英文

Common Nonsense : Reading Anna...

【明報專訊】I'm sitting in a quite cafe. It's drizzling outside but the transparent curtain of light rain nevertheless blurs the shapes of the people on the street. I enjoy the harmless inaccuracy. In my hand rests a handy copy of the English translation of Anna Akhmatova's collected poems. It's no accident as I deliberately carry it out this morning on the advice of a friend, a learned one who has recently been convicted of an offence for joining a peaceful but unauthorised rally. She told me softly but determinedly that I shall read myself Akhmatova's Requiem, especially its opening prose. I don't want just reading it to myself. I want to read it to your ears:

"In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day somebody 'identified' me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): 'Can you describe this?' And I said: 'Yes, I can.' And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face."

That an accomplished poet was lining in a queue outside the prison, craving to see her beloved one (her son) incarcerated (監禁) inside, braving whatever weather it was in Leningrad for seventeen months is already a bleak (慘淡的) picture. It's the time of Stalin's Great Terror when dead silence was ubiquitous (無處不在的) as the only sound track which was sparingly disturbed by daring whispers.

Not infrequently I visit prisons to see my clients. At the waiting hall I always meet and greet other professional colleagues. Recently I've seen more friends and their families than professional colleagues there. We embrace each other, exchanging our speechlessness. Perhaps next time I shall break my speechlessness and share with them that it's slightly better to be seated in the waiting hall, gratefully staying indoor, than lining up outside the institute as Akhmatova did in Leningrad in the 1930s.

Oh even if we do what Akhmatova did, we won't write what she wrote. Now listen to her:

"My friends of those two years I stood

In hell—oh all my chance friends lost

Beyond the circle of the moon, I cry

Into the blizzards of the permafrost:

Good bye. Goodbye."

I could imagine that the poet by whispers made friends with those standing in the same queue outside the prison over seventeen months. They're her chance friends who would appear and disappear by chance, the chance made possible by the Great Terror. Akhmatova cried goodbye to her chance friends with her feet on the permanent frost of her native ground while the moon over her pretty head went from full to crescent, then waned to none. She admittedly got her poetic licence to tell brutality with beauty. But the brutality of her time and ours is still history engraved in stone.

"Lawyers have, on the whole, been bad historians", sighed recently Lord Sumption (岑耀信勳爵), a former justice in the British Supreme Court (also a serving non-permanent judge of our Court of Final Appeal) in his new book Law in a Time of Crisis. Lord Sumption is the most qualified authority to launch this remark as he's one of the most refined judges-cum-historians (his expertise is on the Hundred Years' War) in the United Kingdom. His thesis is that the English common law has developed in the course of history, reflecting the varying social and political values at different times (he built up this commonplace thesis through the most striking prism of the myth building of Magna Carta). He doesn't make it explicit but I don't think he would disagree that those values could be brutal ones in history. Our law is never the masterpiece shaped by an abstract notion of justice but an output contingently shaped by the triumphing forces which happen to be the wind of the current time.

The triumphing force prompting Akhmatova to line up for seventeen months outside the prison also wrote the law and procedure which threw those unfortunate ones into the prison.

Poets may be better historians or at least they oversee history with more sensitivity than the lawyers do. Isaiah Berlin, the renowned historian of ideas, once met Akhmatova in Leningrad in the winter of 1945. He wrote what he saw in the poet,

"Anna Andreevna Akhmatova was immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features, and an expression of immense sadness. I bowed. It seemed appropriate, for she looked and moved like a tragic queen."

We may bow to the poet even though, understandably, she may have to bow to the triumphing forces of her time.

■by Lawrence Lau•劉偉聰

​Lawrence is a life debater who has to debate with his life. Being a barrister makes him a living while reading and writing gives him a life. Meet his cat 寅恪.

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