Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Simple Soul by Vadim Babenko

Chapter 3

That very morning, Nikolai Kramskoy, a forty-year-old Muscovite, walked out of his apartment block onto a quiet Gilyarovsky Street and hiked off to the Garden Ring Road. The large, two-tone edifice where he had lived since birth was well-known throughout the neighborhood. Three of its arches directly linked narrow lanes to bustling Mir Avenue and were frequently used by all manner of vagrants, so the inhabitants were accustomed to disturbances and police raids. A black band ran right through the middle of the building, dividing it in two. The upper half, painted blue, was considered to be a refuge for aristocrats, and suicides of both sexes had jumped from its roof on more than one occasion. Among them was the Austrian ambassador’s lover, not to mention several lesser personages.

Nikolai had slept poorly that night. He was unshaven, fatigued, and glum. On he went, maneuvering between cars parked right on the sidewalk, descending along a sleepy street that resignedly sheltered the prosperous classes of various years who had all rolled into one and lost their distinctiveness. He had a dismal aspect, and an old scar on his cheek, resembling the outline of a tiny hand, showed up more than usual and gave him a rather ominous look. The heat was picking up. A sort of steam seemed to be rising from the pavement, and even in the early morning the surrounding environs imparted no joy.

Upon reaching the Garden Ring, noisy as a race track, Nikolai habitually looked in the direction of Sukharevka and waited until the tower saluted him with its silent sheen. He winked in reply and turned toward the underground crosswalk leading into the twilight of the old streets. There, he knew, coolness and tranquility awaited him, rare as they were for summer in the city.

Today, he decided to go through Trubnaya, which was narrow and echoing, like a bent pipe. Nearly all the houses once belonging to the merchant nobility had been preserved in the stormy years of transition. They were now the property of banks that had expelled the institutions of the Soviet era and gradually pushed out the ordinary tenants. Nikolai walked without haste, examining the multicolored buildings as if recalling acquaintances in whose faces you expect to see premonitions of bitter days. They were beautiful, standing out as spots against the grey, but beautiful to no effect, as there was no one to admire it. The grey advanced, occasionally covering itself with insipid mottling; inept government carelessly held sway. The evolutionary tree was shedding its unneeded leaves to be trodden underfoot. Like many Muscovites, Kramskoy had learned to take this lightly: society deserved its leaders, and those left in the minority should just chalk it up to bad luck.

Reaching the square where there had once been a pet market, he shook his head and chastised himself for taking the wrong route. The space was now taken up by a sprawling construction site, which was dug up length and breadthwise, cut by ditches, inundated with scaffolding and lumber. There was no way back though, and Nikolai, like the other unlucky pedestrians, set off across the wobbly walkway laid out with boards and sheets of metal – picking his way, it seemed, through the craters left after a bombing. Threading his way somehow to Rozhdestvenka, he took a breath, wiped the sweat from his brow, and began to clamber up a hill of uneven asphalt that now seemed the pinnacle of perfection. He wanted to imagine how luxurious coaches had once trundled through here as they sped from outlying estates to the radiant Kuznetsky Bridge, but for some reason, his heart harbored only frustration and bile.

“Hadn’t someone written,” he recalled gloomily, “that ‘to make a Russian do something decent, you must first smash his face in?’ That was an astonishingly accurate observation. People in general have a true penchant for self-destruction. And, along the way, they manage to get torn down all around.”

The sun was now shining right in his face, making him squint and blink in irritation. “How hard it is to overcome Moscow’s distances; it’s as if you’re wandering in the desert or a boundless impasse,” he thought, getting short of breath as he climbed amid the ruts and puddles left from the previous night. “At times, you don’t even know whether you’ll make it to where you need to go. Then once you finally get there, you feel that your strength is all dried up. Survival in this city demands constant little victories. It is surprising how they consume every resource. For serious efforts, no strength remains – isn’t that a mockery of Moscow’s arrogance?”

Of course, Nikolai was exaggerating, deliberately laying it on thick. The reason for this was a strange sadness he had felt ever since morning. It concealed a threat that had no explanation; Kramskoy could not fight it off, which was why he was irritated with both his surroundings and himself.

Something similar had happened to him before; the world occasionally showed its cruel face – but not often, and usually for a good reason. Despite an inclination toward meticulous contemplation, Nikolai was no misanthrope. He accepted reality as it was, blaming no one for his troubles or his state of mind. That was not easy, and of course he wanted to lay the blame on many. But he knew to restrain himself, being afraid of turning into a complainer, which would signify the onset of aging and the loss of his fresh perspective. He had once developed the habit of thinking out loud – this helped him maintain his composure. And besides, his mental balance was guarded by the personal worldview he had worked out during sleepless hours and would never share with anyone.

It was nearly indescribable; the necessary words were desperately lacking. At its heart, like an inscrutable beast, resided a ruling organism that lived its own life, where each particle, molecule, and tiniest element was assigned a specific role. Nikolai Kramskoy was such a particle, and he did not yet know whether that was something of great importance or small. His thoughts and inner impulses, his desires, aspirations, and plans – all of this was the product not of a chance, but rather of metabolic reactions whose complexity could not be depicted within the confines of human judgment.

This was an entire universe; maybe that was where God lived, to put it in familiar terms, which Nikolai did not want to do. The consequences sufficed without it: for instance, there was no point in deluding oneself about personal rights and freedoms. The ruling organism was not generous with them, and perhaps did not offer them at all. Kramskoy could never quite figure that out for certain, yet he knew that the rest, who frequently felt too much of their own importance, were not as independent as they would like to believe. They themselves were no more than particles and, moreover, it was not yet clear whether their roles were even slightly distinct from each other. The majority of them were ballast, energetic material suitable only for the simplest chemical reactions. Still, this didn’t make anyone better or worse. After all, there’s no way to manage without them, and, besides, a signal worth decoding may arise within any ordinary point. There was just no need to get upset when you realized that signals seldom get through, and the universe distorted and jammed them according to the rules of the game known only to it.

Thus, there was no sense in complaining. Today, as always, his mood was determined by higher planes – an intricate design from beyond, which was not possible to comprehend. Nikolai obediently bore this, transporting it as if it were a fragile burden, over the hill and back down to the city center, past pawnbrokers and fake antique shops, the Architectural Institute and the Sandunovsky bathhouses, to Kuznetsky Bridge, seething with life. There he should have turned to the right to go straight on to the place he needed, but at the last instant, it was as if someone’s hand pushed him in a different direction. He decided to walk around, even pop in to his favorite bar at Lubyanka, on the top floor of one of the new buildings. He had already reached the entrance when he noticed bookstands close at hand. After taking a fleeting glance at them, he was about to turn and leave but bumped someone’s elbow and caused a small stir. A voice cried out, and a tome in black binding fell from the arms of a girl standing next to him. The young bookseller, keen to maintain order, started breathing down his neck. Nikolai made a soothing gesture, muttered an apology, and lifted the fallen book, which had opened in the middle. “…he rolled a four – two deuces on the jagged dice – an odious symbol of the head of Rakhu, hewn, as it were, of hessonite, the contour of destiny, in which there was neither joy nor warmth, but only ennui and arduous toil…” he read with displeasure, quickly looking away as if ashamed. Then he stepped back to the glass doors without buying anything, frowning all the more.

Things went better for him upstairs. Ultimately, the prophecy was probably intended for another; he had simply stumbled into someone else’s business, which had happened to him more than once. Really, people here were too fond of prophets, oracles, soothsayers, and magicians of all kinds. He himself didn’t mind peering into things to come, but there was no point in becoming like those who believed in obvious rubbish. Of course, if the mind had no other sustenance, then even rolling deuces or the dragon’s head could be taken seriously, but he wasn’t foolish enough to be afraid of who-knows-what!

They brought Nikolai a fruit cocktail; he sipped it in small gulps and looked at the square below and the pandemonium of cars and the headquarters of the former KGB. The view wasn’t bad, but was not much of a joy to behold. He would have preferred to be transported back in time, a hundred years or so into the past. He wanted to see the coachmen’s tavern, funeral carriages at the corner, and soft-spring broughams; to hear not the cacophony of horns and tires, but rather the clop of hooves across the causeway, the jingle of chains and buckets, the din and shouts of people. The nineteenth century, and even the twentieth including the tumultuous events of the last years, attracted Kramskoy much more than the faded world of the moment, which made him want to pucker his face as though from the bitter aftertaste of a hangover.

The city of today awakened no warm feelings within him. Moscow, hospitable and proud, full of secrets and indomitable spirit, was promptly losing its former charm, similar to the magic tablecloth, soiled with greedy fingers, shrinking into a small rag like Balzac’s Magic Skin. It was changing into the capital of a miserly world, a consumer society yearning for toys in bright wrappers. And it succeeded in this by denying its former qualities while desiring to neither create nor discover anything new, and certainly not to use its greatness to feed those who could not stand the pervasive primitivism. The variety of forms it bore no longer – inclining toward standards set by alien prescriptions, intentionally simplifying itself, losing its voice and hearing. Nikolai’s head sometimes spun in confusion, as if he were asking where he was, what was happening to him, and what had become of all the people who had surrounded him a decade ago.

He, however, did not wish to be embittered over a temporary difference of opinion with the city where he was born and had spent his whole life. Excessive bitterness smacked of weakness, which he despised utterly. Of course, the immensity of the creature into which he had been so cleverly implanted predisposed him to expand his scales of measurement. The vicissitudes of one destiny, even his own, did not seem such a serious matter. But even individual destinies were imbued with meaning – otherwise, why were there so many complications with human bodies and spirit, unquiet reason and instincts? No, everything’s not so simple; and he himself, though no giant, was also no dumb speck of dust. Nikolai firmly knew this; however, he hesitated to extol its importance too much. In such a grandiose picture, there was no place for complaints, just as there was no room for boasting or excesses of conceit. The universe acted according to plan, and life flowed by the laws of “predestination” – getting to know this predestination was the most important objective. Having accepted this, it was easy to tolerate annoying trivialities – for example, the sneers directed at anyone claiming the rightness of his own view, or, at least, of its plausibility.

However, the inconveniences were not so great – the “personal metaphysics,” as Nikolai called it, did not prevent him from making a decent life for himself. He had received, free of charge, a broad range of very useful knowledge – at the expense of the USSR, which was already on the verge of collapse. Then he spent seven years working in the Academy of Sciences, which fell into decay as soon as the USSR was no more; and now he was nostalgic for both – the empire as well as the Academy – soberly admitting such a sinecure could not last forever. When the crash occurred and a legion of scientists rushed to save themselves on their own, Nikolai successfully hooked up with a group of computer gurus with beards and PhDs who had not yet found a road to the West. Into a common pot, he threw everything he had done for the former government that it was suddenly unseemly to mention, and his life became quite comfortable by the standards of those tough times. Over the next two years, they collected a whole assortment of dead theories from the Soviet research institutes, bolted them together with garish interface functions and, writing Technology T on top of it, started looking for a big buyer. The scheme was too adventurous and doomed to fail, yet they succeeded, in accordance with the strange laws of Russian absurdity. This was aided by the stupefaction of the world as a whole and, in part, by the shortsightedness of Europe, which had decided to believe the myths of Perestroika. One of them turned out to be spot on, and, intoxicated by it, the emissaries of a large Dutch corporation bought the Big T – not even haggling much and paying real money at the realest of prices.

The case was unique, and it taught someone a lot – at least one of the notorious myths probably expired because of this – but the fortunate heroes didn’t give a damn. However, almost all of them quickly lost what they had earned as they rushed headlong into the murky world of New Russian commerce. Only Nikolai Kramskoy, who had no interest in commerce whatsoever, lived on his share a little at a time, trying one thing, then another, in search of the main solution to the riddle: what did the colossus of the universe really want from him? Over ten years passed in this fashion. There was still enough money left for about forty more years, which was enough, he was certain, to figure out the answer or, at least, to make significant progress toward it.

Having funds and free time, Kramskoy used them to the fullest. The initial shock from his sudden prosperity subsided quickly, and he was smart enough not to consider himself rich. He understood, however, that he was provided for; he accepted this new freedom and managed to handle it in quite a sensible way. Living in a city of gregarious habits, he avoided the temptation to conform to the rules that had ruined so many, to force himself to be the model of “success” imposed upon him by others. He didn’t even buy a car, as he was squeamish about the chaos of the Moscow streets. Likewise, he didn’t bother to change his living quarters or acquire luxury goods. Instead, he hid from everyone for a week in a dull guesthouse not far from Moscow that was hardly a third full in the cold December weather. And there, wandering through the winter woods and warming himself with homemade punch, he outlined a rough plan of long-term actions, which turned out to be reasonable enough.

The main point of it was extensive travel, to which Nikolai dedicated himself with full fervor. At first, he was flustered and stuck to tour groups but understood that too much gets left unexplored, so he made the effort and learned English, achieving independence from the guides after about six months. This didn’t come easily, but he was persistent, studying many hours each day, contrary to the notion of Russian slothfulness. Once he started talking and shed his shyness, he realized his eyes had been opened and the world was accessible to him in all its variety – something he could only dream about before.

Kramskoy lodged in the best hotels, enamored instantly with five-star luxury, but then he would mostly wander in rather poor places, far from the trails blazed by tourists. He sought the ordinary; and once he found it, he drank it in, not shrinking back from dirty roadways or sidelong glances. He inquired of housewives and oldsters, pretending to look for a forgotten address, bought all sorts of trifles in local shops, walked into smoky dives and struck up discussions with random people. The language barrier no longer existed for him, even if only a few spoke English in the country where he chanced to be. Remembering his efforts and proud of them, he – like the thoughtless Yankees – convinced himself it wasn’t his problem, and he learned to maintain such poise that his interlocutors believed the same. Later, he grew so bold he began to meet women, sometimes expressing himself only by gestures, having found, to his surprise, that the number of intelligible words played no decisive role. He even experienced a few fleeting successes; one in particular caused him to long maintain warm romantic memories.

Within a few years, Kramskoy had visited all the continents except Africa, which for some reason did not entice him in the least. Finally, the variety of the world revealed several dominant forms and took on a nearly pyramidal structure. This was a sign of saturation: things started to repeat themselves, regardless of the geographic coordinates. Nikolai then spent some time reading books, buying himself an entire library little by little, but finally became fed up with idleness and acknowledged that his search for predestination was progressing way too passively, spreading in breadth to the detriment of in-depth penetration.

It even felt as if he were slipping or running in place, and that was unacceptable. So Nikolai resolved to transition from nonchalant observation to active creation. He began to concoct small business projects, devoting rather careful preparation to each. The precondition was the return of his invested capital – preferably within the very first year – so he would not be in the position of a loser. This always worked out – probably because the sums were not large – and afterward, he would usually shut down the project for good and start ruminating on something new. He did it with ease, as though ridding himself of a heavy burden; his ambitions extended far beyond paltry businesses. Still, this seemed more satisfying than his recent inaction, to which he would now never wish to return, and he even found some interest in these schemes of his, especially in the theoretical part which he was sometimes able to see from a philosophical angle and abstract out the accounting and other boring stuff.

The Astro-Occult Parlor, with which he had started, concerned itself with plumbing the depths of ancient sciences somewhat related to his own ideas. Of course, the positions of the stars seemed like a simplification bordering on ignorance, and the essence was left in the subtext, concealing the mechanisms and offering short-cuts; but, on the whole, it was a pleasure for him to spend time studying tables and charts that gracefully juxtaposed the positions of cold stars. Then disappointment came in because of the unacceptable remoteness from reality, so the next project was utterly realistic. He opened a practical sexology center, buying himself an authentic-looking diploma and offering patients advice in the spirit of Hindu-Chinese routines. Their unique techniques he fearlessly united into one, albeit only in theory not committed to written treatises, and developed his own method for reconciling the Daoshis with the Krishnas in matters regarding the mysteries of love. His reputation soon spread and the enterprise turned profitable, so Nikolai exercised his whim and stopped accepting men as clients. Rather, he limited himself to the fairer sex, who was much easier to work with. During his sessions and conversations, he frequently got inviting looks, but he had firmly decided he would not take advantage of any of his patients’ trust – for ethical reasons, as well as fear of exposure – and he never deviated from that rule, despite a multitude of temptations.

Later came other schemes, also connected with the Orient, according to the Moscow fashion of those years. But eventually, Eastern topics were taken in hand by serious people, and Kramskoy knew he was being pushed out of an enticing niche. At about that time, he came up with his current plot, slyly called Heraldic Inquiry or Heraldic Inq. for short, which – contrary to his rules – had already existed for two years, confidently keeping afloat and even bringing in profit.

One way or another, he had not yet come upon his true mission – this he recognized honestly, telling himself it was all still ahead. There were other reasons to hold tightly to his businesses; they were like a thin umbilical cord connecting him to real life, which he admitted with some reluctance. The financial independence freed him from humanity, gave him the ability to wriggle out of the system, to escape from the humiliating contest with his peers, all fighting over crumbs. Yet, being on the outside, he noted that everything was not so easy, and the very freedom he now could not do without – just as he could not live without food and air – concealed danger he had not detected before. He had become a different man over these ten years: unlike his former self, which was nothing special, but also distinct from the rest, which was rather vital. The system was monolithic, but he stood on his own. He stood and hesitated, not daring to move far.

The sensation of being separate from the others came to him gradually, often accompanied by alarm and anxiety. Kramskoy was not stupid, and he knew how to foresee losses from the first sign of changes in the wind. He understood that the divergence of views, as innocent at first as private theater, could soon develop into a chasm impossible to overcome. Imagining this was depressing, especially since his fantasies could take him quite far. He saw, as if firsthand, how the distance grew between himself and the normal world, the lights of inhabited places concealed from sight, and his surroundings were becoming more and more hostile every day. He knew any caution misleads you occasionally; any compromise becomes obsolete. Sooner or later, only one possibility remains: cry out in protest while you still have the strength; make it heard, if you have the means; throw all on the altar of that illusive temple and incinerate yourself with no hope of revival. Of course, the flames may be bright, and there is a chance the crowd will notice, turning their heads away from their daily trivialities – but so what, and what’s the point of it? No, this is only suitable for those who wish to change the world, which is funny in its own right, but which is, unfortunately, totally unfeasible because one has to negotiate with the chief authority, the ruling organism that decides destinies. And it, obviously, will not even heed the impudent. All that remains is to vibrate in solitude, sending negligible impulses into the void and stirring up only an extremely small locality.

All this disturbed him considerably. At first, before isolation had become a habit and the animosity of the world seemed to increase each day, Kramskoy tried to challenge the course of things by inventing methods of combating the inevitable. From the outside, this appeared to be useless zigzags, but he saw a coherent protest in his actions. This protest, however, was brief and ended in nothing, yielding only, as was often the case, an opportunity for Nikolai to laugh at himself.

Having renewed old acquaintances, he promptly rejected them again: in inexplicable unity, traces of the past brought him to the exact same place, an arising class of managers with whom there was nothing to talk about. Their posturing seemed absurd to him; the corporate games, which they took seriously, caused him to irrepressibly yawn. He started to think he now knew what genuinely unfortunate people looked like, but then he doubted this knowledge because of the overabundance of these unfortunates who, in addition, exuded complacency to the utmost. Whatever the case, he realized he had to search somewhere else, so he set about studying the alternatives, mainly in places where the needy population was concentrated – like cheap taverns and public baths.

They were enchanting in their own way, especially a handful of surviving vodka bars where the interior was dominated by the seventies with a hint of antiquity. It smelled there of bleach and sour beer; dim lamps flickered beneath the ceiling; waitresses nimbly scampered about with sagging breasts and the faces of overexhausted mothers. The patrons did not like bright light. They hid in the corners and covered their faces with their hands, but Nikolai would deliberately sit in the very center as if he wanted to draw everyone’s gaze. He punctiliously noticed details and tried to follow etiquette – drinking low-grade alcohol, cursing the same as the rest, and echoing the laments over times long gone. At first, he was usually able to blend into the crowd, but he would soon spoil the whole picture with one or two careless words. His companions recognized in Kramskoy a stranger and rejected him with contempt, or else they shut down, falling into inexplicable grief, even though he would try to revive the conversation with witty jokes.

“You don’t even want to get drunk with me,” he would tease those sitting around him. “You don’t want to know my secrets, coax them out of the depths of my soul. Fat chance of you meeting anyone else with so much in his soul. You suspect as much, but don’t want to believe it. The boring rules of the megalopolis are more important to you than a whisper of eternity. Have it your way; I’ll get drunk alone!”

People glared at him and laughed derisively, but they didn’t go for rapprochement – something about him was false, not striking the right tone. There were even displays of drunken aggression, and he was dragged into conflicts a few times. Once, it led to a real fight. Nikolai got a cracked lip, but he held his own, answering his opponent Yasha with a weighty hook to the jaw. They quickly reconciled, however, and settled up together with the cop who responded to the disturbance. Having become fast friends, they bought more vodka and canned fish and went to Nikolai’s house, contrary to his strict rule not to let strangers into his place.

Yasha won him over with his open mind and erudition, rare even for the fallen intellectual. “They smote me, but I felt no pain; they buffeted me about, and I felt it not; when I awake, I will seek the same again,” he quoted from Ecclesiastes, and inquired in a sober voice, “What’s that about, Kramskoy?” Then he clarified, “It’s all about the same thing: boozing,” and added with a grin, “On the whole, I agree with the prophet. But I need to know: what was King Solomon’s schedule for getting soused? In particular, I’m interested in the frequency and time of day – because, in my opinion, I’m doing it wrong.”

Nikolai was surprised – it seemed to him he had found someone who spoke his language. Later, he chastised himself for his unexpected foolishness and noted with irony he really had blended in with the majority that day, quickly drinking and falling into a stupor like a blue-collar worker, passing out right at the kitchen table. Upon waking, he found his friend Yasha had disappeared like an Englishman – without saying goodbye – and he had lifted – quite like a Russian – the spare cash from the sideboard and a brand new Japanese camera. Kramskoy was not so sorry for the money and the camera; he thanked fate that at least he hadn’t been poisoned by the canned fish – taking one look at them in the morning was enough to horrify him. Nevertheless, this episode brought a close to his attempts to master mimicry with the objective of merging with the surrounding environment.

“It is senseless to again aspire to what, of its own accord, had long ago ceased to make sense,” he told himself, accepting as a postulate that free flight was unavoidable. He needed only to carefully calculate a trajectory – to move not in a straight line further and further and further, but rather in a more intricate way: moving away and returning, waltzing and spinning, gliding on one skate and tracing out figure-eights. He would have to be clever and maneuver among the human masses without being carried away like a comet but allowing for only those interactions which he needed himself.

This was genuine art – quite difficult to learn, but it had to be learned if one wanted to achieve comfort. Kramskoy assimilated it gradually, sometimes taking notice of kindred spirits, cautious shades dressed in carefully adjusted masks. They could be recognized by their walk, the manner in which they laughed, sometimes just by a glance. They were called “observers” or else “outsiders.” They were alone in a world used to monotony, and they accepted loneliness with heads held high, conscious of its implacable nature. For Nikolai, at times, it became worrisome when he thought of this and asked himself: was he already one of them? The question went out into space on unseen wires, but the response was lost somewhere without reaching its recipient. Perhaps he was unable to distinguish it from the whispers and noises. And besides, he was cunning enough not to strain his hearing.

A Simple Soul

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Genre – Literary Fiction

Rating – PG13

More details about the author and the book

Website http://www.vadimbabenko.com/

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