From war to revolution: How do we survive?

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Good fiction can be political

Noam Chomsky crossed with Thomas Merton and Thomas Pynchon with a little politics mixed in for good measure? Count us in!

In short novel Angels of the Revolution by J.W. Horton, Katyusha and her lover, the Major, are two former pilots -- and current socialist revolutionaries -- searching the gritty streets of fictional capitol city Weimarstadt for Der Film, a mysterious and legendary piece of cinematography. Based on Germany's post First World War Weimar Republic, emotions and being collide with politics as former 'gun girl' Katyusha is haunted by war, numb to the violence that currently threatens her.

In this excerpt 'Waking in Weimarstadt', we meet Katyusha and the dirty, cobblestone city of Weimarstadt, Gothland. With the revolution in a lull, what will Katyusha and the Major get up to? Read on to find out! Some have compared Horton's storytelling to that of Phillip K. Dick, Haruki Murakami and Kurt Vonnegut, so how could you go wrong?

Waking in Weimarstadt

Saigon. Shit. I'm still only in Saigon. -- Apocalypse Now 

...the blue monkey. It spoke to her! What was it saying?...

Katyusha awakes from troubled dreams to see before her in the large, greasy dressing table mirror of a dreary hotel room the image of a naked woman sitting in bed, and to the right, a blackened, creaking fan in its battered wire cage scraping away in its pointless task of cooling a room too cold to begin with.

The dreams, the nightmares or whatever they were have not quite left her mind (the olive green Sopwith Triplane again, fire, spinning, corkscrew of greasy black smoke...).

The naked woman in the mirror is herself. She is sitting bolt upright against the brass bedstead. Her makeup is smeared all over her face and she realizes she has been crying again.

The sheets smell of tobacco. She turns her head to the right. Parting the filthy Venetian blinds she looks out the window from five stories high.

Weimarstadt. There is no peace. She has come to see that the cynics among the ancients were right. There is no peace until you die, no matter who you are, no matter how fortunate. And who knows. Maybe not even then. If you can believe the Church.

Weimarstadt. Cobblestones, dirty, loud, rattling cars, people in black. Uniforms--domestic and foreign. Business suits. Bowler hats, cloth caps, the well-dressed, people in rags. Horses. Cripples. Lots of cripples. Too many cripples. Flashing neon and giant words and images looming at you from the sides of buildings, all trying to sell you something. Tons of it. "They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven!" Proud stone buildings flanked by stone lions, scrappy little brick buildings from before the empire, and a very few smooth, glass-sheeted towers signalling a new Bauhaus architecture, and perhaps a new world. Shit from the sewers, geraniums from the Tiergarten, sweet, dusty, and fresh; horse sweat and old leather, gas and octane fumes, expensive perfumes, pungent body odour. Ugly, dirty old cars with shimmying wheels; huge, sleek monster saloons with curtains inside the windows, ancient men on bicycles. Even some Asians if you can believe it. There's a "Chinatown" just like the Amerikaners would have. The Chinese were brought over to clean up the mess when the war ended and they are not finished even now. Won't be for years. Were it not for her European clothing, Katyusha, with her round, mostly Japanese face would probably be mistaken for one of them daily. They are still getting blown up almost every day from leftover ordnance.

This is the centre of a stilled, a deadlocked revolution: sparked by the end of the war, temporarily halted in part by the threat of occupation by the war's victors, but too strong to be swept away by it. Were the governments and businessmen ruling the Entente to have their way, every Red in Gothland would be put up against a wall and shot. But there would be opposition not only in Gothland, but in the victors' nations as well.

In Gothland people are negotiating, it seems. Or pretending to.

"They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven." Katyusha dreamed those words once. They were shouted at her anonymously in rage and fear as if through a membrane that could not be broken, as if from another time or another world, but much like this one. When she awoke she wrote them down and put them on the wall in her and the Major's little Tauentzienstrasse apartment--which is empty right now, unless the police are searching it. In this business you must never leave anything at home worth confiscating and always be ready to check into a hotel: a reliable one such as the Hotel Gräfin Peenemünde here, where no shifty-eyed clerk will phone "the authorities" such as they are now and get you arrested, interrogated, or worse. (The authorities: supposedly socialist, but a highly compromised socialism, deferential to the perpetually indignant masters of the old regime and with a civil service shot through with reactionary elements.) Katyusha is not, when you think about it, an inconspicuous person, but can walk tall and proud on the streets most of the time--the revolution is still in process after all, even if in something of a lull. But she and the Major sometimes have to live on the lam for short periods.

They've made a few sons of bitches run themselves. And more than one has paid the price in terror or broken bones or worse for playing games with Katyusha's or her comrades' freedom. "Consider the radical pacifists, Katyusha, consider them well," says the Major in her jaunty way, the end of her cigarette circling thoughtfully in her fingers, and so the Major herself does consider the pacifists. Considers them well indeed. But she does not seem quite to agree with them, given her record: an ace from the war--Pour le Mérite and all--one of its finest flying leaders, and the brains behind the revolutionaries' defense of the Zeughaus in the Adlon Crisis. She had been everywhere after her peculiar Junkers-to-socialism political conversion--leading from the front you might say, in that peculiar, fluid form of leadership practiced by anarcho-socialist units--and had been the bane of Freikorps reactionaries shocked to find that not they alone had any fighting pluck. At the Zeughaus, what should have been a Freikorps walkover followed by the usual massacre of remaining revolutionary workers' soldiers' and sailors' leaders, became a humiliating rout: the nine-lived Ehrhardt shooting himself in the head to avoid the disgrace of capture after being on the losing, Goliath end of a David and Goliath battle.

"The revolution must be a hydra," the Major had said. "Many heads. In a revolution there is no rear area where our leaders can hide like generals. Many heads, Katyusha, otherwise all the enemy need do is put a few leaders against a wall and all is done with a handful of bullets." It was a new kind of war, the Major had said, as new as their aeroplanes had been in the previous war--but perhaps far more significant. War beyond war.

Katyusha lets the slats fall back into place. Her exhausted arm falls back to her side. Jeroboam. That Turkish shit. The sable tobacco really takes it out of you.

She was never a regular smoker. Not even in the war. An occasional type. Some are like that.

She is not going to be herself today. Shit. She has not been herself since the war. Look: her hand is shaking a little. Nerves. The war. Those dreams or something. There should be a café on the Schwarzallee where she can get a coffee. Maybe she'll feel like eating in an hour or so, but not now.

She wishes the Major were with her.

Back to the mirror. And to think there was a funeral just a few days ago. Another old comrade; "...death had undone so many..." complications, political action, suicide. Curious how many veterans she knew who survived the war only to die afterwards in some stupid accident or other.

There is no one with her. That is not the way she does it after all. When she goes on a binge there is no sex to it. She rules that out. She tries to keep that, at least, joyful. Besides, she can't do a thing with her dick when she's drunk.

Turns out she's wrong. About being alone, that is. She stumbles to the bathroom for a piss and she's there: half naked and sleeping on the floor by the toilet. Yes, Katyusha remembers her now. Of course: Jeri. Impoverished art student. She wants to be a revolutionary. Afraid she got here too late and that all the best fun is over. I've got news for you kid, Katyusha thinks. Jeri found Katyusha through reliable channels. And they didn't do it, the two of them, neither wanted to. Not that Jeri isn't attractive; Katyusha sensed the kid was kind of gone on her too, like a fool. Like you do when you're a kid. She wanted to hang out with Katyusha, it seemed, because Jeri was sad.

Aren't we all, thinks Katyusha, aren't we all.

This is just a mood I'm in, Katyusha thinks. The kind of mood you get after a binge, the binge you have when the disappointment gets to you and you can think of nothing else to do. You are angry at God and want to see you can still be loved even when you blow it.

The Revolution is stuck. And it might start going backwards now. We don't know.

God is always God after all. And you can trust him. Not in this life, of course, only for the next life.

Always for the next life.

"There there," the Major had lightly reprimanded her once, agnostic as the Major was and is. "Is the Almighty your supreme commander or is he not? If not, you must mutiny. If he is, you must obey orders. Nothing has hurt this revolution more than the attempt to serve two masters. So. You have confessed, however quietly, the name of Jesus. Then follow him."

Jeri's mouth is a little dirty. And it looks like her vomit missed the toilet once, a little. Katyusha wipes her lip with a bit of toilet paper. With ease, tall Katyusha picks Jeri up off the floor and carries her to the bed. Jeri opens her eye, smiles, one eye half glued shut by sleep.

"Don't look at me," Katyusha says softly, "I look like shit. I'll get cleaned up first, then you. Then I'll take you out for coffee and breakfast if you can choke it down." She puts Jeri down gently and covers her with a blanket.

As she walks away: "Katy?" Jeri croaks out of her terminating sleep.

"Yes, my dear."

"You have a terrific ass."


J.W. Horton was born in Vancouver in 1961. He earned his B.A. in 1983 at the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg) where he has taught English literature since 2004. He has an M.A. from Dalhousie and a Ph.D. from the University of Western Ontario. He has also taught at Cape Breton University.

When he isn't teaching, J.W. Horton is reading, writing, going out for groceries, or arguing with people on Twitter. Aside from literature his interests are socialist history, military history, and Christian approaches to politics.

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