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Face of War. The Coloured

A chapter of Ilya Ehrenburg's book about World War I "Face of War".
Translated by Vladislav Fyodorov.
Any commentaries are welcome. It is allowed to repost this translation, as long as you give a link to the original.

The Coloured

Curious ones. They look out from heated wagons. Everything is horribly strange and interesting. A giant railway station, and tens of roaring monsters under the glass vaults. Here 155-mm cannons are brought; they wonder, what is that? This morning they came from their Senegalia. They are not tired yet. Not learned indifference. They go out from the wagons, their handsome heads are proudly thrown back, on the oval gentle faces are glowing eyes. Many of them have small apes on their hands, the same lively and curious. Both blacks and monkeys are cold; they chilly press close to each other.

But here they note their fellow countrymen on the platform. One has gauze around his head, another one is without a leg, the third densely and continuously coughs. The novices shout something to them in their shrill guttural language. Those respond. I do not understand the words, but I feel they ask each other: "where from?.."
Ask any Parisian: where from and why are Senegalese here? They will genuinely answer you: "to protect France", or: "attracted by salary", or finally: "they like to fight". And the Senegalese will tell you how to a remote village, among the thickets, where they hunted beasts and casted the line, came whites. The whites caught a marabout (cleric) and said: "Either give us soldiers, or we'll hang the marabout". And led them away, drove to a steamship, then here...
And those three already were there. They know what does mean this strange thing with a large nose the youngs look with smiles at. They know now why the Senegalese are called "storm troops".
They know rain and damp trenches. They know these monkeys will die soon, the soldiers will be driven under fire, and those who return will freeze, pine and expect the end. For there is no way back to the distant precious Senegalia.

In Saint-Raphaël there is a camp of Senegalese. Behind fashionable hotels, on the desolate sea shore is an African village. The novices are taught. Oh, how diligent they are, how they try to reproduce every gesture of the commander. What for, they do not know, but what a bearing, how they march, how they portray an attack!
Non-commissioned officers and an adjutant teach. Tiny and ugly "whites", they try to be majestic. They are mercilessly cruel. Woe to that who will not understand what does mean this movement of hand. All the command is from the "foreign legion": German deserters, Spanish contrabandists, French murderers, mostly murderers, a collection of criminals: white ware traders, thugs, executioners. The Senegalese are too obedient, too meek to be sent to death by regular people for whom murder did not become a profession yet.
There are other teachers, too. A girl about twelve years old teaches Senegalese to read in evening. They repeat the lesson with enthusiasm all together, and that from letters come syllables, from syllables come words, seems a miracle to them. On the book it is written: "Basic instruction for colonial troops". Senegalese read with a smile of gratification:
"France is loving mother of all natives."

Ask how old he is. He will think and answer: "90". Another one will say: "50", a third one: "10". Almost none knows his age. They can count to ten and show with fingers how many children they have. They do not know for sure where they are. "By whites in France". "No, it's not France but Marseille". Whom do they fight against? "I don't know". "Against Germans". "No. The corporal told not Germans but Boches". "Against whites". Why? "They took away the gold of Prince Pacare" (Poincaré), "they seized England", "because there is always war".

Most are idol worshippers, but there are many Muslims. Everyone has amulets: fangs of wild boars, German teeth, ridiculous wooden deities. Dames, fervent Catholics, are engaged in converting blacks. The fascinating marquise Z. persuaded a Senegalese:
"Let me baptise you. I'll gift you a golden cross and many pastries."
"Is it painful?"
In front of the crowd of high-society dames, countesses X. and viscountesses Y., the Senegalese was baptised in the church La Madeleine.
An hour later, sitting in the light confectionery of Rumpelmeier, the black, charmed with majesty of the ceremony, abundance of pastries and kindness of marquise Z. who whispered about "sweetest Jesus", took out a small ugly idol of fertility.
"Take, this is a god. I gift it to you, I gift because you're kind. Ask him for more men and children..."

In Marseille there is a fair near the port. Here by all means are cheated the "lower races": Senegalese, Malayans, Annamites [Vietnamese]. Tin rings with bright glasses, gilded purses, bands. Around tents there are crowds of Senegalese. They reverently look at all those goods of culture and willingly give for them all their sous.
A roulette. The stake is two sous. The prize is three, five or (almost impossible) ten fruit-drops. There is a shop nearby, and there ten such candies are given for two sous without any risk. A tall Somalian stakes for the third time. He embarrassedly smiles, looking at the intricate machine. Takes out one coin more, sighs, closes his eyes from agitation. Finally!.. And he runs away, squeezing three bright green fruit-drops in his hand.
Though, the whites care not just about entertaining blacks, but about their souls' salvation, too. Among shops and shows there is a barrack of "The Salvation Army". Blacks, Annamites, several Hindus - probably thought that was circus or cinema - confusedly exchance glances. They are taught to sing psalms. Then a lean virtuous dame speaks a sermon.
A Malayan at the entry slyly winks me:
"The kind corporal says: one must kill much. The kind dame says: one must not kill. I say: one must kill a little."
And by his grin I see this quick-witted pupil already unriddled our complicated culture.

In Saint-Raphaël there are tables near every house. A resident buys a dozen of beer bottles and opens a "cafe" for Senegalese. Senegalese come in a company, are very polite, and pay as much as it is requested. And since much is requested, they take one bottle for them all. There is little beer on its bottom, but instead they sit at the table, often even with hosts together. They treat the hostess and bare their sparkling teeth in raptures.
French women take a fancy to them. Women of the world visit the camp in evening to watch them play. Young Senegalese, nude, in narrow belts, struggle with each other, somersault in the grass, bathe. Indeed, they are very handsome, with feminine slender bodies.
Blacks gaze at white women, too. But they are too simple-hearted and naive. An artisan makes eyes for a black; he surprisedly looks at her. She pushes him, he politely steps aside. That is a novice. Those who lived several months in France already can roll their whites of eyes and kiss a hand.
In Marseille I met a Somalian who bought a paltry brooch and a checkered underskirt in a tent. He explained me they were for a "dame" who served in a cafe. He would bring that to her today and offer to become his wife. After the war he would take her to Somalia. Those were wedding gifts. Simply, clearly and intelligible.
Sometimes one has to pay cruelly for frankness. A young peasant woman lived near Saint-Raphaël. The husband was in the war. She became intimate with a Senegalese. The husband returned in furlough, suddenly, in evening. The Senegalese ran to meet.
"What do you want?"
"I'm husband."
"No, now I'm husband."
The French rushed at him. Defending himself, the black threw the husband away so luckily that he died by morning. "A murder of a French sergeant by a Senegalese". The murderer was judged by martial court. In the court he tried to explain:
"That one was before. Then she took me herself."
He did not understand his guilt. He was shot.

The Senegalese became very friendly with Russian soldiers. They chummed up by childish frankness, naivety, hospitality. Each spoke his own language, without understanding each other, but they could sit together for hours over a bottle of beer, affably smiling. Russians explained:
"Don't look he's black. What of soul he has, look at that."
After the revolution French blamed Russians for "revolutionary propaganda" among Senegalese.
"Upon my word, they served a month together, and now Senegalese demand a 'soviet' for themselves, too."
It turned out under the word 'soviet' the Senegalese meant sending to the motherland.
I knew a Russian soldier who was such a close friend of a Senegalese that he sent for him tea, wurst and tobacco to the hospital, repeating:
"That's true!.. As long as I live, I didn't see such a person. But why is he black?.. A mystery..."

When blacks hear artillery cannonade, ineffable fear grabs them. Many fall down like before a deity. But afterwards that fear does not go away, either. They call cannons like children do: "boom boom", and by that very word they fearfully look round. They do not fear death and amaze everyone with bravery in melee combat; but "boom boom" is something incomprehensible, mysterious and terrible.
It is hard to force blacks to go out from a trench under artillery fire. That is what a sergeant told me:
"You have no idea how much trouble is there with them. One has to drive them away with a revolver. And that's what I thought out. It was near the Dardanelles. I hanged seven people before the attack and said: that's what will happen to you if you don't go away. One can't deal with them otherwise, they need see it with their eyes. And they went away."

But when they run out, nobody can restrain them. They throw shoes off, drop rifles and with a beast roar rush forwards. They have big, heavy knives, with them they cut heads.
They do not take prisoners or even understand what is that. When Senegalese were charged to guard a train with captured Germans, they calmly and busily slaughtered everyone.
They pull out teeth of the slaughtered: those are amulets. Many cut off ears and thread them into necklaces. A wounded Senegalese was brought to Fère hospital. He held something round in a rag, thought to be a melon or a pumpkin. When attacks of pain began, he buried himself under the blanket. In evening a nurse got curious and found a German's head. In delirium the Senegalese still dug his teeth into it and gnawed the killed enemy.

There, in Senegalia, remained their wives. The "marabout" writes letters for everyone to an African village: "such ones are alive". Somewhere black wives listen, whether the husband's name is still in the list of the alive. And in Marseille, in an empty square, a Senegalese sits and droningly sings, looking at the alien grey sky. I hear only strange sounds: "chkhe-kkha". The corporal translates:
Where is the full moon
And the yellow reed makes noise,
My wife Aisha remained...

The Senegalese Alichi is the favourite of all the hospital. He already recovered but is not discharged. Who can care about the sick better than this patient black nurse? He tidies the ward, peels potatoes, playes cards with the wounded and enjoys. There is one trouble: this overcast France is so cold that poor Alichi cannot get warm! He is ready to get into a fireplace and whimpers:
"It's cold..."
He lays his riches out: a penknife, three mother-of-pearl buttons and a brand-new pencil. He asks the nurse:
"Write my name. What have you written? So can everyone find out now I'm Alichi?"
"Alichi, why do you have such an intricate plait behind?"
Alichi cunninly smiles:
"It's 'gri gri', from evil spirit and 'boom boom'."
"And if I cut it off at the night on the sly?"
Alichi's face becomes serious and grim at once. Staring straight at the nurse, he busily says:
"Then I'll kill you."

In a square of a small southern town, overgrown with grass, both a 5-years old girl and I examine this black dreadful man with the same curiosity. The attention flatters him, he tries to gladden us. Shows first a pipe of coconut, then beads, and finally a giant heavy knife similar to a "kosar".
"With this knife I cut 'Boches'."
He takes it into teeth, runs. Then he ecstatically waves it, as if mowing down heads of invisible enemies, and wildly, prolongedly roars.
The girl fearfully draws closer to me. But in a minute the black plays with her. Both forget about the knife and "Boches". Slavered a finger a bit, she tries wash the black off from his hand, and he interestedly looks what goes from that.

They are tiny like children, and their uniform is ridiculous: flat pointed hats, as if they came off tea boxes. On yellow, a bit wrinkled faces are narrow, impassive eyes. They squat, sometimes exchanging short phrases with each other. Their voice, shrill and melodious, resembles bird twitter. Sometimes they sing, and the song, returning and whirling all the time, lulls to sleep. Everyone has a small Buddha, with an enigmatic smile, with hands on his belly, inspiring sweetness and rest. They are called Annamites and brought from Saigon.
That is all what I know about these mysterious dwarves. I vainly tried to ask them, what do they think about Europe, about the war and about all of us, the whites? They politely keep silent. They are very incurious and indifferently look at theaters and cannons, at factories and clothes. Incurious, they do not comprehend our curiosity, either. Grinning, they are silent. I do not know what they think, and how they sing, and how they pray to their Buddha.
I do not know... But why do I feel uneasy when I recall their smile? There is affirmation of another truth, that cannot be fogged with our surface splendour, and there is a light, thoroughly contempt for our culture, loud, bright and idle.

An English hospital near Rouen intended specially for Hindu soldiers. The head doctor shows wards to me and explains the complicated rules and customs of the inhabitants. Here is the kitchen, here an indigenous dish is cooked from specially brought cauldrons and various spiсes. Each caste cooks food separately. Here in a corridor a handsome, slender Hindu sits with his bowl. This is a "chalda". If he touches the cauldron, others will not eat. He is the lowest, outcast. The Englishman says me:
"He's a good woodturner; I suggested him to stay in England after the war: you'll be equal with everyone, free, you'll earn much money. He doesn't want to. He hopes, like they all do, to be in a higher caste in his next earthly existence."
There are many various tribes here: Sikhs, Gurkha, others. Some have eagle profiles, martial look, shrill voice similar to bird scream. Others are timid, almost white, they gently smile, speak smoothly and slowly. The doctor points me at a tall Hindu in a white turban.
"This is a brahmin. He's like a nurse here. That's quite a Christian influence. In India they usualle become hermits, always praying and reflecting."
I talk to the brahmin for long. I understand everything, and yet I cannot understand anything. Finally, I ask naively and indefinably, pointing at the beds and the sick:
"What is this all for?.."
The brahmin smiles, and his smile is too understanding, creepy.
"There's a legend about Buddha. The Teacher went, and a pigeon flew down to him which wanted to hide from a falcon that was overtaking him. Buddha hid the pigeon on his breast. But the falcon said: 'Give it to me, is it not destined to me by high wisdom? And Buddha gave up the pigeon to him."
What is this? The last truth? The great justification of me, him, all the world? Maybe so, but this truth is not for me. Saying farewell, I say to the Englishman:
"It seems I've understood nothing."
"I lived in India for eighteen years. I know their religion, customs and way of life. But I understand nothing, either."
An hour later I sit in a small Rouen cafe and listen to how the hostess keens:
"My son! Louis! He was taken in spring, but is war for him?.. He was so gentle... And now from typhus... He was so talented, monsieur. Here is the certificate of merit from the collège..."
Here everything is clear, close, understandable. But I think about the wise brahmin and the poor chalda. Here a great book opened before me for a moment, I read it and did not understand, maybe I will never understand.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 18th, 2016 11:32 am (UTC)
Я же говорил, что не полностью эту главу выложил.
Там ещё две главки есть. Но уже не про негров, а про аннамитов и индийцев.
Sep. 18th, 2016 11:34 am (UTC)
Эту я перевёл полностью, если верить изданию по ссылке в первой строке. Может, там тоже поработала цензура?
Sep. 18th, 2016 11:37 am (UTC)
Ну, может не цензура, а просто разные редакции.
Ничего крамольного для советской власти там вроде нет. Чего там цензурировать то?
Я, признаться, не смотрел полностью версию, которая на "Милитере" выложена. Бегло просмотрел первые страницы, отметил, что есть некоторые различия с современным изданием.
Sep. 18th, 2016 11:43 am (UTC)
Кстати. В издании 28-го года глава называется - "Чёрные".
В издании 2014-го, где есть упомянутые строки о других народах, - "Цветные".
Sep. 18th, 2016 11:47 am (UTC)
Ух, а глава про русских то как урезана!
Sep. 18th, 2016 11:34 am (UTC)
Ну и вообще, там с версией, выложенной на "Милитере", могут быть ещё какие-нибудь мелкие редакционные разночтения.
Sep. 18th, 2016 11:54 am (UTC)
Sep. 18th, 2016 06:47 pm (UTC)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )