Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Here's to bright colors!

The night didn't bring any real coolness, but at least it took the edge off the heat. From about six or seven the company split up into little groups...Semyon and I occupied the large balcony on the second floor. It was cozy in there; with its comfortable wicker furniture, the breeze blows through--the perfect place for hot weather.
"Number one," said Semyon, taking a bottle of Smirnovskaya vodka our of a plastic bag with an advertisement for "Dannon kids'" yogurt.
"Do you recommend that?" I asked doubtfully. I didn't regard myself as a great specialist on vodka.
"I've been drinking it for more than a hundred years. And it used to be far worse than it is now, believe me."
He took two plain glasses out of the bag, a two-liter jar with little pickles floating in brine under its flat tin lid, and a large container of sauerkraut...Semyon deftly twisted the cap off the bottle and poured us half a glass each. His bag had been standing on the veranda all day, but the vodka was still cold.
"To good health?" I suggested.
"Too soon for that. To us."
I drank the half-glass without even shuddering and was amazed to discover that vodka could taste good after the heat of a summer day, not only after a winter frost.
Semyon chuckled.
"There was one time this foreigner I knew invited me to go around to his place," he began.
"A long time ago?" I asked, playing along.
"Not really, last year. He invited me around so I could teach him how to drink Russian-style. He was staying in the Penta hotel. So I picked up a casual girlfriend of mine and her brother--he was just back from prison camp, with nowhere to go--and off we went."
I imagined what the group must have looked like and shook my head.
"And they let you in?"
"You used magic?"
"No, my foreign friend used money. He'd laid in plenty of vodka and snacks; we started drinking on April thirtieth and finished on May second. We didn't let the maids in and we never turned the television off."
Looking at Semyon in his crumpled, Russian-made check shirt, scruffy Turkish jeans, and battered Czech sandals, I could easily imagine him drinking beer poured out of a three-liter metal keg. But it was hard to imagine him in the Penta.
"You monsters," I said in horror.
"Why? My friend was very pleased. He said now he understood what real Russian drunkeness was all about."
"What is it about?"
"It's about waking up in the morning with everything around you looking gray. Gray sky, gray sun, gray city, gray people, gray thoughts. And the only way out is to have another drink. Then you feel better. Then the colors come back."
Semyon poured the vodka again--this time filling the glasses a bit less full. Then he thought about it and filled them right up to the top.
"Let's drink, my man. Here's to not having to drink in order to see the blue sky, the yellow sun, and all the colors of the city. Let's drink to that. We go in and out of the Twilight, and we see that the other side of the world isn't what everyone else thinks it is. But then, there's probably more than one other side. Here's to bright colors!"

I am a great fan of Russian writing. I almost always read it in the winter, primarily because their stoic, controlled fury way of looking at life corresponds with how I look at it in the depths of snow and ice and cold. I especially like Russian genre writing. I've read my Tolstoy and Pasternak and Doestoyevsky and Turgenev and Soltzinitsin and Bulgakov and Nabokov, my Akmahtova and  Brodsky, my Mandelstam and Mayakovsky, my Yevtushenko and Pushkin and Ratushinskaya and Tsvaeteva. (I have a collection of Babel stories I haven't cracked open yet.)

But I think what I appreciate even more is Russian genre writing. I read Gary Shtyngart's farce The Russian Debutante's Handbook this last year and the science fictions Mir: A Novel of Virtual Reality by Alexander Besher a few years ago and much Stanislaw Lem in the 70s (I remember Solaris best), and I am finishing Nightwatch by Sergei Lukyanenko today. I often have issues with translation with most of them, as genre seems to require the least capable translators, so that their phrases often fall flat ("A hero! Oh, what great heroes we all are! Clean hands, hearts of gold, feet that have never stepped in shit. Have you forgotten the woman who was taken out of here? And the crying children, have you forgotten them? They're not Dark Ones. They're ordinary people, the ones we promised to protect. How long do we spend on getting the balance right for every operation we plan? I may curse our ananlysts every moment of the day, but why are they all gray-haired by the age of fifty?"), odd combinations of formal and informal inflection, wordiness and pithiness, strained analogies and quick cultural asides. Nightwatch is no different. Andrew Bromfield, who does not fit the role of writing hack, nonetheless does not seem very comfortable moving between the relaxed writing that I presume Lukyanenko can do well (and Bromfield displays in better moments: "The only movement was the trembling of the blue and red spots in the windows--the TVs were switched on everywhere. It had become a habit already, when you were afraid, when you were suffering--switch on the TV and watch absolutely anything, from the shopping network to the news.").

But decades ago I told myself I would find something worthwhile in everything I would ever spend reading to the point that for years I typed those passages out on index cards and taped them to my kitchen door. I have discovered the same in Nightwatch.
"There's one thing you've got to understand, Anton," said the magician, crunching on a pickle. "You should have realized it ages ago, but you've been tucked away with those machines of yours. Our Light may be big and bright, but it's made up of lots and lots of little truths...Anton, I'll tell you what the problem is. You're a young guy, you join the Watch, and you're delighted with yourself. At last the whole world is divided up into black and white! Your dream for humanity has come true; now you can tell who's good and who's bad. So get this. That's not the way it is. Not at all. Once we all used to be together. The Dark Ones and the Light Ones. We used to sit around our campfire in the cave and look through the Twilight to see where the nearest pasture was with a woolly mammoth grazing on it, sing and dance, shoot sparks out of our fingers, zap the other tribes with fireballs. And let's say there were two brothers, both Others. Maybe when the first one when into the Twilight he was feeling well-fed; maybe he'd just made love for the first time. But for the other one it was different. Some green bamboo had given him a bellyache; his woman had turned him down because she claimed she had a headache and was tired from scraping animal skins. And that's how it started. One leads everyone to the mammoth and he's satisfied. The other demands a piece of the trunk and the chief's daughter into the bargain. That's how we got divided up into Dark Ones and Light Ones, into good and evil. Pretty basic stuff, isn't it? It's what we teach all the little Other children. But who ever told you it had all stopped?"
Semyon leaned toward me so abruptly that his chair cracked.
"That's the way it was, it still is, and it always will be. Forever, Antoshka. There isn't any end to it...Do you have a truth of your own, Anton? Tell me, do you? Are you certain of it? Then believe in it...Believe in it and fight for it. If you have enough courage. If the idea doesn't make you shudder. What's bad about Dark freedom is not just that it's freedom from others. That's another explanation for little children. Dark freedom is first and foremost freedom from yourself, from your own conscience and your own soul. The moment you can't feel any pain in your chest--call for help. Only by then it'll be too late."
He paused the reach into the plastic bag and took out another bottle of vodka. He sighed:
"Number two. I have a feeling we're not going to get drunk after all. We won't make it."

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