witnessed it. I saw myself in the mountains; with that absurd invariable sense of urgency characteristic of events in which personal considerations for some reason cease to play any part, I found myself having to scale a high cliff with a sheer drop. Here and there little thorn-bushes somehow managed to cut through the brownish-grey rock surface; in places there were even dead tree trunks and roots creeping along rugged perpendicular clefts. Below, where I had begun my ascent, there was a low stone ledge skirting around the cliff, and lower still, in the dark abyss, was the distant muffled rumble of a mountain river. At length I climbed up, carefully groping for cavities in the stone and clinging now to
a bush, now to the root of a tree, now to a jagged rock jutting out of the cliff face. I was slowly nearing a small shelf that had been obscured from below, but from which I somehow knew a narrow path led away; I couldn’t shake off the oppressive and incomprehensible—like everything else that was going on—presentiment that I was destined nevermore to see it or to follow those narrow bends as it spiralled up unevenly, strewn with pine needles. Later, I remembered that I had sensed someone waiting for me up there, someone’s keen, impatient desire to see me. I had at last almost reached the top; with my right hand I grabbed onto a pronounced stone ledge and in another few seconds I might have managed to pull myself up, when suddenly the solid granite crumbled beneath my fingers and I began to fall headlong, my body hitting the cliff face as the latter seemed to be soaring upwards before my eyes. Then came a sharp, almighty jolt that winded me and made the muscles in my arms ache—I was suspended in mid-air, my numb fingers clinging convulsively to the dried-out branch of a dead tree that had once nestled in a horizontal crevice in the rock. Below me was a void. I dangled there, my wide eyes transfixed by the patch of granite in my field of vision, as I sensed the branch steadily yielding beneath my weight. A small transparent lizard flashed for an instant a little above my fingers, and I distinctly saw its head, its flanks rising and falling rapidly, and its deathly gaze, cold and unmoving—a reptile’s gaze. Then in one agile, elusive
movement it darted upwards, vanishing. Shortly thereafter I heard the intense buzzing of a bumblebee, rising and falling in pitch, although not without a certain insistent melodiousness in some way resembling a vague acoustic memory, which I expected to crystallize at any moment. But the branch gave more and more under my fingers, and the terror penetrated deeper and deeper inside me. Least of all did this terror lend itself to description; what prevailed was an understanding that these were the final moments of my life, that no power on earth could save me, that I was alone, utterly alone, and that beneath me in those abysmal depths, which I could sense with every sinew of my body, death awaited me, and I was powerless against it. Never before had it occurred to me that these feelings—loneliness and terror—could be experienced not only mentally, but literally with every fibre of one’s being. And although I was still alive and there was not a single scratch on my body, I was, at a phenomenal speed which nothing could halt or even slow, undergoing such mental agony, such chilling languor and insurmountable anguish. Only at the very last second, or even fraction of a second, did I feel something like sweet sacrilegious exhaustion, curiously inseparable from the languor and anguish. It seemed to me that if I were to combine into a single entity every sensation I had experienced over the course of my life, the collective power of these would still pale in comparison with what I had experienced in these
past few minutes. But this was my final thought: there was a snap, the branch broke, and around me the rocks, bushes and ledges began spinning with such unbearable speed, until finally, after an eternity, amid the humid air there came the heavy crunch of my plummeting body hitting the rocks on the riverbank. A moment later I watched helplessly as the image of the sheer cliff and the mountain river disappeared before my eyes; then it was gone, and nothing remained.
Such was my recollection of death, after which I mysteriously continued to survive, if I am to assume that I did in fact remain myself. Prior to this, as with the majority of people, I had often dreamt that I was falling, but each time I had awoken during the fall. Yet as I made this arduous ascent to the top of the cliff, and when I met the cold gaze of the lizard, and when the branch broke beneath my fingers, I was aware that I was not asleep. I have to say that throughout this vivid and frankly banal incident, devoid as it was entirely of any romantic or chimeric nuances, there were two people present—a witness and a victim. This duality, however, was barely noticeable, at times imperceptible. And so, having returned from oblivion, I once again found myself in the world where until now I had led such a notional existence; it was not that the world around me had changed all of a sudden, but rather that I couldn’t tell, amid the disorderly and random chaos of memories, unfounded concerns, contradictory
emotions, sensations, odours and sights, what it was that demarcated my own existence, what belonged to me and what to others, and what was the illusive significance of that unstable compound of various elements, the absurd amalgam of which was theoretically supposed to constitute my being, imparting to me my name, nationality, date and place of birth, my personal history, which is to say that long sequence of failures, accidents and transformations. I felt as though I were slowly re-emerging, in the very place where I was never supposed to return—having forgotten everything that had taken place before now. But this wasn’t amnesia in the literal sense of the word: I had just forgotten irrevocably what one was supposed to consider important, and what insignificant.
I could now sense the strange illusoriness of my own life everywhere—an illusoriness that was many-layered and inescapable, irrespective of whether it had to do with projects, plans or the immediate material conditions of life, all of which had the ability to change entirely over the course of a few days or a few hours. In any case, I had been acquainted with this state for some time; it was one of the things I hadn’t forgotten. For me, the world consisted of objects and sensations that I recognized—as if I had experienced them long ago and only now were they coming back to me, like a dream lost in time. This had even been the case when I encountered them probably for the very first time in my life. It seemed as if, amid an
enormous, chaotic combination of vastly disparate things, I had blindly sought the path I had trod before, without knowing how or where. Perhaps this is why the majority of events left me entirely indifferent and only a rare few moments containing—or seeming to contain—some sort of coincidence arrested my attention with incredible force. It would be difficult for me to pinpoint how exactly these moments differed from others—some inexplicable nuance, some random detail that was plain for me to see. They almost never influenced my own fate or personal interests directly; they were visions that usually appeared out of the blue. There had been years when my life somehow clearly didn’t belong to me, and I took only an external, insignificant role in its events: I was entirely indifferent to what went on around me, despite there having been tempestuous scenes, sometimes involving mortal danger. But I understood this danger only theoretically, and I could never fully appreciate its true meaning, which would probably have struck terror in my soul and compelled me to live other than I did. It often seemed to me—when I was alone and there was no one to prevent me from immersing myself in this endless series of vague sensations, visions and thoughts—that I lacked the strength for one last push, in order to discover myself and suddenly to comprehend at long last the hidden meaning of my destiny, which had until now been going through my memory like some haphazard relay of random occurrences. But I never managed
to do this, nor did I even manage to comprehend why one thing or another, on the face of it bearing no relation to me whatsoever, would suddenly take on such a significance that was as incomprehensible as it was plainly apparent.
Now began a new phase in my life. A whole series of oddly powerful sensations, many of which I had never before experienced, passed through my very being: an unbearable thirst and the heat of the desert, the icy waves of a northern sea that surrounded me and in which I would spend hours swimming towards a far-distant rocky shore, the burning touch of a swarthy female body that I had never known. Often I endured torturous physical pain symptomatic of incurable diseases whose descriptions I would later find in medical textbooks—diseases from which I never suffered. I had gone blind more than once, I had been left crippled many times over, and one of the rare physical pleasures known to me was that of regaining consciousness and realizing that I was in the fullest of health and that due to some incomprehensible convergence of events I was now beyond these excruciating states of sickness or injury.
Of course, it was far from always the case that I had to endure such things. What had now become utterly immutable was a peculiarity owing to which I felt almost like a stranger to myself. Whenever I happened to be alone, I would be engulfed instantly by the troubled movements of a vast, imaginary world; it would hurtle me along
uncontrollably and I would scarcely be able to keep pace with it. There was visual and auditory chaos, comprised of an array of disparate elements; sometimes it would be the music of a distant march, ensconced on all sides by high stone walls; sometimes it was the silent motion of an endless green landscape, broken only by the rolling hills and their strange undulation; sometimes it was the outlying environs of a Dutch town with stone troughs of uncertain origin, where the water trickled with a steady murmur—to intensify this obvious infringement of Dutch realism, women would go to them, one after another, carrying jugs on their heads. Nowhere was there any logical pattern in this, and the shifting chaos clearly failed to present even a remote semblance of any harmonious order. And so, accordingly, at that point in my life, which was marked by the constant attendance of chaos, my inner existence acquired an equally false and wavering character. I could never be certain how long any one feeling would last, I never knew what would come to replace it the very next day or in a week’s time. And just as I had been amazed to learn upon reading my first books, after having mastered the alphabet, that the people there managed to speak in full sentences, using classical constructions of subject and predicate with a full stop at the end—although it seemed to me that no one ever did this in reality—so too it now appeared almost inconceivable to me that one person or another could be an accountant or a minister,
a labourer or a bishop, and remain firmly convinced that his work was more important and enduring than anything else, as if a bishop’s cassock or a labourer’s jacket mysteriously but exactly corresponded to the personal calling and vocation of the man who wore it. I knew, of course, that within a given timeframe and under normal circumstances a labourer would never become a bishop, just as a bishop would not turn into a labourer, and often this state of affairs would last until death set them equal with grim indifference. Yet I also sensed that the world in which the former was fated to be this, and the latter that, could suddenly turn out to be notional and illusory, and that everything could alter beyond recognition. In other words, the arena in which my life unfolded was for me devoid of any clearly defined and in any way concrete features; there was nothing constant about it—the objects and ideas that comprised it could change in form and content, like the impossible metamorphoses of a never-ending dream. And each morning, upon waking, I would gaze with troubled wonderment at the wallpaper patterns in my hotel room, which always seemed different from the night before, because so many changes had occurred between yesterday and today, and I knew instinctively that I too might have changed, swept up by that imperceptible and irresistible motion. I seemed to be living in an almost abstract world, never quite managing to uncover the logic behind certain objects and concepts that had seemed so
crucial and definitive to a number of my former teachers, a sort of fundamental law of all evolution and human existence.
It was in these distant and neurotic times that I met a man who seemed to have been summoned out of inexistence with the sole purpose of appearing before me at this precise stage in my life. Strictly speaking, he was not a man, but the unrecognizable, distorted spectre of someone who had once been alive. That man was no more, he had vanished, but not without trace, as there yet remained what I saw when the figure first approached me and said:
“Excusez-moi de vous déranger. Vous ne pourriez pas m’avancer un peu d’argent?”
His face was dark and covered in thick grey-and-ginger stubble, his eyes were swollen and his eyelids sagged; he wore a frayed black hat, a long jacket that looked like a short overcoat, or a short overcoat that looked like a very long jacket, dark grey in colour, black-and-whitish boots that were split all along the seams, and light-brown trousers covered in myriad specks of dirt. His eyes, however, looked ahead calmly and lucidly. But it was his voice that particularly struck me, being quite out of keeping with his appearance—a flat, deep voice, with an astonishing hint of confidence. It was impossible not to detect the echo of some other world, and not the one to which this man so
evidently belonged. No vagrant or beggar should have, or has indeed ever had, the ability or the right to speak in such a voice. And if I had required irrefutable evidence that this man was himself the living spectre of another, someone who had vanished, then these intonations and this acoustic revelation would have proved more convincing than any biographical testimony. It immediately made me pay much more attention to him than I would have done to a common tramp asking me for alms money. The second factor that piqued my interest was his unnaturally correct French.