Tiger in the grass

31 March 2001 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Maan ääreen (‘To the end of the earth’, Otava, 1999)

I left Kronstadt at the end of October in the year 1868, when I was 22 years old.

The Mozart was a three-hundred-ton barque. Even on the journey to Tvedestrand in Norway I vomited yellow bile and my toes and fingers froze. We lingered in Tvedestrand for three months while the vessel was repaired in dock. To amuse myself, I drew and wrote an accurate description of the ship. That work ended up in the sea. From the harbour captain’s library I borrowed German books which dealt with geology and topology. Their reality was different from that of the law and the interpretation of its letter and spirit. When a topologist draws a map, it has to be true. Otherwise travellers will get lost, I thought childishly, as if it were possible to draw a line between true and true.

‘Studying feels different from before; if I were at home, everything would have gone differently,’ I wrote to my officer father, not in a spirit of repentance but of enthusiasm.

I mumbled to myself lead glance, sphalerite, hematite, malachite, olivine, diopside, hornblende, muscovite, plagioglass. I read about mineral coal, which can be distinguished in a gravel fracture by its appearance as patches or seams an arshin or fathom wide. In the Amur area, the coal-seams are pressed between layers of clay and sandstone, where stone such as porphyryous basalt and diorite have raised and folded them. In the red-light district of Helsinki, women whispered diamond as if a piece of coal crystallised by strong pressure into a convex octahedron were more valuable than the coal that is dug from mines. Diamonds are luxury, coal the future.

If I had not thrown my travel diary into the sea, what would I now think of the presentiments, fears and hopes of which I wrote? What help would knowledge and memory be? Emptiness forces one to step forward. Even if one’s mind is frozen, one’s body carries one to new landscapes. In the small shop in Tvedestrand stood a headscarfed old woman who was buying various seeds in brown paper bags, although it was winter. Carrot, radish, cabbage. She also bought a bottle of liquor. As I was walking on the slippery streets that evening, I sprained my ankle. The harbour captain’s daughter bound my ankle in a warm poultice. The next day, when I hobbled outside, a thin snow had fallen. There was a scent of snow and smoke from the houses. At the door of the rectory stood a pastor in his black cassock; on the steps was a young girl and boy, hand in hand. I thought the couple must have gone to ask about marriage. That made me sad and lonely. In front of the shop were some drunken old men. The dogs barked furiously as I walked along the main street. All that so far away. I had no friends, and even the dialect I understood poorly.

When I arrived in Nahodka in October 1869 I was a year older than when I had left Helsinki, St Petersburg and Kronstadt. I owe Captain Brolin my thanks that I reached land.

Nahodka looked like a row of plywood boxes which had been left out in the sun, wind, rain and frost. Nevertheless, it was beautiful to my eyes, whose sight disease had dimmed! The sky lay low and grey as a cow’s belly. At the harbour, I got a ride in an old Gilyak’s cart. My luggage did not weigh much, but all the strength in my body had disappeared. Lightest and heaviest in my bags were the letters of recommendation from my father the colonel, Hans Wahlström, President of the Turku Court of Appeal, and Commercial Counsellor Wilhelm Dahl from Vyborg. I had been urged to go straight to Commandant Hjort. I had not heard anything good about him. In Helsinki it was said that he was an unscrupulous, self-centred, petty and grumpy man, autocratic, who lived alone.

The government building was a weatherbeaten wooden house on the unpaved square.

My boots were covered in mud and horse dung. My face was swollen and my gums bloody, but of course there was no need to smile at the soldier acting as doorman. I bowed to the commandant, and kept my head down as I spoke to him. This could be taken as a mark of humility. Hjort sat down at his wide desk. Against the window, I could make out only his silhouette: large, old man’s ears, a long neck and narrow shoulders. But his voice was loud, as if accustomed to giving orders.

Hjort examined my papers. His head bent as far as his uniform collar allowed.

‘Mr Falk has matriculated, is a student? What did you study?’

‘Law and geology, Mr Commandant,’ I said, lying.

I thought about a couple of books on the Tvedestrand bookshelf. I remembered the flaxen-haired girl bending to wrap the bandage round my ankle. I lied as if I already knew that the truth and the law are one thing in Helsinki and St Petersburg and another on the shores of the Okhota sea. Here, the spoken word evaporates into the strength of the sky. In the offices of great cities, words bounce from one room to another, there are ears to listen, and every sentence is inspected.

Hjort rose to his feet and walked round his table, measuring the carpet with his boots, just as my father had done. Once again, another person’s paces were making out my fate. I rose to my feet. The Commandant leaned so close that I could see the grey hairs protruding from his nose.

‘If you find coal as they did in Dudinsk, you will be well-paid,’ he said.

His commanding voice had lowered to a whisper. The words sphalerite, malachite, olivine buzzed in my head. I said aloud that I had no experience of mining. That, at least, was true. Hjort said he would give me the services of some Russian soldiers and some Chinese labourers. I felt dizzy. Hjort sat down, and I sat too. I had nowhere to live, no money, no food. I tasted blood in my mouth. Although I was hungry, I did not know whether I would yet be able to eat anything but gruel or porridge. I stared at the carpet, which had a worn patch next to the chair. I reflected that more destinies than mine had been decided in at this place.

‘You can work in the office of the harbour captain and the warehouse foreman Petrov. The salary is fifty roubles a month. You will find lodgings in Doctor Gantz’s house. He and Rosenqvist have had the third man die. It’s a big house, there are plenty of rooms, and there’s a servant, too,’ Hjort said.

Somehow he had grown absentminded. Perhaps he was thinking about the coal, which we would talk about on another occasion, whispering, for a reason I did not know. When Hjort rose and turned his back to look out of the window into the fog, I knew the audience was at an end.

In the Gilyak’s cart, I found my way to Gantz’s house. It was the same kind of box as the rest of the houses in the town, a single-storey, weatherbeaten building. I had come to the very end of the Russian empire. I needed food, a bed, sleep. Ultima thule. It is a dream; sleeping away the reality that weighs like a stone.

Viktor Petrov, the justice court of appeal, is a shortish man with tight, curly black hair.

When we met for the first time in the harbour office, Petrov’s handshake seemed limp, although his palm is like a coal-shovel. He spoke irritably to me. Asked questions and answered them himself. How many ships put in at Nahodka harbour in the best days? Eight. How much money and material is there in the warehouse? Ten thousand silver roubles in leather sacks, and under the roof 50,000 roubles’ worth of stuff. Petrov puffed out his chest as if he had carried everything in with his own hands.

He ordered a pale boy to bring us tea.

Petrov’s anger melted like honey in tea. He showed me my desk in the office, began to talk about the fact that after five years’ service government officials receive their passage home. In ten years’ time he would have the right to a full pension. Ten years! Petrov looked at me with his angular head aslant. All you needed was to take your papers to St Petersburg, get a certificate to prove your skill with languages and you’d have a position as a civil servant. ‘The life of a free man in Siberia is good and easy,’ Petrov was already smiling. He has even teeth; the canines are indistinguishable from the rest of the row. ‘But you need to speak better Russian. Come home to our house, spend evenings with us and you will learn,’ he chattered, as if he had suddenly become a different man. But I sensed that he was like Siberia itself: the permafrost began at a metre and a half ‘s depth. I bowed and thanked him for his invitation; I thought that I must grow stronger, have the blood circulate in my toes and my teeth in order before I could venture into society.

The streets of Nahodka are not like the streets of Helsinki or St Petersburg. They are sand and clay, flying dust, mud, ice or sheet ice, depending on the time of year. Nevertheless, women take their afternoon walks just as they do in Helsinki or St Petersburg. I cannot criticise their clothes, but a light step, glances, a whispered greeting and a quick smile. Geographical distance works by multiplication. Vladivostok is on the same latitude as Nice in France. We live at the level of Paris. Fashion and custom and novelties capture a greater importance the farther they are from the originating point. The women of Nahodka study the fashion magazines and order dresses from the seamstress.

I met Alexandra for the first time outside the grocer’s shop. It was a Sunday, a cold and pale day, when the sky seems high, but the sunshine falls obliquely as if through dust. The shop window was dim with dirt, but Alexandra was looking at her own reflection, not at the things in the window. She was holding Petrov by the arm, speaking excitedly and was embarrassed when I approached and raised my hat. Petrov introduced his wife. Alexandra is taller than her husband. I greeted them and spoke clumsily, but was presently invited to spend the evening with the Petrovs; whist and champagne.

It is t years since when I walked with Gantz and Rosenqvist to Petrov’s villa in the evening. I had seen the building. It is more magnificent than the other houses of Nahodka, painted and decorated with wood cut-outs. Even Hjort’s villa is more modest, but he was, after all, a bachelor, grumpy and mean, lived with one servant, and did not care for social life any more than was compulsory for his job. Petrov’s villa is surrounded by a park. Through the efforts of a gardener, plants flourish there that otherwise grow only in the milder climate of the interior. A vine climbed up the pergola, and some large-flowered creeper, whose trumpets blew a strong scent into the air. Warm late summer, when the fog had dispersed.

The visit made me nervous, and the nervousness was mixed with pleasure at the fact that I was far from home. For the future there was a space that will gradually fill.

The brightly coloured windows of the glass porch were lit by lanterns.

I stepped into a house with heavy velvet curtains, thick carpets, mahogany furniture, Chinese fireguards and blue patterned vases filled with dried flowers. The scent of roses and tea floated in the rooms. Very different from a household where only men live, although the one-eyed servant does take care of us, brushes and dusts. One would not be ashamed to invite visitors, but we do not. In the hall a little servant girl took our hats and coats. The woman was like pepper, Gilyak or Yurak; I have not learned to tell them apart.

Alexandra Petrova shook me by the hand. A warm hand, fully a woman’s, flesh and pulsing blood sensed through the skin. I thought she was like a dove, the tame doves of the park, which strut with short strides, peck at puddles or look at their reflections, ruffle their feathers and stretch out their necks in a deep, throaty coo. Alexandra introduced her children. The oldest, Vera, a thin dark girl. The boys, in order of height, Piotr, Andrei, Hans and Ulrich, as similar in appearance as tin soldiers cast in a mould, sturdy and painted in bright colours. With the exception of Vera, the children disappeared like shadows after they had been shown to the visitors.

‘Informal, buffet,’ Alexandra said, pointing to a table with a tasselled cloth on which was food in silver dishes: fish in different sauces, caviar, cucumbers, tiny mutton meat-balls, thin rolls made of dried elk-meat. I became terribly hungry, as if I had not eaten anything since my voyage. Drink, food and a soft sofa, as if I had just stumbled down the gangplank and seen visions! Alexandra saw my expression and smiled. Gaming tables were set up in the other room. Someone sat at the piano and played. I must speak, I must learn Russian! I will become a civil servant; I will build my future! All of this passed through my head. Champagne! Look at me now, officer father, and mother too, weeping silently! I will turn your shame to victory. I drink the glass I am offered down in one draught.

What did we talk about? What does one discuss here, where nothing happens? What happens in the harbour or the market and the streets is not suitable for chewing over on society evenings. I suppose we talked about events in Helsinki and Vyborg and St Petersburg, although it takes a long time for news to travel to the shores of the Okhota sea. Petrov walked among the visitors wearing the same expression as when inspecting the harbour warehouses. I had already heard rumours about the Petrovs. ‘The relationship between man and wife is poor. Both are unfaithful, and according to rumour for good reason. They often quarrel. The husband is dandyish, and treats everyone like servants.’ That is what was said. No matter. I ate and drank and became intoxicated. The children’s German governess, a plump fräulein, played sugary dance tunes on the piano. Suddenly I felt oppressed. I could not breathe. Everything that was familiar from my old life, moved to Siberia, was suffocating. I nodded to Gantz and apologised to my hosts for my faintness. I went home.

The night was bright with stars. I heard a tiger creeping through the grass. I heard it – I thought I heard it – Nahodka is, after all, not Helsinki.

Finale

Why did Theodor Gantz not write the truth in the account book? Was it Lennart he was protecting. No, he was shielding his own aging man’s mind and body, gnawed at by the treacherous moments of sleepless nights. He raised a weight from his chest, raised himself like Münchhausen, although he was already bald. The notes ended.

In a detective story, the truth about the death of Lennart Falk would not be acceptable.

I have a letter sent by Theodor Gantz, doctor of medicine and collegiate assessor, sent from Nahodka to Helsinki in the autumn of 1871.

I quote one paragraph of the letter.

According to the report of the police officials, the course of events was as follows. Two soldiers serving in the Nahodka garrison each had a romantic relationship with Natasha B., a servant girl with the Petrov family. When it became clear to the young men that they were rivals, each wanted to clear the other from his path. According to a statement by the garrison commandant, both men were considered hot-blooded and violent. On the night of 6 August, the rivals happened to encounter one another in the garden of the harbour office commandant Viktor Petrov. Each was waiting for Natasha B. to finish work. Private Valentin Maximov grabbed half a brick, which was lying at the corner of the house. Believing Private Hermann J. to be walking along the path, Maximov raised his hand and struck. In the darkness, he mistook the identity of the person. Because Hermann J., for unknown reasons, protected his rival, the police examination was long-drawn-out. Maximov will appear in court soon.

Yes, I asked where is Siberia? Land of good fortune. The globe has been charted even from space, but on its surface there is still a white patch. It is moving. It is always moving. It is on the map at the point where I touch it with my finger. There, there shall I travel, for there a different kind of future awaits me.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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