Guo Xiaolu: A Soul in Sakhalin

YOUR QUILT FEELS wet, your pillow smells sour. I lay beside your body, watching the winter rain obscuring the window. A crow cries three times. The damp and dark of  England has a huge presence in your north facing bedroom. There is never a glimmer of sunlight visiting here. When I stay in your room, I cannot tell the difference between morning and evening. As I stay here, I am drowned in anxiety as the time passes outside the window without revealing any meaning. And when the famous drizzling English rain splatters on the window, I have no choice but to surrender to the winter. The heating is broken. You try to fix it, as you attempt to give me your love. You tell me that you love me so much that you feel like escaping and turning away from me sometimes. Me too, I feel the same. I feel life is almost unlivable in your room. My heart aches, like the Keats poem says: “a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of  hemlock I had drunk...We are each others hemlock.

Then the rain continues through to the next day. We roast brown rice in a pan. We eat expired tofu. During the night I feel hungry again. I cook dumplings, smothering them with soy and fish sauce. In the hours of deep darkness, we hug each other close and tight, your chest warming mycheeks. I fall asleep while counting the beat of your heart. Then I wake up, I search for you in the dim dawn light. Somehow you are not lying beside me. Instead, you are looking at an old andbroken map, a map of Russia. You seem not to be looking at Russia, but studying the far east corner. Its the prison island of old Russia: Sakhalin. From the sunken mattress I gaze down ontoyour map the island you seem fascinated by is almost north of Japan. Why do you have that map? I ask you. No idea, you say. Someone forgot it in your bedroom, I urge. Who would that be? I light the stove. I am shivering, I need some hot coffee. Ten minutes later, I come back from your kitchen.Together we kneel down and contemplate the island its shaped like a deformed molecule floating aimlessly in the icy water between the Okhotsk Sea and thePacific Ocean. What a lonely island! The heating is still not working, and I feel my heart is thrown into that desolate place, Sakhalin, looming from your stained map.

For months, we have been sleeping on this bed without any pillows. Each night my head tries

to search for a comfortable angle. Then one day I buy two pillows. Yes, two new pillows. These

fresh feathered things momentarily lift my spirits, and I start to remember reading Chekovs letters.


He wrote that when one makes a very uncomfortable journey, one must bring two pillows and make sure that the pillow case is dark in color. Chekhov must have suffered from sleeplessness. He must have been laying his tired head against rusty train windows, and enduring frozen landscapes with a deep aching in his bones. But back here in dim and murky England, with these two new pillows I can now sleep, while listening to the snow falling on the lone oak tree in your backyard.

I begin to read Chekhov again. I imagine, no! Indeed, I see in my minds eye those Siberian peasants: toothless, skinny, hunchbacked, quick-tempered. Sitting all day long, they complain about poverty and illness. In their kitchens the cabbages are as withered as their old granny, the tea smells of rotten fish, the sugar is dirty grey, the cockroaches run all over the bread. Everything is revolting and people are dying. These are the peasants of  Chekhovs Russia. On the newly bought pillow I speak to you - I feel that if I change those Russian names into the names of my mother tongue, those peasants are just like the peasants of my own land, despite the difference of their religious background, and the fact that my peasants don’t drink vodka, but are instead mad pork eaters. Either way, the destiny of the powerless life shows the same face of  exploitation and hopelessness.

The snow thickens and covers the city more than ever. London Fields is hibernating under a melancholy sky, and I am slowly transforming into Chekhov. The year is 1890. I grow a spiky beard and put on a pair of solid glasses. I am wearing a sheep-skin leather coat. I have some brick tea with me. And I have embarked on a long journey, a journey the government has ordered me, as a trustworthy citizen, to make, in order to undertake a census of Sakhalins residents. I am leaving all my relatives, grandmother and sisters and brothers. I must ride a horse whether I like it or not.The two-horse carriage takes me away from my comfortable home. For days,my bones have been shaken behind two trudging animals. I fear my soul will be shaken out from my head if this carries on much longer. Maybe thats why humans will invent airplanes. Airplanes will carry souls but not bodies. Now, we have left the cities behind us, and I am traveling across the vast tundra. The snow lies still on the ground, and the spring has not yet come. One can see the white birch trees here and there, bare and naked, without a single leaf. Sometimes, a lone pine tree stands on the horizon,extending its branches into the dismal vaporous sky. Hasn’t the winter already finished? I have been told that in England the winter was over a month ago. I have heard the winter jasmines are already wilted in some European gardens. But above me, the sky is gloomy, carrying the unbearable heaviness of the clouds. Sometimes you see a string of cranes etching the sky, or wild geese flocking across the marshes. But for what purpose? It must be the call of spring. There is absolutely no hint of green in view. Not even a single green spot, apart from a soldier wearing his army coat and carrying a gun beneath his empty eyes. In an inn where I have had supper, nobody speaks about the spring, but just about ducks. The only thing of interest for the locals is how to capture and cook ducks. On this trip, the worst thing is the fact that there is absolutely nothing to eat. After days and nights in a horse-drawn carriage, sleepless and worn out, one arrives in a desolate town, hoping to have a loaf of hot bread, or warm cabbage soup, if not, then cold herrings or frozen sausages. But no, there is absolutely nothing to eat, apart from an offering of two tasteless cold eggs. Endless roads I have passed, and I have reached the end of the continent. From the mouth of the Amur river, I try to take a steamer to Sakhalin, but the steamer doesn’t leave until next week.

So, I, Chekhov, a short-sighted man in the year of 1890, all I do before I reach Sakhalin is sit

alone in an old inn, waiting forever for  a steamer, writing to my sister and mother. The letters take



ages to arrive home, and one hope those emotions will not be wasted and thrown away on the road by some ill-tempered postman. Then, eventually, the steamer comes and takes me on the final leg of my journey. I step from the boat, I plant my feet on firm earth of  the island. Ah, Sakhalin!

At once I'm struck by a dullness that seems as infinitely cold as the island wind.   Dull, sad faces of the locals, the convicts, the wives, and the children. Those convicts, with their motionless expressions, what have they done? Some have murdered their wives; other committed petty crimes against their neighbours; the rest were thieves. Amongst all this misery, what I feel most intensely is hunger, an obsessive urge to eat. After two days of rest, I raise my head from an old pillow the locals have given me. And there, before me, is sugar, sausage, and beef. With these I manage toclaim my soul back from theemptiness of my stomach.In a desolateand shabbyshop, I have bought some coffee and milk too. Sitting alone, I eat with full concentration. I let the desolate wind blow through the broken wooden door. It is hell here, but a perfect, systematic hell, coherent from top to bottom. Every day repeats the same foggy, windy, hellish weather. Towards the evening the roads begin to freeze, and at night the air is so frosty that you feel the icy crystals stab your lungswith each breath.  The mud is transformed into a hard unbreakable crust. When I walk in the darkening street, my soul is turned inside out… Have I ever been so lonely? I cannot say this is the loneliest, I am being accompaniedby two kind inspectors most of the days.We knock on residents’ doors and note down the familys status. No, I am not a lost lonely soul. But still, I feel this misery wrapped around me. All I need is an extra sheep-skin coat, and all I long for is a warm bed to crawl in and a warm place to write. There is no other passion in me, not even love.

The year is 1890. In Sakhalin, one out of four women is a prostitute, residents live by deceit,gambling, bribery, and murder. The population is 30,000, made up of Russians, Japanese and Koreans - of whom over 20,000 are Russian convicts, surviving alongside indigenous people. Its Russians in the north, Japanese and Koreans in the south. Every man here seems to be drowned in total, most cruel despair, and the only topic on their dinner table is poverty. The dinner would only be a pot of grey cabbage soup, not even a fish from the nearby sea. I have established that the Japanese are slowly leaving the island, although some wrecked Japanese fishing boats are cast up on the beach.The Japanese are whale hunters, unlike the lazy drunk Russians! Sometimes, on the shore, one can see the Asian fishing men eating hot rice, solemnly pouring dark plum soy sauce into their bowls. They don’t drink as much cabbage soup as Russians do.They eat whales.

Every morning when I wake up, I think of leaving this place. Desperate as a convict, I havewaited for the steamer to come, to save me from this misery. Every two days, I walk to the bank and I ask the man whos in charge of unloading the boat. With a blank face, he shakes his head. His beard is long, so are the hairs inside his nose. People here are forever waiting for letters to arrive, letters brought by that elusive steamer, sent from families in Siberia or Kiev, or Moscow. But I who have become Chekhov, I am waiting for letters sent from London Fields, sent from a north-facing window. No, there is nothing on the shore. I walk back to the house. Then I write more letters to London. Again, I wait for weeks. There is nothing on the sea apart from an impenetrable mist.

Then one day, it comes. A sound louder than any sound known on earth. A sound of a god striking the earth. The sky explodes above the Tunguska river. I am on duty when the “eventoccurs, noting down the status of a family who came to Sakhalin 20 years ago; the man stabbed

his brother during a quarrel, and now he is out of jail, living wordlessly with his wife and two



daughters. I drink tea with the wife while a daughter is peeling potatoes. Suddenly, a strong whistling wind shakes the house. The wife says: “Can you hear all those birds flying overhead? We walk outside. The sky is darkened by a most ominous cloud, a cloud made by a huge swarm of black birds escaping, in panic; broken branches and flapping chickens are blown through the sky. We are terrified. The daughters start to cry out for their father. Trees are blown down like grass. Thenthunder strikes with deafening force. After that we hear the roar of burning flames somewherein the distance. The Earth begins to move and rock, wind hits our hut and knocks it over. I run outside, staying away from all the houses, nervous as hell. The birch tree branches are on fire, the sky lights up and becomes as bright as if there was a second sun. My eyes hurt,my blood is pumped out from my veins. Then there is a second thunderbolt, and a third. I'm losing my mind; I no longer know if I am on earth or, indeed, in hell.

And so, my house is destroyed, as are the fragile huts where poor people live. I end up re- housed in an official dwelling, with the superior police commander who has been monitoring me since I've come to the island. He likes my plays. He has seen “Ivanov” in a theatre in Vladivostok. I call him the supreme inspector. The night after the Tunguska disaster, we decide to lie side by side on his ground floor, in case the fire and the wind come to hit us a second time. We two lie awake till morning, but do not utter a single word. All night we feel the gods are walking about around our house. All night we are waiting for the savage god to knock down our house. But he doesn’t.

Before the Tunguska disaster, there had been much talk amongst the convicts in Sakhalin that the world was about to end. But Sakhalin was not destroyed despite the desires of its inhabitants.Yes, the Tunguska Wind you in other continents may have heard that it destroyed 80 million trees across Russia, that it flung cows and roosters across sky, as well as scooping up the roofs of houses and small children.

I long for you. I long for those bones on your chest. I long for the two new soft pillows on your bed. I long to return to you. Hell, I long to finish my duties in the east-most island. And here I am, I have come back from Sakhalin. I have come back through Siberia, I have passed through Ulan Bator, Irkustsk, and Moscow, and have flown over the Black sea and the Balkan Mountains. Yes, here I am, I have come back. With the Tunguska wind still whirling in my head, I have left behindmy numb and frozen heart on the edge of theworld. Here I am, with you to make love through the everlasting winter, to make love in this room, with a stained map, now forever folded in a drawer, to

make love while the city around us wakes from its long night of  dreams.


This story was read by the author on BBC Radio 3 THE ESSAY programme January 2010.


No comments


The 7th Issue