I don’t know whether I mentioned it, but I put the great work in for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, as I did with last year’s effort. This year I was better prepared, so I had a revised and expanded version (76,000 words) ready to go. I decided to change the title as well and call it ‘The Dictator’s Daughter’ which sounds a bit more commercial to me.
Anyway, I’ve heard that it got through the first round. Last year’s effort also got that far; I think the first round, which is based entirely on a ‘pitch’ you provide for the novel, merely filters out the entries which don’t meet the competition requirements, those which are palpably incoherent or mad, the obvious rewrites of current popular films, egregious porn, and long sword-and-sorcery epics (which appear to account for about half of all entries.
What it does mean is that in about a month I should get a couple of critiques from people who have actually read the excerpt (the first ten thousand words). Only if the entry passes that second stage (which last year’s didn’t) will we get to the point where someone actually reads the manuscript in its entirety.
24. Going Home
Lucia had expected that it would be easy to travel to the Palace and hard to get inside once she got there; but it proved to be the other way round. The disorder in the streets of Sescastri meant that public transport was at a standstill, and taxis were rare. In the end she got a lift into the city and walked the rest of the way; she found she still knew the streets quite well. There were angry crowds round the Palace, and it took her some time to work her way round to the entrance, but as soon as the guards heard that she was expected, they let her through without even troubling to check her credentials.
Inside, the place seemed almost empty. A frowning, pig-faced guard in a peaked cap, who was the only person sitting at the reception desk, ignored her completely and in the end she simply walked off to the President’s office on her own inititative; although it had been many years, she still knew the layout.
The Agraci Palace was smaller and less impressive than it had been when she was young. It was much clearer now that a lot of the decorative work was second-rate and lamely imitative. The place was indeed, Lucia saw now, an artistic treasure of a kind; but its particular charm was the way it presented a naïve, unselfconsciously provincial take on high art. It was sort of baroque, but baroque by hearsay, baroque passed through a chain of Chinese whispers; and it was baroque enthusiastically updated to accord with the tastes of the 1970s. It reminded her of the LPs her father had kept in the flat where she and her mother lived, and played whenever he visited; records in which Mozart was rendered on a vibraphone and Handel was finally given the rhythm section he had always so sadly lacked. On a table to the side she noticed an ivory figure; Botticelli’s Venus clumsily realised in three dimensions; hair, fig leaf and other added embellishments in ormolu. The shell in which the goddess stood had been used as an ashtray – who knows, had probably been intended as one. She began mentally roughing out a magazine article which she knew would go down well with her editor if she could get a few good photographs to go with it: she would announce the rediscovery of a neglected style – Dubitanian Eclectico. Sophisticated Parisians would love it; Americans would try to buy it. The Twentylanders would not even notice that they were being patronised. She became aware of her own disloyalty and remembered the serious nature of her visit.
There was hardly anyone around. In the old days, the Palace had been a teeming anthill of officials and politicians, now she saw only a few people here and there, all of whom seemed to be hurrying away with boxes and bags. Could they actually be evacuating? Were things that bad already? No-one was waiting in the ante-room, and there was no-one at the secretary’s desk. After a moment’s hesitation, Lucia pushed the door open, and there he was at his desk, not fatter as she had imagined, but thinner, almost shrunken, white-haired, and wearing glasses. Shockingly, he did not recognise her at first.
“About time,” he said, “Where is Liavetna?”
“Daddy,” said Lucia, “It’s me.”
He stared at her for a few moments, and then gave a guarded smile.
“I’m glad you’ve finally come back,” he said, “Sit down.”
She sat down on the sofa; he remained behind his desk.
“I read your letter,” he said, “Such a long letter. And such a terrible thing for a father to have to read! Such lies! Lucia, I don’t understand why you didn’t ask me about any of this at the time. Was I so frightening?”
“The things Stilin told me,” she said, “Weren’t they at least partly true?”
“Of course they weren’t true,” he said. There was a faint sound of shouting from the street outside. He opened a desk drawer, took out the long letter, and put on his glasses.
“That bastard,” he said, “really, it’s too much, I mean, I lived in fear of him for years, but if I’d known what he was saying about me… See, this business of Sophia Faratrin: first the mother and then the daughter!”
“It wasn’t true?”
“Oh yes, I believe it’s true up to a point, something like that happened, but the small incorrect detail is that it happened to the Roman Emperor Tiberius, not to poor little Marki Larvartin. But I see why he told you this; he wanted it in the back of your mind when he told you that final, disgusting lie, so that you would be ready to believe it. And then it seems I procured under-age girls for Glauci Vespin! The way he twists it! I always insisted that the Council of Twenty must be morally above reproach; but people told me that Glauci was involved with young girls. Stilin would have had him shot, perhaps: that was his usual remedy. Me, I waited until we were visiting the school and then I whispered in his ear: so are these the kind you like, Glauci? It was enough.”
“Lavordin; the same, the same twisting of the truth. The singing. You see, Lucia, the real problem at Lavordin was that there was food there. At that time people were starving, so they would pretend to be ill in order to get into the hospital, where at least they could eat. The doctors would not help me identify the healthy ones; they did not want to throw anyone out, they meant well even if the hospital was collapsing under the sheer numbers of people who wanted to be admitted. So I told the patients that anyone who was too ill to sing loudly would be shot, to free up the beds. Then the ones that sang loudest and seemed fit got a boot up the arse and told that if they malingered again, they’d have me to answer to. No-one was really shot.”
“And you were never in league with cousin Ursin to betray your comrades, either?”
“Lucia, I did some bad things, but they were always done to save my own life. What could I do: between him and Stilin, I had to do what I was told. They were terrible men; every day I thought one or other of them would kill me. Look. Lucia, this was all a plot of Stilin’s to send you away. He never wanted there to be anyone else I might listen to. That’s why he got rid of Ursin, and your mother, and poor Porfri… He’s dead himself now, thank God – oh no, not me, I didn’t touch him. It was his lungs. He smoked too much, you know that.”
Lucia opened her mouth as if to speak, but thought better of whatever she was going to say. Then she tried again.
“I haven’t come here to listen to more explanations. I don’t want the truth any more,” she said, “No more true stories. Was there ever an explanation that really made things better? I never seem to hear one. I’ve come to realise that all I want is better, more uplifting lies. I want the shiny surface. I’m just looking for a really good liar; I know that now. But there’s one thing I do want to tell you. All this stuff, do you know what you did to me? You destroyed my ability to trust anyone, to believe in anything simple or good. Do you understand? Once, in Italy, I was sitting in the student common room, and we were watching the television. There was footage of Nelson Mandela, that speech he made after being released. The others were all drinking it in, how saintly he was; and all I could think was: who the hell do you think you’re fooling, you wicked old man?”
“Ah, comrade Mandela,” he observed, “who could blame him?”
“But do you know what the worst thing is?” she demanded, “The worst of all? Never in my life will I be able to hear anyone say ‘I love you’ and just believe them. You took that from me forever: I will never have it.”
“But I love you, Lucia; I always did; you must know that. I wish we had talked about this, if only you had come to me. I wish we could have straightened things out. This last business – did you really believe that I was the father of Felicia’s child? That’s atrocious, I can’t believe that.”
“No, I never believed that; the way Stilin presented it, like a conjuror bringing out his rabbit; just another trick. He had miscalculated, in any case; I think he had assumed that Felicia was ashamed, that she would be secretive about Grigori’s father. But Felicia was not ashamed of anything and she had already told me, quite casually, that the father was Leo Asmodin. That was far more credible.”
“So if you didn’t believe him, why did you leave like that?”
She shook her head irritably.
“I was always going to leave,” she said, “Don’t you remember? That was why I came to see you in the first place; because I wanted to leave. Nothing Stilin could say was going to change that. Once I found out that my family was a lie, I wanted to get away; and that meant away from Dubitania. Stupid Stilin was so used to manipulating people he never noticed that I didn’t need manipulating. He was wasting his time – he should have just handed over the passport; I would have gone.”
“Well then,” he said, “at least you came back today. If I am so bad, why have you come?”
She frowned at him.
“I’ve come to rescue you. Dubitania is falling apart. The whole Eastern bloc is falling apart. It can’t last – you can’t get the Russians to come in this time. I’ve come to take you away. Come to Paris now before it’s too late.”
“Excuse me, this country is called Twentyland, if you would remember? I’m not in danger. Gorbachev, those other people, they let things go. I don’t let things go. I used to be afraid. You know, it’s true, I have had many enemies. I used to see them in my dreams, coming with guns and ropes. But I don’t fear that any more. You see Lucia, we have passed a watershed in history. With the gradual improvement of technology and organisation, a determined leader can now keep himself in power whatever people think of it. And I am that lucky person, the one who was on top when the wheel froze forever. The days of revolution are over; the people cannot kill the King any more. Of course, if the King is stupid enough to open the borders and send away his soldiers, he must face the consequences; I’m not doing that. ”
“Nice theory, Daddy, but I’m afraid the evidence says otherwise. You know there are crowds of people outside this very building shouting for your head? You know that the Peasant Union members who you called out to march in your favour have joined the protest? You know that the CPV have had to deploy their own men to protect this building because the municipal police refused to do it? And the only thing that’s holding the CPV together is the fear of what will happen to them when the regime is swept away?”
“It’s Inmacra. He was slack, he let things go. I had to get rid of him, get a new man. He’ll sort it out. But no politics here, please, can’t we talk like father and daughter? If I am so bad, why not just leave me to my inevitable fate? Don’t tell me you don’t care a little, Lucia.”
“I do care. I certainly care. You know what I’ve discovered about myself? I’m an intensely selfish person. Those friends you betrayed and killed, all those people who starved because of you; oh, I disapprove, but they don’t mean anything to me really. Not in the final analysis. I don’t get upset over them. What matters, what I do care about, is what you did to me. That’s all I can deal with. And… well, I suppose you know you came for me once when I was unpopular. At school. Whatever you are, whatever you’ve done, you did that. You came for me; I thought I should come for you.”
“I remember,” he said softly, and smiled. “So I did one good thing, perhaps that’s something at least. Maybe when I’m dead I’ll get one afternoon out of Hell now and then, you think so, Lucia?”
“I didn’t say it was a good thing. Just that it was one real thing you did for me.”
“So I never did anything else for you? What a bad father.”
“Don’t give me that!” she exclaimed, “What, you mean you clothed and fed me and brought me up, all that? Everything you gave me belonged to other people; all you did was say hello every so often when you came by to screw my mother.”
“OK, so none of that counts, it’s fair enough. And I never did anything good? That’s a shame. I wish I had just done one good thing that you could remember when I’m gone. I suppose I must be grateful you remember that maybe once I did some one small thing for you, even if it was not a good thing.”
They sat in silence for a few moments.
“What was it you whispered in the teacher’s ear?” she asked at last.
“I remember exactly. I said to her, you see that flag outside, comrade, with the twenty stars? Well if I ever, ever again hear that my daughter has been made unhappy in this place, your guts will be flying from that flagpole in less than thirty minutes. Please understand that I am a simple man, not a teacher, I do not understand metaphors or figures of speech.”
He smiled proudly; suddenly there was a loud bang from somewhere else in the building.
“But this is intolerable!” he exclaimed. He went to the door and threw it open. “Liavetna! Where the hell are you?” he shouted.
There was no-one, but another bang floated up the stairs, and then another.
“Come with me,” said Larvartin, setting off towards the noise. “What has happened here – where is everyone?”
“Don’t go down there. I think the protestors have broken in.” said Lucia.
“Nonsense! It’s just Inmacra’s mess.”
They walked down the stairs and through the corridor to the entrance hall. The Palace was deserted. The empty rooms they passed seemed to have been abandoned in haste: Larvartin stopped to look into one or two, but there was no-one there. As they arrived in the hall there was another tremendous bang: it was clear that the CPV, one way or another, had gone: the protestors, instead of standing behind barricades, were now at the door, and attempting to beat it down.
The pig-faced guard, at least, was still sitting behind the desk.
“What the hell is going on here?” demanded Larvartin, “Call security! Where are they?”
The guard did not reply: he merely stared back at Larvartin. For an uncomfortable few moments they stared at each other in silence.
“Is there a back way out?” asked Lucia.
“No,” said Larvartin, beginning to look fearful as well as angry, “But there is a helicopter on the roof.”
The lift, facing directly into the hall, was small and antiquated, one of the kind with a folding grille instead of a door. It took three attempts to get the grille to close properly, and then the lift seemed to move very slowly. The steady banging receded hearteningly as they rose; luckily the doors of the Palace were sturdy, built for defensive use. On the top floor Larvartin led the way to a short staircase up to a door which gave on to the roof: but the helicopter was not there.
Larvartin shaded his eyes and scanned the horizon.
“There!” he said, “You see him? The bastard can only have taken off a few minutes ago.”
“There is an emergency phone back down in the entrance hall. I think I’ll have to call somebody.”
“Do we have to go down there again?”
“Well, otherwise we could go to the cellars and lock ourselves in until it’s all over. But I don’t like that idea too much. There are still a lot of people down there, prisoners, and some of them are not nice.”
“Alright. Let’s try the hall.”
As the lift descended, the banging gradually became louder again. Lucia put a hand over her eyes.
The pig-faced guard was gone now; it seemed they were entirely alone in the Palace. Larvartin reached over the desk and pulled out a red phone. He put it to his ear, but it was clearly no good.
“Dead,” he said, “Lucia, I’m sorry about this. I think the best thing is to go back to the roof. They won’t be able to reach us there, and someone will send a helicopter or the CPV will come back if we wait it out.”
The lift grille stuck again and would not open properly. Lucia squeezed into the lift through the gap: Larvartin seized the handle and shoved it back and forward. After a moment it gave way, shut with a clang, and bounced open again a few centimetres; this time it was stuck fast and they could not move it. In the background there was a grinding sound as the lock on the great front door of the Palace finally gave way. A group of angry people burst through.
“There he is!” shouted someone, “By God, that’s him – look!”
One of them waved a noose.
“The rope is waiting for you, Larvartin!” he said.
They crowded into the hall; for the moment some strange inhibition seemed to keep them at arm’s length. Larvartin stepped away from the lift, but his escape was already blocked. He took a step towards the protestors and held up one arm: the rhetorical gesture somehow brought silence.
“Comrades!” he said, in an affected, oratorical voice: “Think carefully before you do this. I am an old man. Do you want to make yourselves murderers in order to shorten my life by a miserable few weeks?”
“It’s a deal,” said one of the protestors, a bald man in a thick quilted jacket. They all laughed.
“There’s another one. Who’s that?” asked another, pointing at Lucia, who was standing frozen in the lift.
“Her? I should be asking you,” said Larvartin, “Isn’t she one of yours? She came at me with a knife twenty minutes ago.”
“Is that true?” demanded the bald man.
“Comrade,” said Larvartin, dropping the oratorical tone and speaking in the demotic accent of Sescastri “I’m not going to use my last breath for telling lies.”
They dragged him away to find somewhere they could hang their rope.
And that is it: 63,304 in the end. Badly in need of editing and revision, but that can wait a bit. Sincere thanks to everyone who has read some or all of it; any feedback is very welcome. My apologies to the people who were directed here by Google even though they were clearly looking for something else entirely.
(Incidentally, anyone who read last year’s effort may be interested to know that the chapter where John Faletcher gives an irritable dismissal of the non-existent word ‘diminimus’ still attracts a small trickle of people trying to look it up. I’m sure he would be pleased, and I hope they’re edified.)
There’s something a bit melancholy about working on a Nanowrimo novel on the first of December, like sitting writing in the classroom when everyone else has run off to play. But Chapter 24 is the last, so not long now. Anyway, are you sitting comfortably? Ahem.
23. Stilin’s advice
There was more, lots more sheaves of paper, but I could not read it all. In the end I decided it was time to see Stilin again.
But first I had a long conversation with my mother. She apologised for having deceived me about my father and said she wanted me to see the best side of him. She was still sure that he was essentially a good, well-meaning man, devoted to the precepts of socialism and actively struggling for a better society; but a man who had been led astray by Ursin and others; including Stilin, who in her view was responsible for many of the worst things that had happened. She said she wished I could talk to Juri Hofstadt; in the past he had told her that my father’s interventions over the Battle of Sescastri appeared to have been dictated by Stilin. He said that my father would be speaking and then Stilin would cough and they would withdraw; when they came back, my father was always taking a harder line. She asked me again not to believe uncritically what Stilin said, and I reassured her that I was far from doing so.
I told her about my visit to Felicia, and she looked troubled. Our flat must look infinitely worse by comparison? Perhaps, she suggested, I felt badly about being trapped in such an inferior place. Did I want her to ask my father for a better flat to live in? She did not want to be indebted to him, but perhaps it was unfair to impose her scruples on me – there was no reason why I should not accept my father’s help. I reassured her, though to be completely honest, not without a little regret. Felicia’s place was very nice.
I made an appointment and set off for Tabula House. Once we were settled in Stilin’s little office again, I put the box containing his manuscript on his desk.
“Thank you,” I said, “I haven’t read it all, but I’ve read enough. I don’t believe it’s the truth, but I believe there’s some truth in it.”
Stilin shifted uncomfortably in his chair and glanced suddenly at the surface of his desk.
“You spoke to D’Issigny,” he said, “You tricked him into telling you about poor Obertin.”
Of course he knew. Probably D’Issigny, too scared to tell my father, had hedged his bets by telling Stilin. Or perhaps his flat was bugged, why not? Probably Stilin could listen to every conversation I ever had.
“Yes. That was all I got out of him, though – that and a copy of Mischkoff.”
“And you went to see Felicia. I can’t think she shed much light on things for you, though, did she?”
“I learned a few things. I didn’t know until then that she was the one at the Mayday parade, the little girl on my father’s shoulders. My mother had always let me believe it was me.”
Stilin shook his head sympathetically.
“Oh. Well, you know, Lucia, that may not be such a great thing as you suppose. They talk about the parade as if it were some splendid thing – that’s partly my own doing, of course, I wrote a lyrical account of it for the newspapers – but in truth it was really one of the low points of your father’s career.”
“How can that be?”
“You see,” said Stilin, settling back, “Your father was very unpopular at that stage. He had betrayed Sescastri and subjected it to a terrible slaughter. So many people had friends or relations who had died in a struggle for freedom which, they thought, would have been successful but for your father’s intervention. And all so that your father, as they saw it, could put the country under the domination of his friends the Russians. Many people also resented the way he seemed to have taken it on himself to rename the country after himself and his friends: why not call it ‘Larvartinia’ and have done with it, they said.”
“At any rate, your father believed, with some justification, that he was hated, and when the Russians announced that they were pulling out, he was panic-stricken. He literally begged poor Ostrovsky, on his knees, to get Stalin to agree that the Russian soldiers could stay. He was convinced that as soon as they left he would be murdered. But of course it was no good. Ostrovsky told him that they had other priorities. I wonder whether Ostrovsky secretly hoped that your father would be killed or overthrown – he certainly didn’t like him much.”
“The Mayday parade, without the Russians, filled him with special dread. He would have to appear in public and his life would be in danger. In fairness, there was some real danger; on the day there were six assassination attempts, though none of them were very well-planned. I believe D’Issigny told you about the Sons of Obertin. Poor Obertin would have been embarrassed by their clumsiness if he had been alive.”
“When the day came, there was more bad news. The Russians had provided us with a handful of tanks and other equipment, but on the day most of them broke down. It was clear that sabotage was involved, although you could say that that was merely the last straw, given the age and condition of the vehicles. Then the news came that one regiment was refusing to leave its barracks. Ursin said that the loyalty of the others could not be counted on in these circumstances, and he advised leaving them where they were until he could deal with them, to minimise the risk of a protest turning into outright mutiny. It was beginning to look as if the parade would consist of a detachment of CPV men.”
“When the time came to start, your father refused to go out on the balcony with the rest of the Council of Twenty: he was afraid he would be picked off by a sniper. Then he saw that besides the CPV men, there were still civilians in the parade: athletes, academics, and schoolchildren, He decided that the only way for him to be safe was to walk in the procession, among the schoolchildren: that way no-one could shoot him without hitting innocent kids. To make himself even safer he grabbed his own daughter and put her on his shoulders.”
“The people who had come out to see the parade were puzzled: up on the balcony I said some words about how Comrade Larvartin had our futures in his hands; I meant it as a glib rationalisation, but I’m afraid that to many of those present, who could see their children surrounded by secret policemen, it must have sounded like a threat; whatever you think of us, you’d better do what we say because we’ve got your children. At any rate, your father survived, and Ursin was able to purge the army officers who had caused the trouble and replace them with men of his own. After that, there was never quite the same problem again. But you see what I mean: Felicia should not be too pleased about being used as a shield.”
“My God, Stilin,” I said, “You are a horrible man.”
“Yes, I am,” he acknowledged, “Though I think you mean that was a horrible story. But now, Lucia, this is the point. I think you are in danger. This business has reminded your father of your existence, he has become interested in you again. Just as he used Felicia – I might say, as he has used me – he will use you if he gets the chance. You are not safe any longer. Now, I believe you wanted to go to Italy. I have managed to obtain for you a passport and all the necessary paperwork, including tickets. But you must leave immediately, because your father will soon find out what I have done, and then it will be too late.”
“Stilin, I am not afraid of my father,” I said, angrily, “He may have done dreadful things in his career, but I am not in danger. You are more dangerous to me than he would ever be. He may have put Felicia in danger once, but only in extreme circumstances, when he wasn’t thinking clearly.”
Stilin merely inclined his head, not exactly nodding. He sat very still, and spoke into his chest.
“Lucia,” he said, “Did you know that Felicia has a young son? Oh yes, you saw him, didn’t you? Young Grigori? I wonder: did you ask who his father is?”
Stilin raised his eyes and stared at me.
“What are you implying? My God, you’re vile. No, Stilin, no. I don’t believe that. No.”
“Your mother,” said Stilin, with a spark of what seemed like genuine anger, “says I am a liar, though as God is my witness if I were to tell you as many lies as she has, we should be sitting here until winter came. Take these papers, take them with you, and make up your own mind. I wash my hands of it.”
He took out his cigarettes and tried to light one, but his hands were shaking too much. I had thought nothing could upset him, but he was trembling: with anger? Fear?
“I’m sorry, that is my last word,” he said, primly, “I’ve done what I was asked to do: tell the truth. I have warned you of the danger you are in, since it was my duty. I’ve put my own life in the gravest danger in doing so, and I will go no further. The story is ended. You must leave my office now; if you are wise you will leave this country too; but that is your concern.”
I took the papers, the tickets – there was money too – and I left.
22. The singers of Lavordin
I think that it was at Lavordin hospital that I first realised for sure that Larvartin was insane. I had known for a long time that he was a strange, cruel man, of course, but he had conducted his affairs with such ruthless but apparently rational cunning I had not realised that he was mad.
Of course, it all began with that undiplomatic report where the Italian said conditions at Lavordin were ‘Stone Age’. Larvartin always hated to be patronised or disparaged by foreigners, and he was especially sensitive about Italians; he had regarded them as especially arrogant ever since he had had a particularly vituperative interview with one of Mussolini’s agents just before the outbreak of the war. When he read the report, he was thrown into a state of complete rage, and he marched up and down his office shouting and throwing things at the walls. Finally he insisted that together with a detachment of the CPV we should go and see the place for ourselves.
I thought myself that although conditions were not literally those of the Stone Age, they were certainly not very good. In most wards the patients were crammed in two to a bed, one facing each way; most of them wore their normal outdoor clothes. We saw little use of any drugs apart from aspirin, and most of the staff were not qualified nurses or doctors but filthy servants dating back to the days when the place had been more or less a hotel, all of whom treated the patients with contempt and no doubt stole their belongings whenever they could. The place stank, and not of disinfectant. Larvartin stayed under control at first, although I could see the anger was building up inside him. We were shown round by a young doctor, haggard with fatigue, clearly at the lowest possible ebb; I found out afterwards that he had not slept for three days. He told the simple truth, quite frankly, whether from habit or because he didn’t care any more whether Larvartin killed him or not.
“The problem, Larvartin,” he said, “Is that this is not a real hospital at all. It was never a properly equipped hospital and now it’s just a stinking shed where the sick are shovelled in every day. Give it another few weeks and it will be a charnel house.”
“That will not happen, Comrade Doctor.” said Larvartin, with a menacing light in his eye, “But we must take steps. That patient – “ he pointed to a grey-faced man, “What is his illness and how can it be cured?”
The doctor raised his eyes momentarily.
“That patient has a serious heart problem,” he replied, “He will die soon. There is nothing we can do. We do not have an operating theatre of any kind, let alone one which could attempt heart surgery. We don’t even have any useful drugs beyond some basic analgesics. Frankly his only chance would have been to leave the country – abroad he could have been treated. Here, we can do nothing except leave him alone and let matters take their course. To tell the truth, we have other priorities.”
“Priorities? Yes, indeed. Prioritisation is the key here. I had not realised things had got so disorganised.” Larvartin said, pressing his lips together, “But we will change that. We will change it now”.
He called the hospital staff together. Some were depressed, unmoved, but I could see that others, the younger ones mostly, were in fear of their lives.
“We are going to manage our problem here,” he said to them all, “So that no-one can reproach us with inefficiency, you understand me? We cannot have people lying here day after day dying with nothing being done, it’s not acceptable. Our first step is address the priority cases. You – the doctor. I want you to go back to Ward One and pick out the ten sickest patients. Bring me a list of their names.”
Puzzled, but not without signs of hope, the young doctor left the room and came back after a few minutes with a clipboard, which he handed to Larvartin.
“This first patient has emphysema,” he began, “There isn’t much we can do, but if we had oxygen…”
“Enough: do you think I want his life story, really doctor, we have no time for gossip.” said Larvartin peremptorily, handing the clipboard to Captain Ventarin, the commanding officer of the CPV squad, “Here, Ventarin. See this list? Take these bastards outside and shoot them.”
For several moments no-one quite believed it; even I thought for a moment that it was a clumsy joke. Then Ventarin, who had enough experience of Larvartin to know that hesitation was dangerous, gathered his wits and left the room. Someone at the back let out a thin scream.
“Ward Two!” said Larvartin. Looking pleased with himself.
But now that he knew what was going to happen to them, the young doctor refused to identify further patients for liquidation. Larvartin ignored him and summoned another doctor, a grey-haired old consultant – but he would not help either. It was one thing to stand by and let murder happen, but to pick out the victims was more than any of the medical staff could stomach. In the end the job was deputed to the most brutish of the servants. Larvartin worked his way through the wards systematically. When it came to the children, however, not even the bestial servant would select the victims. There was an impasse for a few moments and I really thought Larvartin might have the entire hospital liquidated then and there, staff and all. But instead he finally smiled and stalked off to the children’s ward himself, with the CPV and the line of horrified staff trailing behind him.
“Alright,” said Larvartin to the sick children, as if it were a treat, “This is what we’re going to do, you’ll enjoy it. We’re going to have a singing competition. You must all sing as loud as you can. I’m going to walk round and listen. If anyone is too sick to sing really loudly, Ventarin here will give him his medicine, OK?”
The terrified children began singing at the top of their voices. Some, who were actually unconscious or genuinely too ill to sing, stood no chance, and others were paralysed by fear. Each of these, one by one, was pointed at by Larvartin and taken outside where they received a bullet in the head at point-blank range. Ventarin was forced to reload several times.
Larvartin was put into a good mood by the implementation of his plan; he seemed pleased with his own ingenuity in devising the singing test. He gave instructions that every morning all the patients must sing; the three weakest on each ward would die. I looked at him standing there with blood flecks on his suit, his eyes wide open, and I said to myself, this man, this man who clings to me like the Old Man of the Sea, his mind is gone. I thought someone would kill him: I thought Ventarin would finally sicken of slaughtering sick children and turn his gun on his master. But it did not happen. Instead Ventarin and his men seemed to be getting into their stride, getting used to the business. They began smiling again.
Now Larvartin applied himself to the building of a surgical ward. He had all the patients outside and forced them to attempt to dig foundations, whatever their illness or injury. There was no plan, and nothing worthwhile was accomplished that first day except the creation of a ghastly mud heap. On subsequent days, Larvartin send his men out to conscript people from nearby towns. It so happened that the young poet Georgi Versantin was caught up by one of these press-gangs. Brought to the chaotic scene of the building work, which now consisted of a series of irregular holes, not unlike rough graves, Georgi wiped his face with one hand and shouted in a trembling voice:
“Comrades; when Khrushchev said ‘we will bury you’, didn’t he mean the capitalists?”
“You know, we should get Carl Mustin out here and make him show them how to dig.” said Larvartin with a grin, forgetting that Carl Mustin had been sent to the cellars of the Agraci Palace three weeks before and no longer had functioning limbs.
In the end, thank God, after staying near the hospital for a week, he grew bored and returned to Sescastri. The Minister of Health was able to restore some semblance of order and propriety at Lavordin, but he was not able to get rid of the CPV, who continued to arrange what they called singing practice every morning. They stopped shooting people, but they continued to check that the patients were in good voice.
The new surgery, by the way, was eventually constructed by a team of Italian workers brought in by the Minister of Health, who was terrified that Larvartin would come back to inspect progress. The cost was huge, and for the next three years Lavordin took up over 60% of the entire national hospital budget. The facilities and staffing really did improve in the end, albeit at the cost of plunging most of the other hospitals in Dubitania into crisis. We were even able to show the place to some international visitors, at Larvartin’s insistence. CPV men wearing white coats stood in every corridor, and the staff were effusively welcoming to their overseas colleagues, begging them to stay as long as they could: they knew that while the foreigners were there, no-one would be shot.
That was all bad enough, but it got much worse. My lasting memory of Lavordin Hospital is from many years later, when the Blumenite inoculation campaign was at its height and Larvartin and I undertook a visit. By then, I doubt whether there was a competent doctor in the place. Half the staff were Party placemen, half were Blumenite zealots, mostly with few genuine academic qualifications. If a handful of properly-qualified medical staff remained from the old days, they were so cowed and browbeaten that they were no longer of any use.
Most of the patients had begun by accepting the Blumenite injections as legitimate medicine, but as they gradually grew sicker, their doubts increased: then a new wave of patients appeared, people whose illness was solely a matter of the injections, victims of the workplace campaigns and ‘spontaneous’ street visits which the Blumenites had been running all over the country. There was no room for this new influx: they sat or lay wherever they could, and soon became as grey-faced and emaciated as the original inmates, whose beds they usurped as soon as the owners died, or indeed more often as soon as they weak enough to be thrown out on the floor.
I was told that some of the patients, at length, had tried to escape, though who knew where they could have gone. At any rate, they were easily intercepted and beaten back by the resident thugs, some of whom had spent nearly their whole careers at Lavordin by now. The miracle was that people still came to the hospital; but there was no longer any other hospital, however dysfunctional, in the whole of Puttonyi Province. I remembered the young doctor’s words from years ago and thought how much better an honest charnel house would be, compared to this horror.
Astonishingly, poor Sergi Scalapin, now well over ninety, was still there. Forced out of retirement at gunpoint to give the hospital some credibility, the old surgeon was no longer allowed to intervene in the care of any patient; he was kept locked in an office which served as his cell and marched round the hospital twice a day by the CPV men in a grotesque parody of a ward round. I tried to speak to him when Larvartin had left the room, but he would not raise his head or respond to me.
Larvartin, for his part, seemed delighted by everything, and when our visit was concluded by a ‘singing concert’ arranged by sniggering CPV thugs, he professed himself delighted at the progress which had been made.
“Comrade patients!” he said in a bizarre speech of thanks, “If anyone asks you who made Lavordin what it is, don’t tell them it was Marki Larvartin. Always remember that everything that happens here is your own doing!”
The CPV men laughed and applauded.
58,240. Two more chapters, but they won’t count towards the Nanowrimo total (not that it matters)
21. Dropping the Pilot
For a while Larvartin’s vicious instincts were held in check by a reasonable fear that if they were provoked, his many enemies would succeed in deposing and killing him. But after a couple of years had passed, he found that he was still secure; that his secret police had inspired such fear that no-one dared to say an open word against him; instead he was surrounded by toadying flatterers. He now decided to buttress his own position further by eliminating anyone whom he suspected of the smallest disloyalty.
Strangely enough, the chief obstacle to the satisfaction of his thirst for vengeance proved to be Controller Ursin. Ursin was, of course, not at all averse to violence and repression, but for him it was chiefly a means to an end. He wanted a stable, efficient state; if it were necessary to take out the odd troublemaker he would not hesitate, but he wanted it done unobtrusively, ‘clinically’ as he would often say. He had no appetite for a Twentyland Terror or the haphazard execution of unthreatening, compliant citizens.
Accordingly, he dismissed most of Larvartin’s accusations and refused to grant his request for what amounted to a personal death squad. He could not, of course, refuse to provide bodyguards, but he removed their captain, Chlori Forobdin, who seemed to him to be forming too friendly a relationship with Larvartin, and replaced him with Tulli Inmacra, a cynical fellow and one of his own most trusted lieutenants.
As the years passed, Ursin had become increasingly impatient about playing second fiddle to his cousin. The course of history, he clearly felt, had never been meant to go this way, and he was convinced that he could run the country more correctly if he were President himself. He was obliged to accept that as a former Royalist agent and a leading collaborator with the Nazis, he was lucky to be alive at all, and could hardly expect to be a natural candidate for the leadership of a Communist republic. But with the passage of time his sense of his own unsuitability began to fade, and the high-handed behaviour of his cousin began to grate on him more and more. This, I think, may have caused his tone in refusing Larvartin’s requests to be a little peremptory; and by now Larvartin was not used to being refused anything. Relations between the cousins perceptibly cooled.
The Council of the Twenty had formal meetings once a month in those days: they gathered round a long table in the great Hall of Karl Marx (formerly St George’s Hall) and reviewed reports from the Ministries. One September, however, they found they had different business to conduct.
Larvartin opened the meeting in his usual affable, joking manner, and then, looking solemn, announced that he had a serious matter to put before them. He praised the work of Ursin: his indefatigable pursuit of justice, his intelligence, his energy, his zeal in the cause of our precious Republic. The assembled Council members began to wonder whether this was the build-up to Ursin’s getting a medal, or to his involuntary retirement. But Larvartin went on to say that thanks to Ursin’s dedication, a terrible discovery had been made. On the sheet of paper before him – he held it up with its back toward his audience – were the names of three conspirators. These evil men had begun working on plot to strike at the very centre of the republic by assassinating not only him, Marki Larvartin (that would be a relatively small matter, he declared piously) but also many members of the Twenty and several senior Ministers, with a bomb. A bomb in a suitcase. At this point, inexplicably and to the bemusement of the Council, he smiled; but soon recovered his gravity.
These conspirators, he went on, were not fly-by-night reactionaries or disaffected metropolitan types. No: the names on the paper before him – supported by the clearest of evidence, thanks to the unceasing investigations of Comrade Ursin! – were important, trusted figures in the government of Twentyland.
The silence that followed this pronouncement was profound and prolonged. Ursin himself was, as usual on these occasions, standing behind Larvartin. From the expression on his face it was clear that he knew absolutely nothing about this: moreover, from where he stood he could see (as could I, sitting on Larvartin’s right hand) that the piece of paper which was supposed to bear the fatal names was in fact completely blank. I don’t know to this day whether letting Ursin see this was an uncharacteristically subtle piece of psychological warfare on Larvartin’s part, or simply another symptom of his growing derangement.
The Council members looked uneasily at one another and finally Jakoubian plucked up the nerve to speak. Was it possible, he asked, that is, when Comrade Larvartin said that the conspirators were members of the government… important members… could it be that, if Comrade Larvartin was prepared to tell the Council, could it be that perhaps one or more of the names were the names, the names of members of the Council of the Twenty itself?
Larvartin stared gravely and simply nodded his head once.
All at once, Juri Mustin, one of the younger and more energetic members of the Council got suddenly to his feet.
“Let this farce end here!” he exclaimed, rhetorically, “Do you wonder that I should plan to kill this wretch, this evil parasite, when the same burning desire must live in the heart of every loyal Communist and every simple patriot in the land? Let everlasting shame fall on any man here who has not wished that this cancer could be excised from our country’s government! For my part I shall conceal the truth no longer, but stand on my feet at last; and if I have to die, I shall die a free Dubitanian and a true socialist!”
He pulled a long-bladed opinelca from his pocket and started towards the head of the table, but he had not got more than two paces away from his chair before his head was blown apart by a bullet from Ursin’s pistol.
I think two paces is quite a long distance in the circumstances. There were at least six armed guards in the room, but it seems they had instructions not to shoot without Ursin’s explicit command. I suppose it was also understandable that the other Council members were too nonplussed to seize the traitor. At the time, nobody raised any questions about the apparent lack of enthusiasm of those present about defending the President, but I do wonder whether Ursin was actually a trifle disappointed with the calibre of the assassins he had to face. If Mustin had kept his mouth shut and asked to see Larvartin in private, he would have stood a fair chance of succeeding, simply because no-one had foreseen the possibility of a Council member launching a murderous attack with a simple opinelca. Instead he made a windy speech and set off on his deadly mission with all the dispatch of a peevish tortoise, more or less forcing Ursin to shoot him. In a way it was suicide.
Anyway, Ursin brusquely instructed the terrified Council members to sit down again and stay where they were: he summoned additional guards who took away the body and did some minimal clearing of the mess – it was impossible to remove all the blood spots and fragments quickly. Now Larvartin cleared his throat and it became apparent that the meeting was to continue a little longer.
“Comrades!” he said, “I regret to inform you that the name of Juri Mustin is not one of the three on the sheet of paper I have before me.”
He told the members that the extraordinary incident they had just witnessed nevertheless confirmed the appalling danger in which the Republic currently stood. It was essential that the Council and the government should be purged of disloyal elements, and he therefore hoped that members would not object to his imposing upon them a small test. He would ask each member of the Council to consider the matter and by noon the next day supply him with a list of those whose loyalty they considered doubtful. If they successfully identified the names on his list, he would be greatly reassured. The Council members, still understandably shocked, said nothing, and after a moment or two, realising that the meeting was now over, they stood and filed out in a depressed silence.
Larvartin’s car – his second oldest Zastra – was waiting in the leafy square outside, but he indicated by a gesture that he preferred to be alone, and that I should not go with him. As the car pulled away, my arm was seized roughly from behind: it was Ursin.
“What the hell is going on, Stilin?” he demanded, “If you’ve set him up to start a purge…”
“No! No, I know nothing about it,” I protested. “This is something he has come up with on his own.”
“Well, you and I are going to nip this in the bud,” he said, “Get in the car!”
I had not noticed that Ursin’s own car gliding smoothly up behind me. We rode in silence.
In the palace, Ursin strode unchecked through the building until we came to the anteroom – crowded with waiting officials; there the secretary attempted to waylay him, but he brushed her aside and shoved the door open.
Larvartin, looking up with some surprise, was sitting on a sofa with a teacup in his hand: in a corner was Inmacra, standing with his hands behind his back. And at the other end of the sofa sat Esmeralda Larvartin in a green silk dress.
“Juri!” she exclaimed fondly, as though we were expected, “And Lucas? Come and sit down.”
Ursin let out a strange kind of sigh, but he could not shove Esmeralda aside. We tamely sat down and accepted cups of tea.
“Now, I’m glad you’re here, Juri,” said Esmeralda, “I want you to knock a bit of sense into your cousin. He works so hard and yet he won’t take a proper holiday. He wants to go to the Black Sea, can you believe it, no of course you can’t, and for a week. Will you tell him that we must go to Capri? Why else would we have a villa if we are never going to use it? And for a month, really he looks so haggard, it must be a month, he’s exhausted, you know Lucas, I blame you, yes I’m sorry, but you keep him so late and you take him away so often, don’t you? You can’t deny it, of course you can’t.”
I was in such a state of terror about what Ursin was going to do I could hardly speak, and my teacup rattled on its saucer; but luckily Esmeralda expected nothing from me. Ursin had a more difficult time, smiling with clenched teeth and gradually going red in the face with frustration and impatience. It was an hour before Esmeralda finally released us, and the sight of her large silken rump wobbling out through the door was simultaneously one of the most welcome and most terrifying things I have ever seen.
As soon as she was gone Ursin stood up.
“I’ll come straight to the point,” he said, running a finger round the inside of his collar, “I don’t know what scheme you think you’re embarking on, Marki, but it’s not going to happen.”
Larvartin tried to speak, but Ursin held up one hand and continued.
“I’ve waited long enough, Marki,” he said, “We didn’t work together for all those years so that you could turn the place into a shambles, a laughing stock. No, shut up and listen to me. It’s over. You’ve had long enough. You’re retiring. You’re not leaving this room till you’ve signed a resignation letter; then you can come with me and I’ll take care of the rest. Is that clear? I said: is that clear?”
“Dear God!” exploded Larvartin, “After all I’ve done for you, Juri, is this it, no ounce of gratitude? All the years I spent living with scum while you were lording it over me from your fancy office. Well, I’m sorry to hurt your feelings but somehow it turned out they didn’t want you, did they? They wanted me. Out of the goodness of my heart I’ve kept you on, but face it, Juri, you’re past it; yes, we must face it, you’re a clapped-out gangster, and if I’m ever going to get this place sorted out, if we’re ever going to modernise you’ve got to go. Is that clear?”
Ursin stared at him for a moment, and then his hand moved towards the big black pistol. Larvartin let out a cry of rage and leapt on his cousin, seizing him round the throat.
I backed away from the struggling men, filled with horror but also a wild kind of hope. After all, I had not meant to devote my life to being the lackey of a corrupt dictator. When I joined the Party all those years ago, I did it out of genuine belief in socialism and the equality of men. But ever since that day in the farmyard when Porfri was killed, I had been living a lie, the prisoner of a ghastly parasite whose appetite seemed to grow and grow. Now at last, I might be free if Ursin could only get his gun out of its holster.
“Stilin?” said a calm, clear voice in the background. It was Inmacra. I never understood Inmacra; either there was something missing in his mind, or he understood the world in a different way to me – if so, it must be admitted that his way seemed to work. At any rate, I never saw him upset or disturbed, even in circumstances when any rational man might have shown some fear or disgust. He had calmly taken out his own gun and now, behind the frantically struggling figures of Larvartin and Ursin, he gestured politely, deferentially, to me with his left hand, almost like a waiter: this one – or this one?
Shuddering violently, I raised my hand and, fighting back my fear, pointed to Larvartin. There was a single loud bang.
But when I opened my eyes again, it was Ursin on the floor. Larvartin was getting his breath back, already thanking Inmacra for his loyal service and promising promotion. But how? My puzzlement only lasted a few moments. I had misinterpreted Inmacra’s gesture. He had meant, not which one shall I shoot? but which one do you want to keep? I had pointed to the wrong man.
The death of Ursin naturally fed the flames of paranoia so far as treachery in high places was concerned. Most of the Twenty produced a list of denunciations – a few brave souls refused to do so – and a round of investigations and trials began the next day, with Inmacra in charge. Soon the cellars of the Agraci Palace were full. Now a kind of deadly chain reaction occurred as senior officials put in pre-emptive denunciations of those they thought might be about to accuse them. To be accused was, with rare exceptions, to be condemned. Execution was not enough for Larvartin; he took pleasure in extorting bizarre confessions from the condemned, sometimes wholly unrelated to the charges against them. A few valiant souls went to their deaths in silence, but most were prepared to say anything after a few days in the cellars. Some went too far for their own good; when Larvartin found a prisoner whose confessions were especially enthusiastic and extravagant, he would sometimes keep them alive for more entertainment at future sessions. Meanwhile three floors of Tabula House had to be commandeered to hold additional prisoners; but in due course the firing squad began to catch up with the backlog.
It must have become clear to Inmacra that he and I were riding a tiger, and that if the treason trials went on, we should inevitably end up as victims ourselves. Since the day of Ursin’s death, he seemed to regard me as a fellow-conspirator; he sought me out and asked what my plan was.
“You’ve had your fun, Luci,” he said condescendingly, “How are you going to wrap this one up?”
“Me?” I protested, “It wasn’t my doing.”
“Wasn’t it?” he asked, “I gave you the choice, didn’t I? If it had been up to me, I would have kept the Chief. Come on, you’re the only one he listens to.”
“You’re wrong. He won’t listen to me. He won’t listen to anybody.”
“No?” said Inmacra. He leaned towards me. “Tell you what, though…” he said.
The next day when Larvartin came down to his office, he found Esmeralda waiting for him with tickets to Capri. By the time they returned, three months later, things had been returned to normal, and Larvartin seemed to have forgotten about treason, at least for the time being.
56,156 According to the plan, there are 24 chapters. I may not finish them all in November, but I’ve got the 50k, so that’s alright.
Official accounts speak of Larvartin being a brewery clerk in his youth; this is true except for the significant omission that at the same time his father was the proprietor of the Sestenburg brewery, which of course was and remains the largest in Dubitania. He was the heir apparent; as soon as it became clear that his brother Tibri was uninterested in brewing, old Cesari Larvartin decided that Marki must be his successor, and Tibri’s death obviously settled the matter. In spite of all his other concerns, Larvartin did take over in due course as the head of the business, and surprisingly he remains in personal charge of the brewery to this day.
Of course, ownership of a brewery did not make one part of the aristocracy exactly; the old ruling class did not yield to mere wealth so easily – but the Larvartins had been wealthy for three generations and were beginning to make their way into the fringes of polite society. Larvartin took another step up by marrying Esmeralda – a frightful woman, by the way, but she was the daughter of one of the Marcher Counts.
I used to think that the retention of the old brewery was a good sign. I thought it was encouraging that among all the Lenin Squares and Larvartin Streets, the brewery remained stubbornly the Sestenburg. Now I know that this is just part of the wider pattern of patternlessness.
I should like to be able to say that Sestenburger Doppelbock, at least, has remained as good as it ever was, but although it is still a fine beer, even it has suffered to some degree. Larvartin never allowed the brewery to go short of barley or hops, but at times he has been forced to bring supplies in from outside the brewery’s traditional area, and indeed from outside the country altogether; and I’m afraid this does make a difference. How can it be, you might ask, that this was necessary? Isn’t it the case that Twentyland has always enjoyed dramatic agricultural surpluses?
In Twentyland we have of course had the advantage of not one, but two agricultural revolutions. Under Russian domination, there was a half-hearted attempt at collectivisation which only succeeded in bringing together groups of peasants in some of the less fertile parts of the country, leaving larger enterprises and even a few of the old feudal estates virtually intact. When Larvartin became President, he was visited by a delegation from the Agricultural Worker’s Union , the organisation which had succeeded Tillarin’s ridiculous guild, itself the successor to CINDATA. The delegation reminded him of his own role as a founding member of CINDATA and the struggle for a ten-denari wage, and called on him to undertake a thorough reform of farming. Their proposals naturally involved a minimum wage, but they also called for a redistribution of property, allowing their members access to land of their own. Larvartin was at his most jovial that day. He told them he would satisfy all their desires, but that he proposed to learn from the errors of Soviet collectivisation. They should understand, he said, that this was not a matter to be undertaken by the central government; no, the matter was in their own hands. Entirely in their own hands. But they could rely on him to bring the spades, and if necessary, the guns.
Not all of the members of the union were pleased with this response – they had been rather hoping that the central government would indeed undertake the land reform programme itself. But they thought it wise not to object. A week later the first worker invasion took place at a farm outside Belparica: one morning the farmer found a group of armed workers standing outside his door. They told him his farm was being collectivised, and he had an hour to pack and get out. Instead, he and his family barricaded themselves into the farmhouse and called the police. The Belparica police did not appear, but three CPV men arrived, broke down the farmhouse door, and took the farmer away, leaving his wife and children to flee as best they could.
This scene was repeated with variations at hundreds of Twentyland farms over the next few months. The seized farms were generally divided up between the invaders, who either turned their allocation into primitive subsistence operations or frankly allowed them to run wild.
The disorganised and haphazard nature of this supposed collectivisation movement led some to protest, demanding that Larvartin must step in, either defending the farmers or imposing some kind of organised programme. The initial response was an edict which retrospectively legalised the seizures which had taken place, and provided the basis for future ones.
Larvartin called me into his grand salon at the Palace one day and showed me a letter from the Agricultural Workers Union begging him to introduce a more regular collectivisation programme.
“You see how it is, Lucas?” he said, “I always tell them these matters are in their own hands, but in the end it always comes down to me. Well, I suppose we must stir ourselves.”
He had a squad of CPV men waiting outside: we drove for a couple of hours, out of Sescastri and up to the foothills of the Graupins on the borders of Andrania Province. This was a fertile area and we passed many prosperous-looking farms, but the one whose gate we turned in at surpassed them all. Everything here was in order, no weeds, everything in immaculate rows, and the barley in particular appeared to be flourishing. As we made our way up the drive, a whole range of crops and animals presented themselves to our gaze one after another, all in the very best of condition. It was a large estate, and it took some time to reach the house and outbuildings at the centre.
There, the CPV men ran inside and emerged after a few minutes with the proprietor, in his shirtsleeves with hands tied behind him. His face was so white I thought he might faint.
“Molerin!” said Larvartin, “We’ve met before, haven’t we? I thought I might come and look at that barley you were talking about. I think you were right – it’s just what I need for the brewery.”
A group of workers appeared round the corner: they hesitated and then came forward.
“Beloved leader!” said one of them nervously, “We are honoured!”
“Have no fear,” said Larvartin, “I am here to help: we have come to introduce collectivisation.”
“Oh, but we are collectivised already,” said the worker, “Mr Molerin here told us that he did not think it was right for him to continue in ownership of the farm any more, so last month we set up a worker’s collective and he turned over the ownership of the land and assets to the committee. He remains as manager, but his pay is the same as ours and he is answerable to the committee.”
For a moment Larvartin actually looked flummoxed, but then he shook his head.
“I can see, comrades,” he said to the CPV men, “This is going to be harder than I hoped. Take the lot of them.”
He had all the farm workers and their families herded away with Molerin. They scattered petrol in the farmhouse and set fire to the place.
The first Agrarian Revolution was finally brought to a conclusion six months later by the intervention of Ursin, who brusquely told Larvartin that large areas of the country were in chaos and he personally would not allow any further use of his men to support seizures. Reluctantly Larvartin declared collectivisation complete. That winter we suffered starvation in three provinces and suffered the humiliation of accepting food aid. By now being humble before the Russians had lost some of its edge, but it was still a terrible blow to national pride to accept help from Hungarians, and even worse, from Romania, though in the latter case the quantities involved were little more than token.
Larvartin was somewhat embarrassed, not by the crisis he had engendered, but by the sneering reaction it evoked in the foreign press, and he eagerly grasped at the opportunity to put matters right which was offered a few years later by the principles of his favourite Blumen.
Blumen, who now had his own research institute, had been concentrating on the application of cryptomorphic principles to plant growth. Larvartin and I visited his laboratory where we were overwhelmed by a display of giant pumpkins, perfect sheaves of wheat, magnificent turnips, and so on. Larvartin told Blumen that his collectivisation had been betrayed by deviant elements, but that he now had every confidence of making good all the country’s losses. Many photographs were taken of him posing with the pumpkins, and these have appeared regularly in our newspapers ever since to illustrate the success of the year’s harvest. The age of the photographs is evident from two factors: first, Comrade Larvartin never looks any older, but more conclusively, since that year, no pumpkins have grown in Twentyland.
Larvartin issued an edict that only Blumenised seed was to be planted that year. He immediately received messages from leading scientists asking him to rescind the edict: a delegation from the People’s academy visited him. He received them in his office at the Agraci Palace, and I vividly remember what a hangdog, frightened lot they were. Their spokesman, perhaps not the ideal choice, was Professor Vitalin of the Scholastic University of Lexandrin. With extreme deference and courtesy he explained that although academics and farmers appreciated the significance of Blumen’s work, it had been impossible to reproduce his results. Large-scale trials would be necessary before the country’s entire agricultural production could be staked on the immediate success of the theory. Professor Vitalin quoted from Italian and American journals which listed flaws in Blumen’s reasoning and science; one of the American ones said that the theory was saved from obvious falsity only because large parts of it were incomprehensible, and it listed ‘Twenty high-school science errors’. This too was probably a tactical error – Larvartin was never likely to listen to criticism from Italy, and anything the Americans disapproved of must in his eyes be good.
He listened to the delegation, however, and thanked them for coming.
“Professor Vitalin,” he said, “What was your father’s occupation?”
Vitalin looked startled.
“He was a judge, beloved leader, in the High Court.”
“I see,” said Larvartin. He went on to ask the same question of other members of the delegation, and his point became clear. They were the sons of landowners, bishops, and other professors. I noticed that Larvartin was being a little selective; Dr Forobdin in the front row was famously the son of a rubbish-collector, and Lucia Palatzia, I seemed to remember, was an orphan. But they were not asked. Instead Larvartin pointed out Blumen’s humble origins; he was being asked then, he said rhetorically, to take the judgement of capitalist scientists and the offspring of the upper classes as somehow inherently better than that of a simple worker and a native Twentylander? Perhaps they were right. Perhaps the evidence was on their side. Perhaps Blumen’s methods had not achieved results yet. But what was this? He held up a photograph of himself embracing one of Blumen’s giant pumpkins.
The senior members of the delegation were dismissed from their posts, and poor Vitalin found himself taking up residence in the darker cellars of the Agraci Palace. A week later I had a letter from three collectives based near Blumen’s laboratory; they were complaining about his confiscation of all the entries at the market gardening competition they had organised amongst themselves. I discovered that Blumen had not succeeded so far in growing anything at all, and had shown us these ‘borrowed’ specimens of agricultural produce instead. I made sure Larvartin saw these complaints, but I said nothing directly about them.
That year we were saved only by our inefficiency: it was impossible to blumenise all the seed in the country in time for planting, and impossible to check effectively on compliance with the edict. But Twentyland, which had been a sizeable net exporter in almost all agricultural categories now became desperately dependent on imports of wheat and other commodities which we could ill afford. Out in the country there was frank famine; in Andrania and Servinia the population fell to forty percent of its pre-war levels, and not entirely through emigration.
Larvartin attributed the failure of the crop to sabotage, and in particular to the non-use of blumenised seed. He sent out patrols of CPV men to check on compliance. There was no escape from these patrols: if they found signs of blumenised seed in your barns it meant you had stored the seed instead of sowing it; if they found unblumenised seed it meant you had planted that, and the unavailability of blumenised seed was not accepted as an excuse. Most of the farmers who were still contriving to keep their farms in operation were now herded into ‘Explanation camps’ for re-education. Their farms were collectivised and labour was provided by conscripted students and academics who had been identified as harbouring anti-Blumenite sympathies; by working on the land, they were to gain a new and more correct perspective.
“You have shown yourselves traitors as intellectuals,” said Larvartin in a little pamphlet which the sneering CPV men handed out to them, “But perhaps you can yet become happy and useful as agricultural labourers. Seize your future, comrades!”
53,317 words. Still going…