Once an artist friend told me, if you want to go crazy, hang up a bicycle wheel on your wall. Forty years later I still don’t know whether one should remove the tyre… This may well be the reason why I’m still sane. And alive. Isn’t it what my friends keep hinting at? The reader must cross out any sentence that starts with an “I”.
Otherwise he or she will be crossed out and “you” will take their place. A two-story building by a tram stop near my house was recently torn down. Apparently it had been overrun by bums who traded in human bones. They sold the bones to Mexico. For cheap. There the bones were used for souvenirs. Sculls were made into souvenir sculls, shinbones into souvenir shinbones. Later tram tracks were torn out. They were surprisingly long. This is exactly what John Ashbery wrote in his great poem—they tore out tram tracks and pulled down movie theater palaces.
That night I drank red wine, and he went to the kitchen every fifteen minutes, each time with a ceremonious apology, supposedly to check on the pie. What pies could he be baking in there? In reality, he sneaked out to the kitchen to down another shot of vodka. Meanwhile, a war with barbarian tribes broke out in the north. Delicious fish with tenderly tattooed gills disappeared from the markets.
The war didn’t last long, and after a protracted battle on the sultry noon of February 28 (that noon lasted 69 minutes and 31 seconds), it ended in a dubious truce when enemy representatives bowed down and presented the federal government with a few stones of undetermined origin. Primitive rituals of barbarians changed our perception of the surrounding world. It wasn’t I who said this. It became fashionable to make movies about people with special abilities to penetrate the past. Such people were called “correctors” because they carefully corrected the present using their genuine knowledge of the other world, accumulated in the course their journeys. It became extremely popular to cite Baratynsky and that certain kind of Russian literature. They liked Christmas tree decorations and Kalashnikov rifles. It became common to appear in public with a backpack.
Meanwhile, travelers returning from the South-East testified that they had often met with wandering prophets at mountain passes (some prophets were so naïve they didn’t even know how to use a compass or a cup).
The prophets claimed that in less than ten moons the banner of true believers was going to take the color of the desert and that the desert’s mirror would shine not with the reflected light of the moon but with the flaming visage of the sun, which would consequently signify the beginning of a Great Unity. As one could deduce from reading relatively popular travel notes and television interviews, local authorities were skeptical about the false prophets’ claims and relied on closely observing the ritual—which was the right thing to do.
If they came across any messenger of Great Unity, they hanged him upside down from a blossoming apricot tree and slit his veins with seashells brought from Qhar Quch, leaving him to hang in that position until he became dry, easy to understand, and useless to the work of decay.
The convicted asked to have an arm chopped off before they would melt in the blissful glitter of sandy river waves while hanging upside down, but their requests went unanswered because the officials were strictly forbidden, for the fear of having their names entered in the book stones, from being in any slightest way involved in the cult of the One-Winged Birdling whom prophets worshipped at mountain passes and to whose cult they tried to convert travelers from the lands of ice and shadows as well as merchants driving mercury- and saffron-laden caravans. Traditionally, mercury was in high demand with wealthy townspeople; they used it to fill artificial lakes in their nocturnal gardens. According to some, the cult of the one-winged “Azkhar” (radiant birdling), otherwise known as “Su-at’a” (messenger), originated in the ancient figure of al-Anka, a four-winged phoenix with two clawed hands and a human face, but went through multiple transformations before it became the one-winged birdling of the Zakhids, a symbol of the eternal return to the place from which we constantly try to escape, that we could possibly interpret as an embodiment of the soul’s return to its origins.
“It’s as unthinkable to see its both wings as it is to experience day and night simultaneously.” Let us also add that a return is just as unthinkable because every moment, while striving to return to its origins, can never acquire the present in relation to a possible future or past. Very few petroglyphs of the Azkhar came down to us. After the deliberate destruction of terrain by long-range artillery over the last fifty years, we can only hypothesize that the remaining images are hidden in the abandoned silver mines of Penjihir, inaccessible either to government troops, or to pilgrims. Railways were in decline. Ice-cream lost its popularity, as did some books by well-known authors.
Some cities risked minting their own gold coins as an anti-crisis measure. Obviously, the government could not possibly approve it, but since such coins lacked any images or inscriptions, the government closed its eyes on this municipal initiative. The rather ethereal value that the coins acquired in the course of natural exchange was believed to be strengthening the faith in the authority of amount. Value became a different slogan, but there appeared many new kindergartens. They had an unusually broad range of uses.
It became very common to give them away to communes preaching brotherhood, love for the exiled emperor, and distaste for money.
Several discoveries in physics came close to shaking the belief in the law of the origin of the universe, but the public’s attention was distracted by unexpected achievements in belles letters that rediscovered the forgotten art of ut pictura poesis; this was how the society remained true to the classical idea of the Creation as a cast of the Divine Occlusion, which allowed the philosophers to continue their debates about whether superstrong compression was the result of godhead’s experience of higher pain or an embodiment of singular creative will. Government officials carefully followed the debates but refrained from interfering, sometimes visiting unexpected gifts on representatives of both camps. It goes without saying that the value of gifts was not necessarily measured in either weight or size. One philosopher, the last to have the honor, received the right to appeal to the people on any occasion and to sit on a chair. The people, however—or rather the institute of the people—had been drastically downsized for budgetary reasons, and understandably lost their earlier significance. Besides, the right to sit on a chair did not mean the liberty to deprive others of that right; it did, however, provide prompt local sophists to discuss the difference between the stool and the actual chair as such.
What did I learn? Nothing apart from that which was known and that which I didn’t want to know. But honest to God, I’d been quite ignorant prior to that. This is why I said to myself yet again: everything exists in some kind of juxtaposition, in a secret interfacing of scales, in the tension of neck-bones—everything, including “Russian antiquity,” this table, and the window finally open to the view of Pont- Euxine. There we were on the path of the Pelasgi. There we ripped pomegranate fruit off sickly bushes. Birth certificates tell us about something else. For example, about the fist of Dr. Faustus.
But on the other hand, why not? Why not the oak, the chain, the gold? Why not the definite article? I imagine that a critic reading all this won’t hesitate to reproach the author for deliberate incoherence. I confess, I only wrote the previous sentence because I didn’t know how to introduce a confession of love, or rather, not the confession per se but a story of how I once was given a t-shirt with the IBM ball. Did it ever happen, and if it did, then when?
To the author’s credit, the struggle of his first-person narrator to maintain his dignity is quite fascinating, and the scene of failed violence (Quarta consumed by passion disguises himself as the maid/author and goes to bed with Sasha) is constructed according to every rule of erotic literature where stories usually culminate in “he touched my breast and then…” Incidentally, the novel is far from epistolary and is written as a dialog about beloved parents; the dialog naively and thoroughly retells all that transvestism.
Remember, they used to have all sorts of competitive amusements some thirty years ago? Those included typists’ speed contests. Where are Yelena, Theodora, Anatoly, Maximum, Maria, Anna, Linor, Viktor? On the arena, there are lions and a naked Christian woman with a whip (I touched her breast, then and later). Something like the floating opera of the Trans-Carpathian Cinizelli Circus. Handcuffs and seaweed.
The number of characters (let us note that there were no more misprints), typed per minute grew almost every month. The jacket line changed. Kerouac went down.
We thought that the world belonged to poetry. We were convinced that the world belonged to music. Blurry photographs of Chopin on the walls of laminated musical volumes converge at the floating point of perspective. I see it “backwards.” From the point where the human race started its march to perfection. I was confident. Technologists also tried to reach eternity. We got flopped over to Pasternak. Harold Bloom still wore his hair long. Wouldn’t do it if I were him. They introduced the “daisy wheel,” some kind of attachment that moved along the “carriage” which was now still. They once published Shklovsky’s letters to friends. Too late. Only an old fool like me dropped a few tears.
Everything became a bone of contention. Meanwhile, daisy wheels changed. Once Heisenberg visited Leningrad. But you could install a Latin, German, etc. wheel, anything including diacritics. Greetings to you, daisy wheels! Here’s someone who can lie through his teeth…
It’s funny but Igor Andreyevich Terentiev who died said when he wasn’t dead yet, ”I rode with him (Heisenberg) three floors in an elevator. I had piled up questions for ten years. I thought that when I meet him, he would answer some of them or would at least try. I stood silent. Then he left.”He liked Wagner and other people’s children; he liked to throw his money about; he had a rare record of a Bulgarian baritone, where the latter, prompted by Russian friends, let slip an obscenity in an aria from Prince Igor. He was a physicist who never tired of saying that physics wouldn’t exist without mathematics. He loved mathematics more than physics, and who knows, maybe even more than I love you. Poplars were still alive; they were shedding leaves. And I’ll try to sell it all to you for nothing.
The transparent idleness of water’s hungry rocks is akin to death. In many waters the vision of death is commensurate to the laziness of a page flying out through the shutters of dusk.
A face has several rainbow fissures of the sky. But don’t call her Sonya, don’t pronounce her name, forget it; we’ll be watching you cry and cut onions at night, and she’s totally unphased like her mother who got taken for a ride by her dad with whom wе used to sail out to the islands where there was no you, or that bitch, or money, or poverty, or stupidity such as unbridled passion for anecdotes from the lives of insects and musicians. Snow-white pine needles, gray pebbles, red clay, salty foam. The first Island of Great Ants was populated by ants the size of a mule. Their ears with earrings were funny.
Where was the Island of Flaming Creatures with horses that had brass claws on their hooves blazing like prophecies of kingdoms’ deaths?
There was an island where salmon entered the house through a special stone labyrinth, and fishermen’s compasses had two arrows. She was cold as hell and red-hot as night when apples, and more importantly, that which concealed their fall into the gardens of Western bushes, became visible.
Others lived there, and anyone who landed on that shore was told there’d be no help for them there. And they were indeed powerless. A certain person—Semion A. Petrov, a fan of Descartes and melons (more probably, Piotr. I. Semionov)—and none other than somebody else was ready to break the bread with any stranger without asking anything in return. Some of them openly believed in the healing power of seaside frost and sage. Their rises and falls took away our hopes. The tricks they used in the games of oval or ovular pebbles were rather trivial. This is why their epitaphs are studied in local schools alongside conditions of wind change.
We saw an island where creatures could turn themselves inside out like numbers, which helped them to hide from the rage of treasure hunters. Mesmer’s canary still lives there, and hempseed smolders in blinding saliva on slopes guiding passing ships.
Who can stop us from mentioning the Island of the Bug? Was it not there that we suddenly learned that first one should enter the white house stuffed with treasures up to its beams and partitioned by four stone columns from where the bug will spring forth? Anyone who drinks water there or eats boiled offal (highland potatoes and a Chinese screen with a waterfall painting could be used for the purpose) is going to fall on his face together with his dream, both facing north. But if one can manage to rip the necklace off the wall, the bug will fly through its empty middle and drop down in a handful of dust.
Thief, know: you are doomed. Eros is just as powerless here.
Secret police was still alive as was the passion for money, poison, and murder. As far as I know, there are no such things these days. A certain Mr. Ball is rolling out onto the stage, defying any causal connections. The t-shirt with his picture has been washed to heavenly holes. I may have invented this, but I forget things because I’m always writing. Maybe I haven’t invented it. Give me money. Now.
The ball, like any godhead, contained all metaphors and alphabets. By the way: a fourth-grader from an ordinary New York City school (Kristina Logondata) gave the following answer to the question “What is poetry?”: “Poetry is like the alphabet all talking at once.” Another schoolgirl pulled down her panties. Labors and days. I don’t think that Babylonian alphabet was an exception. And where were you at that time?
And then, somewhere behind the curtains of typewriters sparkling or glistening in their matt daydreams, a creature monstrous in its unnaturally corporeal appearance was born; it was named Computer. There everything immediately disappeared from the field of vision.
Then the field of vision itself disappeared. The problem with “sealing” lime ribbons (the matter of forgetting is probably the same) began to fall slowly into the category of the past tense.
Translated from the Russian by Evgeny Pavlov