Christopher Wilson’s latest novel is a fictional account of the last days of Stalin told through the eyes of a disabled boy who earns the tyrant’s trust. It’s biting satire in which the most absurd details are based on fact.
In this week’s Big Issue North (24-30 July) we interview Wilson and ask him about the chapter below, in which he chooses a life of begging and homelessness for a toppled Comrade Iron-Man.
“I think that Stalin was probably poisoned at the behest of Beria, probably with the co-operation of Khruschev, given an anti-coagulant that caused a major stroke,” says Wilson. “To make sure he died, they left him to worsen without any medical care for a couple of days. In this book, though, I give him a different fate. His colleagues shave off his hair, dress him in rags, change his appearance, dope him up and drop him off to a homeless life on the streets of Moscow.
“Life likes sharp contrasts and so does fiction. Gaddafi ended up on the street. Saddam was found in a hole in the ground. It’s the complete character arc if the man who has everything ends up with nothing. Except that, on the streets, my Stalin still does finds something to sustain him. He rejoins socialism. He joins a community where people sometimes pool their resources and help each other.”
The Emperor of the Turnstiles
Drunks gather on the triangle of paving, on the benches before the turnstiles to the zoo. They work the visitors for small change and easy pickings. Papa used to say it was one of the purest forms of Socialism. To each according to his thirst. From each according to his heart.
I have to pass between their benches every morning. The gentlemen-of-the-street are sleeping off the bottled pleasures of the night before, or performing their makeshift ab-lutions at the fountain, surprising themselves once more with water, cascading, all frothy, out of Comrade Gorky’s mouth.
Me? I’m off on my way to school.
But this morning, one of the drinkers stands up unsteadily. He starts waving at me, then when I walk on by, he commences yelling. He must think he knows me. He is very determined.
‘Idiot boy. Here . . . Come . . . Now . . . I command you.’
I turn his way and trudge up till we are facing, a metre apart.
He is a short man with a cracked, weather-beaten, liver-spotted, grimy face. His upper front teeth are missing. He is wearing a soiled Army greatcoat. The foil neck of a bottle of Victory vodka sticks out from his side pocket.
He wears a pair of scuffed unlaced infantry boots, above drill trousers that end at his shins. His hair was shaved to the scalp some time before and has grown back to a tufty, uneven crew-cut. He boasts the early, stubbly stages of a silver moustache and beard. The thickest hair on his head is sprouting in tufts from his nostrils and ears.
‘Where have you been? I needed you,’ he scolds. ‘Every day I’ve been waiting. The tasks have been mounting up . . .’
The gruff voice has a deeply familiar ring. But the man slurs badly. And he has a heavy cold, with mucus dangling like an icicle from his nose. You could see from his shuffling gait, and the collapsed, immobile right side of his face, he had suffered a serious stroke.
There are smells drifting across the divide between us that are sour, acrid, sweet, stale, rotten, fermenting and deeply personal. He smells like the mushy end of the hippo enclosure on a hot summer’s day.
‘Remind me of your name,’ he demands. ‘For the mo-ment it escapes me.’
‘Yuri,’ I say. ‘My name is Yuri Romanovich Zipit.’
‘Well . . .’ he says, ‘idiot child. Surely you recognise me?’
‘Forgive me . . .’ I shrug. I smile my confusion. Although, in truth, there is something about him that is both disturb-ing and familiar, knocking in my mind, while ringing the bell, screaming for admittance.
‘Here, Lemkov . . .’ The old tramp turns to his neighbour.
‘Tell the boy who I really am. Who I really really am.’
Lemkov stands up languidly, gives me a heavy wink, clicks his heels together and salutes me.
‘I am pleased to introduce his Very Excellency, Emperor of the Turnstiles, High Commander of the Universe, Chairman of the Drinkers’ Party, Tsar of Patriarch Ponds, Keeper-of-the-Bottle, and – in his own mind, at least – none other than Josef Petrovich Iron-Man, deceased.’
And then, as I look into the deep, muddied pools of the old man’s eyes, I see him at last for who he is. Who he really is.
It truly is. Him. Himself.
The Gardener of Human Happiness. The Architect of Joy.
The Boss. The Chairman. Kind Uncle. The Genius. The Helmsman. Comrade Iron-Man. But standing before me, strangely diminished in rank and transformed in appear-ance – from General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Motherland to an unkempt, ripe-smelling, tipsy street-dweller.
‘Lemkov was Professor of Psychiatry at The Kapital University,’ says the Boss, ‘but he got himself sacked for political misjudgements. Now I’ve had him rehabilitat-ed. He is my Minister for Internal Affairs and Marshal of Everyday Things.’
The Boss sniffs, against the tide, to arrest the drippy down-flow of the pendulum of snot. ‘And Simionov here is my new Minister for Defence, with Special Responsibility for Scaring off Rascals . . . While Arkadylev is Commissar for Stealing Eats and Begging Small Change.’
‘But . . .?’ I gape. I gesture to him, the benches, his companions.
‘I look different, perhaps?’ The Boss shakes his wearied, weathered head. ‘Things are changed. I have been locked out of all my fortresses and palaces. I have no country dacha. I have no town house. No official residence. I live on the streets. I’ve been shamefully treated. I am waiting for my rescue. To be returned, to where I belong . . . To be put back in charge of the whatsit . . .’ He strains to recall the name for it, whatever it was he governed . . .
‘The Motherland,’ I guess.
‘Yes,’ he smiles, ‘that’s the one, and again made top you- know-what, never mind Chairman of the what’s-its-name. . .’
‘Politburo,’ I suppose.
‘Yes, that’s it. Exactly . . . But you wouldn’t believe it. I have been denied entry to the Palace of the People. Turned away. The guards spurn me, or lower their rifles, and poke their bayonets my way. The police shout at me and chase us away. I have had to start afresh, to appoint a new Administration, with new Deputies . . . Fyodor, here, replaces Malarkov. I have made him Commander of Bonfires.’
‘How has all this happened?’ I ask. ‘I was sure you were dead. The whole Motherland believes you are dead. People queue to pay homage to your body. It’s embalmed, for all to see, in the Palace of the People. There is a new government. Bulgirov is Premier. Bruhah is Deputy.’
‘It’s Bruhah. The bastard. He did this to me. The evil dwarf . . .’
‘How on earth?’
‘He comes with armed guards in the thick of night. They break into my room at the dacha. He knows I am planning to have him arrested. He says it is time for me to go – instead of him . . . He says I’m too old and too sick. He says I’m a danger to the Motherland, and a something bad to this, while a threat to something else. But he says he will not have me killed.
“There are worse things than death, Josef Petrovich,” he says, “and I will show them to you. I will condemn you to life. You can see what it is like to live as a citizen in Comrade Iron-Man’s Motherland . . .”’
‘So they pull me out of bed. They tug me into old, ill-fitting clothes. They mess up my appearance. To make me look different. They sit me down and take shears to my head. They clip off my moustache. They pierce me with a nailed block that puts a tattoo on my arm. This gives me a prison number. It shows I was an inmate of a work camp. They put new papers in my pocket. These give me per-mission to reside in Minsk but not in The Kapital. So they make me an outlaw, even here on the streets. They label me an anti-social element. Guess what my papers call me?’
‘Tinmann . . . Man-of-tin . . . Nikolai Tinmann. A Roma, a Gypsy, who has served twelve years in the Gulag.’
‘They pour vodka down me. And they pour vodka over me. To make me sound drunk and smell like a sop. They give me an injection. They say it is some medicine to help horses relax. They say I will feel better for it. They smear my coat with dirt and garbage.
“There . . .” they admire, “now, you are a proper tramp and a true drunk.” Then they laugh. As if they have done something clever.
“Now . . .” says Bruhah, “you are a stupid old beggar. You are weak in the head. You can go where you like. You can say what you like. You can pass any edict. You can write any list. You can make all the Five Year Plans your heart desires. You can threaten who you like . . . No one will ever recognise you. No one will ever believe who you are. Now Comrade Iron-Man is dead. At last. And, if there was a God, I would thank him . . .”
‘They drive me into The Kapital. They stop the limousine when they pass a group of drunks gathered round a bonfire. Bruhah gets out of the car and summons two of the drinkers – Lemkov, here, and Simionov. He gives them a good talking to. He reaches into his pocket and hands them some paper money. When he returns to the car, he tells me, “Here you are, you disgusting old drunk.” He pushes me out into the freezing air. “This is your new palace, and these are your new staff.”
‘Then they drive off, leaving me to make the best of it all. I address the tramps. I tell them to gather round. I tell them to stand easy. I give an impromptu speech. I tell them who I am. I tell them what I expect of them. I give a brief summary of our current economic planning. I talk of the strategic needs of our nation. I warn them of the hegemonistic machinations of Amerika. I name her Kapitalistic lackeys. I outline our Short-Term Policies. I stress the need for excellence and diligence, both in Manufacture and Agriculture. I explain I am in charge of many important things, including Countries, Cities, Committees, and Commissions, Colleges, Collectives, Cars, Cooperatives and Councils and such. I ask for their cooperation in restoring me to full power.
‘They say, “Fine, old fellow. No problems. But best wait until morning. Just relax for the night. Take a drink, perhaps.” And comforting words like that.
‘They are considerate, helpful and polite. They treat me like an elderly uncle. Lemkov gives me a vegetable crate to sit on, close by the fire. Simionov gives me a hot tea laced with vodka to warm my bones.
‘But, before long, two policemen come by. They are different. They are insolent. They are insubordinate. Their badges and police hats have gone to their heads. They kick snow on our bonfire to douse it. They tell us all to move on. They are not good Comrades. They are not polite.
“Come here,” I tell them, “and do as you are told. You scum. I am Comrade Iron-Man. You must take me immediately to the Palace of the People. And I will forgive your earlier insolence . . .” He shakes his head.
‘And?’ I ask.
‘You won’t believe what they do.’
‘Do they mistake you for a drunk?’
‘The first policeman says, “If you are Comrade Iron-Man, I am Catherine the Great, so lick my fanny and kiss my arse.” And the second policeman says, “Go fuck your-self, you old sack of shit.”
‘Then he smashes his rifle butt into my mouth and knocks out my front teeth. The other kicks me from behind in the kidneys while I’m sprawled on the ground. They both call me very bad, insolent names, while stamping on me very hard. If Simionov, here, hadn’t come to my rescue, I think they would have finished me off.’
‘Shame,’ I console. ‘Shame on them.’
‘I have their names and numbers,’ says the Boss. ‘I have collected the names of all those who have done me wrong, these last few weeks . . . I have suffered a deal of rudeness, doses of contempt, much neglect and disregard. Some people just pass me by and ignore me entirely. I have made a list of two hundred and sixty-five traitors. Some repeat offenders. When I am back in power, I will line them all up, and have them all shot.’
‘Life can be difficult,’ I observe. As I know from my own bumpy ride.
‘Difficult times. But exciting times. And important times. It’s like life before the Revolution. We live like desperados and outcasts. We must keep two steps ahead of the police. We must meet in secret. We must liberate food and money to meet our needs. We must be constantly vigilant for traitors amongst us . . . Do you see the hunched man over there, under the tree?’
‘Isn’t it Pakulin, a guard from the dacha?’
‘Exactly,’ says the Boss. ‘He was in my personal detachment. He guarded my person. Now he works for Bruhah. He follows me wherever I go. I believe he reports back . . . Some days, Bruhah comes by himself, to see how I am. He laughs at my condition. He insults me to my face. But he wants to keep me alive . . .’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, because he gives Lemkov and Simionov vodka and money, to keep me safe. “Look after the Great Leader,” he says. “I’m happy if he suffers but keep him this side of the grave. I enjoy watching him out on the streets.”’
‘At least he looks after you.’
‘He wants to humiliate me. He delights in seeing me brought low. He says this – “Some people enjoy the ballet. Some people love the opera. Some people like watching football. But my secret pleasure, Koba, will be watching you . . .”
‘What will you do?’
He splays his helpless palms. He shakes his bewildered head. ‘No one ever recognises me for who I am. That corpse in that coffin gets all the praise and respect – and it’s not even mine. I get only abuse and neglect. People take me for a tramp, some drunk . . .’
‘It is hard to get even the most basic comforts of life. The shopkeepers want paying – with money – for everything. When I say who I am, they throw me out of the shop. Now, they won’t let me back through the door.’
‘Can I help?’ I ask. It was habit. A reflex kindness. But I regret it as soon as the words leave my mouth. The Boss has never been modest in making demands.
‘We must mobilise a counter-force. We must arrange a plenary of the Grand Council of the Party. Then I can show myself. And then I can be restored to power . . .’
He says I must seek out Motolov and Myokan for him. He says I can find them at the Palace of the People. I must tell them what has transpired . . . That Bruhah and Krush-ka have falsified the death of Comrade Iron-Man. But that Iron-Man is alive and poised to return.
‘Go. Go,’ he urges. ‘Tell them the good news.’
‘And one other thing, Yuri . . .’
‘I need chickens.’
‘Two spit-roast chickens. A suckling pig. A broiled pike with crayfish tails. Two loaves of freshly baked rye bread. A pat of butter. Tomato salad. Aubergine puree. A bag of walnuts. A jar of assorted pickled mushrooms. Two kilos of grapes. A litre of fresh crowberries. A crate of Georgian wine . . . I think we all deserve a feast. Do you know how long it is since my Comrades and I ate a good meal?’
‘Where would I get all those?’
‘From a food shop, idiot boy. Demand them. Explain they are for Comrade Iron-Man. Say, if they refuse me, I will have them all shot.’
‘Boss,’ I say, ‘Comrade Iron-Man is dead. Everyone knows. And the food you want is not there to be had. It can’t be bought. Sometimes a shop has tomatoes. But it won’t have chickens. And if it ever did have chickens, by some odd chance, it would not have any butter. These foods do not happen together, in the same place, in the same year, in the same city, except in a recipe book from olden times, or a Westerner’s imagination.’
As I turn to go, he makes me promise again. That I will go to Myokan and Motolov and inform them of the situation. So they can timetable the Revolution, and come and rescue him.
I say, ‘Yes. Of course, Boss.’ But I feel guilty. For it isn’t a promise I can carry out. And, in truth, I’m not going to try.
The mighty left open their doors, and let me peek inside their lives. But I know, as they know, I am not one of them.
I am a twelve-year-old boy. People take me for a brain-damaged simpleton. There are limits to what I am free to do. I have to raise my hand in class to go visit the lavatory. When I go to buy bread, the baker ignores me.
I cannot be pleading a petition for a dead General Secretary of the Communist Party, recently deceased, to two senior members of the Politburo, Chief Marshals of the Slavic Union.
It is beyond my station. And I cannot convince them Comrade Iron-Man is still alive when he is lying embalmed, for the world to view, there in the Palace of the People.
But beyond that, I’ve learned this. There is a time to do something. And a time to do nothing. And, in my heart, I know this – best leave alone. Things are better now, these last few weeks.
I don’t like to speak ill of a Comrade, but it is better if the government of the Motherland is not just one angry man. Who has lost his memory. And wants revenge. And treats us like flies.
The Zoo by Christopher Wilson is out now (Faber & Faber, £12.99) Main image: Sophie Kennedy