The painted bird, p.20
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       The Painted Bird, p.20

           Jerzy Kosiński
 
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  Books impressed me tremendously. From their simple printed pages one could conjure up a world as real as that grasped by the senses. Furthermore, the world of books, like meat in cans, was somehow richer and more flavorful than the everyday variety. In ordinary life, for example, one saw many people without really knowing them, while in books one even knew what people were thinking and planning.

  I read my first book with Gavrila’s assistance. It was called Childhood and its hero, a small boy like myself, lost his father on the first page. I read this book several times and it filled me with hope. Its hero did not have an easy life either. After his mother’s death he was left quite alone, and yet despite many difficulties he grew up to be, as Gavrila said, a great man. He was Maxim Gorky, one of the greatest of all Russian writers. His books filled many shelves in the regimental library and were known to people all over the world.

  I also liked poetry. It was written in a form resembling prayers, but was more beautiful and more intelligible. On the other hand, the poems did not guarantee days of indulgence. But one did not have to recite poetry as penance for sins; poetry was for pleasure. The smooth, polished words meshed with each other like oiled millstones ground to a fine fit. But reading was not my principal occupation. My lessons with Gavrila were more important.

  From him I learned that the order of the world had nothing to do with God, and that God had nothing to do with the world. The reason for this was quite simple. God did not exist. The cunning priests had invented Him so they could trick stupid, superstitious people. There was no God, no Holy Trinity, no devils, ghosts, or ghouls rising from graves; there was no Death flying everywhere in search of new sinners to snare. These were all tales for ignorant people who did not understand the natural order of the world, did not believe in their own powers, and therefore had to take refuge in their belief in some God.

  According to Gavrila, people themselves determined the course of their lives and were the only masters of their destinies. That is why every man was important, and why it was crucial that each know what to do and what to aim for. An individual might think his actions were of no importance, but that was an illusion. His actions, like those of innumerable others, formed a great pattern which could only be discerned by those at the summit of society. Thus some apparently random stitches of a woman’s needle contributed to the beautiful floral pattern as it finally appeared on a tablecloth or bedcover.

  In accordance with one of the rules of human history, said Gavrila, a man would from time to time spring up from the vast nameless mass of men; a man who wanted the welfare of others, and because of his superior knowledge and wisdom he knew that waiting for divine help would not help matters on earth very much. Such a man became a leader, one of the great men, who guided people in their thoughts and deeds, as a weaver guides his colored threads through the intricacies of the pattern.

  Portraits and photographs of such great men were displayed in the regimental library, in the field hospital, in the recreation hall, in the mess tents, and in the soldiers’ quarters. I had often looked at the faces of these wise and great men. Many of them were dead. Some had short, resounding names and long bushy beards. The last one, however, was still living. His portraits were larger, brighter, more handsome than those of the others. It was under his leadership, said Gavrila, that the Red Army was defeating the Germans and bringing to the liberated peoples a new way of life which made all equal. There would be no rich and poor, no exploiters and no exploited, no persecution of the dark by the fair, no people doomed to gas chambers. Gavrila, like all the officers and men in the regiment, owed all he had to this man: education, rank, home. The library owed all its beautifully printed and bound books to him. I owed the care of the army doctors and my recovery to him. Every Soviet citizen was in debt to this man for everything he possessed and for all his good fortune.

  This man’s name was Stalin.

  In the portraits and photographs he had a kind face and compassionate eyes. He looked like a loving grandfather or uncle, long unseen, wanting to take you into his arms. Gavrila read and told me many stories about Stalin’s life. At my age young Stalin already had fought for the rights of the underprivileged, resisting the centuries-old exploitation of the helpless poor by the pitiless rich.

  I looked at the photographs of Stalin in his youth. He had very black, bushy hair, dark eyes, heavy eyebrows, and later even a black mustache. He looked more of a Gypsy than I did, more Jewish than the Jew killed by the German officer in the black uniform, more Jewish than the boy found by the peasants on the railroad tracks. Stalin was lucky not to have lived his youth in the villages where I had stayed. If he had been beaten as a child all the time for his dark features, perhaps he would not have had so much time to help others; he might have been too busy just fending off the village boys and dogs.

  But Stalin was a Georgian. Gavrila did not tell me if the Germans had planned to incinerate the Georgians. But as I looked at the people that surrounded Stalin in the pictures I had not the slightest doubt that if the Germans had captured them, they would all have gone to the furnaces. They were all swarthy, black-haired, with dark eyes.

  Because Stalin lived there, Moscow was the heart of the whole country and the longed-for city of the working masses of the whole world. Soldiers sang songs about Moscow, writers wrote books about it, poets praised it in verse. Films were made about Moscow and fascinating tales told about it. It seemed that deep under its streets, entombed like gigantic moles, long gleaming trains rushed smoothly along and stopped noiselessly at stations decorated with marble and mosaics finer than those in the most beautiful churches.

  Stalin’s home was the Kremlin. Many old palaces and churches stood there in one compound behind a high wall. One could see over it the domes resembling huge radishes with their roots pointing toward the sky. Other pictures showed the Kremlin quarters where Lenin, the late teacher of Stalin, used to live. Some of the soldiers were more impressed by Lenin, others by Stalin, just as some of the peasants spoke more often about God the Father and others about God the Son.

  The soldiers said that the windows of Stalin’s study in the Kremlin were lit late into the night and that the people of Moscow, along with all the working masses of the world, looked toward those windows and found new inspiration and hope for the future. There the great Stalin watched over them, worked for them all, devised the best ways of winning the war and destroying the enemies of the working masses. His mind was filled with concern for all suffering people, even those in distant countries still living under terrible oppression. But the day of their liberation was approaching, and to bring that day nearer Stalin had to work late into the night.

  After I learned all these things from Gavrila, I often walked in the fields and thought deeply. I regretted all my prayers. The many thousands of days of indulgence I had earned with them were wasted. If it were true that there was no God, no Son, no Holy Mother, nor any of the lesser saints, what had happened to all my prayers? Were they perhaps circling in the empty heaven like a flock of birds whose nests had been destroyed by boys? Or were they in some secret place and, like my lost voice, struggling to get free?

  Recalling some of the phrases in those prayers, I felt cheated. They were, as Gavrila said, filled only with meaningless words. Why hadn’t I realized it sooner? On the other hand, I found it hard to credit that the priests themselves did not believe in God and used Him only to fool other people. And what about the churches, Roman and Orthodox? Were they also built, as Gavrila said, merely for the purpose of intimidating people through God’s presumed power, forcing them to support the clergy? But if the priests acted in good faith, what would happen to them when they suddenly discovered that there was no God, and that above the highest church dome there was only a boundless sky where airplanes with red stars painted on their wings flew? What would they do when they discovered that all their prayers were worthless and that everything they did at the altar, and everything they told people from the pulpit, was a fraud?

>   The discovery of that terrible truth would strike them down with a blow worse than a father’s death or the last glimpse of his lifeless body. People had always been comforted by their belief in God, and they usually died before their children. Such was the law of nature. Their only consolation was the knowledge that, after their death, God would guide their children through their lives on this earth, just as the children found their only solace in the thought that God would greet their parents beyond the grave. God was always in people’s minds, even when He Himself was too busy to listen to their prayers and keep track of their accumulated days of indulgence.

  Eventually Gavrila’s lessons filled me with a new confidence. In this world there were realistic ways of promoting goodness, and there were people who had dedicated their whole lives to it. These were the Communist Party members. They were selected from the whole population and given special training, set particular tasks to perform. They were prepared to endure hardship, even death, if the cause of the working people required it. The Party members stood at that social summit from which human actions could be seen not as meaningless jumbles, but as part of a definite pattern. The Party could see farther than the best sniper. That was why every member of the Party not only knew the meaning of events, but also shaped them and directed them toward new aims. That was why no Party member was ever surprised at anything. The Party was to the working people what the engine is to a train. It led others toward the best goals, it pointed out shortcuts to an improvement of their lives. And Stalin was the engineer at the throttle of this engine.

  Gavrila always returned hoarse and exhausted from Party meetings which were long and tempestuous. The Party members evaluated each other at these frequent meetings; each of them would criticize the others and himself, give praise where due, or point out shortcomings. They were particularly aware of events around them, and they always endeavored to forestall the harmful activities of people under the influence of priests and landlords. Through their constant watchfulness the members of the Party became tempered like steel. Among the Party members there were young and old, officers and enlisted men. The strength of the Party, as Gavrila explained, lay in its ability to rid itself of those who, like a jammed or crooked wheel on a cart, impeded progress. This self-purging was done at the meetings. It was there that members acquired the necessary toughness.

  There was about it something immensely captivating. One looked at a man dressed like everyone else, working and fighting as they all did. He seemed to be just another soldier in a great army. But he might be a member of the Party; in a pocket of his uniform, over his heart, he might be carrying his Party card. Then he changed in my eyes as did sensitized paper in the darkroom of the regimental photographer. He became one of the best, one of the chosen, one of those who knew more than the others. His judgment carried more force than a box of explosives. Others grew silent when he spoke, or spoke more carefully when he listened.

  In the Soviet world a man was rated according to others’ opinion of him, not according to his own. Only the group, which they called “the collective,” was qualified to determine a man’s worth and importance. The group decided what could make him more useful and what could reduce his usefulness to others. He himself became the composite of everything others said about him. Learning to know a man’s inner character was a never-ending process, Gavrila said. There was no way of knowing that at its bottom, as in a deep well, there might not lurk an enemy of the working people, an agent of the landlords. That is why a man had to be continually watched by those around him, by his friends and enemies alike.

  In Gavrila’s world the individual seemed to have many faces; one of them might be slapped while another was being kissed, and yet another went temporarily unnoticed. At every moment he was measured by yardsticks of professional proficiency, family origin, collective or Party success, and compared with other men who might replace him at any time or who might be replaced by him. The Party looked at a man simultaneously through lenses of different focus, but unvarying precision; no one knew what final image would emerge.

  To be a Party member was indeed the goal. The path to that summit was not easy, and the more I learned about the life of the regiment the more I realized the complexity of the world in which Gavrila moved.

  It seemed that to reach the pinnacle a man must climb simultaneously many ladders. He might have been already halfway up on the professional ladder while just starting out on the political one. He might have been ascending one and descending the other. Thus his chances of reaching the summit altered, and the peak, as Gavrila said, was often one step forward and two steps back. Besides, even after reaching this peak, one might easily fall and have to start the climb all over again.

  Because a person’s rating depended in part on one’s social origin, one’s family background counted even if one’s parents were not living. A man had a better chance of ascending the political ladder if his parents were industrial workers rather than peasants or office clerks. This shadow of their family trailed people relentlessly, just as the concept of original sin hounded even the best Catholic.

  I was filled with apprehension. Though I could not remember my father’s exact occupation, I recalled the presence of cook, maid, and nurse, who would surely be classified as victims of exploitation. I also knew that neither my father nor my mother had been a worker. Would it mean that, just as my black hair and eyes were held against me by the peasants, my social origin could handicap my new life with the Soviets?

  On the military ladder one’s position was determined by rank and function in the regiment. A veteran Party member had to obey explicitly the orders of his commander, who might not even be a Party member. Later at a Party meeting he could criticize this same commander’s activities and, if his charges were supported by other Party members, he might cause the transfer of the commander to a lower post. Sometimes the reverse was true. A commander might punish an officer who belonged to the Party, and the Party might further demote the officer in its hierarchy.

  I felt lost in this maze. In the world into which Gavrila was initiating me, human aspirations and expectations were entangled with each other like the roots and branches of great trees in a thick forest, each tree struggling for more moisture from the soil and more sunshine from the sky.

  I was worried. What would happen to me when I grew up? How would I look when seen through the many eyes of the Party? What was my deepest core: a healthy core like that of a fresh apple, or a rotten one like the maggoty stone of a withered plum?

  What would happen if the others, the collective, decided that I was best suited for deep-water diving, for example? Would it matter that I was terrified of water because every plunge reminded me of my near-drowning under the ice? The group might think that it had been a valuable experience, qualifying me to train for diving. Instead of becoming an inventor of fuses I would have to spend the rest of my life as a diver, hating the very sight of water, panic-stricken before each dive. What would happen in that case? How can an individual, Gavrila asked, presume to put his judgment ahead of that of the many?

  I absorbed Gavrila’s every word, writing questions which I wanted answered on the slate he had given me. I listened to the soldiers’ conversations before and after the meetings; I eavesdropped on the meetings through the canvas walls of the tent.

  The life of these Soviet grownups was not very easy. Maybe it was just as hard as wandering from one village to the next, and being taken for a Gypsy. A man had many paths from which to choose, many roads and highways across the country of life. Some were dead ends, others led to swamps, to dangerous traps and snares. In Gavrila’s world only the Party knew the right paths and the right destination.

  I tried to memorize Gavrila’s teaching, not to lose a single word. He maintained that to be happy and useful one should join the march of the working people, keeping in step with the others in the place assigned in the column. Pushing too close to the head of the column was as bad as lagging behind. It could mean loss of conta
ct with the masses, and would lead to decadence and degeneracy. Every stumble could slow down the whole column, and those who fell risked being trampled on by the others . . .

  17

  In the late afternoon crowds of peasants came from the villages. They brought fruit and vegetables in exchange for the rich canned pork sent to the Red Army all the way from America, for shoes, or for a piece of tent canvas suitable for making into a pair of trousers or a jacket.

  As the soldiers were finishing their afternoon duties, one heard accordion music and singing here and there. The peasants listened intently to the songs, barely understanding their words. Some of the peasants joined boldly and loudly in the song. Others appeared alarmed, suspiciously watching the faces of their neighbors who displayed such sudden and unexpected affection for the Red Army.

  Women came from the villages in increasing numbers, together with their men. Many of them flirted openly with the soldiers, trying to lure them in the direction of their husbands or brothers who were trading a few steps away. Ashen-haired and light-eyed, they pulled down their ragged blouses and hiked up their worn skirts with a casual air, swinging their hips as they strolled around. The soldiers came closer, bringing from their tents bright cans of American pork and beef, packets of tobacco and paper for rolling cigarettes. Disregarding the presence of the men, they looked deep into the women’s eyes, accidentally brushing against their buxom bodies and breathing in their odor.

  Soldiers occasionally sneaked out of the camp and visited the villages to continue trade with the farmers and meet village girls. The command of the regiment did its best to prevent such planned secret contacts with the population. The political officers, the battalion commanders, and even the divisional newssheets warned the soldiers against such individual escapades. They pointed out that some of the wealthier farmers were under the influence of the nationalist partisans who roamed the forests in an attempt to slow down the victorious march of the Soviet Army and to prevent the approaching triumph of a government of workers and peasants. They indicated that men from other regiments returned from such excursions severely beaten, and that some had disappeared altogether.

 
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