Vasily Grossman's The Road

Robert Chandler, distinguished translator of Vasily Grossman’s novels Life and Fate and Everything Flows, has now tackled Grossman’s last stories. We bring you his and his wife’s translation of The Road, the tale of a mule wrestling with Hamlet’s dilemma on the long road to Stalingrad

Robert Chandler
13 October 2010

No living being in Italy remained untouched by the war.

Giu, a young mule who worked in the munitions train of an artillery regiment, sensed many changes on 22 June 1941, even though he did not, of course, know that the Führer had persuaded the Duce to declare war on the Soviet Union.

People would have been astonished how many things the mule noticed that day: music everywhere, the radio blaring away without a break, the stable doors left wide open, crowds of women and children by the barracks, flags fluttering above the barracks, the smell of wine coming from people who did not usually smell of wine, the trembling hands of his driver, Niccolo, when he came to Giu’s stall, led him outside and put on his breastband…

Niccolo did not like Giu; he always put him on the left, to make it easier to whip him with his right hand.  And he whipped him not on his thick-skinned hindquarters but on the belly.  And he had a heavy hand.  It was dark brown, with twisted fingernails – the hand of a peasant.

Giu had no particular feelings about his workmate.  This other mule was big and strong, morose and hard working; the hair had been worn off his breast and flanks by the breastband and traces, and the grey, greasy patches of exposed hide had a metallic gleam to them. 

There was a cloudy blue film over this other mule’s eyes; his teeth were yellow and worn down and there was the same look of sleepy indifference on his face whether they were going uphill over asphalt softened by the sun or resting at midday under some trees. Nothing mattered to him.  Even when he was standing at the top of a mountain pass, looking down at orchards, vineyards, and the grey, winding ribbon of the asphalt they had already passed along; even when the sea was gleaming in the distance and the air smelled of flowers, iodine and – at one and the same time – of the cool of the mountains and the dry hot dust of the road – even then, his eyes would remain as cloudy and indifferent as ever.  A long transparent string of saliva would be hanging from his slightly protruding lower lip and his nostrils would not even be quivering.  Now and again, if he heard Niccolo’s footsteps, he would prick up one ear.  When the guns fired during an exercise, however, he seemed not even to do that; it was as if he were asleep.

Once Giu tried giving his companion a playful push, but in answer the old mule just kicked Giu, calmly and without anger, and turned away.  Sometimes Giu would stop pulling on the traces; he would watch his workmate out of the corner of one eye, but the old mule did not bare his teeth or lay back his ears.  Instead, he would just puff, toss his head up and down and pull for all he was worth.

The two mules had ceased to notice each other, even though they went on drinking from the same bucket of water and hauling the same cart laden with crates of shells, even though, night after night, Giu heard the old mule breathing heavily in the next stall.

Giu felt no slavish devotion towards his driver; nothing about him – neither his wishes nor his commands, neither his whip, nor his boots, nor his rasping voice – made any impression on Giu. 

The old mule walked on the right; the cart rumbled behind; the driver shouted now and again; and ahead of them lay the road.  Sometimes the driver seemed merely part of the cart; at other times the driver was what mattered, and it was the cart that seemed an appendage.  As for the whip – well, flies too bit the tips of Giu’s ears till they bled, but they were still only flies.  And the whip was only a whip.  And the driver – only a driver.

When Giu was first put in harness, he felt quietly furious at the senselessness of the long strip of asphalt; you could neither chew it nor drink it, while on either side grew leafy and grassy food, and there was water in ponds and puddles.

Yes, at first his main enemy seemed to be the asphalt, but with time Giu grew to feel more resentment towards the reins, the driver’s voice and the weight of the cart.  Giu made his peace with the road, and sometimes he even fancied it would free him from the cart and the driver.

The road climbed uphill, weaving through orange groves, while the leather breastband pressed against his chest and the cart rumbled relentlessly and monotonously behind him.  The enforced, pointless labour made Giu want to kick out at the cart and tear at the traces with his teeth; he no longer hoped for anything from the road and he had no wish to go on treading it.  Mirages arose in the empty space of his head: misty, disturbing visions, the tastes and smells of different foods.  The juicy sweetness of leaves, or the smell of young mares, or the warmth of the sun after a cold night, or the cool of evening after the heat of a Sicilian day. 

In the morning he would put his head into the breastband held out by the driver and feel against his chest the habitual chill of the dead, shiny leather.  No longer any different from the old mule who was his workmate, he did all this without emotion, without throwing his head back or baring his teeth.  The polished breastband, the cart and the road had become part of his life.

Everything had become habitual and therefore right.  Everything had joined together to form a life that was right and natural: hard labour, the asphalt, drinking troughs, the smell of axle grease, the thunder of the stinking, long-barrelled guns, the smell of tobacco and leather from the driver’s fingers, the evening bucket of maize, the bundle of prickly hay. 

Sometimes there were breaks in the monotony.  Giu knew terror when ropes were wound round him and a crane lifted him up off the shore and on to a ship.  He felt nauseous; the wooden earth kept slipping away from under his hooves and he was unable to eat.  And then came heat that was fiercer than Italian heat, and a straw hat was placed on Giu’s head.  There was the stubborn steepness of the stony red roads of Abyssinia; there were palms with leaves his lips could not reach.  One day he was astonished by a monkey in a tree and then scared by a large snake on the ground.  The houses were edible; sometimes he ate their reed walls and grassy roofs.  The big guns kept shooting and there were outbreaks of fire.  When the munitions train halted on the dark fringe of a forest, Giu heard all kinds of rustlings and strange sounds; some of these night sounds filled him with terror and made him tremble and snort.

Grossman’s greatness is manifested in a constant ability to surprise his readers: where we lazily expect darkness and gloom, Grossman provides lightness and humour; what might seem at first glance to be narrow polemic turns out, when paid more attention, to have the grandeur of tragedy.
David Lea, The Literateur

Then came nausea again, and wooden ground slipping away from under his hooves, and a pale blue plain all around him.  And then, somehow or other, even though he had barely taken a step, he was back in a stable again, with his workmate breathing heavily in the next stall.

After the day of the flags and music, the day of the women and children and Niccolo’s trembling hands, the stable disappeared.  In its place came more wooden ground, repeated knocks and jolts, continual banging and grinding – and then the cramped dark of this juddering and grinding stall was in turn replaced by the space of an endless plain.

Over the plain hung a soft grey dust that was neither Italian nor African; along the road lorries, tractors and long- and short-barrelled guns were moving continually towards where the sun rose, while whole columns of drivers marched along on foot.

Life became more difficult than ever; life turned into nothing but movement.  The cart was always fully laden, and the breathing of Giu’s workmate became still more laboured; for all the noise that hung over the grey, dusty road it was clearly audible.

Defeated by the vastness of space, animals began to die of murrain.  Dead mules were dragged to the side of the road.  They lay there with swollen bellies and splayed legs that would never tread the road again.  People treated them with boundless indifference.  The still living mules also appeared not to notice.  They went on tossing their heads and pulling away on their traces; nevertheless, they were aware of their dead.

The food on this flat plain was remarkably tasty.  Never had Giu eaten such tender, juicy grass; never had he eaten such tender, fragrant hay.  The water on this plain was also tasty and sweet, and from the trees’ young branches came shoots that were almost without bitterness. 

The warm wind of the plain did not burn like African and Sicilian winds, and the sun warmed his hide gently; it was not like the merciless sun of Africa.

And even the fine grey dust that hung in the air day and night seemed tender and silky compared with the stinging red dust of the desert.

What was not gentle or tender, however, was the sheer expanse of this plain; its endless expanse was cruel. No matter how far the mules trotted, twitching their ears, the plain was always stronger than they were.  The mules walked at a fast pace in sunlight, in moonlight – but the plain went on and on.  The mules trotted again, their hooves beating against the asphalt or raising clouds of dust on dirt roads – but the plain went on and on.  There was no way out of the plain, not in sunlight, nor in moonlight, nor by the light of the stars.  It did not give birth to any sea or mountains.

Giu did not notice the start of the rainy season; it set in gradually.  But the cold rains poured down, and life changed from monotonous weariness to acute suffering and profound exhaustion.

Every part of Giu’s life became harder.  The earth turned sticky and squelchy; it belched; it talked.  The road turned slithery; a single stride now cost the mules as much effort as a dozen ordinary strides.  The cart grew unbearably stubborn; Giu and his workmate seemed to be dragging behind them not one cart but a dozen carts.  The driver was now shouting at them non-stop, whipping them painfully and more and more often; it was as if there were not one driver up on the cart but a dozen.  And there was any number of whips – and they were all sharp-tongued, spiteful, at once cold and burning, stinging, penetrating.

Pulling the cart over asphalt was now a sweeter pleasure than eating grass or hay, but Giu’s hooves did not know asphalt for days on end.

The mules got to know cold, and the way their hides shivered after being soaked by the autumn drizzle.  Mules coughed and caught pneumonia.  Mules for whom the road had ended and movement had stopped were more and more often being dragged to the side of the road.

The plain grew broader. The mules now sensed its vastness not so much with their eyes as with their hooves.  Their hooves sank deeper and deeper into the soft ground.  Sticky clods dragged at their legs.  Now heavy with rain, vaster and more powerful than ever, the plain continued to stretch out, to expand, to broaden.

The mule’s large, spacious brain, used to conceiving vague images of smells, of form and of colour, was now conceiving an image of something very different, an image of a concept created by philosophers and mathematicians, an image of infinity itself – of the misty Russian plain and cold autumn rain pouring down over it without end.

And then dark, turbid and heavy was replaced by dry, white and powdery, by something that burnt lips and scorched nostrils.

Winter had devoured autumn, but this brought no relief.  Heaviness had turned into superheaviness.  A less cruel predator had been devoured by a crueller, more voracious predator.

Along with the bodies of mules, there were now dead people lying by the side of the road; the cold had taken their lives.

Labour beyond labour, a chest rubbed raw by the breastband, bleeding sores on his withers, constant pain in his legs, worn and crumbling hooves, frost-bitten ears, aching eyes, stabbing stomach cramps from the icy food and water – all this had worn Giu down; it had exhausted both his inner strength and the strength of his muscles.

Giu was being attacked by something vast and indifferent.  An indifferent, enormous world had calmly brought all its weight to bear on him.  This world had exhausted even the spite of Giu’s driver.  Niccolo just slumped on his seat, no longer using his whip and no longer kicking Giu on the sensitive little bone on his front leg.

Slowly, inescapably, war and winter were crushing the mule.  A vast, indifferent force was on the point of annihilating him; Giu countered this attack with an indifference of his own that was no less vast.

He became a shadow of himself – and this living, ashen shadow could no longer sense either its own warmth or the pleasure that comes from food and rest.  It was all the same to the mule whether he was standing still with his head hanging down or walking along the icy road, mechanically moving one leg after another.

He took no joy in the hay he chewed so indifferently, and he bore hunger, thirst and the cutting winter wind with equal indifference.  His eyes ached from the whiteness of the snow, but he felt no happier in twilight or darkness; he neither wanted them nor welcomed them.

It was impossible now to tell him apart from the old mule walking beside him, and the indifference each felt towards the other was equalled only by the indifference each felt towards himself.

This indifference towards himself was his last rebellion.

To be or not to be – to Giu this was a matter of indifference.  The mule had resolved Hamlet’s dilemna.

Having become submissively indifferent to both existence and non-existence, he lost the sensation of time.  Day and night no longer meant anything; frosty sunlight and moonless dark were all the same to him.

When the Russian offensive began, the cold was not particularly severe.

Giu did not panic during the crushing artillery barrage.  He did not shy or tear at his traces when bursting shells lit up the cloudy sky, when the ground shook and the air, rent by screaming and roaring metal, grew thick with fire and smoke, with snow and clay.

The rout that followed did not sweep Giu away.  He stood there without moving, his head drooping as low as his tail, while men ran past, while men fell to the ground, leaped up again and went on running, while men crawled by, while tractors crawled by, while blunt-nosed lorries sped past him.

His workmate gave a strange, almost human cry, fell to the ground, thrashed his legs about and went still.  The snow round about him turned red.

The whip was lying on the snow and Niccolo, the driver, was also lying on the snow.  Giu could no longer hear the creak of his boots; he could no longer sense his characteristic smell of tobacco, wine and rawhide.

Giu stood there, blankly indifferent to what fate had in store for him.  His old fate and his new fate mattered equally little.

Twilight set in.  It grew quiet.  The mule stood there, his head drooping, his tail limp.  He neither looked at anything nor listened to anything.  The artillery fire had long ago gone silent, but it was still rumbling on in the deserted and indifferent space of his head.  From time to time he shifted his weight from one foot to another, then stood still once again. 

All around lay the bodies of men and animals, along with lorries that had been overturned or smashed to pieces.  Here and there rose lazy columns of smoke.

And beyond, without beginning or end, lay the misty, twilit, snow-covered plain.

The plain had swallowed up all his past life: the southern heat, the steepness of red roads, the smell of young mares, the noise of streams.  Giu could now barely be distinguished from the stillness all round him; he was merging with it, becoming one with the misty plain.

But when the silence was violated by tanks, Giu heard them.  Their iron sound filled the air; this sound entered the dead ears of both people and animals, and it penetrated the ears of the sad, living mule.

And when the plain’s great stillness was violated, when machines with guns and clanking, grinding caterpillar treads appeared, moving from north to south over the fresh snow, Giu saw them.  The machines were reflected in the windscreens and mirrors of abandoned vehicles, and they entered the eyes of the mule standing stockstill beside an overturned cart.

Yet he did not start; he did not step to one side even when the treads passed close beside him, giving off a bitter warmth and a smell of burnt oil.

White human figures detached themselves from the white plain.  They moved quickly and silently, more like predatory hunters than like people.[i]  Then they melted away and vanished, swallowed by the stillness of fresh fallen snow.

Next, also from the north, came a noisy torrent of people, lorries, guns and creaking carts.

At first this torrent kept to the road, and the mule did not so much as turn his head to look at it, and the movement went on past him.  Soon, however, the movement grew so vast that it flowed over on to the verges.

And then a man with a whip came up to Giu.  He looked Giu over, and Giu smelt a smell of tobacco and rawhide.

Just like Niccolo, this man prodded Giu in the teeth, on his cheekbones, on his flanks.

The man pulled on Giu’s bridle and said a few words in a rasping voice.  Involuntarily, Giu looked at Niccolo where he lay on the snow, but Niccolo said nothing.

The man pulled on the bridle a second time, but the mule did not move.

Then the man shouted and brandished his whip, and his threats were neither more nor less threatening than Niccolo’s threats; the only difference lay in the sounds that conveyed these threats.

And then the man kicked the mule on the front leg.  This hurt.  It was the same sensitive bone that Niccolo had used to kick.

Giu followed this new driver.  They came to some carts.  There a whole group of drivers gathered around them, laughing and flinging their arms about, clapping Giu on his back and his sides.  He was given some hay, and he ate a little.  Harnessed to the carts in pairs were horses with short ears and vicious eyes.  There were no mules any longer.

The driver led Giu up to a cart with only one mare in the shafts.

The mare was small and dark, shorter than the tall mule.  She glanced at him.  She laid her ears back and pricked them up again.  She tossed her head.  Then she turned away and, ready to kick, lifted a back leg.

She was skinny and when she breathed in, her ribs moved like a wave beneath her hide.  There were bleeding sores on her hide, the same as on Giu’s. 

Giu stood there, hanging his head, as indifferent as before to the question of whether to be or not to be, calmly indifferent to the world because the world, this flat world of the plains, was indifferently, unconcernedly, destroying him.

Just as he had done hundreds of times before, Giu thrust his head into the breastband.  It was not made of leather, but that made no difference to how it felt against his worn, weary chest.  It had a strange, unaccustomed smell, a smell of horse.  But that made no difference to the mule. 

The mare stood beside him, but the warmth from her hollow flank meant nothing to him.

She laid her ears back almost flat against her head, and her face looked vicious and predatory, not like that of a herbivore at all.  She rolled her eyes, curled her upper lip and bared her teeth, ready to bite; in his deep indifference, Giu did nothing to protect his cheek and neck.  And when the mare began to edge round, pulling on the harness, wanting to turn her rump to him and give him a good, hard kick, he was not in the least concerned.  He went on standing there, hanging his head, just as he had stood beside the smashed-up cart, his dead workmate, dead Niccolo, and the whip lying flat on the snow.  But the driver gave a shout and struck the mare with his whip.  Next he struck the mule with this whip – a twin brother to the whip left lying on the snow.  The driver probably felt annoyed by the mule’s dejected bearing and, like Niccolo, he had the heavy hand of a peasant.

And Giu looked sideways at the mare, and the mare looked at Giu.

Soon the train of carts set off.  The cart creaked in the usual way, and the road stretched out ahead of Giu, and there was a heavy weight behind him, and a driver, and a whip.  But Giu knew that the road would not help him to escape from this weight; he trotted slowly along, and there was no beginning or end to the snowy plain.

But strangely, as he moved in his usual way through this world of indifference, he sensed that the mare trotting beside him did not feel indifferent towards him.

She flicked Giu with her tail.  Her silky, slippery tail was not in the least like either the driver’s whip or his old workmate’s tail; it slid caressingly over his hide.

After a while, the mare gave another flick of her tail, even though there were certainly no flies, gadflies or mosquitoes anywhere on this snow-covered plain.

And Giu looked out of the corner of one eye at the mare trotting beside him, and she glanced at him at the same moment.  Now there was no viciousness at all in her eye; it was just a little sly.

In the blank wall of the world’s indifference there had appeared a tiny snake-like fissure.

As they moved, their bodies got warmer.  Giu could smell the mare’s sweat, and the mare’s breath, imbued with moisture and the sweetness of hay, was affecting him more and more deeply.

Not knowing why he was doing it, Giu began to pull harder on the traces.  The bones of his ribcage sensed the weight and the pressure, while the mare’s breastband slackened and the cart grew lighter for her.

So they trotted on for a long time. Then the mare whinnied.  It was a quiet little whinny, too quiet for the driver or anything around them to hear.

 It was a very quiet whinny, because she wanted only the mule trotting beside her to hear it.

Giu did not answer, but it was clear from the way he flared his nostrils that he had heard.

They trotted on for a long, long time, until it was time to stop for the night.  They trotted beside each other, their nostrils flared, and their two smells, the smells of a mule and a mare pulling the same cart, merged into a single smell.

The train of carts stopped.  The driver unharnessed the mule and the mare, and they ate together and drank water from the same bucket.  The mare went up to the mule and laid her head on his neck.  Her soft, gently moving lips touched his ear and he looked trustfully into the sad eyes of this collective-farm mare, and his breath mingled with her breath, which felt warm and kind.

In this good, kind warmth all that had gone to sleep awoke again.  All that had long been dead came back to life: milk from his mother, the sweet milk that a new-born being so loves; his very first blade of grass; the cruel red stone of the mountain roads of Abyssinia; fierce summer heat in the vineyards; moonlit nights in orange groves; and the terrible labour, the labour beyond labour that seemed to have destroyed him with its indifferent weight but which, in the end, evidently, had not quite destroyed him.

Through their warm breath and their weary eyes, Giu the mule and the mare from Vologda spoke clearly to each other of their life and fate, and there was something charming and wonderful about these trustful, affectionate beings standing beside each other amidst the wartime plain, under the grey winter sky.

‘The donkey, I mean the mule, seems to have turned quite Russian,’ one of the drivers said with a laugh.

‘No, look – they’re both of them weeping,’ said another driver.

And it was true; they were weeping.


[i] These white figures were evidently Russian scouts and snipers.  The mule is witnessing the beginning of the Russian offensive at Stalingrad.  This offensive follows a standard pattern: first, an artillery barrage, then a reconnaissance, then the advance of the tanks, and lastly the advance of the infantry.

Tomorrow oDR will publish Robert Chandler's article about Grossman’s last stories and about his friendship with Andrey Platonov.



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