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Кассиль, Лев - Кассиль - The black book and Schwambrania

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Lev Kassil. The black book and Schwambrania



     Translated from the Russian by Fainna Glagoleva

     Copyright Translation into English Progress Publishers 1978

     First Printing 1978

     Й. Ичъъуйщ



     Лч члжйухъимк зцьие

     OCR: http://home.freeuk.com/russica2



     In Search of Justice

     Who Discovered


     On the Big Tooth Continent,

     With a description

     Of the amazing events

     That took place

     On the Wandering Islands,

     And also many other things,

     As told by




     Who now goes by the name of


     And including a great number

     Of secret documents, sea charts,

     The Coat of Arms and the flag


     On the evening of October 11, 1492, the 68th day of his voyage, Christopher Columbus noticed a moving light on the horizon. Columbus followed the light and discovered America.

     On the evening of February 8, 1914, my brother and I, having been punished, were sitting in the corner. After twelve minutes of this he was pardoned, as being the younger, but refused to leave me until my sentence was up and so stayed put. For a while we were engrossed in picking our noses. On the 4th minute, when we tired of this, we discovered Schwambrania.

     The disappearance of the queen brought everything to a head. This happened in broad daylight, and the light of day dimmed. It was Papa's queen, and that was what made everything so terrible. Papa was a great chess fan, and everyone knows what an important figure the queen is on the chessboard.

     The lost queen was part of a new set made to order especially for Papa, who was very proud of it.

     We were not to touch the figures for anything, yet it was impossible to keep our hands off them.

     The lovely lacquered pieces fired our imaginations, prompting us to invent any number of exciting games for them. Thus, the pawns could either be soldiers or tenpins. There were small circles of felt pasted on their round soles, and so they slid around like floor polishers. The rooks were good wine glasses, while the kings could either be samovars or generals. The round knobs that crowned the bishops were like light bulbs. We could harness a pair of black and a pair of white horses to cardboard cabs and line them up to wait for fares, or else we could arrange them so that they formed a merry-go-round. However, the queens were the best of all. One queen was a blonde and the other was a brunette. Either one could be a Christmas tree, a cabby, a Chinese pagoda, a flower pot on a stand or a priest. Indeed, it was impossible to keep our hands off them.

     On that memorable day the white cabby-queen's black horse was taking the black priest-queen to see the black general-king. He received the priest-queen most nobly. He set the white samovar-king on the table, told the pawns to polish the chequered parquet floor and turned on the electric light-bishops. Then the king and queen each had two rookfuls of tea.

     When at last the samovar-king cooled off and we became tired of our game, we decided to put the figures back in their case. Horrors! The black queen was missing!

     We bruised our knees crawling about, looking under the chairs, the tables and the bookcases. All our efforts were in vain. The wretched queen was gone. Vanished! We finally had to tell Mamma, who soon had everyone up in arms. No matter how hard we all looked, we could not find it. A terrible storm was about to break over our cropped heads. Then Papa came home.

     This was no measly storm. A blizzard, a hurricane, a cyclone, a simoom, a waterspout and a typhoon came crashing down upon us! Papa was furious. He called us vandals and barbarians. He said that one could even teach a wild bear to handle things carefully, and all we knew how to do was wreck everything we touched, and he would not stand for such destructiveness and vandalism.

     "Into the corner, both of you! And stay there!" he shouted. "Vandals!"

     We looked at each other and burst into tears.

     "If I'd have known I was going to have such a Papa, I'd never get borned!" Oska bawled.

     Mamma blinked hard. She was about to shed a tear, but that did not soften Papa's heart. We stumbled off to the "medicine chest". For some reason or other that was the name given to the dim storeroom near the bathroom and the kitchen. There were always dusty jars and bottles on the small window-sill, which is probably how the room originally got its name.

     There was a small low bench in one comer known as "the dock". Papa, who was a doctor, felt it was wrong to have children stand in the corner when they were punished and so had us sit in the corner instead.

     There we were, banished to that shameful bench. The medicine chest was as dim as a dungeon. Oska said:

     "He meant the circus, didn't he? I mean, the part about bears being so careful. Didn't he?"


     "Are vandals part of the circus, too?"

     "Vandals are robbers," I muttered.

     "That's what I thought." He sounded pleased. "They have chains tied on them."

     Annushka, our cook, stuck her head out of the kitchen and threw up her hands.

     "Goodness! The master's lost his toy and so the babies have to sit here in the dark. My poor little sinners! Do you want me to bring you the cat to play with?"

     "No!" I growled. The resentment which had gradually died down now welled up in me again.

     As the unhappy day drew to a close the dim room became darker still. The Earth was turning its back on the Sun. The world, too, turned its back on us. We looked out upon the unjust world from our place of shame. The world was very large, as I had learned in geography, but there was no place for children in it. Grown-ups were in charge of everything on all five continents. They changed the course of history, rode horses, hunted, sailed ships, smoked, made real things, went

     off to war, fell in love, saved people, kidnapped people and played chess. But their children were made to stand in corners. The grown-ups had probably forgotten the games they had played as children and the books they had found so interesting. Indeed, they had probably forgotten all about that part of their lives. Otherwise they would have let us play with whomever we wanted to, climb fences, wade through puddles and pretend that a chessman called a king was a boiling samovar.

     That was what we were thinking about as we sat in the corner.

     "Let's run away! We'll gallop off!" Oska said.

     "Go ahead, what's keeping you? But where'll you go? Everyplace you go there'll be grown-ups, and you're just a little boy."

     At that moment I had a brainstorm. It cut through the gloom like a bolt of lightning, so that I was not at all surprised to hear the roll of thunder that followed (actually, Annushka had dropped the roasting pan).

     There was no need to run away, to search for a promised land. It was here, somewhere very close at hand. We had only to invent it. I could practically see it in the gloom. There, by the bathroom door, were its palm trees, ships, palaces and mountains.

     "There's land ahead, Oska!" I shouted excitedly. "Land! It's a new game we can play all our lives!"

     Oska's one thought was a good future ahead. "I'll blow the whistle, and I'll be the engineer!" he said. "What'll we play?"

     "It's going to be a game about a land, our own land. We'll live in it every day, besides living here, and it'll belong to us. Left paddle ahead!"

     "Aye, aye, Sir! Left paddle ahead! Whoooo!"

     "Slow speed. Pay out the mooring line."

     "Shhh," Oska hissed, letting off steam.

     We disembarked from our bench onto a new shore.

     "What's it called?"

     At the time of the events described, our favourite book was Greek Myths by Gustav Schwab, and so we decided to name our new land Schwabrania. However, the word sounded too much like the cotton swabs Papa used in his practice, so we added an "m", making our new land Schwambrania. We were now Schwambranians. All of the above was to be kept a deep dark secret.

     Mamma soon let us out of our dungeon. She had no way of knowing that she was now dealing with two citizens of a great nation known as Schwambrania.

     A week later the black queen surfaced. The cat had rolled it into a crack under the trunk. However, Papa had by then ordered a new queen,- and so this queen was ours. We decided to make it the keeper of the secret of Schwambrania.

     Mamma had a beautiful little grotto made of seashells that she had put away behind the mirror of her dressing table and had forgotten all about. A pair of tiny filigree brass gates guarded the entrance to the cosy cave. The cave was empty. We decided to hide our queen there.

     We wrote "C.W.S." (Code Words of Schwambrania) on a slip of paper, pulled away an edge of the felt circle on the bottom of the black queen and stuck the paper into the space. Then we put the queen in the cave and sealed the gates with sealing-wax. The queen was now doomed to eternal imprisonment. I will tell you of what happened to it later.

     Schwambrania was a land of volcanic origin.

     Red-hot growing forces boiled and bubbled within us. They were held in check by the stiff, rock-bound structure of our family and of the society in which we lived.

     There was so much we wanted to know and still more that we wanted to learn how to do. But our teachers would only let us know as much as could be found in our schoolbooks and in silly children's stories, and we did not really know how to do anything, because we had never been taught to.

     We wanted to be a part of the adult world, but we were told to go and play with our tin soldiers if we didn't want to get into trouble with our parents, teachers or the police.

     There were many people in our town. They hurried up and down the streets and often came into our yard, but we were only allowed to associate with the people our elders approved of.

     My brother and I played Schwambrania for several years. It became our second country and was a mighty nation. The Revolution, that stern teacher and excellent educator, helped us to overcome our old ties, and we finally abandoned the tinfoil ruins of Schwambrania forever.

     I have saved our "Schwambranian letters" and maps, the plans of our military campaigns and sketches of the flag and coat-of-arms. I have referred to them to freshen my recollections while writing this book. It is the story of Schwambrania, with tales about the travels of many Schwambranians and our own adventures there, as well as many other events.

     "But the earth still turns-if you

     don't believe me, sit on your

     very own buttocks-and



     Just like any other country, Schwambrania had a terrain, a climate, flora, fauna and population all its own.

     Oska made the first map of Schwambrania. He copied a large molar tooth from a dentist's ad he had seen, and since it had three roots it at once resembled a tulip, the crown of the Nibelungs and an upside-down "M", the letter we had added to the middle of the name of our new country. It was very tempting to see some special meaning in this and we did: we decided it was a wisdom tooth, signifying the wisdom of the Schwambranians. Thus, the new country's contours resembled a wisdom tooth. The surrounding ocean was dotted with islands and blots, but I must say that the ink-spots were truthfully marked as such: "Not an iland, an erer". The ocean was marked "Oshen". Oska drew wavy lines and inscribed them "waves". Then he marked the "see" and added two arrows, one pointing out the "curant" and the other "this way is aposit". There was also a "beech", a straight-coursing river named the Halma, the capital city of Schwambraena, the towns of Argonsk and Drandzonsk, Foren Shore Bay, "that side", a "peer", mountains and, finally, "the place where the Earth curves".

     At the time Oska was very much concerned about the spherical nature of the ground underfoot and did his best to prove the roundness of the Earth to himself. Luckily, we knew nothing of Mayakovsky's poetry, for Oska's pants certainly would have been worn thin in his efforts to see if he could slide on it. However, he discovered another way of proving it. Before putting the finishing touches to his map of Schwambrania, he led me out of our yard with a very meaningful look on his face. Beyond the granaries and near the main square the remains of a mound could be seen. Perhaps this had once been a part of some earthen foundation for a chapel, or perhaps it had once been a large flower bed. Time had all but levelled the little hump. Oska beamed as he led me to it. He pointed grandly and said:

     "Here's the place where the Earth curves."

     I dared not contradict him. Perhaps the Earth did curve there. At any rate, in order not to lose face, for he was my baby brother after all, I said: "Ha! That's nothing! You should have seen that place in Saratov. That's where the Earth re curves."

     Schwambrania was a truly symmetrical land, one that could easily serve an example for any ornament. To the West were mountains, a city and the sea. To East were mountains, a city and the sea. There was a bay on the left and a bay the right. This symmetry reflected the true justice which governed Schwambrania and the rules of our game. Unlike ordinary books, where good prevails and evil is vanquished on the very last page, ours was a land where the heroes were rewarded and the villains defeated at the very start. Ours was a country of complete well-being and exquisite perfection. There was not even a jagged line in its contour.

     Symmetry is a balance of lines, a linear system of justice. Schwambrania was a land of true justice, where all the good things in life and even the terrain were fairly distributed. There was a bay on the left and a bay on the right, the city of Drandzonsk in the West and the city of Argonsk in the East. Justice reigned.

     Now, as was only proper for a real nation, Schwambrania had to have a history all its own. Six months of our playing the game covered several centuries of its existence.

     As I learned from my reading, the past history of any self-respecting country was crammed full of wars. That was why Schwambrania had to work hard to catch up. However, there was no one it could fight. That was why we had to draw two curved lines across the bottom of the Big Tooth Continent and write "Fence" along one of them. We now had two enemy nations in the two marked-off comers. One was "Caldonia", a combination of "cad" and "Caledonia", and the other was "Balvonia", a combination of "bad" and "Bolivia". The level ground situated between Caldonia and Balvonia was there to serve as a battle-field. It was marked "War" on the map.

     We were soon to see the same word in large block letters in the newspapers.

     We imagined that all real battles took place in a special hard-packed, cleanly-swept square area like a parade ground. The Earth never curved here, for the ground was level and smooth.

     "The war place is paved like a sidewalk," I said knowingly to my brother.

     "Is there a Volga in a war?" he wanted to know. He thought that the Volga meant any river.

     To both sides of the "War" part on the map were the places for the prisoners of war. The three areas were clearly marked "prizon".

     All wars in Schwambrania began with the postman ringing the front doorbell of the Emperor's palace. He would say:

     "There's a special delivery for you, Your Majesty. Sign here."

     "I wonder who it's from?" the Emperor would say, licking the tip of his pencil.

     Oska was the postman. I was the Emperor.

     "I think I know that handwriting," the postman would reply. "It looks like it's from Balvonia. From their king."

     "Any letters from Caldonia?" the Emperor would ask.

     "They're still writing," the postman would answer, mimicking to perfection the reply of our postman, Neboga, for that was what he would say whenever we asked if there were any letters for us.

     "Lend me a hairpin, Queen!" the Emperor would shout and would then slit open the envelope with a hairpin. A letter might read:

     "Dear Mr. King of Schwambrania,

     "How are you? We are fine, thank God. Yesterday we had a bad earthquake and three volcanoes erupted. Then there was a terrible fire in the palace and a terrible flood. Last week we had a war against Caldonia. But we licked them and captured all of them. Because the Balvonians are all very brave heroes. And all the Schwambranians are fools, idiots, dunderheads and vandals. And we want to fight you. God willing, we present you with a manifesto in the newspapers. Come on out and fight a War. We'll lick you all and capture you, too. If you don't fight a War, you're all scaredy-cats and sissies. And we despise you. You're all a bunch of idiots.

     "Regards to your missus the Queen and to the young man who's the heir. "Wherewith is the print of mine own boot.

     "The King of Balvonia"

     Upon reading such a letter, the Emperor would become very angry. He would take his sword down from the wall and summon his knife-grinders. He would then send the Balvoniancad a telegram with a "paid reply". The message would read:

     According to my History of Russia textbook, either Prince Yaroslav or Prince Svyatoslav of yore had sent his enemies a similar warning. The Prince would telegraph this message to some warrior tribe of Pechenegs or Polovtsi and would then ride off to settle their hash. However, it would never do to address such an impertinent fellow as the King of Balvonia politely, and that was why the Emperor of Schwambrania would angrily add "rat": "I March on you, rat!" Then the Emperor would summon the supplier of medicine to His Majesty's court, whose official title was Physician Extraordinary, and get himself called up.

     "And how are we today?" the Physician Extraordinary would inquire. "How's our stomach? Uh ... how's our stool, I mean throne, today? Breathe deeply, please."

     Then the Emperor would get into his coach and say: "Come on, fellow! Don't spare the horses!"

     And he would go off to war. Everyone would cheer and salute, while his queen waved a clean hankie from her window.

     Naturally, Schwambrania won all its wars. Balvonia was defeated and annexed. But no sooner were the "war parade grounds" swept clean and the "prizon" places aired than Caldonia would declare war on Schwambrania. It would also be defeated. A hole was made in the fortress wall, and from then on the Schwambranians could go to Caldonia without paying the fare, every day except Sundays.

     There was a special place on "that side" for "Foren Land". That was where the nasty Piliguins lived. They roamed the icy wastes and were something of a cross between pilgrims and penguins. The Schwambranians had met the Piliguins head-on on the war grounds on several occasions and had always defeated them. However, we did not annex their land, for then we would have had no one to fight. Thus, Piliguinia was set aside for future historic developments.

     When in Schwambrania, we lived on the main street of Drandzonsk, on the 1,001st floor of a diamond house. When in Russia we lived in the town of Pokrovsk on the Volga River, opposite the city of Saratov. We lived on the first floor of a house on Market Square.

     The screeching voices of the women vendors burst in through the open windows. The pungent dregs of the market were piled high on the square. The unharnessed horses chomped loudly, and their feed-bags jerked and bobbed. Wagons raised their shafts heavenwards, imploringly. There were eatables, junk, groceries, greens, dry goods, embroideries and hot food rows. Thin-rind watermelons were stacked in pyramids like cannon-balls in the movie The Defence of Sevastopol.

     This was the film then being shown at the Eldorado, the electric cinematographic theatre around the corner. There were always goats outside. Regular herds of goats crowded around to munch on the playbills which were pasted to the billboards with flour-paste.

     Breshka Street led from the Eldorado to our house. People used to promenade here in the evenings. The street was only two blocks long, and so the strollers would jostle each other as they walked back and forth for hours on end, from one corner to another, like tiny waves in a bathtub splashing first against one side and then another. The girls from the outlying farms walked down the middle of the street. They seemed to be sailing along unhurriedly, swaying slightly as they walked, like the floating watermelon rinds hitting the Volga piers. The dry, staccato sound of roasted sunflower seeds being cracked floated above the crowd. The sidewalks were black from discarded sunflower shells. The roasted seeds were known locally as "Pokrovsk conversation".

     Standing on the sidelines were young fellows wearing rubber galoshes over their boots. They would flick away a garland of empty seed shells stuck to their lip with a magnificent movement of a pinky. A young man would address a girl with true politesse: "Mind if I latch on? How's about telling us your name? What is it? Marusya? Katya?"

     "Go on! Doesn't he think he's something!" the girl would scoff. "Oh, well, what the heck, you might as well walk along."

     All evening long the babbling, sunflower seed-cracking crowd of country boys and girls would stomp up and down in front of our windows.

     We would sit on the windowsill in the dark parlour, looking out at the darkening street. As busy Breshka Street floated by us, invisible palaces and castles rose on the windowsill and palm fonds waved, and cannonade we two alone could hear resounded all around us. The destructive shrapnel of our imagination tore through the night. We were firing upon Breshka Street from our windowsill, which was Schwambrania.

     We could hear the whistles of the river boats on the Volga. They came to us from the darkness of the night like streamers bridging the distance. Some were very high and vibrated like the coiled wire in bulb, while others were low and rumbling like a piano's bass string. A boat was attached to the other end of each streamer, lost in the dampness of the great river. We knew the entire ledger of these boat calls by heart, and could read the whistles and blasts like the lines of a book. Here was a velvety, majestic, high-rising and slowly descending "arrival" whistle of the Rus. A hoarse-voiced tug pulling a heavy barge scolded a rowboat. Two short, polite blasts followed. That was the Samolyot and the Kavkaz-Mercury approaching each other. We even knew that the Samolyot was heading upstream to Nizhny Novgorod, while the Kavkaz-Mercury was heading downstream to Astrakhan, since the Mercury, obeying the rules of river etiquette, was the first to say hello.


     Our world was a bay jam-packed with boats. Life was an endless journey, and each given day was a new voyage. It was quite natural, therefore, that every Schwambranian was a sailor. Each and every one had a boat tied up in his back yard. Jack, the Sailor's Companion, was far and away the most highly respected of all Schwambranians.

     This great statesman came into being because of a small handbook entitled: The Sailor's Pocket Companion and Dictionary of Most-Used Phrases. We bought this dog-eared treasure at the market second-hand for five kopeks and endowed our new hero, Jack, the Sailor's Companion, with all the wisdom between its covers.

     Since the handbook contained a vocabulary as well as a short section of sailing directions, Jack soon became a regular linguist, as he learned to speak German, English, French and Italian.

     Speaking for Jack, I would read the vocabulary aloud, line after line. The result was most satisfying.

     "Thunder, lightning, waterspout, typhoon!" Jack, the Sailor's Companion would say. "Donner, blitz, wasserhose! How do you do, sir or madame, good morning, bonjour. Do you speak any other language? Yes, I speak German and French. Good morning, evening. Goodbye, guten Morgen, Abend, adieu. I have come by boat, ship, on foot, on horseback; par mer, a pied, a cheval.... Man overboard. Un uomo in mare. What is the charge for saving him? Wie viel ist der bergelon?"

     Sometimes Jack's imagination ran away with him, and I would blush for shame at his whopping lies.

     "The pilot grounded us," Jack, the Sailor's Companion would say angrily on page 103, but would then confess in several languages (page 104): "I purposely ran aground to save the cargo."

     We began our day in Pokrovsk with an arrival whistle while still in our beds. This meant we had returned from a night spent in Schwambrania. Annushka would watch the morning ritual patiently.

     "Slow speed! Cast down the mooring rope!" Oska commanded after he had sounded his fog horn.

     We cast off our blankets.

     "Stop! Let down the gangplank!"

     We swung our legs over the side of our beds.

     "All off! We've arrived!"

     "Good morning!"

     Our house was just another big boat. It had dropped anchor in the quiet harbour of Pokrovsk. Papa's consulting room was the bridge. No second class passengers, meaning us, were allowed there. The parlour was the first class deck house. The dining room was the mess. The terrace was the promenade deck. Annushka's room and the kitchen were the third class deck, the hold and the engine room. Second class passengers were not allowed in there, either. That was really a shame, because if there was ever any smoke in the house it came from there.

     There smokestack was not a make-believe one, but a real one, and real flames roared in the furnace. Annushka, the stoker and the engineer, used real tools: a poker and scoop. The deck house bell rang insistently. The samovar whistled, signalling our departure. As the water in it bubbled over Annushka snatched it up and carried it off to the mess, holding it as far away from her body as possible. That was how babies were carried off when they had wet their diapers.

     We were summoned up on deck and had to leave the engine room.

     We always left the kitchen unwillingly, because this was the main porthole of our house, a window to the outside world, so to speak. The kind of people we had been told once and for all were not the kind we were to associate with were forever coming and going here. The people we were not. to associate with were: ragmen, knife-grinders, delivery boys, plumbers, glaziers, postmen, firemen, organ-grinders, beggars, chimney-sweeps, janitors, the neighbours' cooks, coal men, gypsy fortune-tellers, carters, coopers, coachmen and wood-cutters. They were all third class passengers. And they were probably the best, the most interesting people in the world. But we were told that they were carriers of the most dreadful diseases and that their bodies swarmed with germs.

     One day Oska said to Levonty Abramkin, the master garbage man, "Are you really swamping, I mean swaping, uh ... you know, full of measle bugs crawling all over you?"

     "What's that?" Levonty sounded hurt. "These here are natural lice. There's no such animal as measle bugs. There's worms, but that's something you get in the stomach."

     "Oh! Do you have worms swarping inside your stomach?" Oska cried excitedly.

     This was the last straw. Levonty pulled on his cap and stalked out, slamming the door behind him.

     The kitchen was a seat of learning. In Schwambrania the King sat enthroned in the kitchen and let anyone in who wanted to come. The neighbourhood children would come carolling there on Christmas Eve.

     On New Year's Day our precinct policeman would call to pay his respects. He would click his heels and say:

     "My respects."

     He would be offered a glass of vodka brought out on a saucer, and a silver rouble The policeman would take the rouble, offer his thanks and then drink to our health Oska and I stared into his mouth. He would grunt and then stop breathing for moment. He seemed to be listening to some inner process in his body, listening to the progress of the vodka, as it were, down into his policeman's stomach. Then he would click his heels again and salute.

     "What's he doing?" Oska whispered.

     "He's offering us his respects."

     "For a rouble?"

     The policeman seemed embarrassed.


... ... ...
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В автобусе давка прижимает мужчину к девушке,девушка взглянув в низ, восклицает:Мужчина у вас магазин открыт! Мужчина в ответ: Да!!! А директора там не видать? Девушка снова вновь взглянув в низ,отвечает: Нет, только пьяный грузчик на мешках валяется!
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