Anatoly sent me to this post from Shkrobius, and the story told there was striking enough I thought I’d translate it here:

Once my mother and I were riding in an overcrowded train. It was Victory Day. The man sitting opposite us looked like a peasant and was crying bitterly, washing his tears down with vodka. Every once in a while he’d break off to tell the same story. I heard it many times and remembered it. Here it is.
During the war he and his sister lost everyone close to them. Their village was destroyed, and they took shelter in another village, in an empty house. They were very hungry, and went from house to house asking for something to eat. Then the sister got sick, and the boy went by himself. They stopped giving him anything. Just when things were getting really bad, a miracle happened: at one of the houses they gave him a piece of pork. The boy ate his fill for the first time in days, and there was enough left for the sister. They were able to hold out for a couple of days more, and then some distant relatives found them and took them to the town where he lived for many years.

On that day he had gone back to the village where the miracle happened, to find the people who had saved his life and thank them, even though he didn’t know their names. He got off the train and found a big feast going on in the village. In the middle of the table was a ham, with bottles around it. He sat next to an old man. They drank. The old man looked thoughtfully at the table, then said: “I don’t like this holiday. It’s hard on me remembering the war, I have a great sin on my soul.
“During the war my son was sick. The doctor said he had to have meat. I sold everything I could and bought a pig. I slaughtered it, but the pig was sick. What could I do? In the village there was an orphan who went around begging. I decided I’d give him a piece, wait a couple of days and see what happened. If the beggar boy survived, I’d give my son the meat. I invited him to have some of the pork. But he didn’t survive, he didn’t walk around the village any more. We had to throw the meat away. My son died. It’s a heavy weight on me that I killed those children.”
The man took a swig from the bottle and started the story again.

Now, in the comments at the Shkrobius thread a couple of people said they remembered this story from an old magazine, and one of them found a link: it’s Мелкие неприятности (“Little annoyances”), by Pavel Nilin. The plot is close enough that it would be surprising if the two were unrelated; the main difference is that in the Nilin story there is no sick son—the villager tests out the pork on the boy and sees it doesn’t kill him; presumably he and his wife eat the rest. Either the fellow Shkrobius and his mother saw in the train (he says in the comment thread that it was in the early 1970s) had read the story (which is dated 1974) and was telling it as his own, or Nilin heard the same guy and made a literary story out of it. Or, of course, it could be coincidence. But the interesting thing is how much more effective the anecdote told by Shkrobius is; the Nilin story, with its careful scene-setting and description of neighbors and so on, just dissipates the power of it.


  1. Well, that’s a good lesson.

  2. Well, that’s a good lesson.

  3. marie-lucie says

    The fact that the man on the train was crying, trying to drown his sorrows in vodka and repeating the story again and again suggests that his emotion was genuine. Perhaps the man who gave him the meat had told his own story to other people and that is how Nilin heard of it.

  4. The fact that the man on the train was crying, trying to drown his sorrows in vodka and repeating the story again and again suggests that his emotion was genuine
    Not really. Without knowing more about that man it’s hard to say anything definitive. I’ve known people who seemingly suffered far worse who did not sit in public drinking vodka and crying. On the other hand alcoholics can get very emotional about all sorts of topics.

  5. Yeah, alkies are not in any sense reliable narrators. He might have heard someone talking about the Nilin story and it sank deep into his vodka-sozzled brain and wouldn’t let go of him.

  6. The ending is similar to O. Henry’s surprise endings, for example “The Gift of the Magi”. They are well crafted stories, at least the twist at the end, but I don’t think any of them are true. Some say in writing that type of story, O.Henry dishonestly played with people’s emotions.
    The behavior of the old man telling the story over and over without apparently remembering he has just told it is typical of some stroke or Alzheimer’s victims. I have seen it over and over in psych wards and nursing homes. Short term memory is fragile, but long term memory is stored in a different part of the brain. So someone with this condition may remember names of family members without remembering whether or not they are still alive.
    It doesn’t make sense that someone would keep meat for “a couple of days” without refrigeration in the middle of a war “to see if it had gone bad” without it actually going bad in that length of time, or that they wouldn’t test it on a cat or some other animal and observe the animal for hours, not days, or that if a child was sick enough that the choice was between certain death by starvation or unknown results from uncertain food, a parent would choose certain death. No, the details of the story don’t hold together; they have been manipulated for the sake of the ending.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Meat without refrigeration: I grew up without home refrigeration, and especially in winter you can keep meat for longer than a couple of days (and if the meat is washed, oiled or salted on the outside and well-wrapped, it will keep for much longer, as with prosciutto). It is the story of the pork-giver that is fishy, more than that of the crying man. but each may have added details to a genuine story.

  8. I guess my (sadly jaded?) take is that compared to the many horror stories I’ve heard about Leningrad or Stalingrad this tale was not all that horrific (although effectively told). I actually expected the meat would turn out to have not been pork after all but something worse…

  9. No, the details of the story don’t hold together; they have been manipulated for the sake of the ending.
    You’re awfully sure of yourself, as usual. There were no animals wandering around starving Russian villages in wartime, and who are you to say what a parent in another country and another time would or would not do regarding their child?

  10. And of course vanya is correct that as far as war stories from Russia go, this is pretty mild.

  11. Who ever died of bad pork, especially fresh? Sounds unlikely you’d get most pig diseases. Trichinosis would take years to kill you.

  12. John Emerson says

    Based on what I’ve read, and I’ve made a considerable effort, spoilage per se does not make anything inedible. It’s mostly contamination by feces spread by human hands or bugs, with a few other things like botulism and trichinosis.
    In other words, it’s rarely just airborne spores or microorganisms. And of course, many tasty foods are deliberately “spoiled” — sauerkraut, Roquefort, aged meat, etc.

  13. You’re awfully sure of yourself, as usual.
    Well, I thought about possibility of all the local animals having been eaten, but they bought a pig, didn’t they, one that someone else didn’t need for their own survival, at least according to the story. And I wondered about the meat too–when I live without refrigeration I go vegetarian, with no ill effects on my health (another detail of the story that doesn’t bear investigation)–but if they were refugees/in a war zone, etc. how do they have the where-with-all, salt, grease, wood for smoking etc. for extensive meat preparation? So is this village in a war zone, where everything down to the last rat and the last blade of grass has been eaten or is it an untouched village where they have time to smoke and salt meat, and the cats are hanging around the barn waiting for the cows to be milked? As soon as you explain away one detail, you raise more questions about the others. The story just does not ring true, if for no other reason than the ending is just too pat. Real life isn’t like that; there are always too many things that don’t fit, too many things that end up with no explanation.
    Not sure what as usual refers to. I used to write with a lot of qualifiers, like “I think” until I learned that qualifiers are not good and “I think” is unnecessary because if you didn’t think it you wouldn’t have written it. It took a while, but I pruned it from my writing. But now I hear it’s trendy for the young girls to write with demure qualifiers and sound insecure and use something called “uptalk” which makes it sound like every sentence is a question. I’m really too old to be cute, even if I knew how to do it. Better to stick with what I know, even if it makes me sound hopelessly out of date. And if this whole story does sound plausible to someone who has lived on a Russian farm, I’m sure someone will correct me.
    Which reminds me, I used to spend several days a week at the home of a 95-year-old woman who kept repeating the story of the day she watched the Titanic sink into Lake Michigan.

  14. j. del col says

    Symptoms of severe trichinosis infection can occur in as little as 1 or 2 days. Severity and speed of infection depends on the number of cysts per CC of raw or undercooked meat. At the time the story occurs, all raw pork would probably have had live trichinosis cysts in it.
    These days pork-borne trichinosis is quite rare in the US or the EU.
    Of course, it might have been some other animal pathogen.

  15. John Emerson says

    It wouldn’t be trichinosis because you just have to cook the meat thoroughly to kill that. I’m pretty sure that people knew that by then.
    All or almost all cases of trichinosis nowadays are from wild boar or wild bear, with a few coming from free-range hogs. There are only a handful of cases a year (12/yr in the US). Also, they now call it trichinellosis.

  16. j. del col says

    Swine brucellosis can be transmitted to people through infected pork. Thorough cooking kills it, too.

  17. John Emerson says

    You cannot catch trichinellosis from an infected person unless you eat them without cooking them properly. A word to the wise.

  18. He might have heard someone talking about the Nilin story and it sank deep into his vodka-sozzled brain
    I doubt it. The train man’s story has a twist – his child dying – which is not in Nilin’s story. They are both very literary, but stranger things happened during that war. It could also be that the literary frame was added by the person who retold the story of a the drunk on a train, not the drunk himself.
    To give Nilin credit, he mentions that there were no dogs or cats in the village and that it was winter.

  19. @nijma: until I learned that qualifiers are not good
    Bad use of a factive verb (that is, one presupposing that the object of the verb is a true proposition) there.
    Qualifiers are neither good or bad in isolation, and they are a key part of almost all forms of writing. I don’t recall right now whether The Full Liberman has ever been specifically unleashed on the above trite and misleading injunction, but this category is certainly a good place to start.

  20. John Emerson says

    I do the same as Nijma. I start out saying things reasonably with a lot of “to me”, “in my opinion”, “as I understand”, “probably”, “if I’m not mistaken”, etc., etc., and then on edit I cut 90% of that stuff out.
    Where I leave it in is where I would welcome correction on some specific point. But where I’m just advocating a proposition that I can’t prove, I cut the qualifiers. When you choose to express your opinions aggressively, qualifying them much is silly.

  21. “washing his tears down”:
    This sounds funny to me. Hat, was there a reason you didn’t say “drowning his tears”? Or am I the only one that finds the phrase strange-ish?
    Not God forbid a quibble, just a question…

  22. It’s a translation of the Russian, which is equally strange/amusing (at least to me).

  23. in the original Russian (горько плакал, запивая слезы водкой.) it’s like ‘chasing his tears with vodka’ – chasing as in chaser drink.

  24. Yes, “chasing” is probably a better translation.

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