‘The Last Days of Mandelstam’ by Vénus Khoury-Ghata: An Excerpt
The year is 1938. The great Russian poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam is forty-seven years old and is dying in a transit camp near Vladivostok after having been arrested by Stalin’s government during the repression of the 1930s and sent into exile with his wife. Stalin, ‘the Kremlin mountaineer, murderer and peasant-slayer’, is undoubtedly responsible for his fatal decline. From the depths of his prison cell, lost in a world full of ghosts, Mandelstam sees scenes from his life pass before him: constant hunger, living hand to mouth, relying on the assistance of sympathetic friends, shunned by others, four decades of creation and struggle, alongside his beloved wife Nadezhda, and his contemporaries Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak and many others.
With her sensitive prose and innate sense of drama, French-Lebanese writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata brings Mandelstam back to life and allows him to have the last word—proving that literature is one of the surest means to fight against barbarism.
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
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Lying for months—how many?—on a wooden plank, his mattress, Mandelstam wonders if he is dead or still alive.
After the first month, he stopped counting.
Less ill than he, his neighbours might let him know if he is still alive.
But typhus is decimating the camp.
Three out of four deportees are stricken.
A thick stench of sweat, urine, diarrhoea.
Peasant workers or sentenced prisoners, none of the deported know who Mandelstam is. He is the only intellectual in the group.
His neighbour raises Mandelstam’s arm when the morning bread is handed out, but keeps Mandelstam’s ration for himself.
The poet Osip Mandelstam isn’t hungry.
The poet Mandelstam spends his time listening to the erratic beating of his sick heart.
Forty-seven years old, he looks twice that.
Even dead, his bunkmate would continue to raise his arm to get his bread ration.
Unable to speak, Mandelstam is unable to protest.
His lips quiver, but no sound comes out of his mouth.
He recites the same poem out of fear of dying.
Repeats it even in his sleep and when he manages to dream.
He is in a labyrinth.
He is walking carefully so he won’t brush against the walls clammy in the humidity.
A man is following him.
His steps are heavy, deafening.
‘You see, I’ve caught you.’
Mandelstam, turning around, recognizes Stalin by his moustache.
‘You will have only my corpse, my poem about you will live on.
‘Forbidden from working , from publishing , pursued in city after city, searches, arrests, torture, exile, cold, hunger. You’ve put me through everything for thirty years, but my poem is stronger than you. Do you want me to recite it for you?’
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer
the murderer and peasant-slayer
‘Stop. I know the rest.’
Stalin laughs as if it is a good joke.
His laugh shakes the walls, shakes Mandelstam.
‘Admit that I frighten you. The proof—you’re hiding in a labyrinth.’
‘Admit that my poem frightens you, otherwise you wouldn’t have hidden me in this labyrinth. But know that I won’t retract a single word. Even dead, I will write other poems.’
‘—which no one will read. You forget that you are not allowed to publish. No one knows who you are. You have destroyed with your left hand what the right hand has built. All your friends have abandoned you.’
‘You harassed them. You imposed your presence at their tables.’
‘Slept in their homes though they hadn’t invited you, you and your mad wife. Two beggars. Without dignity. You have exhausted your friends. You have worn them out.’
‘My true friends are the poor, the starving , who stand in line for a bowl of soup. Those expulsed from their homes, the exiled, the executed. Men, women, children delivered to your manipulating machine.’
Mandelstam shouts out. The shout cracks Stalin’s eye. Stalin places his hand on that eye.
The blood spurting from the socket flows to the ground and fills the labyrinth.
Why the labyrinth? he wonders.
Mandelstam knows he is hallucinating.
He tries to latch on to real places and events to erase his nightmare.
So he won’t sink.
He has decided to confront death with open eyes.