In the spring of 1960-something, an evening commuter train slashed the darkness of the small towns and forests outside Moscow, carrying its sounds rhythmically away, farther and farther. Inside, the train cars were bright and nearly empty. People sat frozen, as if spellbound, as if they’d tuned out from everything they normally did, from life itself, and didn’t know where this train was taking them.
There were all of seven people in the middle car. A dishevelled old woman stared into a sack of potatoes, nearly falling into it face first. A strapping fellow chewed an onion the whole time, peering straight ahead into the emptiness with a frightened and bemused look. A fat woman was curled up into a ball so you couldn’t even see her face.
While he sat in the corner—Fyodor Sonnov.
He was a bulky man of forty or so, with an odd, inward-looking, dully fixed face; the expression on this large, furrowed, and wrinkly plane was brutally alienated and self-absorbed while also aimed at the world—but aimed only in the sense that, for the owner of this face, it was as if the world didn’t exist.
Fyodor was dressed simply and his gray, slightly ripped jacket covered his large belly, which he kept sucking in, in a focused way, occasionally slapping it as if his belly were his second face—eyeless and mouthless, but perhaps even more real.
The way Fyodor breathed out made it sound as if he were actually taking air in. Sonnov’s eyes, bleary from his bulky existence, kept scrutinizing the people sitting there.
He practically skewered them to his gaze, although his inner being itself passed straight through them, as if through a condensed emptiness.
Finally, the train slowed. The little people trailed each other to the exit, wagging their behinds. Fyodor rose with the same feeling an elephant does.
The station was small, cozily lost among persistent, lopsided little wooden houses. As soon as the little people hopped onto the platform, their folly slipped away and, after bizarrely reviving, they ran off—onward, onward!
The sack lady carried her sack to a dark fence, leaned over, and shat in it.
The strapping fellow didn’t run; he galloped forward, in leaps and bounds, comfortably swinging his paws. Evidently, life was beginning. Fyodor, however, was unaltered. He meandered, swiveling his head, examining his surroundings, as if he’d just landed from the moon.
On the central square, a mangy cur of a bus—no, two buses—were parked alongside each other. One was nearly empty. The other was so crammed with people, it even emitted a voluptuous sputtering. But Sonnov ignored all that folderol.
Walking past a pole, out of the blue he punched a solitary lad wandering nearby right in the jaw. Though the blow was hard and the lad sprawled into a ditch, it was delivered with such inward indifference, Sonnov might as well have been poking the emptiness, except that a physical shudder passed through his bulky body. He walked on, benumbed as ever, glancing at the poles.
It took the lad a long time to recover from the bizarre expression on Sonnov’s face when he dealt the punch, and by the time he did, Sonnov was long gone.
Fyodor wandered down a narrow street, darkly maddened by absurd, ugly houses. Suddenly he stopped and sat down in the grass. He lifted his shirt and started slapping his belly, deliberately, with meaning and significance, as if his consciousness were focused in his hand. He looked at the treetops and snarled at the stars. And began to sing.He sang like an anguished animal, coughing words through his rotten teeth. It was a nonsensical song criminals sang. Finally Fyodor hiked up his pants, stood up, and slapped himself on the backside, as if propelling himself forward with a new thought born in his brain: to walk ‘til kingdom come. Finally, he turned into a dense forest. The trees there were exalted now, no longer grown from their former element; not too badly soiled with vomit or trash, they simply shone from within with a turbid human degeneracy and affliction. It wasn’t the grass that was cropped but human souls.
Fyodor strayed off the path. An hour later, he saw a dark human silhouette a way’s off walking toward him. Then it turned into the angular figure of a fellow of about twenty-six. At first Sonnov didn’t react to him, but then he suddenly showed a keen, dead interest.
“Got a smoke?” he asked the fellow glumly.
The fellow, his stupid face all cheerful, rummaged through his pockets as if he were playing with his penis.
Right then, Fyodor gave a convulsive grunt, as if tossing back a glass of vodka, and planted an enormous carving knife in the fellow’s belly, the kind of knife ordinarily used to slaughter livestock.
Pressing the fellow up against a tree, Fyodor dug the knife around in the man’s belly, as if trying to find and kill some unknown but living thing in there. Then he calmly laid the corpse out on God’s green grass and dragged him off to the side, toward a glade.
At that moment the moon was bared, high in the black sky. A deadly golden light flooded the glade, the rustling grass, and the tree stumps.
Fyodor, his face now mellow, sat on a stump, took off his cap in front of the corpse, and checked the dead man’s pocket for a passport. Fyodor didn’t touch the money, but he did look at the passport to get a name.
“A visitor, from far away, Grigory.” Sonnov was touched. “Must’ve been on your way home.”
His movements were deliberate, calm, and rather affectionate; evidently he had committed quite a familiar deed.
He took a bundle of sandwiches from his pocket, set them on a piece of newspaper near the deceased’s head, and readily started his dinner, taking his time. He ate with relish, not disdaining the crumbs. At last, he calmly packed up the meal’s remains in his bundle.
“Well now, Grisha,” Sonnov said, wiping his mouth, “now we can have a little talk. Eh?” He patted Grigory’s dead cheek affectionately.
Then he coughed and, once he was comfortably seated, he lit up.
“I’m going to tell you about the way I live, Grigory,” Sonnov continued, the self-absorption on his face suddenly replaced by a rather smug benevolence, “but first about my childhood, about who I am and where in the world I came from. I mean, about my parents. That papa of mine told me all there was to know about himself, so I can tell it to you. My father was a simple man, lively but stern of heart. He didn’t spend a minute in public without an ax. So… If he’d been surrounded by as much softness as resistance… He was melancholy about females because you can’t spend all your days with logs. He just couldn’t find a woman. At last he did find one to his liking, the one who was mother to me. He tested her for a long time, but that papa of mine liked to recall the very last test. You see, Grigory, my father had a whole load of money. One time he took my mother—Irina, that is—to a lonely cabin deep in the forest. He led her to understand that he had some money hidden away there, money no one knew about. Well… The way he’d set it up, my mother decided, no one knew about the trip and everyone thought that papa of mine had gone off on his own to work, for a whole year. He’d set everything up so as to lead mama dear into immaculate temptation, and if she got it into her head to kill him, to take the money for herself, she could be sure there was no danger. See, Grigory?” Sonnov paused briefly. It would’ve been hard to imagine him so talkative before.
He went on.
“So there’s that papa of mine sitting one evening in a remote cabin with my mother, Irina. Pretending to be a real simpleton. And he sees Irina’s all worked up, but she’s trying to hide it. Her white breast is heaving, up and down. Night fell. That papa of mine lay down in a separate bed and pretended he was asleep. Snored. But totally aware. Darkness fell. Suddenly he heard my mother get up very, very quietly, her breath barely fluttering. She got up and went to the corner—for the ax. My papa’s ax was gigantic—it could split a bear in two. Irina picked up the ax and walked toward my father’s bed so you could barely hear her. She got very close. As soon as she swung it back, that papa of mine gave her a swift kick in the belly. He jumped up and crushed her beneath himself. And had her then and there. I was born from that conception. Because of that incident, my father loved Irina very much. Straight off, the very next day—a wedding, church. And they never ever parted. ‘Got a head on her shoulders she has,’ he said about her. ‘No namby-pamby. If she hadn’t come after me with the ax, I never would’ve married her. But that way I could tell—she was tough. No tears for her.’ He’d say that and usually give her a slap on the backside. But that didn’t embarrass my mother. She just bared her angry face, but she respected my father. That’s the kind of conception—murder, nearly—that led to my birth. Why don’t you say something, Grigory?” A shadow passed across Fyodor’s face. “Or aren’t I telling it right, fool?”
Clearly this unusual loquacity had sent Fyodor into mild hysterics. He didn’t like talking.
At last, Sonnov stood up. Hiked up his pants. Leaned over the dead face.
“Hey, where are you, Grigory? Where are you?” he started lamenting. Something womanly came over his brutal face. “Where are you? Are you going to answer? Where did you get to, you son of a bitch? Hiding under a stump? A stump? You think just because you crapped out you’re safe from me? Eh? I know! I know where you are! You aren’t getting away! You’re hiding under a stump!”
Sonnov suddenly went over to a nearby stump and started kicking it furiously. The stump was rotten and crumbled under his kicks.
“Where’d you get to, you son of a bitch?” Fyodor howled. Suddenly he stopped. “Where are you, Grigory? Where are you? You hear me? Wipe that smirk off your face! Are you going to answer me?”
“Answer me!” came an echo. The moon suddenly hid. Darkness gripped the forest and the trees coalesced in the dark.
Sonnov skulked off into the forest, snapping invisible branches.
Come morning, when the sun rose, warmth and life seemed to permeate the glade from within. The trees and grass shone, and water gurgled deep in the ground.
The corpse lay under a tree, like a rotten, abandoned log. No one had seen or disturbed it. Suddenly, a man emerged from the bushes; grunting, he looked around indifferently. It was Fyodor. The same worn jacket hung on him like a crumpled sack.
He hadn’t been able to get very far and had spent the night in the forest, by a fallen tree, blindly confident that all would go well.
Now, evidently, he’d decided to bid Grigory farewell.
His face held not a trace of the previous night’s hysterics. He’d drawn himself inward and was looking at the outside world woozily, puzzled. At last Fyodor found Grigory—the way people usually find mushrooms.
Casually, he sat down beside him.
His idiotic habit of eating near the dead man returned now, too. Fyodor unwrapped
his bundle and ate his breakfast.
“Well, Grigory, you’re not the first and you won’t be the last,” he suddenly muttered after a long and indifferent silence. He was gazing not so much at the deceased’s forehead as at the empty space around him.
“There was a lot I didn’t get to say,” Sonnov said suddenly. “It got dark. I’ll say it now.” Whom he was addressing now was unclear. Fyodor wasn’t looking at the corpse at all anymore. “My mother had two of us kids, me and my sister Klavdia. But my foolishness scared my mother. I beat her bloody, on the sly, because I didn’t know who I was or where I’d come from. She’d point to her belly, but I’d tell her, ‘Wrong answer, bitch. That wasn’t what I was asking.’ That had been going on for I don’t know how long when, as a young man, I started working at the life-boat station. I was a curly-head then. But not talkative. People were afraid of me, but they knew I’d always keep mum. The guys, the rescuers, were simple, cheerful. They had a big operation going. They drowned people. They’d dive in the water and drown them. They did what they did cleverly, without a hitch. Sometimes the families had second thoughts—supposedly the guys were searching for people who might have drowned, but they always dragged out a corpse. The men were given a reward. They’d drink up the prize money or spend it on women; some bought pants. Out of respect, they took me on. I drowned deftly, simply, and without a moment’s hesitation. I sent my share back to that father of mine, home. Later it became second nature to me, to bury whoever I drowned. Their families would arrange a celebration in my honor; they thought, ‘What a long-suffering rescuer,’ and I never turned them down. Especially their vodka. I liked to drink. Later, though, something started eating at me. I’d look at the deceased and think, ‘Where did the person go to, eh? Where did the person go?’ I started to think he was hovering in the emptiness around the dead body. Sometimes I didn’t think anything. But I started to always look at the dead person as if I were trying to look into the emptiness. One day I drowned a little boy, just a chick he was; he went to the bottom so confidently, without fear. That same day I dreamt he was sticking his tongue out and laughing, as if to say, ‘You fool, you’re lying through your teeth. You drowned me, but the next world’s even sweeter. And now you can’t get me.’ I leapt up in a sweat, as if I had cholera. Barely morning in the village, I went to the forest, thinking, ‘I’m not doing anything serious. This is one big joke. It’s like killing goats. One hop and they’re in the next world, easy as pie.’ I thought, ‘I killed.’ But what if it was just a dream?
“As I was walking, I came across a little girl. I strangled her, I was so angry, and I thought. ‘That’s so much nicer, so much nicer, to see someone go off into the emptiness with my own eyes.’ By some miracle, I was lucky. The murder was never solved. After that I got more cautious. I quit the life-savers because my urge to kill was too blatant. As it was, I kept being drawn to it, as if with each murder I were solving a puzzle: Who am I killing? What do they see? What if I’m killing the fairytale while the essence slips away? So I started roaming the world. As it is, I don’t know what I’m doing, who I’m touching, who I’m talking to. I’m in a complete funk. Grigory, Grigory… Hey? Is that you?” he muttered calmly and equably into the emptiness, suddenly flagging.
At last, he stood up. A strange contentment persisted on his face.
Mechanically, but in an experienced, knowledgeable way, he tidied up all the traces.
And then he went deeper.
A narrow, winding path eventually led him out of the forest. In the distance he saw a small, isolated station.
He stepped into the bushes to fool around a little. “What can I say about Grigory,” he thought later, “when I don’t even know whether I exist?”
He turned his ugly face up and looked through the bushes, to the now visible expanses. Either he had no thoughts or they galloped contrary to nature’s existence.
He was warm by the time he reached the station. He sat at the counter with a beer.
The sensation of beer now seemed like the sole reality on earth. He plunged his thoughts into this sensation and they evaporated. In spirit, he kissed the inside of his belly and fell still.
A train was approaching from far off. Fyodor suddenly came to life. “Back to my nest, my nest!”
And he slipped bulkily through the train’s open door.
YURI MAMLEYEV was born in 1931 in Moscow and began writing in the 1960s. During that time, the author led a “double life.” By day, he taught mathematics, but in the evenings he hosted a secret circle of intellectuals. Discussing Indian and German philosophy, theosophy and psychoanalysis, the members of this undercover literary and philosophical circle called themselves “sexual mystics.” Mamleyev’s works could only be sold in Russia through Samizdat and in the 1980s began to appear in the West.
In 1974, Mamleyev emigrated to the U.S., and later lived in Paris. He returned to Russia in 1993 and, today, alternates between Moscow and Paris. Younger Moscow writers such as Vladimir Sorokin or Victor Erofeyev venerate him as “the heir to both Gogol and Dostoevsky.” In 2000, Mamleyev was awarded the Pushkin Prize by the Alfred Toepfe Foundation and the International PEN Club, and he was a scholar at the German Foundation, Preußische Seehandlung.
About the translator:
MARIAN SCHWARTZ has translated over sixty volumes of Russian classic and contemporary fiction, history, biography, criticism, and fine art. She is the principal English translator of the works of Nina Berberova and translated the New York Times’ bestseller The Last Tsar, by Edvard Radzinsky, as well as classics by Mikhail Bulgakov, Ivan Goncharov, Yuri Olesha, and Mikhail Lermontov. Her most recent book translations are Andrei Gelasimov’s Gods of the Steppe, Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, Leonid Yuzefovich’s Harlequin’s Costume, and Aleksandra Shatskikh’s Black Square. She is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowships and is a past president of the American Literary Translators Association. Her website is at marianschwartz.com