And cats, too.
But perhaps more dogs, especially unknown dogs. I remember myself as a small girl, having found myself face to face with a dog (literally face to face, since I was really very small), and thinking “I’m not afraid of this dog, this dog does not scare me.” I needed a few decades and a stray dog on Moscow’s Leningradsky Prospekt, one of those dogs running in herds all over the city, hungry and despised, and its teeth chattering on my leg, to teach me to be afraid of dogs – at least of some dogs in some places.
Only travel teaches you to take measure of reality, of life, of what is sleeping and what keeps vigil, what is waiting and what haunts. That reality also bites, and what it eats.
The fact is that reality is so rare down here.
Before facing reality, one reads.
Reading is a different kind of reality, a reality beloved and familiar. A reality where the cat stretches along the whole bed on your side.
Reading in the night.
Reading in the metro.
Reading in the gardens.
Reading in the cafés, with the noise of Paris around you, the familiar voices, the couple at the next table whose conversation you follow (she comes from Shanghai to study film – he’s a filmmaker – she is bored – he is very courteous).
Listening and reading at the same time: you walk on an Armenian road with The Crossing Place : A Journey among the Armenians * by Philip Marsden. He traveled throughout the Middle East, Eastern Europe and what was the Soviet Union then, in 1991. A few hours in Odessa looking for a nonexistent boat to Sochi, the train to Kerch, the memory of Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam. An earthquake in Poti, the ferry entering the port of Batumi. The civil war in Georgia. The civil war in Armenia. And Mandelstam again and again. I ask for some more tea.
The night falls, we have visited the poet, a priest has some fuel, he drives towards south, he has the beard and gray eyes of the fedayis, we listen to the gunfire in the distance from Gori or Tatev or Gharan or Zangezur, the villagers hide in the ditches, Karabagh is so close and yet so far, the taxis refuse to drive to south, the men drink like mad, the radio crackles, and then one turns the page “and I thought of how every one of these evenings had contained in them this — these men, these villages, and all that inherited fear of lost land”, and here’s the end. You get up and you return home in the warm night.
Reading to go to Odessa?
As a child, I read A white sail in the distance by Valentin Kataev. I guess you can still find it if you search long enough. Kataev, you said? No, in French it is unavailable.
Then go and search on the side of Ilf and Petrov (another Kataev, this Petrov), The twelve chairs and The golden calf. Yes, if Soviet literature is still read today in France, it cannot be the same any more. *
Ah, and Isaac Babel.
Babel was completely retranslated last year in French by Sophie Benech and published by the wonderful publisher Le Bruit du temps, together with Osip Mandelstam, Zbigniew Herbert, Léon Chestov, Julius Margolin or Peter Handke and D.H. Lawrence. *
Reading Red cavalry once in your life, and never wanting to re-read it. Nevertheless, reading it a little bit again and again. Reading the Stories of Odessa from time to time, or his first autobiographical stories. Reading them, then walking in Odessa and thinking hard about them.
Sometimes you get there a little bit. In the courtyard where Benia Krik grew up, the children still run after the cats. The cats eat fish, it makes them smarter.
When they go to the public baths and they drank a little, the old Odessites always confound themselves with the founder of the city, this Richelieu, whose statue in Roman tribunal clothes thrones on the top of the grand staircase leading down to the port.
There are young girls awaiting their fate. Motionless, lost in their thoughts, closed in on themselves, lacking to all that surrounds them, they listen to the music whistling from their mobile phone. Like a moment of desolation in the Moldavanka. One of the desolations of the Moldavanka, the dirtiest, the poorest, the most forgotten in all Odessa.
You drive. You follow rivers. You follow railways tracks. You follow mountains.
You try not to think about Red cavalry, but you cross too many horses not to think about it from time to time. Isaac Babel, a Jew from Odessa, myopic and clumsy, having never seen a horse in his life, joining a Cossack regiment.
The road passes through villages – villages, which were… Which were.
The Mirage café and its toilet in Halych, Галич, Halicz, Halici, Heylitsh (העליטש), Halics, Galic. Austro-Hungarians, Galicians, Romanians, Jews, Poles, Hungarians, I don’t know who more…
Villages, cities, countries whose names have changed so many times.
And whose inhabitants have changed, too.
Ukrainian villages, so peaceful, so idyllic with their flowering trees, with their light blue plastered houses.
The dirt roads, the shadoofs.
The torpor of the awaking springtime.
Everything is so green and peaceful, and the books are so terrible. Should you know everything about a country when you cross it?
Here, around Chernivtsi – in Romanian, Cernăuți, in German, Czernowitz, in Yiddish, טשערנאָוויץ (Tshernovits), in Polish, Czerniowce, in Hungarian, Csernovic, in Russian, Черновиц (Chernovits) – there was Romania sometimes.
Romania? And suddenly, as the sun falls, I think about this passage of Kaputt * where Curzio Malaparte, sometime around 1941 or 1942, spends the night in one of these villages, between Romania and Ukraina, Yes, reading Kaputt before traveling here.
Reading poems, too. Celan. Ausländer.
Reading this book published last fall in French: Ecrire c'était vivre, survivre : Chronique du ghetto de Czernowitz et le déportation en Transnistrie 1941-1944, * a set of texts collected and translated by François Mathieu for the Fario publisher. Poems, stories, memories, letters and diaries speaking about the time of the destruction – the bodies in the forest – the fools – the…
Paul Celan, Rose Ausländer, Alfred Gong, Alfred Kittner. Poems, above all.
Reading what is the most terrible, what one cannot see in this white of the blossoming cherries. Reading Le livre noir by Ilya Ehrenburg and Vassili Grossman. *
Since it is translated into French, reading Terres de sang by Timothy Snyder. * Since it is not translated into French, reading in English, if you can, The Reconstruction of Nations, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569 – 1999 * by the same author. Pogroms, wars, revolutions, Petliura, massacres, civil wars, Bandera, ethnic cleansing – independence, reconciliation, peace.
You hold back your breath.
Reading to walk in Bolechów and looking at each house and thinking about the cellars and traps, reading to walk in Bolechów and turning your back to the synagogue. Reading Les disparus by Daniel Mendelsohn. *
Reading to cross Galicia. Reading to stop there.
Reading well before or well after, reading to think, to survey these villages and these synagogues and these cemeteries and this vanished world, this big book which was with me for months, a dozen years ago, Témoins du futur : Philosophie et messianisme by Pierre Bouretz, * which was translated at least into Spanish, English and Italian, and which follows, links, meets and challenges Hermann Cohen and Emmanuel Lévinas, Ernst Bloch and Leo Strauss, Franz Rosenzweig and Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber and Hans Jonas. A book that opens doors and helps to cross the threshold.
And after so many books, the reality.
After so many dead cemeteries, after so many abandoned cemeteries, there were along the road other cemeteries, too, those of the living, aligning their iron crosses painted in blue among the cherry trees in blossom, the bouquets of nettles and utility poles – like the villages aligning their homes plastered in blue, and the roads their blue trucks.
We follow the road, all dust, holes and oblivion, a lost road enfiling the villages all dust, holes and oblivion, somewhere between Kaments-Podolsk and Bolechów.
Then, in one of these villages, everything stops: the truck in front of us, ourselves, the time. A procession is nearing, flowers, crosses, banners – people in the dust. A procession? I may have asked a question, I do not know, but I hear this word – Funerals.
Is this here a funeral? Men behind the banners, in front. One of these blue trucks, after them. On the platform, a coffin – a dark brown box, with a cover painted light beige. On the cover, a loaf of bread. Behind the truck, women. First a small group, with brown wax candles in the hand, heavy bodies stiffened by fatigue, faces fixed to the road, black clothes, scarves. At the center, a young woman, in brown dress, vaulted. Others following them, pushing the bikes with which they would depart, later, to other villages, all blue, all dusty.
I take the camera, I make two photos, without looking, without framing, without knowing what I’m doing or what I want to do. The first one has kept the traces of this hesitation: the camera focuses on the mud stains on the windshield.
Then, two or three more things. The absolute silence (or is it just my memory that erased any music)? In this silence, the voice of the truck driver, leaning on the door, shouting into his phone. In this silence, with this voice, the image of the bread on the coffin, still wrapped in the transparent cellophane of the grocery store – with the price tag. The reality compressed.
Closing your eyes.
Should not remain, cannot remain after the dead anything more but the photos? When no one remembers them any more? When there is nobody more to tell about them? When the photos themselves do not belong any longer to anyone, and they are sold for a few hryvnias in the Odessa flea market? When everything has been erased?
An endless road, that night – or another night, or another. Ukraine.
It goes without saying that this list of books is highly subjective, partial, incomplete and personal.