Radiant Terminus [Excerpt]
In support of Antoine Volodine as our featured “Author of the Month,” throughout the day we’ll be posting excerpts from the three books of his Open Letter has already published. (Next week we’ll run excerpts from forthcoming ones . . . )
The last excerpt for today is from Radiant Terminus, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman. This is also the next Two Month Review book, and on 1/24 we’ll be releasing the first podcast of the season introducing Volodine and the book. Then, on 1/31, we’ll release an episode covering pages 1-77. So buy this now and read along!
Remember, if you use the code VOLODINE at checkout, you can get 30% off of all Volodine books. (Offer valid until midnight 1/31/2019.)
• The wind came toward the plants again and it caressed them with nonchalant strength, it bent them harmoniously and it lay upon them with a purr; then it ran through several more times, and, when it was done with them, their scents sprang back up: savory sage, white sage, absinthe.
The sky was covered with a thin varnish of clouds. Just beyond, the invisible sun shone. It was impossible to look up without being dazzled.
At Kronauer’s feet, the dying woman groaned.
—Elli, she sighed.
Her mouth half-opened as if she was about to talk, but she did not say anything.
—Don’t worry, Vassia, he said.
Her name was Vassilissa Marachvili.
She was thirty years old.
Two months earlier, she was walking deftly down the streets, skipping, in the capital on the Orbise, and it wasn’t uncommon for someone to turn as she passed, because her appearance as a joyful, egalitarian fighter made hearts warm again. The situation was bad. Men needed to see faces like hers, to come close to bodies filled with freshness and life. They smiled, and then they went to the outskirts to be killed on the front lines.
• Two months earlier—an eternity. The downfall of the Orbise had happened as predicted, immediately followed by exodus and a completely empty future. The city centers flowed with the blood of reprisals. The barbarians had reclaimed power, just like everywhere else on the planet. Vassilissa Marachvili had wandered with a group of partisans for several days, and then the resistance had dispersed, and then died out. So, with two comrades in disaster—Kronauer and Ilyushenko—she managed to get around the barriers erected by the victors and enter the empty territories. A pathetic fence had forbidden her entrance. She crossed it without the slightest tremor. She would never go back to the other side. There would be no return, and the three of them knew it. They were fully aware that they were trailing the Orbise’s decline, that they were sinking with it into the final nightmare. The path would be difficult, that too they knew. They wouldn’t meet anyone, and they’d have to depend on their own strength, on what would remain of their own strength before the first burns. The empty areas harbored no fugitives or enemies, the radiation levels were terrifying, they hadn’t diminished for decades, and they promised every interloper radiation death and promised nothing else. After having crawled under the second fence’s barbed wire, they began to make their way southeast. Forests without animals, steppes, deserted villages, abandoned roads, railroad tracks invaded by plants—nothing they passed unnerved them. The universe vibrated imperceptibly and it was calm. Even the nuclear power plants, which had rendered the subcontinent uninhabitable through their bouts of insanity, even these damaged reactors—sometimes darkened, always silent—seemed harmless, and often, out of defiance, it was those places they chose to bivouac.
They had walked twenty-nine days in all. Very quickly they felt the consequences of radiation exposure. Sickness, weakening, disgust at existence, not to mention vomiting and diarrhea. Then their degradation sped up and the last two weeks were terrible. They kept progressing, but, when they lay down on the ground for the night, they wondered if they weren’t already dead. They wondered that without irony. They didn’t have any facts for an answer.
Vassilissa Marachvili fell into something that barely resembled life. Exhaustion had carved her features; the radioactive dust had attacked her body. She had more and more trouble talking. She couldn’t keep going.
• Kronauer leaned over her and walked his hand over her forehead. He didn’t know how to soothe her. He pressed at the sweat that was seeping from the ends of her eyebrows, and then he set to disentangling the black strands of hair stuck to her feverish skin. A few hairs stayed between his fingers. It had started falling out.
Then he got up and looked around the countryside again.
The panorama had something immortal about it. The immensity of the sky overpowered the immensity of the meadow. They were on a small hill and they could see far. Iron tracks cut the image in two. The land had once been covered with wheat, but over the course of time it had returned to the wilderness of prehistoric grains and mutant plants. Four hundred meters from the spot where Kronauer was hiding, at the bottom of the slope, the rails went along the ruins of a former sovkhoz. On the place that, fifty years ago, had been the heart of a communal village, agricultural facilities had endured the assaults of time. Dormitories, pigsties, or warehouses had collapsed upon themselves. Only the nuclear power plant and a massive doorway were still upright. Above the pharaonic pillars, a symbol and a name could be made out: “Red Star.” The same name was inscribed on the small power plant, half worn away but still legible. Around the buildings intended for habitation, roads and paths etched geometric residue. A flood of ryegrass and shrubs had ended up dissolving the original tar layer.
• A bit earlier on, a train had appeared on the edge of the horizon. It was so unexpected that they had first thought they were experiencing a collective delirium on their deathbeds, only to realize that they weren’t dreaming. They cautiously hid themselves in the plants, Vassilissa Marachvili stretched out on a bed of crackling stalks. The convoy slid slowly into the meadow, going from the north directly to its mysterious destination, but instead of continuing its route it rolled to a stop just before the starred door, right by a building that would, in the heyday of the sovkhoz’s splendor, have housed a poultry farm.
The train braked, like a boat docking, without any metallic screeching, and for a protracted minute, the diesel motor wheezed softly. Apparently a freight train or a transport for troops or prisoners. A locomotive, four windowless cars, all dilapidated and dirty. Minutes went by: three, then five, then a few more. Nobody appeared. The engineer was nowhere to be seen.
Above the steppe the sky glittered. A uniformly and magnificently gray vault. Clouds, warm air, and plants all bore witness to the fact that the humans had no place here, and yet they made people want to fill their lungs and sing hymns to nature, to its inexhaustible force, and to its beauty. From time to time, flocks of crows flew over the dark strip that marked the beginning of the taiga. They went northwest and disappeared somewhere above this universe of black trees where men seemed even more unwelcome than in the steppe.
• The forest, Kronauer thought. All right for a short trip, so long as we stick to the edges. But once we go deep within, there’s no longer any northeast or southwest. Directions don’t exist anymore, we’ll have to make do with a world of wolves, of bears, and mushrooms, and we won’t make our way out again, even when we walk in a straight line for hundreds of kilometers. He was already imagining the first rows of trees, and he quickly saw the gloomy thicknesses, the dead pines, fallen to their natural death thirty or forty years earlier, blackened with moss but resistant to rot. His parents had escaped camps and gotten lost there, in the taiga, and they had disappeared there. He couldn’t think of the forest without recalling the tragic image of this man and this woman whom he had never known. Ever since he had been old enough to think of them, he had imagined them as a pair of nomads, forever neither alive nor dead—just lost. Don’t make the same mistake they did, he thought. The taiga can’t be a refuge, an alternative to death or the camps. It’s vastnesses where man has no place. There’s only shadow and bad encounters. Unless we’re animals, we can’t live in there.
He took a few seconds before abandoning the idea. Then he came back to the steppe that was rippling once more under a gust of wind. He saw the stopped train again, and, above the world, the cloudy and infinite sky.
The diesel motor wasn’t groaning anymore.
The dying woman moaned again.