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Konstantin Paustovsky: Cervantes slain in war

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

Russian writers on war

Konstantin Paustovsky: All conquerors are mad

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Konstantin Paustovsky
From Canes Venatici
Translated by Kathleen Cook

The shutters rattled in the wind. Merot’s anguished thoughts became more confused until he eventually dozed off.

He had a strange dream. He was getting into a dusty grey car to drive to the south of Spain. A tall thin old man with a shaking grey goatee beard got in beside him. There was a strange clanking sound from the old man’s shabby creased suit and Merot suddenly noticed with alarm that his companion was wearing rusty old armour beneath his jacket.

“We’ll drive there and back,” said the old man, his armour grinding in the small car, “and you will see everything. But try not to weep.”

They raced along the narrow road through the mountains and each time they came to a pass vast expanses spread out below like the sea, some brown and parched by the sun, or dark with the foliage of lemon trees, others burnished with ripe corn, or blue with the haze over the forests. And with each new valley the old man in armour stood up, flung out his arms with a mighty ring and hailed it solemnly with the word:

“Spain.”

They raced past towns where there was so much sun that it overflowed from the tiled roofs and the walls of the house and crept into the far corners of the cellars where Merot and the old man sat drinking wine and eating cheese that smelled of cloves.

They raced past ancient cathedrals that seemed to be covered with the grey dust of the heat, past rivers where patient bulls were lazily drinking the clear water, past schools with children singing, past palaces where the paintings of the great masters were gleaming in the shadows behind linen drapes, past orchards and fields where each clod of earth was weighed in the hand and crumbled by the firm palm of the peaceful peasants, past parks and factories humming like bees with the wheels of the hot machines, past the whole country rushing forward to hail them in the wind, laughter, songs, greetings and many other sounds of happy toil.

In a small deserted town they sped past a statue of a tall old man with a grey beard. Merot recognized this bronze figure as his companion and managed to read the inscription on the statue which said: “Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.”

“So you are Cervantes?” he shouted to the old man, who took off his hat and replied vaguely:

“Yes, I once lived in this town.”

Then they turned back and began to speed past the same towns, lying in ruins, full of the heavy stench of dead bodies, past the schools where dead children with pitiful open mouths lay by the doors, past women crazed with grief running along the roads with unseeing, staring eyes, past people who had been tied to door handles and shot, past orchards gutted by fire, past signs scrolled in soot on the white garden walls: “Death to all who talk of freedom and justice! Death to all who are not with us!,” past palaces turned into heaps of charred rubbish.

An infantry detachment stopped the car. The soldiers wore heavy boots like buckets and had red faces with ginger mustaches. The officer in charge was fair-haired with pointed ears and a dry pate.

“Who are you?” he shouted.

The old man in armour got up, his eyes dark with anger and his hands trembling.

“Curs!” he shouted. “Hired assassins covered with a bloody coat. Begone from my country! I am Cervantes, the son and poet of Spain. I am a soldier and an honest man.”

The old man stretched out his arms to halt the soldiers.

“Fire!” shouted the officer, his voice shrill with anger. The soldiers fired and Merot heard the bullets hitting the old man’s rusty armour. The old man fell face down in the dust and stroked the gravel of the road with his thin, warm arms as he lay dying.

“Spain!” he said fervently and a few precious tears fell onto the baking ground.

Another spray of bullets hit his armour, more quietly this time.

Merot woke up….

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