Evgenii Zamiatin

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Mamai

By evening and by night there are no longer houses in Petersburg: there are six-storeyed stone ships. A solitary six-storeyed world, the ship drifts over the stone waves amid the other solitary six-storeyed worlds; the ship glitters with the lights of countless cabins in the mutinous stone ocean of streets. And, of course, there are not tenants in the cabins: there are passengers. Ship-wise, they are all known, yet not known, one to another; they are all citizens of a six-storeyed republic beleaguered by the night ocean.

The passengers of stone ship No. 40 drifted in the evenings into that part of the Petersburg ocean that is marked on the map under the name of Lakhtin Street. Osip, formerly the door-keeper and nowadays Citizen Malafeyev, stood by the main gang-plank, looking ahead through his glasses into the darkness; now and then in waves one, then another, was still being washed in. Citizen Malafeyev fished them out of the darkness, wet, covered in snow, and, moving his glasses up and down his nose, regulated the level of respect shown each one: the reservoir which spilled respect was attached by a complicated mechanism to his glasses.

There we are – glasses on the tip of the nose, like a strict teacher: that’s for Pyotr Petrovich Mamai (1).

“Pyotr Petrovich, your good lady is waiting for you, with your

Then – glasses up tight, defensively settled in the saddle: that big-nose from No. 25 – by automobile. With big-nose it’s very tricky: you mustn’t call him “mister”, “comrade” wouldn’t seem right. How can you, so that it …?

“Ah, Mister-Comrade Myl’nik! This weather now, Mister-Comrade Myl’nik … it’s very tricky …”

And finally, glasses up, on to the forehead: Yelisey Yeliseyich is coming aboard.

“Well, praise be to God! Safe and sound? In that fur coat, aren’t you afraid they’ll have it off you? Allow me – I’ll give it a shake …”

Yelisey Yeliseyich is the captain of the ship, the authorised representative of the house. And Yelisey Yeliseyich is one of those gloomy Atlases who, bent low, full of wrinkled suffering, have carried a cornice of the Hermitage along Millionnaya Street for 70 years (2).

Today the cornice was manifestly heavier than ever. Yelisey Yeliseyich gasped:

“Round all the apartments … Soon as poss … To the meeting … in the club.”

“Good gracious, Yelisey Yeliseyich, what is it now … something tricky?”

But no reply was needed: you just had to look at that brow of wrinkled suffering, at those shoulders weighed down by care. And citizen Malafeyev, dextrously directing his glasses, ran round the apartments. His knock of alarm on the doors was like the archangel’s trump: embraces froze, quarrels stilled like a stifled cannonade, spoons filled with soup on way to mouth stopped in mid-air.

Pyotr Petrovich Mamai was consuming soup. Or, to be more exact, he was being most strictly fed soup by his spouse. Enthroned in the armchair, majestic, gracious, multi-breasted, Buddha-like, she was feeding her mundane little fellow with the soup she had made.

“Hurry up now, Peten’ka, your soup will get cold. How many times have I said it – I don’t like books at dinner …”

“All right, Alen’ka, all right, now in a minute … But the sixth edition! You understand: Bogdanovich’s Little Psyche – the sixth edition! (3). In 1812 when the French came everything was burned down, and everyone thought that only three copies were preserved … And this is the fourth – do you understand? On Zagorodny yesterday I came across …”

The Mamai of 1917 conquered books. As a ten year-old tousle-headed little boy he learned scripture, rejoiced in pens and was fed by his mother; as a forty year-old bald-headed little boy he worked in an insurance office, rejoiced in books and was fed by his wife.

A spoonful of soup – the sacrifice to Buddha – and once more the mundane little fellow forgot about Providence in the wedding ring, and tenderly stroked and felt over each letter. “Identical with the first edition … Approved by the Censorship Committee …” Now, what could be more pleasing, more touching than an “M” on three sturdy legs …

“Come on, Peten’ka, what’s this? I shout and shout, and you and your book … Have you gone deaf? There’s someone knocking.”

Pyotr Petrovich, as fast as his legs will carry him, into the hall. At the door – glasses on the tip of the nose:

“Yelisey Yeliseyich says … to the meeting. As soon as poss …”

“There, you just get sat down to your book … What is it this time?” – The bald-headed little boy has tears in his voice.

“I wouldn’t know. Just – as soon as poss …” – the cabin door slammed shut, the glasses rushed on …

On the ship all was manifestly not well: perhaps it was off course; perhaps somewhere in the bottom was an unseen hole, and the terrible ocean of streets was already threatening to gush in. Somewhere aloft, to the right and to the left, there was alarmed staccato knocking on the cabin doors; somewhere in the half-dark corridors suppressed conversations were carried on in an undertone; and then came the tramp of feet quickly running down steps: down, to the mess-hall, to the house clubroom.

There – plastered ceiling, everything in storm clouds of tobacco. Stuffy calorific silence, the wisp of a whisper. Yelisey Yeliseyich rang the hand-bell, bent low, wrinkled his brow – his shoulders could be heard cracking in the silence – raised the cornice of the unseen Hermitage and rained down on the heads below:

“Gentlemen. According to reliable information – this evening we’ll be searched.”

A hum. The scraping of chairs; heads shooting up, fingers with signet rings, warts, bows, whiskers. And down on to the bent-over Atlas – a downpour from the tobacco clouds:

“No, allow me! We’re obliged …”

“What? And bank notes?”

“Yelisey Yeliseyich, I propose that the doors should be …”

“In books, that’s the safest, in books …”

Yelisey Yeliseyich, bent low, stone-like, sustained the downpour. And to Osip, without turning his head (perhaps indeed it wouldn’t turn):

“Osip, who’s on watch in the yard tonight?”

Osip’s finger slowly, amid silence, pioneered its way along the roster on the wall: it was as if the finger were moving, not over letters, but over Mamai’s heavily-laden bookcases.

“Tonight ‘M’: Citizen Mamai, Citizen Malafeyev.”

“Right, then. Take revolvers – and in the event … if without a warrant …”

Stone ship No. 40 drifted along Lakhtin Street through the storm. It rocked, whistled, snow lashed into the glittering cabin windows, and somewhere the unseen hole – and who can tell whether the ship will beat its way through the night to its morning haven, or will go to the bottom? In the quickly emptying mess-hall the passengers latched on to the stone-like, immovable captain:

“Yelisey Yeliseyich, what about in our pockets? Surely they won’t …”

“Yelisey Yeliseyich, what about hanging it up in the lavatory, like bog-paper, hey?”

Passengers nipped from cabin to cabin and comported themselves unusually in the cabins: lying on the floor rummaging under cupboards; sacrilegiously gaping into plaster-cast heads of Leo Tolstoy; pulling out placidly smiling granny from her frame after 50 years on the wall.

The mundane little fellow Mamai was standing face to face with Buddha, hiding from the all-seeing eye, the tremblingly piercing eye. His hands were completely alien, unnecessary – docked penguin’s wings. His hands had impeded him for forty years already, and, were they not now impeding him, perhaps it would be quite simple for him to say what needed to be said – so horrible, so unthinkable …

“I don’t understand. What are you frightened of? Even your nose has turned white! What’s it to us? Whatever great sums of money have we got?”

God knows, if the Mamai of 1300-odd had also had alien hands and the same secret, the same wife – perhaps he would have acted in exactly the same way as the Mamai of 1917. Somewhere in the middle of the threatening silence a mouse began to scratch in the corner – and the Mamai of 1917 shot a top-speed glance over there and, penetrating with them into the mouse-hole, came out with:

“I’ve got … that is – we’ve got … Fo-four thousand two hundred …”

“Wha- aat? Yo-ou have? Where from?”

“I … I little by little, all the time … I was afraid, all the time, you …”

“Wha-aat? You mean you were stealing? You mean you were deceiving me? And I, poor wretch that I am, I was thinking: ‘my poor Peten’ka …’ Poor wretch that I am!”

“I – for books …”

“I know all about these books in skirts! Hold your tongue!”

The ten year-old Mamai had been flogged by his mother only once: when he had turned on the tap of the newly acquired samovar – the water poured out, all the soldering melted, and the tap drooped sorrowfully. And now, for the second time in his life, Mamai felt his head gripped under his mother’s arm, his trousers pulled down – and …

And suddenly, with cunning boyish instinct, Mamai sensed how to make her forget the sorrowfully drooping tap – the four thousand two hundred. In a piteous voice:

“I’m on duty now in the yard until four in the morning. With a revolver. And Yelisey Yeliseyich said, if they come without a warrant …”

Instantaneously – instead of Buddha the unleasher of lightning – his multibreasted, tender-hearted mother.

“Good heavens! Whatever are they … have they all gone mad? It’s all that Yelisey Yeliseyich. You listen to me, and don’t you even think of …”

“No-no, I’ll just, like this, in my pocket. Do you really think I could …? I couldn’t even … a fly …”

And that was the truth: if Mamai caught a fly in a glass – he would always pick it out carefully, blow on it and let it go – and fly away! No, that’s nothing. But that four thousand two hundred …

And – Buddha again:

“Oh, what did I ever do to deserve you! Now where are you going to put your stolen – no, you just be quiet, if you please, … yes, stolen …”

Books; galoshes in the hall; lavatory paper; the samovar pipe; the quilted lining of Mamai’s fur hat; the rug with the blue knight on the wall in the bedroom; the umbrella – half opened and still wet from the snow; the envelope, carelessly thrown on the table, with a stamp stuck on and clearly addressed to an imaginary Comrade Goldiebayev … No, too dangerous … And finally, about midnight, the decision was taken to base everything on the most subtle psychological calculation: they will search anywhere they please, but not by the front door, and by the door-sill there is this loose parquet block. The block was skilfully raised with the little knife for cutting the pages of books. The stolen four thousand (“No, if you please … please, be quiet!”) were wrapped in greaseproof paper from a cake-wrapping (it might be damp under the sill) – and the four thousand were interred beneath the block.

Ship No. 40 – all like a taut string, on tiptoe, in a whisper. The windows feverishly glitter on to the dark ocean of streets, and on the fourth, first and second floors a blind is moved aside, in the glittering window – a dark shadow. Pitch black. However, down there in the yard – the two of them, and when things start they’ll let us know …

Past two. In the yard, silence. Around the street-lamps above the gates – white flies: without end, without number – falling, whirling in a swarm, falling, burning themselves, falling downward.

Down there, glasses on the end of his nose, Citizen Malafeyev philosophised:

“I – am a quiet man, nat’rally, it’s tricky for me, living in such a manner of malice. Let’s say I think of going home, to Ostashkov. I get there – the international situation – well, it’s right impossible: everyone at each other – sheer wolves! But I can’t be doing with all that: I’m a quiet man …”

In the hands of the quiet man – a revolver, with six deaths compressed in its cartridges.

“But how did you get on, Osip, in the Japanese do: did you kill?”

“Well, in a war! In a war, of course.”

“How, with a bayonet, like?”

“That’s it … It’s like sticking a water-melon: at first it’s tough going – the skin, and then – it’s nothing, dead easy.”

Mamai felt a shiver down his spine, from the water-melon.

“But I’d … Even if I myself were, right now … not for anything!”

“Just you wait! You can’t stop yourself – you’ll be the same …”

Quiet. White flies around the street-lamp. Suddenly from afar – the protracted lash of a rifle shot, and again it’s quiet, flies. Thank God for that: four o’clock, they won’t come now. Now the change-over – and it’s home to your cabin, to sleep …

In the Mamai bedroom, on the wall – a blue checked knight brandished a blue sword and then froze: before the knight’s very eyes a

On the white linen clouds reposed Madame Mamai – wide-spread, multibreasted, Buddha-like. She lay there as if to say: today she had completed the creation of the world, and deemed that all in it was well – even that little fellow, despite the four thousand two hundred. That little fellow stood as though doomed beside the bed, chilled to the bone, little nose a-flush, docked, alien, penguin’s wing-like hands.

“Well, come on then, come on …”

The blue knight screwed up his eyes: it’s so horrifically clear – the little fellow will cross himself now, stretch his hands out in front – and as if into water – plop!

Ship No. 40 safely drifted through the storm and put in to its morning haven. The passengers hastily dragged out efficient looking brief-cases, shopping baskets, and hurried past Osip’s glasses – ashore: the ship is in dock only until evening, and then – out to the ocean again.

Bent low, Yelisey Yeliseyich carried the cornice of the unseen Hermitage past Osip – and rained down on Osip from above:

“Tonight, now – sure to be a search. So let everyone know.”

But before night – there is still a whole day to be lived. And the strangers wandered in confusion in the strange, unfamiliar city – Petrograd: in a way so similar, and yet so dissimilar, to Petersburg (4), whence they had set sail almost a year ago, and whither they are hardly likely ever to return. Strange, frozen overnight, stone-like waves of snow: mountains and pits. Warriors from some unknown tribe – in strange rags, weapons on straps over their shoulders. A foreign custom – going to people’s houses to spend the night: on the streets at night – Walter Scott-type Rob Roys. And here on Zagorodny – the snow branded with drops of blood … No, it’s not Petersburg!

Mamai wandered in confusion along the unfamiliar Zagorodny. The penguin’s wings impeded him; his head hung like the tap of a de-soldered samovar; on his down-trodden left heel a globus histericus of snow – torture every step.

And suddenly his head jerked up, his legs started prancing like a twenty-five year-old, poppies on his cheeks: from a window there smiled at Mamai – …

“Hey, gormless, out of the road!” – red-faced people with huge bags were pushing straight for him.

Mamai jumped aside, his eyes still glued to the window, and the moment they had pushed through – again to the window, from where there smiled at him – …

“Yes, for the sake of that one – you’ll steal and deceive and do anything.”

From the window there smiled – stretched out seductively, voluptuously – a book from Catherine’s time (5): A Descriptive Exposition of the Beauteousnesses of Sankt-Pitersburkh. And with a careless movement, with a feminine cunning, it afforded a glance inside – into the warm crevice between two tautly curved marmoreal-bluish pages.

Mamai was like a twenty-five year-old in love. Every day he strolled along Zagorodny, and outside the window he silently, with his eyes, sang serenades. He didn’t sleep at night – and even kidded himself that he couldn’t sleep because of a mouse working away somewhere under the floor. He went out every morning – and each morning he prodded that same parquet block by the door-sill with a titillating nail: Mamai’s happiness was buried under the block – so near and yet so far. Now that all had been revealed about the four thousand two hundred – now what?

On the fourth day, his heart squeezed into his fist like a fluttering sparrow, Mamai went through that very door on Zagorodny. Behind the counter – a grey-bearded, bushy-browed Black-Sea Odessan seafarer, in bondage to whom she languished. Mamai’s warlike ancestor rose again in him: Mamai bravely advanced on the Odessan.

“Ah, mister Mamai! It’s been a long time, a long time … I’ve got something put aside for you.”

Squeezing the sparrow even tighter, Mamai flicked through the books, giving them an occasional stroke of feigned love, but lived through his back: for behind his back, in the window, she kept smiling. Picking out a yellowed 1835 number of The Telescope, Mamai haggled for a long time and then waved his arm hopelessly (6). Then, with his fox’s circles ranging over the shelves, he made his way over to the window – and thus, as if purely by the way:

“Oh, and this is how much?”

Eek! The sparrow gave a flutter – hold it! Hold it! The Odessan raked his fingers through his beard:

“Well, now – as it’s the first sale today … to you, a hundred and fifty.”

“Hmm … Perhaps … (Hurrah! Bells! Cannons!) – Well now, all right … I’ll bring the money tomorrow and pick it up.”

And now for the most horrific part: the block beside the door-sill. Night. Mamai as though on hot coals: he should, he mustn’t, he can, it’s unthinkable, he can, he can’t, he must …

The omniscient, gracious, threatening – Providence in a wedding-ring was drinking tea.

“Now, drink it up, Peten’ka. Why are you such a … didn’t you sleep again?”

“That’s it. We’ve … mice … I don’t know …”

“Stop snivelling, and don’t grimace! What do you think you’re playing at?”

“I … I’m not grimacing.”

And so, finally, he empties the glass – not a glass, a bottomless 40-gallon cask. Buddha in the kitchen was accepting a sacrificial offering from the cook. Mamai – in the study alone.

Mamai ticked like a clock, just as it’s about to strike twelve. He took a deep breath, listened attentively – and on tiptoe to the writing table: there lies the little knife for books. Then, in a fever, gnome-like, he contorted himself over the door-sill – icy dew on his bald patch – and lowered the little knife to the block, stuck it under – and … a desperate howl!

At the howl Buddha thundered in from the kitchen – and saw down by her feet: the pumpkin-like bald patch, lower down – the contorted gnome with his little knife, and, lower still, the finest particles of paper.

“Four thousand – mice … There, there it is! There!”

Cruel, ruthless, like the Mamai of 1300-odd, the Mamai of 1917 arose from all fours – and charged with his sword to the corner by the door: the mouse had dashed out from under the block to take refuge in the corner. And, with his sword, the bloodthirsty Mamai impaled his enemy. A water-melon: tough going for a second – the skin; then simple – pulp, and that’s it: the parquet block, the end.

Notes

(1) Mamai [pronounced ‘Mam-eye’]: as well as being the name of the central character of this story, Mamai was the name of the Vizier of the Golden Horde, and later Khan, one of the most feared overlords of Rus’ in the fourteenth century. His Tartar army was defeated by Dmitrii of the Don at the famous Battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380, and soon afterwards he was overthrown by a rival Khan.
(2) Hermitage [Ermitazh]: the celebrated art gallery and museum in St Petersburg. Formerly the Winter Palace.
(3) Little Psyche [Dushen’ka]: an eighteenth-century re-working of La Fontaine’s Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon.
(4) St Petersburg [Sankt Peterburg] was renamed Petrograd during the First World War (changing from the Germanic to the Slavonic form, for patriotic reasons); subsequently the city changed to Leningrad and eventually back again to St Petersburg.
(5) Catherine II (“the Great”), “Empress of All the Russias”, reigned from 1762 to 1796.
(6) The Telescope [Teleskop]: a radical literary journal of the 1830s, edited by N.I. Nadezhdin, suppressed in 1836 following the publication of Piotr Chaadaev’s first Philosophical Letter.

[This translation first appeared in Stand (vol. 17, no. 4) in 1976. Minor revisions have been made. Republication is with the advance permission of the then editor of Stand, Jon Silkin. N.C. ]

First published 1920.

Contributed by Neil Cornwell.


Evgenii Zamiatin (1884-1937): two volumes of Zamiatin’s works have appeared in Penguin – the influential anti-Utopian novel We and the selection The Dragon and Other Stories (under the spelling “Yevgeny Zamyatin”). Mamai is not included in the latter collection, and there is just one previous translation (in an anthology of Soviet stories, dating from the 1930s).

Notwithstanding his subsequent falling out with Soviet political and cultural society (resulting in his emigration to France in 1931), Zamiatin was an immensely influential figure in Soviet literary life over the decade or so following the Revolution. His fiction apart, he is significant as a theorist of revolution and as an essayist on literary theory (having been the self-styled founder of “Neo-Realism”). Mamai (written in 1920 and published in Dom iskusstv, no. 1, 1921) may be seen to typify the style and systems of image-building used by Zamiatin in his mature period (his later style was somewhat less contrived). The principal metaphors (of the block of flats as a ship, and of Mamai as his Tatar namesake), together with a succession of subsidiary images, are here built up to dominate Zamiatin’s picture of revolutionary Petrograd. Comparison may be made with his more famous story The Cave [Peshchera], written in the same year, which depicts the revolutionary city through prehistoric imagery. Very much a literary technician’s story, Mamai still manages to convey the flavour of its times; it graphically portrays “the little fellow” and his spouse, and makes its point – as it were – with its ending. In translating the story, attempts have been made to reflect as much of Zamiatin’s unusual prose style as possible.


Neil Cornwell