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Vladimir Bartol: The Spirit of War

Vladimir Bartol: The Spirit of War

November 23, 2023 6 min read

Last fall I wrote A Story of Potassium Cyanide and Bombs, which took the form of a conversation with my old friend Sardanapalus, simultaneously with and as a sort of counterweight to my story The Great Adventure, but for a variety of reasons I couldn’t get it published. My mind was taken up with a thousand other ideas, but the fact that this one piece wasn’t getting published obsessed me, and all my other fine plans crumbled to dust in the presence of this burrowing mole, until finally I was left with just a single overwhelming imperative: I had to shove it out into the world, one way or another. That’s how my first play came into existence.

While engaged in this effort, I remembered the essay I wrote a year ago titled “Letters About a Man from a New Land,” about which a friend had commented that it was either a document of my own insanity or of the insanity of the age we were living in, and a literary critic present at a reading I gave said that it was either a failed experiment or successful gibberish. The piece didn’t get published and I got into a terrible financial fix, since I had invested so much time and effort in it. But since I know that once you’ve claimed your position, you have to hold it at all costs, I kept working on the other story as though nothing had happened. I tried to push the whole business out of my mind, but the devil must have dug in somewhere outside the realm of my consciousness, because from time to time I would hear its familiar voices inside me, talking surreptitiously.

Then this winter when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, the old uneasiness stirred inside me. It was as though dark instincts had suddenly awakened that until then had been no more than a subterranean drumming. My ears buzzed, as though I could hear whole armies marching in the distance. The conflict in the East worsened and then burst outside Shanghai like a festering pustule. I grew obsessed and couldn’t get enough information about what was happening. I felt like I was reading a chapter from my own “Letters of a Man from a New Land.” Whole suburbs in flames, herds of airplanes slamming them into rubble with their bombs, tanks concealed in shrouds of smoke bombs, mines bursting and opening up huge sinkholes that swallow up men and machines… In short, death was dancing its diabolical tango in huge arcs over the battlefields.

I felt like a beast that can sense an earthquake or a volcanic eruption long before it takes place, and I realized my manuscript was the vague expression of an anticipation of a distant cataclysm.

Those few days I was constantly on the move. At night I couldn’t sleep, and I felt driven out onto the streets, where I impatiently waited for new reports from the Far East. My colleagues looked askance and made skeptical fun of me.

One night it became especially unbearable. I’d been to all the cafés and bars, had read all the newspapers and leafed through all the magazines with photos of the battlefields. The bars that stay open till daybreak are expensive, and there was a gaping hole in my wallet. To draw things out I took the long way from one bar to the next, but the cold kept assaulting my sleep deprived limbs more and more mercilessly. My thoughts went out to my old drinking buddies, to Robert Nigris, who vanished who knows where into South America, and to France Mihelčič, whom I depicted in ”A Meeting at the Station,” and about whose whereabouts I didn't have the first idea, even to Sergey Mikhailovich, the Russian, who was probably in Algiers then making ”apple” marmelade out of some unknown fruit. All of them had felt hemmed in by the state of things in their homeland.

The thought of having to go to sleep filled me with despair. My imagination was all fired up and my heart felt heavy, the way a man might feel who has missed greatness in his life and is at last faced with having to depart into the unknown darkness. I felt gripped by a terrible anxiety, I was terrified of the loneliness I was rushing toward, and I wanted people, shouting, music and drink to drown out the aching unease inside me.

I entered the ice cold room where for the past year I had sought nothing but sleep. I switched on the electric light. Two letters were waiting for me on my kitchen table – one from Robert Nigris, who was now in Marseille, having returned from South America, the other from France Mihelčič who was now in Bulgaria. I devoured both letters. The same old fire, the same passion. Both were back now to make their way to the Far East. Like moths that had glimpsed the distant glow of some huge fire. Clearly they were bursting with some restless demon.

A spark of it landed on me and I went flying out the door and into the street. A policeman watched me curiously as I careened full sail around a corner, and went racing past whatever dim lights still flickered in the early morning fog. I was drawn to wherever there was commotion, music, voices. I ended up outside a bar like a moth drawn with nearly magnetic force to the red light outside its entrance.

Suddenly a person emerged from the fog and approached me. He had his hat pushed down over his eyes and his coat collar turned up over his ears so that only his frozen nose showed through his clothing. ”Is that you?” said a voice expressing surprise. I recognized the sound of the voice. It was my friend Sardanapalus.

”What the devil is driving you around this late at night?” I asked him. ”You're the very image of stability otherwise.”

“Who can sleep these days?” he said. “It’s just like when they were rounding us all up to send to the front. The very air stinks of gunpowder.”

He began to tell me about his mobilization to the front, about the trenches, the attacks with fixed bayonets. We wandered the streets and talked ourselves senseless. He expertly explained the various calibers of heavy artillery to me, the different kinds of bombs and grenades, we discussed machine guns and airplanes, and chewed over various poison gases and smoke bombs. We shifted to world politics, debated the eastern question, and weighed the respective merits of the Japanese and Chinese. I have no idea where the time went. Suddenly we were standing outside a café whose first morning customers had arrived: the night owls and travelers waiting for their trains. We followed them in. Sardanapalus, always fidgety and greedy, grabbed a stack of newspapers and started to read them out loud. My tired brain had a hard time keeping up with him, but as if to compensate my overactive imagination kept creating living things from the words as it made its way past the actual printed news. Before me I could see burning buildings, squadrons charging past trenches, aircraft, tanks, battleships – Sardanapalus’s voice grew fainter and fainter, and I could hear bullets whistling past, the crackle of machine gun fire, and the far-off boom of the cannon. My eyelids grew heavier and heavier, and suddenly I felt as though gigantic hands had grabbed me and were shoving me into a mad vortex. I tried to resist, I strained my utmost, but my self-control was exhausted and I lightly dozed off.

“Hey, doctor! Are you asleep?” Sardanapalus’s voice brought me back to consciousness like the stab of a knife. I looked around and saw that the morning regulars had begun arriving in force. A mirror on the wall showed me a sleepless, deathly pale face. I gave my friend a nudge. As silently as two nocturnal spirits caught unexpectedly by daylight, we slid out of the café, briefly said our goodbyes, and slipped off to our respective lairs.