‘Killing our darlings’

In a moment of end-of-the-year nostalgia — and knowing that Swiss Vendetta comes out in paperback in January — I’ve taken a look at some of my favorite parts of Agnes Lüthi’s first adventure. I mentioned this to a few of my Beta readers and close family and they started to weigh in on their favorite scenes and characters. Inevitably, someone mentioned a chapter that was cut. (Yes, it happens, we ‘kill our darlings’ as the old saying goes.)

Vladimir Arsov was my father’s favorite character from the day I started work on the manuscript and every time I trimmed Arsov’s story I got a phone call or text saying “WHY?” followed by “I understand….” We used the full range of tearful emoticons.

As a tribute to my father who read every draft (and I do mean every single one), I wanted to share one of his favorite missing sections. If you are a fan of Arsov’s I hope you will enjoy this little foray. You will also notice that when these parts were cut they took other characters and subplots with them…. But that’s the history of editing, another topic entirely.

SWISS VENDETTA. Unpublished excerpt.

 

“If you go to war, make sure you fight Italians.”

Vladimir Arsov spoke before giving Gillespie instructions for the fire. He had very specific ideas about how the logs were to be laid. Good ideas, actually, and it was much warmer in the little circle near the hearth since he had taken command and banished the servant whose task it usually was.

“Everyone had an opinion about every detail of the war. Mostly it was just talk, but we would beg to hear stories about the Italians. There was a munitions expert down the hall from where we slept who had seen an entire battalion of Italians taken prisoner, and every time he told the story we laughed until we cried. They were such crybabies he said, not the officers, but the men. The privates bawling to be let go.”

Arsov smiled at the memory, then his eyes hardened. “With the Germans there were no such stories. Fritz was too tricky and cruel for tears. We were warned that if they were captured they would show their ‘workers’ hands and have photos of their families and even say they were communists. Maybe they were, maybe they ended up living in East Germany. I hope so, for they were cruel and not to be trusted. With the Germans there were no stories to make you laugh.”

“You stayed in Stalingrad with your brothers; when did the siege begin?” Rosemary asked. “That same winter?”

“I brought trouble in my wake, but not that quickly. We had a few months of frantic work and there was no time to reflect on my sorrows with the pressure menacing from the west. My brothers arranged it so that by the time the German army arrived I was a proud factory worker. Every man, woman and child between the age of 16 and 55 was organized into a worker’s column: they dug trenches, manned batteries, and like me, built munitions. It made no difference what you did in Stalingrad. We were all war workers.”

“This is where you learned to build bombs,” Gillespie said.

“Yes, I told you this part for your documentary.” Arsov glanced at Rosemary. “Did you know he has won awards for his work? Tell her about your awards.”

“I think she’s heard about them. They’re not interesting.”

“These awards he talks about when he asks to come to my house with his cameras and questions and now they aren’t interesting. A week we talked of nothing more than my bombs and his awards, how he knew exactly what he needed for this film. His experience.” Arsov stopped as if remembering why he had mentioned the awards in the first place. “He is a good man, Mister Gillespie, even if he brags when he means to be quiet. And Stalingrad is where all that I told you started. This is where I received the training that would help when I moved to France. I learned my skills in a munitions factory during the siege of Stalingrad.”

The training hadn’t sounded the same during the interview. Gillespie thought it had sounded like a skill learned at trade school: how to cobble together a bomb from scraps of metal and gunpowder, how to use tar to make it adhere, and how to cut the fuse so that it would light at the right time. How to create death and destruction from nothing.

“I was in the city for months,” Arsov said, “throughout the beautiful spring and hot summer. I was still young and thought the German army was coming for us—I think I imagined the same men who had killed my mother would track me down—but the men who understood strategy said no. The Germans had failed to take Moscow, then been driven back by the cold winter, they would spring forward again to that purpose. In the end they were wrong and my instincts were correct. Hitler himself had decided the oil fields of the Caucuses were more important than Moscow. And Stalingrad, the city and battle that was a turning point in the war, a name that will forever be synonymous with horror and suffering, was originally only one minor point on the German sweep.

“By summer, we felt them coming like a great cloud just over the horizon. In July the cities started to fall. The army advanced from the south and the west. Voronezh on the Don fell, then the Germans crossed the Don at Rostov; two days later they captured Rostov-on-Don. By the end of the month we had our orders. They were military orders, but we understood they were for us all: not one step back. Stalin himself said the city was not to give way. This was the city where Stalin built his own personal myth during the revolution and our national pride rested there, the burden was for us enormous.” Arsov grinned. “Did I mention the pride?

“In August, the German General Paulus and his 6th Army marched steadily onward, amassing nearer with each day and by then even I knew that this was different from the small gang that had killed my family. This was an army and they were bent on destruction.” Arsov lit a new cigarette and stared into the distance, as if no longer seeing the room but the city in the past. He shook himself slightly.

“There were men who had fought in the Great War and even they were not prepared for the onslaught. At the end of August the Germans arrived and in three days we were in a state of full siege. Another week and the enemy had advanced into the heart of the city. Defending this city was an impossible task. It curved for thirty kilometers along the high western bank of the river, and all our supplies had to come across that broad stretch of water. Too quickly we shrunk into defenses, some parts of the city still ours, others in enemy hands. Tanks rolled out of the factory straight onto the street into battle, unpainted, manned by the workers who had created them, and each of us knew that death was imminent. My brothers were on the front line, sent into the day’s fight with only a few bullets. Some of their comrades were told to gather their weapons from the dead, and I thought: this is war. I didn’t need to wear the insignia of the Red Army to know the fierceness of battle. Then, just like I had thought the night my mother died was the pinnacle of terror, I learned that there is always more. Always there is another level.”

Neither Gillespie nor Rosemary spoke or moved and Arsov continued, “We had limited food, no new supplies and still the Germans amassed from the west. The worst of the attacks came at the southern part of the city, near the grain elevator and main rail station. This is where the artillery pounded day after day. I worked near the Red October Steel works, and we hunkered down, working until our eyes were bleary, not able to think beyond that moment. By November the Germans had launched six major assaults and we were exhausted. Grime caked my eyes and filled my ears. I had not changed my clothes since that first day, months before. We were teeming with lice and filth, but were consumed with the work of survival. The entire Russian population had been reduced to five miles along the river and the steelworks and Barrikady arms works and I hadn’t seen daylight for weeks. We moved like sewer rats between buildings under cover of darkness, or through tunnels made of building rubble and, yet, still they came. This was the hell that made me forget everything that had come before,” he paused. “And then it worsened.

“The nights were scorching, howling terrors, with the Germans launching missiles and fires burning everywhere. Even the dogs plunged into the Volga to escape. Young lady, this is a lesson for you: when dogs flee, man’s heart dies. We were losing our faith in victory.”

“But you lived,” Rosemary whispered.

“Lived? None of us lived, but I survived. This terror lasted until November 19th. On that day we saw that all was not lost.” Arsov examined his cigarette. “Or to a Russian soul all was not lost. We have great capability for suffering and ability to imagine victory despite all evidence. In this way we are different from the Americans. The Americans fight because of their optimism; their self-righteousness. I think this is rooted in your first war, in your revolution, which was a battle amongst friends. Our willingness to fight is rooted in the harshness of our past and our centuries of resilience. It is a different characteristic.

“That night in late November we understood that the great General Zhukov, the Bagration of our war, had a plan and it was revealed. The Red Army released a barrage from 2,000 guns and batteries, and we all knew that a new phase of horror had begun. You must realize that in war only the courage to create great horror will lead to victory. Zhukov had that courage.”

“This is when the Red Army reserve swung around and circled the German General Paulus,” Gillespie said.

“Was that the end?” Rosemary asked.

“For many, the days I speak of were the end,” Arsov said. “Quite literally the end. They were for me, but in a different way. I had found my family again in Stalingrad and when my brothers died during the November offensive I had a decision to make. All of those, both young and old, I had grown close to in the past months died. The rest of us were trapped in hell with no end in sight. I didn’t know why I was there anymore. I was a small piece of an enormous machine, hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers were engaged in battle and what did I do? Woman’s work in a factory; making bombs even a child could make. I spent my last night in Stalingrad huddled in an abandoned department store, smoking cigarettes off a dead German, and deciding my future. I think you might agree this was the first time I had made a decision as a man. I left Simbirsk as a boy too frightened to do anything but find my older brothers. Then I fell into my new life with them looking after me. After they died, I understood that I had not taken my life in hand. I did my work well and talked about offensives and strategy with the others who came from the front to drink vodka with us, but I was still a child at heart. I followed my brothers’ lead in what we did, what we thought, and where we lived. That night all alone in the rubble of a burning city, with men screaming around me, I knew that I didn’t want to join the army where I would be just another piece of meat for Zhukov to throw in front of the Germans. I was disillusioned. The government wanted us to fight to the last man, but why? So one man far away could feel proud that his city withstood the onslaught? Then why did they not send bullets or any of the other things we needed? At the same time I began to doubt Russia, I held onto my hatred of the enemy. The difference was that now I wanted vengeance of a very specific sort. The embrace of two enormous armies did nothing to stir my soul, I wanted to defend the people. People like my mother, my sisters, my niece, my friends who suffered because of these armies. I took stock of my skills and decided I had two advantages. Because of my father I spoke perfect French, and from my brothers I had learned how to make bombs.”

Arsov looked around and shrugged, “And that is how I ended up in France.”

 

 

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