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Authors: Jose Manuel Prieto

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Then the general let off another slam of his fist on the table. All the plates and glasses jumped.

“I disapprove of these statements,” he formulated, as if delivering a report to Central Command. “You have eaten and drunk at this table. How can you deny your friendship with Hussein?”

(Hussein, the Assyrian scribe. Who was me. More or less accurately. The general had christened me with a generic foreign name, in the sense that I was any old common-garden Ivan.)

“Ask Hussein to forgive you,” he demanded.

Maarif, red with shame, took a moment for introspection and found himself replete with champagne and caviar consumed at my expense. Whereupon he promptly delivered himself of a second discourse, this one of repentance for all the countries the I
MPERIUM
had dragged into the abyss, my own included. Finally, no longer knowing how else to erase his guilt, he praised my Russian. “You speak Russian
very well”—which meant I had managed to open the doors of the
Rus
and could leave behind the steppe, the nameless distances that belong to those who are mute (those who explain themselves in an unintelligible language, a language of mutes), the sea and the lands beyond the sea, and enter the chosen kingdom of world renewal. Slavophilia. Russian exceptionalism. The Russian Third Way. Maarif wanted to reduce that whole vast task to the salvation of L
INDA’S
lone, imperiled soul.

I.
Dinner was over. R
UDI
, who now took me for little less than a desert sheikh, bent down next to my ear, his aching hand clutching the lapel of his double-breasted jacket, his lips moist: “You should go south, to Y
ALTA
. A lot of casinos have opened there. The season has just begun.”

I

I
MPERIUM
.
Captives in the I
MPERIUM
, its prisoners felt nevertheless as if they were galloping in full freedom across unlimited space: men and women in their natural habitat with no barbed wire or alarm system in sight. The
IMPERIUM
was a parallel world, a self-sufficient universe that included its own “globetrotters,” fully deserving of the title, who, even so, had never left it. The other world—the
OCCIDENT
, Africa, the Fiji Isles—seemed to belong to a past accessible only through books or films that appeared to emerge from nowhere. It was perceived as a far distant future or a remote history (a purely academic interest in the Sumerian maritime arts); in the present it was nonexistent.

I.
In this partial analysis of the I
MPERIUM
, I shall focus on the following aspects:

a)
Destiny

b)
Fear

c)
Mortal danger

a)
Destiny.
Russia, the great country that constituted the nucleus of the
IMPERIUM
, possesses a universal
destiny
that is the sum of all individual
destinies
. The topside or visible portion of this great
destiny,
this ineluctable Russian
destiny,
makes its way like an icebreaker through the frozen armor-plating of the years, leaving behind a jagged wake of truncated lives. The currents of this
destiny
come from very far and cross through the I
MPERIUM’S
lives like fossilized radiation left over from the Big Bang. And these narrative threads, invisible
and inescapable, are
destiny.
Everyone is crisscrossed by these lines of force, fate’s ultrapowerful magnet, drawing them to their death. With room for small fluctuations, fruitlessly heroic efforts,
the world as will and representation,
and other such trivialities that bother us only when we’re young, after which, tired of rowing against the shifting tides of
destiny,
we extend our arms in a cross and float painlessly.

Russia (or the I
MPERIUM
) is struggling against its
destiny,
but the shadow of this fatalism pursues it. Many historic dates can be adduced to confirm the certainty of its
predestination.
Hence there is no increase in human morality nor absolute progress, but only the infallible pincer lowered from the sky which, from among the panicked and fleeing multitude—unaware that the danger does not exist for them—selects the idiot seminarian, with his bangs and wire-rimmed glasses, for its appalling fulmination, without motive, without cause, without delivering any verdict.

Destiny
makes use of blind executors of its will who, as such, merit our comprehension more than our contempt. Russia is an old country and there one breathes the frozen air of multiple histories that bear out this theory of
destiny.
They know it and that’s enough. They go out into the snow barefoot to face the firing squad’s nine spurts of flame: merely the means chosen by
destiny
to send a concise message of utmost importance.

b)
Fear.
I’ve jerked the strings of small
fears
—my cruel half-smile—without knowing I was being watched on high by the omnipresent pupil from which all the underlying fear irradiates, and I have felt vertigo when I raised my eyes and discovered that fact. Each person’s performance as the petty tyrant of our own tiny realm is a necessary movement of the soul, a display, a rattling of chains. Whether we like it or not, an icy wind blows from the Hesperides,
inhumanly.
Like God himself,
fear
is given a name and endowed with the limbs and torso
of a state institution; this
fear
accumulates in the multiple guises of jails, the secret police, ministerial directives—only a few of the many incarnations of its absolute being.

This latent terror binds every organic compound; it can be found in all of them just as oxygen is found in chains of carbon. You are
fear
and something else, anything else. And through this intermediary, the inhabitants of the I
MPERIUM
enter into reaction, they function, agitating their blind pod-limbs and secreting the hard coral efflorescences of the State, which are interlaced with
fear.

Though
fear
cements the imposing fabric of the
IMPERIUM
, life under the dominion of this
fear
is ethereal and unreal. Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны. (
We live without feeling the country beneath our feet.
Mandelstam.) The man who has experienced the terror of hearing his own guilty name shouted out in a formation loses faith; his image in the mirror dissolves and he closes his eyes and listens in anguish to the thud of the hobnailed boots as they come to a halt before him. I’ve discovered once-beautiful souls deformed by the abyssal pressures of the I
MPERIUM
, the unfathomable sea where they live out their one-celled lives. Hence the H
AM’S
violent tempests, the ravages of
AQUA VITAE
.

The divinity of
fear
gazes down upon the lamentable tableau of the I
MPERIUM
and smiles in satisfaction from its celestial box seat.

c)
Mortal danger.
The enthusiasm generated by the I
MPERIUM
shortly before its collapse was the nervous grin, the last dying hope of the hunted man who, corralled at the edge of the abyss and about to be devoured by the monster, sees it stop short in wonder over the flutter of a passing butterfly, a sight that attenuates the fury in its eyes and creases the blue skin of its formless snout into a
human
grimace. In the brief instant of the miracle, the prey has a moment to give thanks to God, reevaluate the monster’s perversity (“No, you’re not bad, it was the years of isolation, the terrible conditions, I knew the change
would come, I had faith in you”), and sidestep the monster’s charge. Once on safe ground, shielded by an overhang, the escapee shouts the truth to the monster and spends all necessary funds to capture it, so as never to have to put the goodness of its nature to the test again.

I
NDIGO
(
the color
). Lying back on my deck chair, the red P
ACKARD
parked only a few meters from an intensely blue sea, I devote myself to
studying
the golden glints in the air churned by the bronze thighs of women emerging from the water. Seeing them, I thought of a superb slogan for a brand of shampoo or conditioner: “
Mientras por competir con tu cabello, / oro bruñido al sol relumbra en vano . . .
” a line from Góngora that could have been put to excellent use by Vidal Sassoon, the celebrated California hairstylist: “A rival to your hair, the sun / flashes on burnished gold in vain . . .” The bathers were advancing with that special clumsiness of terra firma, sirens dragged to shore by the sea to exhibit their magnificent colors, their backs treated with vitamin-fortified creams, their taut bellies, visually centered by the dark point of the navel: ideal graphic statements for the great cover photos of the nineties which, dreamed up in distant international centers, reached every beach in the world with the mandatory force of a ministerial directive. For a second, I imagined an impossible collision between the motley decor of the beach before me and that same bathing resort at the beginning of the century, its sepia tones entirely incompatible with this pure indigo. The terror those beige ladies would feel if confronted by the color pale
TTE OF THESE VERY BLONDE GIRLS, ALL OF THEM FORMER
K
OMSOMOL MEMBERS, DELIVERING CARELESS KICKS TO BEACH BALLS THAT WERE VERY RED AND BLUE AND YELLOW
. Full, vivid colors, straight out of a magazine printed on expensive coated stock; the metallic glitter, the fine film that overlay their human souls with the finish of an industrial product, the high sheen of an inanimate object that the hard gazes of certain fashion models seek to copy, the distant bearing, the contrived expression. Already we were being blinded by the first flashes of the
neon look
with its tremendous artificiality, and those girls on the beach, made up in indelible lipsticks and pencils, were all resolved in an infra-human gamut of color, cruel mannequins. As for me, educated by long years of watching a multichromatic Trinitron TV, I observed them without any particular astonishment, taking note of the season’s colors, those “natural” tones we believe have been captured
documentarily
when we leaf through a fashion magazine or go to the movies. Perhaps you are unaware that it was French
couturiers
who, in the wake of World War I, imposed the fashion for tanning and spread the fallacy of its healthful effects? Nowadays you’d do well to wonder whether the vivid, blinding yellow of this sun is the same as it always was; perhaps it was launched two seasons ago by an influential fashion house, a “canary yellow” sun, “very youthful”—or whether the greens of the palm trees were “Panzer green” or “Chevalier green.” And, of course, for a very long time now we’ve had a blue that is “Prussian.”
Prosit!

I
NQUIRY INTO THE
N
ATURE AND
C
AUSES OF THE
W
EALTH OF
N
ATIONS
. At the end of 1989, I left for the
OCCIDENT
via Berlin. It was the quickest way to the kingdom of heaven, the only place in the I
MPERIUM
where the nerves of that other organism were just beneath
the skin’s surface, just beyond the wall. When the delicate membrane gave way and the two bloods intermingled, Romanian gypsies, Mongols, Bulgarians, Slovaks, and Croats all hurled themselves through the breach: all those who, in the depths of the I
MPERIUM
, felt the sudden diminution of pressure in their swim bladders and came racing in myriads and droves to prosper in this new ocean.

But in 1989 we were also moving through the prehistory of the amassment of fortunes, the initial accumulation, devoid of Victorian sideburns or the tedious 3 percent per annum. There was oil in Western Siberia, emeralds in the Urals, diamonds in Yakutia, all of them
affaires
of such powerful magnetism that even if you approached them timidly, thousands of kilometers from the golden epicenter, you could become rich between nightfall and dawn.

I needed money; this was the principal correlative to my discovery in the (C
HINESE
) P
ALACE
, the half-sphere indispensable to achieving the critical mass of full
frivolity.
I went to West Berlin with several kilos of Caspian caviar smuggled in jam pots. (I’m not ashamed to confess this: I had endured long five-year plans in the I
MPERIUM
, subjected to inhuman budgets of a few rubles per month.) I invested the earnings from that sale in renting a small room and found myself a job washing dishes in a bar: the astonishing automatic dishwasher there, a beautiful and useful machine; the illusion of doing easy work, which in fact was not easy at all. Now I know that I was running the risk of losing my way in a labyrinth of petty expenses where I might have wandered for years, stumbling in the darkness against unpaid invoices and excessively high prices. But one evening, there in the kitchen of that bar, I read a headline in the
Berliner Zeitung
sticking up from the cook’s jacket pocket. I plucked it out with my damp fingers. The great news, thanks to which I am here today telling you this story, sipping this 1935
Massandra here in Y
ALTA
. (Waiter, please . . . Perfect.)

Verkauf, Inkauf.
Easy to decipher.
Verkauf im summer
. . . A plan to auction off quite a bit of pretty decent East German merchandise. To clear kilometers of shelves in preparation for the Bundesrepublik’s great leap forward. All the department stores of Dresden, Potsdam and Karl-Marx-Stadt up for sale. For ridiculously low prices! I sat down to ponder the news. The sound of glasses clinking and customers laughing reached me from the bar: workers and small property owners, perhaps a few professionals. Nobodies, in a word, with their small monthly incomes. I went outside, crossed the street, and went into the bar that was opposite. I stayed there for an hour, looking at the buildings, at this other bar. All this could be mine!

And so, well, I managed it. Because I was in on the secret: I knew that to make money, to grow rich, was a virtue. I had passed through the straits of Marxism and rediscovered a simplicity that was Adamic (in the Smithean sense), an excellent theoretical grounding for a more fitting use of the
ABACUS
. Listen:
All systems, either of preference or restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, as soon as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interests in his own way, and to bring both his industry and his capital into competition with those of any other man or order of men.
We’re saved! I managed to divert the contents of some Leipzig stores into the depths of Eurasia. That was all. Since then, I’ve chartered airplanes from Southwest Asia, cargo ships full of goods from China.

“Products from Turkey? I’ve heard there’s a real glut of Turkish merchandise.”

“No, Chinese merchandise.” (The silk route: Bukhara and Samarkand.)

BOOK: Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia
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