Home > Uncategorized > Henri Barbusse: Sepulchral sculptor’s great sketch-model, the gate of hell

Henri Barbusse: Sepulchral sculptor’s great sketch-model, the gate of hell

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Henri Barbusse: Selections on war

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Henri Barbusse
From Light (1918)
Translated by Fitzwater Wray

1312408-Henri_Barbusse

And always, always, in these trenches whose walls run down like waves, with their stale stinks of chlorine and sulphur, chains of soldiers go forward endlessly, towing each other. They go as quickly as they can, as if the walls were going to close upon them. They are bowed as if they were always climbing, wholly dark under colossal packs which they carry without stopping, from one place to another place, as they might rocks in hell. From minute to minute we are filling the places of the obliterated hosts who have passed this way like the wind or have stayed here like the earth.

We halt in a funnel. We lean our backs against the walls, resting the packs on the projections which bristle from them. But we examine these things coming out of the earth, and we smell that they are knees, elbows and heads. They were interred there one day and the following days are disinterring them. At the spot where I am, from which I have roughly and heavily recoiled with all my armory, a foot comes out from a subterranean body and protrudes. I try to put it out of the way, but it is strongly incrusted. One would have to break the corpse of steel, to make it disappear. I look at the morsel of mortality. My thoughts, and I cannot help them, are attracted by the horizontal body that the world bruises; they go into the ground with it and mold a shape for it. Its face – what is the look which rots crushed in the dark depth of the earth at the top of these remains? Ah, one catches sight of what there is under the battlefields! Everywhere in the spacious wall there are limbs, and black and muddy gestures. It is a sepulchral sculptor’s great sketch-model, a bas-relief in clay that stands haughtily before our eyes. It is the portal of the earth’s interior; yes, it is the gate of hell.

***

We emerge from the cave; and more slowly, from our drowsiness. We find ourselves standing in a village street. But as soon as we touch the open air, dazzling roars precede and follow us, mere handful of men as we are, abruptly revealing us to each other. We hurl ourselves like a pack of hounds into the first door or the first gaping hole, and there are some who cry that: “We are marked. We’re given away!”

After the porterage fatigue we go back. I settle myself in my corner, heavier, more exhausted, more buried in the bottom of everything. I was beginning to sleep, to go away from myself, lulled by a voice which sought in vain the number of the days we had been on the move, and was repeating the names of the nights – Thursday, Friday, Saturday – when the man with the pointed light returns, demands a gang, and I set off with the others. It is so again for a third time. As soon as we are outside, the night, which seems to lie in wait for us, sends us a squall, with its thunderous destruction of space; it scatters us; then we are drawn together and joined up. We carry thick planks, two by two; and then piles of sacks which blind the bearers with a plastery dust and make them reel like masts.

Then the last time, the most terrible, it was wire. Each of us takes into his hands a great hoop of coiled wire, as tall as ourselves, and weighing over sixty pounds. When one carries it, the supple wheel stretches out like an animal; it is set dancing by the least movement, it works into the flesh of the shoulder, and strikes one’s feet. Mine tries to cling to me and pull me up and throw me to the ground. With this malignantly heavy thing, animated with barbarous and powerful movement, I cross the ruins of a railway station, all stones and beams. We clamber up an embankment which slips away and avoids us, we drag and push the rebellious and implacable burden. It cannot be reached, that receding height. But we reach it, all the same.

Ah, I am a normal man! I cling to life, and I have the consciousness of duty. But at that moment I called from the bottom of my heart for the bullet which would have delivered me from life.

***

By its light we see, a few steps in front of us, a gaping trench. We were going to fall into it. It is motionless and empty – no, it is occupied – yes, it is empty. It is full of a file of slain watchers. The row of men was no doubt starting out of the earth when the shell burst in their faces; and by the poised white rays we see that the blast has staved them in, has taken away the flesh; and above the level of the monstrous battlefield there is left of them only some fearfully distorted heads. One is broken and blurred; one emerges like a peak, a good half of it fallen into nothing. At the end of the row, the ravages have been less, and only the eyes are smitten. The hollow orbits in those marble heads look outwards with dried darkness. The deep and obscure face-wounds have the look of caverns and funnels, of the shadows in the moon; and stars of mud are clapped on the faces in the place where eyes once shone.

***

I bear myself forward. My eyes are open but I look at nothing; confused pictures are printed on my staring eyes. The men around me form strange surges; shouts cross each other or descend. Upon the fantastic walls of nights the shots make flicks and flashes. Earth and sky are crowded with apparitions; and the golden lace of burning stakes is unfolding.

A man is in front of me, a man whose head is wrapped in linen.

He is coming from the opposite direction. He is coming from the other country! He was seeking me, and I was seeking him. He is quite near – suddenly he is upon me.

The fear that he is killing me or escaping me – I do not know which – makes me throw out a desperate effort. Opening my hands and letting the rifle go, I seize him. My fingers are buried in his shoulder, in his neck, and I find again, with overflowing exultation, the eternal form of the human frame. I hold him by the neck with all my strength, and with more than all my strength, and we quiver with my quivering.

He had not the idea of dropping his rifle so quickly as I. He yields and sinks. I cling to him as if it were salvation. The words in his throat make a lifeless noise. He brandishes a hand which has only three fingers – I saw it clearly outlined against the clouds like a fork.

Just as he totters in my arms, resisting death, a thunderous blow strikes him in the back. His arms drop, and his head also, which is violently doubled back, but his body is hurled against me like a projectile, like a superhuman blast.

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