[Sample from Matthias Politycki’s Samarkand Samarkand, pp. 7–34]
When twilight fell, and the Germans broke into a run so as to get home in good time, the muezzin was calling the faithful to prayer from the tower of the Church of St John. As usual, the Russians responded from the other side of the river Alster with salvos of machine-gun fire, followed up shortly afterwards by Russian hard rock. They had fitted such powerful speakers into the minarets of the Blue Mosque, where they had their headquarters, that the music filled the air over the frozen river without distortion. The muezzin’s chant was drowned out, to be replaced by the roar of heavy artillery fire from the Turkish side. Although not a single rocket would rise to the sky at midnight to mark the beginning of the New Year, 2027, there would certainly be plenty of bangs in retaliation for all the instances of provocation over the last few days: suicide bombings around Christmas in the Russian-controlled eastern zone of the city, revenge operations carried out by death squads all over the western zone. After dark the militia, the gangs of youths and the marksmen would be firing on anyone in their sights. On the demarcation lines of the divided city, people were arming themselves even today for house-to-house fighting, the streets and squares were already empty. Only on the Krugkoppel Bridge, the hot spot for German street-walking at night, was an armistice until dawn, and both regular and irregular soldiers from both sides resorted to it. Kaufner had often been there while he still had some hope, or was looking for grounds for hope; indeed, he had gone on looking until curfew, although that put him in mortal danger on the way home. There were roadblocks and checkpoints everywhere; fortunately he knew almost all the men guarding their territory from rooftops, in the entrances of buildings, behind barricades and garbage containers. The war had become an everyday occurrence, you would have come to terms with it if you could. This had been going on for a year and a half, and if someone didn’t soon rise up and put an end to it, it would go on for ever.
Book One – The Breath of the Kirghiz
Eagles circled above the opposite slope. However, that told you nothing much; eagles were always circling above these mountains. Nor was it the first time that Kaufner had known the donkey to be increasingly inclined to shy, finally refusing to go on when it reached the suspension bridge. The bridges took a lot out of Kaufner himself; this one, right at the end of the ravine where the path followed a hairpin bend, consisted only of two steel cables stretched taut over the water that cascaded down to the valley, with a few planks laid in haphazard sequence over them.
Never before had Kaufner seen such raging cascades as in these godforsaken Tadzhik mountains. Today, yet again, he had heard them roaring long before they reached the gorge, a deep and regular thunder. He would once have taken fright on entering the gorge at the latest, fearing the element itself as it fell as if powered by hatred; the mountains in this country fitted far too steeply together, the ravines were far too narrow, the rocks wedged together at the bottom of them far too large. Kaufner, at the age of fifty-eight a man who didn’t so easily take fright anyway, was used to them by now; for months he had known torrents of this kind, crossed by bridges that began swinging the moment you set foot on them.
The donkey had been refusing almost every time they came to one of those bridges, and it was the same with streams and rivers when the animal was required to walk into them and look for a ford. Their waters were icy cold and violent; it wasn’t only donkeys who respected them. Odina hit the donkey with the stick, then with the flat of his hand, implored it, “Paa-tchup!”, cursed it, “Yech!”, suddenly grabbed it firmly from behind, pressed close to it, forced it a few centimetres forward with his hips, let go, wiped his brow. Rearranged the baggage, “Tchee!”, tightened the girth, “Shush!”, still talking to the donkey.
Kaufner, who had caught up with the boy, used this opportunity to drop his rucksack. Bloody trail! It was hardly more than a series of waymarks in the rock, a shepherd’s path marked by dried sheep droppings and dry grass and thistles. They had been climbing up the ravine for hours – apparently the place was known in Tadzhik as the Valley That Is Void – and they had not even stopped for a proper rest at mid-day because… Because there was no alternative; winter might come any day up here, and there was no time to lose. If only the mountain hadn’t been so steep! They had to make their laborious way up it, one leg always close to the abyss, with the grey ribbon of the stream far below. Don’t look down now. Look at the cloud of dust moving over the slope opposite. Look at the Cobra Rock you have just passed. The boy’s right, it really does look like the head of a cobra. Now get the dust out of your throat.
As Kaufner prepared to clear his throat thoroughly, he saw Odina and the donkey standing motionless, absorbed in listening to the sounds of this mountain world. Kaufner forgot the tickle in his throat. However, there was nothing to be heard but the constant roar of the water cascading down the gorge. Kaufner narrowed his eyes; suddenly everything in this monotonously bleak landscape seemed to him important. He studied the rock wall opposite where the path went on, sporadically marked by a few dry shrubs, soon gaining height. The Valley That Is Void …
Until Odina hissed almost inaudibly, “The Kirghiz!”, his hand half raised to keep Kaufner from making any movement, then relieving his own tension after several endless seconds with a barely breathed, “Allah!” Next moment he had seized the donkey’s halter and was hauling it away from the bridge. He pushed and pulled and forced it back on the path and then up the steep slope, behind the Cobra Rock, where he immediately flung it to the ground. “Nekhtarat khot-khot!” Kaufner, who had hardly been able to keep up, and then almost got under the weight of the baggage in his haste as he moved to join them, ducking low, whispered, with some difficulty, “The Kirghiz? Do you mean Januzak? You often said he – ”
There was fear now even in Odina’s eyes. With a glance he told Kaufner – no, commanded him – to keep quiet. Kaufner had time to scrutinize the graffiti in Arabic, Cyrillic and Roman lettering carved into the surrounding rocks. Until at last he too could hear someone whistling a tune as he came down the slope on the other side of the ravine.
But surely he was still a long way off? Why was Odina already whispering “Kheh!” to the donkey, forcing it to the ground again? Kaufner crouched down, listened, stared. Bloody awful ravine! So narrow that there wasn’t even room for a proper hiding-place. They might be no more than fifty kilometres from Samarkand, but what was bound to happen next wouldn’t be known down there in a thousand years.
Bloody mountain! Several days ago, word of the riots had already been going around. If the Zarafshan valley hadn’t been closed overnight by the Tadzhiks, Odina and he could have spared themselves the route across the green border. The Uzbeks were said to have begun it, but in reality a few intoxicated Tadzhiks had probably driven into the nearest Uzbek village in their pick-up trucks, to open fire on anyone whose eyes weren’t round enough for their liking. Bloody Aryan delusions! Here of all places, in this forgotten corner of the world, a couple of vodkas and they turned fiercely nationalist; a German was inevitably expected to go along with their ideas, was claimed as a brother by any chance-met peasant – if only Kaufner had had any idea of that when he took on his mission! Young unemployed Tadzhiks who had found the wealth, or alleged wealth, of Uzbek merchants a thorn in their flesh from time immemorial, and now all because of them he must … But never mind, he’d discover the details when he got there.
At least, the boy had known a way out and right over the mountains of Turkestan and through one of the few loopholes where the border between the two states, secured elsewhere by landmines, could be crossed. “One hundred per cent safe, master, the smugglers use it too.” And yesterday evening, anyway, they had reached the mausoleum that he’d been talking about for days. Before they set off this morning, Kaufner had taken a quick look at the crypt, while outside Odina tore his handkerchief apart and tied half of it to the branches of the wishing tree, where all kinds of coloured rags were already blowing in the –
To think that he could have forgotten himself so far! Kaufner came out of his thoughts suddenly, peered out around the rocks. And almost choked with fright. So close already? How does the man get down the mountainside so quickly? A good thing the abyss is still between us. A pity he’s muffled up like that. Wrapped in pale garments, except for a slit to see through, just as he’s always described. And almost hopping over the rocks, looking very much at home here.
All the mountain people had that swaying gait, all who had grown up here or had learned, over the years, to make the strength of the mountains their own, step by step. The merely way a man walked told you whether to expect a dangerous encounter, or if it was a novice on the road, raising a great deal of dust and thinking only of himself and his thirst. The Kirghiz was one of those who walked over rocks as if they were a soft carpet. In that alone, he confirmed the rumours circulating about him.
Kaufner had heard things about those roaming the heights as he himself did, and about the law of the mountains that takes no account of circumstantial evidence. The Kirghiz was said to be an albino who had to shield himself from the sun, hence the way he covered himself up; his face was said to be disfigured, and that was why he covered himself up; it was said that he didn’t even have a pseudonym; it was said that he was not one of those who came here out of the strength of their convictions but as a mercenary of the Russians, the Chinese, the Caliph; it was said that he was invulnerable, deranged, that he carved signs in the faces of his victims, drank their blood while it was still warm, straight from the opened vein: Januzak the Kirghiz.
He had already passed the suspension bridge, whistling all the time, now he was indeed only a few metres from the Cobra Rock. Odina held the donkey’s nostrils closed with both hands. Kaufner stopped breathing automatically.
Then the Kirghiz had passed. A surprisingly slender, even slightly built figure. Almost delicate; you might have taken him for a woman. Odina loosened his grip, Kaufner breathed in deeply and rather ostentatiously. And promptly felt the dust in his windpipe again, the urge to cough got stronger the more he suppressed it, became unbearable. He tried to cough internally as much as he could, in a kind of implosion. But it was audible enough for the Kirghiz, who after all was only ten or twenty paces away, to turn at once and confront them.
Odina scrambled up, put the palms of his hands together, bowed his head, his chin almost touching his fingertips. Yet the Kirghiz was not even holding a weapon.
He certainly had an unpleasantly high voice when he finally broke the silence with a couple of sharp syllables. Judging by the sound of Odina’s reply, the boy was embarking on a verbose justification and trying hard to strike a conciliating note, but what was there, really, to apologize for? For a while the conversation went back and forth between the two of them, maybe in the Kirghiz language, and then Januzak went up to Kaufner, who had kept out of it so far. He came uncomfortably close and stared fixedly at him from below. Hardly anything of his face was visible but two black pupils constantly moving, and after a while they established themselves as the lifeless glance of pair of eyes narrowed to slits, perfectly empty like the eyes of a man who had seen far too much to think someone like Kaufner was of any significance. Kaufner looked down at the ground.
Slight as he was, the Kirghiz stood rocking with his legs wide apart. After he had stared for long enough at the foreigner who towered above him by a head, and looked as if he were on the road on behalf of the West, he snapped something in his own language; you couldn’t understand him, yet you understood him only too well. Then he noisily collected the mucus from his throat and his nose, chewed it into shape, suddenly jerked his mouth covering down – a thin white goatee beard came briefly into view – and spat it out into his right hand. Held it out, a glittering, glassy gob, on the open palm of his hand like something valuable, barked out a few more words at Kaufner in a clear tone of command – and as Kaufner wouldn’t understand put his left hand into Kaufner’s shock of hair, pressed his head down with astonishing strength into his hand, where all became dark, wet and disgusting.
In retrospect, at least. For a moment Kaufner was so stunned that he let his head be pulled up again and offered no resistance. The Kirghiz, still holding his victim’s hair tight, inspected his right hand, found considerable remnants of the gob of saliva in it, expressed his indignation in a sound like a bark that Kaufner easily understood, and was already pressing his head down again, slowly this time so that Kaufner had a time to think about it. And only after a second’s pause, granted to his victim very close to that right hand, did he push his face down into its palm again, moved Kaufner’s head to left and right once or twice, gave him time.
It was as well for Kaufner that the Kirghiz didn’t want to choke him; this time, when he let him loose from the spit in his hand and pulled his head up again, Kaufner’s eyes and lips were tightly closed, but he had obediently swallowed the saliva. Januzak grunted and let go of him at once.
Kaufner, deeply shamed, stood with his eyes and mouth still shut. Stood there clad in speechless horror but otherwise naked, or that was how it felt. Heard the Kirghiz directing a few final admonitions to Odina; only when the boy gently shook him did he open his eyes. Looked at Januzak walking away, whistling, as if nothing at all had happened. With every step his tormentor took, his humiliation turned into deep – deeper – the deepest hatred. Kaufner was to spend the rest of the day washing out his mouth, wiping his lips. Although of course he knew that he could not wash away the taint like that.
Here and now, four or five thousand kilometres and a year and a half away from those who had sent him on his mission, Kaufner – a hardened mountain trooper, not squeamish either on his operations as a messenger between the Free Forts – for the first time had to own himself outdone. Hadn’t his agent controller told him so? Kaufner, over there you’ll understand why we’re going under anyway. If you don’t overstep your bounds you’re the wrong man for us, and then you’ll never come down again from these mountains. Oh, Kaufner was the right man for them, he’d surprise them yet. More than ever when he had also – Kaufner’s decision was made before he could think it through clearly – more than ever when he had also hunted the Kirghiz through the mountains until he’d taken his revenge and cleansed himself of the taint.
At the moment when he moved, and spat vigorously, he was still, admittedly, standing by the Cobra Rock. Odina shook him.
“You were already dead, master, one hundred per cent dead! He let you off with your life only out of mercy.”
“Dead?” Kaufner retched, felt like throwing up, but only spat once more.
“He spared you – you weren’t worth the grip he could have used to throttle you. You don’t bear the mark yet.”
“The mark of those who …” Odina acted as if he were searching for suitable words, but obviously he didn’t want to put it more plainly. “Januzak knows you’re looking for the same thing as him. But he could also see that you’re not – that you’re a novice.”
“He’s looking for the same thing?” Kaufner swallowed the last of his nausea. “Anyway, how do you know what we’re, I mean what I, what he – ”
“Everyone knows, master. You’re all looking for the same thing.”
And so back to the suspension bridge; this time the donkey didn’t refuse to step on it. Kaufner, however, who for some years had not been entirely free of vertigo, and in addition was torn at the moment between anger, abhorrence and suspicion, now saw only the spaces between the planks and not the planks themselves. Finally he was about to try crossing the bridge on all fours, but then the boy came back, gave him his hand and helped him over. The world swayed a good deal.
Odina went ahead of him with the donkey until twilight fell, as usual much faster than Kaufner liked. His active participation in climbing, scrambling, cross-country survival courses and similar exercises was decades behind him. As he went along, step by step, he began to project his hatred on Odina, and soon it seemed to him that the boy was to blame for everything that had happened. Hadn’t he kept leading him astray when apparently it was here, in the Turkestan Range, that his real destination lay? Why else had the Kirghiz shown up at all, one of the most famous or notorious of the wanderers, he was the kind of man to be first to know where something that, apparently, everyone was looking for might be found. But no, Odina had led him into the Zarafshan, Hissor and Fan mountains, over passes 5000 metres high and past peaks covered with glaciers, he would probably have liked to go on with Kaufner as far as Pamir, probably into the Wakhan valley where he came from, and maybe on from there into the Hindu Kush and to Afghanistan, as far as possible away from Samarkand and into safety. Odina! The boy had been fooling him all summer, or so it suddenly seemed to Kaufner.
And on all his hypocritically chosen detours and diversions and wrong routes, he had walked ahead of Kaufner with the same gait – shuffling, strolling, rocking slightly and, as long as the path ahead was on the level, going a little too slowly, as if to be deliberately provocative, and then suddenly speeding up as soon as they were going uphill, as if to be really provocative. How Kaufner had always hated the slippers the boy wore, and the way he moved lightly over the scree slopes where he himself, in spite of his hiking shoes, lost his footing far too often, slipped and almost sprained an ankle. How he hated Odina’s bare heels in those slippers even today! And how he also hated it when Odina struck up one of his songs as they went along, for he was a celebrated singer in the peasant dwellings of the valleys and the shepherds’ huts on the high plains, already famous at the age of 18 or 19, at least in the Tadzhik part of the mountains. No, Kaufner had never liked Odina’s singing, as he now had to confess with fervour, had never liked those monotonously oscillating and endlessly repeated melodies. Least of all when they suddenly broke off and Odina turned to put out a hand to his master – as he called him despite all Kaufner’s admonitions – to help him over a difficult place among the rocks. Everything all right, master? One of these days he was going to blow him away as he walked so hypocritically ahead, he would simply gun him down without advance notice, he wouldn’t even give Odina any reason, that was all he deserved.
What on earth are you thinking of? Don’t you mean the Kirghiz? You’d have died in these mountains a couple of times but for the boy. He deserves all the friendship you can offer him, pull yourself together.
All the same, Kaufner watched with suspicion and displeasure as Odina, far ahead, stopped by a charred tree, bowed, stood up again, his forearms angled and the palms of his hands held up to the sky, and stayed in that position. After a while the path had turned away from the ravine almost at a right angle, already at a considerable height, and then skirted the lower edge of a field of scree. And there, all alone in the wide space, stood a tree split by lightning. A few scraps of fabric hung in its gleaming black branches; the few travellers who came this way apparently left their cares and wishes behind at this magical place. Kaufner caught up with Odina, looked suspiciously at him as if he was a traitor and said nothing. Odina slowly passed both hands down over his face, ending his prayer, and looked across the expanse of scree that led, bleak and endless, up the slope on his right. As if there were something to be seen there. Even the donkey was baffled. After the boy had tied the remaining half of his handkerchief to a branch, exchanging not a word with his master, he seemed to notice the hostility suddenly in the air between them, and when Odina had given the donkey a brief command, “A-khrrr”, they went on.
And at once, following the usual distance behind, Kaufner gave himself up again to wild speculations going this way and that, first about Januzak and how he would deal with him, then about Odina as if today’s incident showed him in an entirely different light, as if everything that Kaufner had ever been through with him had to be rethought.
“Take me to the tombs,” he had told him when they met on the agreed day, that was all.
“What, all of them, master?”
What a strange reply. Why hadn’t Odina asked which of them? It was the first time since his arrival that Kaufner had been so direct; well, it had just slipped out, and he would be more careful in future. He had sensed at once, from the boy’s evasive answer, that he had violated an unspoken taboo. At least he was quick to withdraw part of his forcefully expressed demand.
“All of them that you think important – ” that must surely be what Odina would like to hear, “wherever they may be.”
The boy had smiled, nodded. Only now, months later, did Kaufner understand the scene, understand it in all its inscrutability. Without wasting further words they had set off; there was no shortage of tombs in the mountains. In any of the mountains where they had gone. Of course Kaufner had never told the boy whose tomb he was looking for, and why. He hadn’t talked to anyone about it. All the same, the boy must have guessed – no, had certainly known very well what tomb Kaufner was interested in. And that’s why he had spared no effort not to wander here, in the Turkestan Range, where the tomb most likely was. Maybe he was not allowed to take this way as well, otherwise Januzak wouldn’t have reacted as he had, would he? The whereabouts of that tomb was probably the best-kept secret in the entire Islamic world, if you were to believe Kaufner’s agent controller. The last hopes of the West depended on finding it. Perhaps the Kirghiz was not a wanderer at all, but one of those who guarded the tomb.
Take it easy, Kaufner, take it easy. One thing at a time.
Odina might guess what Kaufner was looking for. But the boy couldn’t know why he was doing it, and what he thought of doing next when he had found it. Or could he? What did a boy like that know anyway? Some chance-met Tadzhik boy from the Pamir mountains who took on any work that came his way, in order to feed his family. A reliable companion, yes, even on glare ice or in the middle of a river. You had to grant him that. A boy who knew Russian better than Kaufner, even though the latter had learnt that language at school and the boy certainly had not. You had to grant him that as well. And then there was that look of his, that Odina-look from his big brown eyes, you couldn’t believe any ill of him. Until today. He didn’t even know his own year of birth, what could a boy like that claim to know? How simple he had looked, standing and stretching in the hammam in … When exactly had it been?
At some point on New Year’s Eve of 2026, it got started even in the district of Hamburg known as the Schanzenviertel. First a few rockets at midnight, set off by those brave souls who ventured to defy the curfew. Then the men muffled in black came streaming up from all sides, along with people shouting in chorus and marching battalions of police officers, so that for a while you might have thought it was a demonstration of the kind seen in the early days of the war. From his balcony, Kaufner had noticed fires being lit and beer drunk here and there in the street, as if it were just an illicit street party, but then more and more often bottles were thrown and the police derided. Towards morning the men in black had suddenly opened fire, using heavy weapons, blowing up the police vehicles with bazookas one by one. Ordinary demonstrators could never have done that. Kaufner had been unable to leave his apartment for days on end, while the authorities won back street after street. At last, when the whole Schanzenviertel was in flames and he, too, had been forcibly evacuated, then – yes, then and only then he had finally made up his mind. And in April of the same year, he reminded himself … exactly! In April 2027, you came here. All that first summer you thought you could do it on your own. But it couldn’t be done on your own. So in winter you looked around for a companion to go with you, and in January, was it January? Yes, that was it, nine months ago.
So Odina had been only 17 or 18 then, a boy. He stood among all the others like a rent boy, naked, guilelessly doing his stretching exercises, it was a nauseating sight. If Talib hadn’t stopped in mid-massage, if he hadn’t come over to Kaufner and said look, that boy was just the one for him, he’d been asking around for someone like that – Kaufner would never have spoken to the boy of his own accord. And then Talib served tea; he was a sturdy giant with a permanent hangover and consequently a man of few words, but that day he was very talkative. Kaufner was already sitting with him and the boy in a niche, the hammam was dimly lit as usual, steaming with water dripping down as it always did. However, everything was different that day. And all for the company of a Tadzhik boy who had just half-heartedly covered himself up with his towel. Hadn’t the others stared, even grinned at them? Was Odina hand in glove with them?
With Talib at least; in retrospect, Kaufner was almost sure of that. And it had been Talib who always spoke up for the boy. Agreed, as a former wrestler he had the last word here anyway, he had already given almost everyone a going-over, 10,000 som per massage, and after it you were glad to have survived. No one was about to contradict a man like Talib. In Kaufner’s memory he took on the features of the Kirghiz, or rather vice versa; after all, they both had the same black slits for eyes. Strangely enough, at the time Kaufner had grasped only the awkwardness of the scene, and none of the cunning with which Talib confined himself to praising the beauty of the surrounding mountains, pointing out that as a foreigner Kaufner would naturally need an experienced mountain guide if he were not to pass this or that famous rock formation without noticing it. With growing annoyance he remembered how Talib, slapping his wet towel on the concrete plinth again and again, had praised the boy’s good qualities. And he had been quick to name the fee to be paid for a whole summer in Odina’s company – how was he going to know the figure if he hadn’t often taken part in such negotiations? Baksheesh for Talib himself was extra, and no one would dream of haggling with him.
Hadn’t some of the men been furtively laughing? Kaufner had already given himself away in the Jewish quarter of Samarkand when he made very discreet inquiries about someone who could accompany him into the mountains. In addition he had made himself a laughing-stock when they had found this someone for him in January, under the bare electric light bulb in a side niche at the hammam on a men’s day.
The only remarkable thing was that light had dawned on him only nine months later.
“He’ll show you everything,” Talib had promised, with a twinkle in his eyes that Kaufner wished he hadn’t noticed. All rigged in advance; why else would Odina, whom Kaufner had never seen in the hammam before, have turned up there at all? Clearly it was enough to go in search of a donkey driver for everyone to be in the know.
Only now, after the event, did it occur to Kaufner that Talib might be working for someone, maybe even for the Deutschländers or one of the Free Forts that were still holding out. After all, the West was an ally of Uzbekistan, at least on paper. So possibly they were working towards the same end. It might even be in Talib’s interests for Kaufner to find the tomb? How else could he have talked as if he knew all about Kaufner’s intentions, and without mentioning them, let alone discussing them directly? As if his backers in Hamburg had recruited a masseur and a donkey driver for Kaufner on the spot.
Then Talib brought out the vodka bottle; this was serious business. Kaufner had often observed him doing his deals on the side (although you never actually saw what he was dealing in), covered with a gleaming film of sweat, making his wet towel snap in the air or bringing it down on the belly of his partner in conversation. Who knew in whose service he had already sold the boy, and what for? Kaufner sat there and listened with as much equanimity as he could. The boy just sat there too, not a muscle of his face showing what he might be thinking of Talib.
There were plenty like him, the masseur said approvingly, they came from far and wide because there was no work to be found in their valleys now. But none of them, he claimed, was Odina’s equal. “He’ll keep his mouth shut and disappear in autumn once he’s delivered you back here to me.”
Talib leaned closer with a confidential air; you could tell by the smell of him that he had already consumed a large quantity of vodka. Even his sweat stank of alcohol. “What’s more, he doesn’t use opium and he has no infection.”
Talib’s roar of laughter was heard to good effect in these underground vaults, and the fat on his stomach muscles wobbled.
“Why would you be the right guide for me?” Kaufner had put that one question directly to the boy. And before Talib could get his word in first, Odina had replied: because he was of the Wakhi tribe, who had guarded the Silk Road for centuries. “Whatever we do, master, we stand up straight.”
Talib was about to interrupt him anyway, adding that even for the inhabitants of the Pamir mountains, Odina’s tribe had an extremely strict code of honour. But the boy was not to be deterred, and still speaking directly to Kaufner went on calmly, “If one of us takes you into the mountains you are his guest, and believe me, if anything harms you he must atone for it by doing the same harm to himself.”
There could be no better life insurance in the mountains, and with that the bargain was sealed.
And then the boy really had turned out to be an experienced donkey driver. An experienced hiker and climber anyway. No, such a person doesn’t work for the opposition at the same time. A mountain guide can’t be a wily trickster.
Or can he?
If there’s no other way to feed his family?
At least he isn’t working for the Chinese. He hates them, they already control the mines in his country, the tunnels, the main roads, they’ve prepared everything extremely well. For the Caliph? For the True Way, the Foundation, some other such body of warriors in the Holy War? But the Tadzhiks aren’t interested in the State of God. They’d like best to have a prince of their own for every valley. For the Pan-Slavonic Alliance? Never mind, the boy doesn’t know where you come from, he doesn’t know where you’re going. He’s never asked about your true intentions.
He must stop fooling himself, Kaufner thought repeatedly. After all, a few hours ago it had emerged that Odina didn’t need to ask what tomb Kaufner was looking for, he knew the answer already, and so he would have been able to set out with him at once for the Valley That Is Void. Had had to set out for it. Kaufner must act. The Kirghiz might have humiliated him, but at the moment he was no immediate threat, and Kaufner was not going to think about him any more for the time being. Odina, on the other hand, and even though Odina’s words might have saved him, could perhaps be a much greater threat than Januzak.
And well within view. The path here was simple, and remained so. The mountain ridge rose on the right, and on the left more and more of the plain to which they would climb down tomorrow was coming into sight: Uzbekistan. Thick clouds were floating over it, there was a flash here and there, then blue sky with broad rays of sunlight falling. If he had been in a better mood, he might have described it as picturesque.
As usual when Kaufner arrived at the camping place where they would spend the night, a spot chosen by the boy, the donkey had already been unloaded and gone off in search of fodder. The boy was busy putting up Kaufner’s tent; next he would cook supper. Only when all his duties were done did he spread the saddle-cloth out beside the fire and put his shabby sleeping-bag on top of it. But while Kaufner usually got his baggage into the tent first, setting things out for the next day, this evening he went straight over to Odina and planted himself in front of him.
“Why did you mislead me for so long?”
“Because I wanted you to survive.” The answer came surprisingly quickly. “If I’d come straight here with you –” The boy obviously felt not in the least guilty. Either that, or he was playing his part very well. “Master, no one goes hiking for pleasure in these mountains. Anyone on the road here is either a smuggler, or one of the Holy Warriors, or – one of you. But certainly not a novice like you! They’d soon enough – ”
“Are you trying to insult me? I am not a novice!” Kaufner’s fingers itched to punch Odina, but he thought better of it. “What sign is here to identify the more advanced ones, or whatever you like to call them?”
Odina calmly lashed down the tent and drove a tent peg in. Sorted out the branches and twigs that he had collected and stuffed into his rucksack where they last stopped to rest, arranged them, pushing the smallest together into a little heap with the thicker branches crossed above it. In a few minutes he would have a fire burning, and would first make tea and then boil a pan of noodles over it. He did not answer Kaufner’s question, but instead finally remarked, “You don’t meet a man like Januzak more than once. He may be old or young, no one knows. But he can throttle a man with one hand. And he does, too.”
“So you were even more afraid of him than I was?”
Again Odina did not reply. Was it only pride that kept him from admitting that he had been trembling there beside the Cobra Rock? His fear could not have been a pretence, he was certainly not in league with Januzak.
“The law of the mountains …” the boy began at last irritably, as he struck a match. “It could have been our last day.”
“For both of us?” said Kaufner, needling him. Odina jumped up from his carefully arranged firewood, the match still burning between his fingers, but said nothing. You could hear the mountains breathing. The sky was dark grey; within a few minutes night would fall.
“I know about your ‘law of the mountains.’” Kaufner was still intent on putting Odina under pressure. “And you know what I think of it. What does it say about sudden encounters with Kirghiz men?”
Kaufner’s dismissive tone did not fail to take effect. Ignoring the burning match, Odina thrust out his chest. “We go with our master, and if we do not bring him safely through the mountains then we go to our death with him. That is the law.”
“Is that really what it says?” For a split second Kaufner was taken aback. Next moment he was wondering whether Odina might be a little crazy. How loud his voice had risen! As he gesticulated the match went out; he must have burnt his fingers.
“Master, I am from the Pamir mountains! We have peaks much higher than these, and our honour means more to us than our lives. But you do not understand that.”
By “you” he meant “you from the West’, that much had emerged in the course of their journey together. It was clear that to Odina the West began at Samarkand, a city grown weak in his eyes, with inhabitants who were weaklings themselves, the henchmen of changing masters, unreliable, contemptible.
“Well, just imagine, so we don’t understand that.” Kaufner folded his arms. “Are you telling me that if Januzak had killed me, he’d have killed you too – ?”
“No, he wouldn’t have done that, he knows the law.” Odina hesitated, looking as if he could find no suitable way to put it in Russian.
“You’d have had to do it yourself?” Kaufner suddenly acted as if he did understand, to cover up for the underlying meaning in his question. “The law of the mountains?”
“And none of us would ever have ignored it.”
Only now did Odina remember the match and threw it on the ground in annoyance. Without a glance at his fingers he turned to what had to be done before darkness fell. Surprisingly, as they ate he began talking to Kaufner again, drawing his attention to the west and the plain opening up among the foothills of the Turkestan mountains.
The light shining on the horizon, he said, was Samarkand. The distant reflection of Samarkand. If they made haste they would reach the outskirts of the city tomorrow night; once you were “down there” you could travel on even in the dark. Furthermore, the frontier lay far behind them now. The rest of the route was child’s play. Basically, you could close your eyes and you would find your own way down. All roads led to Samarkand.
It was to take Kaufner a whole night to understand why Odina had said that.
All roads lead to Samarkand. Kaufner had heard something like that already, when he first arrived in Tashkent a year and a half ago. “Deutsch?” the driver of the shared taxi outside the airport had addressed him accurately. And then, as soon as they were on the motorway, he persisted in asking questions about the news from the Western Front, as he called it. Did Germany still exist? That was supposed to be a joke; after all, the Deutschländers were still fighting on all sectors of the front, as the taxi driver was very well informed by Uzbek State TV. What he really wanted to do was give his own opinion of the situation, firing himself up by asking his German passenger constant rhetorical questions. The three men on the back seat were busy holding on to cases and bags that wouldn’t fit into the boot. Once they overtook a galloping horseman, another time a Moskvitch came towards them as a ghost-driver: where a car usually has a back seat, there was a calf in this one with its head out of the side window.
The driver concentrated on deriding the Free West. Or what was left of it in Central Europe, which strictly speaking meant only the Deutschländers, who were defending it as fiercely as if they had built it up themselves, or at least had always lived there. Deutschländers! No more talk of foreign fellow-citizens, fourth or fifth-generation immigrants; since the war had openly broken out, the Turks and with them all the others, wherever they had come from and although they had not originally described themselves as Deutschländers at all, had finally become the better sort of Germans. Germans who still thought it necessary to defend Germany, and were even in a position to do so. Especially in those weeks when the Free West came under fire from the Pan-Slavonic Alliance on all sections of the front, in a kind of spring offensive. They had broken through in many places where the motley official troops of the Bundeswehr were stationed; the Deutschländers, on the other hand, although they were only bands of militia, had even withstood elite Russian units, and the taxi driver reluctantly paid his respects to them. He interrupted his account of the situation only when he was approaching a roadblock. As soon as they were past the checkpoint he took his seatbelt off again, stepped on the gas, and asked if it was true that the German government …
It was true, Kaufner could confirm it. A few days ago the German government had asked Turkey for military aid, and it was only a question of time before Turkish regular troops marched in. For the good of Germany, Kaufner assured the man, officially summoned by Federal Chancellor Yalçin.
Would the Turks also take a stand against their brothers in Islam now advancing into France? The taxi driver could believe it, could believe anything of them. And he could believe no less of the Fist of God; apparently Paris had already fallen, the Caliph had liberated Europe from the Iberian peninsula to the Seine. Liberated! The taxi driver didn’t bother to conceal the fact that he liked that; he was an Uzbek, and thus no friend to the Turks, who since time immemorial had put on airs as a master race among the Turkic peoples. No one this side of the Red Desert wanted to make common cause with them.
Paris had fallen? Kaufner startled in surprise, hiding it as best he could. German TV news hadn’t reported that. Was the man sure?
Perfectly sure! The taxi driver protested that God was great, pointed to his string of prayer beads dangling from the rear-view mirror, and wouldn’t stop putting the pedal to the metal, perhaps as his personal contribution to the fact that they were driving towards certain victory.
It was getting more and more complicated. Soon no one would know who was fighting whom and where. Because the taxi driver’s certainty of triumph annoyed him – what on earth was the man thinking of, after all, Uzbekistan was an ally of the West, not of the Caliph! – Kaufner informed him that meanwhile the Russian attack had been beaten back all along the front, and even in Hamburg the old demarcation line of the Alster had been reached. That had been the latest state of hostilities before he set off on his new deployment. For the first time the taxi driver kept his mouth shut; obviously the news hadn’t reached these parts. He shook some green powder out of a small bag and put it under his tongue, and was then enjoyably occupied in salivating. Not until they were approaching the last roadblock on the outskirts of the city of Samarkand did he open the driver’s door a little way, without slackening speed, in order to spit repeatedly.
Now Kaufner lay in his sleeping bag and felt the nocturnal cold seeping in through the tent. He had until dawn to lose himself in his own thoughts, sort through his memories again. He must make some decisions before morning: concerning Odina, concerning his own mission in the mountains, and whether he could carry on with it. If the boy had been working against him all the time, by pretending to work for him, then might others with whom he had had dealings since his arrival have done exactly the same?
After a few hours of travelling from Tashkent he had reached the Old Town of Samarkand, and a short walk took him to its centre and the double door, magnificently ornamented with carvings, of a building that had been named as his contact address. Strange that he had been sent here, to a B & B called the Atlas Guesthouse and much patronized by rich Russians, Arabs, Chinese and Pakistanis. For the sake of better camouflage? But then it turned out to be managed by a Tadzhik family, and that in the heart of an Uzbek city! That seemed significant – Tadzhikistan sympathized with Greater Russia, but the sympathies of the Tadzhiks in Uzbekistan obviously lay with the West. Here they seemed to be what the Uzbeks were in Tadzhikistan, a small, refined upper class who were clearly better off than the rest of the population.
Of course it had been Shokhi who opened one wing of the door for him, and then welcomed him with a barely breathed, “Allah …”. She was wrapped from head to foot in various lengths of fabric, white, the colour of sand and shades of yellow.
“I dreamed of you,” she said, “so I knew that you would arrive today. You’re late.”
It took Kaufner’s breath away. He had spent several months preparing for his operation, but never in his wildest dreams had he expected to find a young girl waiting for him.
Why was he so late, Shokhi wanted to know, he ought to have been here hours ago. But now at last she had sensed that he was in the city, and she had just been about to go to meet him.
All this in Russian, very fast, very impatiently, very sure of herself.
“Were you told I’d be here today, then?”
Kaufner was still taken by surprise. He tried to work out whether the little lady welcoming him, possibly the daughter of the house, had perhaps been initiated into everything by her father, and was waiting for him to give the password. Kaufner couldn’t see more of her than her eyes, gloriously blue, hard to see through, impossible to fathom.
“Where is …” he began, trying to shake her off, but Shokhi didn’t even let him get a word in. She was thirteen, she told him, he could talk to her about everything, she knew all about it.
No, her father had not spoken to her. And what he knew he could never be induced to say even later. Shokhi had dreamed, had dreamed repeatedly that Kaufner would arrive today, or at least so she said. However, she had kept the dream to herself, Kaufner mustn’t tell anyone about it or … or there would be trouble again.
Kaufner was about to give her a conspiratorial nod and leave it at that, but when she went on to ask whether the three men on the back seat of the taxi had indeed been “nice” he stared at her for a moment, baffled. Was it possible to dream even such details as that? His first day in his new area of operations, and a young girl had already put him off his stroke. None the less, he was under pressure. He must make himself known to his contacts, or they would take him for a tourist. Kaufner decided to drop the password casually into the conversation, and then he would see if Shokhi recognized it and reacted with the correct reply.
Well, yes, perhaps he had been late, he agreed; as a German, he couldn’t fly by way of Moscow. “But luckily almost all roads lead to … Samarkand.”
Shokhi must have noticed the tiny pause, and hesitated over answering. Then she decided to take the new guest to her father so that he could go through the formalities of reception officially, and hand over his passport. She walked ahead of him across the courtyard with a spring in her step, a swaying, floating pillar of fabric, under a tree in blossom and past dozens of flowerpots and an empty fountain. Before she pushed open the door of her father’s office, taking off her slippers, she looked at Kaufner once again.
“Samarkand, after all, is interesting, and not just for tourists.”
Kaufner had forgotten the watchword, which hung in the air between them, as he stood there feeling stunned. Samarkand Samarkand … could Shokhi also have dreamed of the password? […]
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Review in ‚New Books in German‘: http://www.new-books-in-german.com