Entries from an Encyclopedia of A Life in Russia, via José Manuel Prieto

Operating under the pseudonym of Thelonius Monk, a refined but mostly aspirant Cuban witness to the final days of the Soviet imperium offers these clarificiations of several regional enigmas.

Babionki (бабионки). There are, of course, women—or mujeres as I might prefer to call them—in Muscovy, but there are babionki, as well, and these latter are superior. They wear their hair in a tight bun at the back of the neck and can generally be found in the bazaars, haggling at the top of their lungs, arms akimbo, over the price of a kilo of figs. They are very sweet albeit somewhat hardened by life in the imperium. Not every woman, I hasten to clarify, is worthy of the title. Both nerve and temperament are prerequisite. Babionki are much more commonly found among women of the people, though a number of female intellectuals, slightly derailed by the novels of Françoise Sagan, are also babionki, as if consubstantially. When, upon arriving at a rendez-vous in fine spirits and with every intention of sailing carefree through an inconsequential romantic interlude (our erudite commentary on Beardsley at the ready), we discern, behind an elegant pair of glasses, the glint of a pair of babionki eyes, it is highly advisable to retract the hand—though it may be halfway on its journey toward the skirt— indefinitely postpone this particular siege, and slip down the back stairs, giving thanks to merciful God all the while for the warning.

As a biological entity (they give suck to their offspring, which is a highly irrational mode of conduct) the babionki eluded the rigid state control exercised by the imperium. In consequence, they’ve been the victims of perfidious defamation campaigns. But the babionki, as “free men,” до одного места about that which is to say, les importa un rábano or, in other words, “they don’t give a radish” (or a “fig” or a “good goddam”).

Bogatyr (богатырь: mythic warrior). We might call him a colossus out of a medieval epic poem of heroic deeds. He represents the немереная (incomparable) force of the Russian nation. Many secretly know themselves to be bogatyr, a conviction for which no evidence whatsoever is required. One need only sprawl next to the wood stove, drink kvas, be large-bellied and wide-shouldered, and remain imperturbably in that reclining position until the fateful day arrives: the day when little Mother Russia is in need.

In everyday life, the term has been put to unfortunate use as the name of a chain of shops that deal in plus-size menswear.

Boscage (or Forests, coniferous). We can lose our way in the forest. “Once, as children, we went into the forest for mushrooms and got lost. We shouted and shouted…” A person might wander for hours among identical trees without finding the way out, the moss on the tree trunk, the newly cut stump. Real wolves lurk there, heads thrown back in a howl, and that little hummock of bones is all that remains of an unfortunate passer-by. There’s the story of the little girl in the taiga who was killed by mosquitoes that sucked out her blood. People go into the forest in summertime to gather mushrooms and wild berries. Preparations for this journey are the same as those made for excursions to the beach during my childhood: thermoses, insect repellent, and the soup tureen, a solemn ritual we must undertake with absolute seriousness.

“Russia has the greatest reserve of timber-yielding trees in the world…” We read this and other facts of much interest in the pages of The Russian Forest, a novel by Л. Лео́нов [L. Leonov] that is as heavy as a wooden ten-pin. In spring, immense rafts of logs are formed, which never reach their destination but sink to the bottom of the great rivers of Siberia. For Russia, too, is a consumer nation, but only of raw materials. This metaphysical consumerism does not require the laborious elaboration of bulky products or tiresome marketing campaigns, but merely the cutting down of countless hectares of virgin forest or the pumping of great quantities of petroleum, only to burn it off, just like that, without putting it to further use. If the estepa (or steppe) represents the field of action, of deployment, the forest is where the Russian nation turns in times of danger.

The boscage is cold, dark, and silent, an aspect it lends to Russia itself, which, seen from afar, may resemble a “dark wood,” una selva oscura.

Brodiaga (бродя́га: lit., wanderer). The garden beneath my window was like a scaled-down replica of the world I would one day resolve to venture into. I had only to abandon the blank page on my desk and go forth, advancing from tree to tree, my house receding into nothingness amid the birch trees. What was the breadth of this world? Immense: all Russia. The Volga, and Astrakhan on the Volga, and Samara, its fluvial docks with their barges of watermelons. Vast spaces overrun by the Russian soul; there one could dilute oneself without leaving a trace, lose all track of one’s identity and earn kopecks enough for a meager dinner by unloading watermelons until nightfall, barefoot on that deck. I was not, in fact, Russian but I was well aware of the brodiaga life that several of its writers had led and though it wasn’t the type of experience I believed to be important at the age of twenty-three, whenever I felt tempted to make a radical change in the course of my existence I entertained intense thoughts of the striped watermelons of Astrakhan.

To be a brodiaga is a state that separates us from the fragile edifice of the day’s order, coffee at breakfast, a poorly remunerated job.

Quand tous mes rêves se seraient tournés en réalités, ils ne m’auraient pas suffi; j’aurais imaginé, rêvé, désiré encore. Je trouvais en moi un vide inexplicable que rien n’aurait pu remplir, un certain élancement du coeur vers une autre sorte de jouissance dont je n’avais pas d’idée et dont pourtant je sentais le besoin.

Which is to say: If all my dreams had become realities, they wouldn’t have been enough for me; I would have kept on dreaming, imagining, desiring. I found an inexplicable void within myself that nothing could have filled, a certain movement of the heart toward another type of satisfaction that I could not conceive of but for which I felt the need. (Letter from Rousseau to Malesherbes, January 26, 1762)

At this point in our reflections, we’re ready to throw ourselves into vagabonding, to brodiazhnichat. Naturally the world abounds in empty-headed brodiaga—and ordinary men—who don’t interest us, but I’ve met several contemplative or скиталцы brodiaga and occasionally we’ll see one of them being interviewed on TV. For the brodiaga has other eyes that enable him to see very deeply and discern the hard nut of existence. I’ve never gone beyond mere admiration of the garden’s foliage, but the fear of madness is there and does not diminish: a perfectly sane person can end up a brodiaga. Lev Tolstoy took his first step at the age of eighty-two and, inevitably, at the very start of the long journey, died.

Hand-axe (топóр). The leafy boscages of Moscow: villages and monasteries depicted in vertical perspective. Monks who penetrate this verdant grove and piece together the first Muscovite kingdom with blows of massive woodsman’s axes and без единого гвоздя (without a single nail). We are accustomed to viewing the axe as a tool for woodcutters. In Russia, however, there is always a hand-ax within a radius of five meters, at arm’s length; they’re as common as bread knives. The axe represents brutality, the не обтесанные (rough-hewn) side of the Russian soul. Raskolnikov kills the pawnbroker and Lizveta with an axe. We know from Gogol that during hard frosts the village idiots left shreds of their tongues on its cold metal. It may strike us as rather uncomfortable (and in fact, is), but the good Russian who has resolved to take matters to their ultimate consequences brandishes one of these and strikes, with no fear of the effusion of blood. The axe, as we noted earlier represents, the irrational, an animal terror. A.A. expressed it perfectly:

Miedo, removiendo cosas en mi cuarto a oscuras,
un rayo de luna rompe en el filo de un hacha.

Fear stirs among the things in my dark room,
a ray of moonlight shatters on the blade of an axe.

Imperium. Captives in the imperium, its prisoners felt nevertheless as if they were galloping in full freedom across unlimited space: men and women in their natural habitat with no barbed wire or alarm system in sight. The imperium was a parallel world, a self-sufficient universe that included its own “globetrotters,” fully deserving of the title, who, even so, had never left it. The other world—the occident, Africa, the Fiji isles—seemed to belong to a past accessible only through books or films that seemed to emerge from nowhere. It was perceived as a far distant future or a remote history (a purely academic interest in the Sumerian maritime arts); in the present it was non-existent.

I. In this partial analysis of the imperium, I shall focus on the following aspects:

a) Destiny.
b) Fear.
c) Mortal danger.

a) Destiny. Russia, the great country that constituted the nucleus of the imperium, possesses a universal destiny that is the sum of all individual destinies. The topside or visible portion of this great destiny, this ineluctable Russian destiny, makes its way like an icebreaker through the frozen armor-plating of the years, leaving behind a jagged wake of truncated lives. The currents of this destiny come from very far and cross through the imperium’s lives like fossilized radiation left over the Big Bang. And these narrative threads, invisible and inescapable, are destiny. Everyone is criss-crossed by these lines of force, fate’s ultra-powerful magnet that draws them to their death. With room for small fluctuations, fruitlessly heroic efforts, the world as will and representation, and other such trivialities that bother us only when we’re young, after which, tired of rowing against the shifting tides of destiny, we extend our arms in a cross and float painlessly.

Russia (or the imperium) is struggling against its destiny, but the shadow of this fatalism pursues it. Many historic dates can be adduced to confirm the certainty of its predestination. Hence there is no increase in human morality nor absolute progress, but only the infallible pincers lowered from the sky which, from among the panicked and fleeing multitude—unaware that the danger does not exist for them—selects the idiot seminarian, with his bangs and wire-rimmed glasses, for its appalling fulmination, without motive, without cause, without delivering any verdict.

Destiny makes use of blind executors of its will who, as such, merit our comprehension more than our contempt. Russia is an old country and there one breathes the frozen air of multiple histories that bear out this theory of destiny. They know it and that’s enough. They go out into the snow barefoot to face the firing squad’s nine spurts of flame: merely the means chosen by destiny to send a concise message of utmost importance.

b) Fear. I’ve jerked the strings of small fears—my cruel half-smile—without knowing I was being watched on high by the omnipresent pupil from which all the underlying fear irradiates, and I have felt vertigo when I raised my eyes and discovered that fact. Our performance as the petty tyrant of our own tiny realm is a necessary movement of the soul, a display, a rattling of chains. Whether we like it or not, an icy wind blows from the Hesperides, inhumanly. Like God himself, fear is given a name and endowed with the limbs and torso of a state institution; this fear accumulates in the multiple guises of jails, the secret police, ministerial directives—only a few of the many incarnations of its absolute being.

This latent terror binds every organic compound; it can be found in all of them just as oxygen is found in chains of carbon. You are fear and something else, anything else. And through this intermediary, the inhabitants of the imperium enter into reaction, they function, agitating their blind pod-limbs and secreting the hard coral efflorescences of the State, which are interlaced with fear.

Though fear cements the imposing fabric of the imperium, life under the dominion of this fear is ethereal and unreal. Мы живем, под собою не чуя cтраны. (We live without feeling the country beneath our feet. Mandelstam.) The man who has experienced the terror of hearing his own guilty name shouted out in a formation loses faith; his image in the mirror dissolves and he closes his eyes and listens in anguish to the thud of the hobnailed boots as they come to a halt before him. I’ve discovered once-beautiful souls deformed by the abyssal pressures of the imperium, the unfathomable sea where they live out their one-celled lives. Hence the Ham’s violent tempests, the ravages of aqua vitae

The divinity of fear gazes down upon the lamentable tableau of the imperium and smiles in satisfaction from its celestial box seat.

c) Mortal danger. The enthusiasm generated by the imperium shortly before its collapse was the nervous grin, the last dying hope of the hunted man who, corralled at the edge of the abyss and about to be devoured by the monster, sees it stop short in wonder over the flutter of a passing butterfly, a sight that attenuates the fury in its eyes and creases the blue skin of its formless snout into a human grimace. In the brief instant of the miracle, the prey has a moment to give thanks to God, re-evaluate the monster’s perversity (“No, you’re not bad, it was the years of isolation, the terrible conditions, I knew the change would come, I had faith in you”), and sidestep the monster’s charge. Once on safe ground, shielded by an overhang, the escapee shouts the truth to the monster and spends all necessary funds to capture it, so as never to have to put the goodness of its nature to the test again.

Palace (Chinese). I got off the train at O**, near Petersburg, at the beginning of June. The station virtually a ruin. Birdcalls in the silence, a warm breeze. To judge by the scant number of passengers continuing on, there must have been only two or three more stops on the line. At the edge of a shady grove of oak trees I came to a fence that bore the map of the park. I studied it as if it were an animated tableau and I a medieval knight confronting the thousand possible paths that chance might dictate across a game board. My finger inexorably traced the route to the Chinese Palace. I was thirsty. Birdcalls in the silence, a warm breeze.

How could I have imagined that what awaited me around a bend in that hedge maze would turn out to be an unexpected augury of the sort provided by the I Ching? The Chinese Palace was not the Ming pagoda, the gilded pavilion I had imagined. For a moment I thought I’d lost my way and had reached some imperial dacha of Peter III heretofore unsuspected by historians. A pond—a small artificial lake with ducks—reflected the Italianate volutes of a palace entirely devoid of Asiatic complexities. I consulted the sign to be certain I hadn’t made a mistake. The caption, as revealing as a conceptualist label, read: Chinese Palace. And since, effectively, this Russian Palace was thus transformed into the Chinese Palace I was seeking, I thought of two more plaques. One in front of the lake that read “Sea,” and the other over the little house for the ducks, stating “Griffins.”

I found the basket of slippers for visitors entirely at my disposal; the season had only just begun. I chose a shapeless green pair with elastic bands at the heels then stood up and walked forward uncertainly, a centimeter of felt between the soles of my feet and the floor. As I waited for the guide, it began to rain. There would be no other visitors today. I crossed the threshold and shuffled along with difficulty, giving the parquet floor a nice polish, and for free.

The guide, a shawl draped over her shoulders, had the tired face of a schoolmistress prepared to repeat the boring lesson about anaerobic respiration, a subject that escapes both her comprehension and her immediate perception. Her palaver followed a strict rhythm and bothered me as an inopportune fog would have, or rather, a light that was overly bright. Facing a writing desk with mother-of-pearl inlay, I intensified my scrutiny in an attempt to elude her explanations (date of manufacture, provenance) and, leaning forward to observe its delicate iridescence more closely, understood, suddenly, that the owner of that palace had also tried to free himself from a boring European existence (which must have annoyed him as much as the guide’s aimless blather was irritating me) by surrounding himself with Chinoiseries. There in the left wing of his palace, he could embark on excursions into the virtual cosmos of a life exempt from fatiguing service to Mother Russia. He had accumulated bronzes and porcelains, spheres of carved openwork marble, carpets showing the crane of wisdom and the tortoise of longevity, as if he were never going to die, which is the illusion of those who exist in the perfect present moment of their knickknacks.

It was an ideal palace to live in, with minimal distance between my bosom and its magnificence. It made you feel that its owner, the gentleman who loved Japanese lacquers, had gone out for a brief stroll in the garden and would return, from one moment to the next, to the steaming samovar, afternoon tea almost ready. The very fact that the Germans hadn’t occupied it during the war—information provided by the guide—lent it the attraction of goods prudently placed in the vault of a Swiss bank, safe from any danger.

I was incapable of imagining myself czar of all Russia, lord of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, summering in Petergoff. But the Chinese Palace could well have been mine, along with a pair of thoroughbreds and its collection of Chinoiseries. To stroll through its rooms was to tighten and pluck the strings of many readings and images that had hung loosely in my thoracic cavity until then. They’d been dangling there for years, occasionally emitting beautiful notes, but the process by which they were tuned at last culminated in that palace and left me ready to be played upon by the long fingers of stimuli that were essentially insignificant.

But equivalent, I hasten to clarify. Only years later did I have the money to begin overcoming, little by little, in tiny baby steps, the cosmic distance that separated me from a life such as that one. It was like throwing things into an unfathomable abyss— $2 million mansions, 55-meter yachts, holidays in Oceania—never, in any case, to achieve any diminution of the gap. Yet this could cause me no pain. The man who is born owning a golf course never comes to understand the formidable pressure, the truly fundamental value of such a possession. I, in effect, had nothing, absolutely nothing; however, like a bronzed torso in an advertisement, I had captured the spirit. To caress the jade of the little statues was to touch the curving limb of the crane in flight, offered by the Zen master but invisible to my blind eyes. Or it was as if the spirit of the owner of the palace had appeared in the flesh before me to break his walking stick over my shaven head.

I tossed the slippers into their basket, looked out at the garden through the graph of the windowpanes and saw that the sun was shining again over the lake and its ducks. Here was the beautiful backdrop to another mise en scène, the brief appearance of a character who would play an extremely important role in my initiation.

I. From the far end of the set, emerging from the depths of the park, I saw the white blur of a summer dress approaching. I quickly abandoned the foyer and went into the garden to intercept her at the little duck house. Sixteen or seventeen years old, to judge by her schoolgirl air. She wore a pair of comfortable leather sandals and let me accompany her without giving an instant’s thought to the emptiness of the park, the clumps of shrubbery, the humidity of the hour. Intrepidity, vigor, a walk that placed all her weight on the sole of the foot. By the time we reached the road that led back to the train station we’d already talked quite a bit and she’d allowed me to run my hand over her hair which was the color of burnished bronze. At that moment, standing there at the crossroads, I discovered that she wasn’t wearing a dress, as I’d thought, but a skirt and blouse in the same color.

Our train departed from N**, only two stops further in the opposite direction, at 6:35. It would arrive in 50 minutes. In the station restaurant, we asked for mushroom soup and toast. We ignored the kebab platter that, I now realize, cost almost nothing. The soup turned out to be wonderful; there was excellent cooking to be had in Muscovy in those days. Then we spent a long time talking. She showed me a notebook full of writing. She had jotted down the family names of the Italian architects, the cost of the restoration, the time it would take to complete. Minutes before the train arrived, we each paid our own check, a ruble and some kopecks, without the slightest embarrassment. We continued our chat on-board: a marvel of a woman (I’m trying to paint her portrait here). I’d admired the sheen of her hair. We had conversed. It was an experience. We said goodbye without exchanging addresses or arranging to meet again. It would have been a mistake on my part to consider her anything more than a sign, easy on the eyes, muse-worthy. I’d succeeded in becoming a lad equipped for something more than reading books.

Tea. An inexpensive infusion readily available to all, tea enjoys great popularity across the imperium, where the practice of taking tea with little cookies and homemade jam is widespread. The distinctly foreign climate required for the cultivation of tea saved it from becoming a Siberian crop, “very much our own,” along with the potato and the tomato which are both obviously and notoriously indigenous to Russia. The best tea was imported from Ceylon in tins decorated with landscapes of verdant rolling hills. Bad tea was perfidiously hacked atop the mountains of Georgia. Muscovy never had any particular problem with tea, at least not during my stay in the country. Other less innocent infusions, characterized as delicacies (дэликатэссэн), were frowned upon for the aspersion of inefficiency they cast upon the imperium. For a period of five years, cocoa was entirely absent from the stores. The People’s Comissariat organized a vast defamation campaign featuring a poster with these lines by G.K. Chesterton (translated into Russian, of course):

Tea, although an Oriental,
Is a gentleman at least;
Cocoa is a cad and coward,
Cocoa is a vulgar beast.

Followed by a brief text in boldface: “It is a well known fact that as a boy Volodia Ulianov (Lenin) loved tea. During his childhood in Simbirsk…” et cetera.

When me you fly, I am the wings (Si huyes de mí yo soy las alas . —Emerson). Someone, a woman you met in a pension in Yalta, an inconsequential summer romance, suddenly initiates a correspondence and the very first letter leaves you disconcerted by her refined mastery of the epistolary art.

In Russia, words retain a force that has been lost in the Occident. I’ve received letters that could be published without the addition of a single comma, and yet which I knew to have been written in a frenzy of jealousy, in a single sitting, at a kitchen table amid pots of jam. A kitchen I imagined perfectly: the house lost in the immensity of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, the point thousands of kilometers distant to which her astral existence had displaced her and from where she was sending me these letters like radiograms containing her coordinates, the chronicle of her very dull life: the hated husband, the fearful gloom of the world outside. The fortuitous intersection of our orbits in that pension in Yalta had activated all her reserve systems––which had been awaiting the signal of an embrace for years––and now she was sending me detailed reports on all her functions: “You won’t believe me, but I haven’t stopped thinking of you since that night we spent at the lookout. My heart…” 19th-century formulae that retain all their power in Russian, a language well suited to descriptions of delicate states of being such as nostalgia, the absence of a beloved, the unbearable sorrow of a rupture. A system of categories that slammed into me with the crushing force of a sudden crash to the ground after slipping on a banana peel. In her letters I found fresh ideas, truths I myself had taken a very long time to discover, and her citations evinced an intimate mastery of such topics as music, sculpture, and the arts in general. (I’d had a friend, E**, who would sometimes speak to me in perfectly-calibrated verse, stringing together miraculous improvisations on whatever it was she wanted to say to me at the moment: “Take the teapot from the fire, would you be so kind?” “Do me the favor of toasting up a slice of that nice bread!” and “Don’t you agree we should make the most of the sunshine and go for a stroll?” and so forth. To receive three perfect letters from this woman, letters I’ve kept all these years, barely surprised me at all, for it was clear that her breast harbored great quantities of literature in the rough. But the truly curious thing was that I’d also received admirably well-written letters from simple bookkeepers, nurses, attendants at child-care facilities. All of them exceptionally skilled at dashing off five handwritten pages, the complete naturalness of the epistolary novel, a genre I’d always thought of as rather too clever, somewhat forced.)

I’d picked up this letter at the porter’s lodge as I was on my way out to an appointment. In the café, I asked K** to give me a second, tore open the envelope and began reading. The woman described our visit to the lookout the evening before my departure and asked if I still loved her, if I remembered the starling chirping in the hedge that woke us in the morning. Her letter contained such tenderness, such promises of eternal fidelity, the certainty that I’d been desperately needed during the days since we’d last seen each other, that for a second I weighed the possibility of taking a plane, traveling 5,000 kilometers, and living with her for a while in her log cabin, lighting the wood stove in late afternoon, shoveling snow from the doorstep. Hurriedly I began my response on a paper napkin, “As you can see, I haven’t even waited to get home before answering your letter.” But when I raised my eyes to find the right word, the turn of phrase that would say precisely what I felt, I encountered the astonishment on K**’s face and my plan vanished in an instant. What sense would it make to travel so far when I have a woman right here within reach, et cetera?

—Translated by Esther Allen

From Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, the third novel of José Manuel Prieto to appear in English. The first two were Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire and Rex. His essays on translating Mandelstam and Cuban life have appeared in The New York Review of Books.

Esther Allen teaches at Baruch College, City University of New York. In Translation: Translators on their Work and What It Means, an anthology of essays she co-edited with Susan Bernofsky, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. She was one of the founders of the PEN World Voices Festival and has translated many books, including Alma Guillermoprieto’s Dancing with Cuba and, with Eliot Weinberger and Suzanne Jill Levine, Selected Non-fictions by Jorge Luis Borges.

Taken from ENCYCLOPEDIA OF A LIFE IN RUSSIA © 1998 by José Manuel Prieto and reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Black Cat, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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