The Right Hand of Sleep

(This column was first published in the September 6, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

John Wray is a Buffalonian, a Nichols School graduate. Wray is his pen name; his original name is Henderson. (Why he left behind that perfectly good name escapes me. It reminds me of one of the first jokes my mother, a strict Republican, told me. It was about the man whose name was Franklin Delano Ratsbottom; he changed it to John Ratsbottom.)

But whatever the reason for the change, don't forget that new name. This young man is a wonderful storyteller. John Wray's first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), is a remarkable evocation of life as a pawn on the eastern European chessboard from 1917 to 1938. It is easy to summarize the story. A young Austrian, Oskar Voxlauer, joins the Austro-Hungarian army, deserts after an emotional experience during his first battle, wanders east into Russia where he spends years in a collective and finally returns to Austria just in time for the Nazi take-over.

There is a problem with that description, however. It sounds as though volition is involved whereas Voxlauer enjoys little discretion. He is simply pushed around by those around him. That he survives through the span of the story is only a matter of chance and we are left at the end believing that the odds against him have increased. (The story reminds me of one of the most deeply affecting motion pictures made about World War II -- "The 25th Hour".)

Not at all a pleasant story, it is still a great read. I was captivated by Voxlauer's adventures and Wray's language. If the author had lived through those terrible times, his depth of understanding of them would have been unusual; his not having been there makes this novel a tour de force.

Much of the story is told through flashbacks. Here is that World War I battle:

"By the time of the twelfth offensive the snow had begun in earnest and the new trenches we dug were set slantwise into the drifts. We were closer to the Italians now than we'd ever been. Mortars tore into the walls as though they were confetti paper and burst through in great pillars of twisting smoke, scattering us like pigeons up and down the line. The Germans had brought an entirely different war with them from the one we'd been in; even the Italians seemed to have noticed. I tried to imagine them huddled up the hill in their own dugouts, feeling the same fear I was beginning to feel, but I could never manage to picture them as anything other than flat, gray-faced caricatures. Occasionally voices would carry down to us in the pauses between shellings but they always had a smoothed-over, lifeless quality to them because of the snow and the trees and the near-to-constant wind. Sometimes at night we'd hear the sound of singing.

"Two days before the offensive the shelling stopped almost completely. It was clear to everyone that the Italians knew what was coming and when, but the Germans were relaxed and confident. On the day of the offensive we sat in a long row against the uphill wall, pounding on our feet through the toes of our boots to bring the feeling back into them, waiting on the order. Finally late at night the word came through.

"The bombardment lasted more than seven hours. I was feeder to a German fusilier, a taps sergeant named Wachmann who was patrician and friendly and spat whenever he had to give an order. His sense of humor reminded me of my Uncle Gustl's, self-serving and full of bluster; he also had Gustl's same Kaiser Wilhelm mustaches. I found myself wanting very badly to please him. We fired at eight-minute intervals, sowing cover for the infantry, pausing to give them time to reach their next point of shelter, then firing again. After three and a half hours of loading my hands were numb and white with cold and Wachmann sent me down for padded mittens. The walls of the back trenches made the firing seem very far off and the narrow strip of sky overhead was patterned by clouds with streaks of thin, rust-colored smoke across them. I was a long time getting the mittens.

"When I came back to the post I saw that the wall had fallen in and an instant or two later I saw Wachmann himself pressed down backward into the snow with his eyes shut and bleeding and violet scalloped burns over his face and shoulders. He rocked from side to side, arms pushed tightly down against his legs, murmuring something through his blackened teeth I couldn't decipher. His mustache and eyebrows had been burned away and his face looked to have been lifted up somehow and shifted slightly off its bones. I knew as I looked at him that the noise of the bombardment was all around me and that I myself was saying or shouting something but all I could hear was the noise of Wachmann trying to speak. It was a sickening noise. I stood without moving for a few moments longer listening to it and deciding whether or not to touch him or to take his pistol from its holster and kill him with it before the sound of the shelling and my stuttering voice returned all at once and I ran back through the trench and the columns of infantry that were suddenly filling it, screaming for an officer. The taps sergeant's been hit, I gasped to the fusilier in the next gunner's post. He turned round and looked at me as though I'd just asked him whether he could spare a schilling. Get back to your position, you idiot! he yelled, shooing me away with his yellow gloves.

"I ran back through the smoke to find the wall fallen further in and the mortar canting over against the pile of shells. Wachmann was still there with his head lolling back and a cord of thickened mucus jutting like a tusk from his mouth into the snow. I watched him for a little while, waiting for him to move, then crossed to the far side of the dugout and vomited. Afterward I sat back against a heap of spent shell casings and did nothing for a long time with the guns booming all around me. I knew my leaving for the mittens had had nothing to do with the rest but it was exactly that, the thought that nothing I did could have made any difference, that made me feel I should have been in the dugout when the shell came down. Wachmann was just on the other side of the casings but I couldn't look at him anymore. I felt very small and very light. A strange smell hung in the air, a smell like the tips in a box of wooden matches that has gotten wet. The air was clotted thickly in my mouth and it was hard to breathe. I stretched myself out on the ground and tried to lie completely still, looking up at the play of clouds and smoke across the sky. Hours passed. The returning fire grew fainter and fainter, like the clatter of a departing train, then vanished altogether. For the next half hour there was no sound along the line but a wet, muffled buzzing. Then even that ended. Everything was silent, palpable and alive, like the air between pealings of an enormous bell."

As the battle line moved away to the west, Voxlauer left and hiked east. He met other troops and was forced to prove he is not a deserter by shooting another deserter.

"That night the hussars gave me a coat and a felt blanket and sat me among them round the fire. The images of my father as I imagined him, and the taps sergeant and the deserter, mixed and separated again until I couldn't think of any one of them without the other two crowding in behind. There was no difference, finally, between them: all three had died. They had each died badly and I'd had a part in their deaths and I had come away alive. The knowledge of this made me feel ghostlike and transparent an d I wondered that no one around the fire seemed to notice. I had been solid and fully in my body before shooting the deserter but he had died very badly, slowly and in great pain, and I hadn't been able to fire a second time. Once he'd died and I knew that I was safe I'd been able to step away from the fact of myself a little and not think, only follow the hussars back to the tents. But now night had fallen and I was still not back in my body properly and in fact was trapped outside of it as the rest of them drank and cursed their superior officers and gossiped about the war.

"They were a young regiment, excepting some of the officers, and a few of them were from Karnten. One boy in particular, Alban I think his name was, was kind to me and shared a dram of watery schnapps and a little flake of chocolate. I found that in spite of what was happening I could drink and eat and talk to him very amiably. We exchanged addresses and promised we'd meet at the Niessener Hof for a drink sometime after the war, and he found me a bedroll and a coat and space in a tent with three other enlisted men. The captain came round a short time later and promised to have me restored to my company by six-o'clock the following evening. The front's moved on some eighteen-odd miles, he said. We took Caporetto this morning in less than an hour. He was standing over me at the opening of the tent and speaking evenly and unexcitedly with the clear starry sky behind him. Appreciative murmurs rose up from the others. That's good, I said after a time, not thinking that it was, particularly, or thinking anything at all but saying it was because that was simplest. There was silence for a moment. I looked up at the captain; he seemed to be waiting for me to say something more.

"That's good, I repeated. I suppose it's the Germans, sir? It's the gas, he said, turning on his heels and leaving.

"The next morning as we climbed through a dense belt of firs I broke off from the column and struck down into the trees. The company had thinned into loose clusters of men beating paths through the brush and my leaving went unnoticed. I felt indifferent to this, whether or not I had been seen, feeling that I was dead already. I'd been killed by the gas or the cold or the smell in the air or by the man I had killed; how I'd died made not the slightest difference. Where I was to drop, when eventually I did, made no difference either except that I knew it should not be in the snow in a trench like the taps sergeant, with the smell of gas and burnt powder all around me."

Fat chance he'll meet that young man again.

And here is the single passage that most affected me. Notice how little the minders care about due process or individuals:

"In 1921, in the middle of my third year with Anna, the Ukraine was retaken by the Bolsheviks. Less than a year later, on a September afternoon, the first motorcar I'd seen since crossing the border appeared unannounced and unexpected over the gentle roll of fields between Anna's house and the town and came to a stop twenty meters from where we stood, not doing much of anything, staring up the Cherkassy road as though waiting for just that motorcar to appear. It was a sand-colored G.A.Z. sedan with a folded-down canvas top and four men were sitting in it, dressed in high-collared brown coats and linen caps pulled down hard against the wind. None of them were wearing the Red Army uniforms still in fashion at that time and it was only by the looks on their faces as they crossed the field toward us and the fact that the driver remained behind the wheel staring blankly ahead of him with his goggles pushed down over his eyes that we knew them to be cadres. The smallest of them, a delicate-looking man in spectacles and a bow tie who reminded me of photographs I'd seen of the old Petersburg intellectuals, informed Anna with a crisp, calm, emotionless precision I couldn't help admiring that she had been identified by the Cherkassy soviet and the local village Mir as a kulak, a hoarder of grain and an enemy of the people and as such was to be transferred to a labor camp without delay. Alternatively, she could be sent to a newly inaugurated state farm, a sovkhoz, six hours to the north; the choice was hers. Why such an unusual offer was made we never learned, though Anna guessed it might have been in deference to her husband, who'd fallen in defense of the Revolution at the battle of Moscow two years earlier. I was flatly ignored, though it was made clear I could follow her to either destination if I chose. A truck would come for her or the both of us that same evening."

I congratulate this young man for producing a fully mature novel of the very highest quality.-- Gerry Rising