- “Literary theft!” Ivan cried, suddenly going into some kind of rapture. “You stole that from my poem!”
—Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
You know all the figures in it as well as you know the Greek gods. There is the naïve foreign male who’s just arrived in Russia for the first time and is anxious to celebrate this fact with the obligatory vodka. Then there’s the stunningly beautiful woman sitting across the bar, the one who catches his eye, but shyly, with a subtlety that rules out the possibility that this is what she does for a living.
The flirtation goes from looks, to approach, to introduction, followed by a conversation which is hardly smooth, but all the more charming for being so slow-going. As the two of them stumble for words our tragicomic hero continues ingesting his liquid courage, shot by shot, while his companion takes dainty sips of a seemingly bottomless drink.
They leave together on each others’ arms, perhaps out of affection, or maybe just to help our protagonist stay on his feet. Of course, they are going to her place, which for convenience’s sake just happens to be nearby. For being so close though it seems to be taking an awfully long time to get there. They turn corner after corner, cross canals, go from expansive boulevards to silent labyrinthine streets.
Then comes the most mythical part of the story. She vanishes…without a trace. It sounds downright supernatural, and honestly, I’ve never gotten a coherent explanation of how she pulls it off. Does she lunge around a corner and disappear, or slip into a doorway she quickly locks? What about a hole in the ground?
Because these stories are all told second and third hand no one knows the answer. What inevitably follows is about as unmysterious as it gets. A group of thugs with prison tattoos and gold teeth surround our comi-tragic hero and rob him of everything he has. Beauty and the beast, in that order.
In the days before my trip to Russia I heard this warning among many others, although honestly I didn’t take it as a warning so much as a story, an international urban legend that could very likely happen, just not to me. And why not? Am I invulnerable, on the wagon, a black belt, gay? None of the above. I’m just so naturally mistrustful that the sight of a suggestive smile across a bar would have me out the door in an instant. I don’t have enough faith in good fortune for it to be used as a lure to trick me.
Anyway, I have never picked up anyone in a bar in my life. I was going to Russia for literary reasons, and was mainly hoping to pick up some pointers on how to write. There’s certainly no danger in that.
In my first few days in Petersburg I didn’t have much time or energy for nightlife. There was so much to explore: white nights on the Nevsky Prospect, boarded up villas and crumbling factories still emblazoned with hammers and sickles, palaces and museums.
Eventually, I began to go through the cafés of literary legend. Some of these places are nothing more than tourist attractions today; sterile, overpriced restaurants with fluorescent lighting and a few old photos of Mandelstam and Akhmatova as reminders of their former glory. Others continue to host readings and literary events, and after a concentrated effort to decipher the Russian notices I managed to figure out when the next reading would take place and gathered up the courage to attend.
The café was called the Circassian Steed. The reading didn’t take place in the regular café space, with its chaise lounges, samovars and other assorted knick-knacks of old Russia. Instead, I followed the literary types through a small door in the back that led to what looked like a large storage room. There were tables with candles on them and a makeshift stage, but otherwise the floor and walls were gray and bare, as if it meant to recall Russia’s Twentieth Century the way the space next door evoked the Nineteenth.
The reading itself may have been brilliant. I can’t really say. I was able to catch the occasional resonant, poetic word—the sea, Leningrad, dolphin, orgy—but not what came before or after them. My ability to concentrate and understand was further compromised by the arrival of a woman who could have been a photo of Anna Akhmatova come to life, although of course in color. Or maybe it was Marina Tsvetaeva, I wasn’t sure. Regardless though, based on her looks alone I had already placed her in the pantheon of great Russian women poets.
She came towards the empty seat at my corner table and said something to me which I didn’t understand a single word of. My hand performed a nervous pirouette over the available chair, a gesture which could equally mean ‘you are poetry incarnate’ and ‘this seat is free’. She responded to the latter, I think, taking her place, but continuing to look at me with a sidelong glance that made me uncomfortable.
“Excuse me,” she ventured in a shy but near fluent English, “You aren’t Russian, are you?”
“Why unfortunately? You wish to be Russian?”
What could I have said? That I didn’t want to be a Russian person, but a Russian writer? That I wanted to remain myself but somehow lead a Russian life? No, vaguely thought out impulses like these should never be put into words, at least not on the spur of the moment.
“Let’s say I’d like to speak Russian, to understand better, to belong here.”
I tried to explain the different atmosphere at literary events back home and how unappealing I found them. I gave her a brief, exaggerated overview of chest-thumping poetry slams, of people reading their journal entries on stage, of poses Hemingwayesque and supposedly surrealist.
“Hmm, I don’t know if I would like that either,” she said with an abstracted gaze. Things took off from there. Her name was Marina and she really was a poet. She asked me which writers I liked best and my gaze combed the tables, from the eye-patch wearing poet who had read first to the reader of a rolled-up, weather-beaten text whose blond hair and blue eyes made him look like a figure skater. Then there was the beautiful redhead who had intoned her poems like a cabaret singer and was just stepping off the stage to wild applause. I looked helplessly from one to the next. How could I choose the best?
“But I meant any writers,” Marina giggled, “Like Dostoevsky or Jack Kerouac…writers you understand.”
While the next reader took the stage I whispered my preferences as discreetly as possible. Then I sat back and attempted to listen but after watching my blank reception of the three or four poems which followed Marina took mercy on me and led me outside. We walked along the canal, I forget which one, and continued our discussion. I was trying to show off by bringing up the names of Russian writers she wouldn’t expect me to know.
“You’ve read Zabolotsky?” she practically shouted.
In truth I hadn’t said anything about having read him, but I knew his name and didn’t want to ruin the mood by correcting her misconception.
I have no idea how long we wandered before her own writing came up.
“And can you recite something for me?” I pleaded.
“Yeah, why not?”
What better place to hear a poem read, I thought just then, with the blue and white Smolny Cathedral visible from where we’d stopped. I even noticed a plaque with Tolstoy’s name on it although I couldn’t decipher what he’d done there. In fact, all these peculiar details came to life before my eyes. This is how a poet is supposed to see the world, I thought, before a boat of passing soldiers caught in a frenzy of drunken singing drew my attention back to Marina.
All the details are still so vivid, even now. I was swept away but remained observant. I can still conjure up the whole scene before my eyes, with one exception, and of all the details it’s the one I wish I remembered most. But after glancing at the passing motorboat and hearing the drunken, off-key singing of its passengers fade away around a bend in the canal, I looked back up to meet Marina’s eyes and instead saw nothing. Not nothing. You never see nothing. I saw a wall of the alley she had led me into. I saw an empty bottle lying at my feet. I saw a locked bicycle, a Russian brand I had never heard of, and beyond it a trashcan and an abandoned hat, but no Marina.
She had vanished. And when I looked for her at either end of the alley I shouldn’t have been at all surprised by the sight that awaited me. There were four of them coming behind me and another three blocking off the only way out. All that registered in my brain was that I had exactly five hundred and sixty-four rubles in my wallet along with an emergency twenty dollar bill. It wasn’t much. Of course there were credit cards and bank cards, and it occurred to me that I would eventually have to go back to the States to get a new drivers license, although I didn’t foresee owning or even using a car any time soon.
Maybe I could ask to keep the license? But they might not take too kindly to an attempt at negotiating, and probably didn’t speak English anyway. Muggers generally don’t have time to study foreign languages. What is the Russian word for keep? No, if it doesn’t pop up unbidden then I’ll never remember it now. Not that I know how to say drivers license either.
“Would you be so kind as to empty out the contents of your pockets?” the apparent ringleader requested in what can only be described as the Queen’s English, as if he wasn’t an outcast from the streets of Petersburg, but an Etonian gone bad. One of his sidekicks slipped the bag off my shoulder and began rifling through its contents.
I handed him my wallet, keys and a ticket stub to the Aleksandr Blok museum which I had visited earlier in the afternoon.
“Ah, Blok,” he said, without even opening the wallet. He took far greater interest in my keys, eyeing them one by one while holding them up to the light.
“These two are to your room, yes?”
I must have nodded because he didn’t ask me again. Stealing money is dishonest but at least has the virtue of being comprehensible. These guys weren’t interested in the small change in my wallet. They had far more nefarious schemes in mind.
“So, shall we?”
With a push from behind I began walking in the general direction of my dorm room. I should have realized right away that these weren’t your ordinary street criminals. The ringleader had spiked blond hair, its gel glistening under the streetlights. He was dressed impeccably, but entirely without taste. All I remember now are the snakeskin boots, hardly the uniform of a mugger hoping to sink back unnoticed into the shadows.
The others looked less flamboyant but still had the air of extras in a bad music video. One was wearing a blue sports jacket over a T-shirt. Another kept his sunglasses on no matter how dark it was around us, while the last in line had such androgynous features that I had to look over my shoulder a few times to be able to tell whether he was a boy or girl.
Still, there were seven of them, and they seemed to know what they were doing. The old babushka who stood guard at the dorm’s entrance and who’d screeched at me the one time I tried to bring a girl to my room hardly glanced up from her crossword puzzle as we all came in and tramped up the stairs.
Entering my room my fear briefly evaporated as I caught sight of my scant belongings. What did they want to steal here? My mosquito repellent, my bag of toiletries? I didn’t have a laptop or a camera if that’s what they were hoping to find. Otherwise, I had my clothes and books and papers…that’s about all.
Orders were barked out in Russian. The androgynous boy opened my closet and said what I think was ‘here’ although my level of Russian comprehension was lower than usual on account of my nerves. I soon saw that the ‘here’ referred to my stack of stories printed for the workshop, along with others I had brought in the vain hope of getting someone to read them and discover my genius.
“Well, well, well…what do we have here,” the ringleader said with a sinister glee.
I sat down on my unmade bed. I don’t know whether I’d been pushed there or had simply collapsed. The ringleader remained standing while the others took their places on the bed next to me, on the lone desk chair or on the window sill. It felt like an impromptu reading was about to take place.
“So, let’s dive right into it,” the ringleader mused aloud, before beginning to read my text to himself, quickly but carefully skimming through the pages.
“Hmm, a spy story, or no, rather an ironic send-off of the espionage genre,” he announced, “but really something of a satire on what Americans call their Generation X. This, Evgeny Pavlovich, strikes me as ideal for you.”
With a grateful but still criminally malicious smile on his face, the aforementioned Evgeny Pavlovich leapt up from his place on the sill, took all ten printed copies of the story I was supposed to hand out to the rest of the workshop, and practically ran out of the room.
“Ah…now this is promising,” the ringleader went on, already well into the next story in the pile. “Urban realism…drugs, crime, poverty…rich stuff…and all taking place in an unnamed city that could be just about anywhere. I think we all know who gets this!”
He tossed it to the wearer of the blue sports jacket, who similarly zipped out of the room as if he couldn’t wait to get home and read it, as if he’d been yearning to read this (unfinished) story of mine for as long as he could remember. I couldn’t help feeling flattered.
“And lo, what’s this? Poetry? I didn’t know you tried your hand at verse.”
These were the first words he’d addressed to me since asking me about my keys in the alleyway. I didn’t really know what to say.
“Just once in a while,” I replied, “when a line or image comes to me that I don’t know how to adapt to prose.”
He seemed intrigued by my answer and on the point of adding a response of his own, but quickly turned back to the text, scrutinizing it much more thoroughly than the others. This made me a little nervous. I knew that some of it was throwaway material. I’m no poet. And although I printed it out I hadn’t really thought about showing it to anyone. Russians take their poetry very seriously though. In the literary hierarchy it retains the place of honor.
“Some well-turned phrases…only fragments really. The architecture isn’t readily apparent…Well, anyone?”
I looked around the room and saw three sets of unenthusiastic eyes and a pair of sunglasses. Whether the shaded one felt the same as his colleagues was impossible to tell. Anyway, I was hoping no one would volunteer. It was totally unnecessary. There were enough stories, novel fragments and even poems in prose to go around.
“Alright, why not,” the wearer of sunglasses said with a resignation I found offensive. If you don’t want them don’t take them!
“Precisely…why not?” the ringleader echoed. “You are a poet after all. And don’t set too much store in length. A finely wrought line is something worth waiting for. Be patient, the longer works will come in time.”
And with that this poet who preferred to see the world so darkly, vanished like the others.
“And here we have a fanciful yet ambitious attempt to set a story in our Motherland, in Omsk of all places. Have you been there?”
I shamefacedly shook my head, as if I’d been caught lying about a former job listed on my CV. I don’t know why, since I have every right to write about Omsk, or anywhere else for that matter.
“On closer inspection, I would say you hadn’t even been to Russia yet.”
I shrugged, too exhausted to get into a literary debate.
“I think I’ll take this myself,” the ringleader said. “It’s promising, and the Omsk angle is just precious.”
It took no time for the last three stories to be divvied up—a short sketch placing Hector and Ajax in the grime of modern day Athens, The inner monologue of an aphasic bartender in a New York nightclub whose jumble of incongruous words results in a surrealist prose poem of almost unbearable density, and a fable of a worldwide epidemic which causes a map-like rash to spread over people’s bodies for which I still hadn’t found a remotely acceptable ending.
And then they were gone. I sat alone in my room. The rest of my work was left on the night table. They had kept to a story per person. I reached over to see what was left or maybe just to put them all back in the closet, but my hand recoiled. I had never felt so violated in my life, although I couldn’t really say why that was. In a way, nothing had been stolen.
Once upon a time manuscripts had been precious objects, handwritten or typed on a typewriter, irreplaceable. This gang of thieves had only taken computer print outs that I could go to a copy store on the Nevsky Prospect and replace for next to nothing. Yet somehow I knew I wouldn’t do that. In fact, I already half suspected that I would never touch any of these stories again, neither with literal fingers, nor a figurative editorial touch.
The following day I paid a lot of money to change my plane ticket and went home on the next available flight, pleading a family problem of some kind or other. Once in New York I decided not to call anyone until my scheduled arrival nine days later. I would continue to send e-mails saying everything was fine and that I was off to the Hermitage again, or going on a day trip to see Nizhny Novgorod, that my story had been critiqued soundly but fairly by my fellow workshop participants, and that time was flying by and my Russian experience passing like a dream.
I spent almost a week and a half under what amounted to a voluntary house arrest. One nighttime shopping trip to stock up on food was all I allowed myself. The idea of explaining my early departure made me feel sick with disgust. The idea of even putting whatever lie I would tell into words made my throat constrict to the point I could hardly breath. For I realized that I could never tell anyone what had happened, not anyone, ever.
Even when the workshop was over and I ‘arrived’ home, spending half a week feigning jet lag (which is more difficult to pull off then you might think) I still didn’t want to talk about Russia or anything I had done or experienced there. And for once, the near total lack of curiosity about the rest of the world which characterized all my family and friends, proved beneficial. I was let off with a few stock phrases about the prices, the vodka, the Hermitage and the beautiful, mysterious women, and then it was back to ‘real’ life.
As for my writing there was even less to say. I had gone to the workshop to get over my inability to finish anything, and it was true that this problem no longer preoccupied me. Now I couldn’t start anything. I couldn’t put pen to paper except to write my signature, and even that….
Had anyone asked about my lack of productivity I would have pleaded writer’s block, laziness, personal problems, anything to avoid getting at the truth. No one asked though. No one cared. My desire to become a writer possessed as much reality as my childhood ambition of becoming a fireman.
And then, after a few months, as the last leaves fell from the trees, and the last bitter remnants of summer died away, the fog began to lift. I began to forget. Or maybe the incident’s grip on my memory began to loosen, a minor perestroika that affected me alone. Life began to get back some of its savor.
By no means was I ready to start writing again. I wanted to step back into the literary milieu slowly, dipping my toe in to get a feel for the water.