Cover image for The time of light
Title:
The time of light
Author:
Kopperud, Gunnar, 1946-
Personal Author:
Edition:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Bloomsbury : Distributed by St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
247 pages ; 25 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9781582340883
Format :
Book

Available:*

Library
Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Status
Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
Searching...

On Order

Summary

Summary

A powerful and lyrical meditation on war and the pity of war.

The Time of Light begins as Markus, a former German soldier, seeks atonement from an Armenian priest for his part in the Nazi invasion of Russia. Captured at the Battle of Stalingrad, Markus never returned to Germany but tried instead to work out his destiny in the country and among the people he feels he desecrated. Overcome by grief and shame, Markus turns his back on everything, including his wife and son.

Framed by the 9-day Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 1994, The Time of Light is skillfully created from a series of tales that arise from Markus's conversations with the priest. It is a novel of striking contrasts, where devastating scenes are etched with an incisive lyricism that leaves the reader reeling. Clear-eyed about the savagery of war, harrowing in its evocation of emotion, powerfully imaginative in its grasp of something ineluctable in the human condition, The Time of Light is a mesmerizing novel by a prodigiously gifted new author.


Author Notes

Gunnar Kopperud was born in 1946 and studied theater in Strasbourg and at RADA in London. He also took a master's degree in philosophy at the University of Oslo. He has worked as a journalist, and spent the last few years mainly in Africa. He now lives in Norway.

Tina Nunnally is the prize-winning translator of Smilla's Sense of Snow .


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

A journalist by trade, Kopperud's remarkable first novel tells the story of three friends (soldiers in the German army that invaded Russia in 1941) and the history that swept over them. It is a story haunted by a cynicism that perhaps only a journalist could provide, for it touches the genocide and many of the ethnic fears and hatreds that marked twentieth-century European history. Kopperud makes good use of magic realism to offset the dark poetics of his narrative--for instance, a firefight in Stalingrad involving one of the Germans, a musician, has all the grace of a duet performing on stage until the final, searing moment--and to segue in and out of the most painful scenes. The destinies of the three Germans (who are captured), though played out differently, are explored for their painful similarities, a kind of groping with historical alienation that is also reflected in their respective places of exile--East Germany and the Soviet Union. By turns witty and philosophical, this novel offers no pat ending, no coda to the holocausts of the twentieth century. --Frank Caso


Publisher's Weekly Review

War and its consequences are the subjects of Norway-based journalist Kopperud's dreamlike first novel, set during a 10-day skirmish between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994. As that conflict unfolds, it triggers the haunted memories of WWII vet Markus Wagner, a German expatriate who participated in the Nazi army's disastrous winter 1942-1943 battle and occupation of Stalingrad. Burdened by the weight of his past, Markus recounts his story to an old Armenian priest, in wide-ranging conversations that touch on everything from Bertrand Russell to the inevitability of war atrocities. Chief among these in Markus's recollection are the torching of a Russian church filled with civilians, and the rape and murder of a village girl. In both cases, Markus is tormented by his own conflicted role. Kopperud spaces the war scenes far apart, with lots of philosophy and history in between. When the memories do come, they are filled with microscopic detail and stark imagery, and they possess a veneer of shimmering beauty, thanks to Kopperud's lyrical descriptions of the most base savagery. "Some stories must either never be told or be told only the way dreams are told," says one character, an Armenian survivor of Turkish brutality, and Kopperud obliges with fanciful, hallucinatory scenes such as one in which a musically gifted German sniper plays a duet in gunfire with his Russian counterpart. While Markus is the book's central figure, the third-person narrative encompasses other viewpoints as wellÄmost successfully that of Rachel, the Jewish lover Markus left behind in Norway. Other characters include Manfred and Dieter, fellow soldiers in Markus's unit. Gracefully manipulating fragmented voices and a patchwork narrative, Kopperud crafts a moving modernist meditation on German war guilt and the fundamental nature of good and evil, light and dark. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Against the backdrop of war in 1990s Armenia, a German soldier named Markus seeks atonement for his actions during the Battle of Stalingrad 50 years earlier. As he relates his story to a sympathetic priest, we are delivered back to the time of his service, ending with his capture by the Russians. With a mixture of penitence, self-justification, and opportunism, Markus chooses to desert his wife and young son in Germany to carry on with a new life in Armenia after his release from imprisonment; however, his true burden involves his role as a subversive agent for Russia's interest in the territory, and his story is reflected in the contemporary conflict. This is a very learned first novel from an admired philosopher and journalist, and the author's thoughts on free will, redemption, and the existence of evil are very much in evidence in the characters' mouths, making for slightly stiff reading. Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is evoked, and readers desiring a similar meditation on the immorality of war and other personal crimes should take note.DMarc Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One DAY ONE `I woke this morning to the song of war and the smell of tears. The war must have been going on for a long time: my pillow was wet, very, very wet.'     The priest studied the man who was speaking. He had to be around seventy, a little younger than himself, and slimmer, more compact; with sharp features, round glasses, and a thick silvery mane combed straight back. He spoke Armenian almost without accent; it was only now and then that a different melody would slip into his intonation, like a memory of another language, another place.     `When I got up I could hear the war outside my house, when I turned on the radio I could hear the war inside my house, when I brought in the newspaper I could read about it, when the gardener and housekeeper arrived I could see it in their faces.'     The man hadn't sent for him; it was others who had asked, cautiously, uneasily, whether the priest had time to stop by.     `I sent them home. They were frightened, frightened and proud, the way people are when a war starts.'     The man added, almost as an afterthought: `Too bad. I was thinking the gardener and I could gather the goutweed leaves together; winter is coming.'     He gave the priest a searching glance.     `To use for a compress for gout. Aegopodium podagraria , also called "German cabbage." I grew up in a library.'     The priest nodded. The man leaned back in his chair and turned his head, as if to look at something, something far away. The priest leaned forward.     `Is there anything I can help you with?'     `This.'     The man pointed to his own eyes.     `I've been crying all day, I can't work, can't talk to anyone, all I can do is cry, shut myself up in the house and cry.'     He said this without embarrassment.     There was silence in the room. Through an open window they could hear the sound of tanks and boots, thousands of boots, interrupted only by an occasional shouted command. The battle for Nagorno-Karabakh had begun.     `This war has been under preparation for a long time, it comes as no surprise. But to prepare for a war is one thing, suddenly to go to war is something else entirely. Could it be something about the actual outbreak of war that's making you cry?'     The priest waited. The man didn't reply, didn't turn his head.     `Nagorno-Karabakh is an ancient Armenian territory. Our leaders claim that all peaceful means were attempted and now they see no alternative but to go to war. Could it be something about this attitude that you're reacting to?'     The priest waited tensely. The man replied in a low, almost indifferent voice, so low that the priest had to lean closer to hear him.     `We're in the Caucasus, and war is an integral part of Caucasian culture.'     The priest took note of the word `integral'; it told him something about the man.     `I've counted them up; at this very moment we have thirty-seven armed conflicts and fifty disputed territories here in this region; next year there will undoubtedly be more. I've lived all my adult life here, and if I was going to cry over every war that broke out I wouldn't have time for anything else. May I offer you a cup of tea?'     The priest stood up and went over to the window while the man put the kettle on and brought in some cups. He had crossed the marketplace on his way from the church to the man's house, making his way through the soldiers and onlookers and armored cars and artillery. Soldiers and civilians alike had moved aside for the robed priest and allowed him through, but just barely, just barely; a different era seemed to be on the threshold. From the window he could hear shouts from the marketplace, first a solitary agitated voice, shrill, then the reply from thousands, deep and dangerous. The priest was new in town, he hadn't yet managed to take its pulse, hadn't been able to find it, not until now.     The man came and stood behind him. The roars from the marketplace rose toward the sky like black birds; the priest and the man stood in silence and watched them flap their wings, slow and menacing.     `All this fervor. What purpose does it serve?'     The man was almost whispering.     `They're young, they live in a fervent time.'     The priest turned around and saw something pass over the man's face, something that might resemble a smile. He accepted the cup of tea and sat down at the dining table, a heavy, solid table of imported beechwood with inlaid crystal mosaic. The cups were hand-painted porcelain with gilded rims. The man sat down on the other side of the table, the priest looked at him and asked in a low voice:     `Who are you?'     The man sat in thought for a long time before he replied.     `Markus Wagner, German. I came here fifty-three years ago, in the fall of 1941, in uniform.'     Something came to an abrupt halt in the room and held its breath, as if something forbidden had been said, something everyone knew but never mentioned.     The priest pulled himself together.     `Go on.' * * * June 22, 1941: Germany attacks the Soviet Union with 3 million soldiers, almost half of its armed forces, along a front that stretches from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Italy eventually join the campaign, which is the largest military invasion in human history. The attack is based partly on ideology: Communism must be eradicated. Partly pragmatic: New territories for settlement and raw materials will be secured for the German people. Opposing the Germans is the world's largest army. The Red Army is estimated to be 7 million strong, but at the same time the Communist system is considered so rotten that `all it would take is to kick in the door to make the whole thing collapse.' Thus the prevailing opinion is that the war against the Soviet Union will be over before winter sets in. The head of the German general staff, Franz Halder, writes in his journal: `The campaign against Russia will be won in 14 days.' The horizon curved gently around the cavalry clad in black coats. The man in front raised his hand, turned slightly, and signaled. The group started off, dust from hundreds of hooves swirled up. A faint breeze tugged lightly at the long coats, one of the men pulled the brim of his hat down over his eyes.     On both sides of the cavalry and behind, the rest of the plain started moving. Slowly it surged forward, a rolling plain of dark figures; the dry sound of boots, the muffled sound of tanks. The cavalry approached the edge of the plain; young, expectant faces, some smiling, others somber, on horseback, on foot, on tanks and artillery. The clamor grew with them, rising from a menacing rumble to a splitting roar from the airplanes. And singing; the cavalrymen were singing, confident of victory.     The first shots were fired somewhere in the distance. The cavalrymen looked up in surprise, looked at each other; the first shots in a war always seem unreal. No one sought cover, instead they urged their horses into a gallop, toward the shooting. It was early in the morning, the infantrymen who followed saw the cavalry etched like black silhouettes against the sunrise. They stood in their stirrups, struck their horses on the flanks, rode toward the shooting; a splendid picture, full of light and power.     The rider on the right flank was the first to disintegrate. Suddenly both he and his horse exploded in a gush of blood that glistened against the backlight. Two horses reared up, pranced sideways around the slow, red rain; the rest of the group continued on. The riders on the two rearing horses tried to regain control, had almost managed it, when they suddenly stiffened in the saddle, lurched several times, and fell forward. Their horses ran in terror out of the picture.     The other riders sought refuge in a hollow at the edge of the plain, where the slopes began. The horses pranced, sideways, backward. The safety catches clicked, two artillery guns were rolled forward.     One of the cavalrymen rode in front of the group, turned around and signaled to the young boys wearing black coats, raising his hand for quiet. The group gathered round. The leader began, his voice resonating, not in the hollowed terrain but in their terror, the quivering terror lodged in the pits of their stomachs, in every last one of them.     His voice was drowned out by the roar of a tank. The cavalrymen had a respite from his words, long enough for them to sense what lay next to their terror: anticipation.     The tank stopped, idled, the voice carried.     `That's all. May God have mercy on anyone who doesn't give his utmost.'     Dense forest, a low range of hills; the army stood eight rows deep along the whole perimeter of the woods; motorized cavalry on each flank, artillery behind, the horse cavalry in the middle, men shouting in front of each company, men shouting in sharp voices. The faces were still young, but serious now, uncertain. Some adjusted their gear belts, others checked their rifles, glancing at each other. A signal was given, the army started moving, dark figures running toward the dark forest, first one wave, then another, and another and another. The sound of thousands of boots on the forest floor, the ringing of metal, gasping breath.     The cavalrymen stopped at the top of a hill, straightened their caps, and looked down at the lights on the opposite side. The town seemed to be asleep, only a few lights on here and there, otherwise nothing; not a sound, nothing moving. The army massed behind the cavalry, silent, waiting. The rider in front turned around and looked back, raised his hand once again, and shouted.     The army started moving like an avalanche, slowly released. The avalanche rolled down the gentle slope and surged toward the town, bigger and bigger, faster and faster. The flash from artillery strikes in the town glinted on sweaty faces. Two young boys looked at each other and smiled, reached the first buildings, huddled behind the wall of a house. They were filled with anticipation now, excitement. They watched the group of riders assemble and then ride into the town, pushing their way in; they stood up and followed. From one section of the assault came excited laughter, from another the sound of singing.     A wind from the east suddenly streamed over them, wind from a universe that had collapsed because of the choices made by men. None of them noticed a thing, the wind was a Buddhist legend, and the boys had just finished high school; they hadn't made it that far in religion class.     Inside the town a little girl's face turned toward the sound; two dark, frightened eyes stared toward the singing and the laughter, uncomprehending, sitting up in bed, her arms around her knees. The war had arrived the way wars almost always do, of its own accord, and no one was fully able to explain how. One day there was warm sunshine and a lush play of colors and peace; the next day there was warm sunshine and a lush play of colors and war. People talked to each other in the streets, wondering: Could a country at war be so beautiful? Could a war be so radiant?     The people who said least were those who had fought in the previous war; they merely looked at each other, and in their eyes lay trenches and barbed wire and no-man's-land and bodies and defeat. Most of them were middle-aged and didn't figure on being called up, but they had sons of draft age, and they gave their sons the look that fathers have always given their sons when war breaks out: a look torn between sorrow over a history that no one can stop, and pride at being called upon by history.     The people who said a little more were those who had lived through the previous war; they straightened their backs, as if rising up from the rationing and the sound of hammers when the casualty lists were posted in the marketplace, the telegram from the defense department, the medal hung on the son's photograph, the defeat, and finally the humiliation and the sound of crutches everywhere. Those who had lived through the previous war looked toward the new war with a kind of hope.     The people who said the most were the new ones, those who didn't know what war was; they had merely assimilated the humiliation. They greeted the war with a mixture of pride and excitement; convinced they were right, they carried the banners and beat the drums and paraded through the streets the way people always do before going to war.     Later a time would come when historians would discuss the cause and judges would discuss the blame, but at that moment neither of these words existed. The country went to war because it had to, and if there was anyone who could have stopped the war, they spoke so softly that their voices were drowned out by the roar from the mass rallies. The country went to war because it wanted to, in warm sunshine and a lush play of colors, and people lifted their faces toward the beautiful weather and thought: What a magnificent day to go to war. * * * `As citizens of a country, we have certain obligations, Markus. Certain obligations and certain rights. They go hand in hand.'     His father was sitting behind the counter in the library. Markus stood leaning his elbows on the counter with the draft notice in his hands; it occurred to him that what personal conversations he and his father had were largely conducted across this counter. Later he would speculate that his father seemed more secure in the role of librarian than in the role of father, more secure in the public place than in the private. Here he could offer his son guidance without subjecting himself to close contact with him. But back then, that's not what Markus was thinking, back then he was simply uneasy.     `Erich Maria said no.'     `That's not an option. We have a legally elected government supported by a majority of the people. If the government thinks it's necessary to go to war to ensure the country's security, then it's our duty to participate.'     `Our duty?'     `My duty is to send you off, your duty is to go.'     `And what if I don't want to go?'     `Desire and duty have nothing to do with each other, Markus. Remember what our philosopher said: If you do something because you want to, you act well, but amorally. It is only when you do something out of duty, out of respect for your duty, that you act morally.'     Markus stood turning the letter over in his hands as he pondered this. He had read enough philosophy to recognize his father's reasoning, but he hadn't imagined that philosophy would one day catch up with him in this manner.     `Is it moral to go to war against other countries?'     `At the moment you haven't been called up for a war, but for military service.'     `That's sticking your head in the sand, Father. We both know what they're building up for.'     `It's the only possibility for us to survive as a nation, Markus. The Treaty of Versailles took from us practically all the opportunities we had for acquiring wealth; we either have to expand or run aground. Ask your teachers, ask the priest, ask the public officials, they'll all tell you the same thing.'     How strange, thought Markus, to go to war with your head full of arguments in favor of it, and your stomach full of protests against it. Quiet days and the sound of seagulls above a bare rock face; salty skin and sunshine. She lay next to him, he turned his head and looked at her, she noticed, met his glance. Salty skin and sunshine and the water 19° C; she blew water out of her nose and pushed her dark wet hair out of her face as she resurfaced after a dive. He had never seen a girl dive before, he thought they all jumped, with their legs tucked up under them. She had dived right in and shouted to him, teasing, when she broke the surface again. He had dived after her, swum over to her as he laughed, splashing her; she splashed him back. They swam next to each other, playing, and suddenly she brushed against him and he against her; they both noticed it and looked at each other, shy, that was the first time. They pulled hastily away, as if in apology, but not fast enough to deny what had happened.     Quiet days and the sound of seagulls above a bare rock face; salty skin and sunshine and someone who took his hand, cautiously, without looking at him. Something burst inside him and overflowed; a light, a joy, at knowing that he belonged to someone, someone he would long for, someone who would miss him, worry about him. July 6, 1941: The Russians retreat, the Germans advance on all fronts. During the first four months of the campaign they take 3.6 million Russian prisoners of war. In some places the Russians are so unprepared that the streetlights are burning and buses continue to run as the Germans attack. The cavalry halted and looked at the lights in the distance. One of the men shook his head.     `God Almighty.'     By now they had ridden hundreds of kilometers, deeper into the countryside than anyone before them for over a hundred years, and they still felt like seducers. Unsuspecting, the land submitted to them with almost no resistance and allowed the cavalry to enter, naively, as if the thought had never arisen that that's what they wanted. The cavalry had subdued village after village, subdued and abandoned them, as the men had moved from conquest to conquest, their backs getting straighter, their smiles prouder.     But they had never been welcomed with streetlights before, had never seen a town turn on its lights for them in the middle of a plain and whisper: Come on, take me.     `God Almighty.'     It was the same cavalryman; he had a narrow face with dark, shifting eyes and a seducer's contempt for his victim. He shook back a lock of black hair from his forehead and glanced at the others, without excitement, without curiosity, guided only by a plan, a plan that had to be carried out.     The cavalrymen rode toward the lights and watched them moving; they rode closer and watched them approach like great illuminated surfaces with shadows behind.     `God Almighty. Buses.'     The seducer again, half astonishment, half disappointment; it shouldn't be this easy, there's no honor in it. The cavalry stopped, dismounted at a bus stop, stood under a streetlight and watched the bus approach.     The seducer stretched out his hand, the bus turned in and stopped, opened the door. The cavalrymen got on, one after the other, the seducer first. A woman was sitting behind the wheel, young, blonde, with big, incredulous eyes. In the bus behind her sat ten or so people, dumbstruck.     `Where to?'     She tried to resist by asking the question, tried to hold onto reality the way it was before, right up until now, tried to hold tight to what had always been.     The seducer pretended not to understand, took a firm grip on the back of her neck with one hand and pressed a pistol against her temple with the other, motioning with his head.     `Drive.'     She didn't understand the word, but she knew what he meant, what he wanted; she had known this might happen one day, known it as an uneasiness, a possibility, a biological inevitability. One day someone might arrive who would exploit her innocence and take her firmly by the back of her neck and force her wherever he wanted to go, without asking. The seducer waved his pistol now and then, to show her which way to turn, tightening his grip on her neck if she tried to protest.     She grew frightened, he pointed to a street she had never driven down before, it led to a section of town that was forbidden to her, she had heard of it, had heard others whisper about it, but had never ventured there herself.     `No, no, please no.'     She was pleading now, whimpering.     The seducer pressed the pistol harder against her temple and yanked her head against him, using the hand around her neck, until she was locked between his hands; then he slowly turned her toward the entrance to the forbidden street. Markus was scared. He lay huddled around a submachine gun behind a low stone wall and he was scared. At intervals of several meters along the wall lay other soldiers, completely still. Some had shut their eyes, some were staring at the ground; everyone was waiting.     Shout, whispered Markus, shout, shout, shout, let's get it over with. On the other side of the wall lay a village; in that village a group of partisans had dug in. Markus had volunteered for the mop-up operation.     He had heard a voice right next to him and watched the others turn toward him in surprise when the lieutenant asked for volunteers; it wasn't until a few seconds later that he realized he was the one who had responded.     During the advance on the village he tried to figure out why he had volunteered, but couldn't find an answer. The only thing he had managed to put into words so far was the feeling of finally taking his fear all the way out, holding it like a spear in front of him.     The war had taught him what fear is and what dread is. Dread of the unknown, fear of the known; dread sits in your soul, fear sits in your body.     The recruit school was dread: sudden cold shivers of dread, of the war that lay before him, about which he knew nothing. The campaign was fear: intense, nauseating fear of suddenly having half his head blown off or his groin or stomach ripped open.     He had learned something more about fear and dread, but there his words deserted him; the closest he could come was that dread was somehow connected with a person's individual experience and could thus be chronic, while fear was connected to something more universal and for that reason erupted only under very specific conditions.     Markus checked the safety on the submachine gun for the twelfth time and thought: Those very specific conditions are right now, those very specific conditions are this stone wall, this stone wall right here is very special, and suddenly he had the stone wall under his right foot and his left foot was on its way over the top, and he realized that the lieutenant had shouted the order. On both sides of him he could sense the other soldiers on their way over the wall, and fear forced its way like nausea into every cranny of his body. His body conjured up the instincts of prehistoric man: his muscle armor tightened to receive blows, he hunched over to become the smallest possible target, hunched over and ran; keep moving, never stop moving, and the first building drew close, coming toward him with dark, dangerous windows. Markus glanced at the other two in the patrol, one on his left and one on his right, they nodded and Markus stormed toward the door with his gun ready. His first submachine gun, it had been given to him when he volunteered, his first close combat, the rifle he had been issued wasn't suited to close combat.     He set his boot against the door and kicked, and with that kick he encountered the war for the first time. Until that moment the war had been far away, something on the other side of the plain or up on a ridge they had fired on and received a reply from; until that moment the war had been shells that fell without warning and transformed his company into a running, shouting swarm. Markus kicked in the door of the first building, flung himself in sideways, and opened fire, and above the deafening, lethal hammering of the submachine gun he could hear a voice screaming shrilly, his own voice, and he suddenly noticed that his fear had left him; he kicked and screamed it out, and something else replaced it, something that filled him, bursting and gushing from the muzzle of the submachine gun and its strong recoil. Glorious.     Something moved inside the room and struck the door frame next to his face, splintering it once, and then again before Markus hurled himself out of the doorway and stood with his back pressed up against the wall outside. He nodded to the other two; together they covered the door and windows, knowing that another patrol was covering the other three sides of the building, and Markus took his time getting out the hand grenade. He could hear movement inside the building and pulled out the pin, now he could hear voices. He lobbed the grenade in a gentle arc, heard it thud against the floor, and everything grew quiet inside, the voices fell silent in the two endless seconds between the instant they understood what had been tossed onto the floor and the instant the grenade exploded, and hot compressed air flung the rest of the voices out through the windows and doorway.     The three soldiers looked at each other, expectantly, until Markus and the one who had covered the windows both stood staring at the one who had covered the door, and he nodded, looked down and went inside the building. He had a long face with high cheekbones, rather delicate lips, and a puzzled look in his eyes, as if there was always something he didn't quite understand. When he came out of the building, he first turned away and threw up, then he faced Markus and the other soldier with his puzzled eyes full of tears.     They moved on to the next building; running, hunching down, taking cover, running. On both sides they could hear commando shouts and shots, they could sense others advancing as they did, fitfully, the way an organism registers all movement; but at the same time their world was now a closed, isolated system, defined by the narrow alley with the three buildings assigned to them.     The next building came toward them and suddenly a machine gun fired from one of the windows, the shots struck the stone wall behind them with sharp, dry slaps. Markus and the two others threw themselves behind the cover of the wall and yelled, yelled for their lives, as they watched the shots from the machine gun blast the wall to bits. Two men with a bazooka came slithering over, studied the building through a square green periscope and took aim. Markus shut his eyes and listened for the whistling sound of the shells shooting out, almost like rockets in a fireworks show, so innocent. But the booms from the other side of the wall were not innocent. After the second boom the machine gun paused, and it was like a pain suddenly easing, only to strike again, and the two men with the bazooka shoved another shell in the tube, another boom followed, and then the machine-gun was silent. The two men with the bazooka milled, and the other three jumped back over the wall and ran toward the building. Markus and the boy with the puzzled look covered the third man as he went inside. They heard two short submachine gun bursts, not fully understanding; they looked at the figure that came out of the house, not fully understanding, but they pressed on toward the next building, and Markus thought: How long does a war actually last?     It was his turn again, and the two others covered him as he ran toward the door and kicked it in, he was quicker now, more confident. The building was bigger than the first one, he stood in a small hallway with two doors and hesitated for a moment before hammering a burst at one of them and kicking the other one in. Behind the falling door he caught a glimpse of movement, two arms reaching out and a face between them, a face with an expression and a voice. Markus raised his submachine gun to waist level and took aim, bending his knees slightly and steadying his body behind the weapon; in a fraction of a second his movements were transformed into a graceful ballet, a lovely dance with his gun, a ritual. He looked at the man behind the outstretched arms; he was grizzled, unshaven, unkempt, his clothes were rough and worn, but his gaze was sharp. Clear, alert eyes stared at the bullets coming toward him at the speed of three thousand meters per second; flashing, rotating steel projectiles that aimed straight for his stomach and threw him against the wall, blasting everything out of him. The man raised his glance toward Markus, and Markus aimed the steel projectiles at his eyes, erasing them from their sockets. At the same time something gushed out of Markus, a force, a discharge, a surrender; something he had only felt once before, just once. Quiet days and the sound of laughter in a schoolyard. They went to the same high school, but were in different classes; the world had not yet dared allow boys and girls to be in the same class, and besides, he was two years ahead of her. The separation was transplanted to the schoolyard; boys and girls stood in separate groups, each in its own section. Once she turned around and looked at him just as he turned around and looked at her; he smiled at her cautiously, a quick smile, she smiled back just as quickly and looked down.     Three days later he looked at her again. She had positioned herself near her girlfriends so that she could just manage to watch him out of the corner of her eye, and made them move so that he would have to turn around if he wanted to look at her. She saw him turn his head and look at her once; she lifted her chin. He turned back to his friends and kept on talking, then he turned around and looked at her again; she gave him a brief glance. Now they both knew.     The next time they met was in the municipal library where his father was a librarian. Markus had practically grown up in the library, exploring the shelves meter by meter, from the first books of fairy tales to the dusty leather volumes. He used to sit there with his homework in the afternoon; there was a sense of peace that he liked.     Rachel had never been in the habit of going to the library, had never been encouraged to do so; her father was convinced that everything she needed to know was in the books in the synagogue, but it's never too late to start, she thought with a smile.     She walked lightly up the steps to the library, pulled open the heavy doors to the reading room, and looked inside, then let go and ran back down the steps. Markus was sitting in the very back of the reading room. She took a deep breath and climbed the stairs again, opened the door, went inside, steered straight for where Markus was sitting, her chin jutting out slightly, almost there, almost. He looked up.     `Hi.'     `Hi.'     She ran her hand along the spines of the books on the shelf behind him, he was so close to her now, so close, if she reached out her hand she could touch him, she feigned nonchalance.     `Are you looking for something?'     He had taken off his glasses to look at her, the big round horn-rimmed glasses, his big eyes staring at her inquisitively.     `An elf. People say that elves live behind the books in a library.'     Markus smiled.     `He just left for lunch.'     `What are you sitting there reading?'     `Hugo Gressmann, Oriental eschatology.'     Rachel fell silent, she didn't know what eschatology was but didn't dare say so. Markus was silent too, he regretted using the word, it had created a gulf, and if he explained it the gulf would be even wider.     They were silent together for a long time, she standing and he sitting; they gave each other a brief glance, gave the wall a brief glance. Rachel turned away and Markus turned away, and from the books on all four walls came angry shouts; one of life's golden moments would have been wasted if each of them hadn't suddenly turned toward the other and started to say something but stopped to allow the other to speak, and they both burst out laughing, and the books breathed a sigh of relief and watched them as they left, walking side by side toward the door after Rachel had taken another deep breath and asked if he was going to take a break soon, and Markus's face had brightened and he had folded his horn-rimmed glasses and stood up. The books looked at each other and smiled as the two young people disappeared out the door.     Later Rachel looked up the word eschatology and read about the belief that the world can be cleansed by first being destroyed and then rising up again; she stared straight ahead, trying to picture Markus thinking about eschatology. Why did he do it? There was no reason for it. Then she looked up Hugo Gressmann and a sunbeam lit up her heart. The theology professor had written the book of eschatology teachings for her own people, and Rachel sensed that Markus was now saying something to her, something more important than what they had said to each other out on the terrace in front of the library when they talked for the first time and both of them tried to follow unwritten rules, managing to do so with their words but not in the way they said them. And when it was no longer possible to postpone it and they had to say goodbye, each went home, knowing that something had happened, and they both had a black, numb feeling deep inside their bodies, because they came from different cultures and lived in a period when more hatred existed between those two cultures than it had for hundreds of years. The submachine gun emptied out and was silent. Suddenly Markus heard the man groan, gasp; he fumbled for a new cartridge clip with his left hand and shoved it in as he kept an eye on the bundle over by the wall, but he didn't have time to protect himself before the blow came from behind, his face slammed against the door frame and the submachine gun was shoved into his stomach.     A strong, lean hand grabbed hold of his gun and tore it away from him; he spun around and stared straight into the eyes of a young woman with long brown hair and brown eyes. She pointed the submachine gun at him and pulled the trigger, and he looked for the steel projectile but heard only a click and her scream when she flung herself out the door as she pulled back the bolt to load the first round into the chamber. He heard two rapid bursts of gunfire and got to his knees just in time to see her running past his two comrades. The sight of a woman had made them hesitate the split second she needed to kill them, run to the wall, leap over it, and scream again, but a different kind of scream this time, prolonged, plaintive, as if someone had punctured her grief, and her body came back over the wall, slowly, with her arms spread out and the submachine gun hanging limply from one hand; a young woman with long brown hair and brown eyes impaled on a bayonet protruding from the spot where her ribs met. A dark splotch grew from the bayonet, and blood trickled down the rifle toward the fingers of the soldier who was holding it; he stared at the blood with disgust in his eyes and did what he had been drilled to do thousands of times during training with hay dummies: He gave the bayonet a swift twist and pulled it loose with a sideways motion, the blade flat between the ribs, and the woman fell straight down onto the wall with a hollow thud and lay there motionless.     Markus ran toward the wall and looked at the soldier with the bayonet as he picked up his submachine gun; the soldier first wiped the blood from his hands on the pants of his uniform, then he cleaned the blood from the bayonet by thrusting it into the ground. Markus ran over to his two comrades and turned them over; empty eyes stared up at him, so he ran back to the wall and leaped over. The soldier with the bayonet sat huddled with his back against the wall and his rifle in his lap. Markus sat down next to him. Neither of them spoke until the soldier with the bayonet turned and whispered:     `What's your name?'     `Markus. And yours?'     `Manfred.'     All around them the war went on. Soon an officer would appear and bellow at them to get moving, but at that moment they could sit still for a bit, next to each other, with their backs against a stone wall and that sense of solidarity that only violence can give. (Continues...) Copyright © 1998 Gunnar Kopperud.

Google Preview