1. i continue to read mainly on my Kindle, for convenience; nonetheless i find it unsatisfactory, i can’t read poetry on it, and end up buying paper copies of anything i like enough to re-read. i’ve now bought my third copy of Alan Furst’s Dark Star (one in England, one given away), as i wanted to re-read it and like it too much for the screen. It’s a book in love with the mystery and matter-of-factness of the physical, reminding me in this of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Roughly speaking it’s a spy thriller with little plot, centred about a Russian journalist who does occasional work for the NKVD in 1930s Europe. On my second reading i realised the seemingly unconnected scenes are all threaded through with an Okhrana document secreted in an old leather bag in a train station locker. The journalist Szara is manoeuvred into taking possession of the bag at the beginning, and all follows.
2. Here is the bag, in all its physicality:
He examined it and realised he’d never seen one like it: the leather was dense, pebbled, the hide of a powerful, unknown animal. It was covered with a thick, fine dust, so he wet his index finger and drew a line through it, revealing a colour that had once been that of bitter chocolate but was now faded by sun and time. Next he saw that the seams were hand-sewn; fine, sturdy work using a thread he suspected was also handmade. The satchel was of the portmanteau style – like a doctor’s bag, the two sides opened evenly and were held together by a brass lock. Using a damp towel, he cleaned the lock and found a reddish tracery etched into the metal surface. This was vaguely familiar. Where had he seen it? In a moment it came to him: such work adorned brass bowls and vases made in western and central Asia – India, Afghanistan, Turkestan. He tried to depress the lever on the underside of the device, but it was locked. […]
He put one finger on the lock. It was ingenious, a perfectly circular opening that did not suggest the shape of its key. He probed gently with a match, it seemed to want a round shaft with squared ridges at the very end. Hopefully, he jiggled the match about but of course nothing happened. From another time the locksmith, perhaps an artisan who sat cross-legged in a market stall in some souk, laughed at him. The device he’d fashioned would not yield to a wooden match.
He gets it open finally:
At dusk, André Szara sat in his unlit room with the remnants of a man’s life spread out around him.
There wasn’t a writer in the world who could resist attributing a melancholy romance to these artifacts, but, he argued to his critical self, that did not diminish their eloquence. For if the satchel itself spoke of Bokhara, Samarkand, or the oasis towns of the Kara Kum desert, its contents said something very different, about a European, a European Russian, who had travelled – served? hidden? died? – in those regions, about the sort of man he was, about pride itself.
The objects laid out on the hotel desk and bureau made up an estate. Some clothing, a few books, a revolver, and the humble tools – thread and needle, digestive tea, well-creased maps – of a man on the run. On the run, for there was equal clarity, equal eloquence, in the items not found. There were no photographs, no letters. No address book, no traveller’s journal. This had been a man who understood the people he fled from and protected the vulnerability of those who may have loved him.
The clothing had been packed on top, folded loosely but perfectly, as though by someone with a long history of military service, someone to whom the ordered neatness of a footlocker was second nature. It was good clothing, carefully preserved, often mended but terribly worn, its wear the result of repeated washings and long use in hard country. Cotton underdrawers and wool shirts, a thick sailor’s sweater darned at the elbows, heavy wool socks with virtually transparent heels.
The service revolver dated from pre-revolutionary days, a Nagant, the double-action officer’s model, 7.62mm from a design of 1895. It was well oiled and fully loaded. From certain characteristics, Szara determined that the sidearm had had a long and very active life. The lanyard ring at the base of the grip had been removed and the surface filed flat, and the metal at the edges of the sharp angles, barrel opening, cylinder, the trigger itself, was silvery and smooth. A look down the barrel showed it to be immaculate, cleaned not with the usual brick dust – an almost religious (and thereby ruinous) obsession with the peasant infantry of the Great War – but with a scouring brush of British manufacture folded in a square of paper. Not newspaper, for that told of where you had been and when you were there. Plain paper. A careful man.
The books were also from the time before the revolution, the latest printing date 1915; and Szara handled them with reverence for they were no longer to be had. Dobrilov’s lovely essays on noble estates, Ivan Krug’s Poems at Harvest, Gletkhin’s tales of travel among the Khivani, Pushkin of course, and a collection by one Churnensky, Letters from a Distant Village, which Szara had never heard of. These were companions of journey, books to be read and read again, books for a man who lived in places where books could not be found. Eagerly, Szara paged through them, looking for commentary, for at least an underlined passage, but there was, as he’d expected, not a mark to be found.
Yet the most curious offering of the opened satchel was its odour. Szara could not really pin it down, though he held the sweater to his face and breathed in it. He could identify a hint of mildew, woodsmoke, the sweetish smell of pack animals, and something else, a spice perhaps, cloves or cardamom, that suggested the central Asian marketplace. It had been carried in the satchel for a long time, for its presence touched the books and the clothing and the leather itself. Why? Perhaps to make spoiled food more palatable, perhaps to add an ingredient of civilization to life in general. On this point he could make no decision.
Szara was sufficiently familiar with the practices of intelligence services to know that chronology meant everything. ‘May God protect and keep the czar’ at the end of a letter meant one thing in 1916, quite another in 1918. With regard to the time of ‘the officer’, for Szara discovered himself using that term, the satchel’s contents offered an Austrian map of the southern borders of the Caspian Sea dated 1919. The cartography had certainly begun earlier (honorary Bolshevik names were missing), but the printing date allowed Szara to write on a piece of hotel stationery ‘alive in 1919’. Checking the luggage label once again, he noted ‘tentative terminal date, 8 February 1935.’ A curious date, following by two months and some days the assassination of Sergei Kirov at the Smolny Institute in Leningrad, 1 December 1934, which led to the first round of purges under Yagoda.
A terminal date? Yes, Szara thought, this man is dead.
He simply knew it. And, he felt, much earlier than 1935. Somehow, another hand had recovered the satchel and moved it to the left-luggage room of a remote Prague railway station that winter. Infinite permutations were of course possible, but Szara suspected that a life played out in the southern extremity of the Soviet empire had ended there. The Red Army had suppressed the pashas’ risings in 1923. If the officer, perhaps a military adviser to one of the local rulers, had survived those wars, he had not left the region. There was nothing of Europe that had not been packed on some night in, Szara guessed, 1920.
3. This passage expresses much of why i prefer paper to electronic books: the tactile sensory resonance, the marks of previous owners, of previous readings, the expanding network of historical associations, the occasional flashes of insight – these latter in particular seem to tap into something in the physical object itself, as i felt once with an SS dagger. And the books made to be read and re-read on the road, in small Asian market towns: if i delete or lose a Kindle file, i can just download it again and there is no difference between the book i read and lost, and the book with which i replaced it: the electronic does not allow this palimpsest of experience, or only in the crudely mechanical way that the NSA (etc.) can view a person’s entire browsing history. i think probably most good readers know what it is like to replace an old copy, and to feel – even if the replacement is exactly the same imprint – that it is not the same. When my last edition of John Sinclair’s Inferno translation finally fell apart, after about 30 readings, i used the pages as decoration, or as packaging for gifts, because i felt something of those 30 readings in the paper, and i did not want to simply toss it in the bin and so eliminate a decade’s reading. The replacement was apparently exactly the same edition, and lacking; not the book i bought in Dillon’s second-hand section in Durham in 1997, before the shop was consumed by Waterstone’s.
4. Furst has a strong sense for the distant networks of history, and their manifold and undislodgeable connection to the present; this is one reason i would never become a socialist/progressive – i am at home in the negotiation between my present and past, and the pasts of many others, and wouldn’t want to simply destroy the past and its echoes, even if i thought such an undertaking were possible. The bright new utopias of socialism do not interest me; they seem as plausible as Disney cartoons; as flatly inhuman as an electronic book; as repulsive as the dreams of a Yagoda, or for that matter, that other great progressive, Hitler: to such fools, the elder locksmith laughs from another time.
And so i like living in Munich, learning a barbarous ancient language, smoking pipes and reading old books – to understand myself through these myriad, overlapping, incalculable networks of thought and action and being; to take my own being from this meeting and friction; to acknowledge my own part in this, as observer and actor both, patient as i am.