Yellow Coal

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
15 February 2006

The economic barometer at Harvard University had continually pointed to bad weather. But even its exact readings could not have predicted such a swift deepening of the crisis. Wars and the elements had turned the earth into a waster of its energies. Oil wells were running dry. The energy-producing effect of black, white and brown coal was diminishing yearly. An unprecedented drought had swaddled the sere earth in what felt like a dozen equators. Crops burned to their roots. Forests caught fire in the infernal heat. The selvas of South America and the jungles of India blazed with smoky flames. Agrarian countries were ravaged first. True, forests reduced to ashes had given place to ashy boles of factory smoke. But their days too were numbered. Fuellessness was threatening machines with motionlessness. Even glacier snow-caps, melted by the perennial summer, could not provide an adequate supply of waterpower; the beds of shrinking rivers lay exposed, and soon the turbine-generators would stop.

Seven Stories, the first ever collection of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's short stories in English translation, will be published in April 2006 by Glas.

Edited by Natasha Perova and Joanne Turnbull, Glas is a Moscow-based literary journal featuring contemporary Russian writing in English translation.

More Glas stories on openDemocracy:

"A Marriage of Convenience", Ksenia Klimova

"The Princess with the Lily-white Feet", Ludmila Petrushevskaya

"Alpatovka", Alexander Selin

"Kolyma Streetcar", Elena Glinka

"A Crowded Place", Boris Yampolsky

"Saint among saints", Alexander Pokrovsky

The earth had a fever. Flogged mercilessly by the sun's yellow whips, it whirled round like a dervish dancing his last furious dance.

If nations had ignored political strictures and come to each other's aid, salvation might have been theirs. But adversity only exacerbated ideas of jingoism, and soon all the New and Old World Reichs, Staats, Republics and Lands — like the fish on the desiccated bottoms of erstwhile lakes — were covered with a viscous sheath, swathed in borders like the filaments of cocoons, and raising customs duties to astronomical levels.

The one agency of an international sort was the Commission for the Access of New and Original Energies: CANOE. To the person who discovered a new energy source, a motive power as yet unknown on earth, CANOE promised a seven-figure sum.

Professor Leker was too busy to notice people. Blinkered by diagrams, thoughts, and pages from books, his eyes had no time to reflect faces. A frosted screen before the window shielded him from the street; the black case of an automobile, window curtains drawn, did likewise. Until a few years ago Leker had taught, then gradually given it up to devote himself full-time to his research into quantum theory, ionization, and the vicariate of the senses.

Thus Professor Leker's twenty-minute stroll, his first in ten years, was pure accident. Leker set out in the company of his thoughts, without noticing places or faces. But the very first crossroad threw him into a quandary. The scientist was obliged to lift his head and gaze about to get his bearings. And here, for the first time, the street grated against his pupils.

A dingily bilious sun suffused the air through a tent of black clouds. Spitefully elbowing elbows, passers-by rushed along the pavement. People converged in the doorways of shops, tried to pummel their way through and stuck fast, faces flushed with rage and exertion, teeth bared.

The steps floating along the tram tracks were jammed with passengers: chests tried to climb up on backs; but the backs, flicking spiteful shoulder blades, would not budge; hands all in a tangle gripped the vertical handrails with rapacious vigour — like flocks of carrion crows fighting over prey.

The tram passed by, and behind it, as behind a curtain drawn back, a new scene unfolded across the street: two fist-shaking men were verbally assaulting each other; a circle of gloating pupils instantly formed round them and circling the circle another circle and another; while above the melee of shoulders raised sticks hovered.

Looking about him, Leker walked on. Suddenly his knee knocked into an outstretched hand. Protruding from dirty rags, the hand was demanding a donation. Leker dug in his pockets: he had no money on him. The open palm continued to wait. Leker again searched himself: nothing except a notepad. Without taking his gaze off the beggar, he stepped aside: the cripple's eyes, half blind with pus, oozed with slime and an insatiable, impotent spite.

With greater and greater misgivings, Professor Leker scrutinized the street, gnashing with steel rims and humming with anxious human swarms. The people changed, yet remained the same: jaws clenched, foreheads butting the air, elbows endlessly elbowing their way. The famous physiologist first raised his eyebrows in astonishment, then knit them together the better to contain the thought fluttering behind them. Leker slowed his step and opened his notepad, searching for the exact words. Suddenly the stab of someone's elbow deep in his ribs sent him staggering sideways: he hit his back against a post and dropped his slips of paper. Yet even the pain could not stop Leker smiling: his thought, tightly tied with associative threads, had been flung to the bottom of his brain.

The competition announced by CANOE drew nearly a hundred entries, each with its own motto. Among these was that of Professor Leker. Most of the entries consisted of theoretical or practical impossibilities; a few others, subjected to a more serious discussion, afforded some semblance of a solution but required too great a capital investment. The competitor who devised the motto Oderint (come to hate) might well have lost to the witty and subtle scientific proposal to force the sun itself to pay for the damages it had inflicted on the planet: increased solar activity in certain parts of the world should, this project said, be stimulated to temperature levels capable of accomplishing work by converting heat into mechanical energy. The idea of putting the sun in harness to rebuild the globe's half-ruined industry was close to winning the seven-figure prize, but... the corners of the commission chairman's eyes had a yellowish tinge, while the lenses of the deputy chairman's pince-nez betrayed a prickly glint.

Both men favoured the sun-harnessing project, but the chairman, who was loath to agree with the deputy chairman, switched his vote at the last minute to spite him — and Oderint tipped the scales.

To its next closed meeting, the commission invited Professor Leker. Asked to state his idea in brief, Leker began:

"My project is simple: I propose to use the energy of spite inhabiting countless individuals. On the long keyboard of feelings, you see, the black keys of spite have their own distinct, sharply differentiated tone. Whereas other emotions — tenderness, let's say, or affection — are accompanied by a loss of muscle tone, a certain relaxation of the organism's motor system, spite is entirely muscular, it's all in the tensing of muscles, the clenching of fists, the gritting of teeth. But this feeling has no outlet: it is muted, muffled, and socially dimmed, like a lamp, which is why it produces soot, but no light. Yet if one were to remove the mufflers, if one were to allow all that bile to burst the social dams, then this "yellow coal", as I call it, would set our factories' flywheels spinning again, a million lamps would shine with electric bile and... I must ask you not to interrupt... How can this be done? If I may have a piece of chalk I will draw you a diagram of my myeloabsorberator: AE perpendicular at 0; here, at an angle, the panel's entire surface is stippled with absorbent apertures.

"You see, the idea of exteriorizing muscular effort (which I've guided through all the interstices of my brain) is entirely feasible. For if we take the junction of nerve and muscle, then we see that the nerve fibre carrying the energy charge, strives, by splitting into very fine fibrils, to encase the muscle in a sort of — the sponge, if you please — net. Krause gave us the first histological description of this, but the credit for this exact picture of the nerve net's weave belongs to me. Hmm... Now what was I just... Oh, yes. The problem is this: to catch the net in a net, and bring that catch to shore, outside, beyond the confines of a person's skin. Now if you will look at the absorberator's stipple of apertures, you will see that..."

Leker spoke for nearly two hours. His last word was followed by several minutes of silence. Then the chairman, the yellow corners of his eyes gleaming, said:

"That's all very well, but are you sure that those reserves of human spite, which you propose to exploit, are sufficiently large and dependable? For here one would be dealing not with a stratified deposit, awaiting a pickaxe, but with an emotion that ebbs and flows. Do I make myself clear?"

Professor Leker replied with a dry:


The commissioners were tight-lipped as to the possibility of using "yellow coal" for industrial purposes. They decided that the project had best begin on a small scale and confine itself to prospect mining.

Here is what happened early one morning before office hours on the outskirts of a European capital. A two-car tram trundled round the loop and up to the tram stop, teeming with harried briefcases. Briefcases poured into both cars, oblivious in their haste to the somewhat unorthodox construction of the car behind: a yellow stripe ran down its shiny red side; thin thread-like wires sprouting from the handrails plunged under the car's metal skin; the brass seats were stippled with microscopic apertures that disappeared somewhere deep inside.

A bell tinkled from car to car, the driver ducked down between the buffers, then ran back to his seat; he flicked the main switch; and the car in front, now quit of its crowded trailer, sailed away. The bewilderment of the passengers in the abandoned car lasted but a few seconds. Hands thrown up in surprise began, one after another, to clench into fists. Spite, inflamed by its own impotence, set all mouths in motion.

"What is this, leaving us in the middle of the street, like rubbish?!"


"Have you ever seen such a thing? Filthy wretches!!"

"Ought to be locked up..."

"I'd strangle them with my bare hands first..."

Just then, as if in answer to the splatters of spit and venom, the trailer, with a soft screech of axles, started up. It had no trolley on top, the driver's seat was empty, and yet, mysteriously gaining speed, the car whirred along in pursuit of its mate. Passengers exchanged anxious glances; a woman let out a desperate scream: "Help!" Panic ensued, and the car's entire contents lunged for the doors. But no one would let anyone past. Shoulders pressed against shoulders, elbows against elbows; this firm human dough kneaded itself with a hundred wedged fists. "Out of my way!" "Move over!" "Let me through!" "I can't bre-e-eathe!" With that, the car, which had just begun to slow down, rocketed off at full speed. Tumbling off the steps onto the painful pavement, passengers gradually vacated the incomprehensible trailer. Then its wheels stuttered to a halt. Ten yards short of the next tram stop. Without listening to explanations, a new crowd of passengers scrabbled aboard, and a minute later, steel grinding against steel, the car's yellow stripe was again cleaving the air.

That evening the extraordinary trailer was shunted back to the park, but its photographic image continued to roam inside the pupils of millions of buyers of evening papers. The sensational news set all the wires humming and loudspeakers screaming. That date soon became known as the beginning of a new industrial era on earth.

During the first months of industry's gradual changeover to yellow-coal energy, it was feared that the reservoirs of spite deep inside humanity might soon be exhausted. Various projects, ancillary to Leker's own, proposed methods of stimulating spite artificially — in case natural supplies should fall off. Thus the famous ethnographer Krantz published his Classification of Interethnic Hatreds, a two-volume work asserting that humanity should be split into the smallest possible ethnicities so as to produce the maximum "kinetic spite" (Krantz's term). But the anonymous author of a pamphlet entitled "Once One Is One" went further: he advocated reviving the ancient adage bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all. The war contra omnes of post-history would, he reasoned, differ radically from that of pre-history. If the "pre" set all men against each other because of their lack of an "I", of humanity, the "post" would create a conflict between excesses of "I": once put into practice, every "I" would lay claim to the whole earth and all its riches. This eminently logical philosophical system would saddle the earth with some three billion absolute monarchs and, therefore, countless wars of aggression and spite, the approximate number of which could be determined by calculating all possible combinations of one individual against three billion other individuals and multiplying that number again by three billion.

Most popular of all, however, was a book by psychologist Jules Chardon, The Optical Couple. A master of the art of metaphor, Chardon began by comparing twin stars to married couples. As in astronomy, which says that twin stars may be either physical, i.e. a function of one star's proximity in space to another, or optical, when stars separated by dozens of light years are brought into proximity by the angle of the eye of the beholder, so in matrimoniology, which studies the combinations of two people most profitable to mankind. If until now love, that system of matrimonial reflexes, profited the State, then with the switch to the use of spite-driven bodies, the institution of marriage would have to be reformed: the rate of optical marriages would have to be increased gradually to 100%. Coldness and, wherever possible, repugnance multiplied by proximity would produce high-voltage spite, which need only be sucked into individual pocket absorberators and transmitted along wires to a central accumulator that would distil all spite, the entire flow of bile, into a common yellow reserve.

It would be difficult to list all the methods proposed for increasing supplies of absorberator-grade spite. In any event, it soon became clear that these artificial stimulators were all but unnecessary — the natural reserves of this energy in its various forms, ranging from disgust to fury, were indeterminably vast and, evidently, inexhaustible.

It turned out that the energy of a potential fistfight, if sucked promptly into the pores of a street absorberator, was enough to heat an entire floor of a building for twelve hours. Even without taking any matrimoniological measures, if one simply furnished two million "happily married" couples with so-called porous double beds, one could fuel the work of an enormous sawmill.

Life was changing and being reequipped at a feverish pace. The doorways of offices and shops were narrowed to make it easier for their invisible pores to collect the energy of bodies shoving in and shoving out. The turnstiles on boulevards, the backs of theatre seats, worktables and workbenches were all fitted with special porous devices to absorb emulsions of bile, turning drops into streams, streams into floods, and floods into boiling bubbling seas.

Surges of hatred, fits of anger, paroxysms of rage plunged into wires and reemerged as the steel squeals of saws, the vibrations of pistons and the grinding of gearwheels.

The day's ill will waited in an accumulator to be allowed, once yellowed into the coals of arched streetlamps, to low softly over the ray-spangled night.

Mr. Francis Deddle was against the bilification of life, and he was not alone. No need to look very far: his parish priest and his wife's sister, a girl of about forty with the hands of a very devout scullery maid, felt the same way. Sermons from several pulpits had already denounced the yellow delusion polluting the world. A papal encyclical — delayed for some reason — was expected shortly.

The opposition was gradually rallying its forces, and while supporters of the total conversion of industry and culture to yellow coal sneered that the anti-bilists were nothing but soutanes and skirts, in fact they underestimated their adversary's numbers. The sheet the protesters put out — Heart Versus Liver — was quite popular.

Mr. Deddle was a founding member of the Heartist Organization and one of its most active. True, he had to work with his hands tied. The government viewed heartist propaganda as wrecking the yellow construction. Philanthropic societies were forced to close, and sermons to be heard by empty pews. As a result, the Heartist Organization was up against the wall (and those walls were stippled with absorberizing apertures)...

One morning Mr. Deddle woke up feeling extremely depressed. Under his door, along with the latest issue of Heart Versus Liver, was an envelope. He opened it: a directive from the Heartists' Central Committee:

"Sir, Within two hours of receiving this letter, you must love humanity. A good example is the beginning of salvation."

Mr. Deddle fiddled with the piece of paper and knew that the day was ruined. The hour hand on the clock showed nine. Catching sight of the Roman numeral eleven, Mr. Deddle muttered, "Well, we still have time" and, squinting, tried to picture that hazy many-headedness called humanity. Then he raised himself up on his elbow, opened the newssheet and glanced over the headlines: "Oh no! Well, well... So that's it! Damn!" He crumpled the paper up and threw it on the floor: "Now be calm, be calm, old man, come eleven o'clock you'll have to..." Deddle smiled musingly and began to dress. On his way past the crumpled newssheet, he bent down, picked it up and carefully smoothed out the wrinkles.

At a quarter to ten Mr. Deddle sat down to breakfast. Two or three slices of ham to start, followed by the tap of his teaspoon on the top of a boiled egg. The yolk, welling up out of the shell like an evil eye, reminded him that... Mr. Deddle suddenly lost his appetite and pushed the plate away. The hour hand was edging towards ten. "I really ought to, hmm, do something. I can't just sit here." But just then the telephone's metallic ring shuddered through the air. "I won't answer it, they can go to the devil!" The telephone paused then began ringing again with greater urgency. Deddle pressed his ear to the instrument with a feeling of annoyance:

"Hello! Yes, speaking. Call back after eleven. I'm busy right now: with a matter of importance to all mankind. Urgent? So is this. What? I'm busy I tell you, and you keep insisting, like a..."

The receiver returned incensed to its hook. Mr. Deddle, hands clasped behind his back, began pacing from wall to wall. His eye happened to light on the thin, graduated glass tube protruding from the absorberator, which had covered his wall, as it had walls in all the rooms in all the world, with its barely visible pores. The mercury in the glass indicator, clinging to the numbers, was slowly rising. "Can I really be...? No, no. I must get to work!" Deddle went to the window and peered out at the life in the street: the pavement was, as always, black with people; they were thronging the sidewalks, pouring out of all the doors and gates.

"Sweet humanity, dear humanity," Deddle stammered. He could feel his fingers tightening involuntarily into a fist, and prickles shivering — vertebra by vertebra — down his spine.

The windowpanes rattled and knocked with the hoarse hoots of motor-car horns, while the crowd's soft flesh, squeezing out of every crack, went on being kneaded by the walls of the street.

"Dear people, my brothers, oh, how I..." Deddle's teeth grit. "Good Lord, how can it be? Twenty to eleven, and I..."

Deddle curtained the street and, trying not to look at the indicator, sank into an armchair.

"Let's try in abstracto. Exert yourself, old man, and love those worthless scamps. If only for a quarter of an hour, if only a little bit. Go on and love them just to spite them. Damn, it's already five to. Oh Lord, help me! Work a miracle, let all men love their neighbours. Well, humanity, get ready, because here I go: my beloveds..."

A soft glassy tinkle made Deddle start and turn his face, beaded with sweat, towards the absorberator: the indicator tube, unable to withstand the tension, had exploded, spraying mercury all over the floor.

Though plagued by failure at the outset, the technique of extracting and accumulating yellow coal eventually improved to the point of ruling out accidents such as the one just described. The very word "failure" ceased to mean what it had: for it was life's failures, the embittered malcontents, who adapted best to the new culture. Their grudge against life had become remunerative, the source of a nice income. The entire human race underwent retraining. Portable counters, worn by one and all, determined one's rate of payment based on the amount of spite one radiated. The slogan BE ANGRY OR GO HUNGRY floated in huge letters above every crossroad. The good-natured and soft-hearted were thrown out onto the street where they either died or became hardened. In the latter case, the numbers on their individual counters surged and kept them from starving to death.

Even before Leker's idea was put into practice, a special CANOE subcommittee had been formed to study the possibility of exploiting class hatred. The subcommittee worked in secret: CANOE members well understood that this kind of hatred required extreme caution. The conversion to yellow coal had naturally caused unrest among workers in obsolete industries. Meanwhile, the capitalists, closing ranks around CANOE, had resolutely rejected the old policy of attempting to appease workers with grievances against the exploiter class. Now that hatred of exploitation could be... exploited for industrial purposes, collected by an absorberator and pumped into engines and machines. Mills could make do with workers' hatred alone; the workers themselves were no longer needed. Factories and mills began laying huge numbers of people off, keeping only skeleton crews to man the spite-collectors. The wave of protests and strikes that swept the globe only increased the bilious energy in accumulators and gave good dividends. It turned out that the very purest spite — it hardly needed to be filtered — came from the unemployed. At the first conference on spite collection, a venerable German economist declared that a bright new era was dawning when work could be done with the help of strikes. A guarded swash of gloating applause greeted his words. Indicator needles on absorberators in the conference hall trembled slightly.

Indeed, the world had entered a kind of Golden Age. And no need to hack through the earth's crust for the gold, no need to rinse it in streams — it seeped out of the liver on its own in yellow granules which rinsed themselves in the circulation of the blood, it was right here, under layers of skin. One's liver had become a tightly stuffed and miraculously inexhaustible purse that one carried not in one's pocket, but deep inside one's body where no thief could get at it. It was convenient and portable. A tiff with one's wife bought a three-course meal. The hunchback's envy of his well-proportioned rival allowed the hunchback — once he had shifted the gold in his, so to speak, inside pocket to an outer one — to console himself with a high-priced cocotte. All in all, life was getting cheaper and easier by the day. The energy from accumulators was building new buildings, expanding cramped quarters, turning shacks into palaces, dressing existence not in grey sackcloth, but in elaborate and colourful costumes; the precipitate flood of bile, transmuted into energy, washed the soot from the sky and the filth from the earth. If before people had been jammed together, knocking into each other, in small dark cubby holes, now they lived in vast, high-ceilinged rooms whose wide-set windows stood open to the sun. If before cheap boots, as though stung by their cheapness, had bit into one's heels with their nails, now neatly sewn soles floated like velvet underfoot. If before the village poor had shivered by unheated stoves, their hunger-hollowed faces concealing a hopeless, centuries-old spite, now that reservoir of spite gently warmed the snakelike coils of their radiators, creating cosiness and ease. Now everyone was well fed. Instead of yellow bristles, plump rosy cheeks. Figures gained inches; stomachs and gestures became round, and livers coated with a soft fatty film. That was the beginning of the end.

Outwardly everything seemed fine: machines working at full tilt, the human flood pressing against the cracks of doorways, yellow-coal accumulators transmitting energy along wires and through the air. But now and then, here and there, something unforeseen and at first seemingly insignificant began to happen. Thus on a fine late summer day in Berlin, for instance, police detained three people who would not stop smiling. This was outrageous. The chief of police, his florid face half choked by his tight yellow collar, stamped and screamed at the delinquents:

"Today you take it into your heads to smile in a public place, tomorrow you'll be running through the streets naked!"

The three smiles were convicted of hooliganism and made to pay a fine.

Another incident was far more serious: a young man on a tram had the temerity to give up his seat to an old crone, half-flattened by the press of elbows and shoulders. When the impudent fellow was shown Number Four of the Rules and Regulations for Passengers — Giving up one's seat is punishable by a prison term of up to... — he refused to take his seat back. As for the old crone, she too, according to newspaper reports, was shocked by the lout's behaviour.

A rash of puzzling incidents began to spread over the globe's gigantic body. Highly symptomatic was the scandalous trial of a schoolteacher who had announced during a lesson:

"Children should love their parents."

His pupils, of course, did not understand the archaic word "love" and asked their parents what it meant; many parents, too, could not recall. But their parents made plain the odious phrase, and the corrupter of youth was sent before a jury of judges. But in a still more sensational twist, the judges acquitted the villain. Now the government began to fret. The yellow press (the press of that period was all yellow) raised a hue and cry, demanding that the ruling be overturned. Pictures of newly appointed judges ran in all the special editions: yet their faces, plastered across those sheets, were strangely amiable, plump and insouciant. As a result, the corrupter remained at large.

Emergency measures had to be taken. Especially since not only yellow opinion, but yellow industry was beginning to break down. The teeth of the mechanical saws at one factory, as if tired of chewing wood fibres, suddenly stopped. The wheels of trains and trams were turning a little more slowly. The light inside glass lampshades was slightly tarnished. True, the accumulators, still filled with centuries of rage, could feed power-operated belts and pinions for four or five years to come. But supplies of their new, living energy were dwindling by the day.

The governments of all nations were making every effort to avert a crisis. They needed to artificially raise spite radiation to its former level. They decided to cut off people's heat and electricity periodically. But those people with their bankrupt livers simply sat, patiently and uncomplainingly, in their enormous dark rooms and didn't even try to move closer to their cooling stoves. Had it been possible, it would have been pointless to turn on a light to see the expressions on their faces: their faces wore no expression at all. They were vacant, rosy-cheeked and mentally dead.

Now doctors were brought in. They prescribed pills to activate the liver, also liquids and electric stimulation. All in vain. The liver, having said all it had to say, had wrapped itself in its fatty cocoon and fallen fast asleep. No matter how they bombarded it with patent medicines, increased doses, and radical therapies of all sorts, the result was of no value to industry.

Time was running out. Everyone knew it: the sea of bile was ebbing, never to flow again. New sources of energy would have to be found thanks to a new Leker, whose discovery would reorganize life from top to bottom. CANOE, phased out in recent years, went back to work. The commission appealed to inventors around the world for help. In response they received almost nothing of any significance. Inventors there were, but their inventiveness had vanished along with their spite. Now nowhere could one find — not for a seven-, eight- or even nine-figure sum — the old embittered minds, the furious inspirations, the pens sharp as stingers and dipped in bile. Today's insipid ink, devoid of blood and bile, pure and unfermented, produced nothing but silly scribbles and vague, blot-like thoughts. The culture was dying — in disgrace and in silence. In its final years, amidst the expanding entropy of amiability, not even one satirist could be found to make proper fun of the rise and fall of the age of yellow coal.

Translated by Joanne Turnbull

Gold Cavalier

Gold Cavalier, Gustav Klimt

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData