On the Eve of No Return

(Archival Recording)

Zsófia Bán

Artwork by Robert Zhao Renhui

What a joy to look at your suitcase as if staring into space.
—Fernando Pessoa

Я ЛΑЙҚА. Laika the dog here. Have no fear—I'm only whispering because I'm making this recording in secret. If anyone finds out, I'm done for. Actually, I'm done for anyway, but as long as it has to be, then at least let it be heroic in spite of it all. Who wouldn't want a brass plaque in Starville? Who wouldn't want to have chocolate bars and cigarettes named after her, or have her portrait on a stamp, or be the title of a pop album—raise your hands! You see? Children, you must know the truth. Don't let yourselves get taken in, and don't swallow everything (gulp!) they tell you. (And don't you believe in kiddie tales!) Be good Soviet children: mature, skeptical, sharp, always alert and ready to contradict! Вceгдa Готов! This recording is for you, Soviet children, so you can write its message on the sky, sprinkled with meteors and stardust:


So here's my story told on the eve of no return: накануне невозвращения.

I am a three-year-old female mutt called Laika ("Barker"), and before that my name was Kudryavka ("Curlie"), but some people call me Zhuchka ("Little Bug")—or I should say "called," back in the good old Soviet past. I never knew my Mom or Dad. I used to wander the streets of Moscow homeless and alone, but at least I was free. I poked around every hidden spot in the city and knew by heart every smell, taste, and sound. No one on earth knows this beautiful little corner of the world better than I did. And what do you think I have gained by all this knowledge? Nothing, nothing at all. Every day they teach you kids that knowledge is power, but they don't tell you that this is only true if all other power is already in your sweet little chocolate-covered hands. I speak to you now, bound and chained, from a tiny little cabin, waiting to be shot into space tomorrow, November 4, 1957, never to return.

Now you might ask how it can be that someone who ambles around the Patriarch's Ponds one minute, complete master of her freedom and fate, can suddenly, through the work of one well-aimed dogcatcher's hook, be reduced to a helpless puppet, chosen victim of the Soviet space program. Good question—I'm glad you asked! I don't know. There are things that cannot be understood by the rational mind. So you see, it's not really true that you can learn anything if you just have enough will and try hard enough. It just isn't. I'm telling you now, in plenty of time. Why me is a question that cannot be answered, in any situation at any time. It is a mystery that can't be known or solved. Don't ever fall for any sentence that begins with the phrase higher will. Shake it off as a dog shakes off water. Learn that accepting the explanation there is no explanation is one of the most difficult and noble lessons. Prepare for it every single day, every single hour, and when the moment comes, place it under your tongue and let it take effect. This will be a blessing. And don't you forget that not having an explanation does not mean not having intelligence! One way or another a story will unfold, and every story can be understood somehow—often in many ways. Get used to the vigorously shifting ground underneath freedom of interpretation, and prepare for this difficult task in a manner worthy of Soviet children.

Time passed, and life went on. Barely a month after Sputnik One was launched (to the wonder of the world and the immediate curses of the enemy American people), Comrade Khrushchev decided one fine day that we would send up another Sputnik in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. And so it was. The decree was issued on October 10, which left barely four weeks for the new Sputnik to be prepared for launch.

So together with my co-dogs Albina and Muzhka (n.b. we are all girls, so children, when the time comes, do some work on the dzhender problems of Soviet society!), we are being readied to become the first living passengers launched into space. Children, when you hear this, don't you wonder who will be the Lucky Chosen One to be written into the Great History Book as a Hero of the Soviet Union, the one to bring such supreme and priceless glory to her homeland? And then don't you also think wow it would be wonderful if you were the ones to bring such fame to the Homeland? Sure you do, because that's what they teach you, isn't it: the Homeland forever. But it never occurs to you (because this they don't teach) that this hero, this giant among all creatures, might not be just a Pioneer or an engineer or iron worker, but a female dog!

(Children, when the time comes, spend some time on the problems of unequal opportunity and mobility in Soviet society!) In fact, it is not only possible, but necessary, as you see from my example. (Children, when the time, etc., spend some time on the problem of the yawning divide that has opened up between possible and necessary.)

My older sister Albina flew on test rockets twice, on a suborbital path. As for Muzhka, they sent her up to check out the instruments. But for the launch into space they picked me, and me alone, Laika the dog. I was marked out for this eternal honor, this unfathomable miracle. During training they packed all three of us into smaller and smaller cages for fifteen to twenty days to get us used to expected conditions. (Children, when the time comes, it never hurts to accustom yourselves to expected conditions. Practice, practice, practice!) The stress caused by this ever-tighter confinement meant that we couldn't pee or poo (pardon my French), which naturally made us restless. Even the laxatives they gave us wouldn't help, only the hard training that consisted partly of getting stuck into a centrifuge and a noise simulator, which made our blood pressure rocket up. Now don't be restless, children. You must know the truth. The truth isn't pretty, but it's interesting. So please just be quiet and pay attention.

Going on four days now I've been sitting in this structure that, as everybody knows, is ready to crap out at the first spin. They've assigned me two big bulls who constantly have their eyes on me, and I try to throw my voice so they won't see my lips moving. They don't want a talking dog, just a flying one.

Today, in the third year of my life, on the eve of no return, they shaved off all my fur with a weak alcohol fluid and painted iodine marks on my skin where the sensors will go. They are going to observe my bodily functions. There will be a surprise or two. Even now, my heart is pounding like a washing machine on spin that is ready to explode. What do they have in mind, four or five days? A week? Oh please. They will announce this, but of course they know very well that I won't be able to take it for more than a couple of hours. I heard it this morning, right from the Master himself: they won't be able to do anything about the overheating. So it won't be a mercifully prepared bowl of poisoned food that does me in (which is what they will tell the press), nor will it be the mercifully and gradually depleting supply of oxygen, but the glowing, searing, trembling heat. Strapped to my burning throne, I shall bark the International Dog Anthem. Meanwhile the big bulls will be listening to Berlioz.

Dear Soviet children, I am speaking to you on the eve of no return. My soaring coffin will circle the Earth precisely 2,570 times before burning up in the atmosphere. If you look up at the sky, you will see the angel of death in the form of a dog. Pick a star, each of you a different one! Tie them together with straight lines, and name that constellation after me. My name, I repeat, is Laika, which means "the Barker."

The big bulls will be listening to Berlioz.
The big bulls, if you pay close attention, are always listening to Berlioz.
The big bulls are subtle people.
Appearances are deceptive.
Deception is merely an appearance.
Good night, children.
I hope you are all spooked by now.
They will not be able to handle the overheating.
You will not be able to deal with the overheating either.
Good night, little Sputnikites.
Everything is just a matter of perspective.
From above, the Earth looks blue-green.
Injuries requiring more than eight days to heal.

Which means:
The Barker.

Oleg Gazenko, Laika's trainer, in 1998:

"With the passage of time, I have come to regret it all more and more. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the dog's death."

Calculate the value of more and more. Draw a graph!
Calculate the value of enough.
Finally, write a short essay entitled "What is My Message for Oleg?" Choose your words carefully!

translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker