Man Overboard

Andrei Sobol



[ . . . ] And the Lieutenant-Captain was seriously tired of other people’s passports, of never-ending family names, from Ivanov to Chavchavadze, and of registration.

The barrister has been spinning like a top with every knock at the door, concealing under a floorboard rings, gold watches, and letters written by Milyukov during his presidency at the Kadet Provincial Committee, and he was longing for Paris: either to hear the truth from Milyukov, or to have a break from the constant searches.

David Potbelly, on the other hand, didn’t correspond with Milyukov, didn’t admit nor expel Tsaritsyn, and yet he had three crosses to carry, a triple struggle: he was a Jew, he had a wart of catastrophic proportions, its tail hanging down to his lip, and he had his last name. The first of these got him regular beatings; the second one made him the object of mockery; and the third made life completely unbearable.

From spring until fall, Potbelly was scurrying among different cities. When the sun rose, Potbelly rose as well and departed from Golta. Green was spreading everywhere; in the forest, lilies of the valley were blossoming. Meanwhile, in Golta, shutters were being nailed down, mothers were clutching their children, and old people were wandering around aimlessly. When the sun was at its fiery zenith, Potbelly would go through yards and fields to the train station, and the Chieftain Marusia would sneak toward the pillows, the synagogue candlesticks. As the sun was setting, Potbelly was escaping Voznesensk, and Angel’s gang was tumbling in on their carts with uproar and boom.

How many nights can a person go without sleeping? Fields sleep; the sky sleeps above; even stars take naps; but Potbelly doesn’t sleep. Every minute he has to look around him; every moment he has to listen guardedly to catch the beating of hooves, or drunken singing, he has to, he has to . . .

And it is clear to Potbelly that what he needs is Palestine, that he needs a Lebanese cedar to lean against, to stretch out his stiff legs and, having glanced at the Jewish sky, to fall into blessed, childish sleep at the tomb of Rachel the Matriarch—“Blessed be God, our Master, who grants sleep to weary eyes.”

And the wart also: it seems that while there are Black Army soldiers, chieftain women, county-clerk chieftains, fugitive ensigns crawling out of the dense forest—head hunters—one should really forget about the wart, that same wart that, many years ago, Yakov Milkhiker the pharmacist, wordsmith, and correspondent for the business paper Birzhevka, used to call: “A comet among luminaries.” Birzhevka is long gone. Milkhiker is somewhere in the East, either in Afghanistan or in India, doing diplomatic work, but the comet remains, and its tail remains. Potbelly has no diplomatic skills; Potbelly needs a Jewish colony next to Arabic huts.

And the last name also: at the police station, as they were renewing his passport, they asked: “What’s the last name? Paunch?”

And again, it seems that all Jews are being attacked, Mendeleviches are being attacked, as well as Goldbergs, and it doesn’t matter to Ol’ Danilchik who to pierce with his bayonet—be it Diamond, a person with such a loud last name, or Yankelevich, who himself doesn’t care about anything anymore. And yet: Potbelly, Potbelly, Potbelly—always uproarious laughter.

There must be a land, after all, where simplicity and pride may be found: David son of Simon—an ancient, pleasant name under one’s own ancient and pleasant sky.

Translated by


Andrei Sobol, from Chelovek za bortom [Man Overboard] (Moscow: Knigopisnaya palata, 2001), pp. 109–10. Originally published by Zemlia i fabrika, 1927.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 8.

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