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The Bookshelf: Devonian Limestone

23 May, 2021
The Bookshelf: Devonian Limestone

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We can say that Konstantin Paustovsky as a writer "wanderer fascinated by life" was formed in Odessa. This was also reflected in the difficult critical years, which often threatened misfortune or death and made us appreciate life, every grain of it; and, of course, mutually enriching communication with young Odessa authors. And also the inspiration that Odessa gave, saturation with the spirit of this city, incomparable with any other, its streets and squares, contemplation of the endless sea.

Many years passed before the desert again reminded me of its existence. This was in 1931, when I went to spend the summer in the town of Livni (Oryol Region). I was then writing my first novel and felt drawn to some small town where, not knowing a soul, I could work undisturbed.

I had never before been to Livni. But as soon as I arrived I found the town with its clean streets, heaps of sunflowers, flagstone pavements and the swift-flowing Bilstraya Sosna, which had cut a gully in the yellow rock, very much to my liking.

I took lodgings on the outskirts of the town in an old wooden house which stood on a steep bank of the river. Behind the house stretched a half-withered orchard, encroaching on the shrubbery of the river-bank. My landlord was a timid elderly man who had charge of the local railway station's newspaper stand. He had a thin, morose-looking wife and two daughters called Anfisa and Paulina.

Paulina was a frail creature of seventeen, who always spoke shyly to me and played nervously with her blond braids. Anfisa was nineteen, well-built, with a pale face, grave grey eyes and a soft voice. She walked about in black like a novice in a nunnery, avoided housework, and spent long hours lying on the dry grass in the garden and reading. Her books came from the attic, littered with mouse-eaten volumes, mostly Russian editions of world classics. I, too, borrowed these books. Now and then from the garden I would catch sight of Anfisa sitting on the steep bank of the river near some hawthorn bush. At her side was a sickly, fair-haired, large-eyed youth of about sixteen. I saw Anfisa secretly bring him food, watch him lovingly as he ate it and sometimes pat his hair. Once she quickly covered her face with her hands and burst into a fit of sobbing. The boy stopped eating and looked in alarm at her. I went away quietly and for a long time tried not to think of the scene I had witnessed.

And I had naively imagined that in this quiet little town I would be able to concentrate wholly on the characters and events I was writing about! But here was life itself intruding and upsetting my plans. I knew I would have no peace until I learned what Anfisa's strange behaviour meant. Now I realized that even before I saw her with the boy, her sad eyes contained some hidden secret. And it was revealed to me soon enough.

I was awakened in the middle of the night by thunder. Thunder-storms were frequent in Livni. The inhabitants believed that the town's deposits of iron ore "attracted" storms. Gusts of wind and white flashes of lightning pierced the darkness. Agitated voices came from the adjoining room. "Tell me what law forbids me to love him?" I heard Anfisa demand indignantly. "Show it to me in writing. You've brought me into the world and now you want to kill me. Beasts! He7s pining away, burning out like a candle!" she screamed.

"Leave her alone, Mother," I heard my landlord said diffidently to his wife. "Let her have her way, the fool. It's no use arguing with her. But remember, Anfisa, you'll get no money from me. Don't count on that!"

"I don't need your accursed money!" Anfisa retorted. "I'll earn some myself and I'll take him to the Crimea to prolong his life perhaps for another year. I'll run away from home, you'll see. And you won't escape the disgrace of it, I tell you."

I began to realize what was at the bottom of it all. In the hall behind the door someone was snivelling and sobbing. I opened the door and a chance flash of lightning revealed Paulina to me. She stood wrapped in a big shawl with her forehead pressed against the wall.

I called her name quietly. But just then a thunderclap burst with such force that it seemed to drive our cottage underground up to the very roof. Paulina seized my hand with fright.

"Good Lord!" she whispered. "What'll happen now? And there's this storm into the bargain!"

In undertones she confided to me that Anfisa was in love with a boy whose name was Kolya. He was the son of the widow Karpovna, a quiet, inoffensive person who did other people's laundry. Kolya had tuberculosis. It was no use reasoning with the self-willed, high-strung Anfisa. She would have her way or take her life.

The voices in the adjoining room had suddenly died down and Paulina ran off. I went back to bed but kept listening for sounds and could not drop off for a long time. All was quiet in the house. After a while I began to doze to the sound of the dying peals of thunder and the barking of the dogs. Soon I was sound asleep.

I must have been asleep for a long time when I was awakened by my landlord's loud knocking on the door. "Sorry to disturb you," he said in a dispirited voice, "but there's trouble in the house." "What's the matter?"

"Anfisa's run away, practically in her nightdress. I'll go to" Karpovna. That's the other end of the town. She might be there Please stay with the family, my wife's fainted."

I dressed hurriedly and, taking some smelling salts, went to revive my landlady. After a while Paulina motioned to me to follow her to the porch. I don't know how to explain these things but somehow I had a strong presentiment of a tragic event.

"Let's go to the river-bank," Paulina said softly.

"Have you got a lantern?"


"Bring it quick!"

Paulina brought a dim lantern and we descended the steep bank down to the river's edge.

"Anfisa-a-a!" Paulina called in dismay. The cry made me start. "It's no use!" I thought, "It's no use!" Faint streaks of lightning flashed across the sky beyond the river and the thunderclaps now sounded far in the distance. Rain drops rustled in the brushwood on the steep bank. We walked along the river margin following the stream. The light in the lantern was very dim. A flash of lightning lit up the sky just above our heads, and I caught sight of something white on the river-bank.

When I reached the spot I saw a girl's dress, a chemise and a pair of wet shoes.

Paulina screamed and ran back in the direction of the. house. I hastened to the ferry and raised the sleeping ferryman. We began crossing and recrossing the river, peering into the water all the time.

"It's useless looking for a body on a stormy night like this," the half-awake ferryman said and yawned. "You won't find it till it's come up to the surface. I remember her, a pretty girl, but death spares no one. That's how it is. Took off her clothes so it would be easier to drown." Anfisa's dead body was found next morning by the river dam. In the coffin Anfisa looked very beautiful, her moist braids the colour of burnished gold and a guilty smile on her pale lips.

"Don't look at her so hard," said an old woman to me. "She's too beautiful, it's enough to break one's heart. Don't look!"

But I couldn't tear my eyes away from Anfisa's face. I knew that it was the first time in my life that I was looking upon the face of a woman whose love was stronger than death. I had previously read about such love in books but had not much believed in its existence. Now for some reason the thought flashed across my mind that such love falls mostly to the lot of Russian women.

Many people came to the funeral. Kolya trailed behind afraid to meet the girl's relatives. Seeing that I was trying to get to him, he quickly gave me the slip. Anfisa's tragic death affected me greatly. I couldn't go on with my novel. I moved from the outskirts of the town to a squat, somewhat gloomy-looking house by the railway station. The house belonged to Maria Dmitriyevna Shatskaya, a doctor employed in the railway.

Some time before Anfisa drowned herself I happened to be passing through the city park where I noticed a large group of boys sitting on the ground a few steps away from the summer cinema and buzzing with excitement.

A minute later I saw a grey-haired man come out of the cinema and hand out tickets for the show to the delighted youngsters who, yelling and pushing, made a dash for the entrance. The grey-haired man's face was young; I judged him to be no more then forty. Squinting good-naturedly at me, he walked off with a wave of his hand.

I wanted to find out more about this man whose behaviour I thought rather odd and followed the boys to the show. There I spent a dull hour and a half watching an old film called Red Little Devils amidst the boys' whistling, banging of feet and shouts of delight and horror.

After the show I gathered the noisy lot of boys around me and succeeded in getting them to tell me all they knew about the man who had treated them to the pictures.

I learned that he was the brother of Dr. Maria Shatskaya, that he was "not quite right in the head" and received a large government pension. What had entitled him to it, no one knew. The pension was brought to him once a month and on that day he bought cinema tickets for the boys of the neighbourhood. The boys made a point of finding out the exact date when the pension was due and would gather in the little garden near the Shatskaya home with an air of being there by chance. After Anfisa's death my landlady took to her bed, constantly complaining of her heart. Dr. Maria Shatskaya was called to her bedside one day and that is how I made her acquaintance. She was tall, resolute of manner, wore pince-nez and had retained the appearance of a medical student even in her advanced years.

She told me that her brother, a geologist by profession, was suffering from a mental disorder. She confirmed what the boys had already told me about his receiving a large pension granted to him for his services in the field of science; the books, she said, had won world recognition.

"This is no place for you," she said to me in a professional tone that brooked no objection. "Autumn is coming, "and it’ll be dreadfully muddy here. Besides I'm sure it's impossible to write in such gloomy surroundings. Why not move over to my house? There are only three of us, Mother, brother and myself, and we've got five rooms. We live by the railway station. You needn't fear that my brother will interfere with your work, he is tact itself."

The suggestion pleased me, and thus I made the acquaintance of Vasily Dmitriyevich Shatsky who was to be one of the principal characters of my novel Kara-Bogaz.

My new lodgings were very quiet indeed. There was an air of drowsiness about the whole house. Maria Dmitriyevna was out most of the day at the hospital or visiting patients, her old mother sat playing patience and her brother rarely left his room. I noticed that he read the morning paper practically from the first to the last line and spent the rest of the day writing, filling a fat notebook by nightfall. Now and then from the deserted railway station came the whistle of its only locomotive.

At first Vasily Shatsky avoided me, but after a while he got used to my presence and was willing enough to talk. Daily contact with him revealed to me the peculiarities of his illness. In the morning, while his mind was still fresh, his talk was stimulating, differing in no way from that of a normal human being. It was clear that he knew a great deal. But the effects of fatigue would begin to tell on him at once. His mind wandered. Yet he was amazingly logical even in his wanderings. One day Maria Dmitriyevna showed me her brother's note-book. It contained lines of disconnected words or word combinations, generally beginning with the same letter, with not a single complete sentence among them. These lines read something like this—"Huns, Hohenzollerns, Falsehood, Fraud, Fabrication."

Shatsky never disturbed me when I was writing. Afraid to make a noise, he even walked on tiptoe in the adjoining rooms.

How his mind came to be unhinged I have described in Kara-Bogaz. He had gone off on a geological expedition to Central Asia at the time of the Civil War and was captured by Basmachi—counter-revolutionary bandits. Every day along with other captives he was led to the execution ground. But he was lucky: when every fifth man was ordered to be shot, he would always be third, and when it was every second man, he would invariably be first. Thus he survived, but it had cost him his reason. His sister after a long search finally found him in the town of Krasnovodsk living quite alone in a broken-down railway carriage.

Every evening Shatsky took a walk down to the post-office to mail a registered letter addressed to the Council of People's Commissars. Maria Dmiitriyevna had a standing arrangement with the postmaster by which he returned her brother's letters to her and she at once burned them.

I was curious to- know what Shatsky could write in these letters and was not long in finding out.

"Never put your shoes down with the toes looking forward, it's dangerous," Shatsky said to me one evening as I was lying and reading, and my shoes stood under the bed.


"You'll know in a minute."

He went out and presently returned with a sheet of paper.

"Read it," he said, "and when you're through knock on the wall. If there's anything you don't understand, I'll gladly explain."

He handed me a letter addressed to the Council of People's Commissars. "I have repeatedly warned you of the grave danger which threatens our Motherland," the opening lines read. "We all know that geological strata contain vast resources of material energy, as for example in deposits of coal, oil and shale," I continued to read what I knew were the ravings of a madman. "Man has learned to release this energy and make use of it.

"But few people are aware of the fact that the brain energy of many ages is stored up in the strata of the earth.

"In the town of Livni are the largest layers of Devonian limestone in Europe. It was in the Devonian Period that the world's dim consciousness, cruel, devoid of the least sign of humanity, was born, a consciousness that was dominated by the sluggish brain of the testacean.

"This rudimentary brain energy is concentrated in rock ammonites. And the layers of Devonian limestone are literally packed with petrified ammonites. Every single ammonite is really a little brain of that long-past age, a receptacle containing the most evil kind of energy.

"Fortunately man has never been able to invent a means of releasing these vast resources of energy. I say 'fortunately,' because if a means were found to release this energy it would be the end of civilization. Human beings infected with its evil power would turn into cruel beasts following blind and base instincts and all culture would be dead.

"But, as I have repeatedly warned the Council of People's Commissars, the fascists have found a means of unleashing the brain energy contained in the Devonian strata and of reviving the ammonites.

"Since there are extremely rich deposits of Devonian limestone in the town of Livni the fascists have chosen it as the centre where they will release the evil brain energy. If they succeed, it will be impossible to avert the moral as well as the physical destruction of the human race."

In his letter Vasily Shatsky went on to say how the fascists had worked out a detailed plan for the release of the brain energy contained in the strata in Livni. But, like all plans, no matter how thorough, the fascists' plan, he said, may fail if just one little screw went wrong, a mere trifle.

"Therefore apart from the necessity of surrounding Livni immediately with large units," Shatsky wrote, "strict orders must be issued to the inhabitants to begin reversing their habits (since the success of the plan depends on the inhabitants being regular in their habits) and to do unexpected things in order to completely baffle the fascists. I shall explain. The citizens of Livni must henceforth when turning in place their shoes by their beds with the heels to the front, instead of the toes. A little thing like that for which the fascists have not made provision may in the end wreck their plans.

"Furthermore, I must draw your attention to the fact that little by little the brain energy contained in the Devonian limestone at Livni is escaping from the strata. This has resulted in a deterioration of the morals of this town as compared with other towns of the same type and size.

"I may add in conclusion that the local chemist is the fascists' emissary in Livni."

After having read this letter I was horrified. I realized that Shatsky was not as harmless as he seemed. Soon I discovered that he had frequent fits but that his mother and sister had a way of concealing these from outsiders.

The next evening when we were all seated round the table peacefully discussing homeopathy Shatsky picked up the milk jug and unconcernedly emptied its contents into the pipe of the burning samovar. His mother uttered a cry but Maria Dmitriyevna looked sternly at him.

"At your tricks again?" she said.

With a guilty smile he began to explain that he had poured the milk down the samovar pipe to deceive the fascists, that is to upset their plans and rescue humanity from impending disaster.

"Go to your room at once," his sister ordered in the same stern way. She rose and flung open the windows to let out the fumes of burnt milk, while Vasily Shatsky withdrew from the room very humbly, with bowed head.

In his lucid moments Shatsky spoke eagerly and effusively. I learned that he had spent a good deal of his time in Central Asia and had been one of the first to explore the Kara-Bogaz Bay. In peril of his life, he had ventured along its eastern shores, later describing them and marking them on the map. He had also discovered coal deposits in the rocky mountains near the bay.

He showed me many photographs, such as geologists often take at a great risk to their lives. Among them were pictures of mountains so furrowed by clefts and fissures that they bore an amazing resemblance to the human brain, and of the Ust-Urt tableland ominously rising in a sheer ascent above the desert.

Shatsky was therefore the first to tell me about Kara-Bogaz, this mysterious and dangerous bay in the Caspian, and about its inexhaustible deposits of mirabilite which could be used to transform deserts into flowering lands.

As for the desert, Shatsky hated it as heartily as though it were a living creature. It was, he said, an ulcer, or even a cancer upon the earth's surface, a terrible blight, an inexplicable meanness of nature.

"And the desert must be conquered," he would say to me, "crushed out of existence by our ceaseless, merciless fight and upon its dead body shall rise a land of tropics and rain."

My dormant hatred for the desert, an echo of my childhood days, was revived by his words.

"If but half the money and energy that is spent on wars would be used for fighting the desert," he continued, "there would be no desert areas today. War drains our national wealth, it carries off millions of human lives. And science, culture, even poetry abet in this slaughter of mankind."

"Vasily," Maria Dmitriyevna's loud voice came from the adjoining room. "Compose yourself. There will be no more wars. Never!"

"Nonsense!" said Shatsky in a changed tone.' "This very night the ammonites will come to life. And I'll tell you the exact place: near the flour-mill. We can go there and see for ourselves."

He was beginning to rave. Maria Dimitriyevna led him away, gave him a sedative and got him into bed.

There was one thought uppermost in my mind—to finish the novel I was writing as quickly as possible, and to begin a new one about man's struggle to turn deserts into fertile lands. Thus Kara-Bogaz which I wrote some time later was taking shape in my mind.

It was late autumn when I left Livni. Before my departure I went to say good-bye to Anfisa's family. I found the old woman still in bed and my former landlord out. Paulina walked with me back to town.

It was dusk. The thin ice crackled underfoot. Except for a shrivelled leaf here and there, the fruit-trees were bare. The last cloud faded in the cold setting sun.

Paulina walked by my side and put her hand trust-, fully into mine. This made her seem quite a little girl to me, lonely and shy, and a deep tenderness for her filled my heart.

As we approached the town, muffled strains of music reached us from a nearby cinema. Lights began to twinkle in the cottages and the smoke of samovars curled over the orchards. In between the leafless boughs the stars gleamed bright.

A strange agitation gripped my heart and I thought that for the sake of the beautiful land around me, even for the sake of a lovely girl like Paulina, human beings must be urged to fight for a happy and rational existence. All that brought misery and grief to the human race must be uprooted: deserts, wars, injustice, falsehood, and scorn for the human heart.

Paulina accompanied me as far as the first town buildings. Casting down her eyes and playing with her braid she said unexpectedly: "I'm going to read a great deal now, Konstantin Grigoryevich." She glanced shyly at me. We shook hands and she quickly walked away.

To Moscow I travelled in a crowded carriage. At night I went out for a smoke to the platform, lowered the window and put my head out.

The train was speeding along a bank with woods on either side. The woods were wrapped in shadow but I could divine their presence from the echo of the train's rumble in the thickets. A chill blast blew into my face bringing with it the odour of early snow and frost-bitten foliage. Overhead, keeping pace with the train, the autumn sky glided, dazzling in the brilliance of its stars. Bridges rattled under the moving wheels of the train; the flash of stars was caught in the murky water of passing creeks and streams.

And the train clattered and rumbled and puffed, with .flickering headlights and flying sparks, the engine whistling for all its worth, as though intoxicated with its own rolling speed.

I felt the train was bringing me to some great fulfilment. The idea for my new novel was expanding in my brain. I knew now that I would write it.

Leaning out of the window I began to sing in disconnected words of the beauties of the night and of my deep attachment to the land of my birth. The wind's caress against my face was like that of a young girl's sweet-smelling braids. I longed to kiss the braids, the wind and the cold moist earth below. Unable to do that I sang like one possessed, uttering meaningless words and delighting in the beauty of the eastern sky where a faint delicate blue was now breaking through the - darkness. I only half realized that a new day was dawning.

The views I saw and the exhilaration I felt combined in some subtle way to make me resolve to write, to write at once. But what to write? I knew that my meditations on the beauties of the land and my passionate longing to save that land from exhaustion and death would mould themselves into a theme—what that theme would be was immaterial to me.

And my thoughts soon took definite shape in the idea for the novel which I later called Kara-Bogaz. They could easily have found expression in an idea for a different book. Yet it would have to be saturated with the very emotions and thoughts that possessed me at the time.

This makes me believe that an idea for a book almost always springs from the heart.

With the idea there, a new period for the writer sets in, the "breeding" period, or rather the period of clothing the idea in material gleaned from life.


Translated by Susanna Rosenberg

The Odessa Journal

The Odessa Journal

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