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Authors: Jose Manuel Prieto

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia

BOOK: Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia
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Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire




José Manuel Prieto

Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen

Black Cat

A paperback original imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

New York

Copyright © 1998 by José Manuel Prieto

Translation copyright © 2012 Esther Allen

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 or [email protected]

Originally published in Spanish as
Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia

by CONACULTA, Mexico, in 1998.


Printed in the United States of America

Published simultaneously in Canada

ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9372-8

Black Cat

A paperback original imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

841 Broadway

New York, NY 10003

Distributed by Publishers Group West

13  14  15  16    10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

For Elena and Alicia

La femme est le contraire du Dandy. Donc

elle doit faire horreur. La femme a faim, et

elle veut manger; soif, et elle veut boire . . .

Le beau mérite! La femme est naturelle,

c’est-à-dire abominable.

Woman is the dandy’s opposite. Therefore

she must inspire horror. Woman is hungry and

wants to eat, thirsty and wants to drink . . .

Most admirable! Woman is natural,

that is, abominable.


Der Mensch sieht die Zeit nacht der Länge;

Gott sieht sie nach der Quere.

Men see time lengthwise;

God sees it crosswise.

—Martin Luther




A porter offered to carry my luggage to the taxi stand. He awaited my response patiently, eyes glued to the floor. I noted the cloth cap, smoke weaving from a filter cigarette, the tight checked jacket, and in tones of
vox dei
delivered a severe warning from on high: “No rushing off to the taxi, boy. I’ve just arrived in P** and am not in the mood to go chasing after you. I’ll bring you down with one shot or use a little gas—you’ll be shedding some tears, believe me.”

(That was me, barking orders like a ship’s captain who must keep his boisterous crew in check, a skill indispensable to anyone who wishes to move about the Grand Duchy of Muscovy unscathed; without it I’d have little chance of bringing my ambitious undertaking to a happy conclusion, my luggage stolen right there in the train station by one of these fake porters.)

At the taxi stand I handed some bills to the unkempt individual in question, who made no secret of his disappointment. He swayed querulously on his short legs; it was clear he’d been hoping for a different sort of client. (He hadn’t figured it out until he heard me threaten him with native fluency.)

“It’s enough to buy cigarettes,” I told him.

“Depends what kind. I’d like to smoke those . . .” (With an accusatory stare at the blondes he’d glimpsed in my pocket.)

I shrugged.

“Well,” he said, “you would never carry other people’s bags in a train station. Am I right?”

“That’s true. I have other plans for my stay here in P**.”

“Know something? I haven’t always been a guy who carried suitcases around. A few years ago . . . Hey, be careful!” he shouted when he saw me open the taxi door.

I swiveled to gaze back at him, intrigued. He might turn out to be one of those insignificant characters we pay no attention to at the beginning of the movie, who then, two reels later, is revealed to be the murderer. Thank God it was only a bit of domestic advice he wanted to proffer: Be wary of taxi drivers, look both ways when crossing the street.

“Don’t worry, it’s not my first time in P**,” I said, and once inside I rolled down the window and handed my pack of cigarettes out to the porter in distress: “Have a smoke on me, Dimitri!”


“Have a smoke, Kolia!” I repeated, then gave my orders to the driver: “The Astoria.”

(Great floods periodically inundate Saint Petersburg. Sea swells from the Gulf of Finland rush through the mouth of the Neva River and wash across the lower parts of the city. Many buildings bear a watermark a meter and a half above ground.)

I. Listen: phrases that might at first seem simple, such as “Agreed, L
. At the end of the summer we’ll take a trip to Y

are merely cryptograms that enclose and conceal their true meaning, which is “Agreed, L
. At the end of the summer we’ll take a trip to Y
.” This latter sentence composed, in its turn, of elementary roots, the primary concepts that are indispensible to any reader seeking to comprehend B
, the novel I’m planning to write.

I must set forth concepts such as
(or F
, C
, in order to establish a framework of reference for
the story I tell, a story that will exist in suspension among the vector convergence of these entries, or
(voices) as they’re known in my language. Set in small caps, to differentiate them, the entries are like black holes, exits into universes of other meanings, junctures crossing through the mass of the text to give it cohesion. Such a structure presupposes a reading that will be nonlinear and unending, for on consulting
you will be prompted to see
, and that entry will send you to
, and so on interminably. Yet I do not seek a total sampling that would exhaust all possibilities; I’ll limit myself to assembling a minimal number of entries that, in combination—Пропп (Propp) and his morphology of the folktale, Georges Polti’s list of the thirty-six dramatic situations—can reproduce the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, the unknown world. I could have called this my
Expert System,
for mine is the type of
that addresses a particular subject, works such as the
Enciclopedia Dantesca
or the
Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding,
both of which I consulted in composing this opus. The simplicity of the subject matter, the overtly trivial idea of
tangential living,
diminishes the complexity of the method to some degree, even as it facilitates the task of keeping all the entries in mind. Moreover, the philosophy of the moment—which this
seeks to summarize—operates by instants, exists in the present. The synchronic and circular conception of my work proposes the same thing.

It would have been easy to reorganize the text so that it advanced
much like Hesse’s K
, or any other novel written without artifice. But I deemed it more interesting for this reordering to occur in the reader’s mind, as when, on turning the final page of a detective novel, all the pieces of the
—the gloved murderer and that doctor in the first scene are one and the same!—fall into place.

Finally, a curious coincidence: in the
Instauratio Magna,
Sir Francis Bacon planned to write, the subject headings for the section titled “Man’s Action on Nature” are almost identical to mine, it’s rather extraordinary:

Vision and the Visual Arts. Hearing, Sound and Music. Smell, and Smells. Taste, and Tastes. Touch and Objects of Touch (including physical love). Pleasure and Pain. The Emotions. The Intellectual Faculties. Food, Drink, etc. The Care of the Person. Clothing, Architecture, Navigation. Printing, Books, Writing.

A few additional topics—E
—would complete the list for my project. (You already know the story: T
arrives in Saint Petersburg in search of L
, the young woman he requires in order to carry out a delicate experiment. They are to make a trip together to Y
, in the Crimea, and later, if all goes well, to Nice. The story takes place from late spring to early winter of 1991, months before the


The satisfaction of embarking upon this
with an entry that figures on the first page of so many. We find the
throughout Russia. Fabricated of metal, wood, and bone. Displayed on many a counter as a guarantee of impartial computation, yet serving primarily as a means of swindling the buyer, who never quite manages to grasp, who follows the play of beads along wires, hypnotized. Having consulted the complex framework of the
, golden-haired oracles announce impenetrable results, weighted in their favor by at least 10 percent. (I’ve known shrewd customers to carry a pocket
for rapid verification.)

I often asked K** to teach me how to use one, an art she’s known from the time she was a girl, but I never managed to get past the hundreds column to the final wire.

I decided to follow the flautist: the group leaving the Kazan Cathedral’s colonnade and setting out across the Nevsky Prospekt. The redheaded girl with a long overcoat thrown across her shoulders and two insignificant young men, trying to take her hand right there in full view, the rashness of youth.

As if they were valence electrons floating past a nucleus, ready to enter into reaction, T
, who has some rudimentary knowledge of chemistry, maintains his distance from the trio, careful to keep his pulsating molecular mass out of sight. He watches them proceed along the bank of the canal and disappear into one of Saint Petersburg’s
extraordinarily beautiful gardens. When he reaches it, his fingertip reflects on the tall gate’s Art Nouveau spirals, and he spies on them, wrought-iron flowers sketched in the foreground. He sees the girl sitting on a bench next to a tennis court. A great stroke of luck, for T
has spent hours studying tennis players in their animal innocence.

I stood there a while, watching the girl brush her hair. With every stroke, she swept it back from her forehead so as not to lose herself within it. I edged along the expanse of grass and sat down beside her (no one else on that bench, recently painted a deep green). When she had completed her
the girl suddenly tossed her head forward and the hair flew, brushing against my face (its scent). I managed to catch hold of a lock and held it before my eyes in wonder.

The girl gave a start from behind her red curtain and her eyes, partly concealed in the ochre penumbra, clearly informed me: “I do not speak to strangers in parks.” (And yes, strict Muscovite etiquette does prohibit such a thing, though in reality no one minds forming a friendship in the metro or in a department store, though never without alluding to the exceptional nature of the case.) Still, she ran her index finger from the roots to the ends to show me the uniform color.

“Forgive me,” I said. “I wished to ascertain something. Many women use henna and manage to achieve rather credible color by that means. I needed a closer look.”

“Come on! I can always tell when the color’s natural” (at last she spoke to me). “Just look at the roots.”

“Take this, please,” I held out my card: T
. “I work for a company with an interest in natural redheads. We’re planning to open a branch here in Saint Petersburg. May I—just one more time? Yes, I believe this is what we’re looking for.”

?” the girl asked concisely, already thinking in English, too.

I hesitated. This way led to a dead end: boring sessions in the lab, diligent performance as a guinea pig.

“Please don’t lie to me,” she interrupted. I’d watched her lose her breath a while ago, in the cathedral. I had no doubt that she’d come with me, as in the end she did.

“Действительно, не знаю о чем это вы!” I answered, in a nineteenth-century Russian well suited to that garden. (“Indeed, Madam, I know not what you may be alluding to!”) “It’s the simple truth: we’re looking for Slavic faces: high cheekbones, rounded noses. But it’s your hair that interests us most.”

“Oh, God! You’re lying! I know it! Tell me more.”

I wavered a moment and she stood up, ready to walk away.

“Sorry, I’ve got to go.” She opened her purse and extracted a black velvet ribbon to tie back her hair.

“Look: I saw a book just now, in your bag. I knew you’d understand my proposal . . . And the black ribbon, it’s lovely . . .”

One of the boys, the overcoat’s owner, was returning to the bench holding two ice creams. Seeing me talking to his lady friend, he managed, with some effort, to articulate: “Nastia, you left my overcoat over there!” (Meaning: my friendship, my love for you. Me, who brings you ice cream!)

“No, I didn’t; I was watching it from here.”


real name was Anastasia. I realized this at once, even as I realized that Anastasia was LINDA, but her friend’s sad eyes troubled me. I explained this to the girl in a low voice. She asked me in English, “
I tell him go way?

I shrugged. L
took his arm and steered him away from the bench. They whispered energetically. Finally she ordered him to leave with a strong push, delivering it as if she were a forward for the Dynamo Moscow team. I’ve seen many Russian women do this. She went
rigid, stepped back two body widths and shoved all fifty-five kilos of herself toward him. The boy lost his balance without taking his eyes from hers. He formulated a terrible insult—“Whore for tourists!”—and took off across the lawn, fast. This was certainly not, for example, the early-morning exchange between A
, the idiot prince, on the little green bench. But neither was it bad, for starters.

as practiced in
). The trees are so richly fragrant in the
, and not in some distant past either, but right now. Like Anglo-Saxon America, the Grand Duchy is a great nation of immigrants. But these people have exchanged their Arcadias for a big-city Hades where they never should have ventured. The little clerk, who last night in his dreams drank full-cream milk fresh from the cow, knots his tie this morning with somnambulant fingers and it comes out far too short: a stubby Roman sword dangling over his round belly.

Muzhiks from Ryazan, hunters from the taiga, nomadic Kalmyks from Mongolia, all flung into the city’s deep pit. Thousands, millions have fallen here, around the young gentry on their promenade, amid urchins who shout to their rustic friends: “Hey there! You!

Since Russia is a country where nothing grows during the harsh half-year of winter, the eternal, obligatory question asked of the foreigner is: что у вас растет? (What grows in your country? You’re not expecting famine this year?
Et cetera
.) Being from the tropics, where everything flourishes so exuberantly and we don’t have
, I would have to reply, “Millet, rye, artichokes, peas; raspberries in summertime, mushrooms in the fall.”

I reached out my hand, fingers fanned wide to indicate that I wished to see her ring. (I was losing momentum every second; the simple gesture of raising my elbow and extending my arm had
cost me time, my hand creeping between the plates of salad to reach hers, adorned with the hypnotic stone.) Once aware of my interest, she stopped fluttering her right hand and offered it to me for a long moment of inspection. Then, seeing I was not content with simply admiring the ring on her finger, she took it off and handed it over with a smile, her ten red-enameled nails again describing a sphere, a wonder, the enormity of something.

The ring fit perfectly onto my fourth finger—the gold, the blue stone. Calmer now, I relaxed and settled back in my chair, gazing at her openly. I’d heard she was called M** and I had her ring. In under a minute, she’d stopped swaying between us like a pendulum and had shot me a look of conciliation for the man in gray at her left. But the man in gray was my new friend, wasn’t he? I poured more
—more vodka—for him and we clinked glasses. Suddenly animated, I sat up straight to propose a toast to friendship—my chin raised high—and, like a maladroit harlequin, under the poor cover of my own sleeve, gave the woman between us an energetic wink, a wink everyone saw—but what did that matter to me?
Et cetera.

I caught up with her in the vestibule and she turned to meet me. She was wearing a knit dress with a high neckline, a delicate golden cross dangling low on her chest. I pulled her to me but lost her mouth halfway there, my teeth colliding with another blue stone near her neck, the softness of an earlobe. I perceived clearly that her lips (propelled by the same impetus onto my cheek) were parted and a voice—hers, but much more serious—begged me twice: “На улицу, на улицу!” (Let’s go outside!)

Onto the dry snow that crunched underfoot like sand. In the woodshed, she opened her coat and without a second’s hesitation we began paddling strenuously like two sailors swept by a powerful gust off the deck and into dark, cold water.

Who had given her the ring that turned loosely around her finger? In what strange language was she whispering so urgently? What was that intoxicating scent on her skin?


BOOK: Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia
6.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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