Ristikivi excerpt

by Eric Dickens
translated by Eric Dickens

The following is an excerpt from Karl Ristikivi’s existentialist novel Night of Souls, first published in Swedish exile in 1953. A nameless young man enters something resembling a concert hall in Stockholm a little before midnight on New Year’s Eve and finds himself in a labyrinth of salons and staircases, meeting people from whom he feels alienated. In the last section of the novel, the protagonist is called to bear witness, seemingly in a dream, to instances of quite ordinary citizens having committed one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This is conducted as a trial scene, similar to the one experienced by the old man in the Ingmar Bergman film Wild Strawberries, which was first screened a few years after Ristikivi’s novel appeared. At the time, Bergman was married to the exile Estonian pianist Käbi Laretei, so it is not inconceivable that Laretei may have conveyed similar exile feelings to her husband, something which is also in evidence in the particularly depressing film Shame.

The passages from Night of Souls reproduced here come from the middle section of the novel where the protagonist is seemingly in limbo, physically and mentally, belonging to no country, lacking friends and acquaintances, or a roof over his head. This echoes Ristikivi’s real-life experiences when he was fleeing his country to Sweden via Finland during WWII.


If I am now to try to give an account of the following events   if they can be termed events   then I must apologise right from the start that this cannot be a full one. Under the strain of what preceded, the sharpness of my senses had become much blunted and a certain obtuseness had overcome me, as always is the case with exhaustion. I almost have the feeling that I am writing about someone very remote from myself, someone I hardly know and whose life story I am only familiar with by hearsay. Someone who has gone far away, so that I can no longer meet him to ask how it really was. And I do not wish, by way of my imagination, wish to add or embellish, as I have already mentioned before. That would still be a sham, even though excuses could be found to give that sham grandiose names. I have decided to stick to the truth, though it may be deficient, tedious and grey   yes, even if in the next instance it can be seen as an untruth. We do after all know how our senses as well as our memories can fail us.
Anyhow, I heard the door slam shut behind me, locking as it did so. I knew it was locked since I turned and tried the handle but could not open it again. I had by then already begun to vaguely suspect that it was not the right door and that it had only been left unlocked by accident.
Just then, I heard the distant ringing of bells and the thought flashed through my mind that now, out there in the city, the New Year had begun. Or at least the Old Year was coming to an end. But it was so far away that it left me quite unmoved. I had nonetheless steeled myself against that ringing, which was something I have always feared.
I even received the impression that I counted the strokes and heard that there were twelve. But carefully considered and with hindsight, I could well have been imagining this.
Even more embarrassing was the fact that I would have to give an explanation for the rooms through which I had been walking. I had lost interest not only in what had been occurring behind my back, but also what was going on around me. This can best be compared with how a sick patient resigns himself to his condition, satisfied with the mere fact that he is not in pain.
That much had changed compared with my previous life. (Yes, I have said it now and cannot take it back, even if wanted to do so. For I know all too well that too much has been said and can lead many in the wrong direction, searching for an explanation and or conclusion where I did not intend to explain or conclude. But be that as it may, let us term it so for simplicity’s sake, knowing at the same time that one word can have very many meanings.) I had been wandering around, mostly observing and listening, taking in impressions and distilling feelings out of them. I had almost always felt a forbidden joy, a thief's joy, that I had simply wandered into this serendipity situation by accident, where I was empowered to see, hear and feel. Now, all had changed, perhaps only within me, but in conjunction with that, all that surrounded me appeared too to have changed. Nothing new, however, had come to replace the joy of acceptance, and this gave me a paralysing feeling of emptiness.
I do not know precisely how I arrived at this small room, which was divided in two by a counter and above it wire mesh. Behind the counter sat an oldish man wearing some kind of dark uniform, and who had pushed his hand out through a small opening.
"Your identity papers, please!"
I had no papers of any kind on me and said so. He smiled regretfully, but also with slight distrust.
"How can that be? You must have some papers. Otherwise I cannot let you through."
"Very well, I can always go back..."
I turned round, in order to leave by the door, but there stood a soldier who was half barring my way with his rifle. He said nothing and I concluded from the cornflower blue roundel on his cap that we would not understand one another’s language.
I went back to the counter. The official had, however, shut the window and was still sitting where he was before now sorting some pink coloured cards, while a cardboard notice by the window said: "CLOSED".
Someone touched my shoulder. It was a middle aged man, small in stature, wearing a worn and patched grey Wehrmacht uniform, who shook his head in an irritated and weary manner, saying:
"Under no circumstances can you remain here. You'll have to go on!"
I tried to explain: "I can't go anywhere, I haven't got any identity papers", even myself aware of the fact that this was a feeble and naive excuse which would be to no effect. The soldier at the door looked at me with a mocking smile on his lips; he seemed used to such scenes. The official at the counter pushed the last cards into a drawer, locked it and went into a back room accompanied by the jingling of a bunch of keys.
"Could you not at least give me some advice as to what I ought to do now?" I said again, addressing the man in Wehrmacht uniform. I believe that he even found it difficult to understand my poor German, let alone grasp my situation.
"Forbidden! Forbidden!" was all that he repeated, in the way you talk to children, idiots and foreigners, and he pointed at the sign on the wall which said simply:


And lower, above the spittoon:


"Please show me, then, where I can go. Take me along   oh, never mind!" My former torpor was already beginning to retreat before my anger. It mattered little what he did, if I was not allowed to stay where I was. That is to say, it was not entirely a matter of indifference, since in spite of myself I was glowering at the soldier at the door.
The man shrugged his shoulders. He twisted his head and looked at his uniform jacket from which all his stripes had been removed.
"I am not permitted to do anything. You must leave, or else..."
"Or else?"
"Or else you will have to solve the problem yourself," he said with resignation. He seemed to have lost the hope that I would ever understand anything, and he was right in thinking so.
Then suddenly a new man rushed out of the back room behind the counter, he was quite similar to the previous two   small in stature, middle aged and with a puckered face. But he was wearing some kind of French uniform,  either police or customs, and he came up to me waving his hands and giving a flurried explanation of which I understood nothing apart from the fact that he kept repeating the words: "Interdit!" and "Defendu!" When I did not react, he turned to the German and began to abuse him in fluent German. Although his words sounded anything but pleasant in tone, the German grinned on hearing his mother tongue.
"How come, you speak such good German?"
"I'm from the Alsace," said the Frenchman. "I am, at any rate, a loyal citizen. Nothing can ever happen to me."
The German looked sadly at his own uniform, again with such a strange movement of the head that it looked like a cat licking the fur on its chest. But then he gave a wry and ambiguous smile.
"Nor me. I only follow orders. But what are we going to do with this man?" What he said was stale, but not without a slight tinge of humanity.
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders and spat on the floor. He could afford to do that, since no one could expect him to understand the sign which was written in Finnish.
Suddenly the phone rang long and shrilly, twice, this was clearly a trunk call. The first official came half running out of the back room and snatched up the receiver. I could not hear what he said, but it could not have been much. Then he opened the window and pushed out his hand.
"One hundred and three!" he yelled. "One hundred and three!"
There was no one else in the room apart from myself whom he could have been referring to, so I went up to the window. The official handed me a cardboard number token and nodded to his left.
"Go and wait in the waiting room until your number comes up!"
The German had already gone to unlock the door, reluctance written all over his face. Then he positioned himself in front of the door like a guard and stretched out his hand.
Was this whole business going to start all over again? I had no identity papers and had said so on several previous occasions. Then I remembered that I had an old identity card in my pocket, dating from the time of the Occupation, and half defiantly I pulled the worn scrap of card out of my pocket.
The German looked at it and shook his head.
"Ach du liebes Kind!" He handed it back to me, still shaking his head.
"But you issued it yourselves," I explained defiantly.
"That doesn't mean a thing now. It's out of date."
"But it does show my number   you just saw yourself how I got it."
He sighed resignedly and moved aside slightly. I could wait no longer, it was now clear that I would never receive any straight permission. So I pushed my way past him, and stepped into the waiting room. It was clear that this would offer no solution to the problem, nor was it sure if this was a step forward.
But that was of no importance in the present situation.



I should have been able to guess this earlier. How would I have been able to avoid waiting, that night? On looking back   and looking forward is something I dare not really do   the waiting was like some kind of interplanetary space.
For that reason, I haven’t remembered anything more of the waiting room than the fact that it was so inevitably large, grey and depressing. Space and time were here in some sort of harmony regarding their dimension, one accentuating the length of the other. There have been so many such rooms and in the end they all resemble one another.
Although the room was a large one, there was nevertheless nowhere for me to sit down. It was so ingeniously filled by other people waiting that I was unable to find anywhere to sit without disturbing someone. And that I did not wish to do, did not perhaps even dare, for that matter. These people bore no sign of the well disposed nature, or at least polite indifference, which I had encountered earlier in the building. They looked at me in a hostile manner, though I could in no way have been abrogating their rights, since we all had a queue number.
In the best seat at the corner table sat an older gentleman who was engrossed in his copy of Svenska Dagbladet. He had sat down in such a way as to block access to all the empty chairs in the corner, and I felt that he would on no account move up sufficiently to let anyone through. This he would not do since he could not tolerate the proximity of other people, at least no nearer than five paces. So much I had managed to get to know of him on previous occasions, at least. For him to be sitting and waiting here so patiently was by no means a misunderstanding, since he was a most upright and dutiful person who never demanded any privileges for himself, and would not let the scales of justice be tipped in one or other direction. Next to his chair lay his walking stick with which he carved out a passage for himself when walking along the street, and he had placed his hat on the pile of magazines on the table so that no one would come and read one, although it was unlikely that anyone would take an interest in such typical waiting room reading material.
The long wooden bench along the opposite wall had been occupied by a stout older lady who had spread out all her bags and packages all over it. Her distrustful eyes watched everything as if under crossfire and sitting there in the middle of the bench as she was, she managed to puff herself out like a hen trying to protect all her dear ones under her wings. In so doing, her eyes had begun to squint somewhat in an attempt to keep as large an area under fire as possible. I do not, of course, know how long she had been waiting here, but she had clearly also been waiting everywhere else and was trying somehow to make up for lost time. She was now knitting feverishly, since this was something she could do without looking, as familiar work does not need to be checked by looking. She was terribly busy and no doubt a good mother, demanding of herself as she would of others.
From time to time she threw scornful glances at her immediate neighbours, who had made themselves at home after a fashion. These were a young couple, a boy and girl   they could not yet have been married, since they were too young. They were clearly not used to having to wait, but had made an attempt to put up with the situation, entirely forgetting it. They had taken two extra chairs to rest their feet on, and they were so engrossed in one another that they hardly noticed what was going on around them. At any rate they did not notice that they had in effect occupied more than four chairs, since it would have been rather indecorous to try either to get past them or sit in their immediate vicinity   like forcing one's way into somebody else's bedroom. On the other hand   why should they waste their precious youth waiting, especially since they no doubt loved one another.
But not only the older lady threw them reproachful glances, but also one a good deal younger who was sitting against the wall straight opposite them. Next to her there was a vacant seat and I considered this to be the only one to make for so I initially made an attempt to reach it. But she turned her head abruptly in my direction, and, the reproachful look still on her face, she raised her hand as if in defence.
"This chair is reserved," she said. "I'm waiting for a friend."
It is possible that she had become embittered by the long period of waiting, but I still suspected that she was not waiting for anyone, nor had anyone to wait for. I have already mentioned the fact that she was young, in her twenties, and by no means ugly, if only she had not been so embittered. She not only looked spitefully in the direction of the young lovers, but I soon noticed that she looked in the same manner at everyone waiting here.
Among these was first and foremost a family of four who were first in the queue, and were the noisiest of this otherwise silent group of people. This is not to say that they spoke a lot, or at length, but they ate. They were eating the whole time with the gusto some people do when on a journey. It has to be said that they were the jolliest of everyone here, probably on account of the fact that the father of the family took a hip flask out of his pocket now and then and raised it to his lips. He offered it to his better half, but when she stretched out her hand he pulled back the bottle with a laugh. His wife did not become particularly annoyed at this, she burst into laughter, it was only a joke. Otherwise, they had made life comfortable for themselves   the wife had taken off her shoes, while the husband had hung his jacket over the back of an adjacent chair and was sitting in his shirt sleeves. There was only one interruption to their eating   this came when their smaller child, a chubby little girl of around two, suddenly felt the opposite urge and pulled an enamelled potty from her mother’s suitcase. Everything occurred as naturally and quietly as if they had been at home.
Another person who felt himself at home here was a man on the other bench who slept all the time. I could not really decide whether he was young or old, for he was sleeping, his back turned to the outside world and his coat pulled up over his head. It could only be seen indirectly that he was quite tall. And it hardly made any difference whether he was young or old   when sleeping, a person can be of any age, normal time means nothing there. This is one of the most pleasant ways of spending one's time in the waiting room, provided, of course, that you are not going through the same tedium in your dreams.
"You can asleep, can't you, you sodding louse!" I then heard somebody say. The deep, slightly hoarse voice seemed familiar. Next to me stood a middle aged, stoutish man with a red face and thinning hair. It was an ordinary man in work clothes, I thought I detected a faint whiff of alcohol, although he was a good five metres away. I looked hastily aside, since I feared that he would spot me and that a quarrel would ensue. I had met him several times on the street, in the tram and in cheap canteens, and on each occasion he would pick me out to vent his anger on.
He was the only person not sitting down. He kept moving around, approaching someone, then someone else, never coming too close, instead scowling at them in a hostile manner, when he reached a distance of a few paces. For the most he said nothing, only muttered something indistinct. He vocabulary appeared to be very limited, two thirds of it consisting of clichéd swearing. For this reason I could never understand why he was angry. Perhaps he had been subjected to some indignity, but he never spoke about it and it was not impossible that he had forgotten it. The source of this seemed not even to be such a common human feeling as envy, assuming he was not simply envious of people simply because they existed. It did indeed look as if other people restricted his freedom, he walked in among them like a lion in a cage and felt himself driven into a corner. And not only by living beings   it seemed that even inert objects got in his way   he kicked at every chair and brandished his fist at the wall, the door and the windows. Of course this room was depressingly ugly, but I could imagine he would also kick at flowers in a flower bed and raise his fist to the moon and the sun. Because I do not believe that his mood was caused simply by this long and tedious period of waiting, I had met him before. (For instance one Midsummer Night in Helsinki, before the war and other unfortunate incidents when I began to realise that it is a crime to be a foreigner.)
I do not wish any longer to stop and consider all the people waiting with me. Waiting is, in itself, hard enough. In this, at least the behaviour of the last man was justified as he obviously felt like a prisoner. Prison is usually intended as a punishment. But innocent or not, we all sit at some time or other in our lives in the prison of waiting. We are bound by time and space, and are more or less cut off from, or kept from all the normal processes of life. Someone waiting has as little freedom as someone in prison.
It is easiest of all to wait when it is only a question of time and we know what will happen and when it will happen. In such a prison we have more or less retained the freedom to do as we please. We can pick up a book or a newspaper and read it. Or, if there is nothing to read, then the majority of us can go up to the newspaper kiosk and buy something. We know when the train will leave, and can therefore divide up our time of waiting and make use of it within the limits provided.
What is more difficult is if we do not know if the train will arrive in five minutes or five hours time. Or not at all. In this case, we have arrived at a type of waiting where it is a question of yes or no, of right or left. The letters on the page begin to dance and the food goes round and round in your mouth. Then you lose the strength in your hands as if they have been gripped in invisible handcuffs. The death cell is then but one step away.
People have written books about prison, but never about a waiting room. I am therefore inclined to believe that being in prison is easier. Writing a whole book about a waiting room would prove too hard, just as hard as reading one there. For this reason I will shorten my own period of waiting and allow the sister of mercy to arrive, who holds in her hand a list and is running her eyes with the familiarity of a proof reader down the row of names.
"Is there anyone here who has not yet been to see the doctor?"
I should have been able to anticipate this. Always, sooner or later, you have to go and see the doctor. The doctor decides whether you are admitted and if you are let out. And a doctor is only human and finds it difficult to decide, so he mostly decides the opposite, just to be on the safe side. If he is not so human as to err in his judgement.

Translated from the Estonian by Eric Dickens, 08 December 2009