dream of these pathetic renegades, seduced by cheap Western propaganda, is to
uproot themselves from their native soil."
all who were up to itЧwith love.
dropped in on Nikolai Petrovich just like that, for no reason. It was a violet,
vibrant evening. Spring already possessed Moscow utterly. At least the old back
streets of Sretenka were tipsy with it. A girl with a spray of pussy wilнlows
ran into me right outside his house. And she herself was like the willow: her
hair loose, shivering a little, peeping out from inside herself. I knocked on
the dirty windowЧNikolai Petrovich lived on Lukov Street, in a communal
apartment, in a lop-sided little room at the end of a dull, yellow corridor. The
little passage leaned sideways, the floorboards squeakнed and tended to spring
loose, a light bulb hung in dismal nakedness, and the place reeked of years of
misery. A sour, deнpressing smell....
Petrovich had a cat, an enormous coal-black monster of an animal. Lifting him
down from some cupboard, Nikolai PetrovichЧKolenka, Nikusha Чwould say:
"This cat weighs as much as an expensive black pudding."
I opened the door I already knew that the cat would rub his back against the
bookstand, his fur crackling with Benнgal lights, would wait, the rascal, to be
scratched behind the ear: which was a mass of scar tissueЧhe was a real street
fighter, this old torn.
Petrtfvich was sitting in a pool of orange light. A dusty pre-revolutionary
lampshade with tassels hung low over the table. To the uninitiated Nikolai
Petrovich's room was reminiscent of a book depository. Every square inch, except
for a small island round the table and the perpetually unmade bed behind a
tattered screen, was crammed with books. Of course, there was a clipboard, there
there was a broken-down and badly listing bookcase, but this was more or less
normal. The trouble was, Nikolai Petrovich didn't have enough room, and the
entire floor was covered with sheaves, pyramids, towers of books. And it was
through this obstacle course, stepping along a narrow path in the wake of my
feline friend, that I made my way to the table. I don't want to labor the point,
but the table was a sort of scaled-down version of the room: little islands,
footнpaths, and all the rest taken up with papers, Babylons of letters,
Bethlehems of gifts: and it was categorically forbidнden to move anything.
Nikolai Petrovich reached his pale thin hand to me across the table. ''Hello,
Okhlamonov," he said, in his out-of-town accent, "would you like some
moved with remarkable adroitness through his papyrus jungle, tucking in a
shoulder so as not to displace a volume by the bootmaker Jakob Boehme that had
been sticking out at an angle for the last six months, hopping over a sheaf of
children's stories by the window, and ЧnowЧplugging in an ancient hot plate,
poking the element with a knife, measurнing out a parsimonious mugful of water
from a jug; he no longer set foot in the kitchen, he couldn't stand it. I should
say that Kolenka, Nikusha, was a melancholy or perhaps rather self-absorbed man
of about thirty, a poet. Once he went into the communal kitchen for some trifle,
matches, or salt, and unfortunately got into a sceneЧthe most banal sort,
where people wave their arms, trade insults, shove each other in the shoulder,
and so forth. And Nikolai Petrovich, as he said later, lost an entire line. It
went clean out of his head. He sat up all night over his bit of paper, but the
fugitive line refused to be coaxed back. Ever since then he has made tea and
boiled potatoes on the window sill in his room.
was given the hardest time of all by women, especially women who just happened
by. They would go into absoнlute ecstasies over his room, and invariaнbly
asked the same idiotic questions: "Where do I apply to join the library?"
or words to that effect. And they would try to pull something out from right at
the bottom, so that Nikolai Petrovich, turning green, would hurl himself across
the room to shore up a leaning tower of oriental poetry which was just about not
only to shower books on the footpath, but to topple a couple more neighboring
edifices. "Ah, for God's sake, don't touch!" he would shout, whereupon
the ladies usually desisted. They were astonнished by his tone of voice: they
realized then that he meant business. "I am very much afraid," he
would explain to them, "of having things moved around without my knowledge."
For Nikolai Petrovich, and this was the point, had read all these books.
And knew exactly where each book was.
my eyes from these lines, I see that I should perhaps apologize for a cerнtain
diffuseness, for going off the point, but the times themselves were confused,
much had not yet revealed itself, and the very air was thick with "somehow
or other," with "sort of" and "as it were." Moreover,
workdays and holidays alike were riddled with machine-gun bursts of dots. . . .
We lived in a state of not-quite-embodiment.
water sang its brief song and was poured into the stained teapot. "Okhlamonov,"
my host requested, "I beg you, do not move anything on the table. ...
"I was not offended. It was a ritual sentence. Only once did I pull out
from under some heap of papers a small portrait of a woman with a complicated
upswept coiffure and misty eyes. From her face I could tell she was not from
these parts, you don't see faces like that on our streets. I took a good long
look, and that time we quarreled.
Petrovich, lifting his feet high in the dangerous places, made his way back to
the table and set the tray down in an island. Without looking he reached behind
him and produced two small silнver cups. The vodka was under the table. Warm,
of course. ... We saluted one anнother in silence and drank up. The cat, which
knew perfectly well what was alнlowed and what wasn't, sprang softly up on the
table. With a sidelong glance at his master he tested the snowdrift of paper for
firmnessЧthis was allowed Чshowed his Turkish claws, stretched, and finally
lay down. The other side of the wall somebody started strumming an out-of-tune
guitar. An ambulance could be heard racing down the street. "You know, I've
been having problems with Katenka," said my host, "she really is too
young for me. She's out of her mind! Listen, Okhlamonov, last time she laughнed
so hard in bed she fell out! Right on top of Karamzin, of course! It was a
nightmare, the whole history of the Rusнsian empire came tumbling down. But
that, Okhlamonov, that's nothing. ... She's so hot-blooded! I got out of bed to
put everything back in order, just as I was, of course, stark naked, and the
dear crazy girl, I don't quite know how to put it, just sort of flung herself on
top of me, right on the books! Right on top of Rusнsian history.... I thought
she was fooling, but then I saw the look in her eyes, all misty and serious,
biting her lip.... And then we, as it were, on top of Russian history, and she
crying out the way she always does...."
Petrovich poured some more vodka. I could not see his face. It was hidden
somewhere behind the tasseled lampshade, fringed with the grey dust of many
years. But the hand in its clean, threadbare cuff shook violently. "As it
is I have problems with the neighbors," my host went on, "and she
knows it. How often have I asked her: 'Katenka, couldn't you somehow, at that
last moment, reнstrain yourself?'... She gets offended. Says rude words. Even
weeps... . And goes right on crying out! I would try and stop her mouth, you
know, with a pillow or something. But unfortunately I myнself lose track
completelyЧI get into something else altogether. And then I open my eyes and
right away I know: УShe did it again, she cried out!... What can you do?"Чand
Nikolai Petrovich began nervously tugging at his sparse beard. It was a
thoroughly Chinese sort of beard, you could see right through it. Katenka I had
seen a few times. The ladies who used to "happen by" had by then
completely vanished. And I rememнber how the very first evening my heart turned
over. At that time I did not yet know that she and Nikolai Petrovich shared an
immortal love. What was it about her that struck me? I don't know. One could say
that everything did. She was barely sixteen, and perhaps I've put my finger on
it: what was so striking was the combination of child-like purity and the most
utter wantonness. Catching sight of me under the lampshade, I remember she said,
right in front of Kolya, "Okhlamonov, do you know, I never" (that
"n-e-e-ever" was her first gift, that lingering, floating "e"),
"never wear anything underneath?" And like a ballet dancer she
pirouetted in a clearing between Gogol and the medical encyclopedia, all brown
under the flimsy little dress, no chaste strips of white to interrupt her tan....
Nikolai Petrovich sucked in his cheek as if he had a loose filling, and stared
down at the table. I blushed to the eyebrows and went hot all over, so that my
head spun just like that sweet little dress. "Katya," said our host,
"I ask you to desist." And then he raised his eyes to me and added
very quietly: "Okhlamonov, if she starts touching you, pay no attention.
She and I share an imнmortal love."
drank up our vodka and set about the tea. Nikolai Petrovich used to buy tea on
the black market. He was forever blending someнthing, pouring it from one
canister to another, sniffing it. "Tea," he would say, "must be
brewed with water brought to a fast boil. Remember that, my friend. But the
thing, after letting it draw for five minutes, is to immediately 'marry' it....
" And I watched how, without spillнing a drop, Nikolai Petrovich went
about "marrying" the tea. To do this, he poured from the teapot a
cupful of the thick brick-red brew and then quickly, so as to save the steam
that billowed up from under the lid, poured it back. The rite was concluded.
he would ask: "Okhlaнmonov? Would you like some poetry?" And to
refuse would have been criminal; besides, I always liked what he wrote. Katenka
inhabited his most recent poems. But remember his poetry I never could. Only
once did something stickЧand stuck for goodЧsomething along the lines of:
Night stands outside the window,
her old black coat flung wide.
Snow flows over her shoulders,
her pitiful dreaming breast...
I can't guarantee that I have these lines exactly right.
life?" asked my host, "have you taken any new pictures?" I should
mention that I am a photographer. Not the sort you find in some studio on
Petrovka: "Lift your chin. Don't blink. Click. Two roubles. Click. Three
twenty at the cash register." No. I take pictures of life. As it is. Not
tidied up. This is theft, of course. But not voyeurism. Some sharp-tongued lady
once said to me: "You're a voyeur, Okhlamonov, you're always peeping. There
you are right now, looking at me and wondering what I'm like under my buttons."
She was quite wrong. In any case, I don't agree. The voyeur slips through a hole
in the fence, lifts a corner of the window shade. Whereнas I take pictures of
puddles after rain, drunks at the Tishinsky market, people on the escalator in
the metro, fallen leaves in the park. And if among the leaves I should happen
upon someone's bare knee that's just fate. How was I to know there was a couple
there. What inнterested me was the look of the leaf-strewn alley. And what's
more, I most often work with a telephoto lenseЧit flattens space, displaces
things, turns evнeryday banalities into dream. As for that lady, let someone
else unfasten her. If it were up to me I would add even more buttons. Although
that's a bit harsh.
new?" I replied. "I really don't know. Oh, I've been asked to give
lessons----Have you any sugar?"
for sugar for tea, I mean for the sort of tea Nikolai Petrovich made, was
something akin to a crime. But what could I do? I have a terribly sweet tooth.
For example, when I am sad or out of sorts, I buy an Othello, a kind of chocoнlate
cake they always have at our baker's, and eat it all up, in one go, with a spoon,
standing at the window, always gazing out at the same thingЧthe streetcar stop.
An Othello, let me add, weighs 450 grams. "I don't advise you to take
pupils," said Nikolai Petrovich, getting up for the sugar, "you'll be
worn out. I once had two beginner poets. And you know what? One put the worst
words in the best posнsible order, the other just the opposite: the best words
in the worst possible order. If they'd just been Siamese twins-----"
understand," I said sadly. After all, a pupil means extra cash. "But
just lately I've been feeling sort of vague, how can I put itЧlike in frosty
weather when the lens suddenly fogs up and you can't see a damn thing,..."
grunted Nikolai Petrovich. "Well, I too...," and briefly rising from
his chair he again reached up blindly to the top shelf for the sugar, and fixed
me with a look. "Something peculiar is hapнpening to me, Okhlamonov. At
first I thought it was a trap set by my age, a dead end..." He was speaking
and more slowly, and then began
quite visibly to rise in the air, where he hung, about 20 centimeters off the
floor. I could see his old trunk under the bed! Nikolai Petrovich rockedЧI'm
afraid to say it Чplayfully back and forth, hanging seнcurely in
midair, and waved his arms apologetically. The strangest thing of all is that I
took this without surprise. Only my heart skipped a beat and out of the corner
of my eye I saw the cat jump off the table and rush to the window.
really not difficult, Okhlamonov," said Nikolai Petrovich, letting himself
down again. I took the sugar bowl from him.
His eyes were smiling. "Would you like me to teach you?"
month later, when the bird-cherry was in full bloom, Nikolai Petrovich and I
took a trip out of town. The train was jammed and we stood packed like sardines
on the platform. Some old codger had already stepped on my foot a couple of
times. When even more people got on at Chistoprudnaya and I was rammed right up
against a fat hulk, I looked round, rose very slightly above the bespattered
floor, and hung there. Nikolai Petrovich, smoking an acrid cigaret, immediately
grabbed me by the sleeve. "Don't play the fool," he said, "we
agreed we wouldn't."
first few lessons were absolutely dreamlike. I would listen carefully to Nikolai
Petrovich, try to make some sense of his words, watch him inwardly preнpare
himself. Then a brief spasm would pass over his face and I would see him lift
off, only a millimeter at first, then movнing effortlessly upward. I listened
to his patiently repeated explanations, while he reclined Chagallesque upon the
air and told me about the relationship between the will and the body, about the inner
(as distinct from the outer) fulcrum. I would grope about for something
inside myself, absolutely blind, collapse, slide down, fetch up against some
ragged sinister object, surface in the light of the red lampshade, under the
searching gaze of my teacher.
would change the subject, tell me about Gogol, about Bulgakov, he would stretch
out upon the air, on the blue-grey layers of tobacco smoke with a copy of The
Master and Margarita, the unbutнtoned sides of his jacket hung down above
me, crumbs of tobacco dribbled from a hole in his pocket, or small change rang
down, while in his strange voice he read out the accounts of Margarita's flights,
lines that hurtled headlong, slanted under the angle of attack. "She was a
witch, Okhlamonov," Nikolai Petrovich would say. "But that's a whole
different kettle of fish. You might say that they fly in a different capacity.
And it's not that they have a different technique, they simply move in a
different dimension. If one of these beauties should fly right through you, all
you'd get as a rule is a headache,
first time I got off the ground, utнtering a kind of groan, I didn't so much
raise myself as leap into the airЧand hit my head so hard on the ceiling that
I lay for half an hour in a faint among the scatнtered books. Nikolai Petrovich,
pale and scared, stood over me with a damp towel, then squatted down, wiping the
plaster dust from my face; there was dust on every surface. "My dear old
chap," said my teacher, when I began to come to myнself and felt the big
lump on my head, "I did warn you! One false move of the will and you'll be
off into the etherЧnot physically but psychically. Your astral chord won't
hold, and you'll never get
got off at a little station overgrown with fresh verdure. The road wound on
through one more deserted cluster of country cottages, ran out into the field,
and stumbled into the woods. Pine neeнdles formed a springy carpet beneath our
feet. An empty jam jar squeaked underнfoot and flipped off into the bushes,
spillнing old snow. The woods came to an end. A river lay before us, a pool of
fire under the westering sun. If you looked closely, the water was swelling and
swirling in eddies, running secretly away into the thickening distance. We made
our way along the edge of a freshly ploughed field, the rich soil upturned; not
far off, a vilнlage church was settling down for the night. The cross blazed
crimson. There was not a soul about; it was the hour when nothing is left of
reality but a tremнulous question mark.
Petrovich picked a restful glade, moist with dew and hidden by nut trees. "Now
then, Okhlamonov," he urged, "don't get carried away, don't fly too
high. Remember what I told you. High tension lines are especially dangerнous.
And large expanses of water. And don't be afraid of anything. If you should be
really and truly frightened, even for only a fraction of a second, you underнstand?
That'll be the end!" Nikolai Petrovich adjusted his spring hat, pullнing
it lower over his eyes. "Just don't get excited, that's all, lie down on
the air. It's always harder to fly standing. And it's not good for the vascular
system either. Lie down, and don't be afraid of anything!"
leaned forward. Between me and the new grass, with flowers of as-yet unknown
color poking through, there was an elastic, living force. I lay down. I was
simply lying very low above the richly fragrant earth and rocking. I could turn
over on my back. I could swoop abruptly upward, amorphously, like a handkerchief.
I could plummet, as if punching holes in the air, in any direction. Squinting
down, I glimpsed Nikolai Petrovich still standing in the little clearing below.
With an enнcouraging gesture he sketched a circle on the air. Breathing deeply
to control a cerнtain shortness of breath, I spiralled upward. My teacher's hat
tipped sideways and blew off. What I was experiencing could hardly be called joy.
It was flight, liberation, tears that blurred the suddenly expanding horizon, it
was my hair streamнing, my mind streaming; it was a new lifeЧin an instant I
became older, I lost nothing but was infected then and forever with a kind of
knowledge hitherto inaccessible to me.
Petrovich flew a little below and behind me. His coattails flapped. His arms
were spread wide. I understood that he was insuring my maiden flight. Church,
copse, clearing, fields, riverЧall dwinнdled rapidly, fell away, canted
sideways, stood on end. "Good, Okhlamonov," shouted Nikolai Petrovich,
"very good! I am satisfied with you. ..." And alнthough dusk was
quickly gathering and the lights began to twinkle sadly in the little village
far below, the rim of the world was still wreathed in golden light. I drew some
gloves from my pocket, turnнing a clumsy somersault. It was getting a bit cold
up there. The summer was only just beginning.
returned in full darkness. Nikolai Petrovich, winding my scarf round his arm,
allowed us to fly all the way to the station. He had chosen this bit of country
just outside Moscow for a simple reason: there was some kind of prohibited area
close by, surrounded by barbed wiredЧwatchtowers, rails, floodнlightsЧand
no aircraft flew this way.
Do you know what it's like returning
to earth? I stood, swaying, in the damp darkness; an enormous lead ball was fasнtened
to my feet. A moment later we were seated on a bench in the station: my heart
had turned into a kind of porridge. "You, my friend," said Nikolai
Petrovich, the glow of his crackling cigaret illuminating his absent face,
"today you burned up enough adrenalin for the next five-year plan.
Absolutely nothing until next Tuesday, not even domestic exercises." And
then we started talking trivialities: about keys, and how we would now have to
pin them on; about tree branches at night and how they could put your eye out;
about television antennae that would suddenly materialize out of the resilient
dark, just when you least expected it.
will give me back those incrediнble months? If you were to pour chamнpagne
into the air, so that space itself became joyously tipsy and swarmed with
pricking bubbles. . . . No, I can't explain. There was a moment when it seemed
that everything would come crashing down. Not that I would forget how, not at
all, there could be no question of that. No, catastrophe was looming in our
earthly life, hanging over us, mixing everything up; and suddenly it broke, like
a storm in the night, turned into a joyous pealнing of bells: Katenka defected
to me! Oh yes! She appeared one morning after breakfast, with a cautious smile
and an ancient leather traveling bag, stood in the doorway, and said: "Okhlamonov,
I have come to live with you! Not to see you, to live with you." I was
shaving at the time and everything looked idiotic: half my face smothered in
lather, one inflamed and staring eye fixed on Katenka's image in the mirror (something
I'm very much afraid of, incidentally) while the dangerнous blade was posed
over my outstretched throat. "But what about Kolenka?" I hastily wiped
my face with a not
altogether fresh towel. "He
released me so I could come to you," said Katenka. She was looking straight
at me, and had not yet put her things down on the floor. "He said he had
long foreseen this, even that it was better this way." I made as if to bow
deeply. She looked at me even more seriously, more penetratingly, perнhaps she
was looking beyond me to some other day, and did not so much set down her
traveling bag as simply relax her grip, so that everything fell to the floor
with a thump. "Okhlamonov," she said, "you live like a hermit,
you live like Kolenka's shadow. You need to become fully emнbodied." And
she shook her head. I was seized with shame at my apartment, the discolored
wallpaper, the things lying where I had dropped them, the week's worth of
unwashed dishes on the writing table. Thank God the blinds were only raised a
few inchesЧI rarely opened the windows, since I was always either develнoping
standing in a daze for a second, with a ringing in my ears, I was just about to
start rushing feverishly about snatchнing things up, cutting a wide swath
through this moss of disorder, when Katenka, still strange, still alien, came
right up to me so that her breasts poked into me and set me afireЧfor some
reason I wasn't yet dressed that morning, or rather all unbuttoned stillЧand
said the last thing I expected: "You'll take pictures of me naked, won't
you? Stark naked?" and not waiting for a reply she swung into the air,
twisting and turning. "He taught me too, he's such a genius! He said it
would only be the two of us. Only you and I would be given the secret." And
somehow she did it quite differentlyЧI'm afraid to say "like a woman,"
because if you've never tried it yourself, you will laugh at meЧshe floated up
to the clothes line, where yesterday's rolls of film were hung up to dry.
evening distant thunder tossed and turned in its dry bed. Rolled its r's. Played
its skittles. Toward midnight the murk thickened ominously, writhing and
swirling like milk. Shafts of lemon-yellow lightening struck at random. Windows
banged. The poplar below our window shivered feverishly. Then the rain came down
in torrents. It rained so hard it seemed the whole of life must be swept away. A
generous, outlandish deluge.
still have photographs from that period. One time, when I was already living
in Paris, in an access of homesickнness I showed one picture to a veteran of
the art; he examined it at length, frowned, spilled cigar ash on the carpet,
asked to see the negative. "I'll give you half the Man Ray Prize," he
announced finally, "if you will explain to me how it was done." I
spread my hands. What exнplanation could I give him? In that sunнdrenched
room, amid a disorder immorнtalized by my lensЧbooks scattered about,
portraits pinned up askew, the lines with her washing and my film hung up to
dry; in that room, whose dresser still played host to silver sugar bowls that
had somehow not yet found their way to the pawnbroker's and icons that had esнcaped
the depradations of the diplomatic corpsЧin that room, Katenka lay upon the
air, her arms spread wide: wonderful, stark naked Katenka. Her hairЧshe had
just tossed her headЧwhirled like a golden comet in the suspended air of that
day that was happy almost beyond bearнing. There was no gimmick.
On the table lay a big packet of our
Moscow photographs: Katenka in the bathroom, lying flat, like at a fakir's
seance; one breast lolls to the side, nipнple peeping at the lens; I stand
beside her in a raincoat and hat (I had set the camera to auto-release) and hold
the shower hose behind her neckЧthe sparнkling cone of water fans down over
her, time has not yet licked away the dropнlets on her skin. Katenka in the
woods, in a little satin dress, diving head first in pursuit of a flower borne
away on the wind; a bumblebee in his unseasonably luxurious fur coat provided
her with a perfect bracelet, a buzzing woodland wristwatch. Or here is Katenka
on a moonlit night (I was using time exposure): looking somehow already
completely astral, as if drenched in the light of the full moon, in this picture
she is resolved into a succession of translucent blue imagesЧflowing turns,
somersaults, silken glimmers of elbow and knee.
I cannot endure this, I don't mean
deнscribing the photographs, but calling back the days cancelled by the
calendar.... I would do better to burn the whole lot.
The master, honorary chairman of
many contests and commissions, thinkнing it would be a nice way to bring me out
of my tranceЧsince I had already forgotten about my half of the photograнphy
prizeЧoffered to buy this Moscow photo for the magazine The Eye. He
even offered a sum several times larger than anything I could have dreamed. But
I declined. I had to decline. The picture was now lying on the table on a pile
of photography magazines. Black-and-white Katenka with her tear drop of a navel,
with the transparent fuzz that edged her somehow always inflamed delta, Katenka,
looking so real, so piercingly real, that I went weak all overЧKatenka was,
now and forever more, beyond reach.
going back now in time and dropping down into that bloomнing summer I see the
two of us, completely happy, not so much beautiful Чalthough she was
unquestionably a beautyЧas bearing the marks of the half-swooning ecstasies we
shared. Now I see that same nailbitten finger of destiny that was poked
into those days as pointing the way (nowadays, with mockery in my heart for my
own and everyone else's absurdity, I often wonder when the index finger will be
joined by its four brothers and the whole little family will turn into an
avenging fist): because all the details of that life, the whole atmosphere of
that time, have emerged as it were from mute obedience and cry aloud, mouth
gaping wide.... Now it seems to me that if peoнple in that society were
made fools of, turned inside out to show their worst and coarsest side (hence
the insane sensitivнity of our life then!), that is, to reveal that on the
inside they were lined with the drab fustian of the Party, now it seems to me
that we were among the first to be demagnetized.
how mischievous she was! How many times did we do it in the air. The first
timeЧthe walls abandoned their right angles and rushed to intercept us, a
lopsided picture broke from its cord and plunged into oblivion, a big bottle of
cherries in brandy fell from the dresser with a crash (but didn't break), a
scratch on my back took a week to healЧthat was the window catch which,
seizing its chance, gouged me between the shoulнder blades. We had to learn to
respect the lamp, to be mindful of nails, we had to learn prudence enough not to
go crashнing into the window sill, crammed with jars, cups and coffee pot. One
stifling night we fell asleep in each other's arms
and I awoke, after I don't know how
many minutes had rustled past, feeling her all tenderly wrapped around me, warm
and moistЧawoke with sudden alarm. For a moment I was completely
disorientated; I knew only that someнwhere close by deadly brilliant drops were
flaring and dying, and near my neck something was scraping and scratching. At
such moments the most difficult thing is to figure out which is up and which is
down. Luckily for me a sliver of moon cut through the thick midnight clouds.
Then from below came a harsh grinding sound, and I saw a shower of electric
sparks. I got us out of there fast, holding her tight as she began to stirЧwe
were in the street, we had floated out the window, we were lying almost on top
of the streetcar power lines.
that night on I put a net over the window, but we soon stopped sleepнing in the
air: autumn came on quickly, with prolonged bouts of icy rain; no matнter how
tightly we wrapped the blanket round us, it would slip off. And then, at the end
of an Indian summer that blazed up in russet warmth, one day the accursed
telephone rang, and we learned that Kolenka had been arrested.
that people who could fly had begun appearing in the land arose spontaneously.
The first time I heard about people flying was in a queue. They were selling off
a few scrawny superannuated chickens. Two old girls, complete primitives bundled
up in quilted coats, were shaking their heads and sending
up balloons with some pretty strange bits of dialogue. Hearing "... and he,
God forgive us, just shoots up into the sky," I moved closer. The narrator
crossed herself, while her companion, a woman with permanently clenched
features, nodнded monotonously. "And Manya, he's flying like an angel!
Everybody comes running, of course. The militia draw their revolvers, take aim,
but he's already higher than the Pushkin monument. But one fellow, in civvies,
shoots two-fisted Чand gets him! We all run to lookЧbut he's already gone.
They carted him off, of course ... to examine him. Maybe he wasn't one of ours.
But he looked ordiнnary enough, I tell you Manya. Flew over people's umbrellas.
Wearing trousers. Semeonovna, from the grocery, says she even saw a hole in his
got excited. But the rumors were coming in from all over. Predictably, the talk
around town vested the flyers with the virtues of old-styled heroes. Judging
from the stories, one flew into the pawnнshop opposite the Procurator's Office
and before the eyes of the dumbfounded crowd carried off a hat full of gold. Of
another it was told how he carried away 25,000 rubles in cash through the open
window of the House of Writers on Lavrushensky. The window, they said, was on
the sixth floor. The fool of a maid, they said, had opened the windows to air
the place and was gabbing on the phone.
rumors multiplied, and once, in a boulevard cafe where I used to go to pick up
the latest gossip, I struck luck. A couple of young people, whose alcoholic talk
was punctuated with phrases like "sure, man," "I'm not one of
your suggestible types," and, as I especially recall, "but they've had
the Bermuda triangle in the family for ages ... ," had fallen to disнcussing
the reasons for the appearance of people who could fly. Now, of course, all this
sounds like parody, like a mixнture of night blindness and far-sightedнness,
but in those days I was still taking things at face value. "Man," said
the first, "this is no mass psychosis organized by the Lubianka to distract
people from the realities of life. No. People, driven into the most colossal
social cul-de-sac, withнout any possibility whatever of breaking out, are
starting to dream of the surreal. If you like, the idea of levitation is being
born. And it isn't the first time. Think of India, the flying sphinxes of Egypt;
think of the Bible. There have been similiar periods in history before. People
have to have hopes, fantasies, they've been emasculated, man, by Karl Marx's
mateнrialist knife. . . . They want to recover their divine nature. To be like
angels. So begins the dream of flight!.. . Let's have another." His
companion was gloomнier. "What dreams? What are you blathнering about? A
geologist in the Urals is shot down by helicopterЧthat's a dream? A party of
drunks doesn't feel like paying the bill at the restaurant on the Ostankinsk
television tower and splits through the windowЧthat's a dream too? And the
growing amount of information, the inнcreasing number of casesЧwhat is that?
I tell you, it all sounds more than real to me." "Forget it,"
rejoined the first, "modern myths put on a veneer of modнern details.
Soviet man sublimates his longing into a handy image. Later on the image is
fleshed out, down to the very buttons, to the most practical details."
"But man," the second burst out, "what about the reaction of the
authorities? It's unambiguous! Do you think all these exнpert panels and
research centers are dumber than we are? . . . Let's have another.... I figure
their information is a bit better than ours. I bet they're takнing the rumors
more than seriously. Maнchine guns on the rooftops? Don't be silly. And TV
cameras aimed at the sky? I'm no soft-headed mystic, but just suppose we really
are mutants. Man, we've just been dragged through an atrociously cruel period of
history. It's natural that life should see no way out of this 'proнgressive'
blind alley. The world is really and truly at the end of its rope. And diнvine
natureЧthere I absolutely agree with youЧdivine nature is coming up with
something new to save us!... Let's have another. . . . What is the greater
wonder: that we walk, or ... fly? From a fish's point of view there's no
difference. And there's nothing supernatural about a fishЧa fish, that's
reality!" and he noisнily jabbed his aluminum fork into his plate: it was [i2] Thursday.
"Maybe the inнcreasing incidence of levitation really is a higher
form of social development which society is beginning to approachЧanother
little dropЧthrough the imнpenetrable thickets of Communism?" "Ah,
shove it!" the first could suddenly stand it no longer, "you're
talking pure gibberish, like some halfwit member of the Institute of Marxist
Maundering! If I agree with you at all about anything, it's that people are
absolutely fed up, and if they really are starting to fly, it is out of longing
listened to their tipsy conversation in a welter of perspiration. My eyes went
completely out of focus and swam in a luminous mist. Many things began to be
revealed to me. After all, I have never pondered the matter deeply. There was a
second when it became my life, an evнeryday thing, a gift. I had never felt anyнthing
other than the simple possibility of moving resiliency through the air. It was
my secret freedomЧand Katenka's too, of course. And that's all!
finally sensed my presence. Turnнing round at once, both somehow darkнened,
and the firstЧglasses and a crooked beardЧsaid in a phoney voice: "And
it was she herself who put it to him. In the doorway. She has a husband at home.
Dead drunk, as usual...."
had taken me for an informer.
my way out of the cafe, feeling their eyes on my back, I rose up in the doorway,
hung there for a bit, just long enough for them to get a good look, pushed the
door to, and flew off. Well, what else could I have done to help them?
Sadovoye Koltso the wind chased dry, swirling leaves. The puddles were frozen
over. The evening crowd flowed heavily along the street, swirled in grey eddies,
spitting out individuals who had lost the rhythm. A moustached militiaнman
stood heavily, his big boots planted wide apart. A woman climbed heavily
Чthough still youngЧonto a bus. A grey wino breathed heavily on the corner,
as he rested with an enormous string bag bulging with empty bottles. Even a
snot-nosed urchin, though one of nature's sparrows, trudged along on elephantine
feet. Oh, if only they wouldЧjust for a secondЧswitch off the gravity generaнtor
at the center of our happy globe! If only everyone were allowed to become
weightless every Friday! I envisioned the empty canyons of the streets, the sky
speckled with flyers. Shame on you, I said to myself, shame on you, Okhlamonov,
for this lapse into old-fashioned sentiнmentality. I turned off toward Nikitsky
Gate. In a back alley near the School of Music, someone had scrawled in big
black letters: "TO EACH HIS PLACE SOME LOW SOME HIGH."
phone rang one dark, dank mornнing. Katenka was singing in the bathroom. Her
little bits of washing, her ability to keep house without fuss and bother,
filled me with admiration. I went over to the phone. The caller did not give his
name, but I immediately realized it was one of Kolya's neighbors in the communal
apartнments, an old grouch, a retired jerk of an army captain. "That
smart-ass friend of yours," he whined, "they've taken the scribbler
and put him where he belongs!" and gave a phlegmy snigger.
was the beginning of the end. I knew nothing as yet, but ice suddenly flowed in
didn't have to be a Spinoza to guess that Kolenka had not been seized for
writing poetry, though it too was far from innocuous. Here is how it came out
later: the yard concierge, an old witch paid to spy on the tenants, glanced
through the window one evening and saw Nikolai Petrovich resting above the
table. He was dozing, poor fellow, an open book in his hand threatened to slip
down, kept its word, and fell with a soft thud. Kolenka awoke and dove head
first after the faithless book. The woman started back from the fogged-up window
and, clutching her broom like a flagstaff, rushed off to telephone the apнpropriate
quarters. In the appropriate quarters there had long been a research center to
deal with such problems in the appropriate manner. A sort of Scientific Research
Institute for the Study of the Surreal... . Nikolai Petrovich was taken away
forthwith. They say he was flanked by two heavy-set characters, both handнcuffed
to the poor poetЧin case he tried to fly away.
broadcasts from abroad, too, were full of incredible news. The BBC reported it
had been learned from diplomatic circles in Moscow that the Central Committee
was definitely concerned about the situation in the country. The announcer even
declared that the appearance of people who could fly was directly connected with
the dissatisfaction and the desire of millions of people for freedom. The Voice
of Amerнica was now broadcasting a daily fifteen-minute program entitled
"The Wings of Freedom," and assured its listeners that the population
of the USSR was at last emerging from a period of weakness of will, blindness,
and humiliation by vioнlence, and was now ready to go flying off all over the
world. It was rumored that Washington had held secret talks with its allies on
the number of flyers who might defect and methods of putting them to use. It was
proposed to revive a project, put on ice in the late seventies, for the
construction of artificial floating islands. The CIA calculated the percentage
of poнtential agents insinuated among the mass of defecting flyers, but the
Swami Vivekananda occult centre just outside the U.S. capital immediately issued
a stateнment saying that no orthodox servant of the regime would be capable of
getting off the ground by even the thickness of a party card. West Germany,
taking no part in the disputes, began building an enorнmous tent city. Along
the borders of the satellite countries, directional arrows were now lit up at
night. France splurged on colored lights and half the night sky of Paris blazed
out the message: WELCOME!
these strange tidings seeped through the chronic bronchitis of my old radio; but
not, as yet, one single report of a successful defection by flight.
January we hardly flew at all. It had become too dangerous. Anyway, it was
difficult to stay up for long in the
snow-laden air, despite our fur coats and hats. Katenka tired quickly, snow got
in our eyes, and we might be spotted, even in the woods. Katya suggested sewing
us some white suits. This would have been wonderful, but we had almost no money
frosts of Epiphany arrived with a bang. On St. Tatiana's day I learned exнactly
where they were holding Kolenka. I looked in at Lukov Street, the neighнbors
showed me the sealed door with joyous trepidation. I had expected scarнlet
sealing wax, the National Emblem, like on a general's button; instead there was
a slip of paper and faded blue seals. There had been no searchЧtoo many books.
I was told they would now be given to the Lenin Library. They only took away
papers lying on the table and,
it may seem, the cat. The bit about the cat I don't believe, incidentally. The
neighbors had long wanted to do him in. Poor old puss. Formally, Kolenka was
charged with the usual thing, breach of public order, although phrases like
"losing touch with reality" were slipped in. He could be held only in
a cell or in a camp enclosed in some sort of special netting. But in the final
analysis, even this charge was flim-flam. What they wanted from him was just one
I can vouch for Kolenka, I am quite sure that no amount
of neuroleptic drugs could drag out of him those utterly simнple yet incredibly
deep explanations with which he changed my life forever, in the spring. Kolenka
was as soft as wax, tender-hearted, loving; but like everyone else he hated what
was going on, he didn't even hate it, he rejected it biologically.
At last I understood the meaning of the message he sent
on with Katenka: "It'll be better this way. ..."
Rumors began to circulate that they were closing the
country in earnest, that taxes would be raised, vodka would go up yet again,
even whale meat would cost twice as much, while the military budget was to be
sharply increased so as to carry out a colossal project: something like enнclosing
the whole country under one giнgantic bell jar. There were arguments about
ultraviolet radiation, about photoнsynthesis, all sorts of things connected
with the sun's rays, respiration, and so on. A friend of mine, a pilot in civil
aviation, told me what I have no doubt is true: that the Western frontiers were
already being patroled by aircraft flying in pairs with a kilometer-long net
strung between them. There was talk of the problem of birds. The West also began
to take the whole business a lot more seriously. NATO began to fear that the
Soviet army would harness the experiнence of the flyers and war would assume an
entirely new character. The possibilнity of a completely new and appallingly
concrete isolation from the rest of the world was becoming more and more real.
Although for me, who had never been further afield than Tallin, it didn't make a
blind bit of difference. It was in those fleeting, chaotic days that I chanced
upon a somewhat confused article by Profesнsor Pogoreltsev.
Katya brought it home from the dressнmaker, whose
husband was by way of being an underground booksellerЧhe made copies of
Solzhenitsyn, Barkov, or Steiner. He did all the bindings himself and was pretty
inexpensive. We used to get all sorts of new stuff from him, for a night or
twoЧa Nabokov story, or an arнticle by some dissident. In ordinary life the
bookseller worked as an elevator operator.
Katenka had run herself up a marvelнlous punky dress,
although there was noнwhere she would ever be able to wear it. I shall explain
why. A translator acquaintнance of ours wangled us an invitation to an
international beer exhibition, at Sokolniki Park. The exhibition was closed, for
the trade only, and it was hard
to get in. When we got inside the
pavilion, of course, Katenka and I found everyнone we knew: loft artists,
underground poets, and Madame Kasilova famous for her midnight salons, and
actors from the Polyanka, and even the ambassador of the Republic of Burundi,
who never failed to show up at every party thrown by unofficial Moscow. We
walked to the exhibition across the enormous snowнbound park. It was early
evening, darkнness was falling rapidly, the snowdrifts glowed a deep blue. The
park's innumerнable walks were packed with iceЧkiloнmeters of marvelous
skating. People were walking and falling, falling and walking. They laughed,
swore, and fell some more. Katenka, too, slipped, fell and bruised herself. It
was so silly to walk, comically pawing the ground, when it cost nothing to
simply pick up and fly. I was especially struck, then, by the manifest absurdity
of ordinary locomotion. Inside the pavilнion each country had set up its own
bar. We had never seen anything like this: comfortable, clean, invisible music
playнing; beautiful girls in little aprons passнing round mugs of beer, not a
single cop Чnot in uniform, that is. The clientele consisted of our lot and
their lot. Our lot had long hair, wore tattered jeans and sweaters;
theirsЧfrom the ministries and committeesЧwere heavily built and had on
suits; their eyes were oily with hatred. They were drinking lots of ale, they
grew heavily drunk, and began importuning the busty barmaids without understandнing
a word of anything but Russian. One, with a protruding lower lip and party
eyebrows, was saying to a friend: "Transнlate for me, tell her HI give her
two kilos of caviar. . . what the hell, make it four kilos...."
The Germans had simply set up an anнtique fire engine
in their part of the pavilion. It was all gleaming with red lacнquer and highly
polished brass. The barнrel with its pump was full of powerful Munich beer. A
bare-legged floozie in a golden helmet treated us to hot sausages. It made you
think longingly of a putsch.
Katenka grew flushed and started playing the fool. Lit
by carnival flashes of colored light, she stood before a beer-sodden apparatchik
and allowed herself to be wafted up on a light of current of air, then sank
modestly back again: up... down, up... down. The man's face darkened
apoplectically, with his great paw he clutched now at his heart, now at the
wall. I didn't get cross. No one else had seen her.
But when we emerged into full darkнness, broken only
by the occasional street lamp, and then made our way along a slippery path past
a row of flagstaffs thrumming in the wind, I couldn't stand it any longer either
and, flying briskly up ten meters or so, spent a good half-minute disentangling
an American flag from its pole while my fingers grew numb with the cold. Katenka
clapped her hands and twirled delightedly below. I glided safely back to earth
with the flag bunнdled under my arm, and we rushed off in search of a taxi, now
and then briefly taking off from the black ice in our impatience. An old Odessan
promised to have us home in no time, we grew languid in the warmth of his taxi
and lay wrapped up in each other while he ratнtled off one story after another,
laughнing at his own jokes in a voice hoarse from too many cigarets. A ground
mist eddied in the empty street and squares. The city seemed to simmer.
That night we joined Western demoнcracy, spreading the
flag on our bed, still smelling of snow and only slightly damp. Next morning,
when the winter sun touched the poplar's bare branches with red, when Katenka
called out that cofнfee was ready, I was pulling the ragged quilt over our bed
when I noticed among the stars and stripes a tiny spot where she had
sleptЧKatenka was having her period.
Anyway, for a laugh, she used the flag to make herself
a long, rustling gown. Can you imagine wearing such a thing to the Bolshoi or
Back from the dressmaker's, hovering at various heights
before our submarine mirror, eaten away by rust and time, she announced:
"On the Fourth of July I shall go to the Yank reception ... the military
attaches can all salute me...." "Watch your language," I said in
alarm. "Oh yes," reaching behind her back for the zip, "there's
an article in the bag over there by that what's-his-nameЧPogoreltsevЧ who
goes to the church at Sokol."
Professor Pogoreltsev, who had done fifteen years in
the camps, was the auнthor of a scandalous book, Between Fear and Fear. The
book, which had only got into print by a fluke, and was hastily withdrawn from
all libraries, was officially about the culture of Tibet; in it the auнthor
said that the Christo-Piscean age came to an end in the mid-sixties, and that
the Age of Aquarius now beginнning would have to find some new symнbolic
realization. We all knew about that: the signs of the Zodiac, rising counterнclockwise;
the Magi, last representatives of Djinns and Aladdin's lamps, at Christ's
cradle; the new star above them; the next two thousand years; Aquarius, the
"man-angel" ... but no one knew how all this would begin to manifest
itself. The professor reckoned that the appearance of people who could fly was
to be expected, that it was no accident, that there was no need to fear the
country would really be sealed offЧhe meant the bell jar. "There's no way
they can keep us under glass!" he quipped. But the most imporнtant thing
Pogoreltsev wrote was that "even within the Kremlin walls, here and there
people are starting to lift off from the waxed parquet, and any day now we may
witness an extraordinary happening, when high above the stars of the Kremlin, so
inauspicious for our age, will fly the black figure of an eminence grise and
the chimes on Spassky Tower will ring in a brand new age...."
This article got the left intelligentsia all excited.
Hope for a new surge of libнeralism seized Moscow like a fever. The editor of The
Mirror, the most widely-read underground monthly, wrote a letнter to the
editorial board of Novy Mir proposing that they join forces on the
threshold of the new life. The painter
exhibited a huge canvas at the Manege: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Suvorov, the
actor Smoktunovsky, even Vasilij Vasilievich RozanovЧall, from various
quarters of the cloud-wreathed heavens, were converging on the Catheнdral of
Vassilij Blazhennij (Basil the Blessed). Katenka said it looked like a witches'
From my omniscient friend, as I alнready mentioned, I
got the address of the top secret institute where I figured they had to be
holding Nikolai Petrovich. During rush hours, when the streets were jammed with
sullen crowds, I would affect a businesslike air and walk briskly past the
faceless building. It was again spring, here and there in the grey mass of
humanity you caught a fleeting smile, it was nice to hear the scrape of people's
shoes on the pavements now free of snow, there was a smell of sun-warmed dust,
and from somewhere far away a mild, disturbing wind blew in upon the city. The
lower stories of the spellbound building were faced with granite, and there were
very solid-looking bars on all the windows. Higher up these disappeared, and the
topmost story, with a balcony runнning all the way round and the blunt snouts
of TV cameras poking out, was wide openЧa trap for idiots. Below, of course, a
grey Volga was doing time on the street across from the front entrance, with
four heavies inside. The front doors bore the modest black-and-gold legend:
"Committee on Vibrations." The peoнple going in and out through these
doors were either as unobtrusive as mice, or in a state of feverish excitement.
After a week of surreptitiously observing the genнeral to-ing and fro-ing of
officials, I picked out one seamed but still quite decent-looking face and, very
nearly making a fatal mistake, set off behind the velvet coat as it mingled
wearily with the crowd. In a nearby side street, lined with rotнting shacks
like broken-down furniture put out for sale, I was already bracing myself to
pronounce the ritual phrase "Excuse me," when suddenly I felt rather
than heard a bulldoggy panting at my back and, without pausing for thought, took
off like a rocket into the clear pink sky, and flew off at great speed. All I
managed to see out of the corner of my watering eye were two men standing in the
narrow street below, their raincoats blown open by the wind, heads thrown back
and arms outstretched. It was a long time since I had last flown over open
spaces, and I had grown unused to it. My head swam, and in a matter of secнonds
I skipped over the cornice of a twelve-story building equipped with something
very much like a machine gun nest. But I had to return to life just as rapidly
as I had leapt out of it. It was a dormer window in one of Stalin's skyнscrapers
that saved me. There was no glass, and I flew inside with nothing worse than a
scratched cheek. It smelled of dust, and enormous portraits of leaders looked
down at me from every wall. Whoever was in charge of the place was clearly
guilty of brazen dereliction, since he kept not only the current bigwigs, whose
portraits had to be displayed on public holidays, but also the long-since superнannuated.
Pushing open a door thick with the dust of ages and stepping out onto a stair, I
turned roundЧthe "Kremlin mountaineer"*Чwas casting a sidelong
glance at his bald-headed successor.
Back on the street, wiping the blood from my cheek with
a handkerchief, I saw the obscene dragon-fly shape of a helicopter flying
impermissibly low, darkнening the sky.
A few days later I received in the mail a modest slip
of paper indicating that at 11 a.m. on Tuesday next I was to report to Inspector
N. at such-and-such an address; it was signed with a flourish. The address,
needless to say, was the very same. I did not know what to do. Katenka,
fragrant, crazy Katenka, who these days was always carefully groomed and
dressed, who even had her hair done and used French perfume bought one lucky day
in a Ladies on PetrovkaЧKatenka was hanging in the corner, in a patch of
sunlight, and the smoke from her cigaret traced patterns in the still air. A
Wagner recordЧthe Ride of the Valkyries Чhad just finished playing, and the
needle ran on idly in the groove. "Don't go," said Katenka,
"simply don't go. They have no right. They don't give you a clue what it's
about, or who they represent, instead of the inspector's name there's just an
initial." I stood beneath her for a moment, raised my face, rubbed against
her hem, kissed her slender ankle. Something was happening. We both felt it.
Something was bearing down on us from afar. I decided to go. But if Katenka was
even then meditating my flight, my fear was that I might lose her.
So I went. I said, to hell with it, and went. I did,
however, phone the one man I knew with connections in high places, explained
when I was going and where. I had the idiotic illusion .that if anything
happened to me he might be able to help, through his father, the General Secreнtary's
personal interpreter from Bengali. It didn't even occur to me to wonder how
often the General Secretary met with Bengalis.
Katenka, swaying in the doorway, said: "This isn't
goodbye, you hear?" and I set off.
Of course, I wound up at the "Comнmittee on
Vibrations," but through a difнferent entrance. The sign on the door, too,
was different. Believe it or not, what it saidЧthis time on a bit of
cardboard, admittedly, as if only temporary, and I like a fool even thought it
might be meant for me!Чwas: "NON-BORINGCASES: RECEPTION" and some
room number. The inspector's name, too, was scrawled beneath: Nikakov. No
mention of foreнname or patronymic. The porter, wearнing some special gear
that looked more military than any actual uniform, called up the inspector,
having first taken away my passport. While he was telephoning, with his back to
me, I surveyed a porнtrait of the leader standing on the brink of a precipice:
below, in the valley, lay a vast sea-girt city. It looked as if any moнment the
leader would either take flight, or drop like a stone. The skirts of his army
greatcoat were already flung wide. There was the sound of a steel door opening,
and the inspector was bearing down on me, his little grey eyes already fixed on
me from afar. He was on the small side, roundish, there didn't seem anything
special about him. He wore a thin, crooked smile, the sort people used in the
old days when screwing in a lorgнnette. "Nikakov," he said, not,
thank God, offering me his hand. Right at the door, with its row of illuminated
buttons, he suddenly rounded on me and gave me a penetrating stare. I naturally
lowered my gaze. Quick as a wink he spun round again and pressed one of the
buttons. The door slid back. We walked down long dimly lit corridors. The floor
was covнered with a soft plastic material of a dark cherry color. They say that
when Profesнsor Pogoreltsev got roughed up a bit somewhere around here, then
taken off to his cell, he left behind no alarming trail of blood spotsЧthe
floor covering absorbed everything without trace.
In his office,
having seated me on a hard, straight chair, Nikakov sprawled in a leather
armchair opposite and imнmediately seemed to fill out and grow Digger. Above
him hung another portrait ░f the leader. This time the leader was standing on
the very brink of the Kremlin wall. Far below, red-bannered crowds flowed past, and the sky was thick with
aircraft. It seemed as if with one more gust of wind the leader would
take off. The skirts of his grey gabardine raincoat were already spreading,
wing-like. "Can you guess," said Nikakov, pushing across cigarets and
an ashtray, "why we have invited you here?"
The conversation was like the onset of flu. I felt hot
and uncomfortable in the thick sweater I had instinctively put on that morning,
together with winter socks, although the whole boulevard was already turning
green. I kept breaking out in a cold sweat, I was all shrinking from the
terribly strange things the inнspector was saying. He had genuine masнtery of
an art unknown to me: taking ordinary Russian and turning it into stiff,
rote-learned phrases, rusty but full of barbs. These phrases got inside my head
and messed it up. I gurgled something in reply. "Your close friend,"
Nikakov was saying, "Nikolai Petrovich Smolensky, has broken away from the
masses. You understand what I mean, of course, when I say 'broken away'? What he
wanted, Okhlamonov, to speak plainly, was to elнevate himself, as it were, to
rise above his native land, above the working colнlective, above the Party,
too, for that matter.... This, at least, is how he did feel. . . . Now he
has repented his errors, now he has fully acknowledged them and taken them into
account, thought things through and got to the bottom of things, now he has
sobered up and woken up and cleared things up, now he groans with
compunction.... "Чsome mechanism in Nikakov had jammed, but he gave his
shake, grimaced spasmodically, and got himself back under control, though still
skidding a bit behind the facadeЧ41.. . has reflected and now reнgrets
his errors, has analyzed his errors and is now punishing himself. .. ."
Nikakov kept fiddling with a pencil, but although it twisted and turned every
which way, at regular intervals its sharp, black point was aimed directly at me.
"You were a friend of the accused, were you not?" asked the
inspector. "Yes," I said, "we were friends. I respected his
talent." Nikakov spun around once in his swivel chair like a child, showing
a ham-colored bald patch, then set off again. His little smile, like a laddered
stocking, split open stitch by stitch across his scrubbed face: "So we may
conclude from the aforesaid" ЧI swear the words "my dear boy"
were trembling on his lipsЧ"that you were not only his admirer, drinking
companion, and perhaps something else as well that we have not yet ascertained,
but, to put it mildly, his pupil"
This was so stupid that I was suddenly bored, bored to
death, and not for the first time that false spring. You know how it is when
absolutely everything you look at makes you sick. Under my jacket I could feel
the warm bulk of a flaskЧmy sweet Katenka had slipped a flask of cognac into
an unsuspecting pocket. 1 wished Nikakov would go to the lavatory, or to see his
boss, so I could have a drink. And, as if someone had read my mind, there was a
buzz from some apparatus with lots of buttons bearing the legend "Bell
System" and Nikakov, saying someнthing into the machine, got up and walked
to the door. "1 have to leave you for a minute," he said.
The office was painted a vile official
colorЧlettuce-green, as the poet Oshanin put it. A brown border ran along the
top. On one wall there was a long, unнusually horizontal mirror. There were no
bars on the window, but each pane had a pale triangle stamped in one
cornerЧthe kind of glass they say you can't break even by hitting it with a
stool. The table had nothing on it but a calendar, and n copy of Pravda with
a leading article enнtitled "Dig Deeper Roots in our Native Soil," I
got up and stretched. The flask glowed amber when I drank in front of the
mirror. There was a mysterious, even whirring and clicking sound from one
corner. I felt sleepy, either from the cognac or from the strain on my nerves. I
went over to the window and leaned my forehead against the glass. It gave onto
an inner courtyard. I could see the planked footway of an exercise area, with a
barred roof overhead and netting along the sides. A couple of soldiers stood
smoking by the massive gates. A sick pigeon with a festering beak cooed on the
window ledge. The glass was damp and I recoiled in horror, realizing that the
inspector's breath had particiнpated in the formation of this moisture.
Nikakov returned an hour later. Saying nothing he sat
down at the table, opened a drawer, got out what appeared to be a standard
questionnaire and began rapнidly filling it out. His questions now were dry,
ordinary, and I answered automatiнcally. The pencil lay lifeless on the table.
From the yard below I could hear trampнing sounds and the shouts of guards. The
whirring noise had also stopped. A very palpable hatred was simmering quietly
inside me. Nikakov finished writing. "Sign here," he said. I read
through the statement, which said that I was a friend of Kolenka, was an admirer
of his poetry, but had never taken part in any of his experiments. "Take it
next door to be stamped"ЧNikakov handed me a pass Ч"someone will
see you out." His voice rose to a squeak, and he himself seemed to shrink
and dwindle in size, just as if someone had let the air out of him.
I left the office and knocked on the next door. Inside
there was a glass partiнtion; a man in a white coat stuck his head through the
window like a cuckoo. Preнferring the pass, I involuntarily glanced inside.
God! the room next door to Nikakov's office was a laboratory! Reels of pink and
silver film lay heaped on the floor, lights winked on and off, screens gleamed
all around. Along one wall ran a darkened horizontal window with a curнtain
drawn back half-wayЧthis was the "mirror" in the neighboring office!
They had been checking up on me.. ..
A hand gave me back my pass and pointed to another
door. An electric lock clicked. I took a chance and, with a cheeky grin, asked:
"What? Won't I do?" The white coat, returning to the reels of film,
replied with his back to me: "We get your kind in here by the truckload.
You weigh plenty, kid."
Downstairs, handing over the pass in exchange for my
passport, I surveyed the State Seal bearing sword and two crossed wings; and it
was shortly after that, in the metro, that I tumbled to the rest of it: left
alone, I was supposed to panic and give myself away, like scratching a forbidden
place, was supposed to lose control if only for a second. and take off, if only
a millimeter. "You weigh plenty!" They had been checking to see if I
would lose weight!
From that same samizdat, from the same
dressmaker (Katenka had made herself a golden gown out of a silk curtain; I once
photographed her in it at sunset, hanging sadly above the cross atop a vilнlage
churchЧher last photo in Russia), about a month later, reading the sixth
blurred carbon copy, we learned that Kolenka had outwitted his jailers: had
agreed to experiments and, when they transferred him from his cell (ceiling about 20 meters high) to a laboratory the size of an
aircraft hangar, and freed him of everything but telemetry leads, had plunged
from fifty meters up onto the only solid objectЧthe professor's table
Чeverything else having been providenнtially upholstered in that same soft
cherry-colored materialЧand died on impact. In Sweden a committee had already
been set up to defend him. Radio Liberty regнularly gave readings of his
poetry, two young Americans had handcuffed themнselves to the Emperor Cannon in
the Kremlin in protest, but it was too late.... In May, when the first thunder
storms were breaking over the city and the oak trees were in blossom, an article
appeared in the Moscow Evening News calling Kolenka a charlatan who had fleeced
his friends by promising to teach them someнthing that does not exist. He was
also, of course, described as suffering from the delusion that he was a great
writer. The article was signed by a well-known poet.
At the very end of the month, when the few surviving
front gardens were alнready ablaze with lilacs, Katenka dragged me off to the
country. We went a long, long way out, to our beloved Nikolsky woods. There no
one could see us, but for some reason she tenderly refused to do it in the air,
as we had used to, but insistently drew me down onto the grass. She hugged me
fiercely, with a new ardor, wound her legs around me, her embrace almost
squeezed the breath out of me, her fragrant sweat, mingled with mine, bathed her
face ... it was all more powнerful than it had ever been before.
That day we definitively decided to fly
Lead boots will soon be all the rage," joked
Katenka. She wasn't far from the truth. Here and there "socially
conscious" pensioners, not waitнing for instructions from above (I sudнdenly
realize that "from above" sounded ambiguous in those days) started
putting up notices: FLYING STRICTLY FORнBIDDEN. They were already drafting new
legislation against "anti-social breakнing away from the collective,"
setting prison terms, etc., etc. It was even sugнgested that parents were
responsible for their children, no matter if they themнselves were incapable of
rising above the prosaic realities of our native land.
In Tsvetnoy market the Georgians were selling tomatoes
for exorbitant prices, someone had brought some plump gladioli into town, and
the Prime Minisнter of Australia was due to arrive on an official visit, and an
aphorism by the mayor of the city made the rounds of Moscow, to the effect that
if anyone flew during the visit, heads would fly tooЧin a word, a pal! of
ennui and desolation had descended, and Katenka and I finally got two plane
tickets to Simferopol; from there we would make our way by road to Yalta, rest a
while, take a look round. and, going out to sea one night on a pleaнsure boat,
leave the country for ever.
Kolenka's warningЧnot to fly over large expanses of
waterЧnaturally made us a bit apprehensive, but we had no choice. The Western
frontiers were now
patrolled in earnest.
Do you know what Yalta is at night? No, not Soviet
Yalta, full of drunks and street brawls, reeking of cheap perfume and suntan
oil! A different Yalta. Mute, dwindling, sprawled on its side like a disнtant
dying campfire. A city from which so many have fled. ... A last memory, spiced
with cheap jokes.. ..
It was a close, moonless night. I had a child's
compass, bought at the last minute. I was so afraid the pointer would come off
Again I go back to the photographs from those
yearsЧblack and white, of course; color film from the West I got only rarely,
it cost the earth. Here is Katenka bearing a tray of coffee through the airЧa
heavy tray from our grandнmother's day. She is finding it heavy going, so her
naked little form is pitched downward, her legs pointing skyward, I can see the
twin hills of her buttocks, the tender confluence of her breasts. Her hair is
uncombed, carelessly pinned to one side. Her downy mound still to this day gives
me the shakes. Katenka under a river bridge, in one hand she is holdнing a
rolled-up newspaper and tooting on it like an archangel. Katenka upside down in
our little apartment; her hair completely covers her face, her dress too has
fallen back, only her legs stick straight up like a fountain.
I have one particular photo that fills me with
particular sadnessЧKatenka is pulling back the shade: a winter window,
snow-covered branches, a sparrow, the feeble sun, wires. She is wearing an old
dressing gown. Holding it at her throat with one hand, as if something were
strangling her. Sometimes I think that even then she knew what was going to
The most surprising thing about this picture is that
Katenka is standing on the floor.
I'm reaching for the
How we got ourselves to Paris is another story. We
undertook no more long flights. Except Turkey, which we cut across in three hot
nights alive with the incessant buzzing of cicadas. The U. S. consul in Athens
issued us our first Western documents. Of course they wanted to know all about
us, but we conнcocted a simple-minded tale involving an inflatable dinghy,
supplies of drinking water, and Lady Luck. Once launched, this idyllic fiction
circulated for years through all the prefectures of Europe. Pretty soon I
managed to sell a dozen or so of my photos to a French agency, reнceived an
advanceЧit was this, incidentнally, that decided our choice of a country;
they had promised us the rest on arrival in ParisЧand we timidly rushed out to
spend what was for us an enormous amount of money. The pictures, which showed up
a week later on the front covнers of various thick magazines, were the sort of
thing I'd been doing all my life: streets, people, mainly people. I had taken
only the last few from high up Чthere was one of Moscow slanting away below,
bristling with the sinister spires of its dwarf skyscrapers, crushed beneath the
funereal weight of administrative buildings.
Paris we lived modestly, with a sort of melancholy gaiety. Something had inнfused
the atmosphere of our relations for good: a certain quantity of what I thought
was non-lethal poison. I tried not to hear news from Russia, bought no
newspapers, but whether I liked it or not the magaнzines that used my work
slipped in comнmentaries on Soviet life, and I was often overcome with disgust,
as in Nikakov's officeЧovertly or covertly, they were 99 per cent pro-Soviet.
started to come in. Katenka rented a narrow storefront in one of the back
streets off Les Halles. She fixed up almost everything herself, herself went
around buying stuff, and soon she opened a tiny boutique, "Chez Katy,"
where everything, literally everything was the same dark-cherry color. I mean
blouses, sugar, pants, tennis racquets, bottles of liqueur, boots, candles,
glasses, even cakes and pastries. For a month the shop yawned empty, then buyers
began arrivнing in drovesЧmy Katenka became very fashionable, and you saw
girls in the street dressed all in Katenka's one color. I was gladdened by her
success but, to be honest, frightened by the color.
evening at a noisy party given by a famous art criticЧevery last painter was
there to pay his commercial respects ЧKatenka and I were standing on a
balcony. She was wearing a light dress and her bare hands were cupped, I'm
afraid to say prayerfully, around a glass of champagne. Suddenly she started
talking about Nikolai Petrovich, about his one-room library, while I looked down
at the early-evening bustle of Montparnasse far below. What she was saying
filled me with something heavy, and I was on the point of stopping her when I
heard: "He gave it to us as a gift, and it became our salvation, and we
never even try it any longer. . . not even a tiny bit...." Alнready
bending, or rather pouring, over the rail of the balcony, she was slipping down.
The rest happened in an instant: I saw her turn in a spiral, then plummet down,
a colored ball with her gown streamнing out behind; I heard the motley crowd
gasp as it instantly formed itself into a perfect circle. ... Why did I rush to
the stairs, to get the elevator? To this day, I don't know. .. .
was buried at Saint-Genevieve-des-Bois. There, where so many endlessly strange
Russian fates have ended. There, too, visiting her grave, I once met a former
Soviet engineer, now a voluntary Paris clochard. And the nicest possible
life-loving clochard he was. I gave him a lift back into Paris, and when
we were already sitting in a cafe, just about to part, he suddenly said to me:
"They say those who could fly, once they get to the West they simply lose
was a merry soul, and his smile, hanging in the dimly-lit cafe, reminded me of
the Cheshire catЧone of ours. Х
Ч Translated from the Russian
by Kingsley Shorter
Traditional gathering place, on the Eastern shore of the Crimea, for
Russian literati interested in occultism and the ideas of Rudolf Steiner.
To some extent the tradition is still alive today.
the Soviet Union people are required to eat fish on Thursdays. ЧTranslator's note