Good People opens in Berlin in 1938. Thomas Heiselberg has grand plans to make the company he works for the biggest market-research group in Europe. Meanwhile, in Leningrad, Sasha Weissberg has plans of her own, inspired by the intellectual conversations in her parents’ literary salon. When war breaks out and fate brings Sasha and Thomas together, they will both be brought to account. Published to rapturous reviews in more than ten languages, Good People is a tour de force: sparkling, erudite, a glimpse into the abyss. Its young author, Nir Baram, has been compared to Dostoyevsky and Grossman, and has won several awards in Israel, including the Prime Minister’s Award for Hebrew Literature.
In this extract, we find 22-year-old Sasha working as a literary editor of confessions for the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, under Stepan Kristoforovich, whom everyone calls Styopa. At the end-of-year department celebrations Sasha’s husband, Maxim Podolsky, mimics Styopa in a skit written by political prisoners. Sasha wants Styopa to give her details of the whereabouts of her missing younger twin brothers, Vlada and Kolya, who were taken away when their parents were arrested, but Styopa pulls her aside to let her know that he is about to be arrested himself. In a last act of devotion to his favourite colleague, Styopa assures Sasha that she will be untouched by the disaster about to befall him – and tells her the location of one of her brothers.
— J. G.
The band started playing jolly music, and the head of the first department came over the loudspeakers. ‘Dear comrades, you are all invited to the dance floor.’
‘My health has improved a lot, and I look forward to getting back to work. But soon I’m going to want to speak with you.’ She was surprised by her defiant tone.
Did he understand the equation that had come clear to her on the train? Enough time has passed. Without progress in the matter of the twins, I can’t go on working here, and, for my part, you can execute me. She was stricken with anguish: maybe she had wasted too much time, maybe Styopa couldn’t help her anymore.
He excused himself and ran after two men with bony necks in yellowish brown suits. The colour reminded her of a sick man’s skin. He caught up with them and started chatting, gesturing to the waiters to bring a tray of vodka. Two old women, secretaries from the third department, approached her. She didn’t remember their names, but they always treated her with kindness and called her sirota, ‘orphan’. One of them once told her in secret that her sister, a former worker in the Kirov factory, admired ‘the great physicist Andrei Pavlovich Weissberg’. They took her hands in theirs. ‘Sirota, we’re so pleased that they shot the villain who tried to burn you.’ They glanced across at Styopa. ‘Look at him, the head of the largest department,’ one of them whispered. ‘It’s interesting they didn’t choose a man for that job who knows how to read. He sits in the projection room every day, a hundred times he’s seen Chapaev, two hundred times Alexander Nevsky, and he already knows how to sing “If War Comes Tomorrow”.’
‘He even asks his prisoners, the poets, to write love letters in his name to the actress Smirnova,’ said her friend.
‘Dear comrades,’ Sasha reprimanded them fondly, ‘I suggest you stop drinking.’
They exchanged glances.
Styopa came back. The old ladies didn’t move. ‘Comrade Weissberg.’ He bowed slightly, and made a theatrical gesture. ‘Since your husband is backstage getting ready to play me in the first skit, permit me to play the lucky bastard.’
As she and Styopa turned to leave, she saw that the women were looking at her as though to understand whether their message had got through. They had tried to gossip with her. Had Styopa sent them so she would be seduced into badmouthing him? She linked her fingers with his. Did he suspect her?
They stood on the dance floor. Familiar faces surrounded them: Natalia Prikova in a pretty dress, a bouquet in her hair, blew her a kiss, acquaintances waved, called her name and complimented her, hands stroked her shoulders. Styopa spread out his arms as though to emphasise that she was returning to work under his protective wing.
He wrapped an arm around her waist. The contact was loose and cautious, and hope burned in his eyes. They stood, breathed and didn’t move. It seemed to her that he was about to retract his intention to dance, but at the same time he was urging his body to behave naturally. For the first time she wondered whether the rumour that he was in love with her was groundless. From the start she knew that he delighted in her personality – in particular her scheming side – but tonight his attentions were delicate, even awestruck, and she suspected it was contact he had desired for a long time.
She laughed. ‘Styopa,’ she scolded, ‘a dance is a dance.’ And with her left hand she tightened his grip.
He woke up, and his familiar pride straightened his back. With a sudden motion he brought her close to him. He was a skilful dancer, even a bit arrogant, and he led her with surprising speed. She felt that he was filling her body with lithe power – the twins always complained, screaming and scratching, that they couldn’t move when she wound her legs around their bellies. She acknowledged to herself that Styopa was one of the best dancers she knew. He glided fast, but without haste, which gave his dancing a kind of spin that made everything else fade, and concentrated you inside your own movement. Nor did he exaggerate like those fops who pulled you around so much that you were afraid of falling over, and he was good at finding a moment to pause, not so long that you were helplessly flung out of the dance, but a pause in which the movement still whirled. No question, Styopa’s body was strong. She hoped that her intimations of disaster were wrong.
The music stopped, and everyone clapped.
Outside the windows snowflakes fell onto the Neva and gathered up the city’s lights. Snow always sneaks up: you don’t look for a moment, and there it is. The high roofs and the spear-towers were already covered with white, to which the light of the streetlamps gave a lacy smoothness.
She returned her gaze to Styopa. He was breathing heavily and sweating; tufts of his thinning hair stuck to his forehead. He kept looking at the row of notables, the functionaries whose faces she recognised from the newspaper, and another dozen or so middle-aged men dressed in faded jackets. They were concentrating on plates laden with quiches, barley and cooked vegetables. Podolsky had told her that for budgetary reasons it had been decided not to serve meat. Behind the men hung a giant picture of Stalin, and on either side of it were smaller pictures, draped in black ribbons, of the two beloved departed ones, Sergei Kirov and Sergo Ordzhonikidze.
‘Comrade Zhidnov won’t be coming,’ Styopa announced drily. The two old secretaries passed by them again. He greeted them in a cajoling tone that suited him less than his usual teasing. ‘Grumpy geese,’ he muttered to Sasha. She looked at the stage, where the orchestra was tuning up. ‘Start playing,’ she prayed.
Styopa waved to one of the functionaries, and she stared at him, seeking another hint of weakness. The orchestra began to play again, and Sasha drew close to him.
‘My old age is shaming my youth, Sashinka. One more dance and I’ll die. How about a drink?’
‘Good idea, my ageing commander.’
They walked over to the bar. How could she have been so stupid, after her first certainty, to be seduced into some illusory hope – the hope, by the way, that always throbbed in all the weak people she investigated – that everything was all right? Even when it was clear that the game was up, and there was no chance of evading punishment, their miserable souls groped for some sign of redemption. At first these quests were heartwrenching, but after witnessing so many she only felt demoralised. Why would they in particular be saved? Because everyone believed he was special somehow, that the story of his life was different? Almost everyone, whether guilty or not, clung to this illusion: whoever understood every aspect of their lives would also understand how deep their tragedy was. Most people believed there was an eye somewhere, expert in the hidden recesses of the human heart, that peered into the caverns of their soul and made them, in particular, gleam among the dusty masses. Those in lofty positions knew they still had plans, were loved, could be useful. None of them, not even Brodsky, understood how insignificant he was, fluttering in the wind. His degree of guilt or remorse made no difference at all, and they wouldn’t even discuss his case, because his face had already blended in with the multitude; how could he be found now?
The room was darkened, and then the stage was spotlit. Maxim Podolsky stood there with a red face, lightly made up, wearing a black wig and a tight suit, upholstered with a pillow. He staggered like a drunk.
‘Dear comrades, good evening. As head of the second department, I am forced to admit that I find nothing more disgusting than books and art. People write and paint and take on all sorts of spiritual endeavours, aspire to greatness, dream about Pushkin and Lermontov, and meantime lots of work piles up on my desk. Friends, we must beat our breasts!’ He had begun to shout. ‘Graphomania is a dreadful Russian disease! Is it easy to obtain pencil and paper? Certainly. Is it easy to be an author? A cinch. A poet? A breeze. A man writes: “It’s cold in Moscow/ in Kiev it’s dark/ And in Leningrad? Brrrr!” And then he complains that he’s being deprived, that jealous poets are plotting to get rid of him, and he demands money and a holiday house for the whole summer.’
Two women and two men in prison uniform, shackled, crawled to centre stage.
‘Accused!’ shouted Styopa-Podolsky. ‘Are you poets, too?’
‘Citizen Investigative Magistrate, aren’t you embarrassed to ask?’ one of the prisoners shouted back. ‘Can’t you see that here at your feet crawls the eminent poetess Yekatrina Mikhailovna Ulitskaya? And she wants to read one of her masterpieces to you: “Stars in the Windows of the NKVD”?’
‘A counter-revolutionary poem of the first order!’ shouted Styopa-Podolsky.
‘Precisely the opposite. Have you read it?’
‘Of course, it’s by Boris Lapin.’
‘Shame!’ shouted the woman. ‘Lapin wrote “Stars in the Windows of the Cheka”, which is an entirely different poem! And you still call yourself the head of the department responsible for literary matters?’
Suddenly Sasha realised that she hadn’t seen Reznikov all evening. ‘Styopa,’ she said and turned to him in the dark.
He gripped her arm, and dragged her after him. It was plain that something terrible had happened. They walked around the bar. Styopa pushed a wooden door with no handle, painted white like the wall, and they slipped through it. She remembered he had once said to her: ‘Every clever investigator has to have his own Kerkoporta.’ They stepped down a tortuous corridor. They could hear the actors clearly, and she understood that they were behind the stage.
‘We won’t have another opportunity to speak freely,’ whispered Styopa. ‘Maybe I’m being followed. In another seven minutes the first act will be finished, the lights will come up, and you and I will already be back in the hall, in exactly the same place.’
‘Reznikov?’ she said.
‘He and none other,’ he said with a bitter laugh.
‘We love Comrade Stalin!’ an actor shouted. ‘Did he give us glorious industry or not? He gave us a prize – the union took what we got. He gave us a flat – the neighbour and his sister came to squat. Our poems he read – people said, “Print them when he’s dead.” He lowered prices – didn’t give out ration books. He repaired the roads…’
‘Too bad he sent us to the boondocks,’ chorused the other actors.
The small windows in the corridor were broken. It was cold, but her body was burning.
‘They wrote a charming skit, those saboteur authors,’ Styopa said.
‘I don’t understand,’ shouted Styopa-Podolsky from the stage. ‘You’re not being straight with me. Write a proper confession, and maybe I’ll arrange minus twelve for you instead of Kolyma. Are those poems bourgeois or not? Subversive or not?’
‘Do you remember Agranov?’ Styopa said quietly. He was standing against her. His lips clung to her ear, and his breath warmed it. ‘He was one of my closest friends. He was arrested and shot in 1938. I was very sorry. He was a man I admired. When they arrested him and Molchanov, it was clear to me that I would be arrested too. Nothing happened. But apparently my name still came up in their investigations, and Reznikov, our old friend, heard about it, saw an opportunity, and exploited it. He went to Moscow and “revealed my true face”. These days, Sashinka, that’s how to get ahead. He accused me of continuing on with the plots of Agranov and his band. I don’t know whether Agranov was guilty – maybe he wasn’t particularly clever, but meticulous and loyal, and in any event we were only colleagues. Okay, we also shared a few women. But it wasn’t just Agranov: Reznikov invented some more accusations. In short, I’m in a life-and-death struggle with him, and for the moment he has the upper hand.’
‘No one will believe a contemptible man like Reznikov,’ she said in despair. ‘Your friends surely know he’s a liar.’
‘I’ve already heard that I’m going to be investigated. Most of my friends don’t know yet. When they do, they’ll turn their backs on me the way we have on everyone who got into trouble. I’m innocent,’ he said sadly. ‘From my youth I’ve tied my fate to the revolution, have wholeheartedly done everything asked of me, but sometimes misunderstandings arise… No matter, time is short. By the end of February you’ll be transferred to western Belorussia. I’m taking care of it so that the transfer will seem orderly. We mustn’t give the impression that you’re sneaking away in the dead of the night. We’re kicking you upstairs. They need sophisticated investigators there – in the past few months, after we liberated western Belorussia from the Polish dogs, we’ve discovered how many enemy groups are there. Don’t say anything now. You understand that there’s no alternative. If I fall, Reznikov will bring you down. He goes hard and fast, one of those shock workers who always outperforms. He’s an Udranik, he’ll have all the right arguments. The very fact that I employed you here, even if I was given permission – that will be enough for him. In Belorussia you’ll be far away. You know how to stand out, Sasha, and how to find strong patrons who can repel an attack if it comes. I know what is tormenting you. Believe me, for a long time, secretly, being very careful, I’ve been making inquiries. I’ll tell you this: one of them is serving in the Fourth Army, which is stationed in western Belorussia, and you can meet him there.’
‘Styopa,’ she whispered and leaned her cheek on his shoulder.
‘Don’t worry.’ His voice sounded muffled. ‘In the interrogation I won’t say your name. I give you my word of honour.’
What kind of a person did he think she was, if he thought that was disturbing her now? Her temples pounded. She heard them and felt burning in the place Styopa had breathed on.
Maybe he was right? How could she know? Recently some of her gestures seemed to have been made by themselves, and she found it hard to determine whether there was truth in them or whether they were entirely false, if they were hers, or if she had copied them from someone else whose behaviour seemed flawless. All these things whirled through her mind while she raced down the corridor after him.
Styopa-Podolsky screeched from the stage, ‘You fools! Compete with me in real poetry! Love of the proletariat burns in my heart/ I grip its malicious enemies in my fist/ I shall crush the poisonous snake/ But, comrades, please: my sister’s pension…’
Just a few scraps of memory remain, hinting that once, long ago, we believed there was a kernel of truth inside us, something that we wouldn’t buy or sell. We imagine we are putting on a show for the world, but in the bedroom we still retain that old truth, as sweet as the taste of childhood. But in the soul there are no partitions like in Vlada and Kolya’s room; everything slips into everything else. We think we can keep juggling, pretending, until one day, with unexpected sobriety, we understand what perhaps we already knew: our habits are us.
Only when they were standing in the hall again and clapping for her husband, and Styopa enthusiastically stuck two fingers between his lips and produced a deafening whistle, did the meaning of his words become clear to her: Vlada or Kolya.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2016 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Jeffrey Green is a writer and translator living in Israel. He has a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard, and has published, among other things, a novel in Hebrew, a book of poetry and a book about translation.