Maxim Gorky: Military Tower of Babel
From The Magnet (1931)
Translated by Alexander Bakshy
“As I was saying: with Colonel Perpotzki, we were taking the Chinese capital, Peking…”
He was telling the story for the workers, but his words flew straight into Samghin’s face.
“So, you don’t want to shoot? No, sir. Then stand in that same place. Aliosha went and stood next to the shot body; made the sign of the cross. It was all over in a moment: Platoon, fire! There’s your Christ! Christ is no defence for a soldier, none at all! The soldier is a man outside the law…
“Barracks are a pimple on the earth, a boil, you see?…”
They emerged on the sunlight flooded Field, which was covered with greyish scorched turf. Undulating gently, the ground rose in the distance to reach the smoky clouds; far off, the uniform conic shapes of the camp tents rose like snow hills; to their left, again the dark background of the woods, mowed rows of white toy-like soldiers; still further to the left rose into the blue void between the clouds a brick building, bright red in the sun, girt with the little sticks of the scaffolding and surrounded by huddling crowds of workmen who looked like little children. A white rider on a bronze-hued horse moved resplendent against the sun towards the soldiers marching with glittering bayonets.
“At one end of the city Varavka has built a slaughter-house and a prison,” grumbled Inokov, strolling along the edge of a ravine, “and at the other end, his competitor is building barracks.”
Grey dry blades of grass crackled under Clim’s feet. Open spaces humbled and saddened him. Keeping step with Inokov, he felt like melting away in the rays of the sun, in the hot air, saturated with the odour of parched grass. He had no desire to speak, nor to listen to Inokov’s grumblings. He walked on, fixing his gaze on the construction-work of the barracks; they were rising in three buildings, trapeze-shaped; the middle one was nearly finished, the bricklayers putting on the last rows of the third storey. One could see distinctly the little figures in red and blue blouses and white aprons, moving about the edge of the wall, and workmen loaded with bricks, moving with heavy steps up the planks through the web of the scaffolding. The path continued along the edge of the ravine, deeply cut by water in a clay soil, one slope littered with garbage and overgrown with shrubs and weeds, the other grimly bare, iron-coloured, and scratched as if with nails. There was strong contrast between this deep fissure in the earth and the huge building, the building being raised by those little human beings. Samghin reflected that it would require many thousands of those brightly coloured little figure to fill up the ravine to the brim.
Suddenly Inokov, as if he had stumbled over something, nudged Clim and shouted:
“Damnation. Run quick!”
He dashed ahead agilely as a boy.
For a few seconds Clim did not realize what he was seeing. Apparently the blue patch of the sky had jerked the wall forward and, swelling, over it, was pressing and turning it over. The poles of the grey wooden cage imprisoning the vast building began to sway, bending slowly and as if unwillingly towards Clim, stripping the wall and dragging it forward. Cracking, rattling, snapping bricks were tumbling on the ladders.
Not until Samghin saw the workers jumping off the wall in the chaos of poles and boards that were sliding to the ground; saw them pitch over the hods of bricks they were carrying on their backs and bolt with terrible speed down the steps, the bricks, falling behind them, beating an increasingly clamorous tattoo on the wood until their uproar drowned out the racket of cracking and crashing – not until then, did Samghin realize that the wall was collapsing. He ran, and felt the ground bumping under his feet, bringing the falling building nearer and nearer. The wall was crumbling piece-meal, exhaling brown dust. The yawning mouths of the windows grimaced disgustingly. One of them projected the long end of a wide plank and wagged it like a tongue.
It was incredible that people could flash through the air so swiftly, in such unnaturally distorted poses, and plop on to the ground with a thump so loud that Clim heard it even through the crashing and the cracking, and the discordant shrieks of horror. A few men dashed to the ground as if they had been pushed by the air; apparently they wanted to leap over the writhing heap of poles and boards, but the lumber, shaking like the legs of a spider, caught them as they fell and transfixed them in a vise. In a window a man appeared, grasping a long stick; the sides of the window collapsed, the man dropped the stick, threw up his arms and tumbled over backwards.
A wide straw hat shot into the air and dropped, rolling towards Samghin’s feet. He leaped aside, looked back, and realized instantly that he had not run away from the catastrophe, as he had intended to, but was twenty steps from a hideous pile of wood and bricks in which striking boards and poles jerked and swayed. Clim’s knees were shaking. He sat on the ground, blinking. Pulling off his spectacles he saw bricklayers and carpenters scatter in all directions, their hands shaking…