Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lenin in Zurich by Elias Canetti

I was twelve when I got passionately interested in the Greek wars of liberation, and that same year, 1917, was the year of the Russian Revolution. Even before his journey in the sealed freight car, people were talking about Lenin living in Zurich. Mother, who was filled with an insatiable hatred of the war, followed every event that might terminate it. She had no political ties, but Zurich had become a center for war opponents of the most diverse countries and sentiments. Once, when we were passing a coffeehouse, she pointed to the enormous skull of a man sitting near the window, a huge pile of newspapers lay next to him; he had seized one paper and held it close to his eyes. Suddenly he threw back his head, turned to a man sitting at his side and fiercely spoke away at him. Mother said: “Take a good look at him. That’s Lenin. You’ll be hearing about him.”

We had halted, she was slightly embarrassed about standing like that and staring (she would always reproach me for such impoliteness), but his sudden movement had struck into her, the energy of his jolting turn towards the other man had transmitted itself to her. I was amazed at the other man’s rich, black, curly hair, which so glaringly contradicted Lenin’s baldness right next to him; but I was even more astonished at Mother’s immobility. She said: “Come on, we can’t just stand here,” and she pulled me along.

A few short months later, she told me about Lenin’s arrival in Russia, and I began to understand that something important was happening. The Russians had had enough of the killing, and soon it would be finished, whether with or against the governments. She never called the war anything but “the killing.” Since our arrival in Zurich, she had talked about it very openly with me; in Vienna, she held back to prevent my having any conflicts in school. “You will never kill a person who hasn’t done anything to you,” she said beseechingly; and proud as she was of having three sons, I could sense how worried she was that we might too become such “killers” some day. Her hatred of war had something elemental to it: Once, when telling me the story of Faust, which she didn’t want me to read as yet, she disapproved of his pact with the devil. There was only one justification for such a pact: to put an end to war. You could even ally yourself with the devil for that, but not for anything else.

On some evenings, friends of Mother’s gathered in our home, Bulgarian and Turkish Sephardim, whom the war had driven to Zurich. Most of them were married couples, who were middle-aged but seemed old to me; I didn’t particularly like them, they were too Oriental for me and spoke only about uninteresting things.

One man came alone, widower, Herr Adjubel; he was different from the others. He carried himself erect and had opinions that he advocated with conviction, and he calmly and chivalrously let Mother’s vehemence, which afflicted him harshly, run off his back. He had fought in the Balkan war as a Bulgarian officer, had been seriously wounded, and left with an incurable ailment…

I preferred him to stay till the last. From his arguments with my mother, I learned a lot of things that were new to me. Herr Adjubel was in a very difficult situation. He was devoted to the Bulgarian army, perhaps even more than to Bulgaria. He was filled with the traditional pro-Russian sentiments of the Bulgarians, who owed Russia their independence from the Turks. And now he was having a rough time of it because the Bulgarians were on the side of Russia’s enemies. He would have certainly fought under these circumstances too, but with a tortured conscience, so perhaps it was good that he couldn’t fight. Yet now the situation had gotten more complicated through the new turn of events in Russia.

The fact that the Russians were leaving the war spelled, he thought, the destruction of of the Central Powers. The infection, as he called it, would spread, first the Austrian and next the German soldiers would want to stop fighting. But then what would become of Bulgaria? Not only would they have to bear the mark of Cain – ingratitude- towards their liberators forever, but all the powers would pounce on them as in the Second Balkan War and slice up the country among themselves. Finis Bulgariae!

One can imagine how Mother grabbed each point of his argument and tore it apart. Basically, she had everyone against her, for even though they welcomed a speedy end of the war, they regarded that end as a dangerous threat if brought by the activities of the Bolsheviks in Russia. They were all middle-class people, more or less well-to-do; those among them who came from Bulgaria feared the revolution would spread there; those who came from Turkey saw the old Russian foe, albeit wearing a new garb, in Constantinople. Mother didn’t care one way or the other. All that mattered to her was who truly wanted to end the war. She, who came from one of the wealthiest families in Bulgaria, defended Lenin. She couldn’t see the devil in him, as the others did, she saw a benefactor of mankind.

Herr Adjubel, with whom she actually fought, was the only one to understand her, for he had an opinion himself. He once asked her (it was the most dramatic moment of these get-togethers): “And if I were a Russian officer, Madame, and I were determined to keep fighting with my men against the Germans- would you have me shot?” She didn’t even hesitate: “I would have any man shot if he opposed the end of the war. He would be an enemy of mankind.”

She was not discouraged by the horror of the others –compromising businessmen and their sentimental wives. Everyone spoke at once: “What? You would have the heart to do that? You would have the heart to shoot Herr Adjubel?”

“He’s no coward. He knows how to die, he’s not like the rest of you – isn’t that so, Herr Adjubel?”

He was the one who agreed with her. “Yes, Madame, from your point of view, you would be right. You have the intransigence of a man. And are a true Arditti!”

These last words, which were a tribute (to her family, whom, in contrast to my father’s, I didn’t like at all), appealed less to me, but, I have to say, despite the vehemence of those exchanges, I was never jealous of Herr Adjubel, and when he succumbed to his illness a short time later, we both mourned him, and my Mother said; “It’s good that he didn’t live to see the collapse of Bulgaria.”

The Tongue Set Free, Part Four, ‘The Skull’ by Elias Canetti; translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977

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