Tuesday 17 July 2018

The Eternal Question

by Boris Glikman

drink: a cup of Russian tea from a samovar

Alexander was in his early thirties at the time of our conversation, more an acquaintance than a friend, and a distant relative. Our remote consanguinity produced a certain awkwardness in our relations. I was never quite certain whether I could be open with him, as one usually is with kinsmen. Our previous meetings were too fleeting, too fragmentary. A christening here, a funeral there. Certainly not the right occasions to strike a friendship. Only one salient impression remains in my mind from our prior meetings. It was a wedding. I chanced to direct my gaze at the opposite table, and at that moment a certain uneasiness, or perhaps rather a vague anxiety, crossed Alexander's face, like a shadow, and was gone in an instant. Such a mien stood out like a dark rock amongst the sea of bland, drunken faces.

The Fates, whose ways are unknown to the common man, noticed our separate paths. And so it came to be that on the last weekend of September an invitation was extended for me to attend a gathering at the country estate of my maternal grand-aunt. It was unclear to me of what relation she was to Alexander. Nonetheless he too received an invitation. I gladly accepted, happy to leave the metropolis where I had spent the last ten years working for a local insurance company.

As I remember, we had a long, happy day of outdoor activities. We were carefree and acted almost like children in our innocent happiness. The fresh country air was a welcome change and we savoured it like a delicacy. Our dogs took eagerly to the great open spaces of which they had no prior inkling, having been brought up in the crowded city.

It was nearing the eleventh hour. The wonderful day was coming to an end. Our companions had long retired to bed, sleeping the sleep of the saints. Such a sleep only comes when one knows that all that possibly could have been done in a day has been done. Too often sleep is an interruption, an annoyance that prevents us from engaging in our favourite activities. And so we retire to sleep in frustration and have dreams for consolation. The sleep of the saints is without dreams, for dreams are for those who do not live their lives to the fullest. I too longed for the saints' sleep, but Alexander was in the study with me. A dying fire, the only illumination in the room, greedily devoured its few remaining offerings. Now and then his face was lit up by the last flicker of a fading ember. Deep thought was etched into every line of his face, ageing him indefinably.

It occurred to me that I had waited long for this moment, to be close to Alexander, to glimpse into his unfathomable soul. I believe it was the combination of the lateness of the hour, our seclusion and the wonderfulness of the day that had passed that allowed him to open up to me, as never before. He began to speak, his voice detached and hoarse, his speech directed more at fire than at me. But I listened, avariciously catching every word that passed from his lips, my yearning for bed gone.

"Every word is a bloodless being, its life-force sucked out a long, long time ago. An insurmountable mount exists between the sublimeness of the feelings that filled my inner being as I gazed into the infinitude of the heavens tonight and the utter mediocrity of the words that we use to describe our precious inner possessions. These thoughts, these sensations are the very essence of my identity and to equate them with some trite, impotent words is to deny the very uniqueness of my experience. Yet tonight I feel an inexplicable desire to communicate.

Throughout my life a certain question has held a pincers-like grip on my mind, refusing to vacate its dwellings, until it has been demolished by the indubitable answer, a proof. To quench that insatiable doubt became of paramount significance and overshadowed all other interests a normal, balanced young man would possess. I often wondered if I was the only one affected by this damned malaise. A thought terrorised me: was this question, this doubt, a valid concern or was it just some aberrant preoccupation due to the wanderings of a spoilt mind, the product of an undisciplined and self-absorbed character? If this question could be given a crude physical form, then it would roughly translate into something like: why am I here on this Earth? Who is responsible for my existence? My parents, that is obvious, are directly responsible. But I wanted to search out the fundamental raison d'etre. I believe I have finally found it. History holds the ultimate responsibility. My chronic doubts were soothed by irrefutable facts of the past.

So often people scorn history, but history is people acting in unison, people being more than just independent units. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The depth and ferocity of pent-up frustrations, resentments, aggression and idealism that is liberated by the great historical events is unparalleled in any other human endeavour. People become prey to rabble-rousers, willing to sacrifice all that is precious to them for some Great Cause.

My being is directly and intimately caused by one such cataclysmic event. My genesis was a catastrophe; war was the seed from which my existence germinated. A chain of cause-and-effect links connects my life to that of my ancestors in those momentous times. Somehow I feel that era to be an integral part of my very being." 

Alexander shifted slightly in his chair, as if trying to get a better view of the events in his mind.

"The turning point in the life of my forebears was the Revolution. The Revolution facilitated the union of the maternal and paternal branches of my family tree. It would not be inaccurate to say that the maternal twig was grafted onto the paternal tree trunk; only the Revolution could make this kind of fusion possible. 

My father’s family was always a seemingly incongruous mixture of lofty idealism and urbane sophistication. If one word could characterise it, it would be "intelligentsia". Before the Revolution they threw themselves into a wide range of intellectual enterprises and philanthropic activities. When the Revolution made its fiery entry, those forebears unhesitatingly accepted its demanding principles. Throughout the land at that time, intellectuals who previously fought only with words and ideas were asked to defend the aims of the Revolution with arms. My paternal side did so outstandingly, volunteering for the local revolutionary brigade. I believe some of them were machine-gunners on an armoured train.

While these momentous historical events were taking place, the maternal side of my family was busy looking after their old decrepit grocery store in a sleepy, provincial town. They came from a long line of small traders and had a decidedly narrow outlook on life and its possibilities. They welcomed the Revolution for pragmatic reasons. It was their hope the new regime would help them solve the problem the old regime was never able to solve. For years the family had been trying to obtain the vacant shop next door, as they wanted to expand their business. Year after year the case went in and out of court. The family had to endure the legendary inefficiency and ineptitude of a bureaucracy in its waning years. Those were the nadir years of the monarchy. I will not bore you at this hour with the petty case details."

The last ember died away, giving up the vain fight against the primordial, all-consuming blackness. I did not stir for the fear of interrupting Alexander's story. He continued, his inner truth providing the illumination that was lacking without.

"One fine August day, as summer was bidding its adieu, the Great War arrived, unheralded and unwelcome. It brought with it suffering on an unprecedented scale. No longer was there time to deal with matters not vital to the security and well-being of the country. The family's hopes of settling the case collapsed.

With the Revolution came the heartfelt belief that all the wrongs would be righted and true justice would prevail. It must be said that the grocer's family was not interested in the new social order or in fighting for the principles of the Revolution. They were the quintessential opportunists and looked excitedly to the day when the new rulers would cut the Gordian knot and enable them to obtain the vacant store. Little did they know that the new regime had its own ideas on the concept of private ownership; ideas which, unheard of at the time, were justified by the abstruse field of philosophy. The family, of course, was unable to obtain the shop next door. The real predicament that befell the hapless family happened soon after the takeover of the town by the insurgents. Their own store was confiscated by the revolutionaries and became the national property of the Great Socialist Collective.

One of my ancestors on father's side was a rising star in the revolutionary battalion, which was stationed for a time in the shopkeeper family's town. He cut a striking figure: fiery black eyes, a great moustache curled according to the fashion of the day, and the splendid insignia and uniform befitting his high rank. The duty of justifying the actions of the revolutionaries to the local populace fell on his shoulders. It was no easy task under any circumstances. The heads of the families of the town were asked to attend a meeting at the local public hall. To say the atmosphere was charged would be a great understatement. Amongst the audience was the store owner, still hoping that somehow, in some way, the flow of the events could be reversed. Always a man of action and never lost for words, the enterprising grocer managed to persuade the revolutionary to come to his home with promises of delicacies and a comforting drink. Having endured the privations of a soldier's life, the revolutionary was an easy target for the shopkeeper's enticements. 

The store owner had a young daughter, barely out of adolescence, shy and always quick to blush, and possessing a certain homespun charm. An unlikely match they were! He, a revolutionary commissar, imbued with the fresh principles of Justice, Equality and Freedom. She, a mousy daughter of a provincial shopkeeper. He needed the comfort of a family that was missing from his hectic life; she wanted to break out from the claustrophobic, stifling atmosphere of her home. They fulfilled each other's needs to perfection. Their fates became intertwined during those heady days, months and years of the post-revolutionary society. As events rolled inexorably towards their climax, a child was born—a child of the Revolution."

Alexander fell silent for what seemed an unbearable duration. I was not sure which would cause the greater offence, my staying or my leaving, and I let my mind wander over the finer  points of etiquette. My restless ruminations were cut short by his words, spoken slowly and decisively, without the shadow of the inner torment that darkened his earlier speech.

"When the winds of fate blow, we are merely leaves, picked up, carried by the gust and arbitrarily rearranged. But I have said enough for tonight. It is time we retire to beds."

Upon waking the following morning, the memory of the late night conversation immediately came to my mind. After attending to my morning toilet, I almost ran out of the room, so eager was I to see Alexander again. But, alas, he was nowhere to be found. The hostess was in the dining room. I inquired of his whereabouts only to be informed he left early without leaving any message or even saying adieu. The groundsman, who saw him leave, said Alexander looked rather distressed and seemed to be in much hurry to get out of the estate. 

I have not seen Alexander since that night. His closest relatives have given me only vague answers to my persistent inquiries as to where I could locate him. Even if he does not want to see me again, his words will be with me forever. 

About the author

 BORIS GLIKMAN is a writer, poet and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia. The biggest influences on his writing are dreams, Kafka, Dali and Borges. His stories, poems and non-fiction articles have been published in various online and print publications, as well as being featured on national radio and other radio programs.


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