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“Eleven Sooty Dreams” by Manuela Draeger [Excerpt]

As we posted about last week, in honor of Radiant Terminus being the next featured Two Month Review title, Antoine Volodine is our “Author of the Month.” So, if you want to buy any of his books, you can get 30% off by using the code VOLODINE at checkout. (And yes, that applies to print AND ebooks.) 

Last friday we posted excerpts from all of the three Volodine titles already available from Open Letter. This week, I’d like to share a first draft by J.T. Mahany of Eleven Sooty Dreams by Manuela Draeger, one of Volodine’s other pseudonyms. (There’s one Draeger book already available from Dorothy.)

This is one of two new Volodine titles we’re planning on doing. (Can’t announce the other yet, because we’ve been waiting . . . and waiting . . . for final confirmation from the French publisher regarding the rights. But assuming it all works out, Jeffrey Zuckerman will be translating that one.) 

Anyway, here’s a description from J.T. about Eleven Sooty Dreams:

Volodine wrote Eleven Sooty Dreams under his Manuela Draeger heteronym. In fact, it was with this book that he came out, so to speak, as having heteronyms. He arranged to have Eleven Sooty Dreams released at the same time as Writers and The Eagles Reek—three different books, with three different bylines, released by three different publishing houses. You can imagine, this was no mean feat, and one that really brought Volodine into the literary limelight in France.
The book’s plot centers on a burning building in which a group of adolescents have taken refuge after a yearly demonstration goes awry. They’re members of an oppressed underclass in the city-state of Orbise, who are allowed once a year to put on a “Bolshevik Pride” parade. This year, something went wrong, the police started killing people, and everything has devolved into chaos and violence. This group of teens wind up in an apartment building, which catches fire, and also in which they find themselves trapped. In their last moments, they share happy memories with each other, swapping stories from their childhood in the city’s ghetto, and try to comfort one another as they burn to death.
The book opens and closes with a shamanic invocation. In between are the dying characters’ stories. Some are humorous, some are grim, some are fantastical. All are moving.

Without further ado, here’s the sample J.T. sent us to get us interested in the book.

 

THE ADULTS

In the common room, whenever the schoolmistress was arrested or killed, it was often a Red soldier who gave us our lessons. There were always new mistresses, but, in the interims, he was the one called in. The man’s name was Schumann; he had lost his right arm in combat on the frontlines of Orbise, he had to be in his thirties, and his scientific knowledge was just barely greater than our own. Pedagogically speaking, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that he was useless. Since we were young, we didn’t really notice, but, thinking back on it, yes, he was useless.

He paced in front of the blackboard, brandishing in his left hand a piece of chalk and avoiding like the plague the fatal moment when he would have to write something. Although he was not literate enough to have orthographical standards, he instinctively felt that it would be better not to impose on us his laborious drawings, and, when he finally had to do so, he pondered for several long seconds between each stroke, all while exasperatedly wiping his forehead that was suddenly glistening with sweat.

His lessons first off were about instilling in us military discipline. Then came classes on arithmetic. We tediously repeated operations that we had memorized months before. We were called to endlessly recite multiplication tables in an even rhythm that Soldier Schumann marked by nodding in assent, with a severe and silent satisfaction. As soon as the count reached fifty, we would notice our teacher getting slightly embarrassed and, after sixty, he abandoned the exercise, to our delight. Elli Zlank was the only one among us who knew how to multiply eights and nines. He picked up the slack in our voices when we started to flag, and, even when he made a mistake, Soldier Schumann continued to eruditely move his head, paying foremost attention to the melody, but also to the natural authority of the best student and, anyhow, unable to correct any sort of mathematical error.

After this immersion in numbers, Schumann drifted toward subjects in which he was much better versed: hand-to-hand combat skills and basic egalitarian ideology. We learned from him how to wield a bayonet, slit a guard’s throat at night, and use just your left arm to strike an enemy’s vital organs. Then, black with dust, exhausted from falling down, and bruised from mutually-inflicted blows, we returned to our desks and listened to what he had to say on political theory.

Soldier Schumann taught us what he knew, which is to say an amalgamation of popular Marxism useful for making decisions and choosing a side during strikes and armed conflicts. However, since he lodged in a barracks for invalids, among whom included several Tibetans, he had been subjected to a powerful Buddhist influence, which had altered his language. After his lecture, we had to recite the Ten Precious April Theses, the Five Noble Differences Between Socialism and Communism, the Twelve Luminous Proletarian Virtues, not to mention our favorite list: the Nine Stinking Categories.

Schumann only really excelled in one domain: singing. He had no grounding in music theory, but his baritone voice was tuned and moving, and he was keen to make us sing along with him. In the poorly-lit, poorly-ventilated classroom, which despite the board and desks resembled more a storeroom than a place of study, our choir created for a few moments a haven of beauty. We started with revolutionary classics and war hymns meant to galvanize over barricades and trenches, but Schumann quickly broached a lyric repertoire belonging to another world, a defunct world, the world of the First Soviet Union, which for some reason he clearly preferred to the Second. The Russian, Ukrainian, or Georgian harmonies swept away the ugliness of our daily lives, their languor transported us to the heart of a land where emotion reigned supreme. Our songs evoked abandoned peasants, snowy moonlit trails, the wounded and dying, entrusting to a crow one last amorous thought, one final yearning. Even on the cheeks of little Marsyas Grodnoll, who claimed to hate music and sang out of tune, there would be tears. Marsyas Grodnoll would go sit apart from everyone else so as not to ruin our perfect chords. He would shut his mouth, lower his head, and cry.

Outside these miraculous sessions, class under Soldier Schumann’s direction was a series of tiresome moments. It could also be dangerous.

Schumann’s teaching was disorganized, and we often had trouble adjusting to his changes in subject, his digressions, and his sudden outbursts. He demanded an iron discipline from us: for example, he forbade us from speaking up to ask for clarification when we missed something he said. It was better, incidentally, only to interrupt when he knew the answer to the question we were going to ask. School days were composed mainly of evasive, confused monologues and periods of choir practice. We had to remain rigid and unmoving until recess time. This, in absence of a schoolyard, was in the same room where we had just been listening to the master. We dedicated this half-hour of rest to practicing bayonet attacks and close combat techniques for the handicapped, which, obviously, temporarily turned the room into a chaotic fight ring. We would finish recess exhausted, to once again listen to Schumann rant with neither order nor end about the causes of the defeats he had experienced, the unionizing of factory workers and peasants, the critical growth of productive forces, and the physiology of amputees, including that unbearable itchiness one-armed people continue to feel in their missing limb.

I mentioned that class could be dangerous. It was for me on the same day the bombings started again.

Schumann was in the middle of developing, for the umpteenth time, the causes and consequences of the itching sensations that plagued his nonexistent hand, when I noticed a tiny black shape moving toward the opening of his empty sleeve. It was a millipede like the ones you could find crawling around the yard or even in the barracks. This one was small. I was sitting in the front row and I know that other students must have spotted the bug as well. We watched, fascinated but disciplined enough not to show our excitement, this spectacle as it added an unexpected spice to the monotonous drone. Schumann was leaning against the wall two meters away from us while he spoke. I think he had been drinking, since we could occasionally smell his warm breath, which carried a lingering whiff of beer. Schumann’s jacket was a dirty greatcoat made of felt, in a faded gray khaki. Our teacher gave off the impression that he had just returned from the frontlines and was still steeped in the heroic horrors, mud, and blood of combat. This infantry jacket weighed down his movements, and when he chose to stand still instead of pacing in front of us, his hanging sleeve didn’t move more than a millimeter. I exchanged a glance with Rita Mirvrakis. We admired the bug’s insolence and tranquility. Before plunging into the sleeve, it explored the opening. Then it entered and disappeared.

“It’s from a wound,” Schumann explained. “Oh, yes . . . a surprise wound . . . The doctors say the nerves are talking . . . But what nerves, since they’ve all been cut off? . . . Huh? . . . What nerves, I ask you? . . . Well, I ask you, but you don’t know . . . you don’t know anything . . . I’m the only one with this pain . . . no one else . . . My commander Baalbal was amputated too . . . Commander Jean Baalbal . . . an officer who refused to wear a stripe on his uniform . . . dressed like us . . . in the same boat . . . battle-hardened . . . Now there’s a man who knew the Ten Precious April Theses like the back of his hand . . . Not like you ignorant bunch . . . Jean Baalbal . . . a diehard egalitarian . . . A shame you never knew him . . . you could’ve used a role model like him . . . He lost a foot . . . torn to shreds . . . I was next to him, I hadn’t lost my arm yet . . . I lost my arm an hour later . . . He continued commanding, even with a mangled foot . . . despite the pain . . . he only had a few pieces of meat hanging from his pant leg . . . it didn’t look like anything . . . you had to see it . . . it looked like these weird strips . . . He was lying on a heap of gravel . . . He kept giving orders, refused to be evacuated . . . Evacuated where, I ask you? . . . Well, I ask, but I know you can’t answer . . . We didn’t have a backup base . . . the military hospital was in flames . . . there was a general hospital for civilians twenty kilometers away, in some conurbation whose name I forget . . . Civilian hospitals are even more lacking in equipment than army toilet blocks . . . It goes to show . . . My commander Jean Baalbal was lying on his heap of pebbles . . . It was pretty funny, seeing our commander with only one shoe . . . Spread out on the bloodsoaked gravel . . . He kept directing the battle . . . Yes sir, commander! . . . Jean Baalbal . . . At your command! . . . Then it was my turn . . . An explosion, then I couldn’t see a thing . . . For a moment I didn’t even know if I was still alive . . . Both of us were finally taken to the hospital . . . I can’t recall the town’s name . . . Anyway, you don’t care . . . little ingrates . . . You’re the ones we were fighting for . . . not just for you, but for you too . . . Dunces . . . You don’t care, you don’t know anything . . . They brought us both there . . . They cut off his leg above the knee . . . Like with me they got him drunk before the operation . . . They got us plastered since they didn’t have any drugs . . . The place had nothing . . . No instruments, no anesthesia, nothing . . . Do you know what anesthesia is? . . . No, obviously you don’t . . . you don’t know nothing about nothing, have to teach you everything . . . Have to talk to you like you’re babies . . . Anesthesia is how you don’t feel anything when the surgeon is sawing off one of your limbs . . . You hear everything, but you don’t feel a thing . . . That’s anesthesia . . . When the saw gets to the bone, you feel the vibrations in your body, but there’s no pain . . . Since there wasn’t any anesthesia they made us drink until we passed out . . . We were next to each other on mattresses, Commander Jean Baalbal and I . . . we woke up with hangovers . . . You don’t know what a hangover is either . . . you’re all just little greenhorns, no knowledge at all . . . We woke up like we’d just gotten blitzed . . . We were in a hospital corridor . . . We smelled like vomit, burnt stuff, rotting flesh, blood . . . Luckily, there was also the smell of gauze . . . I don’t know why, but I’ve always liked the smell of gauze . . . it smells clean, like a pharmacy . . . I didn’t even know that they’d cut off my arm . . . It’s a shock to find that out . . . yes, it’s one hell of a shock . . . You couldn’t understand . . . No one could understand unless they’ve had to get an amputation . . . Maybe you’ll get it one day . . . if it happens to you . . . When it’s your head that’s cut off, the advantage is that you don’t have anything to complain about anymore . . . There’s no unpleasant awakening . . . The head, at least, has that advantage . . . But when it’s your arm, or leg . . . or your virile member . . . You all know what a virile member is . . . you obviously know about that, you pigs . . . At your age, I knew about everything . . . Virile members were my favorite subject . . . no reason you’d be any different now . . . Well? . . . Not saying anything now? . . . Sure you’re thinking about that more than the Twelve Luminous Proletarian Virtues . . . Boys, and girls too . . . You’re all the same . . . Anyway, they didn’t cut off my virile member, they cut off my right arm . . . not my commander’s virile member either . . . just his leg . . . cut it above the knee, after a few hours lying on gravel it got infected . . . Infection, gangrene, that’s what does you in . . . you think you’ve lost a foot but then you’ve got to get cut up to your thigh . . . Infection is why the surgeon has to cut more off . . . The commander had a pretty bad infection, and I was at risk too . . . they grabbed everything they had for knives and saws and had no problem cutting more off . . . Jean Baalbal . . . an officer of steel . . . a model of heroism . . . Yes sir, commander! . . . Soldier Schumann, reporting for duty! . . . They sawed off his leg all the way up to his ass . . . They cut me up to my armpit . . . We woke up at the same time . . . The first few minutes are the worst . . . You’re overwhelmed, you want to vomit, you want to die . . . Like it’s so important to have all your limbs . . . Luckily, you hang on . . . You want to die, but you hang on . . . After the first shock there’s always someone who wants to talk to you . . . so you hang on to what he says . . . You’ll see, if it happens to you . . . Schumann, the commander said, stop hollering, like it’s so important to have all your limbs . . . the important thing is having enough to fight . . . the important thing is the Five Noble Differences Between Socialism and Communism . . . the important thing is the April Theses . . . I was all sprawled out my mattress, surrounded by the smell of rotting meat, blood . . . Luckily, I only had to turn on my side to sniff the gauze on my shoulder . . . it kept me calm . . . You know what sprawled means? . . . It means sick, disgusted, unable to move . . . not wanting anything . . . You’ll see, it’ll happen to you one day or another . . . you’ll be sprawled on an old mattress . . . We spent the day like that, hollering, one of us or the other . . . then we simmered down . . . My hand itched . . . my right hand, the missing one . . . it tingled, burned, ached . . . Commander, I asked, do you feel anything in your leg? . . . any ants, does it itch? . . . What leg, what are you asking, Schumann? . . . Commander, I said, my missing arm hurts . . . it’s like there’s two hundred mosquitos on it all sucking out my blood . . . On your missing arm? He asked . . . I told him yes . . . maybe not two hundred, but a lot . . . say a hundred fifty . . . they’re biting me and I can’t swat them . . . there’s nothing for me to scratch . . . my arm doesn’t exist anymore, it’s in the trash, with the wads of dirty cotton . . . or in the Meat Bardo . . . My commander started shouting at me . . . Soldier Schumann! He shouted . . . Soldier Schumann, stop bellowing nonsense, your arm is done with, mosquitoes aren’t biting it anymore, what are you talking about? . . . The important thing isn’t to swat mosquitoes, it’s to swat the enemy . . . swat the enemy into oblivion . . . get on the fast-track to building a classless society . . . What is there to do for the tingling in your phantom arm? . . . Do you think I’m wasting my time thinking about my phantom leg right now? . . . I’m reciting the Seven Perfect Principles of Revolutionary Dictatorship to myself, better than thinking about mosquitoes! . . . That’s what Commander Jean Baalbal said to me . . . The Seven Perfect Principles of Revolutionary Dictatorship . . . I’ll have to teach you that one of these days . . . So anyway, I never found out if his foot was itching or not . . . We recited the Seven Perfect Principles of Revolutionary Dictatorship together, then the Eight Spectacular Steps To Reach a Classless Society . . . we recited them all night long . . . Then, he came down with a fever . . . and forty-eight hours later, he died . . . Jean Baalbal, was his name . . . Remember that name . . . Commander Jean Baalbal . . . The best of all of us . . . Maybe he reacted just like me to his missing limb’s itch . . . The nurses say the itching really does exist . . . a heavy feeling in my shoulder, too, a pang, like everything’s still in place . . . They say it’s a natural phenomenon, that it’s the nerves talking . . . But what nerves, huh? . . . The only nerve people know about, the only one everyone talks about is the optical nerve . . . That’s not a mystery to anyone . . . Even you’ve heard of it . . . It’s all anyone talks about . . . Even you dunces . . . The optical nerve is tied to the eye . . . it’s the rest of the eye, in the back, goes right to the brain . . . But don’t tell me there’s an armical nerve or a legical nerve . . . right from the shoulder to the brain, right from the thigh to the brain . . . that’s unthinkable . . . There’s no nerve like that . . . Well . . . No, there’s no nerve like that . . . If a nonexistent hand starts itching, maybe the nerves are talking, but it’s mainly a mystery of nature . . . Once Communism is achieved, there’ll be no more mysteries . . . nature will be entirely conquered by humans and subhumans . . . we’ll know how to stop the tingling in phantom hands . . . we’ll master the armical and legical nerves . . . And we won’t amputate the wounded by filling them up with alcohol instead of aesthetics . . . “

At that moment, I made the idiotic mistake of raising my hand. Soldier Schumann noticed my raised finger. After his long deluge of a monologue, he doubtlessly felt the need to take a break. He stopped talking and knitted his brows irately, daring me to ask my question.

“Teacher,” I asked. “Do you feel ants right now?”

*

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