For me, cycling is transformative. I have written in the past about how my mood changes within the time it takes to turn the wheels a couple of times. I may have been feeling irritable – forgetting stuff I need to take with me, going backwards and forwards to the house several times while I retrieve – one at a time it feels like – stuff I need to take with me: wallet, phone, a book, a bottle of water in good weather, a flask of tea when it’s cold, while my mood closes in on me. Moments later a metamorphosis occurs and I am, if not the greatest bike rider of them all, Eddy Merckx, then at least Half Man Half Bike (as his British biographer William Fotheringham described him). Even the shadow I cast fools me into thinking I am someone else (well, in somebody else’s body at least). My profile looks, if not sleek, then at least more the part than my merciless lycra will allow.
But a change like this – however wistful – never lasts. The bike goes back into the garage, the lycra in the laundry basket, and no matter how long I spend in the shower, the lactic acid in my legs finds its way into my bloodstream, and into my brain.
There are times when I have gone to bed feeling perfectly fine. In a good mood, frankly (it does happen) only to wake up the next morning unable to recognise myself, or to recognise myself all too well.
The Czech author Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924) wrote about this transformation process in his novella ‘Metamorphosis’. The main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes one morning to find himself transformed – into an ‘aungeheuren Ungeziefern‘ – a ‘monstrous cockroach’. Lying on his back with his legs flailing in the air, struggling to understand how this change could have happened, first his family, and then his boss, call out to him through his locked bedroom door. First with concern from his family and later with threats from his boss.
Samsa’s story will be all too familiar to those of us who find ourselves unrecognisable to ourselves, and to our family, friends and colleagues. I won’t spoil the rest of the story – it’s well worth reading – and only 67 pages long it should be manageable even to those of us with short concentration spans.
Last time I wrote about the nightmares that I have been plagued by in the past; dreams of my impending death. There’s another one of Kafka’s short stories called ‘The Penal Colony’ which deals with an elaborate and torture and execution device; a theme which is all too familiar to me. In these dreams I find myself in the death cell on the eve of my execution, condemned to die for an unknown crime, the only certainty shackled to my mind is that I am guilty and that the verdict of this unseen, unheard court was just.
It took me years to work out what these recurrent dreams were saying to me. They were, as I said last time, just too vivid, a blurring of savage realities, for me to want to understand them. I just wanted them to stop.
They weren’t about me, after all, were they. There was no ‘eureka!’ moment in the bath, like the Ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes (c. 287 – c. 212 B.C.E.). My understanding of those dreams came to me gradually, as cold and brittle as the emergence of light on winter mornings.
I am guilty. In those dreams, and in my chest heaving waking, I knew it. Only the charge, the crime, remained obscure, Kafkaesque. But prison gives the gift of time. Unwanted, lumbering, and as cold as iron. Time to think. Awake, thoughts pacing across the flagstones of my Death Row mind, realisation, like a prison warden appearing outside my cell, rattles its bunch of keys. Guilty for just being born.
‘Self pity!’ I hear your think, too decorous to actually say so. Maybe I’m being unfair. Let me explain what I mean. Behind that weary cry stalk historical facts. Had it not been for the inferno of anti semitism that engulfed the civillised (and not so civillised) nations of Europe coming to a crescendo in the years following Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 and its waning with the death of Stalin in March 1953, I would never have been born. My parents are both refugees from both those regimes. Had the combination of economic, historical, political and social factors not coalesced to herd millions to their deaths by bullet, fire, gas, rope, starvation and suicide my mother and father, together with their parents and siblings would not have come to these shores.
Do I value my life above what happened then (and still swirls around my mind now) above the survival of just one nameless, faceless victim of these regimes? Even if I did, could I tell that to the 33,771 men,women and children from Kiev who met their deaths in the Ukrainian forest Babi Yar on 29 – 30 September 1941? I could not.
Philosophers, Psychiatrists, Psychologists and others talk of ‘coming to terms’ with our past. What negotiation could I pursue with all that happened that would mean that I could betray those people by my psychological contentment?
The Stalin Epigram
Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,
the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.
Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.
One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.
He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.
Osip Mandelstam (1891 – 1938)