Read an Excerpt from The People's Hare

1. DETENTION FACILITY 540

Being a prisoner of Mossad, all in all, is not that bad. At least, not as bad as I had expected.

My cell is not particularly awful, either. There is room enough for a worrisome man to pace, and a narrow pallet where he may try to sleep, and a small window, a hole really, high above near the ceiling, where he may watch dust motes dance in the narrow light, and think.

I think a great deal of the time. There isn’t much else to do. Situations such as mine are conducive to thought. The proximity of fate, I suppose.

Or not.

The only thing this worrisome man can be certain of, really, is that his soup will always be cold.

Whether this is purposeful on the part of his captors or mere inefficiency, he does not know.

 

I complain to my interrogator about the soup. His name is Markovich. He is a Russian Jew from Lithuania.

So, after all these years, another Russian with questions. Wonderful.

Markovich, to his credit, listens to my complaints. He smokes and nods a great deal, feathering the smoke through the vents of his long nose. The appropriate temperature of prison soup is probably quite beyond the concern of Mossad.

 Patient, patriarchal, proceeding slowly from one question to the next – that is Markovich. There is the dense, mildly distracted air of a philosophy student about him. He is somewhat younger than me.

“Why is the soup always cold?” I ask.

Smoke plumes from Markovich’s nostrils, as if from the funnels of a waiting ship.

“It is a long way from here to Comestible Procurement,” he says. Markovich speaks German very well.

 “Ahhh,” I reply, waving a hand in disgust. “You are simply doing it because it is in your power to do so.”

“If that is what you believe.”

That is perhaps the only thing about the man I truly dislike. He won’t get angry. He debates but never argues. He bends, like grass – not because he is weak, but because he is cunning.

With some aplomb I pour the bowl out upon the floor. An expressionless guard enters and removes the bowl. More soup is procured, also cold. This, I throw at the wall. No matter. Later, a third bowl obediently appears. Against the other wall with that one. Markovich smokes and watches, utterly unmoved. Bowl four. Cold, of course.

 I’m not sure what I did, then. I think I might have cried.

 

“Begin,” Markovich says.

“Tell me why the soup is always cold,” I reply.

“It is a long way from here to Comestible Procurement.”

“Meaning the kitchen.”

“Yes.”

“You lie.”

“If that is what you believe.”

“Yes,” I say, calmly defiant. “That is what I believe.”

Markovich sighs, snuffs out his cigarette. This is unusual for him, to voice any sort of resignation or impatience, however small. Normally, he is as enigmatic as the Sphinx, whom he resembles slightly in the contours of his face, but for the present nose, the thick black mustache below and fine, frail spectacles perched intelligently above.

“You fascists,” he says, lighting another cigarette. “You fascists and the things you believe. It never ceases to amaze me. What you decide is, is, and you refuse to argue or reason otherwise, no matter how fundamentally absurd the original idea in face of reason or logic. How else does one explain a nation of rune-tossing, missile-building Wotan-worshippers?”

“That was a long time ago.” I try to keep my temper in check at this unfair generalization.

Markovich nods.

“Tell me about him.”

“Who?”

“You know who I’m talking about.”

He means the Hare, of course.

“He was a mistake. He was a youthful indiscretion of considerable regret.

“But,” I add, “he killed no one, I wish to point out. No one.”

“True.”

“I don’t know why he’s of any interest to you, anymore. He can’t be captured. Can’t be tried and hung. So why bother?”

“Because we’re interested in him. And you.”

I put my head in my hands, suddenly weary.

“It will be lunch, before long,” Markovich says, rising from the bed where he has sat companionably with me before, though we are enemies.

“What is on the menu today?”

“Oh, the usual,” he replies. “Soup.”

 

Because some hours might pass before food or questions again, I have taken to napping in the afternoon, while studying the brilliant white shaft of light that pours through the narrow recess overhead. Of clockwork regularity, it is a beautiful, deathless thing – the sort of incandescence one sees in very old books, generally for the edification of miracles, astonished masses and bleeding saints. Midday is its zenith, when its glorious blaze pierces my dim cell.

In a dream I awake to see that someone besides me occupies my cell. That would be the lieutenant – Lieutenant Davidov Dadiani, you see – sitting in a strange chair in the corner. In white, as usual. Bathed in light.

The chair is of a futuristic design, of molded white and beige plastic in the beveled tulip shape favored by cutting-edge Scandinavian designers. The right arm terminates in a beige console studded with large white buttons. It is a Cybersyn command chair.

(I painted the lieutenant, once, many years ago, but refused his kindness, and instead chose ruin.)

Incredulous, I blink stupidly at him. The details, at least, seem right – the fur hat, the burnished intelligent face lit by a keen, searching, not unkind and yet piercing curiosity that soon makes me uncomfortable.

Somewhat annoyed, I sit up, and rubbing my eyes ask, “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in your old wicker chair?” but he is gone.

Blinking, I wander to where he had been sitting. Emptiness.

And then I truly awaken.

A dream, and nothing more. But I am disappointed that I was given the chance to ask the Lieutenant some questions of my own, such as, have I not suffered overmuch for my relatively minor role and doings in a war long since ended?

Apparently I have not suffered enough.

“Bring a pomegranate next time, megobari,” I tell the emptiness.

 

Renata sometimes comes to me at night.

Who is Renata?

A woman I loved once, many years ago. I painted her as well, but refused her goodness, and instead chose ruin.

Renata Sanger.

There was trouble, you see...terrible trouble. But it was really not my fault.

I have trouble remembering her face. It is curious, because I remember her scent distinctly – soap and pressed flowers. Her hair was chestnut, not blonde -

I have trouble remembering your face, Renata. It is curious, disturbing that while I should remember the rough Tolstoy architecture of the lieutenant’s face - every pore, line, and earthen fold, I can no longer recall yours with any real accuracy, you who I knew for years and under much happier circumstances.

But still, I know the details. There were your Byzantine eyes, wide, searching but shy, hooded; the self-possessed, delicately serious mouth; the broad, angular, vaguely Slavic face, the face of a farm girl and not the stifled working class to which you belonged. In fact, had your hair been blonde rather than chestnut, and your eyes blue, a passable female Aryan peasant you might have been, something for town fathers in beer gardens to mull fondly over as you smiled and poured them their drinks.

Why, yes, just a few minor adjustments and –

Again and again, night after night, I try to put you back together from memory, and I fail. Always, something is lacking, something is incorrect, the whole, like a bad painting, warrants nothing but dismay and self-disgust and I am forced to destroy it. And like any artist when all inspiration is dead, I am forced to return to the blank canvas with nothing but persistence and raw materials.

But I am not a good artist, I never have been. I am mediocre. Scrawler, scratcher, scribbler, the sum total of my work either raucous back-alley crudities or the deliberations of a thoughtful chimpanzee steeped in Wagner.

Again:

I remember her scent distinctly – soap and pressed flowers. Her hair was chestnut, not blonde -

The fate of mediocrity.

I am Mediocrity, married to ambition.

I am: scrawler, scratcher, scribbler, my work either raucous back-alley crudities or the deliberations of a thoughtful chimpanzee steeped in Wagner, my skull stuffed full of the featherbrained nonsense constituting the greater part of Germanic romantic mysticism and tribal murder.

I -

 

“Begin,” Markovich says.

“I’ve already told you what you need to know.”

“Not everything. Not by half.”

“Yes, I have. The Hare, as I have said, was a youthful indiscretion of-”

“Considerable regret. We’ve established that.”

Irritated, I stare at the wall.

“You knew Heinrich Himmler. You worked with him. Correct?”

I stare at the wall.

“Correct?”

“Yes.”

“You seem reluctant to talk about it.”

“Well, it isn’t the sort of thing you mention offhandedly at a cocktail party, is it? People might jump to conclusions.”

Markovich gently pinches the brow of his nose.

“Do you ever give an answer that isn’t clever?” he asks.

“And do you ever ask a question that isn’t straight out of an old spy movie?”

Markovich permits himself a small smile. A slip, on my part. I cannot allow him to get the upper hand.

Markovich rises from his chair, paces a few feet. Rehearsed. Ha. I’ve seen this routine before, late at night, in any number of films noirs.

“Look,” I say. “Let’s get this over with. Do what you did with Eichmann. Wring out a confession, make me jump through a few flaming hoops for the entertainment of the masses, thump your chests, and hang me.

“I am at least worth hanging, correct?”

Markovich does not reply.

“Fine. Fine. So…will you at least tell me where I am?”

I have asked this question ten thousand times. I know that I am being held at Detention Facility 540 – or La Bas 540 as I have christened it, after a wicked old hotel in Chile. But I have yet to be told our true location. The Jews have variously told me that I am: on Mars; on Krypton; in Atlantis; beneath the London Tube; buried in an Egyptian tomb; orbiting Earth in a spaceship; in Valhalla; in Limbo; in Hell.

Attempt ten thousand and one.

“Where am I?”

“Hyperborea,” Markovich replies.

Attempt ten thousand and two.

“Where am I?”

“Disneyland.”

Attempt ten thousand and three.

“Where am I?”

Markovich blows smoke. He is as bored with this as I am.

“Tibet.”

 

2. THE MEANING OF BLACK

This time Markovich has a manila folder thick with documents.

“Let me understand this,” he says. “You thought a film – an animated film – would somehow reverse the course of the Second World War?”

I nod, rather embarrassed. “Comrades and Foes, 1945.” It seems absurd now, I admit.”

“Seems?”

“You had to have been there at the time. It was utterly unreal. Mad. Nothing but talk about super-weapons -”

“Such as the Mammut of Mammut is Master.”

Christ! They know everything, it seems. Keep cool.

“Well, yes…and suicide. Understand that the Russians were getting closer and closer to Berlin every day. People were looking for signs, omens, anything – exactly the sort of circumstances where outlandish ideas flourish. So, yes, it seemed that an…animated film might – just might – bring the Fuhrer to his senses, and prevent the annihilation of Germany.”

“The idea being?” Markovich asks.

Talking about the film depresses me. Summarized, it seems asinine. I feel like a misbehaved student before the schoolmaster, prodded into giving proper answers.

“The idea being that it was international Judeo-Bolshevism which truly threatened the world, and not Germany, and that the West must realize this.”

“Judeo-Bolshevism being represented by the characters of Bolshie Pig and Jew Rat,” Markovich adds. “Slave and master.”

“Yes. The Hare lies dying, but at the last moment, he tells the English and Americans - Lord Lion and Capital Dog - the truth, and they take up arms against the East. Judeo-Bolshevism is repulsed, Germany is preserved, and Western civilization is saved. All to the ‘Horst Wessel Song.’”

“Sounds quite epic.”

“It was nonsense. We might as well have burned the reel. It was a great danger to have made it, to have even suggested negotiations with the West at that time. But, then, what does it matter? Nobody remembers such things anymore.”

“This might stir some memories.”

Markovich hands me an old photograph. A U-boat crew in dry dock, bearded, smiling, squinting in the sunlight. Behind them the tower of their vessel: U-512. To the right of their identification number, him, my creation, the People’s Hare, white as snow and bellicose as ever, ears back, black swastika on his upper right arm, breaking an English ship in half with his hands.

“And this.”

My creation, again, emblazoned this time on the turret of a Tiger tank, armed with thunderbolts. He had appeared in a cartoon book with the Tiger’s belated technical manuals when it first appeared in response to the Russian T-34, extolling the virtues of Germany’s new heavy tank to a clearly dismayed Bolshie Pig. I CAN HURT YOU, BUT YOU CAN’T HURT ME!

“Old photographs. So what?”

Markovich produces something else from the folder, a newspaper clipping, an article of some sort.

I read it. An American, a collector of animation cels by the name of Emery Binker, of Trenton, New Jersey. Emery was in his mid-forties – a strange age to have anything to do with cartoon characters, I think – and an avid collector of animated paraphernalia from the 1930s and ‘40s, in addition to the political cartoons of “Dr. Seuss.” To his astonishment (and delight, doubtless) he had chanced upon a preserved cel from one of the Hare’s short animated movies, Red, White, and Black, made in mid-1943.

(Cell, cel, what is the difference, I ask? Each is a single frame, a trapped movement, an isolated moment of existence, of time.)

The scene depicted is familiar to any serious student of propaganda: youth instructed in proper worship of the flag.

I read on.

‘All the experts were saying that the Reich Rabbit films were either destroyed by Allied air raids or burned by the Russians in 1945,’ Binker said. ‘Same with the political cartoons. But this turned up and now I have it. It’s a piece of history!

Memories are stirred, all right – mine.

The Reich Rabbit. It’s Der Volkshase, idiot.

“And don’t forget the occasional obscure scholarly article.”

I examine the title: Hopping to Golgotha – The Use and Misuse of Christic Imagery in the Animated Films of the Reich Rabbit, 1943-45.

“Piffle.” I hand the article back. Scholars.

 “From what I read in both articles,” Markovich says, “the films became more virulent as time went on: The Enemy’s Beachhead is a Death’s Head!, To Whom the Future? -”

 “Well, true, I suppose.” No point in arguing. “But -”

Slavs depicts sub-humans tethered to yokes, struggling in the mud, whipped by Bolshevik pigs.”

“It isn’t terribly far from the truth.”

A mistake. I’ve let a sharp corner of my temper show.  Caution, I tell myself.

 “So when the Reich Rabbit makes the case that Slavs are animals, and that the only change they will ever know is the yoke of a new master, his point is justified?”

““Herr Markovich, I served on the Russian Front for nearly two years, from February 1943 to January 1945. Waffen SS. I saw unimaginable things there. The Slavs did live in wood huts. People did sleep on dirt floors with their animals. When I was captured I spent ten years in Russian captivity. And then I spent a further five or so in the so-called Democratic Republic of Germany. East Berlin. The experience, let us say, left me with certain informed prejudices against Bolshevism. And Slavs.”

A third photograph, this one not quite as old as the others, taken around the mid-60s. Santiago, from the looks of it. The view from the hotel – La Bas - is fantastic. Mountains knife-edged in blue and white. Chile.

In the photograph is a man, a heavy-set white man. Well dressed. Over-dressed, actually, the suit and fedora and scarf setting him apart from the other Germans. A comic-opera costume for a man given to comic-opera parts.

“Willi Morgen,” I say. My next-door neighbor, so to speak, in the adjacent cell – though the Jews think we are unaware of each other.

“The voice actor for your People’s Hare. And Jew Rat, as well. Among others.”

Willi Morgen. Old Willi the street-fighter, the storm-trooper, the bone breaker and skull cracker, sitting at a table, face florid and round, neck bulging out of his collar, eyes like raisins pushed into a lump of dough, nose like a bruised tomato. Old Willi the swindler, gold ring strangling one stubby finger. Flamboyant, a pretty girl on his arm – his secretary - drinks raised, both smiling for the camera.

“Well-heeled as usual,” I say. But then Willi had always had connections, had always been good with money.

“Fencing stolen art does have its perks.”

“Only a few paintings.”

“Several million dollars’ worth, from what I’m told. Most of it, I understand, was under lock and key in a castle in Switzerland. The Swiss are still sorting that mess out.”

“Really?”

“Your friend also forged passports and documents. That and a little drug smuggling on the side allowed him a comfortable retirement. And capital enough to interfere with Chilean politics.”

Ah, Willi. In and out of prison, you plotted and schemed - brawler, bilker and blowhard.

“Good times, those,” I say.

“Yes, I’m sure President Allende thought so as well.”

“Fuck him,” I say flatly.

Markovich is somewhat taken aback.

“Yes, you heard me. Fuck him.”

“Excuse me?”

“Salvador Allende was a Bolshevik. I don’t like Bolshevism. Ergo, I must not like – excuse me – have liked - Salvador Allende. So, fuck him.”

Markovich blinks.

“And fuck Walt Disney, too.”

 

I am alone again in my cell.

I lay back upon the hard narrow bed. Darker and darker grows my space.

Time to talk to the stainless steel toilet. Time to ring up my neighbor.

“Willi? Willi!”

A curiosity of the plumbing in La Bas 540 allows communication via its pipes. It is how Willi and I stay in touch. It is also how I have come to learn far more about Buddhism than I ever cared to know.

A hollow, mildly impatient voice replies, “What? What is it?”

“Do him. Do the Hare. Red, White, and Black, remember?”

“Now?”

“Yes.”

Old Willi. With what gusto and brilliance he had played the part of the Hare, stern guardian of civilization, commanding and clear of voice.  

There is a slight pause, and then, the Hare speaks:

“What is the meaning of red?”

“Red is the color of the blood we have shed for our cause!”

“Good! Now, white! What is the meaning of white?”

I smile. It is all coming back, almost verbatim.

“White…the purity of the Aryan nation!”

“Correct! And now, black! What is the meaning of black?”

“Black stands for…the elements!  Movement!  The forces of nature! Black is the swastika, our swastika!”

“Excellent!”

Brief enthusiasm overtakes me, but it is not shared at the other end. Willi is like that these days, no more with the goosestep, but now the lotus position. No longer Sieg Heil, but Om Mani Padme Hum.

I don’t mind the fact that he has converted to faith late in life. This sort of phenomenon is nothing new. Had Willi simply proclaimed himself a Buddhist and left it at that, I would have accepted it. But, as with everything, he overdid it.

“You were more fun as a scoundrel,” I say.

“That was my other side,” he replies. “That was my Mara, if you understand me, who lived by conquest and not compassion, as I do -”

“Fat lot of good that does six million dead Jews.”

Not fair, obviously, but it does spare me an impromptu lecture.

 

In bed, I contemplate the nature of color. The shades of fascism. Red, the color of blood. White, the color of purity, the absence of everything. Black –

Outside my cell door, whispering and snickering. Christ, they’re going to start again. Fucking guards.

I put my pillow firmly over my head, begin my mental recitation:

You! Behrens! What is the meaning of black?

The guards begin a rhythmic march: stomp, Stomp, STOMP, STOMP!

Black stands for the elements, movement, the forces of nature!

From the other side of the door, off-key, slightly offbeat: the thump and Nazi bombast of the Horst Wessel Song:

“Flags high, ranks closed,

“The S.A. marches with solid silent steps!”

Black is the swastika, our swastika -

At the indicated moment in the march the guards all beat the door with their fists, like a great bass drum: BOOM-BOOM!

Black jointed scythe, black reaper of flesh –

“Millions, full of hope, look up to the swastika;

“The day breaks for freedom and for bread!”

The dead of war turned: yellow, green, blue, and then liquefied into black. Smoke pouring black from furnace stacks. Black helmet encases the mind, black cross obscures the heart, black gun muzzle is leveled at the world -  

Black is the universe that closes about me.

That is the meaning of black. BOOM-BOOM!

 

^top

 

 


Stock photos: Art thai painting © wetchawut | drawing of the barbed wire © Sergey YAkovlev — Fotolia.com