Deep South v.2 n.2 (Winter, 1996)
Chapters 1-4 appear in Vol 2 No 1 of Deep South
Further chapters will appear in later issues of Deep South
At any rate, Borka Churilov established his lifelong protege as bookseller. In store No. 41, which had branched off from The Poetry Shop. The boss, Liliya, was a mean little blonde, whom Anna christened "The Little Fascist." She accepted "the little boy" willingly. Only "little girls" worked in the store. Liliya, Flora and "The Zombie" in a scraggly fur coat.
Every morning he came in on the trolley from the Saltovka district. Every morning he would pick up his stock and take it to the place where, having put it on a folding table, he would sell it. After completing the transfer of the books, he would begin arranging them on the stand. At first, while they were still explaining things to him, he set up his stand on Sumskii Street, right at the very doors of Store No. 41. Afterwards, he operated in the foyer of the Komsomolskii Theatre and at other crowded spots.
The bookseller's profession has some similarities to that of street-hawkers or snack-vendors. The bookseller recieves a paltry salary, but has the right to keep a certain percentage of the take. The outstanding bookseller in Kharkov, at the time Eduard Savyenko joined the profession, was the former railwayman Igor Iosifovich Kovalchuk, who had sold, at one time or another, for all the bookstores in the city. Of course, neither at the beginning of his career as a bookseller nor at its end could Eduard Savyenko compare in productivity with Igor Iosifovich. They hired Igor Iosifovich when they needed to fulfil their quota. They offered him higher salaries or bribed him. Because Igor Iosifovich could sell any book. Usually he set up his several tables in the center of Tevelyev Square, like an Asian vendor, crying out to the sky, about his books, hawking his wares in a hoarse voice: "Look! A history of the most terrible crimes in Antiquity! The battle between black and white magic!" It was difficult for passers-by to withstand these lures. There were always crowds gathered around Igor Iosifovich's stand. The "Story of the Greatest Crimes in Antiquity" might turn out to be simply a volume from the textbook, "Treasury of World Literature," issued by the Academy of Sciences.
"Ed," as Anna called him before the adoption of the last name, "Limonov," was shy. He hunched timidly behind his book-covered display table. Sometimes there were two tables. Ed sat timidly and, for the most part, said nothing or smiled diffidently. Despite the straight-razor the bookseller often carried in his pocket, the bookseller of store No. 41 was not an agressive young man. Sometimes Liliya would send out, to reinforce him, "The Zombie"--a skinny being of the feminine variety, always wrapped in a shabby old fur coat. "The Zombie's" nose was always frozen, and its long tip was of a bluish color.
Eduard Savyenko didn't earn much money. To speak more precisely, he earned almost nothing. Yet the rapid pace of events managed, in October, November and December, to transform the half-criminal young worker into something else, something not quite clear--but at the very least, he entered, in those cold months, an entirely new social class. Imagine, reader, how difficult a process this is. Sometimes this sort of transformation requires several generations!
Every evening the bookseller hurried to get the stacks of books, and the tables, back to Store No. 41. Like a worker-bee hurrying back to the hive, like a bird to its nest, a jet to the airport. The bookseller hurried along--awaiting him was an appointment with the future, concealed in the alleys of Shevchenko Park, in the "automaticic snack-bar" on Sumskii Street, and in several Kharkov apartments. The future was hidden in the murky urban twilight, draped in rather old-fashioned clothes--symbolist, surrealist clothes. Though provincial, Kharkov, former capital of Ukraine, knew how to play cultural games.
There were many people around. Hundreds, at the very least. New, interesting people, unlike anyone else. In the little "storeroom" of Store No. 41 there were always lots of people sitting, avidly reading manuscripts. Poems, for the most part. The clean-shaven physicist Lyev, who had just returned from an expedition to Leningrad, brought back five or six examples of Brodskii's poem "Procession". An early poem, an imitation of Tsvetaeva, this poem lacked artistic integrity, but suited very well the socio-cultural stage which was occupied (better to say, at which will always be occupied) by Kharkov and the majority of the "Decadents," who tramped along the triangle formed by Bookstore No. 41, The Poetry Shop, and the Automatic. So the poem enjoyed an unusual popularity. People stood in line to read Brodskii, from the time the bookstore opened to the time it closed. One of these readers was the poet Motrich.
Looking back and placing Motrich's greatness in historical perspective, it is necessary to note that at that time, Motrich was not the genius his worshippers considered him in 1964; he was not even known as a poet by many people. If there was a spark of genius in him, it was unnoticed. Yet Vladimir Motrich--as the past master again reminds us of his "Hammer and Sickle" factory (later Eduard Savyenko suddenly remember remembered, that Boris Churilov took him to the furnace, where the "real poet" Motrich still worked in l963) was, beyond any doubt, a POET. An original POET, since a poet is not merely a certain number of verses, but a soul, an aura, a taut field of passion, a radiant personality. But Motrich worked at it, oh yes...
One day...Ed the bookseller handed over the books to Director Liliya and she determined what he would make for the day. This operation was supposed to take place every evening, but both the bookseller and the director arranged,through laziness, to fix the books only weekly...alas, it came up 19 rubles short. In a rotten mood, Eduard came up out of the basement-level office to go down Sumskii Street to the stop where he would take the tram back to boring old Saltovka. But right at the last step the bookseller came face to face with a sort of moving wall, composed of the girls Mila and Vera and the poet Motrich. Snow was falling; Motrich's long skinny frame was encased in a remarkable black overcoat with a shawl-like collar. The Kharkov "Decadents" had already christened Motrich's overcoat the "badger-fur coat." It all likelihood, even Motrich himself considered his coat to be badger-fur. At any rate, he often, and eagerly, declaimed the appropriate verses from Mandelshtam.
"Ed!" Motrich called out to the bookseller. He was secretly delighted. A smile was dying on the poet's Croatian face, a face with dark, hollow cheeks and a long hawk-nose with dark, coarse bristly whiskers, clearly visible in daylight, growing from the nostrils. "So it's you, Ed? You work here, with Liliya?"
"Yes," acknowledged the poet, "It's me."
"Great!" Motrich exulted, and the girls laughed melodiously.
"What're you doing, Ed? You busy?"
"I'm going home," the poet announced gloomily. "I'm not doing anything." He had already worked "with Liliya" for a week, and he had already noted enviously that in the evenings, a crowd would form, gathering either at the store or near it, and set off happily for the secret nocturnal Kharkov. Ed the Bookseller usually went home. One time Borka Churilov, he was on the first shift, took Ed to the "Automatic," also called the "Machine-gun." In the clear light of late afternoon the long, horribly contemporary self-service cafe stood snobs in high-collared overcoats and tight pants, drinking coffee from tiny little cups. There was even one with an umbrella-walking stick.
"You want to go have a drink with us?" asked Motrich, and then explained, "In honor of the first snow."
"Sure," agreed the bookseller, almost jumping for joy. Motrich was the first living poet he had ever met in his life. How could one refuse an invitation from one's first living poet to drink to the first snowfall? Mila took the bookseller by the hand, and the foursome went off down Sumskii Street, and the snow came down, and for some reason they were all smiling...
They drank coffee and port at the "Automatic." The bookseller, indescribably honoured to form part of Motrich's entourage, was introduced to a number of snobs--and to a number of young people of another category: intentionally badly dressed and unhappy-looking. "Bohemian," explained Motrich, noticing the astonished expression of the former steelworker, when a pale, greenish youth in a military greatcoat without belt or overcoat, and black boots that were falling apart, shuffled past them, leaving a damp trail behind him (undoubtedly his boots were leaking) and tossing out a few words in Motrich's metre.
"Kuchukov, a surrealist painter," was Motrich's commentary. "His daddy's a militia colonel."--and, seeing that a militia colonel did not make much of an impression on the bookseller, added, "But that's not even the most surprising thing, Ed. Yurka's an Ostyak, the last representative of a dying Siberian tribe. He swears that his ancestor is Kuchum Khan...the one who was defeated by Yermak Timofeevich..."
"The guy's probably lying," thought the not very trusting bookseller, but he did not confide his thoughts to Motrich, maintaining his reserve. The other young men and women he met that night were also provided with absorbing capsule biographies by Motrich.
Having spent an hour in the "Automatic/Machine-Gun," in which time Motrich had three "triples," little cups of special-strength coffee made for him by "Auntie" Shura, they got a couple of bottles of port from the grocery store and, strolling down Sumskii Street, set out through Shevchyenko Park, already white with snow. The company amused itself at the expense of the round-faced Tolik Melekhov, who taught in the Philological Faculty of Kharkov University and kept watch by night in the boiler-room of a multi-story apartment building. Sitting down on a bench, Vera took off her mittens and with them brushed away the snow on the bench for a long time and with evident pleasure, and they stood to listen in the trampled snow in front of Motrich's bench. The poet's badger-fur coat was open. In one hand he held a bottle of port, and from time to time took a good gulp of it. Motrich recited poetry. Eagerly, the way starving people eat. Hardly stopping to take a breath, he read. As substantial things, rather than light, immaterial words, proceeded the verses from his Croatian throat. He read Mandelshtam and Brodskii's "Rat-Catcher"; he read his own verses:
And Jesus himself, like a horse-thief,
In a shirt of colored cotton...
The deep whisper (and especially disturbing, like a mutter, the "s" sound in the name "Jeessss-ussssss) of the living poet made all the hair on the bookseller's neck stand up for the first time in his life. Unmoving, hypnotized, mouths open, Mila and Vera leaned against each other, staring at Motrich. Having heard this poetry hundreds of times, perhaps...
"Recite 'The Wooden Man'," asked the student Melekhov. "OK, Volodya?"
No one had to twist Volodya's arm. Moving closer to the bookseller, his newest listener, Motrich recited the story about the wooden man. This wooden fellow...
Lived in a little garret, up
A hundred winding steps
And on each one found
The bookseller learned that the wooden man loved an unfortunate doll, who betrayed him, dumping him.
From the glass beads
His soul is covered with broken glass
The doll went to the pink puppet,
To her secret liason
And away from the heartless doll
Upstairs to his garret ran
The little wooden man
The wooden man...
Despite several serious criminal incidents, several factories in which he had had to work, and several complex and not entirely innocent adventures in the Crimea, Caucasus and Asia, the bookseller still did not understand the doll's nature, did not know that it was all in the way of things, that the world is like that, that the doll always goes out to a secret liason with the pink puppet. The Croatian, whose family God-knows-what wind had blown into Kharkov, convinced him, overcoming the bookseller's own experience. And Eduard Savenko believed, that the doll's nature is like that..That's her, strongly depicted. In an instant Ed Savenko, not yet even having become Limonov, understood what awaited him. Understood and forgot.
Gazing at the dark poet (Croatian bristles poking through the skin), the bookseller promised himself to become a poet. like Motrich--"To be like that" he stubbornly insisted. To have two girls sitting beside each other staring admiringly at him. To have the roundfaced student Melekhov smiling in admiration and delight and silently moving his lips, keeping time, perhaps, to the rhythm of the verses...his choice of profession was settled.
Until three a.m. Motrich stood with the bookseller at the trolley stop and recited verses to him. That snowy night at the end of l964 was the first time the bookseller heard the names of Khlebnikov and Khodasyevich. The name "Andrei Bely." And perhaps a dozen no less distinguished names. The last tram took a long time running out to Saltovka,
Melekhov's fate was tragic. But it would hardly be reasonable to part the years and go into it now. The bookseller walked home. It took him almost two hours to make his way along the white streets of Kharkov to the Saltovka stop and, at last, to go up to his parents' flat and lie down on the sofa which served him as a bed. But even then he could not get to sleep...
The next day, Melekhov, in a fashionable plastic overcoat, which he made look awkward--his simple round face not harmonizing well with the futuristic product of the Riga atelier--walked into the muddy foyer of the "Komsomol" Theatre, where the Bookseller had set up his tables. He took from his case, which he had laid on its side, a time-yellowed book in a shredded paper cover, covered with tracings.
"There!" said Melekhov. "Let's start with this one. This forms the base, the foundation. Without this book the contemporary world will be impenetrable for you. If you don't understand it--don't worry. You don't have to grasp it all at once. If you want, I can then explain the unclear parts to you. You have to pay really careful attention with this book!"--And, having furnished the Bookseller with the adress of the boiler-room at which he worked, Melekhov walked off to his shift, carrying in one hand his sack stuffed with books and abstracts. Ed took a look at the book. Introduction to Psychoanalysis. S. Freud. With Preface by Professor Ermakov.
"Tolik Melekhov's a really good guy. Get to know him!" commented The Zombie, who had set up next to Ed. It was the end of the month, It was the end of the month, the bookstore was trying to fulfil the plan, so they'd sent The Zombie along to help the Bookseller. "And how well he knows books!" The Zombie enthusiastically wiped her always-moist eyelashes. "Oooo! Tolik's got a real library! But he's really poor. He assembled it book by book, out of sheer devotion. What a guy!" The Zombie even clicked her tongue. "How lucky Anka is! What a husband he'll be!" The Zombie very much wanted to get married herself, and although she was still only twenty, from time to time The Zombie lamented her fate, still unfastened by the bonds of wedlock. Meanwhile, she was seeing some Yurii, practicing for pregnancy and householding.
"Who's this Anka?" wondered the Bookseller, thinking, Isn't it that maybe-Jewish lady with the stiletto heels and eyes as sharp as her heels, to whom Borka Churilov introduced him in the "Poetry" store?
"Anka Volkova's the daughter of a very important man!" said the Zombie very significantly, and for some reason in a whisper, as if entrusting to a comrade an old secret. Her pale-blue face, like that of a chicken which has been dead for several days, shone with her particular sort of religious rapture. "Anka Volkova's the daughter of Volkov himself!" and The Zombie stared triumphantly at her workmate.
"But who's Volkov?" wondered the ex-foundry-worker.
"Are you kidding? You don't know who Volkov is?" The Zombie suddenly stood up behind the counter and firmly grabbed an adolescent hooligan by the hand. The Bookseller got up too, and together the two of them managed to get the stolen book out of the thief's spacious overcoat. Then, having given the would-be thief a slap on the head, The Zombie sighed.
"Volkov," she said, "is the director of the Kharkov Meat-Fish Trust."
"Meat-Fish Trust" made no impression whatever on the Bookseller. Secretary of OBKOM, General of the KGB--there were several titles which could impress him. But "Director of the the Meat-Fish Trust"?
"So is she pretty, this girl?"
"You mean you never saw her--Anka? She comes here often. She was in the store just yesterday. Wears glasses. Tall. Rimless glasses."
The Bookseller recalled this girl. Glasses. Surprised pink cheeks. Nothing fantastic, maybe a certain assurance in her manner...But for all his erudition, Melekhov had a simple peasant face. Even after a year the Bookseller would say, "The face of an intellectual of the first generation." But now he changed his definition: "A simple face--in fact, a peasant's face."
Obviously the Bookseller's dreams of the grandeur of the "Meat-Fish Trust" and of the daughter of its director showed on his face, because The Zombie filled in more detail on Anka Volkov. "Anka's very spoiled, and a girl of character. She loves Melekhov, but still torments him a lot. See, Anka also studies Philology. That's how they met."
The Bookseller looked at his watch and started piling his books in the sack. The Zombie didn't object, and joined in putting away the goods. It was a quarter to eight. Early. Liliya always asked them to stay in the foyer of the theatre at least til a quarter-hour after tickets for the eight-o'clock showing were sold. Director Liliay insisted that book-lovers always chose this showing. The Bookseller knew that, counting the group of hooligans who had chosen the foyer of the "Komsolol" for their headquarters, the guys who had arranged to meet their dates there among the cracked batteries, there wasn't a soul in the foyer of the theatre by eight o'clock. So what books were they going to sell? Out on the street it was snowing hard, and people had long since gone home from work.
"Anka and Tolik want to get married. Anka's Mama is on their side, but her father doesn't know about it. They're afraid to tell him that Tolik even exists. He probably won't agree to it. Melekhov has no father, but his mother's a yardworker. The father wanted to give his only daughter Anna to someone of his own circle..."--The Zombie babbled as usual and as usual put the books into the strong, durable sack, while the Bookseller, Ed, tightens the drawstring of the sack.
"They marry off their daughters, just like in bourgeois society," grumbled the Bookseller. "Who's Anka anyway...what's it to her who Melekhov's father was...'Yardworker-Mother'--Anka, with her glasses, will look just as much like the daughter of a yardworker!"
"And what's your father?" Asked The Zombie.
"A captain," admits the Bookseller. In the past couple of years, he's grown indifferent to what rank his father holds. Before, he was embarrassed about his father-captain. Another time he would have lied, and said that his father was a colonel. Why would he have lied? Maybe in order that the effulgent radiance of a full regimental colonel might have shone its social light on him, Eduard.
"Captain of what?"
"God only knows of what now. I lived with my parents for so few years that I don't even know where he serves." This answer was truthful. Captain Savyenko worked, in his time, in the NKVD/MVD. Where he works now, Eduard has no idea.
"Guys! They sent us to take you away!" The poet Vladimir Motrich appeared in the foyer of the theatre, in person, shaking the snow from his lordly fur coat. Behind him entered a tall, stooped youth with a fat, dark face and a shiny profile. The youth stared amusedly and condescendingly at the books, at The Zombie, and at Ed. From one of the batteries in another corner of the hall, the hooligans, who until this moment had been peacefully carving coarse words into the plaster with their knives, greeted Motrich. Motrich answered the hooligans with a haughty circling gesture, hand over his head. Of course, the hooligans didn't read Motrich's verses, but Motrich lived on Rimarskoy Street, which runs parallel to Sumskaya, right past the theatre; that is to say, he was local, and and the local hooligans knew him.
"Let me introduce you, Ed--this is the painter Misha Basov," ceremoniously stepping aside in order to give the Bookseller the opportunity to see the youth with the shiny profile. By the attentive way in which he stood aside--the care, thoughtfulness, even--it could be seen that the shiny youth was his close friend, and that Motrich was proud of him. The youth stared unceremoniously at the Bookseller. It might not be fair to call his glance haughty. But an untroubled arrogance was in this glance. The Bookseller noticed that the youth somewhat resembled a portrait from the beginning of the century--possibly he looked like Aleksandr Blok, the only poet, besides Yesenin, whose work the Bookseller knew well. Borka Churilov, back when they worked together in the foundry shop, gave him, for his birthday, nine blue volumes of Blok. Borka, like Pygmalion, guided our young hero into life.
"You're a friend of Churilov's, right?" asked the shiny youth Basov, in place of a greeting. "And, if memory serves, you write verses?"
"Used to." Answered the Bookseller, ashamed.
"And what, you gave it up?"
The Bookseller nodded.
"And you were right to do so"--said the Blok mouth in calm approval. "Nowadays everyone writes poems...But Motrich is our only real poet." He cocluded with this gross flattery and stared at his friend the poet. who at that moment, having removed from his head his fur hat, was brushing the snow from it. The tiled, "marbled" floor of the foyer was covered with a layer of dirty slush, carried in from the street by hundreds of feet. In the slush stood Motrich's skinny trouser legs, ending in short Czech shoes; and further on, the skinny black trousers of of the youth Misha Basov, covered with mud and tucked into two formless homemade boots tied up with many lace-holes. Having noticed these boots, the Bookseller forgave the painter for his outrageous falshood--that no one but Motrich could write good poems. For all his gifts, the youth was poor. Poor and intelligent--this combination the Bookseller respected in people. A thief or a bandit shouldn't be poor, thought the Bookseller. But a man of the arts--that's another matter. The classic artist--the painter, the poet--should be poor. It's obligatory. Like Van Gogh, whose amazing letters have just been translated into Russian, together with reproductions of his work, in a large, heavy book like a family album. The Bookseller got the book from Liliya and read it from cover to cover. Poor like Yesenin, who was always short of money...