Master of Petersburg

Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee Read Free Book Online

Book: Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee Read Free Book Online
Authors: J. M. Coetzee
can be no question of hounding your stepson (to use your word). His case is closed, in the sense that matters most. I read you his fantasy, as you like to call it, simply to indicate how deeply he had fallen under the influence of the Nechaevites, who have led astray heaven knows how many of our more impressionable and volatile young people, particularly here in Petersburg, many of them from good families too. Quite an epidemic, I would say, Nechaevism. An epidemic, or perhaps just a fashion.’
    â€˜Not a fashion. What you call Nechaevism has always existed in Russia, though under other names. Nechaevism is as Russian as brigandage. But I am not here to discuss the Nechaevites. I came for a simple reason – to fetch my son’s papers. May I have them? If not, may I leave?’
    â€˜You may leave, you are free to leave. You have been abroad and returned to Russia under a false name. I will not ask what passport you are carrying. But you are free to leave. If your creditors discover you are in Petersburg they are of course equally free to take such steps as they may decide on. That is none of my business, that is between you and them. I repeat: you are free to leave this office. However, I caution you, I cannot positively conspire with you to maintain your deception. I take that as understood.’
    â€˜At this moment nothing could be less important to me than money. If I am to be harried for old debts, then so be it.’
    â€˜You have suffered a loss, you are despondent, that is why you take such a line. I understand fully. But remember, you have a wife and child who depend on you. If only for their sake, you cannot afford to abandon yourself to fate. As regards your request for these papers, with regret I must say, no, they cannot yet be surrendered to you. They are part of a police matter in which your stepson is linked to the Nechaevites.’
    â€˜Very well. But before I leave, may I change my mind and say one last thing about these Nechaevites? For I at least have seen and heard Nechaev in person, which is more – correct me if I am wrong – than you have.’
    Maximov cocks his head interrogatively. ‘Please proceed.’
    â€˜Nechaev is not a police matter. Ultimately Nechaev is not a matter for the authorities at all, at least for the secular authorities.’
    â€˜Go on.’
    â€˜You may track down and imprison Sergei Nechaev but that will not mean Nechaevism will be stamped out.’
    â€˜I agree. I agree fully. Nechaevism is an idea abroad in our land; Nechaev himself is only the embodiment of it. Nechaevism will not be extinguished till the times have changed. Our aims must therefore be more modest and more practical: to check the spread of this idea, and where it has already spread to prevent it from turning to action.’
    â€˜Still you misunderstand me. Nechaevism is not an idea. It despises ideas, it is outside ideas. It is a spirit, and Nechaev himself is not its embodiment but its host; or rather, he is under possession by it.’
    Maximov’s expression is inscrutable. He tries again.
    â€˜When I first saw Sergei Nechaev in Geneva, he struck me as an unprepossessing, morose, intellectually undistinguished, and distinctly ordinary young man. I do not think that first impression was wrong. Into this unlikely vehicle, however, there has entered a spirit. There is nothing remarkable about the spirit. It is a dull, resentful, and murderous spirit. Why has it elected to reside in this particular young man? I don’t know. Perhaps because it finds him an easy host to go out from and come home to. But it is because of the spirit inside him that Nechaev has followers. They follow the spirit, not the man.’
    â€˜And what name does this spirit have, Fyodor Mikhailovich?’
    He makes an effort to visualize Sergei Nechaev, but all he sees is an ox’s head, its eyes glassy, its tongue lolling, its skull cloven open by the butcher’s axe.

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