The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, by Gaito Gazdanov
In this eerie 1940s novel, an emigre journalist is tormented by memories of killing a man in the Russian Civil War
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf
Gaito Gazdanov, translated by Bryan Karetnyk
A young soldier, exhausted after almost three nights without sleep, finally collapses. When he wakes his comrades are gone and he is alone. Grazing nearby is a thin, black mare “whose rider had obviously been killed”. He mounts the horse and sets off at a gallop through the deserted landscape, but although he is moving at speed, his later memories convey an impression of everything happening in slow motion. He recalls riding along, still longing for rest, when the mare fell to the ground, bringing him with her. She had been shot in the head; he looked up and saw the marksman closing in.
The narrator of the émigré Russian writer Gaito Gazdanov’s elegantly eerie classic, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, is tormented by that single wartime experience. His pursuer was mounted on a large white horse. The narrator was only 16 at the time, and watched as the horseman released the reins and shouldered his rifle. The narrator suddenly remembered that he had a revolver, “and with some difficulty managed to pull it out of its tight, new holder”. He took aim and waited for a few seconds before firing. A crazed curiosity made him rush over to examine the face of the man he had killed. He saw him dying, and the image never left him.
Gaito Gazdanov was born in St Petersburg in 1903, but moved to Kharkov, in Ukraine, and was living there with his widowed mother some time before the Russian Revolution began in 1917. He begins his story with this dramatic to-the-death encounter between two fellow countrymen pitted against each other by civil war. The opening scene takes place in the heat of a southern Russian summer, intensified by a forest fire. Gazdanov’s father had been a forester. Exactly how much of the subsequent narrative is autobiographical is not certain, yet the future novelist did fight as a 16-year-old on the side of the White Russians, and his description of the chaos and lull of battle, the sudden silence, is immediate and urgent, devastatingly atmospheric.
The boy in the story stares with wonder at the dead man. To him, it is a murder, the only one he has ever committed. He is not helped by the thought that, in war, a soldier is expected to kill. Whatever about his remorse, he has sufficient presence of mind to claim the white horse and ride off. A few days later, before fleeing Russia, he sold the horse to a German settler. It is an interesting touch that the buyer was German, not Russian.