by Michael Stein
Storytellers, though, don’t take radical measures; they can only dramatize them, mythologize them, renounce or glorify them. Perhaps this particular storyteller’s ambitions are too grand, and his desire to put the past in its place can only be accomplished by putting it in a story, told from the present, as has always hitherto been done.
But his dream burns brightly within him. It won’t let him sleep, still less will it let him return to the present where he would wile away his time w
ith made up nonsense, suitable only for children and idiots. A storyteller’s utopia is a real place that can be found on a map and traveled to. He is convinced that someone, somewhere has thrown off the chains of oppression, that somewhere the unencumbered present exists, and his conviction is doubled by another wise cliche which, although usually referring to something else, tells us that, ‘If you can even think of it then someone, somewhere, has already done it’.
The Nevsky Prospect is swarming with horse carts and self-importance. The storyteller turns away for a moment, looking into the cracked mirror of the Neva’s half frozen surface, wondering if it’s still even called that. After all, Petersburg is no longer Petersburg, nor ev
en Petrograd, but has been rebaptized Leningrad. Its name has been changed as definitively as a Hollywood actor’s who has left his foreign, unglamorous past behind him. A new world has risen up out of the marshes, and what does it matter if it’s called the Nevsky Prospect or Hollywood Boulevard when his feet fall on it with that same inimitable click?
He strolls down it, enjoying the spectacle, and can hardly believe what he sees. All the princes and queens and kings have magically disappeared, as in a fairy-tale. Commisars in military uniforms of a frog-like green ride around imperiously in chauffeured black cars
. Billboards of a stark geometry proclaim the new world in defiance of the imitation Greek columns and marble allure of the surrounding buildings. It looks as if Ancient Rome has been conquered by a modern army. Obviously, a revolution has taken place, but for the storyteller, more accustomed to palace coups and supernatural shifts of power, this word is more of a mystery than an explanation.
Revolution. How to make sense of it? A storyteller is no historian and he can neither describe nor even understand it in a properly historical manner, with all the appropriate names, dates and conflicting forces. In his own language the retelling comes out altogether differently:
It’s like a game that children play at school. A thunderous clap of the teacher’s hands and everyone has to get out of their chairs and lose their places. Chaos ensues, violence and civil war. A frantic rushing around trying to find a new place only to find that someone else got their first. Girls in pigtails are screaming. A rich count is thrust out of his chair and loses his estates as well. A particularly timid child just stands still, bewildered. He doesn’t want to play anymore. Friends turn against friends. Former enemies join forces. A uniformed Cossack is pushed out of the game altogether, exiled to Paris, where he lives out his days as a waiter, bitter and always drunk.
Then the teacher claps again and everything stops dead. The losers, standing, are frozen still, like Lot’s wife but into stone and bronze and marble. This is the past. They can be vandalized, demolished or merely forgotten. The rest of the children are still in the game. They can run and play and live, unless of course their legs have been blown off by a shell, in which case they drag themselves around. At least it’s motion, continued life, and for them the future beckons, radiant and empty, like bliss itself.
The storyteller drinks in this bliss with every breath. The past has been vanquished! He feels a story coming on, uncontrollably, like a dizzy spell. The words begin to flutter out of his mouth, landing in the closest available ears.
“A long time ago in a place far, far away a prince is walking in the shadow of his father’s castle. These were troubled times and the dark clouds hanging over the kingdom were reflected in the prince’s melancholy face. He appeared to be forming a battle plan, even occasionally taking swipes at the air with an imaginary sword. But what was this mortal threat? Was it a bloodthirsty giant, a plague or an evil wizard? The fact was, that it was neither one nor the other, and it turned out that not only was the prince the only one aware of the nature of the enemy, he was the only one who knew there even was one.”
Two confused and unshaven faces turn up towards the storyteller as he reaches this dramatic impasse. One of them is wearing a sailor’s cap and wool jacket while the other has on what was plainly once a suit. The sailor takes a swig from his glass jar, seemingly content to hear a story for free. His companion, on the other hand, looks a little uneasy. His nervous eyes begin to shift back and forth. He loosens his shredded tie but it’s too much for him.
“Wait, comrade . . . . wait!” he sputters out, “Before you go any further, before anything is said which we all might be sorry for . . . . . . My name’s Pyotr Rodionovich.”
He holds out his sweaty, unappealing hand for the storyteller to shake.
“Formerly clerk of the seventh class . . . currently, nothing.”
“But of the very first class,” his sailor friend adds proudly.
“Ah yes,” Pyotr responds with a smile that reveals his missing teeth, “Top of my field . . . and, uh . . . this here’s Grishka. How about you?”
The storyteller doesn’t necessarily want to explain how he is the prototypical storyteller, both universal and ageless, and thus without a name of his own. At the same time he is incapable of lying.
“I’m usually referred to as Anonymous,” he finally replies.
“Anonymous . . huh? Well, that’s just fine then,” Pyotr Rodionovich concludes with a gasp of relief, “So you’re the one who wrote that book about the chambermaid who has an old English lord lick her leather boots clean while the lady of the house is off frolicking with the stable boys. And then that officer who gets paddled . . . . ”
“No!” the storyteller replies blushingly, “That was another Anonymous.”
“Yeah, I know who you are then,” Grishka breaks in just as the jar leaves his lips, “You’re the one who wrote that note saying how Ivan Fyodorovich is filching money from the building committee and how he is a secret counterrevolutionary. I heard that it was written by you, yeah . . . Anonymous.”
The storyteller slips away, leaving his new friends to wallow in their glass jar and misunderstandings. He is determined to be more selective now and his eyes scan the boulevard in search of the ideal listener. Wrinkled grandmothers, youthful soldiers with battle-flushed cheeks, con men with scheming eyes and shopgirls with innocent ones, they all appear before him, but without calling up in him that vital need to tell a story. Perhaps his stories are out of place here in the midst of so much life?
Shrouded in an increasing melancholy, he continues walking all the way to the Prospect’s end, eventually reaching the cemetery. Shouldn’t he just lay himself to rest here? On the cobblestone path leading from the monastery bearded beggars throw imploring looks at him but they clearly aren’t hoping for stories. They probably have more than enough of their own. And just as the storyteller is resigning himself to sail across the black river Styx into the afterworld, where his hated past has likewise been relegated, he hears a chorus of triumphant voices, singing, shouting, as if to him:
“We climb the stairs of history,
like no one has before us,
The red flag waves above our head
While we cry out in chorus . . .”
He answers the call and retraces his steps until he is able to spot these singing saviors. It is a communist youth group running through some revolutionary favorites. The storyteller admires their crisp military appearance and soaks in the purity of their joyless voices. Here are his empty canvases, here, finally, is his future.
The storyteller is standing so attentively and upright in front of them that they abruptly stop singing. Even their freckled, red haired party leader assumes he must have been sent to address them with some words of encouragement, sprinkled with assorted quotes of Lenin’s and so she waits silently for him to begin speaking, which he immediately proceeds to do:
“A long time ago in a place far, far away a prince is walking in the shadow of his father’s castle. The truth is, he is running away from home. His castle has become a prison and he longs for nothing more than to have the kind of normal life he had always dreamed of, one which he can so clearly picture despite never having seen.”
Expressionless eyes gleam like polished marbles. Obviously, a story of the heroism of distant pre-revolutionary days, terrible times which you children, luckily, never had to live through.
“Leaving the kingdom behind him he travels through forests and fields, hills and flatlands, past lakes and churches and little thatched huts. As the day finally ends he comes upon a farm and decides to stop there. ‘This looks like the sort of place where normal lives are lived,’ thinks the prince. But when he looks in the window and sees the normal people gathered around a table, presumably living their normal life, he can’t help feeling disappointed. ‘But they’re doing the same things people do at court. This can’t be normal’. Suddenly he feels his hunger and fatigue. He has gone the whole day without food, his head is spinning, and the vision of a uniform, changeless world begins to haunt his childish mind.”
An inexcusable ambiguity begins to appear on the otherwise ardent Komsomol faces. At the mention of ‘a uniform, changeless world’ their party leader steps in to provide the necessary commentary without which any story, even in the capitalist world, seems hopelessly incomplete.
“What the comrade is trying to say is that with the proletariat rising the prince is worried how to keep them under control. They can live just as their so called ‘betters’ do. And as we will see, this poor, sad, little, indolent parasite of a prince will soon find himself with a revolution on his hands. And I think we all know who comes out victorious in the end?”
“The proletariat!” scream the children in perfect unison.
The party leader turns, smiles at the storyteller and humbly steps back into the group to await the inevitable happy ending, and although the storyteller has been fully prepared to end this particular tale happily he now finds himself unable to do so. For that matter he finds himself unable to end it at all. He just stares at the assurance in the party leader’s freckled face, at the childhood innocence which her young charges can only hope to acquire at a much later age. She is a murderer. She has taken his ending away from him, and what is murder but a change of endings, violent and abrupt, a usurpation that drains the last drop of the storyteller’s art, his very essence and sole function on earth.
He begins to mumble to himself, as stupefied victims have a tendency to do, his lips moving rapidly, but neither the party leader nor the Komsomol youth are able to hear a word. Is he continuing the story? Has he changed the subject altogether? Is he just babbling like a lunatic? None of them will ever know, for his story has entered a distant realm and the words come out of his mouth as if spoken from another world.
” . . . and the prince just turned around and walked away, maybe even with tears in his eyes, he turned away from the happy home life that could never be his. His attempts to take part in the everyday life of ordinary people had ended in dismal failure. This was no pater familias walking off into the encroaching darkness of that fateful evening. What happened next is all too . . .”
The storyteller nibbles on his lower lip trying to come up with a stirring line as a follow-up. Around him the click of computer keyboards, ringing phones, traffic sounds and empty conversation form the white noise in which he is enveloped and in which his story is rapidly coming to life. Leaning forward in his swivel chair he smacks the delete key and starts the sentence over.
“Dusk was falling as the prince entered the park grounds. His route took him down a street bathed in shadows, the street of love, as it is generally referred to by those ‘in the know’. From its tree lined sides he is beckoned by shadows with human hands . . . . .”
Stomping feet and loud voices parade past the storyteller’s desk, breaking his chain of thought. The pied piper leading this little troop off, his tie askew and his eyes already red and shining as if in anticipation, turns back just as he reaches the outer doors.
“Eh, fancy going for a drink with us?”
“No, I can’t,” the storyteller mumbles, his gaze fixed on his glowing screen, “I’m working on a story”.
“Well then, nothing better to get those creative juices flowing.”
“No thanks. I’m doing just fine.”
The pied piper peers over as if he can read the words on the screen and then lets out a conspiratorial giggle.
“Mmm, you just can’t bear to part from your Prince Charming, huh? Oh, all right. Suit yourself.”
The doors have hardly shut before the storyteller resumes his furious typing. Will he finally bring a story to a successfull completion? It looks like it. He is speeding away, no sooner hearing the muses speak than typing out their hallowed words. Besides which, he has a deadline weighing on him and is terrified at the idea of being scooped.
“The prince is led off the path and into the bushes. What dark happening took place next we can only guess from the police report. Apparently he continued following this unknown man into a grove of trees. They came to some sort of financial arrangement which caused the prince to remove his wallet from his jacket pocket although the police offered no information on its particular nature. Then, suspect number two entered the picture, sneaking up from behind and forcefully throwing the prince onto the ground, taking the aforementioned wallet, his gold watch and a ring with a seal passed down to him from his great-great-great grandfather, a king who reigned over an era so distant, so unsullied compared to our own, that to children growing up today its very existence must seem as unreal as the fairy tales their parents tell them every night as they try to put them to sleep.”
About the author:
It took Michael Stein longer to write this biographical note than it did to write any of his stories. He was born in Philadelphia and has spent the last nine years living in Prague. Not used to writing about himself in the 3rd person he can’t think of anything else to say.