For a long time, I don’t even remember how long, I’ve lived in abstract places. I’d be here, at home or at work, and yet I wouldn’t be, he said, I’d be elsewhere. I’d wake up – because I must have woken up in the morning – and I’d have the feeling I wasn’t here, as if sleep had stolen me or continued to exist while I was awake. Everything I did felt like someone else was doing it. You have to believe me: it was as if I didn’t know who I was. This is what I’m asking: to be heard and believed, but don’t ask me why I’ve decided to tell my story – not yet. From now on, if you’re patient, and if I have the strength to continue, there’ll be things you won’t want to believe (even I find it hard) but I assure you it’s all true. It all happened, these things happen, and I want this to be clear, everything I’ve done, what I’ve become, makes me shudder. Of course, I’ve always had a hard time remembering things: at work, for example, I’d write everything down and then forget where I left the note. That’s another abstract place. It’s been like this for years: sometimes I was so absent-minded that I’d lose the order slips, or miss a delivery. There were lots of complaints about me, my co-workers and supervisors would write letters to the soviet saying that Comrade Chikatilo was a shirker, a saboteur, someone who worked as little and as badly as possible to slow down production, and that’s why he needed to be removed from his post. Quite the contrary, I’ve always been a Communist, since my earliest childhood I’ve lived and worked and fought for our Great Common Cause. I’ve given everything to this country, everything, since the moment I was born. And in return, what did I get? No, let’s not go there for now. Everything in its own time.
As I was saying, I have a tendency to forget. But I do remember these facts, this story, these names – I remember each and every one of them, even though there have been times in my life when I’d gladly have forgotten them and acted as if nothing had happened. Even now, I wish I had forgotten them, and yet they’re all here, in front of me, in front of this finger that hurts and won’t move, and it almost feels like, if I make a small effort to concentrate, I can even remember the circumstances of how I came into the world, on the table of our hovel in Yablochnoye. I hear the screams of the woman who would become my mother, and I almost see her, with her skinny thighs and swollen ankles, and I see a piece of stale bread that’s fallen to the floor and is stained with blood and placenta, and I know that someone, it might actually be Mama, will be eating it soon, because anything that can be eaten must be eaten. The woman who delivered me hadn’t wiped me yet with her apron when Mama, exhausted, asked for bread and a little water.
“There’s water, comrade, but no bread,” the woman replied.
On the table soiled with blood and shameful things, Mama freed herself from the girl who had been holding her head as she was giving birth, and drank from a cup made out of the bark of a birch tree. The girl had blue circles under her eyes – the kind of deep blue you see in potholes on the streets – and couldn’t bring herself to look at me, as I hung there, naked, from the woman’s hand.
“Is he alive?” Mama asked, but only after drinking.
“Let’s hope so,” the woman answered, and slapped me on the behind.
I started to scream and cry, expelling the mucus obstructing my lungs, and the first thing I saw, in the turmoil and tragedy of my first minute of life, were the very same blue-furrowed eyes of the girl, who still refused to look at me.
“I’m hungry,” Mama was saying. “I’m hungry and I want to sleep.”
“There’ll be time for that, comrade,” the woman replied. “But there’s no bread. Just that piece on the floor.”
“Clean it and give it to me.”
Without saying a word, the girl with blue circles gave it to her, and Mama sank her remaining teeth into it.
“Do you want him?” asked the woman, who was still holding me by the legs the way you would a calf. I had already stopped crying, because I was worn out. “He’ll be needing milk,” she added.
“Put him next to me,” Mama said. “But I have no milk. Roman has gone to the kolkhoz to get some.”
So I ended up in Mama’s arms as she chewed the bloodstained bread. The most important moment of a man’s life is his birth, and when he says his first word, and when he learns to walk: and yet we don’t remember them. To me, this kind of oblivion is the first mutilation we are condemned to, at the very moment we come into the world. We live for years without knowing how we were born, or that there was a moment, for example, when our legs started to support us. Well, I was born, I was scrawny, I was so weak I could barely cry. But there I was, one of the first babies born alive in Eastern Ukraine after the first of the great famines. Here’s the child, it’s a boy: he’ll be called Andrei (which means “strong and virile”), and being branded with that name is nothing but a cruel joke, the second mutilation I had to bear as soon as I was brought into the world.
But you don’t want me to start from the beginning. So I’ll tell you it was in 1978 that I began making flies. It was almost the end of December and why flies in particular I can’t say. I’ve never liked animals, never really thought about them, never had any. But flies, flies are different: there was a time, many years ago, when it felt like the whole world was nothing but the space between one fly and another. From the slice of bread my mother ate, when the girl with blue circles picked it up to clean it, rose a swarm of fat flies, which because of their bulk and their greed flew away slowly: we all just watched them as they tried to fly out the door, at the pace of oxen that have eaten their fill. So, for some reason, in 1978, when the number of flies had considerably decreased, and we were all better off, I began making them. It isn’t difficult: all you need are patience and practice and, at least until you get the hang of it, malleable materials.
That’s why I went out on the evening of 24 December to look for some copper. I wanted a walk in the freezing cold to get my mind off things. Of course, I didn’t tell Fenya or the children about the flies. I just got up from the table after dinner and said: “Fenya, I can’t find my overboots.”
“What do you need them for?” she asked. “You’re not going out, are you?” She’d started washing the dishes, her hands in the hot water and her face red from the steam.
“I’m just going to stretch my legs for a bit.”
“Andryusha, the streets are icy and I heard it’s going to snow tonight.” She’d stopped and turned the water off. Yura, who was nine at the time, was sitting in the armchair, looking at us.
“I won’t be gone for long,” I said. “Where are my overboots?”
Not far from me, Lyudmila had grabbed the broom and started moving the chairs to sweep. I say this because, among the sounds at that moment, I remember the scratching of the sorghum bristles on the tiled floor. I stood there in silence in the middle of the room, while my daughter did her sweeping around me without a word.
This extract from Death By Hunger was translated from Italian at the 2015 International Creative Writing and Literary Translation Summer School, organised by the British Centre for Literary Translation in partnership with Writers’ Centre Norwich. The translators were Kirsten Goldstone, Sylvia Notini, Beatrice Pilo and Alex Valente, with workshop leader Howard Curtis and author Andrea Tarabbia.