Indifference and Donkeys, A Tale

“In the blank wall of the world’s indifference there had appeared a tiny snakelike fissure,” wrote Vasily Grossman in his short story, “The Road,” in The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays (New York Review Books, 2010). He wrote this story in the period 1961-62, only two years before his death in Moscow in 1964, his posthumously published novel and acknowledged masterpiece, Life and Fate, still an “arrested” manuscript, unpublished until 1980, in Lausanne. Born in 1905 in Ukraine, a member of a large Jewish community in the city of Berdichev, his background was cosmopolitan, “Russified.” His parents had been students in Switzerland where they met; his own interests were in literature, and his career was as a writer. Revolutionary ideas were in the air and communist principles were subscribed to; Grossman’s revolutionary Romanticism stayed with him through his life and was present in his writing. He was a noted correspondent, his reports in the Russian popular press avidly followed and respected during the German occupation.

He had been nominated twice to receive the Stalin Prize and each time the award was vetoed. As Robert Chandler, editor of The Road, noted in one of his essays for the book, by 1948, with the Germans defeated, the war over and the Soviet Union safe, it was strategic for Stalin to rally a convenient enemy close to home. “Stalin appears to have understood,” Chandler wrote, “that anti-semitism was a force he could exploit in order to unite the majority of the population behind his regime.”

For Vasily Grossman, recovering and telling the stories of the atrocities against humanity, against the Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia and his personal losses, was a lifelong but not sole topic, and while he lived as a writer he was dogged and thwarted through most of his life in failing to have a good portion of his material published.

Chandler points out that Grossman’s subject was often violence, which, as a topic on its own, didn’t hold a genuine interest for him. “He wrote about violence simply because he was thrown up against a number of the most terrible acts of violence of the last century.” But the sustaining theme–in spite of the horror about which he was committed to write–was maternal love and the occasional kindnesses humanity can still show. In some of his writings the best of humanity is carried by animals about whom his writing evidences a convincing and intuitive understanding.

“In the blank wall of the world’s indifference there had appeared a tiny snakelike fissure,” Grossman had written; he had chosen his adjective with care. Snakelike, in no one’s vocabulary is a flattering comparison. It suggests something slithering, not upright; untrustworthy and low and at best, thin enough to be insinuating. It’s only a break, not an opening, the smallest incursion into the world’s indifference, sufficiently underfoot as to be almost overlooked. The observation isn’t Grossman’s, actually. It belongs to the Italian infantry donkey, Giu, allowing himself, in this small moment, to express the slightest sliver of hope. The allegory in which this sliver is lodged is Grossman’s story, “The Road,” and in tone and sensibility Grossman has written more than an allegory; it’s a parallel empathic state–the life and mind ofa mule in the terrible days following the terrible union of Hitler and Mussolini.

In their stolid silence, forbearance and pacific demeanour the donkey has been chosen as a special avatar for our sins and abuses. Think of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, the exquisite, painful film he made in 1966, almost contemporary with Grossman’s story of 1962. These gentle-eyed beasts carry, in their soft, thick-furred skins, a dusty timelessness that situates them in Europe in a way that the shiny newness and accelerated jazzy tempo of America couldn’t accommodate. They have an aura about them that isn’t now, but Giu, the mule, is telling us a story for now, for this time and place. The story told in the following excerpts could be used as a government directory for the ideal citizen, a step-by-step outline of the amplification of bureaucratic measuring and institutional entrenchment.

It is Italy in June 1941, and the country is celebrating the newly combined strengths of two fascist governments. Giu’s companion in harness is an old mule whose operational mode is indifference. They pay each other no mind, although they work, eat and sleep at each other’s side. When Giu was first conscripted for the job to which he is eternally tied, “He felt quietly furious at the senselessness of the long strip of asphalt.” It was endless, this road on which he was obliged to haul a heavy cart. Then he felt resentment toward the reins, the unpleasant driver, Niccolo, who insisted on more. “The enforced, pointless labour made Giu want to kick out at the cart and tear at the traces,” but he still had that space in his head to which he could retreat and picture sweet leaves, smell young mares and feel the soft wind on his flanks. His harness mate, he noticed, simply moved on and Giu recognized that “everything had become habitual and therefore right. Everything had joined together to form a life that was right and natural.” This good mule would be rewarded for his compliance by more of the same if things held steady. He could anticipate a pension and increasing weeks of holidays if he stayed with it and never brayed out in dissent.

There were breaks in the monotony but they weren’t, in fact, welcome. They were terror in the form of ropes lifting him onto a ship and unloading him in Abyssinia where his labours followed the course of the war. Italy to Abyssinia and then back to Italy. More dislocations by sea and suddenly he and his companion were on a wide plain and obliged to move endlessly on. They were hauling munitions to Russia for the assault on Stalingrad. “Defeated by the vastness of space animals began to die of murrain.” This cattle disease had them falling in their harnesses and simply dragged to the side of the road. “People treated them with boundless indifference,” Giu noted. And crossing this vast, fertile region, the breadbasket of the world, he recognized that the food on the flat plain was sweet and abundant. Still, “the sheer expanse of this plain, its endless expanse was cruel.” It was stronger than he ever could be, he knew. Could a donkey have the pride or ambition to set out this way, with his vision clouded by victory?

The season changed and soft rain became driving rain and “life changed from monotonous weariness to acute suffering and profound exhaustion.” And something else happened. Where there had once been a space in his head for dreaming and imagination, for his own pleasure, there was now only space, as vast and empty as the landscape through which he laboured. His large brain held only an “image of infinity itself–of the misty Russian plain and cold autumn rain pouring down over it without end.” Then it was winter.

Here is what relentlessness produces, here is the outcome of repetitive, mindless work to no purpose. “Slowly, inescapably, war and winter were crushing the mule. A vast, indifferent force was on the point of annihilating him; Giu countered this attack with an indifference of his own that was no less vast.” It needn’t be a totalitarian government that induces this state. Any untrammelled organizational growth will do.

“He became a shadow of himself–and this living ashen shadow could no longer sense either its own warmth or the pleasure that comes from food and rest.” Is there a measurable triumph of any scale here? Still, there was something. “This indifference toward himself was his last rebellion.” Grossman, the author, interjects here, recording with some admiration that “the mule had resolved Hamlet’s dilemma.” But with this indifference, which was counted a triumph over the existential dilemma, came a new state–an existence in absence, in that he’d lost his sensation of time, slipped out of or into a state of being in declaring time no longer a vital element for him. A hovering immanence, a kind of vacuum that still, isn’t nothing.

He describes his standing motionless while men ran up and back shouting, falling, rising again, and trucks and tractors moved past in disorder. His donkey companion had died and fallen. His driver, frozen, had died and he, Giu, stood on, and sometime later another driver approached him and it began again. “Then the man shouted and brandished his whip and his threats were neither more nor less threatening than Niccolo’s threats; the only difference was in the sounds that conveyed those threats.”

He was moved and fed a little and harnessed to a cart beside a skinny mare with sores on her sides like his, he noticed. “The mare stood beside him but the warmth from her hollow flank meant nothing to him. She laid her ears back almost flat against her head, and her face looked vicious and predatory.” Indifferent, he offered no response. They pulled the cart together and he sensed through his own indifference that her response was not. Nor was the flick of her tail on his hide indifferent, and here, “in the blank wall of the world’s indifference, there had appeared a tiny snakelike fissure.”

When the cart finally stopped for the day and the donkey and the mare were unharnessed, the mare approached him and laid her head against his neck. Her eyes, “the sad eyes of this collective-farm mare,” were full of trust. As though she were his loving mother she brought back “this good kind warmth of all that had gone to sleep.” Memory returned to him, the brutal and the dear, and “the terrible labour, the labour beyond labour that seemed to have destroyed him with its indifferent weight but which, in the end, evidently had not quite destroyed him.”

They nuzzled and whinnied and told each other the travails they had endured. Observing them in their contentment, Grossman has one of the drivers remark to the other that the donkey has become quite Russian. “No look–they’re both of them weeping” the other said. And that was true. Mule and mare together wept.
Documenters, systems analysts, number counters and policy designers might also read this and weep.

Volume 32, Number 1: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #125, published March 2013.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.