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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
ИМЛДЯУП У ЭАЧКЮОЧЛУЗ
Лч члжйухъимк зцьие
THE BLACK BOOK AND SCHWAMBRANIA
A story of THE UNUSUAL ADVENTURES OF TWO KNIGHTS
In Search of Justice
THE GREAT SCHWAMBRANIAN NATION
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
THE BLACK BOOK
A LAND OF VOLCANIC ORIGIN
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 LOST QUEEN, OR THE MYSTERY OF THE SEASHELL GROTTO
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
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
"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
Annushka, our cook, stuck her head out of the kitchen and threw up her
"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
"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
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
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.
A BELATED INTRODUCTION
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
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
"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
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
"I MARCH ON YOU."
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
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
FROM POKROVSK TO DRANDZONSK
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
JACK, THE SAILOR'S COMPANION
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
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!"
A QUIET HAVEN
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
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:
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
"What's he doing?" Oska whispered.
"He's offering us his respects."
"For a rouble?"
The policeman seemed embarrassed.
... ... ...
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- Как что? Своих я утопил, а твои не тонут.