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Seven months in the life of a Russian terrorist.

December 30, 2010 9 comments

The Pale Horse, by Boris Savinkov.  (French translation : Le Cheval blême)

This is strange. I had ordered that book after reading Guy’s post on it, thinking I’d read it “someday”. But when I received it, I started to read the first page and I was caught at once. I didn’t put it down until it was finished. Perhaps it is because it is at the crossroads between books I have read recently. There’s something of Novel With Cocaine: the Moscow setting at the beginning of the 20th century, the brutality and absence of remorse of the narrator. There’s something about Gary’s thoughts in The Dance of Gengis Cohn on murders in the name of an ideology.  

Back to The Pale Horse. It is the journal of a Russian revolutionary terrorist, from March to October 1906. George – a pseudonym, we never get to know his real name – is writing the diary. He is the boss of a commando in charge with the assassination of the governor of Moscow. The commando has five members, including George and each of them has their own reason to be a terrorist. Each one corresponds to a type of terrorist.  

Heinrich is the intellectual. He is a convinced socialist and an advocate of violent actions to bring socialism to power. Killing is the necessary path to give the power to the people. He doesn’t have the temper to be a terrorist but he wants to be in to practise what he preaches. He says he’s not credible if he stays in the sidelines. He’s too soft for this, but he’s doing it for the revolution and for himself, to prove to himself he can do it.  

Vania is martyr material. He’s a fervent Christian, his speech is full of quotes from the Bible. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ being one of the Ten Commandments, he struggles to reconcile his faith in God and his faith in terrorism as a necessary mean to achieve the revolution. He thinks his being killed while bombing an enemy is the greatest sacrifice he could make. Killing is a mortal sin. If he kills someone and is hanged for it, he will sacrifice his life and his soul. His speeches are full of love and how Christian love should rule the world but his acts are hatred He really made me think of religious martyrs. His motto could be “Make war, then love”.  

Erna is in because she loves George. And George doesn’t love her but needs her for sex and for her skills in chemistry. She’s the one who prepares the bombs. Erna is madly in love with George. It’s a painful, unrequited, crushing love. He sleeps with her without loving her and perfectly knowing she’s in love with him. He’s cruel, selfish, insensitive but honest. He tells her he loves someone else, he never hides he doesn’t love her.  Poor Erna who fell in love wih the wrong man.

Fiedor is ready to die. He’s the mercenary type. He’s in this revolution but he could have been involved in another one with the same enthusiasm. He’s more looking for danger and adventure than really eager to bring socialism to power. He’s cold-hearted and brave.  

And then George, the narrator. Cold, full of hate, bored. He seems heartless but he seems genuinely in love with Elena. He’s capable of feelings. He’s not immoral. He’s amoral. He doesn’t want to abide by any law. He thinks rules don’t apply to him. He’s a terrorist because it is a job that suits his lack of ethics. He talks about vengeance, hatred but never explains the roots of these feelings. He just sounds utterly depressed and prone to self-destruction. He is drowned into a sort of deep despair that found a mean of action and expression in the revolutionary context of the Russia of that time. I see him as an opportunist. Like Vadim in Novel With Cocaine, he watches himself live. He doesn’t feel the emotions at the time he is living the events. He’s like hovering over himself and observing himself live with detached eyes.  

We follow the preparation of the bombing, the waiting, the attempts. All this left me with an impression of improvisation. They look like resolute amateurs. They observe, but not really thoroughly. They don’t know for sure how to reach their target. How do you throw the bomb? When? Who’s going to throw the first bomb? Can you avoid to get killed? They’re alone, they’re not even trained. The Pale Horse is autobiographical. Boris Savinkov did organize such bomb attacks. So we can assume things happened that way. Seen from the 21st century, with all the technology we now have, this seems really hazardous, home-made terrorism.  

Besides the idea of killing for a cause, what disturbed me is the total absence of political speech. These people – apart from Heinrich – didn’t really believe in their cause. But had they deeply believed in their cause, could that faith be an excuse for their acts? Can anything justify a murder? Is killing for political reasons more noble than for personal reasons? Is it forgivable to murder a hateful person? Do the ends justify the means? This journal raises all these ethical issues. Savinkov wrote it in 1908, when he was living in France. He wasn’t in action at the time. Was he starting to question the justification of the assassinations he had organized?  

I was also shocked by the Andreï Petrovitch character. He represents the Central Committee. He’s the link between the political – and supposedly – respectable face of the movement and its armed arm. He regularly checks on George, giving him the latest instructions. The wind changes of direction at each visit. Once they want to slow down on terrorist actions. Once they want to intensify them. Andreï Petrovitch is convinced he has a direct influence on the events. But whatever he says, George just does as he pleases. It shows how limited the influence of politicians on these groups is, how dangerous a weapon there are. I thought of Northern Ireland, of the Spanish Basque Country, of Corsica.  

And in the middle of all this violence, this hatred stands the sunny Elena. She’s the Ariadne’s thread that still connects George with the bright sight of humanity. She’s the Achille’s heel of his supposedly solid shell. She’s married and loves both her husband and George. She wants to be free to love two men at the same time. Is she an image of the fight for women’s rights? And George, who claims there are no rules, can he bear to have the rule of monogamy broken? Elena perfectly knows George is a terrorist, however, she doesn’t give him to the police. What does this mean? Does she make an exception to moral rules out of love? Or does it point out that the terrorist actions are welcome and understood by the Russian people?  

I was fascinated by the progression of the events and the workings of the relationships between the members of the commando and between George and Elena. The underlying question is that of the relativity of moral principles.

Savinkov’s style is as dry as George’s heart and soul. No compassion. No compromise. Only facts shown in a crude light. The only soft moments lay in the description of nature, of Elena, of George’s feelings for Elena. The dialogues are composed of abrupt sentences, bullets sent between the persons. It sounds like Marguerite Duras, though she couldn’t have influenced Savinkov, of course. It reminded me of Hiroshima, mon amour and of L’Amant. Indeed, in L’Amant, the female narrator builds a shell around her, she doesn’t want to fall in love with the Chinese. She deludes herself into thinking that she’s not touched by their affair. George does the same with killing. He thinks and shouts he doesn’t mind, but he does. Is that was Savinkov discovered about himself in Paris, when the excitement of day-to-day action had vanished?

There would be much more to say about this fascinating book. I didn’t expect the constant references to the Evangels. Sometimes, when the characters talk, they use whole sentences from the Bible. The love triangle between Elena/George/Erna could have been superfluous but it fits in and sheds some light on George’s temper. I’ve read it with candid eyes, I’m not educated enough to detail the political and historical context. In fact, I didn’t care. It has a universal insight on the dynamic of such groups. This is literature, not history, which brings us back to the haunting question of Gary in The Dance of Gengis Cohn: how can we accept that the horror gives birth to a book, to art?

A last thing. My French edition is excellent. The foreword written by the translator is relevant to explain the context and the place of this book in Savinkov’s life. The footnotes are useful for the political and religious references.

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