Picture the screen of a black and white television glowing in the corner of a dark room. A man’s face in close up. Very close.
‘Do you understand the theory of relativity?’ asks someone outside the frame.
‘I think I do.’
‘Can you explain it? In words the man in the street can understand.’
‘Well, it’s not how to get to the cake shop.’
‘Meaning I’ll never understand it? I’m the guy who has to be told more than once how to get to the cake shop.’
The man smiles. There’s no condescension in his smile; he seems somewhat thrown, in fact. He speaks softly. ‘I’m also quite capable of misunderstanding directions. Understanding anything requires effort. Sometimes too much effort. Sometimes it’s impossible. I fear that modern science is altogether inaccessible to the man in the street. It requires a whole lifetime.’
‘In the final analysis, what, then? Will we discover the secret of the universe?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Another question. Perhaps you’ve thought about this. That one human lifetime may not be enough even to find out and understand everything that’s already been discovered. There’s far too much of everything. You’re saying that you already need to devote a lifetime to it, but in the future it may be that a lifetime won’t be enough. And that will be a dead end.’
The man on the screen is listening attentively.
‘It’s just the same as … flying, even at the speed of light … the universe is too big and life is too short. Even if children are born during the flight … in other words, if people die and new people replace them, they still won’t reach the edge of the universe—because there is no edge, the universe is infinite. Granted, they can always turn round and come back.’
‘Are you trying to say that knowledge is also infinite?’
‘I’m saying it’s also meaningless.’
‘You are substituting concepts, I think. Besides, I don’t find the idea of flying across the infinite universe meaningless.’
The face did not occupy the screen throughout the dialogue. Its place was taken by the face of the other speaker, or by stars, nebulae and galaxies which man has managed to make out with the help of technology. With his aided eye.
The TV in my corner is also like a telescope; I see nothing without it, neither galaxies nor you.
This phrase appeared on the ruled page of an exercise book, after the TV had been turned off and the screen had gone dark. The phrase is a part of a letter. Here is the whole thing.
Greetings, Comrade Vasil′yev. I saw you on TV in a program about the galaxy, and now I can’t sleep. I wanted to thank you, so here I am doing it. My life is simple. I light the fire in winter. I get the children to school. They’re in camp now, though—it’s summer. I’m alone but there’s still a lot to do and hardly time to draw breath what with the watering, the weeding, and the neighbour getting into his strops. None of this, of course, is of any interest to you, but I wanted you to understand how everyday routine drags you into a rut and you don’t know what the meaning of life is. Of course, it’s all for the sake of the children, but as it said in the programme, we can fly to the edge of the universe and have children and still we won’t get there. Not even our great-grandchildren will. Why are we going there? We don’t even know where ‘there’ is. And I didn’t think we were flying anywhere anyway. I dig in the ground and hardly ever look at the sky, and when I do I don’t see anything, just the sun and storm clouds. Then suddenly there I am discovering such beautiful things through your telescope. I know I’ll never understand anything about your theories.
But you do understand, I know. And maybe we will get somewhere, thanks to you. I’m sitting here on my own at home and everything is pretty much as always. I don’t have enough to get through to payday but the boys have already grown out of their coats. Same old cares as ever. Everybody is bent earthwards, but I’m looking at the sky thanks to you.
The TV in my corner is also like a telescope; I see nothing without it, neither galaxies nor you. What a lot of rubbish they show, though. I watch everything for some reason, and suddenly your face appeared, thank you. All the very best to you, Comrade Vasil′yev. I wish you success and discoveries. Forgive me for taking up your time. Alexandra Nikolayevna Zolotaryeva, Ministry of Transport accountant. 15 August 1977.
The woman tucked the letter into a plain envelope and wrote, Moscow, television, science programme, to Professor I.K. Vasil′yev.
A month later, she received an answer.
Greetings, my dear Alexandra Nikolayevna. Your letter made me happy. I feel exactly as you do. Don’t be discouraged—it may be that we will get there. Yours sincerely, Igor Vasil′yev. PS Not Professor.
Alexandra Nikolayevna put this short letter into a sweet tin where she kept other letters, of which there were not many. They were from a friend in Novosibirsk, her husband when he was in the army, her mother who lived in a village in Gorky Oblast. All these letters smelled of vanilla, a sweet vanilla smell that would also cling to Vasil′yev’s letter, given time.
On 1 November, Alexandra Nikolayevna bought a picture postcard of Lenin on a battleship, and wrote:
Greetings, Comrade Vasil′yev. Happy Revolution Day. I’ll be glad when the snow comes—it will make it lighter. In our street every other streetlamp is out. How is your science progressing? Are you having any success? I wish you all sorts of things. In your personal life as well. I remember you always. Alexandra Nikolayevna. On the envelope she wrote: Moscow, Furmanovsky Lane, flat 10, house 5. To Professor Vasil′yev.
An answer arrived in early December.
Greetings, Alexandra Nikolayevna. So it finally snowed—your wait is over. Science is progressing. Granted, I’m not sure it’s going the way I thought it would. But in our business even wrong paths lead to the truth. I’m progressing in my personal life, too. And, I’m afraid, (again) in the direction of the truth. In one’s personal life that is not always useful. All the best to you and your family. Yours sincerely, Igor Vasil′yev. PS Not Professor.
We actually have too much snow, wrote Alexandra Nikolayevna in her next letter. Now I’m having to clean the paths—to the wicket, the barn, the toilet. I brandish a shovel. You won’t have seen a shovel like it, a wooden one. Mostly it’s me doing the brandishing. You can ask the kids until you’re blue in the face, and anyway they have no time, they’re forever asking questions about their schoolwork, sines and cosines—you speak this language like a native but it’s all Greek to us. I’ve been thinking about you, about truth in your personal life. I threw my husband out after one such truth. It’s just how I am. Another woman would have forgiven him. Sometimes I regret it. Is it true that if you fly away in a spaceship and come back a week later, a hundred years will have gone by on earth and you won’t find a soul you know? Alexandra Nikolayevna. Moscow, Furmanovsky Lane, flat 10, house 5. To Professor Vasil′yev.
In the reply there was a drawing of a Christmas tree, done with a blue ballpoint pen, and underneath it, a man holding a broad shovel in his raised hand. The drawing was in the upper left corner of the page.
What made you think, my dear Alexandra Nikolayevna (wrote Vasil′yev), that I have never seen a wooden shovel? For your information, I come from a small town like yours, and we had a house without amenities. I lugged buckets of water, chopped mountains of wood, brandished a shovel and dug with a shovel, and now here I am, a fancy pants from Moscow. Spaceships. We don’t have the fuel to be able to go at that sort of speed, nor any people who could tolerate travelling at such a speed. At any rate, not yet. Perhaps we will soon manage to breed them. Yours sincerely, Igor Vasil′yev. PS Not Professor.
Greetings, Comrade Vasil′yev. The snow has almost melted. I’m languishing in hospital, looking at an icicle outside my window. My health is on the mend but my mood is not. The food in the hospital is the pits, and I’m thinking about how I’m going to go home and cook some nice cabbage soup for myself, that’ll be much more cheerful. I feel like I’ve already written this letter. I sat and pushed the pen exactly like this. Is this something science knows about? Keep well. Alexandra Nikolayevna. Moscow, Furmanovsky Lane, flat 10, house 5. To Professor Vasil′yev.
In the late summer, in August, a long white envelope with foreign stamps arrived.
Greetings, Comrade Vasil′yev. For three days I was afraid, thinking, what kind of letter is this? I held it up to the light and hid it in my dresser. I don’t know about your America, but here it’s Sunday today. I fed the children and sent them to the baths. Today’s Men’s Day. I gave all the dishes a good wash, then had nothing else to do, so I went and sat in the garden and opened your envelope with a knife. What can I say? I was not happy. I left your letter in my pocket until the evening but kept thinking about it. The day’s already ended here. It’s night, and I can see the moon through the window and I’m thinking about your science. If it’s more convenient for you to study there, so be it. Alexandra Nikolayevna.
She wrote the address in foreign letters. New York. To Professor Vasil′yev.
In November 1987 Alexandra Nikolayevna received her last letter from New York.
I can’t keep you in the dark (wrote Vasil′yev). I have left science and am now in business. I think walking this path is bringing me a little more luck. I will be making business trips to the Union. I couldn’t imagine that such a thing would be possible. I would like, if you are agreeable, to meet. Would you be able to tell me what size you and your kids are? Everything is very cheap here—jeans and trainers. I would be glad. Yours sincerely, Igor Vasil′yev. PS Not Professor.
The answer shot back:
Dear Comrade Vasil′yev. I am very pleased that you have sorted out your life. Things are not bad for us either. Everything is taken care of and we want for nothing. I have no time to meet, I’m up to my eyes. Alexandra Nikolayevna. New York. To Vasil′yev. Not Professor.
ELENA DOLGOPYAT (born 1963) is from Murom, in the Vladimir region of Russia. She graduated from the Moscow Institute of Railway Engineering (now the Moscow State University of Railway Engineering) in 1986, and worked until 1989 as a programmer at a military facility in the Moscow region. In 1993 she graduated from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, and has worked at the State Central Museum of Cinema in Moscow since 1995. She was first published in 1993, and since then has regularly published short stories and novella-length works. She is also the author of several film screenplays. Her collection of short stories Rodina (‘Homeland’) was shortlisted for the Russian National Bestseller prize in 2017. In 2019 AST published her collection Chuzhaya Zhizn (‘A life not mine’). ‘Science’ is from her 2018 short story collection Russkoye (‘Russian’, or ‘Russianness’), published by Fluid FreeFly.
About the Translator:
RICHARD COOMBES is a Russian to English literary translator, living and working in the United Kingdom. He worked variously as a musician and in publishing before retraining as an international tax specialist. Throughout his working life he maintained his interest in literature, music, and songwriting, and continued to develop his love for Russian. In 2015, he retired early to start his own business as a translator. His most recent translations include Akim Tarazi’s novella Retribution, published in September 2019 by Cambridge University Press in an anthology of Kazakh prose, as well as extracts of novels by Aleksey Vinokurov, Andrei Filimonov, Grigoriy Sluzhitel, Roman Senchin, Vladimir Tuchkov, and Stanislava Miodushevskaya. He has also translated short stories by Anna Ignatova, Andrei Volos, and Elena Dolgopyat.
Read more by Elena Dolgopyat:
Print Anthology with one of Elena Dolgopyat’s short stories included