NOVEL EXTRACT: Blade of Light by Harkaitz Cano

Belarraren ahoa / Blade of Light
Translated from Basque by Amaia Gabantxo

This is an extract from Harkaitz Cano’s Belarraren ahoa, recently published as Blade of Light by the University of Nevada Press in Amaia Gabantxo’s translation.

Blade of Light is a uchronia – an alternate history. In its main plotline, Hitler has won World War II and now dominates Europe. He decides to conquer first Manhattan and then the whole of the American continent. His journey takes him to New York on a ship aboard which Charles Chaplin is also travelling. Chaplin has been imprisoned and tortured on account of his film The Great Dictator, which remains a pesky thorn in Hitler’s side.

On a second level another story is told, that of a stowaway who travelled to New York in 1886 hidden inside the crown of the Statue of Liberty. The fate of this stowaway, Olivier Legrand, crosses Chaplin’s, who escapes his torturers and finds refuge with the now old man.

Blade of Light is an intense and original novella that offers a profound reflection on life, creativity and the power of art and the imagination.


The din in the port wakes Olivier up the following morning. The shouts of the machinists. The grunts of longshoremen, the grinding melodies of rusty pulleys, rusty cranes. He doesn’t recognize any voices, but Manu must be there. He is leaving without saying goodbye, Manu might resent him for that. Good luck, Manu. If you can, don’t send your children to the Great War. The knapsack has made a perfect mold of his head overnight: he has burrowed a big hole in it. He could refill his pillow with earth too. Even though he is far from the mines he still has a fixation with filling holes. The ship is about to set sail. He has spent the night curled up inside the head of Lady Liberty. It isn’t all that comfortable. It is not comfortable to live inside the head of this woman. In fact, it is not very comfortable to live inside any woman’s head. He should find a better place.


Adolf himself took care of applying the Marco Polo code to the comedian. When they brought him to that dark cellar in Berlin, the comedian no longer looked like the person who had appeared on screen. He was older, smaller, weaker – a lesser man. He didn't even have a moustache. Adolf hesitated for a second. Was that him? Yes it was. And now he was in an equally dark and dank cellar, in the hold of the ship.

'Bring me a scalpel and get out of here.'

The metal door was shut. The two men who had brought the comedian to the cellar disappeared simultaneously. There was a typewriter in the Room of Echoes. That typewriter didn’t fulfil any function. The scalpels the little man held in his hands did. The comedian, however, preferred to concentrate on the typewriter: q, w, e, r, t . . . ; a, s, d, f, g . . . ; q, w, e, r, t . . . ; a, s, d, f, g.

'What about some Wiener Schnitzel for dinner, mister comedian?'

The comedian was frightened, but he looked Adolf in the eye.

'So I’m the Great Dictator, then. And I’m tossing the globe in the air, is that right? “Charles Chaplin proudly presents: The Great Dictator...” That’s how you advertised the film, is that right?'

The comedian preferred to stare at the typewriter: asdfg.

'Is that right?'

Qwerty. Asdfgh.

'Now. Maybe it is time to swap places. Let’s see. “The Great Dictator proudly presents: Marco Polo and the comedian in the Room of Echoes.” Do you know why they call this cellar “The Room of Echoes”? Why do you think? Do you know how they made people see sense in Marco Polo’s time?'

Let us stick with the term little man, to fully imbibe the soothing effect of words, as if words were penicillin, as if words had analgesic power. Let us spread words like they used to spread morphine in the camps, generously. Let us continue calling him little man and let us leave Adolf aside for now—that first name is discomforting. We will continue referring to him as the little man, then: and so the little man takes the scalpel in his hand and checks it under the lamp, and the scalpel’s sharp blade glints under the light. That blade of light is an escape route from the present, a tunnel, a crevice that has just opened up, thinks the comedian. I wish I could enter through that pathway of light, through that thin blade of sun-drenched grass that is the scalpel.

But the comedian is tied to a chair, barefoot, and just then his toenails start to foresee the bleak future that awaits them.

There is no silent cinema in the dark cellar. No silent films in the Room of Echoes. The Great Dictator was the comedian’s first sound film. The Great Dictator. Amid howls of pain, the comedian shouted Wiener Schnitzel or Kraut—those were the words on his mind and in his throat. A hand holds a white handkerchief:  not the comedian’s hand. It’s the little man’s hand; he uses it to pat the sweat off his forehead. One corner of the white handkerchief is red with blood.

But since the handkerchief is folded in four, if a corner is red with blood, in fact four corners are red with blood. The same would happen with a book too, if one corner was stained with blood all the pages in that corner would be stained. Stained with blood? Does blood stain? Or does it wet, or colour, or quench thirst...

Of blood.

A handkerchief and a book. Both similar, both balms. The white-paged book and the immaculate handkerchief. Stained with red, wet, coloured, a drinking trough for beasts to soak up words from. After Adolf’s men – yes, let us call him Adolf now – applied the Marco Polo code to Pablo Picasso his Guernica was never finished, but the comedian finishes it now, with his neck stretched, howling.

Here ends the era of silent cinema.

Shouting Wiener Schnitzel and Kraut. Wiener Schnitzel and Kraut. Wiener Schnitzel and Kraut...

The typewriter remains there. But doesn’t say anything. Yet it contains all words.


When will we reach port, Lady Liberty, my concubine, my darling? I am a prisoner of this ship. Imprisoned inside the Statue of Liberty, herself a prisoner of this ship. I am a stowaway. Liberty’s stowaway. And who doesn’t carry a stowaway inside? Who isn’t a stowaway, thinks Olivier. Those who don’t have a stowaway’s soul don’t deserve to live. Is there anyone who doesn’t carry a void they need to fill inside?

Manu, where are you now? Do you think of me, Manu? Who will fill up the little hole I made in your head. The pastis and demi-de-bière we used to drink at the port, who will you drink them with now? The job Olivier used to carry out underground, who does that in people’s heads? Whose job is it, to fill up the holes left in our heads by memories, misfortunes, sudden deaths and unfair, untimely life lessons? Who fills those drifts up with earth so that water won’t filter through and cause the galleries in our brains to collapse and bury our reasoning, the little sanity we have?

He would write to Manu when he arrived in America.

His neck hurt and he kept stretching it up and down, to relax the muscles. Just like you, Lady Liberty, said Olivier to the curved metal hosting him. My neck wants to be free too. He thought the pain in his neck was worse for sleeping in that uncomfortable, make-do cradle, than it had been for carrying boxes and boxes of hake. It seemed that way.

He had a feeling that the slight hump on his back grew a little every day too.

The ship swayed a lot; she rocked violently to one side and the other all the time. He vomited inside the crown, everything he had, down to the bile. Olivier was embarrassed. Lady Liberty was looking at him. That was all she did. Look. She was impassive. But Olivier wasn’t. He was adrift inside that crown that swayed like a cradle. And every time he threw up he tried to think up a noble motive for it, something nobler than silly seasickness at any rate, something more important, like love or fever or homeland, something that forced him to be inside that crown and made him throw up like that. But what homeland, what fever, what love...?

Nausea permeated everything.

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