ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 01


Author | Autor: Bernardo Carvalho

Translated by Anthony Doyle

[...]Andrei leaves the barracks in time to arrive at the bus terminal at nine that night. He mustn’t be seen. The streets are still not completely deserted, but at least at that hour his solitary figure won’t look as suspicious as it would past midnight. He will have to get back before the last subway train, for that same reason, so as not to draw attention, not stand out. He’s carrying his rucksack, empty, slung over his shoulder, to make it look like he’s on leave, heading for home. He fools no-one at the barracks, of course. He hasn’t been home since starting military service a year ago, but even if he was on leave, he couldn’t go home anyway, as he’s been kicked out. His mother and sister live at the very end of the nation, seven time zones away. He has received no word from either of them since arriving in Saint Petersburg.
  Even if he had permission, he would never risk calling in case his stepfather should answer the phone. The letters he sometimes writes at night are nothing more than an exercise in communication, just so as not to lose the knack, because they can’t be sent, and would be torn up even if they could. He talks to nobody. He doesn’t even talk to the walls anymore, an old childhood habit he used to slip into when alone in Vladivostok, but which he has providentially lost – albeit out of some equally unconscious survival instinct – since arriving at the barracks. The day he left Vladivostok, his mother came to see him off at the station. She turned up out of nowhere, when Andrei least expected it, and gave him a knapsack for the journey. She told him he had his life ahead of him and kissed him on the forehead. Not even the rage her words awakened – but which would recede over the days on the way to Saint Petersburg, gradually transforming into a sense of loss – would be enough for him to want her to know what his life had become since that day. The sentry knows full well where he’s headed (he’s maybe been obliged to endure the same humiliation himself) and can’t resist having a pop. Andrei pretends not to hear. Rumours spread like wildfire among the soldiers and officers of the regiment. His big mistake was to have responded, in earnest, when the captain threatened, in well disguised jest, to send him to the front as punishment for some minor lapse, that he couldn’t possibly go to war, because he was his mother’s only son, and therefore the family breadwinner. Next to taking a superior’s joke seriously, the worst thing a recruit can do is refuse to go to war. So what started out as a pisstake became a reprisal, and he has not had a minute’s peace ever since. If he’d kept his mouth shut, let his superior swagger to his heart’s content, he would probably not have been picked for a mission like this, forced to raise supplementary income for the officers and contributions to the upkeep of his destitute barracks. At the bus stop, he flicks up the hood of his coat, following Sergeant Krassin’s instructions to the letter. The last thing he wants is to be questioned by the police – his shaven head would betray him for a recruit who should be back at the barracks, unless, of course, he’s a deserter. In fact, being arrested for whatever reason and forced to spill the whole truth to the police mightn’t be such a bad thing, considering, though it would take a miracle to save him back at the barracks the following day. 

The rules were changed at the last minute (in the wake of denunciations). It’s not that the Sergeant went for the risk element out of pure sadism, which he certainly doesn’t lack, because that way he’d be imperiling his own operation. The demand came straight from the client, an officer in the reserve, who didn’t want to keep going through the embarrassment of trying to explain to the police what he was doing sitting in a parked car near the barracks in the middle of the night, and having to bribe those he couldn’t convince to avoid being charged with solicitation, intention to corrupt or some such delinquency –, and so he set new rules, safer for him. Now it’s the recruit who has to run the gauntlet to and from the rendezvous, arriving back at the barracks, with the money, via public transport. Andrei knows what awaits him. It’s his first time, but it’s not hard to imagine. Though he is trying not to. As the bus is taking ages to arrive, he decides to ride the subway. It’s a minor act of insubordination. Even his last shred of free will increase his margin of risk. He tries to blank his mind so as not to get vertigo at the top of the escalator. The churning movement of the steps makes him feel sick. There is no subway deeper than that of Saint Petersburg. It was built beneath a huge swamp filled with the bones of the Serfs and convicts who laid the foundations of the former capital. As he descends into the underground, he catches the eye of a man – unshaven and with greasy hair pulled back into a ponytail – coming up the other side, heading toward the balm of a summer’s night. If souls could abandon their bodies in movement, he would have gladly sent his carcass on alone, unconscious, and slipped into the body of someone on the other side of the escalator, ascending to the streets to begin a new life, beyond the barracks. He sometimes imagines that a man of more mettle might have preferred a beating, followed, with a little luck, by a week in the hospital. But one thing doesn’t cancel out the other. There is no choice in the army. The only advantage to a beating would have been the temporary loss of consciousness – that dead weight that fast becomes unbearable –, but even then he would have had to go back to the barracks, where there’d be a series of other beatings and punishments. The truth is that Andrei might yet get beaten to a pulp, even after the humiliation. There is no point trying to understand it. The simple fact of who he is, a mere recruit, means he can be obliged to do what he doesn’t want to do. That’s his place, and this is his time. He is not riding the escalator toward the light in the flesh of the lad with the greasy hair. He is descending into hell. He tries not to dwell on it so as to avoid the vertigo and nausea. He keeps telling himself he’s just following orders. That way he can go about his business with a lighter load. 

At this time of night there are no queues in front of the screen doors aligned on either side of the platform like elevators in the lobby of an office building. The workers have all gone home, so the only people around are loners and passers-through. At least until the arrival of the next train from Moscow or the seaside, when carriage-loads of families carrying bags will spill into the city’s main stations, rushing through the urban transport channels like a human flood. For now, though, the subway station is empty. He could have chosen any of the doors, but he goes and plants himself directly behind the only other passenger on the platform – an old man with a shopping bag in each hand –, who is waiting at the second door on the right. The old man moves off, mumbling something incomprehensible, obviously about the recruit at his back. He finds another door he can wait at alone. Andrei’s choice is the product of a very simplistic and infantile logic, as if the old man’s company lowered the chances of his being caught and his mission discovered by the police, as if he would look (to those who are not there) like he was just some guy accompanying his grandfather home from the supermarket. If the old man had not shuffled off, Andrei would probably have even offered to carry his bags. The train pulls in and the doors open. There is only one other passenger in the carriage, a woman with heavy make-up. Before he notices what he’s doing, he sits on the seat directly in front of her. It’s a kind of unconscious compunction. He avoids being alone, as if proximity to others deflected the attention from him. She’s a wreck of a woman. Her bleached and straggly hair barely covers her oval head and emaciated face, perforated by two watery blue eyes, flecked with black, and thin, almost non-existent lips, painted red, the lipstick more like blood caked around a stitched up wound. The woman looks at him. Andrei imagines her bald, her head shaven like his, or dead, eyes shut and hands cold. He fixes his hood and contracts. The woman doesn’t take her eyes off him. She is just about to say something, but before the words can leave her inexistent mouth, that red tear, before she can ask him anything, he gets up and walks aimlessly down the carriage. His is the next station, there’s only five hundred meters to the platform, but he doesn’t want to hear her. He tries not to imagine what she has to say to him – or what she might ask. 

to the top