The Witness

By Radnoti, Miklos | Contemporary Review, July 1993 | Go to article overview
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The Witness

Radnoti, Miklos, Contemporary Review


Evening approaches the barracks and the ferocious oak fence braided with barbed wire, look, they dissolve in the twilight. Slowly the eye thus abandons the bounds of our captivity and only the mind, the mind is aware of the wire's tension. Even fantasy finds no other path towards freedom. Look, my beloved, dream, that lovely liberator, releases our aching bodies. The captives set out for home.

Clad in rags and snoring, with shaven heads, the prisoners fly from Serbia's blinded peaks to their fugitive homelands. Fugitive homeland! Oh - is there still such a place? still unharmed by bombs? as on the day we enlisted? And will the groaning men to my right and my left return safely? And is there a home where hexameters are appreciated?

Dimly groping line after line without punctuation, here I write this poem as I live in the twilight: inching, like blear-eyed caterpillar, my way on the paper; torches and books have all been seized by the Lager guard, mail has stopped and the fog from the mountains muffles the barracks.

Riddled with insects and rumours here in the mountains, Frenchmen, Poles and dissident Serbs, loud Italians, dreamy Jews - fevered, a dismembered body, we lead a single existence, waiting for news, a sweet word from a woman, and decency, freedom, waiting for miracles, guessing the end obscured by the darkness.

Lying on boards, I am a captive beast among vermin, the fleas renew their siege but the flies have at last retired. Evening has come; my captivity, behold, is curtailed by a day and so is my life. The camp is asleep. The moonshine lights up the land and highlights the taut barbed wire fence, drawing the shadow of armed prison guards, observed through the window, walking, projected on walls, and spying the night's early noises.

Swish go the dreams, behold my beloved, the camp is asleep, and the odd man who wakes with a snort turns about in his little space and returns to his dreams at once, his face glowing. Alone I sit up awake with the lingering taste of a cigarette butt in my mouth instead of your kiss, and I get no merciful sleep, for neither can I live nor die without you, my love, any longer.


Collapsed exhausted, only a fool would rise again to drag his knees and ankles once more like marching pain yet press on as though wings were to lift him on his way, invited by the ditch but in vain, he'd dare not stay .

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