The Wandering Tower by Sergej Prokofiev is the Motive of the next Mahalla Festival
The inspiration for the topic is a piece of Literature with its own miracle story. “The Wandering Tower” is a surrealist short story by Sergej Prokofiev. It was written in 1918 on the Trans-Siberian Express-Train. The Festival is quoting the title as a metaphorical frame for Mahalla 2020.
Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian Soviet composer, pianist and conductor. Of the established forms and genres in which he worked, he created seven completed operas, seven symphonies, eight ballets, five piano concertos, two violin concertos, a cello concerto, a symphony-concerto for cello and orchestra, and nine completed piano sonatas. His works include such widely heard pieces as the March from The Love for Three Oranges, the suite Lieutenant Kijé, the ballet Romeo and Juliet and Peter and the Wolf.
For a long time it was unknown to the general public that Sergei Prokofiev also had literary ambitions. After Lucian Plessner came across these stories during a guest performance in Moscow, he was able to translate and publish these stories in German, with the support of Oleg Prokofiev, and has since given readings with these stories – in over 30 bookstores, the SWR Literature Night, the LitCologne, the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn and other forums.
Prokofiev’s mother had escaped from the Ukraine over the Black Sea to Istanbul after the October revolution. The Ottoman government interned her on the Princes’ islands. The son had traveled parallel with the Trans Siberian Express Train from Russia over Japan to the USA to pursue his career as a composer and musician. This trip lasted 18 days in those times. The Wandering Tower was written during this travel. While the newly expanded railway networks and information technology spurred cultural exchange opportunities, the military and ideological conflicts triggered forced migration.
Sergej Prokofiev had been in New York for giving concerts. The composer later on picked up his mother from Istanbul and first traveled to France and then to Ettal in Bavaria. Motives from the trip and the region influenced a couple of short stories. The world was on the cusp of a global catastrophe, a time when central classical works of art were being created around the world.
The short story, its discovery and the creative exchange of world culture and its history is a frame most fitting to the central visions of the Mahalla Festival.
30 Years after the “East-Block” dissolved and the wall in Berlin was demolished, we have other blocks, borders, fences and walls imprisoning people. The Mahalla Festival is questioning these realities and picks out the sources of migration. The artistic program and the discourse platform explore the potential of art and culture to blow up chains in the mind. The Festival is building up a network and an infrastructure in the locations it performs to fight dystopian realities with utopian visions and to trigger transformative change for a sustainable one-world-future.
Istanbul, September 2019
Sabine Küper-Büsch, Mahalla Festival
Sergej Prokofiev, The Wandering Tower,
May 1918, Trans-Siberian Express – Omori, 27. June 1918
Marcel Vautour was definitely a remarkable man. His name was well known in the educated circles of Paris. Perhaps some scholars, especially the ones glued to their armchairs, hiding their knowledge behind dark glasses, and subtle thinkers, keeping their thoughts under the vaults of their tall, pale foreheads, thought him a weird Kautz, but they did not deny that he had a keen and penetrating mind, even if he sometimes strayed in the wrong direction. For this reason, they smiled condescendingly when talking about him, convinced that, while his sharp mind might lead him deep into the soil of Babylonian excavations, his imagination, which seemed much more powerful, carried him high above the clouds. He and his views quite often hovered in the air, from where they indeed had most interesting things to report. What mattered was that Marcel Vautour did not blame anyone. He didn’t try to impose his opinion on anyone but would simply disappear for a year or two into his beloved Assyria.
There, with the help of extensive relations and sufficient cash, he was able to dig in sand and ruins as much as he desired, to find millennial tables with strange cuneiform scripts. He would decipher them, and write brilliant articles back in Paris, articles containing the most incredible artefacts and ideas. Each article would be a sensation. The edition of the chic journal in which it appeared would be soon out of print. It would cause riots in the salons, and his friends would give receptions in his honor. However, he would not mount a pulpit and did not engage in disputes with the Lords of Doctrine. He never tried to impose his views on anyone – everyone was satisfied. The scholars smiled and continued to say: of course, he was very sharp-minded, but he was floating above the clouds.
The time in question, he did not stay in Assyria for a year or two, but a total of five. His publishers, hungry for a lurid article, impatiently telegraphed Damascus, sometimes Baghdad, but he had buried himself in the sand of ancient Mesopotamia, along with his little caravan. He wandered between the Tigris and Euphrates, absorbed by the perfection of the Akkadian and Sumerian culture that was slowly falling apart. He also revered the almost extinguished superstition of this once-high culture. It was as if he considered the fate of Nebuchadnezzar to be more valuable than the fate of Paris, that sandy caves appealed to him more than the elegant salons. From the depths of such caves he spoke through clever hieroglyphs with the peoples of the past who had flourished in those distant times, when Marcel’s ancestors had not yet escaped the monkey stage of human development and were sitting on trees at the spot that is now Paris. One of his assistants, who had yellow fever and therefore returned to his homeland, reported that the year before Marcel Vautour had settled in an area where ancient Babylon had once stood. He was possessed by the wish to dig up the remains of the Tower of Babel. A whole series of newspaper columns pounced on this news. There was much talk in the salons, but Assyriologists shook their heads and said smilingly that this was of course entertaining, this Tower of Babel. They assumed that our dear Marcel was hovering, as usual, above the clouds, just like the tower and its many languages.When five years had finally passed, Marcel Vautour himself returned to Paris. He arrived in his own railroad car, which was filled to the brim with boxes both large and small, and some carefully and thickly packed objects. The brilliant scholar who had once charmed Paris had become a sunbaked copper pot, a pot covered with a beard. But the beard could not hide his perfect features, and the bronze complexion only emphasized their acuity. The reporters immediately reported all of this, but that was about it – in the Asian wilderness our elegant Assyriologist had lost the metropolitan elegance, so he received no one and gave no interviews. He did tell his friends that the results of his investigations were significant, more significant than modern mankind would have dreamed. He was tired from the journey and had also fallen victim to fever attacks, which had not spared him. Nevertheless, he sat down next day to sort out the, extensive and already elaborate materials he had collected. Finally, he promised to give a talk on the Tower of Babel – in this lecture he would deliver facts that could turn the whole of historiography upside down. It would astonish science and perhaps even overturn the Bible itself. He spoke without bragging at all, in an earnest, businesslike tone, but looked so tired that his friends no longer wanted to bother him with their presence. They returned to their salons. There, they would imitate the young scholar, putting on serious expressions and shouting: “Oh, our Marcel has discovered wonderful things!”
Pieter Bruegel-the elder, 1260, The Babylon Tower
The rumors about the extraordinary material that had been dug up in the Mesopotamian desert, material that threatened to break the bible’s historiography and legends, promised to become the most fashionable theme of the curious circles of Paris even before its actual publication by the returned scholar. However, just on that same night, a particular incident put Paris in a terror – an incident much closer to the city than the distant Babylon.
At exactly three o’clock in the morning, telephones began to ring madly, ambulances were called, and doctors came out. It was alleged that houses had collapsed – nobody knew how or why – there had been injuries and orders made to wake up the president. Everyone had heard something, everyone was scared, but what exactly had happened, nobody knew. In such a state, Paris welcomed the early morning.
Marcel Vautour, his hair disheveled and without a tie, ran out of his apartment and down the stairs. In the entrance he collided with his mother. The elderly lady had just arrived from Bordeaux, surprised by the return of her lost son, yet happily looking forward to the reunion. But Marcel rebuffed her inviting embrace: “Go away! Go away! Can’t you see that I’m as empty as a suitcase from which you took the violin?” He waved his hands and ran out into the street. The confused lady sank onto a chair in despair. Her arms outstretched for her other son, a doctor, who had followed Marcel down the stairs. “Auguste, for God’s sake … did he go crazy?” the mother asked.
“I ran after him myself and do not understand anything,” Auguste replied as he approached her and kissed her hands. “He told me he was suffering from yellow fever attacks, but in my entire practice I have not seen any symptoms like that.” “Maybe something has happened to his collection?” “His collection is intact and intact in our home. We stayed up until three in the morning sorting them. ” Mother and son sat facing each other, without any idea what to do.
Marcel Vautour walked down the street and found himself on the banks of the Seine ten minutes later. A tremendous number of astonished and angry people had gathered there. The Eiffel Tower, which had stood at this point, was gone. The people tried in their confusion to make out the tower, but it remained gone, as if it had dissolved into pure air. Two gentlemen with binoculars were surrounded by dense rows of the curious. They told for the tenth time what they had seen. The young gentlemen were of the sort of young men who go to bed in the morning and get up in the evening. Their faces were finely dotted with shiny pimples, and for that reason they were called jeunesse dorée.
At three o’clock in the morning they had driven from Mariette to Alexandrine and witnessed a magical spectacle. The Eiffel Tower had suddenly begun to tremble, jumped up and jumped off its foundations, then marched away from the Seine with long strides, yes, long strides on all fours. What had happened next, the gentlemen would not have seen, because they had jumped out of their Fiaker out of fear and dashed away without looking back.
As soon as Marcel Vautour heard the story, he pushed through the crowd in the direction they said the wandering tower had taken. Soon he came upon another crowd, which had gathered around a building whose front had been damaged by the tower. Part of the facade had collapsed and had opened the view to a living room, a workroom and a bedroom. In one of the rooms the table was set for dinner, oranges scattered on the tablecloth and over the floor. It was said that some people had been injured and taken by an ambulance. Evidently the tower was clumsy and had torn open a section of the facade with one of its legs.
Marcel just lingered in front of the building for a minute, just enough to catch his breath. Then, quickly, he moved away.
At eleven o’clock in the morning, the newspapers published extra pages that were sold out in literally five minutes. They reported that the tower had left Paris by the shortest route, prudently trying not to destroy any houses. Its iron feet had walked in the middle of streets, on empty boulevards and in courtyards, and had only touched a building here and there, usually when there was no other choice. Yet the tower had carelessly rammed his foot into the façade of the house in front of which Marcel Vautour had lined up. This building looked onto a square, and it seemed beyond doubt that the tower should have had enough space for its feet. But one should not forget that this mishap happened just at the beginning of his run, when, as one might suppose, the tower had hastily disengaged itself from its substructure. Or quite simply, it had never run before and hadn’t learnt to control its four feet. The building was unintentionally destroyed, a simple mistake.
In the streets where its heavy heels had trampled, lanterns were bent and sidewalks sunken; on one street the tower had even broken through to a subway station. Here one could see a charred flat cake – the remains of a parked car that had suffered the misfortune of being under the iron foot of the tower.
When the tower had left the city behind, it headed straight for the south and disappeared behind the horizon at such a pace that it seemed to everyone that it had to have been pure imagination.
At least, that’s what the residents from around Paris told us.
As Marcel Vautour approached the ticket counter, he realized he didn’t know whether he had enough money at all. He could not remember checking his wallet when he had left his apartment so hastily in the morning – in fact, he could not remember anything at all – but found some gold coins and they were enough for a ticket. Vautour boarded an express train and left Paris.
Huddled in a corner, he occasionally stuck his neck out to the window, with an eager, sentimental countenance. He tried to get a glimpse of the tower with longing eyes.
When he did not see it, he sank back into his thoughts with an empty look in his eyes. His eyes were open, but without any expression. There, in place of Marcel, sat an empty suitcase from which the violin had been taken.
At five o’clock in the afternoon the train reached Lyon. The newspaper boys waved freshly printed special editions. They loudly and eagerly announced the fantastic ongoing events. Vautour got out of the car and bought a newspaper.
He read that the tower was racing at a tremendous speed throughout France and had even been seen in Marseilles. It had taken a dead-straight path, crossed rivers, breached forests, and bypassed towns and villages. A whole series of telegrams and telephone reports told of the panic which had seized the inhabitants of the places near which the object had passed, that which had previously been so quietly situated in Paris.
The most interesting telegram, however, was the last from Marseilles: the tower had reached the coast near the city and had waded into the flood. The heavy kicks off its feet had caused a gigantic fountain. It progressed so far that its feet sank and did not slow down but moved faster and faster.
The seawater, which had been stirred up in its depths, was boiling around the tower. This continued until only the head of the tower, its highest viewing platform, remained visible above the water. The coastal inhabitants and the sailors on the passing ships were stunned, sure that the iron monster would sink at any moment.
However, the tower soon stopped abruptly. It seemed it must be busy solving a difficult task. Should it go forward, to where it was drawn by an invisible power, or give up in the face of the insurmountable depth of the sea, which surpassed even the tower’s gigantic size.
The tower gave up. Slowly it turned and walked with the long strides of its feet, soaking wet, back to land. The recently formed crowd dissolved instantly and broke apart when it became clear that the tower was returning. The inhabitants of the enchanting villas on the beach fled in automobiles and carriages, along with diamonds and valuables. The tower stood on the bank for a long time without moving, as if it could not overcome the desire to cross the sea and was loath to give up. Acompletely disguised anthill had long since divergedwhen the tower stirred again. It took some slow steps, then, cautiously moving between the mansions, disappeared towards the northeast.
After Marcel Vautour had finished reading this message, he crumpled the newspaper and left the train. He deciphered the lettering on a long railroad car, which was coupled to another train – “Geneva.” Marcel’s actions weren’t steered by thoughts, but by magical brainwaves. He mounted the long wagon and went towards Switzerland.
No one knew where this moving tower was going. Nobody really knew what it was all about. What guided this passionate race? Perhaps there was only one, Marcel Vautour, who could have guessed that its route led to ancient Babylon. But Vautour was nothing but an empty suitcase from which the violin had been taken. His actions followed mystical sounds more than clear thought.
Meanwhile, the tower had entered the blue waves of the Mediterranean and explored their depths. It had determined that, even with the best of intentions, no height would be enough to wade through these waters. The Mediterranean stretched into an insurmountable obstacle on the way to Babylon. There was one other way to go, and that led across the mainland.
But even the mainland offered the tower no direct route to the east. A new obstacle presented itself, one that it had to master not by going down, but by climbing up. The Swiss Alps! Crossing them was not so easy as walking across France’s green meadows and valleys. On the other hand, the Alps were not as insurmountable as the Mediterranean.
And so, the Swiss citizens saw the iron tower climbing the mountains. It skidded over icy peaks. It jumped wildly over gorges and mountain streams and sometimes made its way across glaciers and through lakes. From time to time it stopped, as to orient itself within the labyrinth of mountain ranges and lake-filled landscapes. Otherwise, it progressed confidently, following a northwestern course to the cozy landscapes of Germany.
One of Vautour’s Swiss friends rushed out of his villa and ran straight into Marcel’s arms. He would have been very surprised to find the scholar there, especially if he had looked into his friends glowing wet pupils, but man was too confused to perceive his surroundings.
“Drive away!” He shouted, loading his car with his wife, children, and boxes. “Drive away as fast as you can! He’s already there! He! The Tower!” and disappeared behind a bend without offering Marcel a seat in his car, as it was reserved for boxes.
“Thank you,” Vautour answered, turning to where the tower had come from, and from where, according to his friend, he should have been escaping. A man who was afraid of towers would indeed have gone faster. For as soon as Marcel had climbed the mountain, the tower appeared in front of him.
A large green meadow surrounded by peaks stretched out in front of him, and in the middle of this field the tower came straight towards him. But what a fantastic deception! In Paris they froze at the sight of it. Here, the landscape was so majestic and the mountains so huge that the tower here seemed modest, small and not at all scary. In the absence of buildings and people, it could have been an above-average tourist.
As soon as Vautour had seen the tower, he rushed to it. He ran from the top of the mountain into the valley, called out something scary, and waved his hands. He stopped at the edge of a deep mountain ridge which separated him from the tower. The tower stood on one side, Marcel on another. He devoured the tower with his eyes, and the tower seemed to look back at him. Something incredible had to happen. It probably would have, if Vautour had not impulsively grabbed his bag.
“Where’s my notebook,” he thought anxiously. That book, bound in snakeskin, held all the records and results of his five-year research, brilliant speculations, and especially those fabulous insights into the Tower of Babel, which at once disproved all scientific theories and the Old Testament.
Marcel put his hand in his pocket and breathed a sigh of relief: in the pocket under his fingers, he felt the familiar form of the wise book and felt the usual leather. Marcel took out the book, looked at it felt a twinge of relief. At the same moment he raised his eyes to the tower. The connection between the two had only been interrupted for a few seconds. But the tower moved rapidly, and Marcel could only glimpse it turning into a side valley. After that, the tower disappeared from view.
The tower moved between the mountains of northern Switzerland; it ran through valleys and climbed over ridges. Then, as if he had decided something, the tower turned northeast and, moving at its usual hellish speed, darted across the border into Germany.
When the telegraph offices announced that the tower had appeared in northern Switzerland, the population of the German Reich was already in a state of panic. In Berlin, a council of war was summoned immediately, which decided to hit back the tower with artillery.The command was handed over to General von Stomachache, whose famed brilliance was based on an impressive mountain of human bones.
Despite the haste with which the military authorities operated, they were unable to concentrate their energies on all the possible routes their agile enemy might follow.
The appearance of the tower was so lightning fast that the brave troops did not manage to fire even a single shot. Their only success was to look around and see that the enemy was already behind them. Warnings flew north to the General, who had dug in a hundred kilometers from the border. The tower was fast, but electricity is faster. General von Stomachache knew of the arrival of the tower a full half hour before it actually appeared.
The general looked at the map, then surveyed the area with an expert eye. He came to the conclusion that, due to the nature of the landscape, the tower had no chance to escape. At his command, the artillery prepared to fight and hastened to camouflage themselves as much as possible.
The tower was already visible on the horizon and it came straight towards them. The general himself observed the approach of the monster from the top of the nearest hill, under the canopy of a hay barn. It ran so fast that even his experienced and unerring eye had difficulty estimating the ever-shortening distance.
“FIRE!” Shouted the general in the telephone receiver, which connected him with all his units.
The tower ran into the middle of the assembly. It seemed as if every skilled artillery shooter could have caught him with a howitzer just as easily as with his bare hand. A deafening salvoshook the area and a gray cloud of smoke eclipsed everything.
Oh, that smoke! That endless moment separating the salvo from the sight of its effects! There was no doubt: the tower had to be broken, mutilated, smashed to pieces. It was unthinkable, even if it had survived, that the tower could have risen above the artillery’s heads, as he had done in the first ambush.
But it had happened. Before the smoke evaporated, before the echo of the salvo had faded, a terrible whistle made the General look up. The tower had climbed in a spiraling path as if it wanted to screw itself into the sky. It then stretched horizontally and disappeared under the clouds, into the glowing sunset of the already sunken sun.
The men of the artillery unit raised their heads and remained silent and still.
“See?” Asked General von Stomachache to his adjutant, who, of course, had seen everything. “I see, Your Excellency,” replied the most disciplined man.
“Very well, then let us go and write a report,” said the general, crawling out from under his haystack and making his way to headquarters.
Undoubtedly, the tower’s unexpected flight into the blue infinite space was a highly unusual event. But even more amazing was the fact that none of this had anything to do with General von Stomachaches fire salvo.
The salvo was one event, the flight was a second and only chance had made both happen at the same second. For the sake of accuracy, it should be noted that the tower had lifted into the air a moment before the shot. That was at the exact moment the general had shouted his order into the phone. The steel fired from the muzzle thus flew into the void below the feet of the ascending tower.
But a third event, which happened at the same time as the other two, was directly related to this unexpected flight: Marcel Vautour pulled out a book bound in snakeskin from his pocket, and with the words, “So you are damned!” he tore it to pieces.
And his soul left the tower. Vautour’s soul had entered and brought the tower to life. The two, Marcel and the tower, rushed straight to Paris, to the place where the fantastic escape had begun.
This was why the tower had soared up into the sky and headed west into the fading glow of the setting sun. General von Stomachache was forced to choke down the embarrassment of the failed attempt to shoot down the tower with his well-equipped guns.
Late that night, as Paris lay deep in the mist that had blown over from gray London, the Eiffel Tower flew over the city. Its neck was stretched forward, and its four legs tucked back. The iron skeleton shot up with a whistling roar. When it saw himself over its ancestral residence, the tower straightened its nose, got into a vertical position, and gently slid down on its old pedestal.
A man walked down a staircase hidden in one of the tower’s legs and entered the square in front of it. It was Marcel Vautour. He went in the direction of the Seine and turned into a side street. In Marcel’s vest was the key to his apartment and the entrance gate. No one heard him go up and come down half an hour later. His tired, crumpled face was filled with deep emotional shock and heavy physical exhaustion, and his hands smelt of kerosene. Marcel got into a car, got himself into a hotel, took a room and slept like a stone.
He slept so deeply and firmly that he missed the commotion with which Paris welcomed the return of the tower. The telegrams from Switzerland were essentially outdated, while those of General von Stomachache were strange and completely incomprehensible. Paris itself could do no more than confirm the return of the wandering tower. The details of the event were as hazy as the mist that had covered the city at the time of his arrival.
But the reports agreed as follows: When the foggy curtain had evaporated with the first rays of the sun, the contours of the iron skeleton appeared as always. Despite a good many detailed descriptions, one of them eight pages long, the inhabitants of Paris never learned from where and why their scandalous tower had returned.
At the end of the eight-page report, there was another brief mention that had nothing to do with this matter. It was reported that on the night of his absence a fire had broken out in the apartment of the famous Assyriologist Vautour. It destroyed his entire Mesopotamian collection. The fire came so unexpectedly and with such force that the Assyrian’s brother had just made it down the stairs and out of the blazing apartment.
Translations: Lucian Plessner, Alexandra Kravtsova, Russian-German. Nora Byrne, Sabine Küper-Büsch, German-English
Pictures: Pieter Brueghel, Sema Sincap
The Wandering Tower is the title of a surrealist short story by Sergej Prokofiev from the times of vivid migration movements on the edge of the world wars.
The Festival was quoting the title as a metaphorical frame for Mahalla 2020/2021. The tower of Babel is connected as a motive to the search for the origin of language and the access to the divine.