Recently I unwittingly offended a friend. He didn’t get the point of a joke I’d made in an e-mail and took it seriously instead. Later he called me to sort things out. I asked why he’d felt snubbed: it was clearly a joke, wasn’t it? Pretty much, he replied, it looked like a joke and he wanted to believe it was, but I hadn’t put a smiley at the end.
What the heck… But he was right—I hadn’t used a smiley. I apologized for hurting his feelings. When I hung up, I fell to thinking. Chekhov or Mark Twain didn’t use smileys in their stories and readers still knew when to chuckle.
Or take Charlie Chaplin’s films: there wasn’t a horde of prompters behind the scenes producing raucous laughter lest we miss the gag.
By the time my grandchildren go to school smileys are bound to be a generally accepted form of punctuation, I mused, and kids will learn to use emoticons along with colons, hyphens, and apostrophes.
With these thoughts fresh in my mind, I logged into my mail account and saw there was a message from the translator Will Firth. He wrote that the web magazine Words without Borders had decided to publish my short story “Traders.” I was greatly surprised and searched for a smiley in his mail to tell if this was perhaps a practical joke. There was no smiley.
The reason for my surprise was that I’d always felt “Traders” to be a highly personal story. It’s a snapshot of a very specific phase in Russian history and I’d thought it would be incomprehensible to people outside Russia—in fact, incomprehensible to anyone who wasn’t in Russia and young at the time. How would people perceive things? I imagined it would be like when you’re visiting friends and they get out a photo album and proceed to bombard you with nitty-gritty details of holidays long past. They laugh about their trips and argue about particulars that don’t interest you, none of it does, because it’s not your life and your adventure. And you think: jeez, I’d better drink up my tea and find an excuse to get away.
So I decided to draft a few words of explanation for foreign readers. I went into the economic and political situation in Russia in the early 1990s, the exchange rate of the dollar, the price of apartments and houses, the laws legitimizing daylight robbery, etc. What came out was a ten-page tractate—turgid and unpalatable. I deleted the lot. I realized that all I needed was a short, snappy ad. And here it is:
Read my story “Traders” about love, sex, money, and murder—with no smileys. :)
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