Thursday, February 23, 2012

Anti-Danube: Chapter X

By way of Introduction: Some years have passed since the last chapter of Anti-Danube appeared in English. For previous sections, see here and here.

As this month sees the centenary of the Ruthenian Moonshiners Uprising of 1912 against the Austro-Hungarian Temperance League, it seems appropriate to resume the autobiographical novel shortly after where we left off.

Probationary Agent Yizhak Zhatko (nationality - poet) is having to interrogate Agent Agent Kafka (his real name) over the disruption of a folk concert that they were meant to be guarding. The event was voted the most popular act of sabotage in the People's Popular Democratic Republic of Ruthenia that year, beating even the collision of a steak lorry with a mobile red wine dispenary in the village of Bragg.

Zhatko sets out the chapter in the form of a transcript, which has the virtue of sparing the reader his prose style, but not mine.

Chapter X: In Which Socialism is Threatened by Dissident Reality

(Protocols of the interrogation of Agent Agent Kafka, conducted by Probationary Agent Yizhak Zhatko, at NAKRO Secret Police Chief Headquarters, "The Cellars", Former Castle Jurex, August 199- )

[Zhatko] Well, Agent Agent Kafka, The Organs have asked me to question you about what happened at Zhakhiv Cultural Agitational Facility No.17 the other day.

[Kafka] Was Hungarians.

[Zhatko] So-called Hungarians?

[Kafka] No. This time real Hungarians. Ha ha - Kafka joke.

[Zhatko] Hmm. You may recall that we were observing a concert by former Ruthenian musical-vocal ensembles Kava Break and Izotop.

[Kafka] Kafka focked them!

[Zhatko] Yes, that's true - so much so that we had to requisition the articulated lorry the Central Committee uses to move Comrade First (General-)Secretary K. Novak around, because the musicians' weeping, swollen orbs would not fit through the doors of the prison van, despite quantitative easing with shovels.

[Kafka] They are womanly men! I void myself on the boar that mounted their sister, also on their sister, and on the dung that eased their congress-

[Zhatko, interrupting] The chief medical officer of Depravnik State Penal Isolator Unit agrees that "womanly men" accurately describes the musicians' "transitional state of pelvic alteration". Colonel Nadroth asked me to congratulate you on this surgical breakthrough before the formal interrogation begins, in case you prove unappreciative afterwards.

[Kafka, maudlin] Colonel like distant step-father to me.

[Zhatko] Indeed. Colonel Nadroth was pleased in particular that you achieved this without formal medical training. This will help promote the People's Self-Medication Programme at the forthcoming Party Congress, involving as this does the reorganisation of all hospitals and nursing homes into grain silos.

[Kafka, cheered up] I redouble effort!

[Zhatko] The Colonel and other responsible agencies were also impressed with your dual-use of gardening tools and a type of lizard-

[Kafka, interrupting] - incorrect fact. Was large termites.

[Zhatko] - thank you - and a selection of patriotic forest insects in this protracted and highly invasive procedure, which will encourage the outgoing medical practitioners to surrender their scalpels, kidney dishes and fillings for the People's Popular Armed Forces war-drive prior to their fair trial and execution.

[Kafka] Termite - friend of working man. And of working bear.

[Zhatko] Quite. Colonel Nadroth does note, however, that transitional gender status is "objectively bourgeois", and has therefore asked that "promotion of decadence (non-literary)" should be added to your formal charge sheet if, as it is hoped, you or anyone else confesses to being a monarchist wrecker or otherwise a connoisseur of non-gourd-based music.

[Kafka] Oh.

[Zhatko] Moving back to the evening in question, the alleged concert was attacked by dynasto-deviationists, hyper-nationalists, anarcho-Trotskyites, agraro-revisionists, the Latto faction of the Democratic Rhomboid, Continuity Langerites, the Shutak List (Renewal), so-called Hungary and - as we can testify - some pork tapeworms, under the parasol of the League of the Wives of Dr Bohdan Naxajlo.

[Kafka] Whores!

[Zhatko] Later, perhaps. To continue. The assailants broadcast the former Royalist anthem of the former regime, "Hey Ruteni, masluy mi sztifli!" ("O Ruthenians, Oil My Boots!"), tainted five quarts of slyvovytz with red snapper, left a hornpipe wedged inside Zhakhiv Urban-Rural District Local Party Secretary "Blind" Iancu, and defiled a banner espousing Scientific Socialism with saltpetre and pre-revolutionary orthography.

[Kafka] Blind Iancu's brother, Mad Iancu, countersigned Kafka's first arrest warrant. It was for Kafka's parents. Kafka feel for Blind Iancu.

[Zhatko] Duly noted. But Colonel Nadroth, the Supreme Higher Party Council of Organs, both Iancus and History Itself demand to know how these revanchists managed all of this and yet vanished into the night undetected.

[Kafka] Zhakhiv Public Order Militiamen blind, mad or have no leg. Iancus promote freaks, hope to win State Prize for abolition of local hospital and lunatic asylum, build People's Space Rocket out of salvaged manacles.

[Zhatko] Socialism leaves no room for doubt, Agent Kafka, and Communism will leave no rooms at all. We shall tear down the four walls and outhouses of convention and romp free on the riverbanks of creativity. In the meantime, however, we remain tethered to the leaden buoy of probability, and that suggests that the League of the Wives had someone on the inside of the concert working for them. I fear that Colonel Nadroth hopes it might be you.

[Kafka] Why is?

[Zhatko] The true origins of his suspicions are beyond our feeble, polyester-uniformed reasoning, Kafka, but I do know that Special Agent Tschtjetz is waiting outside the door with a weather balloon, a tub of schmaltz and some fish hooks. He is writing "Kafka" on the balloon in your wife's lipstick, and laughing like a Cossack in a convent bathtub.

[Kafka, animated] Kafka just remember! Have important information about Naxajlovite deviant 6th columnist at concert.

[Zhatko] Excellent! Let me wind-up the recording engine and dust off some fresh shellac...

[Kafka] Regret to inform that this information is for ears of full agent of NAKRO alone. Comrade Probationary Agent Zhatko is only probationary agent, therefore not yet ideologically refined enough to hear details of dissident thought without danger of straying into wrecking mentality. Permission to have report heard by Special Agent Zhloba Tschtjetz!

[Zhatko] Granted, I suppose. [winds open door] Special Agent Tschtjetz, Agent Agent Kafka has a report to make about the Zhakhiv Cultural Agitational Facility No.17 anti-popular reactionary cabal, for your remaining ear only.

[Tschtjetz, wheeling in a trestle of sharpened plumbing attachments and a sack of ammonium] Right, Zhatko, plug this pump in over there and start wrapping the sandpaper-

[Zhatko, interrupting] A field report, Special Agent Tschtjetz, not a confession.

[Tschtjetz] Don't worry, sunshine, it'll be a confession by the time they unwind him from those railings-

[Zhatko, interrupting again] No, it really is a field report. I'll get some ersatz tea, shall I?

[Tschtjetz] Yeah, which will, by the dialectically-approved theories of Lamarck, had better have turned into slyvovytz by the time it gets here, you Carpathian trouser-press! Now, Kafka, what's going on?

[Kafka] Well, comrade... [door closes]

(Six minutes pass)

(Protocols of the interrogation of Probationary Agent Yizhak Zhatko [suspended - literally], conducted by Agent Agent Kafka, Special Agent Zhloba Tschtjetz, Progressive Woodland Ranger Bodjo the Largely-Tamed Bear, a wild boar [unspecified], and NAKRO Chairman Colonel Nadroth, at NAKRO Secret Police Chief Headquarters, "The Cellars", Former Castle Jurex, August 199- )

[Tschtjetz] Well, Traitor Grade III Zhatko, The Organs have received a confidential NAKRO field report that you were the revanchist grouplet that disrupted that concert of Turk-loving danglyboys the other day!

It's not looking good for you, Zhatko. Bodjo here's lonely, and so is Mr Snouty [ed. possibly the wild boar, but could be reference to Tschtjetz's regenerative member, which he usually dubs "Captain Power Eel"]. Now let's see how fast and loud you can confess without the balloon coming out again, shall we?

[Zhatko, with some emotion] Agent Agent Kafka, I don't mind telling you that I feel let down by your behaviour.

[Kafka] Kafka not let Traitor Grade III down, at least not until fish hooks snap.

[Zhatko] Very well, I confess that I, a traitor-

[Tschtjetz] Grade III, dammit - it's important for our key performance indicators this quarter.

[Zhatko] Yes, yes, Grade III - I did knowlingly and with counter-revolution aforethought cause rotten liberalism to damage the fabric of society and a progressive banner sewn by the inmates of the Panda-Eyed Waifs Orphanage, Skargil District.

I also occasioned the performance of the former royalist anthem, misused state reserves of Greek Fire for non-recreational purposes and incited a riot by gum-cheeked peasants.

I deny the charge of tampering with the food, as that's just the way they like it in Zhakhiv.

In mitigation, I would like The Organs to bear in mind that I did stop the performances by the musical-vocal ensembles Kava Break and Izotop.

[Tschtjetz] Your plea for mitigation will be noted, distorted, and used against you on the first episode of "The People's Pillory", a television programme that will replace the courts under the forthcoming "Judiciary Reform (Abolition of Legal System) Bill". Agent Agent Kafka, inform Colonel Nadroth!

[Colonel Nadroth, who is standing behind Tschtjetz, rolls his eyes, perhaps from the smoke curling from his Karbin filter-tip]

Prisoner confessed, Comrade Colonel, and we didn't have to divert electric from village this time. "Economy is Not Just a Swear Word," like Party said.

[Colonel Nadroth] I see. Well, Zhatko, this is a surprise. I thought you might have accused the ultra-nationalist turncoat Slavislav Kodoba, whom we have been holding in that crate over there for this very purpose, but then there's still room for one more inside. Anything else you'd like to confess to? There's space on the back of your file, you know.

[Zhatko] I would further like to bring to the Citizen Colonel's attention that I, a Traitor Grade III (definition - did not destroy personal property of senior officials, owns no livestock), infiltrated the ranks of the NAKRO security police in contravention of Law #13,480 of 1953 "On the Prohibition of Traitors' Infiltration of the Ranks of the NAKRO Security Police".

[Nadroth, looks angrily from Tschtjetz to Kafka, and back again. Then, when this fails to elicit a response, hits both of them with a chair] No! This also means that NAKRO itself violated Law #13,481 of 1953 "On the Prevention of Traitors' Infiltration of the Ranks of the NAKRO Security Police", which states specifically in Article 1 that "NAKRO Security Police Agents are to prevent traitors' infiltration of their ranks, on pain of being demoted from rank of Agent to that of Traitor Grade II (definition - did not damage personal property of senior officials, owns some livestock)". This, like Zhatko right now, cannot stand.

Comrade Zhatko - a cigarette? Oh, yes, lips still don't fit - anyway, NAKRO will have your sentence in the Concert Affair commuted from eventual death to community service, such as checking that the lingerie imported from Gaullist France for the staff of the Central Committee's Physiotherapy Clinic fits properly.

In return, we will cascade the paperwork in the Infiltration Affair to Agent Agent Kafka as part of his Elementary Literacy Course homework. That should keep it away from The Organs, until Control Department Secretary Razvjorstka develops some advanced crayon decryption skills.

There, I think that went rather well. Now, Tschtjetz, please lower Comrade Zhatko, for he has work to do. Under his guidance the workers, peasants and progressive managerial echelons must clench their matted palms into one, six-fingered fist of vengeance against the Naxajlovite Latifundistas, and that calls for further training.

[Zhatko] May I keep the schmaltz, Comrade Colonel? Breakfast seems a long time ago.

[Nadroth, patting him on the nose] You people! Oh, and Tschtjetz - deflate that thing and switch the other stuff off too, would you? But not before giving Bodjo and that boar something to play with. Kafka will do.

[Kafka] (indistinct)

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Judicium Dei

I'm always on the look-out for ways to spice up my home life with Madame Boyo, so it was only a matter of time before I investigated witch trials and their possible rendering in a suburban setting.

We have a pond and plenty of kindling nearby, but my eye was caught by the African tradition of ordeal by poison.

From the steaming Casamance basin to the lung-clutching Malagasy highlands, suspected necromancers, Lutherans and those with fancy ways are presented with various lurid gourds and chrisms to consume before crowds of bat-eared loafers, schoolchildren and passing camera crews.

If you disgorge tooth-flecked tapioca all over the rapt onlookers you're free to go, as your innocent gullet would not suffer the tainted tuber to pass. If you die in pus-gummed convulsions, God's Justice has been served. Everyone is happy, and not a barrister in sight.

I have no intention of offering Madame Boyo calabar beans on toast or a buta-buta nut cutlet. She is Ukrainian, and can therefore eat the following with no ill effects:

  • Salo - fatback rind stuffed in the communal kippering shed since the war. Best taken with horseradish moonshine and a riding crop.
  • Kovbyk - pigface in vinegar jelly. Tastes better on the way back up than on the way down, so make sure your bucket is handy.
  • Varenyky - dough balls moulded round a cabbage and the pieces of pig left over from the above. Sometimes cooked, but it's hard to tell. Crimean Tatars use them in Sharia executions.
  • Kholodnyk - take your kitchen composting bin, pour week-old milk on the contents and serve. Best arm yourself before offering it to strangers. And
  • Bihos - fill a hollow loaf of bread with three different types of rotting cabbage, add plums and any remaining pig. Place under your grandmother's bed. When it's ready she'll let you know, from one end or the other.
So Gambian mambo beans are only likely to make Madame Boyo angry.

There's a lot to be said for this direct African approach to rooting out deviants. Decades may have passed, but only now do I realise that the hospitality rained on me during my sojourn in Central Asia was a similar and rigorous rite of passage, a testing of my masticatory mettle. But, as is the way of the East, it was done subtly.

Food is central to the Uzbek way of life, which ideally consists of sitting on a dais while your extended family rush around killing, cooking, skewering and serving up sheep in a variety of rice-based guises.

Unlike their White Sheep Turcoman and Black Eye Kirghiz neighbours, the Uzbeks had enjoyed the use of houses, pots and tables long before the Russians turned up, and so developed a cuisine more complex than eating whatever you'd been riding lately.

So literally all-consuming is their gourmanderie that Uzbeks looked at a pair of sinuous Arabo-Persian words meaning "food", blinked slowly, then slapped them together like a pair of hams to emphasise how much they like dinner ("oziq-ovqat").

And so highly do Uzbeks revere mutton pilaf that they refer to it simply as "osh" - "food". Like the ethereal beings in Calvino's "Invisible Cities" who will not place profane foot on the hallowed avenues of their citadels, the Uzbeks don't bid friends to eat the pilaf without any ceremony, but rather first invite them to admire its gleaming perfection - "oshga qarang!"

A visitor can aspire to the status of "guest" only if he honours the pilaf.

  • He must eat it with the right hand in an elegant scooping motion, having first allowed the host's eldest son to bejewel the dish with gouts of choicest mutton fat.
  • He must sip the green tea steadily, but never drain the dainty bowl.
  • He must eat heartily, but not clear the plate.

Once the meal is over, a few questions about the particular variety of pilaf marks the guest out as an acolyte of the "oshpaz" (pilaf chef) and allows access to the back table at the teahouse - the one near the door to the opium den. And to pass through that particular portal takes another half-century or so of bobbing and blinking over mounds of foggy, foggy stew.

Myself, I was happy to rest right there on the pilgrim path and savour the unique harmony with inertia that comes from being an Uzbek. Freud never travelled to the Oxus, which is a shame, as the locals provide ample evidence for his oft-derided concept of Nirvana:

They seek a steady state of contentment rather than stimulation, in common with nuns and yokels, but manage to achieve it without abandoning the pleasures of the marital bed or teeth. Theirs is truly the Golden Section of the Silk Road.

Old Soviet Hands weep with gratitude on encountering the Uzbeks' transcendent indifference to all things beyond their idle oases. No demands to know how much a St Albans taxi-driver earns, no speeches about "Misty Albion", no suggestions that you marry their daughters - merely a polite enquiry about your hometown and whether you have pilaf there too, then off to lunch.

This would apply to any Martian who landed on the banks of the Jaxartes as much as to the passing Welshman. "So you don't have a mouth as such, Fleet Commadore Qʈħätɬʼɯŋ? Well that's fine, you can just admire the pilaf!"

And sad to say that's as far as I got, thanks to an ill-considered attempt to adapt the Uzbek culinary code to interior design.

I used to rent a flat in Tashkent, the country's patchwork capital. My landlord, Big Rustam the Unreliable Attorney, would often drop by for a chat, and I began to spot signs that I might be invited to join the lotus-eaters at the back of the chaikhana. Just the odd hint, but full of dusty promise - "Boyo-jon, there are some people I would like you to meet." "What do these people do?" "They do nothing, and they do it slowly."

Hubris drove me down to the gentleman's outfitters at the racetrack to get cloaked, skullcapped and belted like a Bokharan Beau Brummell. But no aspirant to "O'zbekchilik" can approach the Wispy Beard of Wisdom without at least a couple of dishes of "kishmish" - mixed nuts, raisins and sultanas - to welcome guests to his table.

I'd had a heavy evening swapping Tajik jokes with Big Rustam ("Have you seen the second wife of Blind Sobir, the Blind Sage of Soghd? No? Well, neither has he!"), and noticed a tart tang of tobacco and mutton on the morning air. Mrs Rustam was due to drop round that afternoon to count the dozens of lumpy quilts that made up her daughter's dowry, and I needed to freshen things up a bit.

I set off for the Turkish supermarket on Atatürk Street. Apart from Barf washing powder and Pif Paf cockroach killer, this teetering outpost of the market economy stocked delicate rosewater potpourri for the homesick Anatolian Hausfrau. I grabbed a bag and planted it in a bowl on the living-room table, before setting off on the monthly bribe run.

That evening Big Rustam dropped by as usual. Now when it comes to sang froid, Uzbeks can rival any Victorian fusilier facing impalement by impi. A local colleague once dismissed the Kazakh nation with a cursory "you can tell what they're thinking", so it takes some tuning to tease out what's made a Toshkentchi tetchy. But I noticed the omens - he paused for a second before returning my greeting, and the vodka bottle in his hand was Russian.

We sat down and weighed out the usual exchanges before Big Rustam asked "That bowl in your living room, what were you kind enough to put in it?"

"Potpourri," I replied. "It is a Frankish frippery that may lend a room the perfumes of Paradise, if He wills it."

"By the Merciful One, it is truly fragrant," Big Rustam noted, "But how would you go about eating it, by the grace of the All-Bountiful?"

"In truth, only a beaver with the morning breath of a Khujandi catamite would relish such a dish," I continued, seeking to return last night's mirth with a jibe at our Tajik neighbours, their fey ways and fondness for trees. "For it is made of wood shavings soaked in bath oils".

Big Rustam nodded, and the conversation turned to how his latest client had managed to garrotte himself with his own scrotum in the back of a police van, among other refinements of the Uzbek penal system. He would still drop round from time to time, but the visits became briefer and rarer, and the call to carouse at the back table never came.

I accepted this with near-native nobility, but often wondered what unwritten law had I broken. Had I touched a flatbread with my knife? Had I passed something with my left hand? Had I forgotten to pour the tea back into the pot twice before serving? I could not say.

Then one day I came home early to find Mrs Rustam, suitably chaperoned by her third son, sorting a sack of sheets in the spare room. I helped her haul a haversack of silks from atop the cupboard.

She whispered a word of thanks, and her lips were red with rosewood.