Cover image from Europe Central
Get more suggestions from book critic Alan Cheuse.
Book critic Alan Cheuse includes this novel in his summer reading recommendations for All Things Considered, a series of paired stories dealing with Germany and the USSR in the 20th century.
Excerpt: Chapter 1, Steel in Motion
As often as not, the things that attract us to another person are quite trivial, and what always delighted me about Blumentritt was his fanatical attachment to the telephone.
-- Field-Marshal Erich von Manstein (1958)
A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy's whole being). Somewhere between steel reefs, a wire wrapped in gutta-percha vibrates: I hereby...zzZZZZZ...the critical situation...a crushing blow. But because these phrases remain unauthenticated (and because the penalty for eavesdropping is death), it's not recommended to press one's ear to the wire, which bristles anyhow with electrified barbs; better to sit obedient, for the wait can't be long; negotiations have failed. Away flees Chamberlain, crying: Peace in our time. France obligingly disinterests herself in the Prague government. Motorized columns roll into snowy Pilsen and keep rolling. Italy foresees adventurism's reward, from which she would rather save herself, but, enthralled by the telephone, she somnambulates straight to the balcony to declare: We cannot change our policy now. We are not prostitutes. The ever-wakeful sleepwalker in Berlin and the soon-to-be-duped realist in the Kremlin get married. This will strike like a bomb! laughs the sleepwalker. All over Europe, telephones begin to ring.
In the round room with the fan-shaped skylight, with Greek gods ranked behind the dais, the Austrian deputies sit woodenly at their wooden desks, whose black rectangular inlays enhance the elegance; they were the first to accept our future; their telephone rang back in '38. Bulgaria, denied the British credits which wouldn't have preserved her anyway, receives the sleepwalker's forty-five million Reichsmarks. The realist offers credits to no one but the sleepwalker. Shuffling icons like playing cards, Romania reiterates her neutrality in hopes of being overlooked. Yugoslavia wheedles airplanes from Germany and money from France. Warsaw's humid shade is already scented with panic-gasps. The wire vibrates: Fanatical determination...ready for anything.
According to the telephone (for perhaps I did listen in once, treasonously), Europe Central's not a nest of countries at all, but a blank zone of black icons and gold-rimmed clocks whose accidental, endlessly contested territorial divisions (essentially old walls from Roman times) can be overwritten as we like, Gauleiters and commissars blanching them down to grey dotted lines of permeability convenient to police troops. Now's the time to gaze across all those red-grooved roof-waves oceaning around, all the green-tarnished tower-islands rising above white facades which grin with windows and sink below us into not yet completely telephone-wired reefs; now's the time to enjoy Europe Central's café umbrellas like anemones, her old grime-darkened roofs like kelp, her hoofbeats clattering up and bellnotes rising, her shadows of people so far below in the narrow streets. Now's the time, because tomorrow everything will have to be, as the telephone announces, obliterated without warning, destroyed, razed, Germanified, Sovietized, utterly smashed. It's an order. It's a necessity. We won't fight like those soft cowards who get held back by their consciences; we'll liquidate Europe Central! But it's still not too late for negotiation. If you give us everything we want within twenty-four hours, we'll compensate you with land in the infinite East.
In Mecklenburg, we've prepared a demonstration of the world's first rocket-powered plane. Serving the sleepwalker's rapture, Göring promises that five hundred more rocket-powered planes will be ready within a lightning-flash. Then he runs out for a tryst with the film star Lida Baarova. In Moscow, Marshal Tukhachevsky announces that operations in a future war will unfold as broad maneuver undertakings on a massive scale. He'll be shot right away. And Europe Central's ministers, who will also be shot, appear on balconies supported by nude marble girls, where they utter dreamy speeches, all the while listening for the ring of the telephone. Europe Central will resist, they say, at least until the commencement of Case White. Every man will be issued a sweaty black machine-carbine, probably hand-forged, along with ten round lead bullets, three black pineapple grenades each not much larger than a pistol grip, and a forked powder horn of yellowed ivory adorned with circle-inscribed stars...
The telephone gloats: Liberating advance...shock armies...ratio of mechanized forces.
Across the next frontier, where each line of fenceposts leans away from the other, our shared victim's proud military poets dull all apprehensions by equating Warsaw 1939 with Smolensk 1634. While they dispose their hopeless echelons, we draw the Ribbentrop-Molotov Line, on which we stamp a, which means secret. And why stop there? The sleepwalker gets Lithuania, the realist Finland. Our creed's a lamp whose calibrated radiance bows down into its zone. It was and is Jews who bring the Negroes into the Rhineland. That is precisely why the Party affirms that Trotskyism is a Social-Democratic deviation in our Party. The telephone rings; General Guderian receives his instructions to activate Case Yellow. We'll whirl away Europe Central's wine-tinted maple leaves and pale hexagonal church towers.
You won't get to watch it happen; they don't allow windows in this office, so you may feel a trifle dull at times, but at least you'll never be alone, since on the steel desk, deep within arm's length, hunches that octopus whose ten round eyes, each inscribed with a number, glare through you at the world. The Pact of Steel...a correct decision... my unalterable will...rally round the Party of Lenin and Stalin. In the bottom righthand drawer's a codebook whose invocations control the speeds and payloads of steel, but the octopus seems to be watching. Take the gamble if you dare; how well can those ten eyes see? The sleepwalker in the Reich Chancellery could tell you (not that he would): they're his eyes, lidless, oval, which imparts to them a monotonously idiotic or hysterical appearance; in the ditch outside, a hundred other open-eyed heads revert to clay, not that they have anything in common with the octopus, whose glare remains eternally sentient.
What about the mouthpiece? Is it true that it can hear your every breath through its black holes? In his underground headquarters with its many guards, the realist sits tired behind a large desk, awaiting the telephone's demands. Although he's good at hanging up on people with as much force as the soldier who slams another shell into our antitank gun, he's hanging up on them, not on the telephone itself, which he can't live without. He subsumes himself in it, all-hearing; he knows when Shostakovich takes his name in vain. At the first ring he'll summon his generals to attend him at that conference table with its green cloth.
The sleepwalker's all eyes; the realist is all ears; their mating forms the telephone.
This consciousness may indeed derive, as the American victors will assert, from entirely mechanical factors: Within the bakelite* skull of the entity hangs, either nestled or strangled in a latticework of scarlet-colored wires, a malignantly complex brain not much larger than a walnut. Its cortex consists of two brown-and-yellow lobes filamented with fine copper wire. It owns ideas as neatly, numerously arrayed as Poland's faded yellow eagle standards: The camp of counterrevolution...German straightforwardness...the slanders of the opposition...the soundness of the Volkish theory. It knows how to get everyone, from Akhmatova (who, visionary that she is, mistakes it for a heart of rose coral), to Zhykov (who fools himself that it can be played with), from Gerstein to Guderian, those twin freethinkers who dance alone within their soaring bullet-prisons in obedience to the telephone-brain's involution at the center of the shell.
Don't trust any technicians who assure you that this brain is "neutral"-- soon you'll hear how angrily the receiver jitters in its cradle. Kollwitz, Krupskaya and the rest -- it will dispose of them all, magically. It's got their number. (As the sleepwalker admonishes Colonel-General Paulus: One has to be on the watch, like a spider in its web...) In short, it will enforce the principle of unified command.
It makes the connection. It rings.
From the receiver, now clattering like a dispatch rider's motorcycle across the cobblestones of Prague, to the black cold body, runs a coil whose elasticity draws out the process of strangulation. (Thanks to this telephone, General Vlasov will perish in a noose of piano wire.) From the anus-mouth behind the dial extrudes another strand of black gut thinner and less elastic than the receiver's coil, and this pulses all the way to the wall socket. Since this morning our troops have been...Some frowning little Romanian blonde's in the way; we've got to shoot her. Now into the deep green forests of Europe Central! The relationship of forces in the Stalingrad sector...ferro-concrete defense installations. Can rubberoid sinews feel? How do I make them bleed? Ruthless fanaticism...we'll find a way to deal with him. They undulate now, as the telephone rings.
The telephone rings. It squats like an idol. How could I have mistaken it for an octopus?
Behind the wall, rubberized black tentacles spread across Europe. Military maps depict them as fronts, trenches, salients and pincer movements. Politicians encode them as borders (destroyed, razed, utterly smashed). Administrators imagine that they're roads and rivers. Public health officials see them as the black trickles of people dwindling day by day on Leningrad's frozen streets. Poets know them as the veins of Partisan Zoya's martyred body. They're anything. They can do anything.
In a moment steel will begin to move, slowly at first, like troop trains pulling out of their stations, then more quickly and ubiquitously, the square crowds of steel-helmed men moving forward, flanked by rows of shiny planes; then tanks, planes and other projectiles will accelerate beyond recall. Polish soldiers feebly camouflage their helmets with netting. Germans go to the cinema to fall in love with film stars; when Operation Citadel fails, they'll be swooning over Lisca Malbran. Russian cavalry charge into action against German tanks; German schoolgirls try to neutralize Russian tanks by pouring boiling water down the turrets. Barrage balloons swim in the air, finned and fat like children's renderings of fish. Don't worry; Europe Central's troops will stand fast, at least until Operation Barbarossa! (Their strategic dispositions are foxed and grimed like a centuries-old Bible.) Steel finds them all.
Steel, imbued with the sleepwalker's magic sight, illuminates itself as it comes murdering. (Amidst the cemetery snowdrifts of Leningrad lie the coffined and the coffinless. Steel did this.) The broad rays of light as a Nebelwerfer gets launched from its half track, those inform steel's gaze, mark steel's reach.
From the heavy, pleated metal of a DShK machine-gunsight, a soldier's gaze travels so that his bullet may speed true. Steel needs him to launch it on its way, but don't the gods always need their worshipers? From the telephone's brain, thoughts shoot down insulated copper conductors. It's time to commence Operation Blau. The Signal Corps prepares to receive and retransmit the dispatch: Defend the achievements of Soviet power...a severe but just punishment...And already the telephone is ringing again! Who will answer? Maybe no one except the Signal Corps, whose flags, attached to arms evolved from human, can transform any command into a series of articulated colors. The telephone rings!
The telephone rings. The receiver clamps itself to a mouth and an ear. (Where did those come from? I thought they were mine.) Another order flies up the black cable, down the elastic coil, and into the ear: Under no circumstances will we agree to artillery preparation, which squanders time and the advantage of surprise.
The V-phone rings; the S-phone rings. Jackboots ring on Warsaw's uneven sidewalks. The Tyrvakians have mined their bridges with Turkish dynamite. We believe, on the contrary, that the combination of the internal combustion engine and armor plate enable us to take our fire to the enemy without any artillery preparation...
All across Europe, telephones ring, teleprinters begin to click their hungry teeth, a Signal Corps functionary waves the first planes forward, and velocity infuses steel-plated monsters whose rivets and scales shimmer more blindingly than Akhmatova's poems. Within each monster, men sit on jumpseats, waiting to kill and die.
Just in case, shouldn't we now call up our rectangles of knobbly reptile-flesh, each knob a helmeted Red Army man, the rectangles marching across the snow toward the Kremlin domes while chilly purple sky-stripes rush in the same direction, white cloud-stripes in between? They're dark icons, almost black. The telephone rings: Commence Operation Little Saturn. Everything becomes a mobile entity comprised of articulated segments. Don't worry. In the cinema palaces, Lisca Malbran will help us pretend that it isn't happening.
Here come the guns like needles on round bases, and the guns which protrude from between two grey shields, and the guns which grow out of steel mushrooms, and the guns as long as houses, anchored by chassis large enough for a crew of twenty, the guns whose barrels are as long as torpedoes and the wheeled guns with fat snouts and long flare suppressors. It's only a question of time and manpower. And so the mechanized hordes go rushing east and west across Europe.
Guarding itself against posterity's blame, the telephone has qualified itself: Provided always that the operation obeys the following conditions: appropriate terrain, surprise and mass commitment. Moreover, it warns, each component must be metallic, replaceable, reliable, rapid and lethal -- In spite of mass commitment, there were not enough components. The operation will fail.
Someday, bereft of propellants, steel must fall to rest and rust. (The telephone pleads: Mechanical reinforcement.) Smiling wearers of the starred helmet will raise high the red banner, as filmed by R. L. Karmen. Hold fast to the last bullet. Then, in the shellshocked silence of Europe, which squanders time and the advantage of surprise, morgues and institutes will blossom through the snow. In one of them, in a windowless, telephoned recess, I sit at a desk, playing with a Geco 7.65 shell.
What once impelled millions of manned and unmanned bullets into motion? You say Germany. They say Russia. It certainly couldn't have been Europe herself, much less Europe Central, who's always such a good docile girl. I repeat: Europe's a mild heifer, a plump virgin, an R-maiden or P-girl ripe for loving, an angel, a submissive prize. Europe is Lisca Malbran. Europe's never burned a witch or laid hands on a Jew! How can one catalogue her jewels? In Prague, for instance, one sees dawn sky through the arched windows of bell-towers, and that sky becomes more desirable by being set in that verdigrised frame whose underpinning, the finger of the tower itself, emerges from the city's flesh, the floral-reliefed, cartouched and lionheaded facades of it whose walled and winding streets have ever so many eyes; Europe's watchful since she's already been raped so many times, which may be why some of her eyes still shine with lamplight even now, but what good does it do to see them coming? The first metal lice already scuttle over her skin, which is cobblestoned with dark grey and light grey follicles. Europe feels all, bears all, raising her sky-ringed church-fingers up to heaven so that she can be married.
What set steel in motion? The late e-Obersturmführer Kurt Gerstein has counseled me to seek the answers in Scripture, meaning Europe Central's old Greek Bibles with their red majiscules and black woodcut engravings of terrifying mummies bursting up from narrow sarcophagi; a few dozen of those volumes survived the war. To Gerstein, elucidation became even more magical a solvent than xylol, into which our forensicists immerse the identity documents dug up from Katyn´ Forest. (In that bath, inks bleached away by cadaveric fluid come back to life.) Have you ever seen a railroad tank car of fuel shot up by incendiary bullets? Elucidation must be even brighter than that! He asked himself what he dared not ask his strict father: Why, why all the death? His blood-red Bibles told him why.
The telephone rings. It informs me that Gerstein's answer has been rejected, that Gerstein has been hanged, obliterated, ruthlessly crushed. It puts the former Field-Marshal Paulus on the line.
Paulus advises me that the solution to any problem is simply a matter of time and manpower.
So I apply myself now, on this dark winter night, preparing to invade the meaning of Europe; I can do it; I can almost do it, just as when coming to a gap in the wall of some ruined Romanian fort, one can peer down upon thriving linden treetops; you can see them waving and massing, then far away dropping abruptly down to the fields. Ω
From Europe Central by William T. Vollman, copyright (c) 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.