The characters in the experimental short stories by the Russian writer Anatoly Gavrilov subsist on a bland diet of propaganda slogans, doggerel, and popular superstition. Their lives are lived out on the periphery of burnt-out landscapes amid blast-furnaces, abandoned warehouses and tumble-down barracks.
Three short stories by Anatoly Garilov translated by Constantine Rusanov.
In Italy they asked him to address a group of university students.
So he did. He said:
“It is now May back home. Here too. Last year I planted five buckets of potatoes but harvested only three. The rest had rotted. I thought about it as I was flying over the Alps. I should drain the soil. It is because of the ground water. Scrape the surface and there’s water. I should drain the soil and raise its upper layer. They sell soil by the truckload there. I can arrange it. Also, I’ve got to place foundation blocks in the ditches. There are seven of them and two halves. They are overgrown with weeds. I need a crane. I found a craneman. He promised to come but didn’t. I asked another one, but he didn’t come either. I found a third one, and he came, but without the cable. He went for the cable and didn’t come back…
Springtime. What can I say about it? It can ruin your life. It has ruined mine. As a kid and teenager I loved it and I hated it. It wrenched my soul. It tricked me. It hinted at the possibility of heaven on earth. I… I don’t know. I don’t want to go down that path. The spade has cut everything off. I keep running up against the spade. It glares. My father had made it dangerously sharp, like a razor. Every spring my parents would go berserk. Everybody could hear them shouting. They bickered and fought with each other in the garden. I remember their faces, distorted by hatred, their fists, stained with freshly dug up earth. They were worming their way into the ground and dragging me along. I had crayons and paper. I wanted to draw blooming lilacs, but they kept hammering me into the ground, into muck. They tried to persuade me that it would save me. It killed me. I escaped. I ran away from them to Yakutia. There were no gardens there, only the taiga and mountains. All of a sudden I felt free. I was so happy I wanted to cry. I know what happiness is. But it didn’t last long. Only a few days. I got stabbed with a knife on Mineworker’s Day and ended up back home, where they drove me into the ground again. They smothered me with earth and muck. I was crushed, chopped up…
But now, with one leg over the abyss, I don’t think this is such a big problem. I am resigned to it. I even enjoy digging. I have conquered my former nervousness. I have struck it off the agenda a long time ago. What can I say now? It would be strange to keep pursuing things that have long since cooled off…
Flying over the Alps, a glass of red wine in hand, I thought about potatoes.
I didn’t want to come here. I wanted to stay home to be able to plant potatoes at the right time. My being here is only a formality. I have absolutely nothing to say about blooming lilacs. What’s the point of pretending, of making things up? I am not an artist. I shouldn’t be here. This is a mistake…”
He scrunched up his face, waved his hand, and left the podium.
It’s a sunny morning. I hear voices of people and birds. I have a headache.
Yesterday I was visiting a friend.
He went to the restroom, and I remained alone.
The room is rectangular, bright, clean, with a parquet floor.
His apartment is fitted out with a security alarm system and intercom. From this room you can talk to a person in another room. The restroom is also connected. He said something to me from the restroom over the intercom, and I answered something back.
He has a lot of books. He’s been in this business for a long time now.
He has a photograph of himself as a little child but already with a book in hand.
The world without books, he says, is but a horde of barbarians.
He even had a vision in early childhood of the night sky with a resplendent golden book in the middle, and it was written in letters of gold under it – “read”.
He’s been trying to enlighten me too and still continues to do so.
At first, after he went to the restroom, I was standing near the bookshelves, which covered the whole wall from floor to ceiling, looking at the books, but then, overwhelmed by their great number and variety, I went up to the window and started looking at other buildings and the ring road and at the gray snow-covered fields beyond, but even there, near the window, the books kept pressing hard, so to speak, on my back, so I ended up near the bookshelves again and reached out for a book, but there was glass.
I don’t remember exactly which particular book I wanted to get from the shelf, and it probably isn’t that essential.
Our social science teacher in school taught us how to distinguish the essential from the non-essential.
If you don’t have a leg, he’d say, it is not essential when you are reading a book, but if a one-legged person decides to take part in an 800-meter race with two-legged competitors, then it becomes essential.
Anyway, my hand came across a sheet of glass, which slides back and forth along plastic grooves. All of a sudden it fell out of the grooves, hit the floor, and broke into pieces.
And then he rushed into the room, and his face was so furious that I thought – he is going to hit me now.
But no, he didn’t hit me; he only pushed me in the chest, and I fell and banged my head against the radiator.
I came to on the couch. He was kneeling in front of me. I was all wet. He must have been pouring water over me.
“Thank god, thank god!” – he exclaimed and leapt up. “You scared the hell out of me, the devil take you! What a wuss: I barely touched you and you collapsed! Does it hurt? No? All right then. Let’s just forget about it. Nothing happened. You even deserve praise for reaching after a book! For what is the world without books? A horde of barbarians and savages! Don’t worry about the glass, I’ll replace it. Now let’s have dinner. We’ll be having top-quality wine today, vintage Crimean, from Massandra. Just for you! And don’t worry about the glass. I’ll replace it tomorrow. Spirit is superior to matter. But still – why the… did you mess with it?!
It’s a bright morning, and its brightness is terrifying.
What Should I Do?
Yes, everything will soon come to an end: the couch, the newspapers, the TV set, the clock, the telephone, the ceiling, the walls, the window… Nothing can be done about it – the time has come. The law of the negation of the negation, the law of the transformation of quantity into quality…
They’ll take me to the cemetery next to the factory and the pigsty – and that’ll be it, the end.
But my friends, my wife, my relatives are all in the old cemetery, with its grand ancient trees, marble tombs, silence…
I didn’t make it to the old cemetery, I was late…
Sure enough, they still bury people there, but who will intercede on behalf of a lonely old man?
Without a reputation, without connections…
So I’ll have to drag myself over to the new one…
There is no phone there, of course… and nobody will come to visit…
Only the factory’s smoke and hungry pigs squealing…
And this Jesus, if he exists, will probably never come around… will not bother dragging himself over…
Everybody will rise, but our graveyard committee will stay in session… Let them be, he will say, I don’t want to divert their attention from important matters.
But what if he comes over and asks with a smile: so, how are things going here? How do you decide who is righteous and who is a sinner? What are your criteria? What about the laws of the negation of the negation, of the transformation of quantity into quality, of the unity and struggle of opposites?
Maybe it’s better to renounce these laws?
Maybe it’s not too late?
But what is wrong or unjust about them?
But what if he doesn’t like these laws? What if he asks: why haven’t you renounced that which you didn’t understand at all yet were forcing upon others?
But I wasn’t forcing them upon anybody… Only once, in a philosophical argument with Pashpadurov, did I invoke these laws and won the argument…
But what if he asks: so why did you renounce them after all at the end?
But what if he doesn’t exist?
But what if he does?
There is no evidence that he exists, but there is no evidence that he doesn’t exist either…
What should I do?