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Authors: Jose Manuel Prieto

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H

H
AND AX
(топóР). The leafy
BOSCAGES
of Moscow:
VILLAGES
and monasteries depicted in vertical perspective. Monks who penetrate this verdant grove and piece together the first Muscovite kingdom with blows of massive woodsman’s axes and без единого гвоздя (without a single nail). We are accustomed to viewing the
AX
as a tool for woodcutters. In Russia, however, there is always a
HAND AX
within a radius of five meters, at arm’s length; they’re as common as bread knives. The
AX
represents brutality, the не обтесанные (rough-hewn) side of the Russian soul. R
ASKOLNIKOV
kills the pawnbroker and Lizveta with an
AX
. We know from Gogol that during
HARD FROSTS VILLAGE
idiots left shreds of their tongues on its cold metal. It may strike us as rather uncomfortable (and in fact, is), but the good Russian who has resolved to take matters to their ultimate consequences brandishes one of these and strikes, with no fear of the effusion of blood. The
AX
, as we noted earlier, represents the irrational, an animal terror. A.A. expressed it perfectly:

Fear stirs among the things in my dark room,

a ray of moonlight shatters on the blade of an
AX
.

H
AM
(X
АМ
).
Both a son of Noah and a blasphemous oath.

(
And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
Genesis 9: 20–22, King James Version.)

In the Russian language, H
AM
is a self-sufficient word, a Hammer of Hams. I once observed an incident in which an individual muddied the quiet stream of a retiree’s pleasant stroll and the wronged party turned, terrible and full of rage, and
SPAT
“H
AM
, H
AM
, H
AM
!” over and over at the H
AM
, defining him, singularizing him, putting the handcuffs on him, preparing him to be caged and subjected to public derision.

When you go out into the street, you may at any moment witness the beginning of legendary H
AM
sessions. (T
HELONIOUS
M
ONK
in New Orleans, the night he sent out for the only drum kit, had it brought to him across the sleeping city.) Old men and young ladies do not cease to whisper the accusatory apostrophe in a rage, hissing it out left and right.

I.
To behave rudely in Moscow is almost to show a kind of deference to the victim of the aggression; it is to allude to a human quality that is out of the ordinary, a capacity for understanding that is distinct and Christian. Someone has shouted at you, and he is the bad guy, the H
AM
, but (and herein lies the great challenge) are you not able
to forgive him? And everyone, all well experienced in this particular spiritual gymnastics, forgives everyone else, mutually, for their terrible fits of rage.

In a café we summoned the waiter to ask for
TEA
and had to wait half an hour for him to appear. When he did, he was highly annoyed, for we had failed to grasp that his activity as a café waiter was purely a masquerade, a job he was performing only to remain in close proximity to some secret chamber of speculation. He took our order with the demeanor of a king mingling incognito with the commoners who discovers, to his displeasure, that in addition to wearing the apron and carrying the pencil behind the ear—both indispensible elements of the disguise—he must also run from kitchen to dining room, take down orders, and endure the complaints of the clientele. All his wrath fell upon us for we continued to insist that he bring us clean eating implements and thereby won for ourselves the black hatred of that waiter, the H
AM
.

H
ARD FROSTS
.
Covered in rime, the leafless trees, their branches sketched against a sky dense as sea water. Numb with cold, we moved in silence as if this were a bed of coral and we the mute school of fish interminably shooting to and fro.

I’ve been scuba diving at a depth of three meters and it was exactly like this; the ice crystals sparkling in the air are the spots of light that pierce through the water’s mass to dapple the seabed covered in coral, which is what trees look like at 32 degrees below zero (centigrade).

I.
“This morning when I went downstairs to shake out the carpets, I realized immediately that we must be very far below zero because my eyelashes grew heavy with a coating of ice. It happened in a single blink.”

I’ve opted for this detail about the eyelashes to give you a precise idea of the cold. (The real India, a writer—Nabokov—tells us, reveals itself in the green mildew that blooms on a pair of shoes left outside for the night.) I was in the garden, beneath white trees, and had to melt the frost off my eyelashes with the heat of my fingers. I have no such personal detail with which to illustrate life in the freezing barracks (I was shaking out the rugs as an
exercise
, enjoying the iridescent swirl of ice crystals): the slavering pack of dogs that rip straight through your padded trousers or the sweet indifference of dying from cold and inanition, the unfathomable abyss of an undeserved prison sentence, the appalling discovery that there’s been no mistake whatsoever, only the refined absurdity that is the total absence of any system, the pullulating chaos beneath an apparent order, the millions of dead and your single concrete death (a pair of boots covered in mildew).

II.
At last, in 1991, we learned that Óсип Эм
льевич Мандельштáм (Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam) died in February of 1937 and that his body was piled along with others in a shed, where it remained until spring. An entirely apolitical piece of data: a destiny.

H
IPPOLYTE
.
Just as R
UDI
began serving the truffled salmon, a violent thunderstorm erupted. Heavy raindrops beat against the windows. I stood up, for I needed to collect the gusts of water and the hooded sky’s varied hues of gray. L
INDA
began to give me the news, then broke off: “It’s raining, as you see . . .”

I nodded. It was ten p.m. and still light outside. It was raining—I could see that perfectly well for myself—but what else was going on? She held her hand out and touched the tips of my fingers. Something was making her anxious.

“I hope you won’t take this too badly. I’ll be right back.”

She shot through the door in a whirlwind. I glanced at Rudi, the chorus of this Greek tragedy against whom all our dialogue rebounded, but he didn’t seem to know the source of L
INDA’S
sudden disquiet either. Was it the rain? Did she have white clothes hung out to dry on a balcony?

Five minutes later she was back, pulling young Maarif along by the hand. “He was going to catch cold out in the rain,” she said. My soul plunged to the bottom of my feet. He had been waiting for her the whole time in the plaza. He would wait there, kneeling on the pavement, hatless and shivering with cold. I repeated his name in a low voice, “Maarif,” trying to find some explanation for his conduct. What was more, with a friend like that, L
INDA
was dangerous, capable of standing at the altar before an open Bible and then escaping in a sleigh pulled by fiery steeds through the driving snow and the wind’s eternal ululation. Which would cut short my novel.

No, I had nothing against allowing Maarif to join our party. “R
UDI
, set another place for Maarif.”

Maarif was wearing his Cossack overcoat, doing his bit for the awakening of the national consciousness. He hung it from a hook on the wall and I watched the water drip from it, the steam that rose from its folds.

L
INDA
wrote me a short letter about Maarif. “Maarif is a Persian name or something like that. But he’s Russian. He’s the one who explained all those terrible things to me, about the Elders of Zion . . .”

I raised my eyes and fixed them on this young man: the clear, exalted face of one who has been granted access to a unique truth. He remained silent through most of the meal. Just before midnight, he summoned R
UDI
and said, so that everyone else could hear: “Tell me when it’s midnight.”

R
UDI
answered somewhat abrasively, “That won’t be necessary; we close at midnight, unless we’re paid a supplementary fee.” (R
UDI
addressed him like that out of annoyance at the tone of his order; he was very intelligent for a mere waiter, but Maarif was too young to understand that.)

Half an hour later R
UDI
went over to Maarif and whispered something. I consulted my watch. Maarif leapt to his feet, prepared to unmask me.

(The same scene in F.M.’s Идиот [
The Idiot
]: the young man who wants to settle accounts with the world and offer up the irrefutable proof of a vermilion stain on the tablecloth. This was what happened: H
IPPOLYTE
, his left hand holding the glass of champagne, had plunged his right hand into his coat pocket. Keller afterward declared that H
IPPOLYTE
had that same hand in his pocket earlier, as he was talking to Myshkin, whom he embraced with his left arm—which was, Keller said, what first awoke his suspicions. Be that as it may, some vague uneasiness made him run to H
IPPOLYTE’S
side. But he was too late. He only just glimpsed an object shining in H
IPPOLYTE’S
right hand and realized immediately that a small pocket pistol was pressed against the young man’s temple.)

“Nastia!” Maarif shouted to L
INDA
to penetrate her consciousness, which was somewhat impaired by the champagne. “The terrible thing, the worst thing of all, is that this guy doesn’t have a kopeck, he’s an imposter, a P
SEUDO
D
EMETRIUS
.”

The fearsome accusation. I wanted to cut his wings before he rose much higher.

“The terrible thing, the worst thing of all, is that I have a great deal of money indeed! And I’m ready to spend it all on L
INDA
!”

My reply took him by surprise. He stopped short (pebbles still rolling beneath his feet) and gulped for air. He went on. “Why should we believe you? I, too, could organize a feast like this one if I wished, but that’s the thing: I don’t want to.”

I was wounded by his total incomprehension. I had confessed my plan to him—all that the reader now knows—in the belief that he would grasp my purpose. But he had heard me out with the smile of an experienced practitioner who prefers not to contradict a patient who is visibly mad. I let him carry on (“Why should we believe you?”
et cetera
).

“When I saw you this morning along the canal, near the cathedral, I knew you immediately for one of those pathetic foreigners who put on airs of grandeur. I met one who wanted to be called the King of Suomi. He talked about renting a Navy helicopter to show me Petersburg as the crow flies. He never kept his promise . . . In Helsinki there are at least three thousand plumber kings like this guy here. As long as we have foreigners eating and drinking in our restaurants, seducing our women, the Russian muzhik will never be able . . .” and Maarif
SPAT
, irate.

BOOK: Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia
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