“I penetrated beneath the Curtain through a disused S-Bahn tunnel which led to the center of the earth” (William Vollmann)

As soon as I’d rested, I penetrated beneath the Curtain through a disused S-Bahn tunnel which led to the center of the earth, which I can now assure you is a hemispherical room whose pattern of blue and white tiles have been chessboarded, staired and umbrella’d for centuries. Here I discovered rows of listening devices like pictures in a gallery, each machine affixed to reality by its two wires, each one labeled: ZOYA, VLASOV, GEHLEN . . . They went on and on, infinitely. Where was SHOSTAKOVICH? But after all, I had to see him; I had to face him! In a crypt in Berlin I’ve spied the effigy of an infant whose hand reaches innocently out at the world which he has been denied, while a stone eagle guards him. I was the child within the tomb! I had nothing, not even an eagle, because he hated me.

But I found resurrection in the delicious moonlight of Berlin-East. And like a champagne cork I popped up into the air, speeding into Europe Central! It was quite gusty; I would have enjoyed carrying my Variometer, to check variations in barometric pressure. But my Variometer was another item I’ve lost over the years. Prague’s hills crowded with trees and towers were all dark; Riga was buried under autumn leaves; and in an empty snowy park in Moscow I found Shostakovich walking round and round.

Smeared with iron-colored grime I interrupted his circles; I blocked his way; I snivelled and insisted: Herr Schostakowitsch, I’m sorry—

Indignantly he interrupted: I must tell you this, my dear German friend: I feel it’s the worst cynicism to, to, to besmirch yourself with ugly behavior and then speak beautiful words. I, do you know, I think it’s preferable to say ugly words and not commit illegal acts . . . But nothing could take me away from him now! He was everything to me. He—and Elena, of course. (Where was Elena?)

Oh, how cold it was! I had to get down and grovel in the snow. But it paid off; I fulfilled my objective. People rarely choose to accept my apologies. But in the end, Shostakovich did. He’s a very nice man.

What I dreamed of by then was inventing a method to bring about a reconciliation between him and Elena (who was codenamed LINA); was I supposed to shoot him before or after that? How about not at all? You see, I’d come to adore the man, and I valued his happiness more than my own. Many’s the time I’ve peeped in on him as he’s composing. When he closed his eyes, I saw how happy he truly was; with my Zeiss lenses I was able to obtain a magnified view of the veins in his eyelids, which pulsed in time with what must have been his Fifth Symphony, described by R. Taruskin as a series of components, gestures or events that are immediately recognizable as signs or symbols whose referents are not specified by any universally recognized and stable code. Now he was smiling! His fingers spread out on the table and he seemed to be playing a complex chord on the piano, or perhaps milking Elena’s left breast—how I loved him for his happiness!

On one of those assassination visits, which now numbered more than the total number of Allied bombing raids on Berlin, he’d confided to me that there was a certain other world he sometimes lived in, a world beneath the piano keys; not caring to hurt his feelings by revealing that I already knew that, I calculated the sum instead: Let me keep this all straight; first there’s Berlin itself, divided into East and West just as Europe is; second of all, there are the four sectors of Germany; meanwhile, within the Soviet zone, there’s this other zone, this place where everything is beautiful and pure (this is why I loved him; this is in fact an extremely Germanic conception); but who can go there? Only Shostakovich himself? Can Elena go there, too? She left him because she didn’t want to go there; but what if she’d actually left him because he believed her capable of entering that world and she knew that she couldn’t? Whenever I listen to Opus 40 I believe that she can, but if that’s the case, where did the operation break down? He’d told me that toward the end she was really trying; she framed the first page of the score to Opus 40, a composition which was truly her as he knew her; and she hung it up on the wall of her little flat on Kirovsky Prospekt in Leningrad, to show him that she, that she, you know (these last six words come verbatim from Shostakovich). All right, but could he ever bring her there? Please God, why not?

He’d also told me of a nightmare which had attacked him for years: He tries to make love with Elena but every time he takes her into his arms the telephone rings.

I begged him for the password. I wanted admission to that world east of East, the world beneath the piano keys. If I only had that, I’d be free; I wouldn’t need to worry about which list the Gehlen Organization kept me on.

He said: But that’s sad, because you’re not my, how should I say, I mean, your name’s not Lyalka! What’s the basis of our relationship? I mean, frankly, you really haven’t been very, you know. Moreover, it’s not your world.

Where is my world then, Herr Schostakowitsch? Build one, my dear friend . . .

From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.

The passage comes from the section “Airlift Idylls,” near the end of the novel. “Airlift Idylls” is told by an unnamed narrator who claims

The section reads like Kafka, or Philip K. Dick, or Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a Cold War tale of assassination as an endless loop, where our narrator dreams himself into another existence.

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