Yes, yes, I knowthe old shouldn't swear. You and your mother were quite right to roll your eyes at it. It is indeed a charmless and pitiful spectacle, the effing and blinding of an ancient mouth, the teeth false or dropped, the lips licked half away. And pitiful because it is such a transparent protest against failing powers: saying fuck is the only dirty thing we can still get up to. But I would like to emphasize the therapeutic properties of the four-letter word. All those who have truly grieved know the relief it eventually brings, to dip your head and, for hour upon hour, to weep and swear... Christ, look at my hands. The size of cheeseboards, no, cheeses, whole cheeses, with their pocks and ripples, their spread, their verdigris. I have hurt many men and women with these hands.
On August 29 we crossed the Arctic Circle, and there was a very comprehensive celebration aboard the Georgi Zhukov. An accordion, a violin, a much-bejeweled guitar, girls in wenchy blouses, a jodhpured drunk who tried to fake the Cossack dance and kept falling off his stool. I now have a hangover which, two days later, is still getting steadily worse. And at my age, in the "high" eighties, as they now say (in preference to the "late," with its unfortunate connotations), there just isn't room for a hangover. Dear oh dear ... Oh dear oh dear oh dear. I didn't think I was still capable of polluting myself quite so thoroughly. Worse, I succumbed. You know very well what I mean. I joined in all the toasts (a miniature dumpster had been provided for us to smash our glasses into), and I sang all the songs; I wept for Russia, and staunched my tears on her flag. I talked a very great deal about campabout Norlag, about Predposylov. Around dawn, I started physically preventing certain people from leaving the bar. Later on I did a fair amount of damage to my cabin and had to be moved the next day, in a blizzard of swearwords and twenty-dollar bills.
Georgi Zhukov, General Zhukov, Marshal Zhukov: I served in one of his armies (he commanded a whole front) in 1944 and 1945. He also played a part in saving my lifeeight years later, in the summer of 1953. Georgi Zhukov was the man who won the Second World War.
Our ship groans, as if shouldering yet more burdens and cares. I like this sound. But when the doors to the galley blat open I hear the music from the boombox (four beats to the bar, with some seventeen-year-old yelling about self- discovery), and it comes to my ears as pain. Naturally, at a single flicker of my eyelid, the waiters take the kitchen by storm. When you are old, noise comes to you as pain. Cold comes to you as pain. When I go up on deck tonight, which I will do, I expect the wet snow to come to me as pain. It wasn't like that when I was young. The wake-up: that hurt, and went on hurting more and more. But the cold didn't hurt. By the way, try crying and swearing above the Arctic Circle, in winter. All your tears will freeze fast, and even your obscenities will turn to droplets of ice and tinkle to your feet. It weakened us, it profoundly undermined us, but it didn't come to us as pain. It answered something. It was like a searchlight playing over the universe of our hate.
Now the boombox has been supplanted by a radio. I hold up a hand. This is permitted. Today saw the beginning of the siege of Middle School Number One, in North Ossetia. Some of the children happened to be watching when the gunmen and gunwomen came over the railway track in their black balaclavasand they laughed and pointed, thinking it was a game or an exercise. Then the van pulled up and out he climbed, the killer with the enormous orange beard: "Russians, Russians, don't be afraid. Come. Come . . ." The authorities are saying three or four hundred, but in fact there are well over a thousand hostageschildren, parents, teachers. And why is it that we are already preparing ourselves for something close to the worst possible outcome? Why is it that we are already preparing ourselves for the phenomenon understood by all the worldRussian heavy-handedness? For what reason are our hands so heavy? What weighs them down?
Excerpted from House of Meetings by Martin Amis Copyright © 2007 by Martin Amis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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