IV. Valia and Cantonist
Cantonist left the melancholy district center, which lay besprinkled with solar dandruff, to put in his compulsory military service. One must admit that it was impulsive of his mother to cry: Off to the army, Cantonist! Let them make a trombone out of you!
Clearly, a person lives in the capacity of a second trombone, a senior engineer, a soldier, a beautiful woman, a machinist, a deputy director, a Sunday moviegoer. People won’t drag themselves to hear a visiting lecturer on account of the terrible word “organoleptic,” employed for a thing as indisputably necessary as wine tasting. Juveline delinquents will beat the lecturer at a restaurant; they’ll do it in such a way that his face will remain unmarked. Ex post facto, the privately sympathetic lieutenant-colonel Madden will develop a lively interest in whether the roast has or hasn’t been served. There wasn’t enough time, the lecturer will respond with painful, untimely insolence. Objectively speaking, we simply don’t know what’s worse for one’s digestion, the lieutenant-colonel--who is so old that, to the lecturer, he seems completely drunk--will then note philosophically.
Being a discerning admirer of Immanuel Kant, nearing the girl of his dreams under the wise tutelage of his mother, Cantonist finally relinquished his rights to a self until granted special permission. Consequently, people in the hierarchy of military careerists--most of them deprived of a sense of humor and, hence, deprived of a sense of proportion--treated him with undisguised condescension. Suffering their secret beatings at night, during the days he awkwardly marched through the drill ground, the concrete map of which he will remember forever. One, two, and you’ll find yourself a simple, bogus little trombone in the hierarchies of an undeniable, relentless lie, of which it is said: the state is a conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the commonwealth.
Cantonist’s Sunday letters--which vividly painted tertiary, mundane scenes of garrison life-–filled his mother’s heart with vague suspicions. His mother stored the letters in a nameless pot, but when she realized the delight with which this epistolary ritual was censored in the unit’s squalid office, she carried them off to the back yard.
Of the poor devils drudging in the vicinity, Cantonist knew that military friendship is based on shared misfortune, and disappears with the sun’s first rays. Only love, and not friendship, based on shared misfortune has the right to life. As a matter of fact, that’s what life is, thought Cantonist. Painfully, he became a trombone, grasping the futility and senselessness of evil. The endless suffering of evil, Cantonist mused, lies in the transience of weak and mortal creatures, who experience the insatiability of their imperfection vainly and without humiliation.
His inability to feel hatred, fear, and humiliation was offset by an acute sense of the absurd. Many years later, despite Kant’s outstanding dissertation, this sense announced itself with the irrefutability of a military tattoo. Appearing on the body in the form of St. George slaying a small, clearly suffering dragon, this tattoo was the only argument in favor of the fact that Cantonist--whose boots squeaked obscurely in the snow while he stood guard over the station depots, staring at the thirty-year-old starry sky--and private Tsurkis-–whose mind suddenly turned to the seventy billion sentient beings who had managed to die in the time it took this light to reach the retina of his eye--were one and the same person.
Being fifty years of age at the start of this narrative, he decided to grow out a beard; this wasn’t based on the example set by people of his age and of his circle, but on the fact that, in his position, the quality of one’s haircut and shave seemed inconsequential. His landlady, Valia, obviously concerned, asked why he no longer shaves. And why don’t you, Cantonist asked for want of a better excuse. Because nothing grows, Valia replied with surprised laughter. And I--because something does, he snapped back.
Both had been tactlesss, smoothing over the inequality of their life experience, so that they were equal in the face of absurdity. Smiling, Cantonist thought that the tense estrangement with which she carelessly observed him should have been born of the hidden alienation of manhood, trying to seize what is intended for a child. Whatever he did or said with this beard appeared suspicious, like a drunken thief in a museum. What’s that you’ve got there, he suddenly asked about a cup sitting atop the television. Bet yer from the have-beens...said Valia. Yes, from the have-beens, the have-beens, said Cantonist. That’s all of us here: from the have-beens. You too, you know, in all likelihood. Yes, said Valia, and you, which have-beens are you from--those, or these. On my great-grandfather’s side, said Cantonist, we’re all cantonists. It’s a pity you’re a cantonist, Misha, said Valia. I was told you were a philosopher. You don’t say, said Cantonist. A pity, the landlady gently repeated. I’ve never seen a philosopher.
All the better, decided Cantonist, peering into her sweet, open face and mentally turning his own toward it. This is no excuse for non-acquaintance, not by a long shot. There’s such a glut of people on this earth that tossing each other aside is an absolute crime.