Autobiography of a Corpse
The PEN Translation Prize is annually awarded for the translation of a book-length work from any language into English. The 2014 prize goes to Joanne Turnbull & Nikolai Formozov for their translation of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Autobiography of a Corpse.
The Runaway Fingers
Two thousand ears turned toward the pianist Heinrich Dorn as he calmly adjusted the wicker seat of his swivel chair with long white fingers… The tails of his dress coat hung down from the chair, while his fingers leapt onto the piano’s black case—and cantered down the straight road paved with ivory keys. Polished nails flashing, they first set off from a high octave C to the treble’s last, glassily tinkling keys. There waited a black block—the edge of the keyboard frame. The fingers wanted to go farther; they stamped distinctly and fractionally on the last two keys—eyes here and there in the hall narrowed: “What a trill!”—then spun round on their tapered ends shod in fine epidermis and, leaping over one another, began galloping back. Halfway along the fingers slackened their pace, musingly choosing now black, now white keys for a footfall that was soft but deeply impressed upon the strings.
Two thousand auricles leaned toward the stage.
A familiar nervous trembling seized the fingers; poised on the string-pressing hammers, they suddenly, in one violent bound, catapulted across twelve keys, coming to rest on C-E#-G-B.
And again, cutting loose from the chord, the fingers raced away in a rapid passage toward the end of the keyboard. The pianist’s right hand made to pull back, to the middle register, but its galloping fingers refused—on they flew at breakneck speed: The quarter octave’s glassy tinkles flashed past, the treble’s auxiliary keys squeaked, the black keyboard rim rapped them on the nails. With a desperate tug the fingers suddenly wrenched themselves free, hand and all, from the pianist’s cuff and jumped—diamond ring on the little finger glinting—down onto the floor. The parquet’s waxed wood struck their joints a painful blow, but the fingers, without missing a beat, picked themselves up and—mincing along on their pink shields of nails, vaulting high into the air with great arpeggio-like leaps— hared toward the hall’s exit.
The huge bulbous nose of someone’s boot nearly barred the way. Someone else’s dirty sole briefly pinned the little finger to the carpet. Hugging their pinched pinkie to them, the fingers darted under a floor-length curtain. But a second later the curtain was hiked up to reveal two black columns that widened at the top: The fingers understood—this was the dress hem of one of Dorn’s admirers. Swinging round on their ring finger, they jumped aside.
There wasn’t a minute to lose. All about them people were beginning to whisper. The whispers became murmurs, the murmurs a hubbub, the hubbub an outcry, and the outcry the roar and riot of a thousand feet.
“Catch them! Catch them!”
Other members of the audience rushed up to the pianist: He was slumped on his chair in a deep faint, his left hand flopped on his knee; the empty cuff of his right still lay on the keyboard.
But the runaway fingers had no time for Dorn; working their long phalanges, bending and unbending their joints, they were sprinting prestissimo down a Turkish runner toward the brow of the stairs.
With wails and squeals, elbows elbowing elbows, people scrambled out of the way. From the hall came more cries of “Catch them! Where? What?” but the stairs had been left behind.
In one masterly bound, the fingers sailed over the threshold and out into the street. The riot and racket broke off. The blank, benighted square, wreathed in a yellow necklace of lamplights, gaped in silence.
The manicured fingers of the famous pianist Heinrich Dorn, accustomed to strolling the ivory keys of concert pianos, were unused to perambulating wet, dirty pavements.
Finding themselves on the square’s cold and sticky asphalt, picking their way through spittle and puddles of slush, the fingers now realized the folly and extravagance of their escapade.
But too late. Over the threshold of the building left behind, shoes, boots, and walking sticks were already clattering; to return would mean being crushed. Pressing its aching little finger to its ring finger, Dorn’s right hand leaned against a scabrous spur stone and observed the scene.
The concert hall disgorged all the people then shut its doors—leaving the fugitive fingers alone on the empty square.
It began to drizzle. The fingers would have to find lodgings for the night. Sopping their fine white skin in puddles and gutters, they plodded, now tripping, now slipping, along the street. Suddenly, from out of the fog, a wheel rim came thundering past, spattering clumps of mud.
The squeamish fingers barely managed to duck; shaking off the foul daubs, they clambered, shivering and wobbling with exhaustion, up onto the sidewalk and hugged the walls of the massive buildings.
It was already late. A yellow street clock struck two. Shop doors were shuttered, the corrugated metal eyelids of windows lowered. Someone’s belated footsteps approached then faded away. Where to hide?
Half a keyboard up from the sidewalk bricks, the light of a swaying image lamp glowed crimson in the wind. Under the light, screwed into the wall, hung a rectangular collection box: FOR THE CHURCH.
The fingers had no choice; they scrabbled up the church’s craggy wall to a window ledge, then leapt down onto the sloping lid of the collection box. The slot in the lid was narrow, but the pianist’s nimble fingers were not famed for their fineness for nothing; they squeezed through the gap and… jumped. Inside it was dark, except for a faint crimson glint dropped in the box by the image lamp. Beside the glint was a crumpled and obliging banknote. Chilled to the bone, the fingers curled up in a corner of the metal box, covered themselves with the banknote, and lay still. Their stiff joints ached; their cracked and broken nails itched; the little finger was swollen and the ring’s thin band cut deep into the skin.
But weariness won out; the crimson glint swayed from side to side while the rain rat-tatted a familiar moto perpetuo on the roof of the box with sprightly drops. Through the slot, narrowing its emerald eyes, peered Sleep.
The fingers gave themselves a good shake, rubbed their numb joints, and tried to stretch out at full length on their hard bed. A crimson ray of dawn had entwined the lamp’s slowly fading glint.
The rain had fallen silent. Having jumped up once or twice and bumped against the ceiling, the fingers scrambled gingerly out of the slot and sat down on the damp slant of the collection-box roof. An early-morning wind was dandling the leafless branches of the poplars. Below, puddles shimmered; above, clouds glowered.
As unusual as the situation was, the fingers’ long-established habit of practicing for an hour and a half every morning forced them to climb up onto the window ledge and run a methodical scales-like race from end to end, from right to left and left to right, until their joints were warm and supple.
Having finished their exercises, the fingers jumped back onto the collection box, sat down by the slot, and began dreaming about the recent but now torn-away past… lying under a warm satin quilt; morning ablutions in warm soapy water; then a pleasant stroll along the gently yielding keys; and then… and then the attendant fingers of the left hand dress them in a soft leather glove, fasten the snaps, and Dorn carries them forth, cradled in a pocket of his warm coat. Suddenly… the glove is pulled off and someone’s fine sweet-scented nails, trembling slightly, touch them. The fingers press themselves ardently to the pink nails and…
Suddenly a gnarled hand with dirty yellow nails knocked the abstracted fingers off the collection-box roof. The hand belonged to a weak-sighted old woman on her way home from the market. She had put down her basket full of parcels, come up to the box, and felt about with a trembling hand for the slot, meaning to contribute her meager mite. But just then something soft and alive had grabbed her finger, jerked back, and gone head over heels. She heard a rustling among the paper parcels—and suddenly, five human fingers without the human, flicking off flour, jumped out of the basket and shot down the sidewalk.
Dropping coins, the wary old woman crossed herself again and again and mumbled something with a toothless, quivering mouth.
From cobble to cobble, plunging through puddles and gutters, the fingers ran on and on.
Two small boys squatting by a gutter had just launched their toy boat with its paper sail when they noticed the fingers crouching nearby, preparing to jump across the noisy canal. The boys’ mouths fell open. Their abandoned sailboat ran aground on a cobble and capsized.
“Oh-ho-ho!” the boys whooped and gave chase.
Only an unparalleled pianistic fluency saved the fleeing fingers: spraying spatters, tearing their tender epidermis on sharp-edged stones, they scampered at the speed of Beethoven’s Appassionata, and had there been under them not rough cobbles but ivory keys, all the greatest masters of passage-work and glissando would have been outdone and put to shame.
Suddenly from behind something growled, and an enormous sharp-clawed paw knocked the fugitive off its five feet; the fingers fell backward, banging their diamond ring against the sidewalk and throwing their bloodied nails up in the air.
The large fangs of a watchdog leered over them; mortally tired and writhing in pain, the fingers snapped at the dog’s nose and, having gained a second, rushed on, pursued by barks and yelps.
That night the fingers had to camp in the downspout of a drainpipe. Later, when it again began to rain, the exhausted waifs were sluiced out of the metal pipe—and forced to roam the dark pavement in search of a dry refuge.
In a dingy basement window a flame flickered. Picking their way along the wet sash, the poor fingers tapped shyly on the pane. Nobody came.
A hole in the glass had been papered over; the index finger ripped the paper, and the others climbed in after it. Onto the windowsill. In the room: not a sound. On the kitchen table, flat against the window: not a crumb. In the cast-iron stove on squat bowlegs, grayish crimson coals were smoldering. On a hard plank bed, asleep in a huddled heap, were a woman and two children; thin faces, eyes hidden under wrinkled blue-gray lids, bodies under fusty rags.
But on the clean white pillowcase, picked out with yellow glints from the oil lamp, sat, smiling slyly, Sleep; he rubbed his emerald eyes with webbed, translucent paws and told the poor souls his fairy tales. His words made the stains on the walls bloom with pink blossoms, while the clothes hanging overhead began floating along the line like a succession of snow-white clouds.
The decorous fingers sat down on the edge of the table to listen; lulled by the sound of Sleep’s soft voice, they recalled the rolling course of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, the mysterious leaps and appeals of Kreisleriana.
The fingers too wished to give the poor souls a present. Dorn’s diamond ring still glittered on the swollen pinkie; doubled up with pain, the fingers dug their broken nails under the gold band: clink—and the ring came to rest on the table edge.
Time to go.
It was nearly morning. Sleep began to bustle about; he slipped down from the pillow, packed up his dreams, and was gone. The fingers followed suit; with a gentle rustle of the window’s torn paper, they were again on the pavement.
A wet spring snow of white stars was falling into puddles of slush.
The worn-out fingers had no strength left; huddled against a cold paving stone, pinched together, they fell asleep beneath the soft flights of white stars. In that same instant they heard the hardened ground beginning to rock like countless piano keys; crashing down on black and white, dropping the sun from their phalanges, rushing straight for the weary waifs, were ruthless and gigantic fingers.
A music critic came running into Dorn’s study clutching a newspaper.
“Look at this!”
On page eight, circled in red pencil, was the following notice:
OF A RIGHT HAND
Inquire at: Dessingstrasse, 7, apt. 54
Dorn dashed out into the vestibule and grabbed his coat off the hook, stuffing his awkward empty cuff into the right sleeve.
“Maestro, it’s too early,” the critic fussed. “One inquires ‘from 11 to 1,’ and now it’s only a quarter to ten. Besides…”
But Dorn was already flying down the stairs.
Half an hour later, when the pianist Heinrich Dorn saw his runaway fingers lying in a cardboard box lined with cotton wool, he began to cry; the fingers, still pinched together, lay motionless in a hideous lump. Their cracked and ulcerated skin was caked with mud. Their once-fine tips, now repulsively flattened, bore the yellow excrescences of calluses; the nails were broken and lacerated; dried blood was turning black under the bends of the joints.
“They’re dead,” gasped a white-lipped Dorn, reaching with the clumsy funnel of his right cuff for the motionless fingers. Just then the little finger twitched—but barely.
Dorn, his teeth madly chattering, brought his fingerless arm right up to the box; the fingers, tossing about and getting tangled in the whorls of cotton wool, half raised themselves up on their trembling and wobbling phalanges and suddenly, all aquiver, jumped inside the cuff.
Dorn laughed and cried at the same time; on his knees, sticking out of crisp white cuffs, two hands lay side by side: one with white, tapered, manicured fingers smelling of expensive cologne; the other brownish gray, calloused, and covered with abrasions.
Two weeks later Heinrich Dorn returned to the stage for the first in a famous cycle of concerts.
The pianist played differently somehow: gone were the dazzling passages, the lightning glissandos and emphatic grace notes. The pianist’s fingers seemed disinclined to saunter down that short, seven-octave road paved with ivory keys. Then again there were moments when it seemed as though someone’s gigantic fingers—torn away from another keyboard, from another world—dropping the sun from their phalanges, were skipping along the skimpy, squeaky, rickety piano keys. And then thousands of ears leaned forward—on necks craning toward the stage.
But that was only at moments.
Connoisseurs, one after another, tiptoed out of the hall.
Excerpted from Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigmund Krzhizhanovsky. Published by arrangement with Éditions Verdier. Translation copyright © 2013 Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov.