The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov Online - Paul Russell

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BERLIN

NOVEMBER 23, 1943

THE AIR-RAID SIRENS COMMENCED SHORTLY before midnight. From the cellar we heard the cough of the antiaircraft guns on the city’s perimeter, the bombers’ drone, the rolling thunder of gigantic footsteps. All this we have grown accustomed to, but now the drunken giant strode directly toward us. We felt the building above us shudder, heard the windows blow out in a crystalline shower, smelled the weird bloom of the incendiaries. Then the deafening footsteps receded, the din quieted—only to be overtaken some minutes later by the fire’s roar as it spread through the neighborhood. The pressure drop sucked the cellar door from its hinges. We scrambled to shoulder it back into place. With damp cloths we shielded our faces against the smoke. Our ears and temples throbbed. We cried aloud. We prayed.

“All the same,” I told Herr Silber this morning, “England is the most civilized country in the world.”

My words hung almost legibly in the frigid air of our office. A stunned silence met them. Several nervous faces glanced our way, then returned to their paperwork. Most of my associates in the Eastern Front Editorial Department had managed to show up for work. As Dr. Goebbels reminds us, in the Reich there are no longer any rights, there are only duties.

“Obviously, Herr Nabokov,” said my colleague, a little unsteadily, “we’re all under a great deal of stress. Perhaps you might consider taking the rest of the day off.”

I knew he was trying to be kind. Every one of us in that room understood exactly what had just happened. Feeling dangerously lightheaded, I rose, made a bow. “Danke sehr,” I said. “I believe I will.”

What has been said cannot be unsaid. That is the reality of the Reich. Who should know that better than the staff of the Propaganda Ministry?

Herr Silber made the usual stiff-armed salute. There was no point anymore in returning it, so I did not.

I sensed all eyes following me as I left. In the corridor a poster warned: THE ENEMY SEES YOUR LIGHT! DARKEN IT! Shards of glass littered the front steps. Otherwise the Ministry remained remarkably unscathed, though its neighbors on Wilhelmstrasse were not so lucky. The Chancellery, the Arsenal, the Hotel Budapest—all had been reduced to rubble. I skirted a bomb crater nearly as wide as the street, its cavity already filled with water from a severed main. A burnt-out lorry perched on its lip. Nearby lay a headless mannequin which I chose not to inspect closely. All along my nearly impassable route the air hung thick with masonry dust, a hideous oily ash, an odor of char and kerosene and I scarcely dare think what else. Among incinerated trams and buses wandered unearthly shades. On Kurfürstendamm a stout middle-aged woman in a flimsy nightgown and fur stole approached and threw her arms around me. Gratefully I embraced her, if for no other reason than that we were both still alive.

“What despicable barbarians!” Herr Silber had said to no one in particular in that frigid shell of an office. “Murderers. Jackals. Jews! The British are by far the worst war criminals of all.”

Who could blame him? The firestorm had overspread the city from west to east. Charlottenburg, Unter den Linden, Alexanderplatz—all were said to be devastated. Nonetheless, I said what I said—“Trotz allem, England ist das zivilisierteste Land der Welt.”

Last week a young lady was arrested from the building next door for black-listening to foreign broadcasts. Only yesterday I witnessed an older gentleman plucked from the tram by the Sicherheitsdienst for mentioning to another passenger what hardly needs mentioning: that the war goes very badly for the Reich. The civilized lads of the RAF will not have devastated this city so fully that the Gestapo cannot find their way to me. Flight is out of the question. Where would I go? The Nansen passport we Russian exiles carry is worthless. Besides, I am a convicted sex criminal under regular surveillance since my release from an Austrian jail last year.

I write this in my shell-shocked lodgings in Ravensbergerstrasse. The windows are gone, the electricity and water are out, my nerves are badly shredded, and I cannot get the sight of that headless mannequin out of my head. For courage I rely on black market brandy I have been hoarding for a wedding next week. In a recent novel by the incomparable V. Sirin—quite popular in our émigré circles—a condemned man wonders how he can begin writing without knowing how much time remains. What anguish he