Essay / 8 November 2021

The Snapped Limb of Evening Clatters and Sways

Authors of the Week: Ukraine

Photo by Marjeta Marinčič

This is an autumn story but I'm going to begin it in March. In March 1985, a new General Secretary came to the helm of the Soviet Union.

Following as it had the mind-numbing era of Kremlin gerontocracy that understood only the arms race and wars, the young and energetic Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power, with his earnest 'off the cuff' speech and his affable 'American' smile—what was he if not a living, breathing ad for socialism with a human face! —heralded the kind of change that the Cold-War-weary humanity had long been waiting for. The West immediately fell in love with the new General Secretary and his 'perestroika' as if he were a frog who had turned into a handsome prince and lived in the charmed world of the ever-after right up until the end of the fairy-tale, meaning the collapse of the Soviet Union which came, for most Western intellectuals, as an exceptionally unpleasant surprise.

There was, however, one little problem. Before the Cold War book could be officially closed and a new one of love, not war with Moscow commenced, it felt appropriate to enact some kind of an elegant sendoff to an entire generation of Soviet dissidents, most of whom had fought precisely for Socialism with a human face and received in return prison sentences, labor camps and psychiatric hospital confinement from the Kremlin and the active attention of human-rights organizations from the West (in the 1970s and 80s, the latter managed repeatedly to save the lives of individuals whom the KGB, somewhere deep in its files, had already sentenced to death). The most logical step here would be to award a final, fare-thee-well Nobel prize for literature to someone in this group: among Soviet dissidents of all nations there were plenty of writers, including some who were truly exceptional (theirs was, perhaps, the most 'bookish' generation in modern history)—there was no shortage of candidates.

The real problem was because there was, in fact, a perfect candidate, one of the people whom Amnesty International, the International PEN, and “the conscience of European literature” (someone could still be called that back then!) Heinrich Böll himself had spent five years trying to rescue. This perfect candidate was, at the moment, imprisoned in a Soviet concentration camp, on a ten-year sentence for “manufacturing and distributing literature that was derogatory of the Soviet government and society”, where he carried on the job for which he had been sentenced and to do which he had been placed in this world, namely, “manufacturing” literature: he was writing poems (which he then committed to memory because prisoners were not allowed to have manuscripts), collecting them into a new book (three previous volumes of his poetry had been published in the West), translating Rilke's “Duino Elegies” (because the available Ukrainian translations did not meet his standards), and squeezing draft of essays in literary criticism into letters to his family because he was prohibited to “manufacture” such writing in any other form.

Today, his name is familiar to anyone interested in Slavic poetry of the twentieth century, but at the time only a very small circle of the initiated was aware of the fact that the Ukrainian Vasyl Stus was a great poet. I read his poems for the first time in 1989, when they were first published in the USSR, and their earth-shattering effect remained with me for the rest of my life: a giant, oceanic wave of language like I had never encountered it before, language compressed to the thick consistency of tar, swept me off my feet and dragged me away, as I gasped and choked on this sudden abundance—images swirled around me magnificent and varied like fish in dappled light, each more unusual than the next, and yet somehow everything came together into a whole, into a thundering, resonant totality veined with hot currents of pain. (Later, in the memoirs of the Russian writer Leonid Borodin who was imprisoned in the same camp as Stus, I found these stunning words, something Stus had said in a conversation, “Any idea about life honestly contemplated to its conclusion is capable of causing pain”—a sentence that could, by itself, sprout an entire tree of a new philosophy, one we so desperately need right now, the philosophy of sensitivity: like all great poets, Stus could not only cast a spell with his verbal pyrotechnics but was also capable of thinking about words with the sharp eye of a great thinker. The fact that humanity has been left mere scraps of what survived the KGB's effort to erase the man will forever belong in the litany of 'crimes against the spirit' that have no statute of limitations). This was poetry without skin, with no pain threshold whatsoever, precisely that beauty as the beginning of terror that Rilke alone in the European tradition before Stus had perceived with such musical clarity (and no wonder that Stus recognized him as a blood-brother!), and I staggered down the street under its impact as if drunk, muttering the mantra that repeats through one of the poems: “The snapped limb of evening clatters and sways,/a crutch of a blind man, feeling the cosmos.../Dáh-da-da, dáh-da-da, on the screen of the heart / The snapped limb of evening clatters and sways.” Something in the world snapped when this poet died, cracked and remained to sway, like the noose in Wilhelm Sasnal's painting of a tree—and will keep swaying forever, casting its shadow on us all.

Talk of nominating Vasyl Stus, a Ukrainian poet and a Soviet political prisoner, for the Nobel prize began before Gorbachev's time. Whether Stus was, in fact, nominated in 1985 (according to some sources, Heinrich Böll intended to do so), will be revealed in 2035, fifty years later, according to the rules of the prize, provided, of course, that the furnishings of Western culture as we know them today remain in their places and the Nobel prize itself (whose case history, long before the scandal of 2018, features enough Cold-War abscesses to be a rich source for historians of various secret services as much as for historians of literature) preserves the status it has today. At the moment, all we know is that in 1985 Vasyl Stus' nomination looked very realistic indeed and so did his chances to win it. We are also aware that the Nobel prize represented a decade-long trauma for the Kremlin and the KGB's efforts to get it under control after what happened with Boris Pasternak deserve a separate series of investigations. In October 1985, in his first televised interview with French journalists, on the eve of his first trip to the West, Gorbachev responded to a question about political prisoners with a shocked face and declared the allegation “Absurd!” (There were no political prisoners in the Soviet Union, went KGB's motto in Andropov's days: there were only people sentenced for criminal offenses.) Which meant that Stus, for the Soviet leadership, even the new kind, “with a human face,” could in no way be any kind of candidate for the Nobel prize.

On the other hand, at the time of that interview, the Kremlin no longer had to concern itself with “the Stus problem”: a month earlier, on the night of September 3rd, Vasyl Stus died a mysterious, never-investigated death in a solitary confinement cell of the “death camp” in Kuchino. All his manuscripts, including the collection “Bird of the Soul” (which included nearly 300 poems), which was ready to be smuggled out to the West, were confiscated by the KGB, and their ultimate fate remains unknown. Six weeks before Stus’s death, the sixty-seven-year-old Heinrich Böll also died of undisclosed causes, following a hospital stay, and soon after Stus' death, one by one, three officers of the Kuchino camp who would have been privy to what happened the night he died also died of different causes. The Nobel prize to be draped over the coffin of the Evil Empire went in 1987 to another dissident—the emigrant Josef Brodsky.

Stus' death—or rather, his unsolved murder—entered the Ukrainian cultural martyrology as a calendar myth, to signal the coming of every September with the acute, immeasurable, never-to-be-compensated loss. This is, in fact, a sign of maturity, for nations just as much as for individuals: to come to terms to with the fact that some losses can never be compensated, that not all stories have a happy ending, and good does not win over evil in every fairytale. We create a culture, among other things, to help people go on living with this knowledge and remain human.

We have to grow up before we have the courage to contemplate some ideas to their conclusion, and to be able to see it—under the unbearably beautiful sky, the kind you only see in the early fall, black against the delicate pink, and straight through our hearts—the snapped limb of evening clatter and sway.

It sways.

And sways.

And sways…

Translated by Nina Murray