It’s publication day for this book in which, according to Shalom Auslander’s blurb, the memoir of a Dutch writer selling bibles in Russia becomes the story of the past century. Intrigued? I know I am. Let’s start at the beginning …
Translated from Dutch by Paul Evans
Published by Scribe UK
One morning in late October 1988, this dapper-looking guy from Leiden asked me if I might be able to deliver 7,000-odd bibles to the Soviet Union. I still haven’t got a clue how he found me. Back then, there weren’t many people in the Netherlands who spoke Russian and had visited the USSR. I’d only been once myself, more than seven years before. But if there’s one thing that life has taught me, it’s that the way the world works is totally arbitrary.
I was twenty-six and I’d just moved back in with my parents after living for more than a year on the Canary Islands and a little mountain village on the Spanish mainland. Now I was back in my dire childhood room, three and a half metres by two. ‘Can I come in for a moment?’ The man had damp, black hair, carefully combed over to one side. His parting looked as if it had been branded with hot tongs. He was wearing a tan mac with matching buttons. ‘My parents aren’t home,’ I replied. ‘They’re in Haarlem, at the hospital.’ He hadn’t come to see them; he’d come to see me. ‘Siderius,’ said the pre-war apparition.
A few seconds later, he was sitting on the couch, spreading out in his mac so that he resembled a bird of prey on its nest; he lit up a cigarette and blew the smoke out through his hooked nose. ‘I don’t have very much time,’ Siderius began. ‘And the matter I’ve come about is quite simple. Could you take delivery of a shipment of Russian bibles in the Leningrad harbour in — let’s say — three weeks?’ The question was absurd, preposterous. I nodded absently; the cigarette smoke floated between us like a blue lace curtain. ‘The Lord Our Father and Creator, who sent His Only Son into the world to save us, is in dire straits. The East is adrift. I assume you’ve been following. But just as in warfare, we’ll rejoice only once victory is achieved. What I’m about to tell you is secret, or, to put it in a way our friends at the KGB and the Stasi might understand, classified information! Can I have a glass of water? I have to take my pills … Gout, it’s the toothache of the joints. When I get an attack, I just want to die …’
When I came back from the kitchen, the man drained the glass with a grimace and then told me about something I’d never heard of before: the large-scale, illegal transportation of bibles to the Eastern Bloc. Sometimes on the border between Finland and the Soviet Union people would release balloons with bibles strung to them, in the hope that these would come down somewhere in the realm of the Anti-Christ, the Red Empire founded by Lenin. But most religious contraband was distributed by road, using specially converted luxury cars, mini-buses, and the odd motorbike with sidecar, which the religious activists, generally of a Protestant persuasion, would drive to East Germany, Hungary and Romania.
It was pretty risky — there was the threat of arrest and prison. The East German border guards, with their Alsatians, were feared the most. They were always ready and waiting to check under cars with mirrors, and tap the chassis with small hammers, searching out secret compartments, where seditious anti-socialist writings, porn or bibles might be stashed. The perfect cover was a family — a happy, child-blessed family on its way to the fields, the woods or the beach for a holiday in the Model State. Siderius had often gone east as well, but he’d had to quit the missionary work after his wife had fallen ill. The final approach to the border was always preceded by a prayer in God’s free and open country. And lo, the guards never once found a bible secreted behind a kitchen wall, or under the fold-away beds in his VW camper van.
‘So, you’ll do it?’ Siderius’s right hand was gnarled with growths like big, red peonies. He twisted his wedding ring so forcefully that he seemed to want to tug it off. ‘What do you mean exactly?’ ‘Take delivery of the 7,000 bibles in Leningrad. You do speak Russian? You have been to the Soviet Union?’ Siderius stared at me almost imploringly, a heavenly radiance in his deep-blue eyes.