The idea of a staunch anti-Semite writing about the Holocaust might sound like an entirely different kind of horror story than those we usually enjoy here at Sublime Horror.
Of course, it’s impossible to say precisely what was in Valentin Katayev’s mind by the time he wrote “Our Father Who Art in Heaven” in the early 1960s. It is difficult, however, to imagine a story such as this – in which a mother and son flee through the streets of Odessa from the German soldiers that seek to persecute them for their Jewish heritage – coming from a place of apathy or callousness.
Perhaps it’s because of the little boy. Seeing this frigid, indifferent world first through his eyes ensures we are kept one step further away from the horror that lies at the heart of this tale. There’s an overall simplicity to his observations, interspersed with pleas and innocent questions to his mother, that means we share our narrator’s wide-eyed uncertainty, his discomfort and confusion, so that our growing dread builds at an agonisingly slow pace like icicles melting drop by drop. When his mother drags him out of their house into the early morning snow, we have no more idea where they might be going than he does, nor why she would have brought along a suitcase if they truly are just going for a walk. Feeding this information to us, helping us build up a picture of his characters through the little boy’s questions, is both what makes Katayev’s opening so effective, and, perhaps ironically, the thing that enables the story to build its own internal sense of trepidation, instead of relying on the reader’s own reaction to its historical context to bring tension to the narrative.
By the time we begin to see events from his mother’s point of view, it is as though the snow has cleared a little. We are starting to understand now why she has a suitcase, why she is so keen to keep moving forward. We still don’t understand where she’s going, but neither does she, and that is very much the point. From her perspective, the world – which has previously seemed so vast and domineering – becomes suddenly claustrophobic. The scariest thing is no longer the cold or the fatigue or the unknown, but the known. Too much understanding in the eyes of the woman behind the milk bar, the unwelcome attentions from a soldier in the movie theatre, all crowding and suffocating her as she tries to conjure an escape for the two of them. Thus, we notice, the story becomes smaller and bigger at the same time
Katayev’s portrait of Odessa in the depths of winter is as vivid as looking out at it through a windowpane. It is also masterfully tinted with the gaze of each of our protagonists. Through the eyes of the little boy, the landscape in the beginning takes on an almost magical, fairy-tale quality: wild grapes are “sugary from the hoarfrost”, steam “pour[s] out of their mouths” like ice dragons, the disembodied voice calling out the titular morning prayer over the city lends an eerie, supernatural edge to the vista laid out before us. From his mother’s point of view, the city becomes a beautiful, savage thing, a paradise and a prison all at once. Katayev’s descriptions are beautifully written, always evoking a sense of fantasy and enchantment within the cityscape, a dream that becomes swiftly nightmarish as the setting grows more hostile.
But I think the making of this story is in its ending. It’s the sort of ending that, even though it’s been creeping slowly up on you since the very first line (“I want to sleep. I’m cold!”), catches you entirely off guard when it finally happens. It’s a visceral, even gruesome way for our tale to end, and horribly sad. It’s one of the most potent ways in which I’ve seen the scale and brutality of six million murders encapsulated without having real events of the holocaust play out in the narrative. The horror of it lies both in our characters’ hope for an escape and in the sheer inescapable nature of their final adversary. It crawls under your skin and stays there long after the story is over, like a chill you can’t quite seem to shake off.
I don’t claim to know what was in the mind of Valentin Katayev when he wrote this beautiful, awful story. All I can tell you is what’s leftover in mine now that I’ve read it. And that has nothing whatsoever to do with apathy.
This story features in the anthology European Tales of Terror edited by J.J. Sterling. While out of print, you might be able to find it, or the story in a different collection, in your library.