This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. Read more...
- Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Gr
- Date: Oct 2015
From the cover
I am an artist first, a censor second.
I had to remind myself of this two years ago, when I trudged to the third-floor flat of a communal apartment block, where my widowed sister-in-law and her four-year-old son lived. She answered the door with a thin frown of surprise. She wasn't expecting me. We had never met.
"My name is Roman Osipovich Markin," I said. "The brother of your husband."
She nodded and ran her hand along the worn pleat of a gray skirt as she stood aside to allow me in. If the mention of Vaska startled her, she hid it well. She wore a blond blouse with auburn buttons. The comb lines grooving her damp dark hair looked drawn on by charcoal pencil.
A boy was slumped into the divan's mid-cushion sag. My nephew, I supposed. For his sake, I hoped he took after his mother.
"I don't know what my brother has told you," I began, "but I work in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. Are you familiar with the job?"
"No," the boy said. The poor child had inherited his father's forehead. His future lay under a hat.
To his mother: "Your husband really didn't talk about me?"
"He did mention a brother who was something of the village idiot in Pavlovsk," she said, a bit more cheer to her tone. "He didn't mention you were balding."
"It's not as bad as it looks," I said.
"Perhaps you could get to the purpose of your visit?"
"Every day I see photographs of traitors, wreckers, saboteurs, counterrevolutionaries, enemies of the people. Over the last ten years, only so many per day. Over the last few months, the usual numbers have grown. I used to receive a slim file each month. Now I receive one every morning. Soon it will be a box. Then boxes."
"Surely you haven't come only to describe the state of your office?"
"I am here to do my brother a final service," I said.
"And that is?" she asked.
My vertebrae cinched together. My hands felt much too large for my pockets. It's a terrible thing, really, when said aloud. "To ensure that his misfortune doesn't become a family trait."
She gathered every photograph she had of Vaska, as I asked. Nine in total. A marriage portrait. A day in the country. One taken the day they moved to the city, their first act as Leningraders. One of Vaska as a boy. She sat down on the divan and showed each to her boy for a final time before bringing them to the bedroom.
She arrayed them on the desk. Her bedroom was mainly bare floor. The bed still wide enough for three, the blanket neatly pulled over a flabby mass of pillows. She must have only shared it with her son now.
I slid a one-ruble coin across the desk, hammer-and-sickle side up.
"What am I to do with this?"
I nodded at the photos. "You know what to do."
She shook her head, and with a sweep of her forearm that sent a small galaxy of dust motes into orbit, she winged the coin to the floor.
Could she have still loved my brother? Hard to believe. He'd been proven guilty of religious radicalism by an impartial and just tribunal. He'd received the only sentence suitable for a madman who poisoned others with the delusion that heaven awaits us. Paradise is possible only here on earth, possible only if we engineer it. One shouldn't envy this woman's blind devotion to a man who has proven himself unworthy of love. One mustn't.
She pressed her palms over the photographs, threw her elbows out to shield the images with her broad back, an instinct that suggested a starving creature protecting her last morsels, and this may be true: The stomach is not the only vital organ that hungers.