James Thackara
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Book of Kings

Excerpts

When the night of sailing came, Justin Lothaire stood with his mother on the steamer’s bottom deck, crushed close by the children of Allah. Above the Gran Quai and Agha hovered Algiers the White, dimly pearly and mysterious. The keening of a Muslim wake came to Justin like seabirds through the dark. The city was a fortress from which his soul had sprung, and drawn wisdom, and now he would leave it behind. Justin felt empty and sick.

Against the ship’s rail Jeanne pressed near her son, holding his hand in both hers. Tonight, Justin was happy to have her warmth against him, even if she wore a shawl of the dreaded lace. Her fear made his mother tense and childishly devout, and Justin saw that she had been beautiful once.

“Justin, the deck is moving under my feet,” she said.

Justin opened his mouth, but his voice sounded faraway and unfamiliar. Someone was elbowing him.”

“It’s alright, Maman.” He squeezed her fingers. “You must get down there in two minutes.”

“Justin. Oh, my boy.”

“Mother, I wish I could stay with you.”

Justin’s heart leapt with a wild hope. His mother could free him from this. She had only to forbid his going.

“I love the Rue Mahbu,” he said.

“Oh, no, Justin! Your name was in the newspaper. Now you must go.”

Abruptly Justin was alone, crushed on the wooden rail by lunging shoulders. His eyes followed his mother’s white shawl down the gangway, past the porters, between white-uniformed French officers. He saw her jostled by a tall Arab. She lurched, without a French officer talking her arm. Did they now know that the little woman in the flowered dress was his mother? Justin clenched his jaw against angry tears.

“Maman!” Justin shouted, and his soul wept that she did not see him and that they had no paper streamers to throw to each other. Justin’s throat made a small explosive sound and he waved again. Then his mother saw him, and she began to wave with the others.


When Yasmin had hurried back out of the Le Treves’ Paris garden, they were alone. David Sunda sat on the chair next to Helene. The sun fell in speckles through the willow branches. Helene began to pour the tea. David did not comment on the speed of the tray’s appearance or on the sudden absence of the labrador.

“English cakes?” David lifted the warm napkin covering the wicker basket.

“Scones,” Helene corrected, without looking up. “Don’t you like them?”

“Can’t you remember how much?” he said.

At the iron table under the willow, and through the fragrant old garden, there was a long, unnatural silence. David watched Helene’s hands move steadily from the teapot to the sugar spoon to the basket. He was conscious that the subject most obvious and ripe for them was the sudden, astonishing marriage in Budapest of Justin and Luz. But about that there was something so terrible that David could not bring himself to speak of it. Abruptly he was aware that Helene had made no mention of it either. The spoon for the crystal jam dish clinked on David’s plate. Her hand was trembling.

“Bon!” Helene sat back with her cup. “So it was you who brought this absurdly fine weather?”

“Oberlinden was beautiful,” David said. “Though you know, Helene, weather travels from west to east.”

“Oh, I see,” she breathed, but the note of helplessness vanished immediately. “Well, so tell me about the Easter banquet of the Sundas, and your father’s friend Guderian. It must have been impressive.”

“The most significant I can remember. But there were...I had other things on my mind.”

“What could that be? Do you mean you have a secret?”

From over the high walls of the silent garden came the murmur of the capital. Along together under the budding tree, facing the silver tray flecked with sunlight, their voices were at the same time strangely heavy and light. At the word secret, Helene sat forward, took a scone from the warmer, and began to spread butter on it with great concentration. Watching her, for some moments David could not remember what Helene meant by secret. Then, with a rush of tender feeling, there came to him a happy evening three years earlier, an evening when he had sat on one of the Le Treves’ sofas, teasing a wild-eyes, giggling child.

Helene handed him the scone without meeting his eyes.
“A secret?” David replied. “Oh, I am rich in secrets.”

Taking the little napkin from his saucer, David gently wiped a drop of jam from the angle of her lips. Instantly Helene seemed to vanish before him. She did not meet his eyes. David saw again the aloofness of a young French aristocrat.
“I think no one must have more secrets than you do, Helene,” he said quietly.

“Tell me what your secret is.”

Helene’s voice was so soft, pained and tender that David leaned closer. She glanced up, and her expression told him that all this was intolerable. Did he not love her? Was he not about to tell the things closest to his soul?

“My secret at Oberlinden,” David began, “was to think about family and marriage. I was quite inspired.” David smiled faintly. And then other words were there close round and he had only to pronounce them, weighing each one to give it its perfect meaning. “I thought of all my empty fantasies. Then I thought of love” - David had set down the cup to free his expressive hands - “of the trust a man and a woman can build in each other. How only a woman’s passion knows what a man might be - how she can exist wholly only in his pride. I thought, Helene, how this reverence is the very essence of love.”

David paused. Helene’s sun-freckled face was even more drawn and melancholy. Her look seemed to beg David not to torture her with beautiful sentiments.

“I have never been happier, Helene,” he went on, his voice resonant. “And when it came to me how really very difficult all this was - well, at that moment life seemed wildly worth living.”

In his excitement, David suddenly found Helene’s left hand resting in his, as if it had fallen there from the tree. Her fingers were burning hot, her face was cold. She drew away, but seemed powerless to take back her hand. David closed it in his.

“Since I last saw you, Helene, I have been a good man.”

“Are you not always a good man, David?” Helene began in an agitated voice, and then her intelligent eyes darkened with tears.

“I needed to struggle with a spirit superior to mine in every way,” David went on, looking away from her face.

“But I am not...” Helene shook her head. A faint, frightened flush was spreading from the corners of her mouth.

“Could you not have seen? No, don’t stop me.” David laughed. “You were everywhere with me, a continuous music never twice the same. At Easter I felt so many evil spirits - so degrading, when it is one’s own people. But even detesting one’s time, a thousand memories of you filled those hours, like whispering angels. I have never been more ready for anything in my life than I am now for you. Beside such a passion for happiness, I can almost see a future...”

They were leaning close in their chairs, the air was suddenly damp and sharp. Still staring into his eyes, Helene finally took her fingers from his lips.

“Is this crying?” David whispered. He gently lifted Helene’s chin with his finger.

“Because I love you,” she said. “Because I am so proud.”

He would always remember Helene as she was at that moment, in the Paris dusk, with the fountain bubbling in the shadows. He would remember the animal warmth of the mysterious young body, stiff with tension on the chair edge, and the character in Helene’s cold, restrained words. But at her faint note of eagerness, David felt a sharp disappointment and loss.

“Helene?” He hurried on, bowing his head with self-loathing and pressing her hot little hands to his cheek. “Will you marry me?” And then David felt for the first time the touch of a strange hand on his head.


Now, at the invasion hour, as Guderian stood with his hands clasped behind his back at the broken gate as the snorting tanks gave way first to half tracks and then a mass of mantis-like .88s, his pride was set free.

Catching the rail on the radio truck, he swung up between the busy operators and banked on the driver’s cab. The brakes loosened, and they rolled forward out of Germany.

The tank leader looked back only once. Then he concentrated ahead on the ground fog. His mind emptied of everything but technical formulae embracing all eventualities, from a crushing victory over the enemy to an unforeseen efficiency among the excellent French antitank artillery, to a bloody rout of his own men - even to his own death. Since Guderian had been cultivating a mastery of such possibilities for organised violence all his adult years, what to a person who had attained a sacramental consciousness of his own life, and of all life, might have seemed an unthinkably bestial view of the weeks ahead stirred in the tank leader no special moral feeling, alarm, or horror - only a pride in his power to crush men’s lives. This, and only this, is what is meant by the word “military”.


The long dinner intermission had trickled away. The singer was back at her dressing table. When Heidrun murmured to the Isolde reflected in the mirror, the handsome young philosopher answered, almost whispering. She turned to him.

“Doctor, tell me, are my eyebrows straight?”
Johann nodded gravely before her eyes, for by now this heroic brow was as sacred to him as his innocence and the Delphic oracle combined. He had already conceived their long evening ahead. Seizing on it, Johann alluded to a Hungarian restaurant he had noticed in the town.

“Thank you. Yes, I agree, rice is preferable to potatoes. But maize is best of all. I ate only maize as a girl in Manaus. Truly, Doctor Godard. You didn’t know I was from Brazil?”

Johann visibly recoiled. This glorious Wagnerian soprano not a European? In some sense she was in impostor. But it had been Heidrun’s indifference as she spoke of her childhood that jarred their perfect happiness. Johann hurried to defend both of them.

“Naturally I know that.” He laughed his aggressive laugh. “But you see, Heidrun, we have only ten minutes. We must make a rendezvous for the evening. Would you prefer to join me for dinner at the Anker?”

“Oh, I could not do that.”

“But why not?” he whispered urgently.

A heavy pulse thundered in Doktor Godard’s head. Now the woman sitting at the table was lifting the braided gold wig from its rack and lowering it over her hair. Have you just exposed your whole life to her? Johann was thinking. Given her all of it?

“I thought you knew, Doctor. Surely Joachim told you I must leave for France tonight. Our handsome soldiers are in Paris. On Friday, the Fuhrer will be at the Opera to hear me sing Parsifal. And for the next month I will be travelling. And so, mein Herr Doktor, I must concentrate on Isolde’s next scene. My lover Tristan is with the hunters in the forest, waiting for his signal. Isolde must not fear the darkness. She must find the courage to extinguish the castle torch and welcome Night.”


Nevertheless, on a warm night in July of 1942, when Justin found himself toiling up into the mountain passage, he listened in pain for Luz’s steps behind him. Somewhere here, in the previous week, two Chalon Communists had been flayed and their bodies burned. One had been a young woman.

The air was heavy with wet grass and pine pitch. Breathing hard, Justin listened for the trusting footsteps that stumbled behind him. The silent forest was so menacing that Justin’s vision blurred. After two hours, they left the long traverse under the rock face. Ahead through the trees was a moonlit meadow of waist-high grass. His wife leaned panting against him.

“The meadow is Switzerland. We have only seconds.”

“Justin, is it now?”

“Don’t Luz...it won’t be long. I have to go back.”

“I love you, Justin.”

Justin felt her lips on his mouth and cheeks. Do not say it, he thought, do not ask me to go with you! Then he was watching Luz’s back recede, surrounded by the forest temple and its invisible colonnades. Just saw the way she walked, carrying the bag that held her few things, his manuscript, and the prize.

“Luz!” Justin called softly after her. “Luz!” He took two steps after the gliding shape in the meadow. There were tears on his cheeks. But Luz was gone.


When the last blizzard of that winter began on the following afternoon, David was in a murky forest only twenty kilometres southwest of Mogilev. The temperature had dropped sharply two hours before, freezing the wurst in his pocket. As David worked through a broad growth of brambles, he kept glancing up at the charcoal blizzard clouds that towered above the pines.

“Please, merciful Lord,” he muttered, to keep his mind off the dog patrols, “ why does life have to end in so forsaken a place?” By this, David meant a place where Helene could know nothing of him. A frozen wind sent spasms up and down his spine. He crunched forward under the thrashing trees, stumbling deeper into the night. Then, twenty paces ahead beyond a thick trunk, he saw the base of a shed. A window came into view. It was a two-story dacha.

As he crouched forward, there were tracks of men and huge dogs. Gasping with fear, David stood in the doorway with the automatic. The entrance room was bare, save for a single bamboo table. The light was failing fast.

Abruptly, David staggered, a violent pounding in his skull. What was that? A scratching as of claws. He gaped into the dark.

A long shadow was gliding down the staircase.

David lifted the gun. He saw his arm waver and the heavy-shouldered, mangy beast come, crouching horribly, over the planks. Scarcely believing the sound, he heard a menacing rumble. The flat yellow eyes were fixed on his. David heard a sharp, dry lash against the frozen air.

The monster kicked on the floor without a sound. His stomach heaving, Baron Sunda looked down at the house’s former master. Then he stepped over the dead animal. His frozen boots on the stairs mingled with the banging of shutters.

There was still some linen in one cupboard, and in the kitchen a sack of horse oats. There even books in the one bedroom that still had all its windowpanes. He would butcher the wolf tonight. David threw his bundle on the stained mattress. Avoiding his terrible reflection in a cracked mirror, he went to the shelf and picked out a little book in rotted blue Morocco leather, Poetes chinois du Tang. He just made out the French and Cyrillics. At the sight of the neat, lovingly printed words - the thoughts of a poet dead one thousand years - it was as if David were a student again; as if this age and this terrible hour were the students of other ages and other hours. And he read:

Easy to see the drift of the times,
Difficult to turn a single man from his way.


The little Oberfuhrer SS with the enormously bulging eyes stood waiting beside his desk in the red sun. On the all behind him hung a painted Totenkopf plaque.

“Sturmfuhrer, please go outside!” he shouted.

“Ja, Herr Oberfuhrer.” Franzel clicked heels and backed out behind the prisoner.

When the door had shut, the camp commandant advanced excitedly toward David, glaring into his face. The Oberfuhrer was over fifty, with hair clipped in a brush and a lividly sunburnt face. Two paces from his visitor he stopped, held a loose glove to his nose, and paced back to his desk. David stood struggling to keep his sanity as this person took his chair.

“You speak good German.”

“I am German.”

The Oberfuhrer had placed a pistol on his papers. As David took a step closer, he saw four whips on the wall like billiard cues. The nerves round his countryman’s mouth must be dead: saliva glistened on his chin.

“You are certainly a traitor,” the Oberfuhrer continued, after a full minute of silence. “What is more, you look like a Jew. Do you know the value of your life in my camp?”

“I have seen it, Herr Oberfuhrer.”

The Oberfuhrer’s eyes reddened. Barely disguising his excitement, he leaned forward. Then, twisting sideways, he lowered his voice.

“If you are wasting my time, traitor, I will tear you to pieces with my hands. If you tell me everything, everything, I personally as a gentleman can guarantee you will experience my gratitude. I am told that you have seen the plans for the Red Army counteroffensive?”

This person - a gentleman? Standing in the hot sun over the SS commandant’s desk, David thought that he would faint. He leaned with both hands on the desk, needing to believe what he knew to be taking place here. And if the entire Abwehr were hunting for Baron Sunda?

“Herr Oberfuhrer, I did not come to talk of plans,” David said. The commandant’s pudgy hand jammed an automatic against David’s throat.

“Stinking piece of pigshit! I give you five seconds.”

“I am Baron David Barthold von Sunda...” He was almost in tears, uttering that glorious name here at the end of the world.

“Impossible - impossible!” shrieked the Oberfuhrer, his lids blinking rapidly.

As the prisoner lurched backwards in the sweltering office, the veined eyes followed his features with a look of gathering consciousness. The commandant shook his cheeks violently. “No, it cannot be! It is impossible...”

David felt hysteria choke in his throat, where the commandant was still pointing the gun. “Herr Oberfuhrer Laufer!” - a hope had seized him, of indescribable sweetness - “you must release me from this place at once. As a gentleman, you cannot possibly know what is going on here!”

At these words, the man facing him sank back limp in the chair, the forgotten pistol in his palm. Through the window behind him David could see a tall prisoner separate from the late work detail, circle aimlessly, then fall in the mud. There was a sharp crack. The Oberfuhrer was still gaping at him with an expression of abject shock.

“I must insist. Release me at once,” David cried out.

Quite suddenly, the little Oberfuhrer SS had leapt up and was coming around the desk. David took two steps back.

“Never - do you hear me? - never!” He shouted, stabbing his arm toward the rafters. “Any Jew could try to impersonate Baron Sunda - I do not accept your claim, and neither will anyone else!”


Two hours later, Justin Lothaire was in the Tuileries gardens, walking with his cane toward the octagon lake. The children were there, sailing their boats. He saw Eli turn to meet him, and just for a moment the gold reflection off the lake blinded Justin with a brilliance like glacier ice.

“Are you ready, Justin?”

“You will not come in, having come all this way?”

“If you are there, we will all be there!”

“You make fun of me, little brother?” Justin was smiling, yet somehow Eli had looked hurt. Scarcely speaking, they circled under the chestnut trees, along the palace wall.

“It is only that they are grand men,” Eli said. “I will wait for you here.”

Turning the corner of the Elysee gardens, Justin approached the Faubourg gate. He felt the earth’s gravity in his legs and stomach, as if he were gaining in mass. Some military cars had just entered the courtyard between more than a dozen armed guards, loitering in two groups. At the sight of these gendarmes who had served the Nazis, a painful emotion stirred in Justin. Barely using his cane now, he turned through the gate. Someone began to shout.

“Pierrot, stop that man!”

Five of the police had closed behind Justin. A young blond swaggered forward, then called back excitedly.

“It is Lothaire, I know him well!”

The gendarme who knew Justin well led him across the gravel drive and up the porch steps to a glassed hall. Before going in, Justin looked back. The gendarmes and army drivers were grouped at the gate, watching. In the cloakroom, Justin’s skin twitched as he was searched. Then they clicked in step down a gallery of mirrors and up a huge flight of stairs. What had all this confident splendour to do with the evil still living on the earth? Fate, give him the words.
Justin reached a carpeted landing and braced on his stick against the new pain from his right tibia. Groups of officials glanced toward him without interrupting their discussions.

“In there, monsieur. Through the doors.”

The first object that Justin identified in the huge room, staring at him from between two bay windows, was a giant painting of the revolutionary, Bonaparte. The emperor was dressed in red robes and ermine, seated on a throne. Across the parquet floor, on sofas and gilt chairs, waited a circle of some dozen old gentlemen. A very tall, mournful officer Justin momentarily failed to recognise motioned him to the one empty chair.


At six o’clock when the sun rolled off the world and the frantic rhythm of “Tico Tico” floated from the sheds of the poor seringueiros like a rapture of angels, Otto accompanied the chefe to meet the Bororo headman, homem de ponta. By David’s calculation they would fail without more men.

Inside the house’s sun-speckled glade waited three more Bororo with pipes. The headman was said to speak Portuguese. David squatted down. In this shadowy place an animal drowsiness was coming over him.

“You have men to work for me?”

From deep among the thirty naked phantoms the tribesman who had plucked Otto’s cartridge drifted forward. He set down a gourd of black liquid.

Otto sniffed it. “Tobacco essence?”

“Accept it.” David sighed deeply, yawned, and stretched. Then he heard a voice of surpassing strangeness.

“It is said that you have been to a big war.”

The grinning faces of all three men were turned to him. David’s drowsiness had gone. He was suddenly soaked with fever.

That is so. Adolf Hitler’s army conquered one hundred nations,” he admitted very softly. “It filled the air, the forests, and the oceans with its machines. Very large numbers became slaves or were destroyed.”

“How many died, chefe?”

“Maybe fifty million.”

“Fifty..fifty? This is big, very big!”

In the smoking shadows, David lifted his hot face and saw these men slap their legs and call to the others seated at the end of the longhouse. “Fifty millions crushed, murdered,” he repeated. In this pleasant glade, were even the Einsatzgruppen to be admired?

“Raiding the Xavante, we killed six. Fifty is incredible!”

Parabens, homem!” laughed the man on David’s left. “And you - did you kill?”

“One,” David said.

“One of the fifty in such a war?”

“What was your blow...how did he die?”

The headman’s mysterious eyes examined David’s face.

“He surprised us,” David whispered at last. “I shot him down.”

“But he screamed? He rolled and kicked? He messed himself - ate cagar?”

“No. He was suddenly and completely shot.”

“And fifty, killed? It is very great!”

At last having comprehended the headman’s error, David became convulsed with tearful grins. He was preparing to attempt the word million when again his mouth was filled with the sweet vapours of his boyhood. He could not suppress a deep sigh. Then he exploded into laughter - and Baron Sunda and these naked men were laughing together. How he had feared this jungle in which he was buried!

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The Book of Kings
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