Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: The Branch Line

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So over the last few months, I have been obsessing over a Soviet/Ukranian/Polish writer from the 1920s. He’s only been brought out of KGB cold storage into publication in the 80s, and translated into English only in the last 4-5 years. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, along with zhis unpronounceable last name, was a Pole, born in Ukraine who wrote entirely in Russian and never saw his work published in his lifetime.

Most of the stuff I have seen around the web are reviews of K’s set of short stories (Memories of the Future also out as Seven Stories ), seven of which are in translation and circulation. But there’s hardly much on the Internet about my favourite from the lot: The Branch Line.

The Branch Line begins with a man daydreaming in a train compartment:

Imagine a country or a world where outermost thoughts closest to the skull would occasionally, by dint of proximity, stray up under the crowns of hats, under their leather linings, trivial thoughtlets whose flight from head to hat would go unnoticed by people’s thinking, then…

And then:

Falling across Quantin’s thought like the shadow of a lowered semaphore, a downy sound grazed his ear.
“All dreams, please.”
Quantin looked up. Under the conductor’s canting a red beard bubbled, and through the beard, a smile.
“Be so kind as to have your dreams ready.”

And so, Quantin, having traded his dream for an unknown destination finds himself in a strange town, where people hunt shoals of clouds; a man shimmies up an electricity pole and strums a melody on the wires, bursting into song; shops sell strange things like utopia; and an ominous stranger gives advice such as:

… don’t wear your head out on your shoulders. First it gets an idea then it gets the ax. And they’re evn. The head with the Head, I mean.

All this probably sounds strange and nonsensical, but the tale is just marvellous, the writing just brilliant and wonderful.

Quantin then spots an advertisement endorsing the benefits of heavy dreams (emphasis his).

The main advantage of the heavy industry of nightmares over the light industry of golden threads plunged into brain fibrils, over the production of so-called sweet dreams, is that in marketing our nightmares we can guarantee that they will come true, we can hand our customers ‘turnkey dreams.’ Sweet dreams cannot withstand reality, sleep reveries wear out faster than socks; whereas a heavy dream, a simple but well-made nightmare, is easily assimilated by life….

… our nightmares weighing as they do on the brain, gradually form a sort of moral ceiling that is always about to come crashing down on one’s head: some of our customers call this ‘world history’. But that’s not the point. The point is the durability, unwakeability, high depressiveness, and wide availability of our nightmares: mass-market products good for all eras and classes, nighttime and daytime, moonlight and sunlight, closed eyes and open.

Krzhizhanovsky called himself a crossed-out person, known for being unknown. Certainly, he remains in the shadowy corners of banned Soviet-era literature. But reviews have made their way across several blogs online and continue to pop up every now and then.

Quantin’s nightmare-world is meant to be realistic, not some figment of his imagination, and it’s littered with a maze of unusual, frightening elements. He is an absent-minded clumsy, clueless Quantin, a Kafka-esque character in a Borgesian world. He is clueless even as he is alert. He wilfully navigates this maze, at one point even exulting in his role as a ‘scout’ for the lightless land of the night.

The reason this story stands out in my mind is because of some interesting allusions. Quantin is absorbed with the state and the powers it exerts over personal matters, of heart and of mind. In a way, it’s hugely reminiscent of Zamyatin’s We. Zamyatin’s character is subjected to a regime that kills individuality, love and finally, even his imagination. Quantin is a reflection of the boundaries that states transgress into. It raises several questions about the nature of modern states and their ways of control.

The story goes on to a nightmarish end, but the writing sparkles with a lyricism.

But the train’s speed — by a half-though, by a half-turn — was somehow outstripping logic. And then that warm wind, like a wing against one’s soul.

I think  – despite my above angle – it’d be a big mistake to read The Branch Line just as an allegory of Soviet Russia. For one, it has a strong unexplored artistic relevance to our times, in terms of quality of metaphor and a certain newness, an avant-garde spark. And second, it has layered meanings and understanding. It can make for many multiple rereads.

I must highly praise Joanne Turnbull’s excellent translation, particularly for what I imagine she is trying to retain, in the humour and impressiveness of those images at first read. Her introduction also does a great job at nudging you into te writing and the NYRB publishing is just beautiful. They’re becoming a huge favourite of mine for digging out translated rarities.

I hope to review more of the stories from MotF in the future, but I cannot recommend The Branch Line highly enough.

See also The Nation, The NYRB, wiki, The NY Times. The story “Yellow Coal,” from Seven Stories (trans. Joanne Turnbull), is online at openDemocracy.

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