Translator’s note: The group worked on three very different extracts from the novel, which is set in Hamburg and Georgia. The first is the prologue, followed by a challenging sex scene between the narrator Stella and her adoptive brother Ivo. In the final section, Salome tells a story from the Georgian civil war, with haunting echoes of Stella and Ivo’s childhood.
I look at your face: so pale, so peaceful, and I’m conscious of that old, familiar feeling and am suspicious of it, even as I feel it. I ask myself how it is that I feel nothing except this closeness. Even now…
I’ll never be able to explain this feeling to anyone else. I ought not to feel it, considering all that has happened, considering the future, my future. Yet it is what it is, and I’m slowly learning to live with this emotion, which seems to have outlasted everything else.
For the first time, I am standing alone in every sense of the word: physically, mentally, emotionally. But this time too, my feeling, your feeling, the very feeling that I have here and now with your face in front of me seems to overcome, to block out my every fear. All that remains is this immense closeness, this gentleness.
I don’t know how it is that you’ve always made me feel this gentle closeness; for no emotion can really be gentle, when gentleness is something that doesn’t last, that appears like a pin prick and then vanishes into nothing. But my gentle feeling does last, it’s different, it’s more enduring than anything in my life. And I gave up trying to question it long ago.
And so I’ve come to sit here, a few days before my departure. I sit on your beach, my beach, where we used to swim out into the cold water. I sit here in the sand, now cool and damp after two days of rain. Soon I will cut off my hair, and face new thoughts and the cool wind bare-headed. And with each strand that falls I’ll grow lighter, more weightless and perhaps freer, too. I sit here in our cove, where no one but us ever ventured, because it seemed like such a cold, harsh place, I sit here where I first tried to offer you my love, but you could not yet accept it, here where we spent so many hours, morning and evening, after you had learned to speak again, where we so often whispered our secrets, our promises, our wishes and plans to the sea.
I sit here. I look at you, and I feel the primal ecstasy of our closeness, I dance this ecstasy on the grave of loneliness, for to me closeness is nothing other than a renunciation of every form of loneliness, a victory for all elemental, Dionysian cravings.
I am gentle, as soft as wool, and inside I am silky smooth, just as if I were a baby, a foetus, safe and warm, much-wanted and untouched by the world.
You told me so many times that I had forgotten who I was and perhaps you were even right. And perhaps when I was with you I never knew either. Perhaps I only realised when I stopped fighting this gentleness in me, perhaps only when I had eaten my fill of it, I don’t know. But I know that I am not you, not any more. And I don’t fear this realisation, any more than I fear the loneliness, the silence, the questions that will come after all of this, that might be encompassed by the word future. I will have to cry. I will have to disgorge everything I have consumed and no one will hold my hair back for me then, I know that too.
But what does that matter now?
I look at your face. You are beautiful. You are still incredibly beautiful, and I have to smile. I look at your face and think: thank you. Thank you for that gentle closeness and that cruel distance. And now I relinquish that closeness, even though I can never share this feeling with anyone again and so sooner or later it will inevitably die.
I look at your face.
“Shall I take you home?” he asked, and I shook my head. We went to his hotel. He undressed me and carried me into the bathroom. He ran a bath and put me in. The water wasn’t warm enough, and I whimpered. He rubbed shampoo into my hair and rinsed off the foam. It stung, and I wailed. I asked for more alcohol; he refused. At some point I pulled him down to me and kissed him. He let me, and got wet. I was aroused and indifferent; something in me was crying out to forget all the rules. Even though I was so drunk, I realised the morning would be terrible: I knew that was when I would come crashing down. Now I was still falling, it was a wonderful feeling, as if I were flying, as if there were no gravity; sooner or later I would hit the ground and shatter into a thousand pieces. Maybe there would be nothing left at all.
Every night I had spent with Ivo had been like a battle. I don’t know how, in my drunken and exhausted state, I was able to summon up such strength, such an appetite for this fight. In his seedy hotel bed.
I took him, I took his body, I conquered his brusqueness, his feigned nonchalance; layer by layer I stripped them away.
I gripped his hands, and my lips roamed across his groin, his chest, his navel. He refused, as he had always done, to accept gifts. But he had no choice. I brought him off with my hand, watching him as I did it, watching his tired face, his half-closed eyes and his slightly parted lips; seeing him battle with himself, how alone he was in this battle, and how he finally gave in and found a brief, painful release in my hand.
We lay next to each other for a long time without speaking. Then he sat up and looked at me. I lay there, naked, still dazed, trying to collect my thoughts.
“What will you do?” he asked, putting his forefinger between my legs.
“I’ll tell you what you want to hear. But I won’t go with you.”
“I just want us to remember. That’s all I want.”
“To stop this, to put an end to these battles. I like the way you’re looking at me now, as if you know more than I do, as if you know all the things I can never know, just because you’re you.”
I spread my legs and waited for him to lie on top of me.
“But I don’t like the fact that you’ve forgotten so much, things it’s impossible to forget. Or you act as if you have.”
He lay on top of me.
“The fact that you cling to this guilt, that you won’t let go, that you stand in your own way. There are still some things we have to find out together. Because no one else can, or wants to. You know that.”
I took him inside me, and it hurt.
“Don’t you? I often think about that afternoon, Stella. I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother lately, and that maybe it was wrong not to ask any questions back then.”
He started to move faster and I raised myself up slightly, so that he had to look at me, look at me again and again every time he hurt me. I moved towards him and put my fist under my back to prop myself up.
“I’ve been trying to make my fucking peace with it, but somehow I just can’t seem to do it. And you know what I ask myself, Stella, shall I tell you?”
His voice shook and he began to breathe faster.
“I ask myself what the fuck it is with us two. You’re such a smart-arse, why in God’s name didn’t you see it coming, that we should have had it out early on, fought it out, talked it out, fucked it out.”
He wrapped his arm tightly round my neck and pressed me to him. I freed myself from his embrace and pushed him away.
“Why did we break off in the middle of things, of life, of the fucking sex, why did we break it off? Maybe we could have found some peace, we’d have had the climax of our lives, right? I mean, maybe then we’d have had this crappy normality that means so goddam much to you! We could have had it for ourselves, your fucking normality!”
He pressed me up against the headboard and screamed in my face, screamed that I’d had no right to ruin his life, first to take everything, demand everything and then walk away, disappear into my fucking normality; that I’d destroyed his peace of mind and made him homeless, he couldn’t stand himself any more, and it was my fault, my fault. Me with my affectations and my propriety, my fear of facing what had happened. That there was no substitute for a childhood, that there was no substitute for love, no substitute for life, your own life.
And he kept on pushing me against the headboard; my back was hurting again, like it did the first time we slept together. His anger made him rougher, and my body groaned, gasped and thrashed as if in a fever, and yet, and yet I didn’t give in; I even felt a perverse relief, a moment of absolute emptiness and truth.
It was growing dark when I went out into the garden to breathe in the sea air, and discovered Salome by the fence, her cigarette glowing. I went over to her, without saying anything. She didn’t say anything either and gazed into the distance.
“Shall we go for a walk?” I suggested. I could tell she had something on her mind. She nodded and started walking, and we found ourselves heading for the beach. We sat down on the cool stones and looked out onto the dark, silent sea. She started throwing pebbles into the water. I did the same and we both burst out laughing.
“You don’t like me, do you?” she asked all of a sudden, not looking at me.
“What makes you say that? It’s not like that.”
“All right then. I was wondering what’s wrong.”
We sat there in silence for a while, neither of us knowing what to do. She turned to me again. “I’ve got a child as well,” she said, staring at the ground. “A son. He’s fifteen. Lives with his father in Germany. He’s in IT. We were married for a long time but Lado was always… but he married Nana, my best friend. We were neighbours, Lado and me, we grew up together. I was fifteen the first time he kissed me. On the street, on the way to a birthday party…and I thought it was me he’d love. But Nana was different, she was training to be an actress and was from one of the best families. She had everything. Lado wanted her. I knew even before he told me. She could have had anyone but she goes and chooses him. Life’s funny like that sometimes, isn’t it?”
She wasn’t so much talking to me as to herself.
“She didn’t really even know him that well. She had just started her degree and was a rising star. She had it all. And what was I supposed to do? I mean, he was my boyfriend after all. I’d always been there for him, I knew everything about him and Nana, she was the spoilt little princess. Her father was in the KGB. She didn’t have a care in the world. He idolized her. She was his little ballerina. That’s what he called her.
“Do you know the worst thing about it? The thing I can never forgive her for? She never let on that she’d done anything to hurt me, not once. Then came the marriage and the baby, a girl. You should have seen her, how pretty she was. People would stop and stare when they saw her out with the baby. And she asked me to be godmother – Maia’s godmother – and I said yes. I said yes, and I shouldn’t have. I looked after the baby while she was on stage and he had his own stuff to do. That little girl was the child I never had, my little sunshine. They would often go on tour and Maia would stay with me. Maia loved me. And called me mummy.”
She paused and then started throwing pebbles into the water again. Ripples formed and little fish appeared. It was disturbingly quiet around us.
“That was also when I joined the party. Me and Lado, we were two of a kind. I wasn’t sure what he was after. Nana was becoming more and more of a stranger to her husband as her career took off. She was not made for that time of unrest and upheaval. Her father lost his job as a KGB official. Nana was scared of the changes, the stuff that Lado was working on. Then Lado got sent to prison, a scandal in her eyes.”
“And then?” I dared to ask.
“Then? Then she started having an affair.”
“With a Russian soldier. She met him through her father who used to work in Moscow.”
“And. What else can I say? He was called Aleksei, he was from Moscow and worked in the administration in Sukhumi. A boyish guy with sticky-out ears. He was about twenty-five, I think. Nana was just sick of the police searching the house, of visiting the prison, his friends from the Party hanging around the house. It wasn’t her fault, she wasn’t the kind of Georgian woman who was happy to wait on forty of her husband’s friends day and night serving up hundreds of different dishes. It wasn’t her fault she fell for the boy. He was helpful, came from a good family, knew a lot about theatre. And she was worried about her father who’d fallen out of favour. She never really loved Lado anyway. Out of all her admirers he made the best impression on her, the way he worshipped her.”
“And you, what did you do?”
“I married an old school friend who’d been chasing after me for years, who I had never taken seriously. He was patient, he was so tolerant, he never blamed me. He even made friends with Lado. And he wanted to start a family, have a child. In the end, I did the same to him that Lado did to me. Like I said, life is funny. And we lost everything. The war took everything from us – jobs, houses, everything we owned, our goals, our hopes, our dreams – all gone in a flash. Lado was in Tbilisi. I was worried. I knew if Lado found out about his wife’s affair, there’d be trouble, and I helped Nana – yes, I helped her cover it up. I was her alibi. I wanted to protect Lado at the time, I didn’t really care what happened to Nana. I couldn’t understand why she was doing it.
“Nana didn’t believe there was a war on in our country until the first bomb fell. She was always saying it was just men playing games. She would meet her Russian secretly in the hotel where he was staying.
“And then the shooting started. And didn’t stop. Lado was in Tbilisi, my husband and son had already gone back to Russia to his family and I was stuck in Sukhumi with Maia and Nana. The first refugees had already left Abkhazia for Russia or Tbilisi. Even when there was still a chance to go, we didn’t want to. I didn’t want to because I was waiting for Lado and she didn’t want to because she thought her Russian hero would protect her. He was there to liaise with the separatists and to send strategic updates back to Moscow. I don’t know whether he did or not. All I know is he was a lovestruck young guy who found himself caught up in something that had got out of hand and that he couldn’t control. We were stuck there for nearly six months. In Sukhumi. By that point she was already pregnant with Buba. We had moved to my small flat because the Kanchelis’ house was too big, too provocative, because everyone knew who it belonged to. All of a sudden Nana was with the enemy. For the Russians because her father had gone over to the Georgians in the end, and for the Abkhazians because her husband was fighting for the Georgians, and for the Georgians because her mother was Abkhazian. Towards the end she barely said a word. She’d sit there for hours staring out of the window and wouldn’t even talk to Maia. Now and then she would slip out of the flat and disappear for a few hours. And every time I would expect the worst, that she might not come back.
“Lado didn’t return until just before Sukhumi was taken, before all those people died. He kept begging his wife to get out, to go to Tbilisi, to take Maia away, but Nana said she would die if she had to leave her mother, her town, that her family’s reputation would keep her safe and protect Maia. That may have been true in 1992 but just a few months later, everything was torn down, burnt to the ground, murdered, forgotten. No one gave a damn about your reputation any more.
“Just after Buba was born, in the winter of 93, Lado came home and told us we had to leave the country. Just before everything went to hell. Lado was stationed in Gali then and even so, he only just made it to Sukhumi. It was a terrible time and it only got worse. He told us that we absolutely had to leave town in two days, because the city was going to be blockaded. After Buba was born, Nana seemed like a different person. She dressed in her best things, she wouldn’t breastfeed the baby, she’d disappear for days and then turn up half-drunk. I guessed she was living it up at Russian parties and following Aleksei around like a dog on a lead. Lado had set everything up for us. His people would pick us up at dawn and take us to Batumi by helicopter. From there, we were supposed to go on to Tbilisi. I already had a plane ticket from Tbilisi to join my husband and son. Lado made me swear that I would force Nana and Maia to get into the car if I had to, that I would do whatever it took to get us all out of the city. He drove back out of town, he had to get back to his men, so that he could bring them into the city that night. So that they could start shooting, set fire to city hall, so that . . .” Salome sighed.
“I stood there with three bags and watched Nana putting on a nice dress for the night before our departure. Lado had said they were going to pick us up at seven in the morning. I was holding Buba and Maia was howling, maybe she sensed something was wrong. I asked Nana why she was getting all dressed up. She said she needed to say goodbye to him, she had so much to say to him, she had to tell him that it had been wrong to sleep with him while her country was going to the dogs, that she couldn’t be with him while her husband was fighting on the other side, that she couldn’t sit there chatting with him about theatre while his country was supplying her country with weapons.
“And so I said: ‘Go on then, I know you have to do it, I’ll look after the kids, but please, you’ve got to be back here by five.’ And she said: ‘I’ll be back in two hours at the latest.’ Then she kissed my hand and was gone. She didn’t come back. Three o’clock, four, five. She didn’t come. I was so nervous I could hardly breathe. I woke Maia, picked up Buba and went out into the street. Nana’s mother lived nearby, I frantically rang the doorbell and pressed Buba into her arms. Suddenly Maia started to scream and shriek, shouting that she didn’t want to stay there, she wanted to stay with me. She got completely hysterical. She was usually so quiet and good. I had no time to lose, so I just picked her up and ran. The grandmother was shocked and frightened, she wanted to know what was going on, and I said I’d be right back for him. I ran off with Maia in my arms. I ran to the hotel where he was staying. They weren’t there. I searched the streets. It was dark and there wasn’t a single streetlamp that hadn’t been smashed out. I ran along the promenade.
“I knew that Aleksei was often at the army post in the old theatre that was now being used as headquarters. Nana had mentioned it once. So I rushed over there. I thought if I have Maia with me, we won’t be in any danger. We won’t seem like a threat and they won’t harm us. The city was sleeping, it was such a peaceful morning, and if it weren’t for the bullet holes here and there in the housefronts, you might have thought it was the dawn of an ordinary day.
“A young Abkhaz was on duty outside and I spoke to him in his language. I asked for Aleksei. He looked me up and down, then ordered me to wait at the entrance and went inside. I didn’t know at the time that all the soldiers had been summoned to the base in the night because everyone expected things to escalate. Everyone knew what was coming. Then he came back and said Aleksei wasn’t there. He’d left in a car two hours ago, the soldier said. I started to cry. I wanted to know if he’d been on his own. He must have felt sorry for me and went inside again to find out. When he came back he said, no, his wife had been with him. His wife, he said. What wife, I asked. Nana, his wife, he repeated. I begged him to find out where they’d gone. He kept saying he didn’t know anything about it, and to get rid of me he told me Aleksei would be there at nine in the morning. So I should come back at nine. At nine! Then we’d never make it out of the city. I must have started screaming and the sight of me set Maia off sobbing. I couldn’t believe she’d left me, us, her children behind. After everything she’d said about the Russian, about herself, she couldn’t have forgotten it all just like that. Something must have happened. I don’t know. I still don’t know to this day. We hurried back. I couldn’t leave the city without Nana. I had to put the grandmother and the children in the car and let them go without me. I had to stay and find Nana.
“I was about to turn the corner, but just before the house Maia stopped in her tracks and began to scream at the top of her lungs. I asked what on earth the matter was. I tried everything I could think of to calm her down. I’d never seen her like this. And then she told me. She said that she’d told her daddy about it. She’d told him. She told him that mummy had another boyfriend. She’d go out with him sometimes and he wore a uniform – a different one to daddy’s. He’d sometimes give mummy presents, mummy kept him secret and never brought him home. She would stay awake and watch him dropping off mummy in his car and that…
“I looked at her in horror and before I could even comfort her, she pulled away from me and ran as quickly as she could down the road. And then, at that moment, a large military vehicle with a Russian number plate came round the corner. It looked like the car Aleksei sometimes drove Nana home in. Maia ran after the car. She yelled out for her mother and ran and ran. Before I could turn around and chase after her, she had already taken a shortcut, jumped over a fence and ran out in front of the car. They couldn’t break in time. I heard the screech of the tyres on the tarmac. And I could no longer Maia. Someone screamed and my legs gave way. It was the guys who called themselves the peace troops. Even before I reached her I knew she hadn’t made it. Her head had smashed against the ground. I had no idea she knew about it all…
Group translation from the BCLT summer school, 2012
Produced by Ruth Ahmedzai, Gisela Boehnisch, Jonathan Bridges, Elizabeth Catling, Charlotte Collins, Helen Harding, Fiona Hayter, Ruth Martin, Kate Roy and Maria Snyder.
Group leader: Katy Derbyshire.
In the presence of and in consultation with the author.
With thanks to New Books in German and the Goethe Institute for their support.