I am Art. (The True Story of an Emissary from Eternity).
..They are disappearing…
Episode 1. About two years old.
Trud [Labor], the newspaper whose name was constructed from solid, guileless letters. Next to the name, two insignias were pressed tightly together — the bulging orbs of the «specter of communism.» The black color of the letter T was enticing. It seemed as if it would flake apart with the first quick nibble, like the chocolate glazing on a bar of ice cream. The hands hovered over it, aged, but not work-worn, with short, yellowed nails and a crooked forefinger. This finger, after a moment of indecision, jabbed at a spot that I longed to test with my teeth, and the confident voice of an honored teacher of the USSR asked, «Sasha, what letter is this?» I pulled the pacifier from my mouth. «Tee,» and quickly put it back in place. «And this?» — the finger slid across the pot-bellied, one-legged Р[R], the jaunty У[U], and rested on the triangular, spike-footed Д [D]. I did not rule out that I could be pierced by it, and took a tiny step back, pulled out the pacifier and gazed to the side for some time, and then, almost as an afterthought, I quickly responded, «That’s DEEEEEEE,» and stamped off on my short little legs toward the entrance.There would seem to be nothing particular about this episode. True, not many children know letters when they`re about two years old, not many people remember themselves at that age, but in principle, this is nothing sensational. This is about something else: I have described only a close-up view, the core of my memories, but I recall, as well, the big picture.
Lilac. Remember Mandelstam:
The artist is portraying for us
The deep swoon of lilacs…
I don’t know where Mandelstam saw this kind of «Turgenevian damsel,» but in our yard, we had a solid amethyst madcap, which, in contrast, was clearly in a state of temporary insanity. This was the violet resistance to the shabby faded green trash cans, the mousy prints, and dirty-yellow Moskvitch – Uncle Kolya’s car. Her bold purple was too spiffy, too young, too independent for a Soviet town, her massive tassels brazenly blinding to the eye. And the smell! No, this was more than resistance, this, it was a riot, sedition. Really, how could the air be so saturated in a country where everything was diluted: milk, beer, brains?
In short, this lilac was all about purple, and in order to pacify her audacity, the city had to be cunning. It situated a bench in the midst of this lush overgrowth on which it installed three calm, intelligent old ladies. They didn`t lecture the small fry noising and scampering past them, they did not ask strangers: «Who are you off to?» Rather, from morning to evening they carried out quiet, important, secret conversations. When neighbors approached, they would cease conversing; greetings would be exchanged, and a few polite phrases and not until the «interlopers» had walked into their entrance would they again commence their word-weaving, which nobody except for the fragrant feminine trouble-maker could hear.
And you know, in the end this secret coterie of grannies defeated the lilac. In their presence, she fell asleep: the concentration of color abated, the smell began to resemble spent toilet water, the limbs, like the head of a slumbering man, began to slump downwards, and the people who passed by to their standard five-storied buildings no longer paid her any attention at all.
And so it was: the bench, the grannies, the lilac, the newspaper, I, reading the letters, and beyond the bench — people.
People? At the back of these three conspirators? Impossible! The bench was immersed in the bushes, that there was no place for a person to stand. There was no place, but they were there. A foursome. In front — a Japanese man who wasn’t looking at me, wasn’t watching after me, he was peering at me unwaveringly with a look that, though not heavy, explained nothing at all.
A «comrade» crowded in behind him. In appearance, he was a typical Soviet bureaucrat. The large features of the face and thin, almost womanish lips radiated Polish arrogance and open hostility. Sitting close by, on a chair with a high carved back a restless, almost twisted old man, strikingly reminiscent of a giant seahorse. His spine was imprisoned under a question mark, and his long, fleshy nose seemed to race ahead not only of his round, puffy face, but also of his thoughts. As if in waves, lines of sheets covered with writing were crushed in his rapid, geriatric scratchings and were piled on his knees. The pleated collar around his neck resembled a mill stone, and his head was crowned with a hugantic black wig that curled down to his shoulders. The fourth was standing behind all the others as if perched on some invisible pedestal. Young, curly-headed. His face was framed by black moustache and beard. His big, wide-opened eyes looked at me with sympathy, encouragement and support. But most of all, the intersection of our glances ignited some kind of metaphysical tumbler, and the space around it became engilded with weightless swirling pollen, gold with shining rays (or shining with golden rays, depending on how one looked at it) and multi-sized aureate splashes. My mother’s voice stole me from this golden rapture. «Sasha, they’re asking you what this letter is?»
Step. Knee. Pain. I somersaulted into the dark, cavity of the entrance, but did not set to climbing the concrete jaws of the staircase, and instead slipped behind the closed gate of the chipped, dirty blue door and pressed my eye to the chink.
The fledgling golden reverie matured into a gilt snowstorm that rapidly took over control. Golden specks swirled in the air and settled on the filthy face of the asphalt, in places forming drifts. The evening breeze tried to etch onto this golden-threaded plaid the semblance of drifting snow. The sun had briefly left, perhaps behind a cloud, perhaps in quest of a beer, but this did not matter. Everything was still suffused with light, exhaled like a volcano, and dazzled with sparkling flurries. Only the lilac did not throb with this golden fever. She calmly flourished her heavy clusters, and not a single shining flake dared to invade her private space.
However they boldly strode straight into the bush and disappeared in the huge colorful void. The bent old man, dragging behind him his carved chair, was the last to shove off. After he trudged into the lilac orifice, the golden avalanche – blizzard of golden dust began. I worried it would engulf my mother, but then the luminous light that had beaten a retreat suddenly reappeared, and the massive golden fog was instantaneously disappeared in the warm air, which was not yet poisoned with torridness, as it usually happens at the onset of the austral summer…
…Connections dissolve… details become smaller and smaller…entire fragments disappear.
Episode 2. Three and a half.
A city park. Early autumn. An artificial zigzagging pond. A poison-green t-shirt with stars, stripes and lions. This wasn’t just a t-shirt, this was direct proof of the economic schizophrenia of the Soviet Union. Now, at the dawn of the third millennium, everything is a piece of cake, easy: t-shirts, stores, money — not a problem. You want to buy a t-shirt? Simply go to the store and buy one, or if you’re lazy — you order it off the Internet, put it on the boy, and take him out for a walk. Dixi. No hidden subtext or messages of any sort. But back then, so that I could run around in that t-shirt, my godfather spent several years working as a geologist in Iraq. After his return to the Soviet Union he had to exchange all his hard-earned foreign currency for checks. What are checks? Well, nothing special, money for the elite. Money for the elite??? Uh-huh, you didn’t believe that bit about economic schizophrenia. You thought it was just wordplay, a metaphor, eh? Nope! In the land of the Soviets, there were rubles, and these were issued in the form of wages to ordinary people who would purchase ordinary products and bring them back to their ordinary Soviet apartments. The ruble itself was almost always a dirty, crumpled, greasy, tattered piece of paper.
What exactly is a normal Soviet person, and how is he different from someone special? The answer to this question can be found through the process of elimination, that is, by identifying special people and eliminating them from the overall mass. Everyone that remains (approximately 98 percent of the population) is normal. Orwell can take a break while we continue on. Special people back then were those who went abroad, — diplomats, technical specialists, sailors, military personnel. They were forced to voluntarily exchange the hard currency they earned for checks from Vneshtorgbank [Bank for Foreign Trade] It was against the law to buy or sell them, however, they could be used to make purchases in the «Beriozka» — «birch tree» stores. The stores with this poetic name were, in fact, an insurmountable citadel for that most ordinary Soviet man with his torn and tattered rubles. Moreover, the checks themselves were different, and while diplomats were issued the D series which could be used to buy anything, the checks with the blue and yellow stripes were good for only about a quarter of the products on display. And so the «special human» was distinguished from the rest, and knew his unabashedly privileged, but just the same, his very own place. But what, then, was sold in those stores back then: Happiness? Eternal youth? Love? — No, completely ordinary goods: sausages, alcohol, household appliances, clothes, shoes. That was where my godfather bought me, as a present, the poisonous green t-shirt with stars, stripes and lions. Why am I telling you this? — So that it’s understood WHERE (in time and space) that early autumn, that park, and that zigzagging pond were located. To make my way along its concrete «shores» embedded with pieces of marble seemed to me then a feat, an achievement of the highest order. But papa’s hand spoiled everything. If I could wriggle free from mama’s grasp with a victorious cry, “I’ll do it myself,” but from papa’s it was impossible. In the end, I tired of this «leash» and began playing at first next to the willow, lush, but sad beyond its years, and then deserted it for the cheerful, despite its yellowish leaves, chestnut tree.
«So this is him? Our shadow judge?»
«Nothing is set in stone.»
I raised my head. Multi-colored cords were enmeshed in the branches. In some places they bulged, like the belly of a young python who had recently consumed his lunch, in other places they were burly and twisted, like long unwashed African dreadlocks, entangled like the thoughts of a paraphrenik, they seemed to be a braking distance from the unusual dance. Lunar. Nervous. Exhausting. And caught in this ghostly dragnet was a mishmash of colorful disks, lattices, arcs, and bands.
Some of the cords were hanging like vines, on which were perched opposing interlocutors. No, there were no kimonos or pleated collars: These were not a contrast to reality, rather, they were contrasted, each one, to the other.
On the left — total intellectual, but not the bohemian type: a good-quality, clearly made-to-order suit, white collar, standing like a soldier on watch, glasses in a thin gold frame. On the right — a paint-spattered robe and thick blobs of indeterminate color, work jeans, a cigarette butt glued to his lower lip. He looked like a house painter that has taken to drink, but one can feel in their conversation a sense of belonging to the common cause, an inner kinship.
«But he’s really not one of us?» asked the «house painter,» swinging like on a swing.
«No, he thinks of himself as someone who understands the ins and outs, while we are like savages, who have found form, but have no comprehension of its meaning.»
«Not really, his conception is a lot more complex, and the main thing is that everything is well-founded. To us he is what he is, but this Piet and Severinovich, I’m afraid they’ll end up in a jam (friendly laughter).
«Good boy! Oh, is it nothing that he’s,» — indicating me, the «painter» shrugged, – «how shall I say…» — he snapped his fingers looking for the word, -«currently-vital»?
«Right, how to say it?» To tell you the truth, I myself didn’t fully understand, after all, the main thing is that nothing is set in stone, you yourself know,…and he himself should have be summoned…
These people were evidently talking about me, and I didn’t like it. My parents had met up with their friends and threw their controlling looks my way only occasionally, giving me some room to maneuver. I began with the «intellectual». First, I threw small pebbles and pieces of dried earth at him, and then I began throwing sticks. The thing was, all the alien objects, flying up to some kind of invisible barrier about thirty centimeters from his impeccably polished shoes, disappeared like small meteorites entering the Earth’s atmosphere, only they weren’t incinerated, rather they disintegrated into elementary particles. What were they? If in our world particles are called electrons, photons, and quarks, these particles would be called zigzagots, semi-circlettes, and curvonises. They disintegrated like a fountain, gradually settling on the cords.
Then, the idea — no, it didn’t come to me, it rushed full on, instantly overwhelming my entire still insignificant mind. Do understand: there are ideas that enter the brain like tiny splinters, and you can live with them there for a long time, postponing their implementation indefinitely, meanwhile experiencing only a slight tingling from lost opportunities. And then there are ideas, that fill the mind instantaneously and completely, subjugating all your intellectual efforts, immobilizing all other realms of activity, guiding your will, your mental and physical resources toward their implementation, and any other activity is completely unbearable to the being. The biggest problem with these ideas is that when they do come to fruition, instead of releasing the being, what occurs is the creation of an existential void. My idea consisted of gathering up a few little pebbles, as many as would fit in my fist, and to toss them up and simultaneously capture them in a photograph.
Capture them in a photograph? At three years of age? If your daddy is «a real Soviet amateur photographer,» then, believe me, this could be so. In some mafia clans, they place a pistol in an infant’s crib, and in the mountain kishlaks of Afghanistan, children start playing with Kalashnikovs in early childhood. In many musician’s families, they believe that in order for a child to develop a musical ear he must listen to great composers while still in the womb. For me, the camera occupied the place of the gun and the musical instrument. Before I could walk, I was looking through the viewfinder and pressing the shutter button. While I was flailing around with my rattle and babbling, my father was telling me about lens speed and the significance of ISO.
There was also developing and printi ng in the darkroom, which was really a combination bathroom. Like a good monster, the red light swallowed it all: the desolate green enamel paint on the walls, and the window between the bathroom and the kitchen, which was there in order to let light in thereby saving on electricity. Possibly this window in the «Khrushchevki» apartments was part of a plan to develop a new species of human — homo duskapian. But vileness of the bathroom lost its impact when beloved faces and familiar places appeared on the blank sheets in the photographic tray. Later they would shrink up, suspended by wooden clothespins, losing their mystique, like a woman worn down by life.
Father explained all his actions simply: what if he grows up to be a slacker, doesn’t want to go to school and get a job? He can always earn a living with the camera. And so at three and a half, with a camera in hand, preset by my father to the right aperture and shutter speed, I already knew what I wanted to «capture» and at least knew how to operate the focus ring. Some thirty percent of those «distorted photo-masterpieces» could be called «almost sharp».
This time, as always, in response to my request to go out on a shoot, papa, as if giving me his blessing, hung the strap around my thin little childish neck and released me on my free creative voyage. I ran to the spot for the shoot, raised the camera, twisted the ring and…saw in the viewfinder the branches of an ordinary tree — no uncles, cords, or lattices. I lowered it — there they sit, looking at me, laughing, and the crazy ropes and the multicolored semi-circle, all in place. Again I looked through the viewfinder — an empty tree, lowered it — there they sit, the bastards, guffawing. The camera, my hands, eyes – raised – looked, lowered – looked, raised – looked, lowered – looked – the result was the same. I picked up a normal rock and with all my childish foolhardiness I launched it at the «painter». To the accompaniment of chortling laughter the rock splintered into variegated particles. Then something just snapped in my head, cracked apart, sunk, and with a cry of cry of childish rage «diiiirrty skuuunk,» I hurled at them daddy’s new Zenith, which according to the immutable laws of gravity plunged into the pond. And in vain, I in snotty wrath proved that they are the first, mama pulled me by the hand, shook me and said, «I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,» next came my stone-faced father, carrying the camera by the strap, from which, as if from a dying soldier, trickled its high-aperture life…