TYRANTS DESTROYED, by V.Nabokov
“A Secret Remedy against Future Tyrants”
The following story was read on January 20, 2017, in front of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco.
The growth of his power and fame was matched, in my imagination, by the degree of the punishment I would have liked to inflict on him. Thus, at first, I would have been content with an electoral defeat, a cooling of public enthusiasm. Later I already required his imprisonment; still later, his exile to some distant, flat island with a single palm tree, which, like a black asterisk, refers one to the bottom of an eternal hell made of solitude, disgrace, and helplessness. Now, at last, nothing but his death could satisfy me.
As in the graphs that visually demonstrate his ascension, indicating the number of his adherents by the gradual increase in size of a little figure that becomes biggish and then enormous, my hatred of him, its arms folded like those of his image, ominously swelled in the center of the space that was my soul, until it had nearly filled it, leaving me only a narrow rim of curved light (resembling more the corona of madness than the halo of martyrdom), though I foresee an utter eclipse still to come.
His first portraits, in the papers and shop windows and on the posters — which also kept growing in our abundantly irrigated, crying and bleeding country — looked rather blurred: this was when I still had doubts about the deadly outcome of my hatred. Something human, certain possibilities of his failing, his cracking, his falling ill, heaven knows what, came feebly shivering through some of his photographs in the random variety of not yet standardized poses and in a vacillating gaze which had not yet found its historical expression. Little by little, though, his countenance consolidated: his cheeks and cheekbones, in the official portrait photographs, became overlaid with a godly gloss, the olive oil of public affection, the varnish of a completed masterpiece; it became impossible to imagine that nose being blown, or that finger poking on the inside of that lip to extricate a food particle lodged behind a rotten incisor. Experimental variety was followed by a canonized uniformity that established the now familiar, stony, and lusterless, look of his neither intelligent nor cruel, but somehow unbearably eerie eyes. Established, too, was the solid fleshiness of his chin, the bronze of his jowls, and a feature that had already become the common property of all the cartoonists in the world and almost automatically brought off the trick of resemblance — a thick wrinkle across this while forehead — the fatty sediment of thought, of course, rather than thought’s scar. I am forced to believe that his face has been rubbed with all sorts of patent balsams, else I cannot comprehend its metallic good quality, for I once knew it when it was sickly, bloated, and ill-shaven, so that one heard the scrape of bristles against his dirty starch collar when he turned his head. And the glasses — what became of the glasses that he wore as a youth?
Not only have I never been fascinated by politic, but I have hardly ever read a single editorial or even a short report on a party congress. Sociological problems have never intrigued me, and to this day I cannot picture myself taking part in a conspiracy or simply sitting in a smoke-filled room among politically excited, tensely serious people, discussing methods of struggle in the light of recent developments. I don’t give a hoot for the welfare of mankind, and not only do I not believe in any majority being automatically right but tend to reexamine the question whether it is a proper to strive for a state of affairs where literally everyone is half-fed and half-schooled. I further know that my fatherland, enslaved by him at the present time, is destined, in the distant future, to undergo many other upheavals, independent of any acts on this tyrant’s part. Nevertheless, he must be killed.
When the gods used to assume earthly form and, clad in violet-tinted raiment, demurely but powerfully stepping with muscular feet in still dustless sandals, appeared to field laborers or mountain shepherds, their divinity was not in the least diminished for it; on the contrary, the charm of humanness enwafting them was a most eloquent reconfirmation on their celestial essence. But when a limited, coarse, little-educated man — at first glance a third-rate fanatic and in reality a pigheaded, brutal, and gloomy vulgarian full of morbid ambition — when such a man dresses up in a godly garb, one feels like apologizing to the gods. It would be useless to try and convince me that actually he has nothing to do with it, that what elevated him to an iron-and-concrete throne, and now keeps him there, is the implacable evolution of dark, zoological, Zoorlandic ideas that have caught my fatherlands’ fancy. An idea selects only the helve; man is free to complete the ax — and use it.
Then again let me repeat that I am not good at distinguishing what is good or bad for a state, and why it is that blood runs off it like water off a goose. Amid everybody and everything it is only one individual that interests me. That is my ailment, my obsession, and at the same time a thing that somehow belongs to me and that is entrusted to me alone for judgment. Since my early years — and I am no longer young — evil in people has struck me as particularly loathsome, unbearable to the point of suffocation and calling for immediate derision and destruction whilst on the other hand I hardly noticed good in people, so much did it always seem to me the normal, indispensable condition, something granted and inalienable as, for example, the capacity to breathe is implied by the fact of being alive. With passing years I developed an extremely fine flair for evil, but my attitude toward good underwent a slight change, as I came to understand that its commonness, which had conditioned my indifference, was indeed so uncommon that I could not be sure at all of always finding it close to hand should the need arise. This is why I have led a hard, lonely life, always indigent, in shabby lodgings; yet I invariably had the obscure sensation of my real home being just around the corner, waiting for me, so that I could enter it as soon as I had finished with a thousand imaginary matters that cluttered my existence. Good God how I detested dull rectangular minds, how unfair I could be to a kindly person in whom I had happened to notice something comic, such as stinginess or respect for the well-to-do! And now I have before me not merely a weak solution if evil, such as can be obtained from any man, but a most highly concentrated, undiluted evil, in a huge vessel filled t the neck and sealed.
He transformed my wild-flowery country into a vast kitchen garden, where special care is lavished on turnips, cabbages, and beets; thus all the nation’s passions were reduced to the passion for the fat vegetable in the good earth. A kitchen garden next to a factory with the inevitable accompaniment of a locomotive maneuvering somewhere in the background; the hopeless, drab sky of city outskirts, and everything the imagination associates with the scene; a fence, a rusted can among thistles, broken glass, excrements, a black, buzzing burst of flies under one’s feet — this is the present-day image of my country. An image of the utmost dejection, but then dejection is in favor here, and a slogan he once tossed off (into the trash pit of stupidity) — “one half of our land must be cultivated, and the other asphalted” — is repeated by imbeciles as if it were a supreme expression of human happiness. There would be some excuse if he fed us the shoddy maxims he had once gleaned from reading sophists of the most banal kind, but he feeds us the chaff of those truths, and the manner of thinking required of us is based not simply on false wisdom, but on its rubble and stumblings. For me, however, the crux of the matter is not here either, for it stands to reason that even if the idea of which we are slaves were supremely inspired, exquisite, refreshingly moist, and sunny through and through, slavery would still be slavery inasmuch as the idea was inflicted on us. No, the point is that, as his power grew, I began to notice that the obligations of citizens, admonitions, restrictions, decrees, and all the other forms of pressure put on us were coming to resemble the man himself more and more closely, displaying an unmistakable relation to certain traits of his character and details of his past, so that on the basis of those admonitions and decrees one could reconstruct his personality like an octopus by its tentacles — that personality of his that I was one of the few to know well. In other words, everything around him began taking on his appearance. Legislation began to show a ludicrous likeness to his gait and gestures. Greengrocers began stocking a remarkable abundance of cucumbers, which he had so greedily consumed in his youth. The schools’ curriculum now includes gypsy wrestling, which, in rare moments of cold playfulness, he used to practice on the floor with my brother twenty-five years ago. Newspaper articles and the novels of sycophantic writers have taken on that abruptness of style, that supposedly lapidary quality (basically senseless, for every minted phrase repeats in a different key one and the same official truism), that force of language cum weakness of thinking, and all those other stylistic affectations that are characteristic of him. I soon had the feeling that he, he as I remembered him, was penetrating everywhere, infecting with his presence the way of thinking and the everyday life of every person, so that his mediocrity, his tediousness, his gray habitude, were becoming the very life of my country. And finally the law he established — the implacable power of the majority, the incessant sacrifice to the idol of the majority — lost all sociological meaning, for he is the majority.
He was a comrade of my brother Gregory, who had a feverish, poetic passion for extreme forms of organized society (forms that had long been alarming the meek constitution we then had) in the final years of his short life: he drowned at twenty-three, bathing one summer evening in a wide, very wide river, so that when I now recall my brother the first thing that comes to my mind is a shiny spread of water, an islet overgrown with alder (that he never reached but toward which he always swims through the trembling haze of my memory), and a long, black cloud crossing another, opulently fluffed-up and orange-colored one, all that is left of a Saturday morning thunder-storm in the clear, turquoise Sunday’s-eve sky, where a star will shine through in a moment, where there will never be any star. At that time I was much too engrossed in the history of painting in my dissertation on its cave origins to frequent watchfully the group of young people that had inveigled my brother, for that matter, as I recall, there was no definite group, but simply several youths who had drifted together, different in many respects but, for the time being, loosely bound by a common attraction to rebellious adventure. The present, however, always exercises such a perverse influence on reminiscence that now I involuntarily single him out against that indistinct back-ground, awarding him (neither the closest nor the most vociferous of Gregory’s companions) the kind of a somber, concentrated will deeply conscious of its sullen self, which in the end molds a giftless person into a triumphant monster.
I remember him waiting for my brother in the gloomy dining room of our humble provincial house perching on the first chair he saw, he immediately began to read a rumpled newspaper extracted from a pocket of his black jacket, and his face, half-hidden by the armature of smoke-colored glasses, assumed a disgusted and weepy expression, as if he had hit upon some scurrilous stuff. I remember that his sloppily laced town boots were always dirty, as if he had just walked many miles along a cart road between unnoticed meadows. His cropped hair ended in a bristly wedge on his forehead (nothing foretold yet his present Caesar-like baldness.) The nails of his large, humid hands were so closely bitten that it was painful to see the tight little cushions at the tips of his hideous fingers. He gave off a goatish smell he was hard up, and indiscriminate as to sleeping quarters.
When my brother arrived (and in my recollection Gregory is always tardy, always comes in our of breath, as if hastening terribly to live but arriving late all the the same — and thus it was that life finally left him behind), he greeted Gregory without smiling, getting up abruptly and giving his hand with an odd jerk, a kind of preliminary retraction of the elbow; it seemed that if one did not snatch his hand in time it would bounce back, with a springy click, into its detachable cuff. If some member of our family entered, he limited himself to a surly nod; per contra, he would demonstratively shake hands with the cook, who, taken by surprise and not having time to wipe her palm before the clasp, wiped it afterwards, in a retake of the scene, as it were. My mother died not long before his first visits, while my father’s attitude toward him was as absentminded as it was toward everyone and everything — toward us, toward life’s adversities, toward the presence of grubby dogs to whom Gregory offered shelter, and even, it seems, toward his patients. On the other hand, two elderly aunts of mine were openly wary of the “eccentric” (if anyone ever was the opposite of eccentric it was he) as, for that matter, they were of Gregory’s other pals.
Now, twenty-five years later, I often have occasion to hear his voice, his bestial roar, diffused by the thunders of radio; back then, however, I recall he always spoke softly, even with a certain huskiness, a certain susurrous lisp. Only that famous vile bit of breathlessness of his, at the end of a sentence, was already there, yes, already there. When he stood, head and arms lowered, before my brother, who was greeting him with affectionate exclamations, still trying to catch at least an elbow of his, or his bony shoulder, he seemed curiously short-legged, owing, probably, to the length of his jacket, which came down to mid-hip; and one could not determine whether the mournfulness of his posture was caused by glum shyness or by a straining of the faculties before uttering some tragic message. Later it seemed to me that he had at last uttered it and done with it, when, on that dreadful summer evening, he came from the river carrying what looked like a heap of clothes but was only Gregory’s shirt and canvas pants; now, however, I think that the message he seemed to be always pregnant with was not that one after all, but the muffled news of his own monstrous future.
Sometimes, through a half-open door, I could hear his abnormally halting speech in a talk with my brother; or he would be sitting at the tea table, breaking a pretzel, his night-bird eyes turned away from the light of the kerosene lamp. He had a strange and unpleasant way of rinsing his mouth with his milk before he swallowed it, and when he bit into the pretzel he cautiously twisted his mouth; his teeth were bad, and to deceive the fiery pain of a bared nerve by a brief whiff of coolness, he would repeatedly suck in the air, with a sidewise whistle. Once, I remember, my father soaked a bit of cottonwool for him with some brown drops containing opium and, chucking aimlessly, recommended that he see a dentist. “The whole is stronger than its parts,” he answered with awkward gruffness, “ergo I will vanquish my tooth.” I am no longer certain, though, whether I heard those wooden words personally, or whether they were subsequently repeated to me as a pronouncement by the “eccentric”; only, as I have already said, he was nothing of the sort, for how can an animal faith in one’s blear guiding star be regarded as something peculiar and rare? But, believe it or not, he impressed people with his mediocrity as others do with their talent.
Sometimes his innate mournfulness was broken by spasms of nasty, jagged joviality, and then I would hear his laughter, as jarring and unexpected as the yowl of a cat, to whose velvet silence you grow so accustomed that its nocturnal voice seems a demented, demonic thing. Shrieking thus, he would be drawn by his companions into games and tussles; it turned out then that he had the arms of a weakling, but legs strong as steel. On one occasion a particularly prankish boy put a toad in his pocket, whereupon he, being afraid to go after it with his fingers, started tearing off the weighted jacket and in that state, his face darkly flushed, disheveled, with nothing but a dicky over his torn undershirt, he fell pretty to a heartless hunchbacked girl, whose massive braid and ink-blue eyes were so attractive to many that she was wittingly forgiven a resemblance to a black chess knight.
I know about his amorous tendencies and system of courtship from that very girl, now, unfortunately, deceased, like the majority of those who knew him will in his youth (as if death were an ally of his, removing from his path dangerous witnesses to his past.) To this vivacious hunchback he would write either in a didactic tone, with excursions — of a popular-educational type — into history (which he knew from political pamphlets), or else complain in obscure and soggy terms about another woman (also with a physical defect of some kind, I believe), who remained unknown to me, and with whom at one time he had shared bed and board in the most dismal part of the city. Today I would give a lot to search out and interrogate that anonymous person, but she, too, no doubt, is safely dead. A curious feature of his missives was their noisome wordiness; he hinted at the machinations of mysterious enemies; polemicized at length with some poetaster, whose verselets he had read in a calendar — oh, if it were possible to resurrect those precious exercise-book pages, filled with his minuscule, myopic handwriting! Alas, I do not recall a single phrase from them (at the time I was not very interested, even if I did listen and chuckle) and only very indistinctly do I see, in the depth of memory, the bow on that braid, the thin clavicle, and the quick, dusky hand in the garnet bracelet crumpling his letters and I also catch the cooing note of perfidious feminine laughter.
The difference between dreaming of a reordered world and dreaming of reordering it oneself as one sees fit is a profound and fatal one; yet none of his friends, including my brother, apparently made any distinction between their abstract rebellion and his merciless lust for power. A month after my brother’s death he vanished, transferring his activity to the northern provinces (my brother’s group withered and fell apart and, as far as I know, none of its other participants went into politics), and soon there were rumors that the work being done there, both in its aims and methods, had grown diametrically opposed to all that had been said, thought, and hoped in that initial young circle. When I recall his aspect in those days, I find it amazing that no one notice the long, angular shadow of treason that he dragged behind him wherever he went, tucking its fringe under the furniture when he sat down, and letting it interfere strangely with the banister’s own shadow on the wall of the staircase, own which he was seen to the door by the light of a portable kerosene lamp. Or is it our dark present time that was cast forward there?
I do not know if they liked him, but in any case my brother and the others mistook his moroseness for the intensity of spiritual force. The cruelty of his ideas seemed a natural consequence of enigmatic calamities he had suffered; and his whole unrepossessive shell presupposed, as it were, a clean, bright kernel. I may as well confess that I myself once had the fleeting impression that he was capable of mercy; only subsequently did I determine its true shade. Those ho are fond of cheap paradoxes took note long ago of the sentimentality of executioners; and indeed, the sidewalk in front of butcher shops is always dampish.
The first day after the tragedy he kept turning up, and several times spent the night in our place. That death did not evoke any visible signs of grief in him. He behaved as always, which did not shock us in the least, since his usual state was already mournful; and as usual he would sit in some corner, reading something uninteresting and behaving, in short, as in a house where a great misfortune has occurred, people do who are neither close intimates nor complete strangers. Now, moreover, his constant presence and sullen silence could pass for grim commiseration — the commiseration, you see, of a strong reticent man, inconspicuous but ever-present — a very pillar of sympathy — about whom you later learn that he himself was seriously ill at the time he spent those sleepless nights on a chair among tear-blinded members of the household. In his case, however, this was all a dreadful misconception: if he did feel drawn to our house at the time, it was solely because nowhere did he breathe so naturally as in the sphere of gloom and despair, when uncleared dishes litter the table and nonsmokers ask for cigarettes.
I vividly remember setting out with him to perform one of the minor formalities, one of the excruciatingly dim bits of business with which death (having, as it always has, an element of red tape about it) tries to entangle survivors for as long as possible. Probably someone said to me, “There, he will with you,” and he came, discreetly clearing his throat. It was on that occasion (we were walking along a houseless street, fluffy with dust, past fences and piles of lumber) that I did something the memory of which traverses me from top to toe like an electrical jolt of insufferable shame: driven by God knows what feeling — perhaps not so much by gratitude as by condolence for another’s condolence — in a surge of nervousness and ill-timed emotion, I clasped and squeezed his hand (which caused us both to stumble slightly). It all lasted an instant, and yet, if I had then embraced him a pressed my lips to his horrible golden bristles, I could not have felt any greater torment now. Now, after twenty-five years, I wonder: the two of us were walking alone through a deserted neighborhood, and in my pocket I had Gregory’s loaded revolver, which, for some reason or other, I kept meaning to hide; I could perfectly well have dispatched him with a shot at point-blank range, and then there would have been nothing of what there is today — no rain-drenched holidays, no gigantic festivities with millions of my fellow citizens marching by with shovels, hoes, and rakes on their slavish shoulders; no loudspeakers, deafeningly multiplying the same inescapable voice; no secret mourning in every other family, no assortment of tortures, no torpor of the mind, no colossal portraits — nothing. Oh if it were possible to claw into the past, drag a missed opportunity by its hair back into the present, resurrect that dusty street, the vacant lots, the weight in my hip pocket, the youth walking at my side!
I am dull and fat, like Prince Hamlet. What can I do? Between me, a humble teacher of drawing in a provincial high school, and him, sitting behind a multitude of steel and oaken doors in an unknown chamber of the capital’s main jail, transformed for him into a castle (for these direct calls himself “prisoner of the will of the people that elected him”) there is an unimaginable distance. someone was telling me, after having locked himself in the basement with me, about an old widow, a distant relative of his, who succeeded in growing an 80-pound turnip, thus meriting an audience with the exalted one. she was conducted through one marble Corredor after another, and an endless succession of doors was unlocked in front of her and locked behind her, until she found herself in the white, starkly lit hall, whose entire furnishings consisted of two gilt chairs. here she was told to stand and wait. In due time she heard numerous footfalls from behind the door, and, with respect full bows, deferring to each other, half a dozen of his bodyguards came in. with frightened eyes she searched for him among them; their eyes were directed not at her but somewhere beyond her head; then, turning, she saw that behind her, through and another, unnoticed door, he himself had noiselessly entered and, having stopped and placed a hand on the back of one of the two chairs, was scrutinizing the guest of the State with a habitual air of encouragement. then he seated himself and suggested that she describe in her own words who glorious achievement (here an attendant brought in and placed on the second chair a clay replica of her vegetable), and, for ten unforgettable minutes, she narrated how she had planted the turnip; how she had tugged and tugged without being able to get it out of the ground, even though she thought she saw her deceased husband tugging with her; how she had had to call first her son, then her nephew and even a couple or fireman who were resting in the hayloft; and how, finally, backing in tandem arrangement, they had extracted the monster. Evidently he was overwhelmed by her vivid narrative; “Now that’s genuine poetry,” he said, addressing his retinue. “Here’s somebody the poet fellows ought to learn from.” And, crossly ordering that the likeness be cast in bronze, he left. I, however, do not grow turnips, so I cannot find a way to him; and even if I did, how would I carry my treasured weapon to his lair?
On occasion he appears before the people, and, even though no one is allowed near him, and everyone has to hold up the heavy staff of an issued banner so that hands are kept busy, and everyone is watched by a guard of incalculable proportion (to say nothing of the secret agents and the secret agents watching the secret agents), someone very adroit and resolute might have the good fortune to find a loophole, one transparent instant, some tiny chink of fate through which to rush forward. I mentally considered, one by one, all kinds of destructive means, from the classic dagger to plebeian dynamite, but it was all in vain, and it is with goo reason that I frequently dream I am repeatedly squeezing the trigger of a weapon that is disintegrating in my hand, whilst the bullets trickle out of the barrel, or bounce like harmless peas off the chest of my grinning for while he begins unhurriedly to crush my rib cage.
Yesterday I invited several people, unacquainted among themselves but united by one and the same sacred task, which had so transfigured them that one could notice among them an inexpressible resemblance, such as occurs, for instance, among elderly Freemasons. They were people of various professions — a tailor, a masseur, a physician, a barber, a baker — but all exhibited the same dignified deportment, the same economy of gestures. And no wonder! One made his clothes, and that meant measuring his lean, yet broad-hipped body, with its odd, womanish pelvis and round back, and respectfully reaching into his armpits, and, together with him, looking into a mirror garlanded with gilt ivy; the second and third had penetrated even further: they had seen him naked, had kneaded his muscles and listened to his heart, by whose beat, it is said, our clocks will soon be set, so that his pulse, in the most literal sense, will become a basic unit of time; the fourth shaved him, with crepitating strokes, own on the cheeks and on the neck, using a blade that to me is enticingly sharp-looking; the fifth, and last, baked his bread, putting, the idiot, through sheer force of habit raisins instead of arsenic into his favorite loaf. I wanted to palpate these people, so as to partake at least in that way of their mysterious rites, of their diabolical manipulations; it seemed to me that their hands were imbued with his smell, that through those people he, too, was present. It was all very nice, very prim at that party. We talked about things that did not concern him, and I knew that if I mentioned his name there would flash in the eyes of each of them the same sacerdotal alarm. And when I suddenly found myself wearing a suit cut by my neighbor on the right, and eating my vis-à-vis’l pastry, which I washed down with a special kind of mineral water prescribed by my neighbor on the left, I was overcome by a dreadful, dream-significant feeling, which immediately awakened me — in my poor-man’s room, with a poor-man’s moon in the curtainless window.
I am grateful to the night for even such a dream: of late I have been racked by insomnia. It is as if his agents were accustoming me beforehand to the most popular of the tortures inflicted on present-day criminals. I write “present-day” because, since he came to power, there has appeared a completely new breed, as it were, of political criminals (the other, penal, kind actually no longer exists, as the pettiest theft swells into embezzlement which, in turn, is considered an attempt to undermine the regime), exquisitely frail creatures, with a most diaphanous skin and protruding eyes emitting bright rays. This is a rare and highly valued breed, like a young okapi or the smallest species of lemur; they are hunted passionately, self-obliviously, and every captured specimen is hailed by public applause, even though the hunt actually involves no particular difficulty or danger, for they are quite tame, those strange, transparent beasts.
Timorous rumor has it that he himself is not loath to pay an occasional visit to the torture chamber, but there is probably no truth in this: the postmaster general does not distribute the mail himself, nor is the secretary of the navy necessarily a crack swimmer. I am in general repelled by the homey, gossipy tone with which meek ill-wishers speak of him, getting sidetracked into a special kind of primitive joke, as, in older times, the common people would make up stories about the devil, dressing up their superstitious fear in buffoonish humor. Vulgar, hastily adapted anecdotes (dating back, say, to Celtic prototypes), or secret information “from a usually reliable source” (as to who, for instance, is in favor and who is not) always smack of the servants quarters. There are even worse examples, though: when my friend N., whose parents were executed only three years ago (to say nothing of the disgraceful persecution N. himself underwent), remarks, upon his return from an official festivity where he has heard and seen him, “You know, though, in spite of everything, there is a certain strength about that man,” I feel like punching N. in the mug.
In the published letters of his “Sunset Years” a universally acclaimed foreign writer mentions that everything now leaves him cold, disenchanted, indifferent, everything with one exception: the vital, romantic thrill that he experiences to this day at the thought of how squalid his youthful years were compared wth the sumptuous fulfillment of his later life, and of the snowy gleam of its summit, which he has now reached. That initial insignificance, that penumbra of poetry and pain, in which the young artist is on a par with a million such insignificant fellow beings, now lures him and fills with excitement and gratitude — to his destiny, to his craft — and to his own creative will Visits to places, where he had once lived in want, and reunions with his coevals, elderly men of no note whatsoever, hold for him such a complex wealth of enchantment that the detailed study of these sensations will last him for this soul’s future leisure in the hereafter.
Thus, when I try to imagine what our lugubrious ruler feels upon contact with his past, I clearly understand first, that the real human being is a poet and, second, that he, our ruler, is the incarnate negation of a poet. And yet the foreign papers, especially those whose names have vesperal connotation and which know how easily “tales” can be transformed into “sales,” are fond of stressing the legendary quality of his destiny, guiding its crowd of readers into the enormous black house where he was born, and where supposedly to this day live similar paupers, endlessly hanging out the wash (paupers do a great deal of washing); and they also print a photo, obtained God knows how, or his progenitress (father unknown), a thickset broad-nosed woman with a fringe who worked in an alehouse at the city gate. So few eyewitnesses of his boyhood and youth remain, and those who are still around respond with such circumspection (alas, no one has questioned me) that a journalist needs a great gift for invention to portray today’s ruler excelling at warlike games as a boy or, as a youth, reading books till cockcrow. His demagogic luck is construed to be the elemental force of destiny, and, naturally, a great deal of attention is devoted to that overcast winter day when, upon his election to parliament, he and his gang arrested the parliament (after which the army, bleating meekly, went over at once on his side.)
Not much of a myth, but still a myth (in this nuance the journalist was not mistaken), a myth that is closed circle and a discrete whole, ready to begin living its own, insular life, and it is already impossible to replace it with the real truth, even though its hero is still alive; impossible, since he, the only one who could know the truth, is useless as a witness, and this not because he is prejudiced or dishonest, but because, like a runaway slave, he “doesn’t remember!”
Oh, he remembers his old enemies, of course, and two or three books he has read and how the man thrashed him for falling off a woodpile and crushing to death a couple of chicks: that is, a certain crude mechanism of memory does function in him, but, if the gods were to propose that the synthesize himself of his memories, with the condition that the synthesized image be rewarded with immortality, the result would be a dim embryo an infant born prematurely, a blind and deaf dwarf, in no sense capable of immortality.
Should he visit the house where he lived when he was poor, no thrill would ripple his skin — not even a thrill of malevolent victory. But I did visit his former adobe! Not the multiplex edifice where he is supposed to have been born, and where there is now a museum dedicate to him (old posters, a flag grimy with gutter mud, in the place of honor, under a bell jar, a button: all that it was possible to preserve of his niggardly youth), but those vile furnished rooms where he spent several months during the period he and my brother were close. The former proprietor had long since died, roomers had never been registered, so that no trace was left or his erstwhile sojourn. And the thought that I alone in the world (for he had forgotten those lodgeings f his — there have been so many) knew about this filled me with a special satisfaction, as if, by touching that dead furniture and looking at the neighboring roof through the window, I felt my hand closing on the key to his life.
I have just had yet another visitor: a very seedy old man, who was evidently in a state of extreme agitation: his tight-skinned, glossy-backed hands were trembling, a stale senile tear dampened the pink lining of his eyelids, and a pallid sequence of involuntary expressions, from a foolish smile to a crooked crease of pain, passed across his face. With the pen I lent him he traced on a scrap of paper the digits of a crucial year, day, and month: the date — nearly half-a-century past — of the ruler’s birth. He rested his gaze on me, pen raised, as if not daring to continue, or simply using a semblance of hesitation to emphasize the little trick he was about to play. I answered with a nod of encouragement and impatience, whereupon he wrote another date, preceding the first by nine months, underlined it twice, parted his lips as of for a burst of triumphant laughter, but, instead, suddenly covered his face with his hands. “Come on, get to the point,” I said, giving this indifferent actor’s shoulder a shake. Quickly regaining his composure, he rummaged in his pocket and handed me a thick, stiff photograph, which over the years, had acquired an opaque milky tint. It showed a husky young man in a soldier’s uniform; his peaked cap lay on a chair, on whose back, with wooden ease, he rested his hand, while behind him you could make out the balustrade and the urn of a conventional backdrop.With the help of two of three connective glances I ascertained that between my guest’s features and the shadowless, flat face of the soldier (adorned with a thin mustache, and topped by a brush cut, which made the forehead look smaller) there was little resemblance, but that nevertheless the soldier and he were the same person. In the snapshot he was about twenty, the snapshot itself was some fifty years old, and it was easy to fill the interval with the trite account of one of those third-rate lives, the imprint of which one reads (with an agonizing sense of superiority, sometimes unjustified) on the faces of old ragmen, public-garden attendants, and embittered invalids in the uniform of old wars. I was about to pump him as to how it felt to live with such a secret, how he could carry the weight of that monstrous paternity, and incessantly see and hear his offspring’s public presence00but then I noticed that the mazy and issueless design of the wallpaper was showing through his body; I stretched out my hand to detain my guest, but the dodderer dissolved, shivering from the chill of vanishment.
And yet he exists, this father (or existed until quite recently), and if only fate did not bestow on him a salutary ignorance as to the identity of his momentary bedmate, God knows what torment is at large among us, not daring to speak out, and perhaps made even more acute by the fact that the hapless fellow is not fully certain of his paternity, for the wench was a loose one, and in consequence there might be several like him in the world, indefatigably calculating dates, blundering in the hell of too many figures and too meager memories, ignobly dreaming of extracting profit from the shadows of the past, fearing instant punishment (for some error, or blasphemy, for the too odious truth), feeling rather proud in their heart of hearts (after all he is the Ruler!)< losing their mind between supputation and supposition — horrible, horrible!
Time passes, and meanwhile I get bogged down in wild, oppressive fancies. In fact, it astonishes me, for I know of a good number of resolute and even daring actions that I have to my credit, nor am I in the least afraid of the perilous consequences that an assassination attempt would have for me; on the contrary, while I have no clear idea at all of how the act itself will occur, I can make out distinctly the tussle that will immediately follow — the human tornado seizing me, the puppetlike jerkiness of my motions amid avid hands, the crack of clothes being ripped, the blinding red of the blows, and finally (should I emerge from this tussle alive) the iron grip of jailers, imprisonment, a swift trial, the torture chamber, the scaffold, all this to the thundering accompaniment of my mighty happiness. I do not expect that my fellow citizens will immediately receive their own liberation I can even allow that the regime might get harsher our of sheer intertia. There is nothing about me of the civic hero who dies for his people. I die only for myself, for the sake of my own world of good and truth — the good and the true, which are now distorted and violated within me and outside me, and if they are as precious to someone else as they are to me, all the better; if not, if my fatherland needs men of a different stamp that I, I willingly accept my uselessness, but will still perform my task.
My life is too much engrossed and submerged by my hatred to be in the least pleasant, and I do not fear the black nausea and agony of death, especially since I anticipate a degree of bliss, a level of supernatural being undreamt of either by barbarians or by modern followers of old religions. Thus, my mind is lucid and my hand free — and yet I don’t know, I don’t know how to go about killing him.
I sometimes think that perhaps it is so because murder, the intent to kill, is after all unsufferably trite, and the imagination, reviewing methods of homicide and types of weapons, performs a degrading task, the sham of which is the more keenly felt, the more righteous the force that impels one. Or else, maybe I could not kill him our of squeamishness, as some people, while they feel a fierce aversion to anything that crawls, are unable so much as to crush a garden worm underfoot because for them it would be like stamping on the dust-begrimed extremities of their own innards. But whatever explanations I conjure up for my irresoluteness, it would be foolish to hid from myself the fact that I must destroy him. O Hamlet, O moony oaf!
He has just given a speech at the ground breaking ceremony for a new, multistoried greenhouse, and, while he was at it, he touched on the equality of men and equality of wheat ears in the field, using Latin or dog-Latin, for the sake of poetry, arista, aristifier, and even “aristize” (meaning “to ear”) — I do not know what corny schoolman counseled him to adopt this questionable method, but, in recompense, I now understand why, of late, magazine verse contains such archaisms as:
How sapient the veterinarian
Who physics the lactific kine.
For two house the enormous voice thundered throughout our city, erupting with varying degrees of force from this or that window, so that, if you walk along a street (which, by the way, is deemed a dangerous discourse: sit and listen), you have the impression that he accompanies you, crashing down from the rooftops, squirming on all fours between your legs, and sweeping up again to peck at your head, cackling, cawing, and quacking in a caricature of human speech, and you have no place to hide from the Voice, and the same things is going on in every city and village of my successfully sunned country. Apparently no one except m has noticed an interesting feature of his frenzied oratory, namely the pause he makes after a particularly effective sentence, rather like a drunk who stands in the middle of the street, in the independent but unsatisfied solitude characteristic of drunks, and while declaiming fragments of an abusive monologue, most emphatic in its wrath, passion, and conviction, but obscure as to meaning and aim, stops frequently to collect his strength, ponder the next passage, let what he has said sink in; then, having waited out the pause, he repeats verbatim what he has just disgorged, but in a tone of voice suggesting that he has thought of a new argument, another absolutely new and irrefutable idea.
When the Ruler at last ran dry, and the faceless, cheekless trumpets played our agrarian anthem, I not only did not feel relieved, but, on the contrary, had a sense of anguish and loss: while he was speaking I could at least keep watch over him, could know where he was and what he was doing; now he has again dissolved into the air, which I breathe but which has no tangible point of focus.
I can understand the smooth-haired women of our mountain tribes when, abandoned by a lover, every morning, with a persistent pressure of their brown fingers on the turquoise head of a pin, they prick the navel of a clay figurine representing the fugitive. Many times, of late, I have summoned all the force of my mind to imagine at a given moment the flow of his cares and thoughts, in order to duplicate the rhythm of his existence, making it yield and come crashing down, like a suspension bridge whose own oscillations have coincided with the cadenced step of a detachment of soldiers crossing it. The soldiers will also perish — so shall I, losing my reason the instant that I catch the rhythm, while he falls dead in his distant castle; however, no matter what the method of tyrannicide, I would not survive. When I wake up in the morning, at half-past-eight or so, I strain to conjure up his awakening: he gets up neither early nor late, at an average hour, just as he calls himself — even officially, I think — an “average man.” At nine both he and I breakfast frugally on a glass of milk and a bun, and, f on a given day I am not busy at the school, I continue my pursuit of his thoughts. He reads through several newspapers, and I read them with him, searching for something that might catch his attention, even though I know he was aware the evening before of the general content of my morning paper, of its leading articles, its summaries and national news, so that this perusal can give him no particular cause for administrative meditation. After which his assistants come with reports and queries. Together with him, I learn how rail communications are feeling today, how heavy industry is sweating along, and how many centners per hectare the winter wheat crop yielded this year. After looking through several petitions for clemency and tracing on them his invariable refusal — a penciled “X” — the symbol of his heart;s illiteracy — he takes his usual walk before lunch: as n the case of many not overbright people devoid of imagination, walking is his favorite exercise; he walks in his walled garden, formerly a large prison yard. I am also familiar with the menu of his unpretentious lunch, after which I share my siesta with him and ponder plans for making his power flourish further, or new measures fo suppressing sedition. In the afternoon we inspect a new building, a fortress, a forum, and other forms of governmental prosperity, and I approve with him an inventor’s new kind of ventilator. I skip dinner, usually a gala affair with various functionaries in attendance, but, on the other hand, by nightfall my thoughts have redoubled their force and I issue orders to newspaper editors, listen to accounts of evening meetings and, alone in my darkening room, whisper, gesticulate, and ever more insanely hope that at least one of my thoughts may fall in step with a thought of his — and then, I know, the bridge will snap, like a violin string. But the ill luck familiar to overly eager gamblers haunts me, the right card never comes, even though I must have achieved a certain secret liaison with him, for around eleven o’clock, when he goes to bed, my entire being senses a collapse, a void, a weakening, and a melancholy relief. Presently he sleeps, he sleeps, and, since, on his convict’s cot, not a single praedormotory thought troubles him, I too am left at liberty, and only occasionally, without the least hope of success, try to compose his dreams, combining fragments of his past with impressions of the present; probably, though, he does not dream and I work in vain, and never, never, will the night be rent by a royal eath rattle, leading history to comment: “The dictator died in his sleep.”
How can I get rid of him? I cannot stand it any longer. Everything is full of him, everything I love has become his likeness, his mirror image, and, in the features of passerby and in the eyes of my wretched schoolchildren, his countenancy shows ever clearer and more hopelessly. Not only the psoters that I am obliged to have them copy in color do nothing but interpret the pattern of his personality, but even the simple white cube I give the younger classes to draw seems to me his portrait — perhaps his best portrait. O cubic monster, how can I eradicate you?
And suddenly I realized I had a way! It was on a frosty, motionless morning, with a pale pink sky and lumps of ice lodged in the drainpipes’ jaws; there was a doomful stillness everywhere: in an hour the town would awake, and how it would awake! That day his fiftieth birthday was to be celebrated, and already people, looking against the snow like black quarter notes, were creeping out into the streets, so as to gather on schedule at the points where they would be marshaled into different marching groups determined by their trades. At the risk of losing my meager pay, I was not making ready to join any festive procession; I had something else, a little more important, on my mind. Standing by the window, I could hear the first distant fanfares and the radio barker’s inducements at the crossroads, and I found comfort in the thought that I, and I alone, could interrupt all this. Yes, the solution had been found: the assassination of the tyrant now turned out to be something so simple and quick that I could accomplish it without leaving my room. The only weapons available for the purpose were either an old but very preserved revolver, or a hook over the window that must have served at one time to support a drapery rod. This last was even better, as I had my doubts about the performance of the twenty-five-year-old cartridge.
By killing myself I would kill him, as he was totally inside me, fattened on the intensity of my hatred. Along with him would kill the world he had created, all the stupidity, cowardice, and cruelty of that world, which, together with him, had grown huge within me, ousting, to the last sunbathed landscape, to the last memory of childhood, all the treasures I had collected. Conscious now of my power, I reveled in it, unhurriedly preparing for self-destruction, going through my belongings, correcting this chronicle of mine. And then, abruptly, the incredible intensification of all the senses that had overwhelmed me underwent a strange, almost alchemic metamorphosis. The festivities were spreading outside my window, the sun transformed the blue snowdrift into sparkling down, and one could see playing over distant roofs, a new kind of fireworks (invited recently by a peasant genius) whose colors blazed even in broad daylight. The general jubilation; the Ruler’s gem-bright likeness flashing pyrotechnically in the heavens; the gay hues of the procession winding across the river’s snowey cover; the delightful pasteboard symbols of the fatherland’s welfare; the slogans, designed with variety and elegance, that bobbed above the marchers’ shoulders; the jaunty primitive music; the orgy of banners; the contented faces of the young yokles and the national costumes of the hefty wrenches — all of it casued a crimson wave of tenderness to surge with mem and I understood my sin against our great and merciful Master. Is it not he who manured our fields, who directed the poor to be shod, he whom we must thank for every second of our civil being? Tears of repentance, hot, good tears, gushed from my eyes onto the window sill when I thought how I had been repudiating the kindness of the Master how blindly I had reneged the beauty of what he had created, the social order, the way of life, the splendid walnut-finished new fences, and how I plotted to lay hand on myself, daring, thus, to endanger the life of one of his subjects! The festivities, as I have said, were spreading; I stood at the window, my whole being drenched with tears and convulsed with laughter, listening to the verses of our foremost poet, declaimed on the radio by an actor’s juicy voice, replete with baritone modulation:
Now then, citizens,
You remember how long
Our land wilted without a Father?
Thus, without hops, no matter how strong
One’s thirst, it is rather
Difficult, isn’t it,
To make both the beer and the drinking song!
Just imagine, we lacked potatoes,
No turnips, no beets could we get:
Thus the poem, now blooming, wasted
In the bulbs of the alphabet!
A well-trodded road we had taken,
Bitter toadstools we ate.
Until by great thumps was shaking
Until in his trim white tunic
Which upon us its radiance cast,
With his wonderful smile the Ruler
Came before his subjects at last!
Yes, “radiance,” yes, “Toadstools,” yes, “wonderful,” that’s right. I, a little man, I, the blind beggar who today has gained his sight, fall on my knees and repent before you. Execute me — no, even better, pardon me, for the block is your pardon, and your pardon the block, illuminating with an aching, benignant light the whole of my iniquity. You are our pride, our glory, our banner! O magnificent, gentle giant, who intently and lovingly watches over us, I swear you from this day on, I swear to be like all your other nurslings, I swear to be yours indivisibly, and so forth, and so forth, and so forth.
Laughter, actually, saved me. Having experienced all the degrees of hatred and despair, I achieved those heights from which one obtains a bird’s-eye view of the ludicrous. A roar of hearty mirth cured me, as it did, in a children’s storybook, the gentleman “in whose throat an abscess burst at the sight of a poodle’s hilarious tricks.” Rereading my chronicle, I see that, in my efforts to make him terrifying, I have only made him ridiculous, thereby destroying him — an old, proven method. Modest as I am in evaluating my muddled composition, something nevertheless tells me that it is not the work of an ordinary pen. Far fro having literary aspirations, and yet full of words formed over the years in my enraged silence, I have made my point with sincerity and fullness of feeling where another would have made it with artistry and inventiveness. This is an incantation, an exorcism, so that henceforth any man can exorcise bondage. I believe in miracles. I believe that in some way, unknown to me, this chronicle will reach other men, neither tomorrow not the next day, but at a distant time when the world has a day or so of leisure for archeological diggings, on the eve of new annoyances, no less amusing than the present ones. And, who knows — I may be right not to rule out the thought that my chance labor may prove immortal, and may accompany the ages, now persecuted, now exalted, often dangerous, and always useful. While I, a “boneless shadow,” un fathome sans os, will be content if the fruit of my forgotten insomnious nights serves for a long time as a kind of secret remedy against future tyrants, tigroid monsters, half-witted torturers of man.
(Typed by Zarina Zabrisky, from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Tyrants Destroyed.”)