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by Vasily Grossman
Born into the life of a stray, Pestrushka finds herself being trained for spaceflight
hungry and homeless; nevertheless, childhood is the happiest time of life. Her first May—those spring days on the edge of town—was especially good. The smell of earth and young grass filled her soul with happiness. She felt a piercing, almost unbearable sense of joy; sometimes she was too happy even to feel like eating. All day long there was a warm green mist in her head and her eyes. She would drop down on her front paws in front of a dandelion and let out happy, angry, childish, staccato barks; she was asking the flower to join in and run about with her, and the stillness of its stout little green leg surprised her and made her cross. And then all of a sudden she would be frenziedly digging a hole; lumps of earth would fly out from under her stomach and her pink and black paws would get almost burnt by the stony earth. Her little face would take on a troubled look; rather than playing a game, she seemed to be digging a refuge to save her life. She had a plump, pink belly and her paws were broad, even though she ate little during that good time of her life. It was as if she were growing plump from happiness, from the joy of being alive. And then those easy childhood days came to an end. The world filled with October and November, with hostility and indifference, with icy rain and sleet, with dirt, with revolting slimy leftovers the smell of which made even a hungry dog feel sick. But even in her homeless life there were good things: a compassionate human face, a night spent beside a hot chimney, a sweet bone. There was room in her dog’s life for passion, and dog love, and the light of motherhood. She was a small, bandy-legged mongrel living out on the streets. But she got the better of all hostile forces because she loved life and was clever. She knew from which side trouble might creep up on her. She knew that death didn’t make a lot of noise or raise its hand threateningly, that it didn’t throw stones or stamp about in boots; no, death drew near with an ingratiating smile, holding out a scrap of bread and with a piece of net sacking hidden behind its back. She knew the murderous power of cars and lorries and had a precise knowledge of their different speeds; she knew how to wait patiently while the traffic went by and then rush across the road when the cars were stopped by a red light. She knew the overwhelming yet inflexible power of electric trains and the fact that so long as it was a few inches away from the track, even a mouse was safe from them. She knew the roars, whistles and rumbles of jet and propeller planes, as well as the clatter of helicopters. She knew the
Vasily Grossman (1905-64) was one of the great Russian writers of the 20th century and, as a journalist, witness to some of its most horrific events. As Robert Chandler explains in his portrait of Grossman (p54), the writer is only now being fully appreciated in Britain, 20 years after the first English publication of his epic novel Life and Fate. Many of the novel’s chapters bear comparison to Chekhov’s short stories. In fact, Grossman first made his name with a short story in 1934. The story published here for the first time in English, “The dog,” was written between 1960 and 1961 during the early days of Soviet space exploration. A succesful combination of sophistication and sentimentality is one of the features of Russian literature, nowhere more so than in animal stories; Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bulgakov and Platonov all wrote fine examples. The photo of Grossman above is from A Writer at War (Pimlico) edited by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova.
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© GROSSMAN FAMILY COLLECTION
© CHRISTINA ANGELUCCI
ER CHILDHOOD WAS
smell of gas chimneys; she knew where she might find the warmth given off by heating pipes buried deep in the earth. She knew the work rhythm of the town’s garbage trucks; she knew how to get inside dustbins of all kinds and could immediately recognise the cellophane wrapping around meat products and the waxed paper around cod, sea perch and ice cream. A black electric cable sticking up out of the earth was more horrifying to her than a viper; once she had put a paw to a cable with a broken insulating jacket. This dog probably knew more about technology than an intelligent, well-informed person from three centuries before her. It wasn’t merely that she was clever; she was also educated. Had she failed to learn about mid-twentieth-century technology, she would have died. Dogs that wandered into the city from some village or other often lasted only a few hours. But technological knowledge and experience were not enough either; equally necessary for the struggle was an understanding of the essence of life. She could not have survived without worldly wisdom. This nameless mongrel knew that the foundation stone of her life was vagrancy—perpetual change. Now and again some tender-hearted person would show pity to the four-legged wanderer. They would give her some scraps of food and find her somewhere to sleep. But if she were to betray her vagrant ways, she would have to pay with her life. Were she to settle down, the dog would make herself dependent on one kind-hearted person and a hundred unkind people. People thought that the canine wanderer was incapable of devotion, that vagrancy had corrupted her.
They were wrong. It was not that life had hardened the heart of the wandering dog; it was simply that no one needed the good that lived in this heart.
caught at night, while she was asleep. Instead of being killed, she was taken to a scientific institute. She was bathed in some warm liquid; after this, she had no more trouble from fleas. For several days she lived in a basement, in a cage. She was fed well, but she didn’t feel like eating. She missed her freedom, and she was haunted by a sense of imminent death. Only here, in this cage with warm bedding, with tasty food in a clean bowl, did she first truly value the happiness of her days of freedom. She felt irritated by the stupid barking of her neighbours. She was examined at length by people in white gowns. One of them, a thin man with bright eyes, flicked her on the nose and patted her on the head. Then she was taken to another, quieter room. She was about to be introduced to the most advanced technology of the twentieth century; she was about to be prepared for something momentous. She was given the name “Pestrushka.” Probably not even sick emperors or prime ministers had ever undergone so many medical analyses. Thin, bright-eyed Aleksey Georgievich learned everything there was to know about Pestrushka’s heart, lungs, liver, pulmonary gas exchange, blood composition, nervous reflexes and digestive juices. Pestrushka realised that neither the cleaners, nor the laboratory technicians, nor the generals covered in medals were the masters of her life and death, of her freedom, of her last agony.
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