In Our Latin Quarter

Alexei Kochetkov

In Our Latin Quarter

The first part of the novel I Am Coming Back to You

Translated from Russian by Vladimir Kochetkov

Editors: Dan O’Brien, Janet Wagner

Footnotes by Vladimir Kochetkov

© 2016 T&V Media



Here in Agro, the National Agricultural Institute, the chahut[1] was quite modest: only a few joyous shouts from time to time shook the auditorium:

“Brilliant, professor!”

“Conclusion of a genius”!

“We honor you for that!”

A minute of jubilant shouting, stomping of feet, and thumping tables running down the amphitheater. Making noise was our inalienable, traditional academic right. Because it was fun, and it was good for the memory. Because we were young. Outside the windows, worn down by time to a lead-like sheen, was a quiet Claude Bernard street on the outskirts of the Latin Quarter.

After giving a sentence a nice roundness with the usual French eloquence, our professor habitually called us to order. Then, he smiled and jokingly raised his hands: “I surrender.” The noise died down as abruptly as it had begun. The lecture course, which was mandatory for us (research assistants of the plant pathology laboratory), continued. Meanwhile, I looked for Jacqueline.

Yes, the chahut here was very modest. Everyone will tell you that. Ardent defenders of ancient academic traditions will say that it could only satisfy these uncouth agronomist yokels. Agro was full of métèques[2], with a good half of provincials. One day they were in Paris, the next day in their little gardens outside Versailles. They had no imagination, not even for one sou[3]. They were no match for students of the Sorbonne! Everyone knew how the guys of medicine dressed at their annual ball. Only a few professors, the older ones, wore togas. Everybody else was stark naked.

Yes! Real student fun could only be found at departments of the Sorbonne. Even now, in these uncertain times, they continued to adhere to tradition. Take, for example, law students: every lecture was about a different global issue. What could be a better excuse to make a lot of noise, to argue, to make a real Parisian chahut?

“Did you hear about his latest outrageous act?”

“It’s a scandal, a real shame!”

“So let’s bury him?”

“Yes, yes! Without delay! He is dead to us!”

The day was fixed for the “funeral” of the disgraced professor. Self-made, cleverly insulting “mourning” announcements were posted everywhere. The name of he who had fallen into disfavor would be “anathematized” at a “requiem mass” at the end of the funeral. After humorous, sometimes witty speeches, the “writings” and “coffin” of the deceased would be thrown into the Seine.

Try to fight your way through the dense multilingual, motley crowd closer to the roadway: “Pardon[4]! May I?” on Boulevard Saint-Michel, our Boul’Mich. To the front rows, where, of course, you’d find the guys of medicine, maned and measuredly puffing on their long pipes. Their cafe was nearby. They majestically leaned on their fragrant, prettily dressed, clinging girlfriends. Let’s see what law students were capable of.

The costumed head of the procession had just started to turn from the direction of Place du Pantheon to Boul’Mich. Next to an almost real agent[5], with a white baton under his cape, strutted a brilliant “butler” in a tricorn hat and armed with a magnificent white mace, followed by a “prelate” belching blasphemies, glancing into a “missal”—a thick telephone directory.

The “orders of merit” of the deceased, male and female sex organs carved from carrots and beets, were carried on purple satin cushions. Behind the “coffin,” in an equally playful style, the warhorse of the great man was being paraded: a tiny toy horse pulled by a thick tarred marine rope.

And finally, there came the chahut, an eccentric and provocative dance. It was performed by “wailers,” brothel girls who looked rather undressed. They were hired for the procession, and they diligently danced, mimicking their sisters in trade, priestesses of love of the early Middle Ages. In the footsteps of musicians, casually attired and playing with fervor, swaggered a crowd of rowdy students.

It looked like Jacqueline would not be in class today.

No need to follow the procession down the Boul’Mich to the Seine banks, passing café Dupont, which was very popular with students, and crossing the noisy, singing streets of poor neighborhoods that were smelly throughout the day, and where at night, on every corner and almost at any door, men were hailed by ladies in shimmering blouses and slinky skirts slit to the side, tapping their heels.

“Tu montes, mon coco?[6]

No need, therefore, to follow the procession to the Seine, where the funeral procession would end. This was a matter for law students. But the show was worth a glance.

Certainly, today Jacqueline would not come.

Especially if you’d just arrived in Paris. And when you came, as they say, straight from ship to ball––from boondocks, the Far North, from Latvia-Klyatvia[7] (ah, it is somewhere near the North Pole!), which became alien and hostile after all those years of study in Toulouse and after the recent fascist coup[8]. After a year of compulsory military service in Latvia-Klyatvia, I had forgotten that it was still possible to carelessly do foolish things together, to seek public attention, and with impunity block the roadway...

And all this when so much was happening in the world!

When you were happy as hell to be back in France, though not for long this time, now that you were free and after barracks, boredom, dullness, and everything that you saw there, you were trying to catch with your mouth and open heart the bracing air of Gallic joy and love of freedom. And you wanted to put yourself in the shoes of a student, like in old times, before returning home to Moscow—your true homeland, which you had never forgotten and which you would not exchange for the world. A student, yes, but this time in Paris, not in Toulouse! Wow! There, in our ancient, somewhat sleepy, commercial rather than industrial, but still our student Toulouse, even students of physics and mathematics, our neighbors, a foolhardy and wild bunch, would not dare to do such things...

It was also worth a look because these eruptions of lighthearted student joy and expressions of old academic traditions were becoming increasingly rare these days.

In our uncertain anxious times...

Well, no, Jacqueline would not come today!

“We are on the eve of decisive battles. We must defend, strengthen, and develop democracy. By the people. Last year, we strongly told them: no.” (While saying this, Jacqueline always made a serious face and that suited her perfectly.) “To those who, like in the idiotic Reich, imagined that their time had come. Oh! In February, in Paris, we fought for real against the fascists. Not like in your Toulouse.”

It was fine. I was not offended. I was worried like everybody else. Especially after what I had seen in the barracks and later in transit in Berlin: the wide spread of stupid chauvinism, persecution of dissidents, and saber-rattling.

The Latin Quarter was abuzz. There were a lot of reasons to worry. The country suffered from recession, high unemployment, and rampant corruption. But there—they had the revanchist Wehrmacht, the one-party dictatorship. Book burnings! The cult of the leader! And all that at the border of a carefree victorious France.

Disputes and conflicts were on the rise everywhere: in the universities, cafes, meetings.

“Poor France! The cursed politicians have brought the country to its knees!”

“We are not alone against Hitler!”

“The military supremacy, this is what we need. Unity!”

“The Maginot Line? Ah! My rabbit. It’s an imaginary line.”

“No, the strength of France is in democracy, freedom.”

“The freedom to strike?”

“When you have to!”

“When you don’t!”

“A Hitler henchman, a cagoulard[9].”

“A Moscow agent!”

...And fly berets, waltz sticks...

* * *

But in our lab it was warm and quiet. It was warm like in a greenhouse, and it was quiet as in an auditorium before the récréation[10], in the grip of a lecture. I heard only clinking of test tubes and other glassware from the adjacent table. It was always like this in the morning since I joined in October 1935.

I flipped through a thick notebook. Notes made on the, assumptions, theses, results of experiments. Formulae, endless formulae. And I lost myself again in thoughts.

“Diseases of cultivated plants deprive mankind of almost a fifth of the harvest”—this was from lectures of Professor Bertrand[11], our boss. At any moment now, the door would creak, and the morning rounds would start. He would probably complain again about lack of funds to expand research.

It was wonderful that I could do my specialty training at the National Institute. How often I had dreamed about it. There, in Toulouse, during the final year of Agro, but especially in Latvia-Klyatvia during my military service. While on sentry duty at a powder warehouse, somewhere far from the fortress, I would take off my heavy German helmet; I would make myself comfortable on it. I would lean my bothersome English rifle[12] nicknamed Rosenfeld kundze[13] against the wall of cellar-warehouse, and I would start daydreaming...How wonderful it would be! An agronomist diploma and plant pathology specialty. It would be respectable! What a vast field of work there, in my motherland, for the good of man in the fight against evil!

But time flies. However, a favorable response could come any day now from the Soviet consulate in Riga. Meanwhile, years went by. I was already twenty-four. I had to put in more energy and determination to catch up after a year lost playing little soldiers. Catch up, acquire, and absorb knowledge with more energy, persistence, and unbridled passion. Certainly, I had some achievements to talk about. My presentation on the Soviet agrobiology went well (“pas mal” (not bad) was the boss’s verdict). But I was still far from the performance I expected, the productivity of a future researcher. I knew, of course I knew, it would take more intellectual rigor, perseverance, knowledge, practice, and experience.

End of free sample. Want to read more? Buy the book on:

[1] Eruptions of commotion with which students interrupted lectures.

[2] A pejorative term for foreigners.

[3] French 5 centimes coin.

[4] Excuse me.

[5] Agent de police – a police officer.

[6] Will you come up, sweetie?

[7] From Russian words klyatva (клятва – oath) and klyastʹ (клясть – to curse), both describing attitudes of Latvians towards the recently installed authoritarian regime of Kārlis Ulmanis with the majority pledging allegiance to it, and the others cursing it as hard as they could.

[8] On May 15–16, 1934.

[9] A member of La Cagoule (Secret Committee of Revolutionary Action), a French fascist-leaning and anti-communist group.

[10] Récréation – break, recess.

[11] Gabriel Bertrand (May 17, 1867 – June 20, 1962) was a renowned French pharmacologist, biochemist, and bacteriologist, member of the Academy of Sciences from 1924, of the Academy of Agriculture from 1926, and of the Academy of Medicine from 1931, professor at the Faculty of Science of the Sorbonne from 1905 to 1936, and head of the biology department of the Institute Pasteur from 1900. He was appointed Commander of the Légion d’Honneur in 1934.

[12] Pattern 1914 Ross-Enfield rifle.

[13] Rosenfeld kundze – Mrs. Rosenfeld.