Manas: A Himalayan Epic

From Book One: The Field of the Dead

THERE WAS no more rain.
Storms shredded the black clouds hither and down
From the eastern iceheads of Himalaya,
Blew them onto mountains and cedar forests,
Onto blooming meadows, southerly slopes,
This bedlam of beasts and trees–
Euphorbia acacia stands of bamboo;–
Tossed them, torrents and ice-needles,
Over sheer rockwalls, seething hills and spates,
Over rivers,–
They raced thundering down deep valleys,
Kosi, Alaknanda, Yamuna,
Surged onto the radiant plains of India,–
Storms shredded the black clouds away,

And ravines meadows rockwalls awoke to the drumming of waters,
Began howling like seas.
And ships rode on the seas.
What sort of ships were they that rode the sea,
Boats bobbing, darting under sail, capsizing, coming aright?
In the pattering of the waters
Souls, pale misty souls,
Came gliding by nooses of vine, stretched themselves past grasping thorns,
Shimmers of silence in the turbulent tumultuous hubbub.
Clumped in white masses, waited motionless under the downpour,
Wind whirled them high, breath from the mouth of Shiva,
Three-eyed God on crystal Kailash,
Whirled them high, spun them like a wheel,
Spilled them, mist onto water.

MANAS WAS standing at the window of his garden hall.
In the garden they were singing:
“Manas our jewel!
When you rode out we knew: you will save us.
You have returned.
Come to us, come to us.
Come to the pool, come into the boats.
They called out like us, those warriors who fell:
Manas, our joy.”
They put on shadow-plays, pastoral plays under the palms
With flutes and tomtoms.
And Manas, helmet flung from him, chain-mail on the floor:
“How long must I stand,
How long must I stand at the window,
How long must I stand here at this window,
How long must I stand at this pale hateful window of glass,
And I have to listen to you,
Listen hour upon hour upon hour.”
“Manas our joy! We’ll sing out to you
For two days more, that’s how long we shall stay.”
“Listen as you try to befuddle me, enchant me.
You shall enchant me no more.”

Puto, the mighty man, lifted the door-latch.
He had braided his beard, in it little bells tinkled,
His scarf silver-threaded.
The man at the window stretched hands out to him:
“No bowing. No kissing the floor at my feet
Because I command the army. How am I better than you.”
“You protected fathers and mothers,
They sing it to you,
You protected children, saved yourself and me.”
“How long must I stand,
How long must I stand here at this window,
Only to be praised, shamed, goaded, taunted.
Let go my hand, do not kiss my demented hand:
Its task is finished.
Don’t touch my head: it has done wicked deeds.
Tell me, Puto–”
“What should I tell you, Manas?
When will you come to see what they’ve made ready for you
In the palace, throughout Udaipur,
all decked out and never letting up its jubilation?
When will you see your father’s joy,
How your women yearn for you,
How Savitri dances, she who holds your heart?–”
“Tell me, Puto, what life is ordained for me?”
“–And touch your hand again, which has saved us.
But you know the answer, as a tree knows its own sap.
It is destined: that you shall enjoy your fill of love,
Delights are there for you in the fields,
Children are there playing, war-fame is there.
The Gods look on you with favour.”

And Manas on his knees before the mighty man:
“But when they lay there in battle, dead and dying beneath hooves,
–Oh that I can tell it now, and you are listening,
And are with me and accept it and are my friend,
My teacher, and will explain it to me,–
In the battle, the last one, on the Nara River, in the mud, the ponds,
I saw their mouths and eyes, their foreheads,
The whimpering faces of my enemies as they stiffened, became leaden.
I ripped the souls from out of their bodies.
I broke open the egg: for the first time I saw yolk trickle,
Yellow-white, –I am sickened, I tremble still to think of it.
It was enough almost to slay me.”
“You saw the horror of a creature facing death, Manas.
What alarmed you so?”
“Now you are here at last, Puto. They summoned you
Because for three days now I’ve refused all food.
They’re concerned for me because I won’t eat.
At last, Puto my teacher asks me something,
At last I can lie at someone’s feet.
I wanted nothing more than this the whole day long.
I lay beside my enemy in the sand,
I flung myself down
And lay and gazed at him and prodded him, my brother.
Oh, he is my brother, and really he is me, Puto,
That ghastly twisted face,
It will be mine, it must be mine one day.
And this is me. That is me.
And that is my fate and the truth of now. Of now.”
“How you tremble, Manas.”
“I’m not trembling. I shall stand up in a minute.
I–am frozen.
Frozen in the face of the Gods.
Frozen in the face of Death.
Frozen in the face of Now.
And as I swung my sword once more from horseback, on the Nara River,
Swung, a–a lameness seized my arm.
Whether I strike or they strike me, it’s all the same.
The sword thrust through the throat just sits there.
Puto, a sea is heaving beneath the land
On which I walk.
A fire is burning beneath the land
On which I walk.
No victory is of any use.”
“And Manas does not see me, Manas speaks to the wall,
Manas does not turn to the window
To see that Udaipur exists.”
“And I am lost. And can no longer see the sun.
The lovely sun has been torn away from me.
The elephants I tame are trumpeting in my groves,
Their keepers stand there and I don’t come and I don’t know them.
I cry: Ah, uuih, uuih,
I, Manas, prince’s son,
I the victor back from the salty wastes,
I cry: Uuih, I will go to the dead,
I will go from here to them, will let them tear me, grind me,
Will go to sorrow, sorrow,
Rather than still live, still live.
Rather than still see the sweet sun, see the sweet beloved sun,
The sun so fervently beloved,
Ah Puto, the sun that I have loved so tenderly.”
“Oh I know you, my child. Come, Manas, to the King.
I’ll help you, here I am. Now take your helmet, here’s your armour.”

“Death is real, Puto, terrible terrible sorrow.
I must go to where this horror is born,
This deep deep sorrow.
I will not run away from it.
Don’t lead me like a donkey to its manger.
You are the mighty man, Puto, the man of powers.
We’ve hunted together, and bagged much game.
Mount up once more at my side,
And ride with me, once more, just once,
On this hunt.
Ride with me to the realm of darkness.”
“You look for sorrow, Manas.
Lay aside your princely clothes, throw away your rings.
Many have done so.
Strew ashes on your head.
Sorrow looms already large, endlessly large in our life.
O Manas, no need to go into the ghastly Beyond
To find sorrow.”
“Don’t hold me back. It is too late.
I condemn myself for all I failed to see.
The sweetness of this life, I spurn it.
I want no more of its vapidity and softness.
I will take a stand: here I am.”
“The Gods have barred the land of darkness,
The gate is shut and bolted, Manas.”
“You are Puto, man of powers.”
“Nothing alive can do what you would do.”
“I am the victor, I am not befuddled.
I am Manas.
Tomorrow early you shall go to the King and say:
‘Manas, your son, has returned victorious
From the Nara River, from the wastes of Thar.
The forts have all been taken,
Not one could stand against him and our army.
I crossed the desert, subdued the coast.
I deliver the Rajah to the King.
But Manas, your son, today has sallied forth
In early morning, to conquer a new enemy.'”
“That gate is shut and bolted,
Nothing alive can shift the bolt.”

Manas’ brow flushed with anger,
His fists whirled about his head:
“I am the victor. I am not befuddled,
I am not unhinged.
Udaipur does not befuddle me.
I am Manas, and do not go compelled before the King.
Those now singing in the garden, tomorrow early they themselves
Will pile up logs between the banyan trees
Where the Victory Theatre stands.
They must decorate the pyre as befits my station.
Then they’ll sing as the logs flare up,
And I burn.”
“So, demons infiltrating among the enemy
Have confused you, the wicked things, you the indomitable.”
“So you too would deceive me, mighty man,
And say that I am lying.
You’d grant me still more endless battles,
More endless shouts of laughter from out there,
Like the laughter of this triumph.
See my armband, nephrite with gold and emeralds.
My father gave it me after my first battle.
I was a doughty warrior.
Ever since I knew I cannot win, I have no rest.
So, –fling the armband to the floor. Ten pieces.
Good. See, that is Manas.”
“And see these threads I wear around my neck.
Mighty man you call me. Shiva is my God.
I break these threads.
And I shall say no prayers to Shiva
Until I have delivered you to your goal.”

DEEP BLACK sky. Starry sheaves a-sparkle.
Moon drowned in the sea of sky.
Little boat bearing Puto to the King’s hall.
Rippling, trickling.
Peacocks screamed from the raintrees,
Flying foxes in the branches.
Below the darkly wooded arc of hills, loud Udaipur.
A thousand temple drums, torchbearers.
Armoured knights on elephants lofted shields, brandished lances,
Jubilant through streets of waving pennants.
Girls with black parted tresses,
Offerings in their hands, flowers and rice,
Gay silk-clad girls jingled as they walked.

At the poolside stairs of stone, in the gloom, Puto’s foot felt for steps.
Jag Niwas the island.
The Maharajah’s palace, pillared halls, domes, galleries.
The old King was not sleeping.
He sat beneath a tamarind. From across the pool the water-ouzel sang.
And without a word he heard what Puto brought.
The silver gateway, silver gateway lost its sheen.
The glitter on the water, glitter faded.
Ouzel started up again. His voice a breath:
“I shall die, my son will not bury me.
My country shares the fate of Chittor:
There stands the Tower of Victory; now it houses monkeys.”
“The Merciful Ones are with us and with him.”
“Manas scorns them. He does not know them.
He challenges them, has to challenge them.
And so the Merciful Ones strike at me.”
Yayanta stood up, laid an arm on Puto’s shoulder:
“Now you the father, who must bring my son once more into the world.
Puto, you were always mine, mine,
Not as a little fish to him who has it hooked,
But as you to–me.
Now you have my son. I give you him, hold me up, I give you him.”

And rosy morning. Gouts of flame above the forests.
The King drove his son and Puto to a smith.
The smith hammered each a ring about his arm.
And while the chains still glowed, Puto swore an oath
To use no magic to loose the chain that linked Manas to him,
To utter no spell to loose the chain.

There they left the groaning father.

AND MANAS felt a stabbing in his breast,
As if a cold blade were cleaving him asunder.
The wooded hills had vanished, the houses turned to vapour.
Puto and Manas were swimming through white clouds.
The quivering air torn open.
Buoyed on thin mist, Puto and Manas,
Impelled by billows,
Air foaming, awash with light,
And on, directly on, blown on
Into the glimmerflitter, into the cooing tugtwitch.
O twitching heart that sings this, whither are you dragging me.
Why bundle me up, bind me and haul me along as if in an animal’s skin,
And I falter and must follow and am bound and must go along
Even to my dissolution.
Puto, how strange, the long lean man, wrapped in a grey cloak,
See his hood flying after him.
Eyes closed, lips closed, they flew, whirled along.
Puto’s voice came:
“I’m bringing you to people, Manas,
Do not flinch, do not flinch.
You were commander in many battles,
You have killed many people.
I shall show you people, you shall touch them,
Shall feel them as if they were you, Manas.
Do not flinch, do not flinch.
These are not the beings that danced and sang for you.”

Now his voice fell silent, the storm swallowed it,
Clouds came between him and Manas.
The storm scuttled hail that scoured Manas’ skin.
The man was afraid: “The chain is breaking, the chain has broken.”
But here already was Puto’s voice again:
“O Manas, I am your teacher, and I must obey you.
O that I, who helped you grow to manhood and took care of you,
Entrusted to me by your mother,
That I must fly with you.
O my suffering child, my child.
Now gird yourself.
And if you are a prince’s son, a warrior,
And your forefathers fought in many a battle
And experienced horrors,
Manas, Manas, summon your blood that it come to you,
Your blood of courage, that it be there when you need it.”
And Puto’s sobs swept past on the wind.
“Why weep for me, Puto, flying here beside you,
Held to you by a chain?
What is it I shall find?”
“Not only I was weeping, Manas,
The griffons too, that fly with me.”
“I see no griffons, Puto.”
“They are perching in my hair.
Oh there you are. That I should see you all again.”

The dreadful griffons flew in sight of Manas, bald-headed vultures, Sukuni.
Naked their throats, black beaks, the feet blood-red.
The storm raged below them.
A line of mountains loomed: Himalaya thrust up its first foothills.
Between crags by a whirling spate they came down to land.
And Puto turned, pressed him to his breast, the mighty man,
Blood on his brow where the griffons had drunk.
“Take me onwards!” Manas cried.
“And so I kiss you, Manas, to summon all your powers
That they may preserve you, my sweet child.
No monster, no devil shall you see.
You shall feel your blood and blood
And shall not allow yourself to freeze in fear.
You shall endure all that you have wished for,
And shall extricate yourself, for you are strong.
If, in trusting you to me, your mother blessed me,
So I bless you. And kiss you.”
And already they were rising, tumbled in terrible clouds,
Whirled in tumbling clouds.
Were they flying or standing still? They could not tell,
Vapour like a solid block stood all about them.

–And there was no more rain.
Storms shredded the black clouds hither and down
From the Himalayan summits,
Blew them onto mountains and cedar forests,
Onto blooming meadows and slopes,
Bedlam of beasts and trees,
Euphorbia acacia stands of bamboo,
Tossed them, torrents and ice-needles, onto crags and hills,
Onto swollen rivers thundering down deep valleys,
Kosi, Alaknanda, Yamuna,
Rolling on into the plains of Punjab.
Storms shredded the black clouds away,
And hills steppeland savannah awoke to the drumming of waters,
Began howling like seas.
And ships rode on the sea.
What sort of ships were they that rode the sea,
Bobbed like boats, darted under sail, capsized, came aright?
Souls, pale misty souls
In the pattering of waters
Came gliding by nooses of vine, stretched themselves past thorns,
Clumped in white masses.
Wind whirled them high, breath from the mouth of Shiva,
Spun them like a wheel, spilled them, mist onto water.

Puto’s voice: “Now we must part. Now go.”
And Manas went.


Alfred Döblin

Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a prolific writer whose œuvre spans more than half a century and a wide variety of literary movements and styles. One of the most important figures of German literary modernism, he is much less known to the reading public than his contemporaries Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, or Franz Kafka. English readers know him, if at all, for only one work: his big city novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). His complete works include a dozen epic novels ranging from 18th-century China (The Three Leaps of Wang Lun, 1915) to the distant future (Berge Meere und Giganten ("Mountains Seas and Giants"), 1924) to the European conquest of South America (Amazonas, 1938). He also wrote several dramas, radio plays, and screenplays; a travelogue; philosophical treatises; and many essays on politics, religion, art, and society. Döblin was in exile from the Nazis between 1933 and 1945–first in France, from which he had to flee in 1940, and then in the USA.

His writing is characterized by an innovative use of montage and perspectival play, as well as what he dubbed in 1913 a “fantasy of fact” (Tatsachenphantasie), an interdisciplinary poetics that draws on modern discourses ranging from the psychiatric to the anthropological to the theological, in order to “register and articulate sensory experience and to open up [his] prose to new areas of knowledge.” In a 1967 essay, Günter Grass declared: “Without the Futurist elements of Döblin’s work from Wang Lun to Berlin Alexanderplatz, my prose is inconceivable.” Döblin was also an influence on writers such as W. G. Sebald and Bertolt Brecht; as Brecht wrote in 1943, “I learned more about the essence of the epic from Döblin than from anyone else. His epic writing and even his theory about the epic strongly influenced my own dramatic art.”

Chris Godwin

Chris Godwin translated Döblin’s first great epic novel The Three Leaps of Wang Lun (1991; 2nd ed. New York Review Books, 2015), and aims to make the unjustly neglected Döblin better known to readers of English. Since retiring in 2012 as representative in Beijing of the UK Research Councils, Godwin has completed translations of Döblin’s epic South American trilogy Amazonas: Land without Death and the verse epic Manas. Both are still seeking a publisher. His translations of two shorter pieces by Döblin have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail: the historical-philosophical essay "Prometheus and the Primitive" (InTranslation, September 2014) and an "outtake" from Wang Lun ("Conversation in the Palace of Ch’ien Lung," Rail Fiction, February 2015). He is currently working on Wallenstein, Döblin’s epic of the Thirty Years War.

Manas. Copyright (c) S Fischer Verlag, 1926. English translation copyright (c) Chris Godwin, 2016.