Trafika Europe 13 - Russian Ballet
packed with new Russian literature in English translation
an online quarterly journal with some of the best new literature from Europe
is a publication of
Trafika Europe ISSN 2472-2138
Editors’ Welcome ____________________________ vi
Mikhail Eremin Poems 4 (selection)_______________________ 2 Igor Sakhnovsky - Two Stories__________________ 16 If You’re Alive _ __________________________ 18 The Schneiderman Principle________________ 36 Natalia Azarova Counterdisentanglement (selections)_ _______ 54 Pavel Lembersky The Death of Samusis_ ____________________ 70 Alexander Ulanov Between We (selection)_ __________________ 82 Val Votrin The Last Magog (novel excerpt)_ ____________ 98 Helga Olshvang Landauer Parchments (selection)____________________ 128
Katia Kapovich Avengers (short story)_____________________ 142 Anton Vershovsky Of Danes and Denmark____________________ 164 Naum Vaiman Judeophile (story)________________________ 186 Aleksandr Kushner Ten poems______________________________ 240 Svyatoslav Loginov A Light in the Night (novel excerpt)_ _________ 254 Maria Stepanova Eleven poems_ __________________________ 294 Vyacheslav Kupriyanov The Miracle of... (prose poetry)_____________ 316 About the Artist _____________________________ 332 About the Authors and Guest Editor _ ___________ 336 Acknowledgements __________________________ 350
TRAFIKA EUROPE 13 - RUSSIAN BALLET Editors’Welcome Dear Trafika Europe Reader, On behalf of our contributors, I would like to welcome you to our Russian Ballet issue and to offer a brief guided tour of the contents I and Trafika Europe editor-in-chief Andrew Singer have had the distinct pleasure to assemble and curate. We have made an honest attempt to be representative: among the work in the present pages are both conventional and post-modern narratives, short and longer fiction, “literary” and “genre” work, formal poetry and free verse of different sorts. Russia is a bridge between East and West. While historically it has been particularly successful in expressing the universal, human condition, it has also been an integral part of the continental “main”. Nowhere has this been more directly in evidence than in the presence of Russian writers and poets abroad. In addition to Moscow and St. Petersburg – the two historic poles of Russian literature – New York had already some time ago emerged as its de facto third center; more recently, this has been supplemented by Jerusalem and Berlin, so that, from a global perspective, Russian is progressively
Trafika Europe 13 becoming an international language and literature. Russian is the world’s eighth most commonly spoken language, and it remains one of the six official languages of the United Nations, with over 140 million citizens and 170 million native speakers worldwide. Being part of the Russian diaspora myself, I felt it fitting that at least a small sliver of the cultural production of Russian America be represented. Pavel Lembersky ’s short story in this issue, “The Death of Samusis,” succinctly illustrates his musicality, how finely attuned his work is to the surreal absurdity of human life (Benjamin’s “profane illumination”) and what I think is perhaps his greatest gift – serious, philosophical, self- reflexive play with narrative modes, the way he explicitly deconstructs the text. Katia Kapovich has now published some ten collections, both poetry and prose, including two prominent books of English language poetry, and is a past winner of the Russia Prize. She is also a co-editor of the acclaimed occasional US literary print anthology series Fulcrum . As her short story we publish here, “Avengers,” exemplifies, The New Sincerity ethos fits her writing to a T.
Igor Sakhnovsky ’s character-driven and acutely observed work, both novels and short stories, carries on one of the best-loved traditions of Russian literature. His two lyrically inspired and satirically charged stories included here offer the best evidence that the farcical style and substance of such writers, in each successive generation, as Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Nikolai Leskov, Anton Chekhov, Ilf and Petrov, and Sergei Dovlatov, is not just a guilty pleasure, but a mainstay of Russian prose. Naum Vaiman ’s tightly plotted yet discursive longer short story, “Judeophile,” a miniature novella really, manages to represent the decline of the Soviet Empire with an epic scope that spans not only its final decades, but the context of millennia. Its true subject is History, written grand. Vaiman’s most recent and substantial contribution to Russian letters is his The Black Sun of Mandelstam (2017), a book-length study of the great 20 th -century Russian poet.
Val Votrin is a Belgian Russophone writer who is an environmental consultant by profession. Like most
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of our poets here, he is also a noted translator (of English poetry). His most recent contribution to Russian letters is a Selected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (2017). Apropos of all the writers in this issue who are living abroad, their literary lives are very much part of the literary process in Russia and not only do their books and periodical publications come out in Russia, but they themselves regularly travel back and forth. Votrin’s novel, The LastMagog , the first two chapters of which appear here, under the guise of a naive but ethnographically accurate, Middle Earth-like parable, presents an epic clash of civilizations and a loosing upon the world of the primal forces of destruction in the name of primacy. Svyatoslav Loginov is a prolific writer of science fiction, more aptly characterized as “speculative fiction”. He has produced some dozen novels and numerous collections of short stories, whose primary theme is the retention of faith in a world deprived of both God and goodness. This is his first work to appear in English translation.
Viachelsav Kupriyanov is acknowledged to have been one of the founders during the 1970s
(along with Vladimir Burich and Arvo Metz) of contemporary Russian free verse. He has been the laureate of numerous awards, including the Bunin Prize (2010). As an outstanding Russian translator of German poetry, particularly noted for his Selected Rainer Maria Rilke (2006), Kupriyanov has himself had a long presence in Germany, with many of his own books published in German translation, however, the present selection represents his most substantial publication in English to date. Not unlike Kupriyanov, Alexander Ulanov has one foot firmly planted in the West and one in the East. A professor of aeronautical engineering (plane engine design) in the southern city of Samara (Russia’s border with Kazakhstan), he often spends his summers working in China. His impressionistic, dreamy, surrealistic, nature-bound prose poems are very much reminiscent of a Russian Francis Ponge, and I particularly wanted to represent these two pioneers of the prose poem, as it seems to me that this field, that has been so fertile of late in American poetry, is perhaps the newest development in Russian poetry. Ulanov is also a translator of Modernist English poetry as well as a noted critic of contemporary Russian poetry.
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As in the first generation American Modernism, Eastern poetic influence made its presence felt in Russia. So it is not at all a coincidence that Helga Olshvang Landauer ’s present selection from the as-yet unpublished book Parchments is, like the geographical position of Russia itself, straddling East and West. Among the foremost Russian poets of her generation, Helga is also a visual artist. As a graduate of the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, she has written numerous screenplays for feature, animation, and documentary films, among them A FilmAbout Anna Akhmatova (2008) and Arcadia (with participation of one of the finest living Russian poets, Vladimir Gandelsman; 2015). The poet and essayist Maria Stepanova is a cultural force to be reckoned with, having founded and edited Russia’s most important literary online cultural review, OpenSpace.ru (2007-2012). When OpenSpace was bought and commercialized, and changed its focus, she founded and continues to edit its second incarnation, Colta.ru. In recent years, she has been a frequent visitor and guest lecturer at such Amerian universities as Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford.
Natalia Azarova (b. 1956) is a relative late-comer to poetry, with a distinguished academic career, and since 2012 has been a senior fellow and the head of The Center of World Poetry Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Her restlessly innovative work, very much in the spirit of the Chuvash Russian poet Gennady Aygi, is grounded
in voice and performance. And so I’m very happy to add that, in addition to her poems in this issue, we’ve also got a special treat – a video of Natalia Azarova performing her long experimental poem Brazil , in eight movements, with English translation. Just click right here !
With remarkable discipline and consistency, Mikhail Eremin has for six decades now practiced an eight-line poem form (octave or octet) that he has made uniquely his own. A librarian for much of his working life, his poetry, while post-modernist in its syntactic and allusive complexity, is very much
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imbued with the spirit of classically rhetorical elegance and encyclopedic knowledge. Like so many of our poets, he is also himself a translator (of Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens). Joseph Brodsky wrote: “Eremin is an unreconstructed minimalist. Poetry in essence consists precisely in the concentration of language: a small quantity of lines surrounded by a mass of empty space. Eremin elevates this concentration to a principle: as though it is not simply language but poetry itself that crystallizes into verse... Eremin’s poetry may rightfully be called Futurist in the sense that, to this type of poetry, the future belongs.” Anton Vershovsky is a renowned scientist, as well as an art photographer and author, living in Saint Petersburg. When he came to Denmark in 2000, he was enchanted by this country and its residents who were unlike any other part of humanity that he had known. In his two years there, he managed to understand nothing, but made enough notes to share this bewilderment with others. That is how the book On Denmark and Danes was born, and then published in Russian, which we excerpt here in its first English translations.
We are also pleased to present translations of poems by Aleksandr Kushner , who has published some 15 books of poetry and serves as Editor-in- Chief of the Biblioteka poeta poetry book series. Joseph Brodsky once called Kushner “one of the best lyrical poets of the 20th century”. In closing, I would like to thank the other participating translators, without whom this issue wouldnot havebeenpossible: DanaGolin (Olshvang Landauer), Sibelan Forrester (Stepanova), Max Hrabrov (Loginov), IvanSokolov,withPeterKolpakov (Azarova), Anna Navrotskaya (Vershovsky) and Carol Ueland and Robert Cardenale (Kushner).
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Eremin S 4
A Protector of Whales
That may be transformed into a crimson fire-bird, And delight, like a wonder-child, the long while Until the night, with its violet ebb-tide, blankets The purpurins, ochers, and cadmia with black.
POEMS 4 (selection) By Mikhail Eremin Translated from the Russian by Alexander Cigale
Geodes with clusters of amethysts; the caves: Along their walls horses of ochre and cinnabar bulls; Like gaps in memory safe-keeping raw material for dreams; Like cosmic holes of superabundant substance – Innumerable discoveries yet to be made Of empty lattices in the matrices of universal construction, Until that last Creation (on the eight day?) of emptiness complete?
To cross the plowed-up field and in the twilight Chill be charmed by the languid Suspendedness of the under-glimmer, Consumptive stains, the gemlike Curlicues tinged with blue (suffering from Chlorosis, The dearth of molybdenum in the soil, of calcium, And phosphorus.) of foliage under the lulling squabble Of the opaque thicket of the crowns of trees.
The pluripotent efflorescence Clenched fetal-position in the hypocotyl Suffocates in the fallowed loam, And desiccates for fouler weather, Not buried but an immured seed, But, as is well-known, the cloudless sky Has cares for neither prayers nor dreams Of resurrection – as in the olden days – fulfilled.
__________ Proverbs 4.8
Not to heed the warning of unbroken silence, Despising the hints of troublesome sheet lightning, And not to turn back for home (In the library The oak floorboards, the carpet from Khorsana, The hoard of books, and the table from Morelatto.) And to be caught by lightning, like that one, Who foresaw the inevitable downpour, And there is nowhere for him to take shelter.
The perfume of the blooming branch is transformed Into the teasing odor of mature Fruit, the appetizing aroma of nectar, By the labors of bees, into heavenly honey. That living plants Be turned to stone, like their antediluvian ancestors, And centuries hence in the efforts of perfume makers And army officers deliquesce at balls and in theaters Of military action, is it not fated to be so?
The fisherman reads the sea for signs, neither in still nor in storm does the helmsman interrupt his dialogue with the ocean, The poet (According to his predetermined department?) Lauds the majesty of the elements, profusely curses The unappeased abyss, but if he’s deep-rooted – is indifferent To the endearing breeze as towards the gales of misfortune – The steppes’ inhabitant, he’s able to limit himself to mere mention Of the remarkable deluge that flooded the world entire.
The market – it is said – is jealousy for gain, But – it is not forgotten – knowledge (and tall tales?) and merchandize Moved the ship masters (But also slaves?), And small-time peddlers, but – recall that – the terrifying futures (Any deal,
Is it not within the same walls that the trade In oxen, sheep, and pigeons takes place?)
Preceded the construction of the Hagia Sophia basilica, Whilst still unfestooned with the columns of minarets.
The beautiful link in the chain of metamorphosis Does not recall it nibbled the leaf, not dreaming of nectar, And that, wrapping itself in cocoon (Great the temptation to say: Tormented in the dungeon of cocoon.), it didn’t fantasize of flight,
But with the remembrance of lives past (Possibly, For the delight of the admirers of the graceful?),
The pattern and French curve of its Farewell costume are passed down.
It is the purpose of the fiery sunset that the observer Is at liberty to coax from the thicket of unearthly flora The crimson dragon (According to the tales of witnesses, As soon as it is disturbed – it spews forth flames.) That may be transformed into a crimson fire-bird, And delight, like a wonder-child, the long while Until the night, with its violet ebb-tide, blankets The purpurins, ochers, and cadmia with black.
Mountain-slope deep-blue pine grove and crosses beside Ascetic caves, irrepressed, by either the image of manmade Things or by budding glimpses of skillful tree crowns, Unobscured by sturdy trunks and gnarled stumps, And one’s acre of wasteland and castle-keep – To live life out in the landscape and not the fatherland, Which is none other than one’s fate, And not a debt to reliquaries and ashes.
A Preoccupied Visier
The boy told the story as drily as possible, not giving in to the urge to go into detail, but still, he was agitated, paling, and lowering his eyes. Uncle Marik knitted his eyebrows and even engaged in a bit of posturing. Understanding almost immediately who was the subject of their conversation, he permittedhimself some clarifying questions: “How old is she?” “Is she Russian?” and for some reason even: “Does she smoke?”
TWO STORIES By Igor Sakhnovsky Translated from the Russian by Alexander Cigale
IF YOU’RE ALIVE
The boy had no father whatsoever. And his mother was there so rarely, he sometimes doubted her existence. You would begin to doubt it too, if your mother kept calling you an “animal” for no reason, rushing off at seven AM on some sort of business and, crawling back home after eleven PM, flinging herself on the couch wearing a bra only, moan: “I’m tired as hell! Leave me alone.” He did however have an aunt Ada, mother ’s sister – though you wouldn’t guess it by just looking at them – who was being courted by some nine very impressive gentlemen, each genuinely wanting to become the boy ’s uncle. One of them was even the director of a factory that manufactured refrigeration units. One can of course understand what these suitors saw in her, for aunt Ada was, to put it mi ldly, a ravishing beauty. First of al l , she wore spike heels (and that in itself is a sure sign of hotness), in contrast to the mother, who never took off her grandma booties. Ha, 19
I just accidentally made a rhyme, “Beauty – booties”; at this rate, I’ll turn into a poet! And second of all, her eyes were the color of plums, and in their slant they resembled plum pits, and her gaze was like that of an odalisque, simultaneously fiery and submissive. Words don’t do them justice – better you go yourself and ogle an odalisque. And thirdly, such an agile, careful gait, as though she was wading into a river, or her legs felt too confined above her knees. The boy had already grown even with the aunt ’s hips, that is, he lived at her feet, and for this reason, he always grew still and tremulous upon hearing the rustle of her tightly stretched nylons. Once every week, the aunt would come by to visit, to discuss with the mother the prospects of the nine suitors. She would sit down on the sofa l ike a queen, sl ide her heels out of her shoes, and massage and pet her sore toes, as though these were some sort of f ledgl ings. The boy worried himsel f over the chances of al l nine; wouldn’t you too? not want to get stuck with just anyone for an uncle. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the boy would sl ide into the aunt ’s shoes and execute the circus act of walking on sti lts – a genuinely elevating experience. The mother would say: “He’s an animal ; he’ l l break your heels!” The chances of the individual men f luctuated dangerously. The refrigeration factory man often jumped in the lead.
Then, out of nowhere, appeared a smal l bald man by the name of Marik, with a large mouth and dog- l ike eyes. He was so unprepossessing that he didn’t even make it into the legitimate nine – he was just circl ing at aunt Ada’s heels al l by himsel f. He even told her directly: “I f you want to, you can go out with these. But you’ l l wind up l iving with me.” Wel l of course, why not. Everybody just dreams of l iving with him. That was the mother ’s reaction. But aunt Ada was hysterical and in a rush. Because, she has another year, maybe a year and a hal f, and then it ’s al l over! Cal l her an old spinster. And then it happens; the refrigeration director permanently divorces his wi fe and their chi ld, because the wi fe screams obscenities at him, cal ls him impotent, doesn’t cook for him. He comes home hungry after work, the wi fe cal ls him names, and he, instead of appetizer, soup, and main course, munches on chips and sucks down candies. Or he is obl iged to eat dinner out at the fanciest restaurants in town. Aunt Ada pities him deeply, almost to tears, and wants to feed the director hersel f. Though, i f truth be told, candies with chips and sodas are a hundred times tastier than soup and salad, and restaurants – are far more interesting. Right before the wedding, the aunt asked everyone not to call out the toast “Bitter, bitter!’ because she’s not comfortable kissing in front of people. You’d think
that she didn’t have any intention to ever kiss her husband, but only ply him with food. For their honeymoon, the director of refrigeration units suggested Turkey, but aunt Ada had a hankering for the town of Anapa on the Black Sea – she had vacationed and sunbathed there as a girl in high school. And so they went off to Anapa. They rented a place outside of town from a pretty and portly little woman, half of the house with a veranda, drank wine, ate salad made from the famous local tomatoes and went to sleep, because the first night of their married life had now arrived. In the morning, Aunt Ada went out on the veranda in a dark mood. And the first person she saw was little bald Marik. It turns out he had also spent the night with them – on the veranda, or perhaps even outside their door, but he had already found time to put away his bedding and shave. “Good morning,” Marik announced, launching into his morning calisthenics routine. The newlywed Aunt Ada went off to the beach for a swim, mightily surprised. And the refrigeration unit immediately stormed off to inquire from the lady what the fruitcake performing squats and standing on his head was doing there. The landlady informed him: “This man is a tenant, very respectable, also arrived yesterday”. And she began fixing her hair.
The next morning, Aunt Ada came out of the room puffy-eyed. And she again walked smack into the wi ly, al l -knowing Marik. And the next morning, and the next. On the fourth day, the weather turned nasty, gloomy and teary-eyed l ike Aunt Ada’s mood. Drowning in the puddle by the porch were the lost chickens and the remnants of hope. Only Marik alone was bright and cheery-eyed. I f Aunt Ada got hersel f together to take a walk, he was already standing at the ready, with rubber boots and an umbrel la. The refrigerator man insistently offered to change places of residence. It was better i f he kept his mouth shut and not offer up any other bright ideas. How all this came to a head is one of those mysteries of nature. But in the end, Aunt Ada returned from the Black Sea together with Marik, calm and glowingly beautiful, even more beautiful than usual. And after another year, there wasn’t anyone alive who was closer to the boy then uncle Marik. You could ask him anything you wanted – not once did he ever not have an answer. Even about the most insigni f icant thing. Let ’s say: why is it that everyone loves beer? He wi l l def initely know the answer, in the most exhaustive detai l . Once every now and then he would go off to do his manly stuff, to drink beer. That is, the uncle would set off, and he’d secretly take the boy with him. He’d even let him drink a whole hal f from his glass. It was somehow
bitter in the mouth – even port wine tastes better. So why then, I ask you, do people love it? “I will explain,” said uncle Marik. “Beer should not taste good. The best thing about beer is the burping afterward. Once you’ve drunk it, you wait around for the onset of the burp.” Sometimes they talked about women. In the uncle’s opinion, they are angelic beings. But dangerous. “And why dangerous?” “I will explain,” said uncle Marik. “Among women, feelings take precedence over thoughts. But they distinguish these feelings very poorly. For example, you have spent your entire life satisfying her every whim. Yes? And she suddenly boom and loses all interest!” And then an earthshaking mystery of the universe was revealed to him. It turns out that women sometimes experience a female madness. Sort of a sexual f it. And then, it ’s al l over, lock, stock, and barrel . The husband and the wi fe are glued together at the hip ti l l death do they part. Only a surgeon can separate them. Can you imagine the indignity; dragging yoursel f to the hospital in such an attached state! “What ’s there to do?” – the l istener would by now be in a state of despair. But the uncle knew a way out. A man of experience always carries on
his person a needle. I f you suddenly prick them, the spasm wi l l pass al l by itsel f, without assistance from a surgeon. And what i f you’re swimming in the ocean or a river, then what? And suddenly you get a leg cramp! Once again, a needle would save you. After such practical , useful conversation, one could social ize with women, or swim in the ocean, with much greater conf idence. In the same beer hall that time, some drunken soldier would not leave the uncle alone, and kept pestering him with the nationalities question. He called uncle Marik a kike to his face, and then shouted in an idiotic voice, like some sort of people’s deputy on television: “What have you Jews done to our Russia?” The boy was sure the uncle would now answer: “I will explain,” well and so on and so forth. But he kept his mouth shut. He even kept silent after the soldier dumped his glass of beer on his pants. When they were going home, the boy kept trying to find out why uncle Marik didn’t smash that idiot on his noggin. Why? Was he scared? “Of course I was scared,” the uncle said. “I was afraid I would kill him, and be locked up for fifteen years. Then what will become of Aunt Ada?” That is when it became patently clear that when little bald uncle Marik is angered he becomes a terror, like the Terminator.
One time, he was meeting Aunt Ada by the clinic where she worked as a lady doctor, and some guy, either a maniac or a robber wouldn’t leave her alone – he caught up with and grabbed him by the collar of his coat…. In the aftermath, one could even feel sorry for the maniac. Because uncle Marik held this maniac by the hair of his head and banged this head right against the wall of the clinic, until he knocked off a serious piece of plaster from it. While the boy was growing up, he couldn’t keep up with all the changes that were taking place in people close to him, he was too busy with his own maturing. In the meantime, it became abundantly clear with time that a man with canine eyes and a woman with ones that are simultaneously submissive and angry – are not a particularly fortunate match. A certain depressing inequality had become established: a homeless dog has found for itself a beloved master, but the slave girl never did find herself an owner. For this reason, she would at times fling herself into catching one – at some or other random event, at birthday parties for strangers, and omnivorous soirees, where they would endeavor to get her drunk and then cart her off in a foreign car stinking of sweat to yet another party. After midnight, the uncle would call the boy’s mother, who would tell him: “That Adka’s a slut! everybody’s getting some” and uncle Marik would go out of his mind scouring the cold nighttime city.
From the previous year ’s crop, contestants three and seven had reappeared, and they were joined by four new ones and the lone wolf Chechen, Beslan. According to family legend, uncle Marik finally succeeded in locating the whoring aunt –first in the arms of the Chechen, then in a drunken stupor, then in a filthy coat, face down in the mushy sleet. And each time, aunt Ada would be driven home, attentively cleaned up, and slathered with lotions. The legend did not go into details, of the warlike blows which the uncle inflicted on the terrorist from the Caucasus. But you can be sure of one thing about their routine: hot water and scented creams. So that now, the growing boy felt for uncle Marik a sort of mixture of contempt and compassion. Never, he would say. Such a thing will never happen to me. To save her, pick her up out of the dirt – that ’s OK. But to forgive her betrayal and start off again with a clean slate, as though nothing had happened?! Fat chance.
* * *
He was already judging as a budding man, from the heights of his propitious and wholly secret bank of experience. Her name was D. She was employed in the modeling industry. Every dog in town recognized
her smell, and not just in town. And those that didn’t, still noticed her refined, sensuous face, her half-disrobed figure on the advertising posters of inhuman dimension, in the dog-eared pages of glossy magazines. She was drooled over and possessed by all, as much as an inaccessible, glamorous image might allow itself to be possessed: a near-sighted goddess garbed in smoky lacey stockings, right above the stoplights, amidst the traffic jam, shedding a pair of pointy-toed mules, at that time of year when the opaque shoulders exposed beneath the streetlights were powdered with a glittering February hoarfrost. And only he, our 15-year-old lover boy, was permitted to observe her at home, shivering in her silk pajamas, frolicking with her before the mirror-covered wall of the huge, open-planned studio until he was senseless, watching how she, sticking out the tip of her tongue, shaves her legs, how she gets dressed, sprays herself with eau de toilette, knowing all the while that she has a stomach ache, that she adores the strictly forbidden Siberian dumplings: “Can I steal just two of yours?” She made him a gift of simple words that would make any man happy, not to speak of an unruly youngster. She said: never had she been happier with anyone than she was with him. And she will wait for him, that is, she will patiently wait till he grows up. D. was often on the road – he always knew the precise date of her return, because they had agreed they
would never lose track of one another, not even for a day. Left by himself, he walked the city inflamed, his chest swollen with pride, alone with his joyous secret, which dissolved and oozed, like molten gold, through his entire body. From the crossroads of the central boulevard, D. looked down on him with a gaze that was more vulnerable and emotional than the one on Maltsev Street, where a flash of her left breast peeked through slightly, and the expression in her eyes was a bit haughtier. On his way home, he jumped off the tram three stops early, turned off into the old alley and crossed her yard so as to catch a glimpse of the three windows on the fourth floor: he loved them even when they were dark and empty. Two days before her return from Milan, the boy sold to a classmate the CD player his mother had recently given him and bought his beloved a chic perfume. That April was quite warm, but the evenings were chilly. By the time he had reached her house, it was already dark. Somebody’s wayward Airedale terrier was racing across the yard. The boy raised his eyes – and froze. All the three windows were brightly lit. That means she returned early! He flew into the lobby, but abruptly put on the breaks between the second and third floors, embarrassed by the confusion in his thoughts and the loud thumping of his heart. Be calm, he said to himself.
In another two minutes, the boy was standing on the stair landing of the building opposite and, through the glazed window glass, until his eyes hurt, tried to make out what was happening in D.’s apartment. He not so much saw but guessed at the presence of two or a few shadows, their blurry comings and goings, the distortions of the partially blocked light. The wayward dog wanted to play with him, and when the boy, slamming the door shut, ran out into the yard, the Airedale raced after him, barking – so that anyone looking askance would have thought that the boy was running to escape and the dog was a menace. The driver of a Lada hatchback, a working-class man with a tired face, offered to drive him home and back for 40 rubles. They drove unbearably slow. And then the key, turning in the door, seemed to belong to someone else. The mother wasn’t home. It ’s better that way: no one to ask him where he was going with those unwieldy binoculars, where he’s cal l ing, having dialed the number a second time. “ The number is unavai lable,” the mechanical woman informed him, and this too seemed to contain an i l l omen. By now, the Airedale terrier met him as though he was a member of the fami ly. The l ights were on in the windows. The boy returned to his observation point. He was shaking feverishly. His eyelashes spread over the violet surface l ike an overgrown, thorny hand fan – a momentary occlusion of
vision. The f irst thing to come into focus was a bluish glass of wine on the windowsi l l . And there, deeper, and to the left, the expected corner of the table was ecl ipsed by the edge of a curtain and something broad, and f leshy. His f irst thought was: it ’s a woman with a thick back. But the torso was male, and entirely naked. Leaning sl ightly over, the man stood at the table as though preparing a hors d’oeuvre. His measured, close movements resembled the sl icing of meat or vegetables. And only later, having gotten a better look, did the boy notice a woman’s raised heel – it was white and glaring above the shoulder of the standing man, twitching involuntari ly in synch with his rhythmic labor. This might have seemed l ike a rape were it not for the tender hovering of the narrow, fami l iar palm along the back toward the hips of the rapist.
* * *
When he was leaving for the last time, the dog was nowhere in sight. After two sleepless nights he called D. only to hear that she just returned, she missed him so much, she is waiting for him! The boy placed the handset down and asked himself, what is it that ought to be rightfully called “the
meaning of life,” if he intends to go on living it? Nothing , he answered himself. And he doesn’t plan to . The final decision required an hour and a half, which he spent in the bathtub, closely examining his hands, feet, the hair of his belly, as though he were seeing them for the first time. Then, drying himself off closely, he came up to the old mirror in the hallway, gazed into the pupils of his eyes and said: “I don’t want to.” If a man has decided to die, he must act tactically and sensibly. Failure in such an action is the equivalent of disgrace. He had already chosen an entirely acceptable means – a lethal dose of a tranquilizer, which he will obtain from the kitchen cupboard. Easily available and painless. One only need to fall asleep, to turn oneself into nothing, and the chemicals themselves will silence the superfluous heart muscle. He will do so in the morning, without any gestures of farewell. When, towards the following night, the mother returns home, everything will be finally settled. Only one thought scared him: indeterminacy. No one will know, or even understand the reason for his suicide. Everyone will judge in proportion to their own vulgarity – this is inevitable. But that entirely no one , not a living soul? Horrifying. And just then the boy remembered his uncle, a close but neutral person, who will understand everything and will definitely
not interfere. Uncle Marik took his favorite nephew’s request to meet for a “serious tête-à-tête” as an important, lofty mission. To match the gravity of the occasion, he even put on a worn and faded tie from the period of perestroika and democratization. They met in the evening in the Café Hope, quiet and deserted, where they had previously gone to drink beer. The uncle ordered a mug for himself, but the boy refused. The boy told the story as drily as possible, not giving in to the urge to go into detail, but still, he was agitated, paling, and lowering his eyes. Uncle Marik knitted his eyebrows and even engaged in a bit of posturing. Understanding almost immediately who was the subject of their conversation, he permitted himself some clarifying questions: “How old is she?” “Is she Russian?” and for some reason even: “Does she smoke?” “Does this have any significance?” the boy asked. “Tremendous,” the uncle assured him, and ordered another beer. The boy proclaimed his desire to die with great conviction. But the uncle kept confirming it over and over: “You’ve already decided?” “Already.”
“One hundred percent?” “Two hundred.” Uncle Marik scanned the room in the manner of an experienced conversationalist. “Good man,” he said quietly. “A manly decision. My respect.” “Thank you for your support,” the boy was a bit baffled. “Yes, I second your emotion. Both in word and in deed!” “In what sense – deed?” “In the sense that, it is a criminal offense. I have a good friend in the public prosecutor ’s office.” “What does the public prosecutor ’s office have to do with it?” “I’ll explain,” said uncle Marik. “She is 24, correct? And you’re not sixteen yet. So, what do we have here, I beg your pardon? Corruption of a minor. Entrapment and molestation.” “It was out of love.” “Love – yes. But only if you’re alive. And if not? I will punish her.” “Who asked you to meddle??” the boy was almost screaming.
“No one. But I’m making an iron-clad promise. Immediately after you commit this very deed , I will also commit a deed. I swear to it. Let her rot in jail.” “This is depraved.” “You bet. She’ll get a substantial sentence.” “You son of a bitch, you traitor!” “Well,” said uncle Marik, “so what if I’m a traitor.” And he ordered another beer. The evening was incredibly luminous. And one could, incidentally, marvel at the strutting of the young man leaving the cafe – he was walking out having assumed an expression of such maturity and a delectable air of his own superiority. The life he now had in store was equal to the quantity of the air in this April’s expanse. And that old, bald traitor, his nose stuck in his beer, was entitled to no earthly measure of forgiveness.
THE SCHNEIDERMAN PRINCIPLE
“Just imagine it!” Schneiderman was saying quietly, worrying himself like a little boy, clearing from the table the third empty can of Isabella’s Home-Cooked Goodness. “What was I supposed to do? A night in February and all around us, Biscayne Bay. She’s waiting for me – meet me immediately! – at Saint Sebastian’s. Of course, if she’s really waiting. And what do we have here – an idiotic lighthouse on the left traverse and the operational clock at 00:20. And so I disappeared into my piloting duties, body and soul. Because I did love her, like some 40,000 of my brothers and sisters in the service couldn’t possibly, all of them put together! Please, understand me!” Schneiderman is holding back his huge tears in a mighty effort, and I don’t know how I can console him. To my best knowledge, Gena Schneiderman had never been beyond the borders of our nation. In those security-sensitive times, no one would ever have let him out. Not to mention the fact that in his 35 extraordinary years, he somehow managed to never enter into any official dealings with the state.
The best-documented stages of Gena Schneiderman’s mysterious creative path include his effort to decipher the colloquial speech of the Ancient Sumerians, as well as his personal participation in the digs at Khersones and Olvia, as an independent archeological contractor. His only surviving poetic opus to have reached us, in my opinion, is deserving of being preserved among the age’s cultural annals. I cite here the complete text: It would likely not be erroneous to say, that from the moral standpoint, and from the intellectual and practical ones as well, Gena Schneiderman was a complete idiot. Not in the sense that constitutes a textbook case of congenital mental retardation, but that state, out of which, like a pearl from inside the sleaze-slathered slice-wound of a mollusk, issues the tongue of an unalloyed genius. I know this is difficult to believe, but Schneiderman’s two-meter long emaciated organism was entirely missing the organ of fear. He feared nothing, and never. Behind this, lay no shadow of some supernatural courage or the proverbial “madness of the brave”. In my observation, Gena simply didn’t understand – Oh, my fogs, my dear old fogies, And the rain is pouring down… My jacket is, for one thing, torn, And secondly, it ’s been passed down.
what it is exactly that one ought to fear.
When one of the vociferous noshers of the ready-to- eat Isabella containers (the events were taking place in Crimea, where Schneiderman was born and spent most of his life,) the sixth or seventh of which was now being emptied, announced with heroic pathos: “Mountaineering, Gena! Mountaineering is all the rage right now!” Schneiderman straightened out his stooped back and asked: “When are we off – today or tomorrow?” At the first ascent, executed without the least bit of preparation for the route of the highest level of difficulty, Gena slipped and fell from a height of 8 meters and broke the little toe of his left foot. This event – wholly banal in the annals of the Scheniderman opus – speaks once again not to any sort of insane bravery, but more likely to the characteristic for Schneiderman paralysis of will, that is, even for its complete and utter absence, which, quite possibly, was for him the essence of true freedom. He pursued no goals and did not in any way allow his horizons to be limited by the element of choice. It was not he that commonly made choices, but his enamored lady friends (from among the visitors) and the eternally unsated gourmands (from among the locals). Moreover, they chose with the most
absentminded levity, because among the resortly treasures of the Crimean landscape, the personage of Scheiderman represented something on the order of a bush of roadside heather: harvest, if thou so desire, any sprig – and take it with thou as thou wish. I mysel f was witness to how, after another alcohol - fueled, strong-spirited night, as Schneiderman, in a chi ldl ike manner, f l inging away from his body the cal loused, inf lamed hand of a ditch digger lay sleeping it off on a calm September beach, a wagtai l , feather- l ight and fearlessly, al ighted on his bony shoulder as though upon a shrub of heather. Sti l l , the principled Schneiderman absence of wi l l did not exclude fol lowing a course of action. And in this consisted the element of magic, that he performed these deeds without a moment ’s indecision. And, independent of motive – whether it be the unsober idiosyncrasies of his tippl ing bosom buddies or the whimsies of a transient enchantress – everything that Gena Schneiderman did in his l i fe was, viewed within the context of accepted norms, absolutely pointless – and absolutely stunning. I will offer but one illustration, of which it was for a long time forbidden to speak, because this typical for Scheiderman epic comports so poorly with the constraints of sane reason, not to mention with at least two unmentionable statutes of the criminal code. This line could only be crossed once Gena, in
his thirty sixth winter upon the earth, without any warning fell into such a state of despairing absence, such a self-enforced AWOL, that he became all at once beyond the reach of all earthly laws. In Old Crimea, there lived a Writer ’s Widow, already with one foot in the grave, one of those grand impoverished widows who had managed to survive a second or even a third sequel of the lethally self- righteous Soviet “cinema” – for her own part, and in the names of her genius husbands, who had been wiped off the big screen and tossed onto the junk- heap of history way back in the first installment. The nearly silent judgments of these underappreciated old women, measured nearly in carats and published on both sides of the waters, negotiated the collisions of the best minds of Cambridge and Princeton, at the same time that these makers of taste themselves, mired in complete anonymity, struggled with such essential problems of life as what is to be done about the last pair of ragged house slippers and how one may stretch out the remnants of yesterday’s already watery soup. The widow inhabited the same little house where her once famous spouse had once lived, sleeping on the same cot of a bed, sitting in the same chairs, and applying patches to the same worn-through clothes…. Occasionally, she would receive sun-tanned tourists who arrived with an air of self-importance and whose
appetites where not wholly sated with fruits and grilled meats. And then, the Widow – the precise embodiment of the imagination of Arthur Grey – would come out to greet them, straightening out with her calloused little hands her soiled apron and patiently awaiting the moment they would, finally, take their leave. Some of them were ostensibly intrigued by the question “Where is the point of no return to be found on the path to nowhere?” Others, inflamed with a dose of romantic imagination, intelligently inquired about the modes of travel to Liss or Zurbagan…. And it didn’t, obviously, even remotely occur to anyone to concern themselves with the mundane, penny- pinching needs of an old woman. This did however occur to Gena Schneiderman who, pitching in together with his band of soused revelers regularly, and without being asked, supplemented the old woman’s meager nourishment. In the same manner, without being asked, they once dragged to her abode a genuine medieval anchor and left it there with the note: “Will definitely come in handy in household chores!” The Widow was afraid she would lose her house. But no one, luckily, stole or burned this shed down, even though the local authorities were openly antagonistic towards her. She was eternally damned for having managed to survive the German occupation of Crimea and, according to the official version, with this devious aim in mind, cooperated with the invaders. Saving
herself from the growl in her belly and, apparently, incapable of clearly distinguishing one cannibalistic regime from another, the Widow washed the floors of the German administration. Since that time, her reputation as a snitch who was due not a shred of human mercy followed her. The widow, by the way, didn’t even presume upon any inalienable rights, and dreamed of one thing only – that when she dies, she be buried alongside her husband. Of course, no one intended to do any such thing, because the grave of the Writer is, forgive me, a literary historical monument, protected by the government. And the old woman, as has already been established, was a snitch, living out her life on people’s good will alone. But, in some ways, she even felt herself to be happier and richer than the other grand widows – their husbands didn’t even have a grave, buried as they were inside rough sacks for lugging stones, in ditches covered over with lime. Her royal prince, by a stroke of luck, died without anyone’s help, just before the show executions commenced on a mass scale, and was fortuitously enshrined onto the list of harmless romantics. So that at least she had somewhere to lay her little bouquets and to dream of one day lying down there herself. When her time had come, they buried the Widow without any undue speeches or clarion calls of wind
instruments at the Old Feodosia Cemetery – it goes without saying, at quite a distance from the Writer, that is, in a different town altogether. And that is when that hour of darkness dawned. Out of the irredeemable night, immediately after the funeral, ghostly figures silently approach the grave armed with spades. And one of them, nearly two meters tall, stooped, in a low-pitched voice that evokes a shudder, issues the calm, authoritative instructions of an experienced digger…. In another hour, they restore the now empty grave. They would need a few more hours, a horrific thought, to deliver the lined-with-satin coffin to the off-limits official site and, with surgical precision, to exhume the grave of the classic so as to minister to the reunion of the ashes with the dust. With the advent of morning, the upended literary historical monument looked none the worse for wear, about the same as the day before. I am acquainted with people who had undertaken daring, illustrious, mind-blowing deeds primarily so that, immediately in their wake, I can blabber about them to anyone who will listen. The above-described events, entirely typical for Schneiderman, as I had already mentioned, were not motivated by any need for popular approbation and did not serve any ulterior “external” aims. They only sated some unconscious a priori thirst, a vague apperception of the patently
extralegal “internal” principle of divine justice, for which not a soul in the world gave a damn. Of his funerary infraction, Schneiderman confessed but to a single person, convulsively stiffening his shoulders and hiding his eyes somewhere in the direction of his chest pocket. That lone person was Lina. Before Lina’s appearance, what we observed was an absolutely unique example of inviolable, unalloyed self-sufficiency. Schneiderman could have served as a visual aid for the demonstration of the basic definition of “the basket of consumer goods”. The puzzling biblical declaration about the poor being rich in spirit seemed to me a puffed-up exaggeration, until I got to know Gena Schneiderman that is. His independence required no special exertion, neither spiritual nor corporeal, regarding the accomplishment of aims with revulsion, as though it were a compulsory labor. For perpetual happiness and the feeding of the belly – for every season under the sun – the current of events, the pure duration of living in the moment, and the obvious charms of the cherished Crimean landscape were sufficient for him, and with surplus. Entrenched as he was in this landscape, he presented to Lina’s emerald gaze (she a vacationer, a purebred snowbird from the capital city) by turn a godlike Odysseus, striding along the shoreline of pulsing surf with ever- dripping oars stowed on his sunbaked shoulders, by
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