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from the April 2007 issue

Pallida Turba

Translator's Note: Three great waves of political cataclysm surged over a city already accustomed to periodic inundation by the black waters of the river Neva: the October Revolution, the purges of the 1930s, and the Nazi blockade decimated the population of St. Petersburg.

Vera Nikolaevna was born in their wake, a few years after the Second World War, in its Soviet incarnation: Leningrad. Although her family lived in a communal apartment, the building on Vasilyevsky Island had in the nineteenth century been the home of many famous artists and composers, including Tchaikovsky. She was raised by a nanny, and schooled in English—she has translated Philip Roth and William Golding into Russian. Her grandmother saw to it that Vera kept a diary of every play, concert, and exhibition she attended.

That is how Vera remembers she had come home from a performance of Griboedov's comedy Woe from Wit on the afternoon of October 27th, 1962, when the classical music on the radio was interrupted. A solemn voice informed all the citizens of the Soviet Union that a statement by the government was imminent. For the next twenty minutes a metronome ticked, and Vera gripped the sides of her bed. The First World War had started when her grandmother was sixteen; the Second, when her mother was the same age. Now Leningrad was to perish at last, in a nuclear firestorm, and Vera had been cheated of three more years of life. The announcement never came: Kennedy and Khrushchev had defused the Cuban Missile Crisis. In New York City I celebrated my ninth birthday that day, but earlier in the week I had overheard my parents saying good-bye to each other.

Kobets lives today on Moskovsky Prospect, at the southern end of town: from her high windows, one looks out over the green sea of Victory Park north to the golden dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral, tiny in the distance. The park, which has a pleasant pond and attractions for children, was laid out on the site where a brick factory used to stand. During the nine-hundred-day Nazi blockade of Leningrad, nearly half the city's people died of hunger, cold, and enemy bombardments; by February 1942, the factory's furnaces were pressed into service to cremate hundreds of thousands of corpses. A secret Communist Party directive specified the military ration of one hundred grams per day of vodka for the workers assigned the grim job. After the war the brick factory was razed and until Perestroika the episode was expunged from official histories: few parents and children knew they were strolling and playing in a mass grave. The hideous lightness of being to which deliberate oblivion reduces the human soul is expressed better by satire than by tragedy.

The two tales presented in translation here belong to the great Russian tradition of dark humor of Gogol and Zoshchenko. Though Vera Kobets's Russian prose has been compared to that of Nabokov and Bunin, I would observe that both of the latter were not parochially Russian but broadly European—and, in the case of Nabokov, also "as American as April in Arizona," as he once put it, with a typically odd and illuminating refraction of the apple pie cliché. Kobets's descriptions of things and of people's inner states combine restrained, ladylike primness with vicious sarcasm in a manner that delights me as Jane Austen and Elizabeth Bowen do.

At first nobody noticed the seepage. True, flour started to appear from somewhere on the floor. Then somebody decided it must be powder. "Tooth powder?" wondered Albina, surprised. "But we all use toothpaste." We swept the floor: there was a lot of the rubbish. "What can you do," murmured Mama. "That's life."

But at a certain point the powder began to fall in a thin, constant stream. Everyone was at home when this happened, and all raised their eyes to look. "Seepage," pronounced Father with irritation. "It will have to be repaired, that's for sure," Grandma chimed in. Everybody stared at her and immediately looked the other way.

"I saw a wonderful oak sideboard at the antique shop," declared Albina. "It would look good in this room—right here." She pointed to the spot where a small hill of white plaster dust was rising. "If we put a sideboard here we'll have to move the armchair and side table," said Father, displeased. "Your grandfather," Mama replied, her eyes shining, "tolerated only oak furniture." "My grandfather?" Father, astonished, put down his teaspoon next to the saucer. "I was saying to Albina," Mother continued, a thoughtful smile crossing her face. "Or maybe not. Anyway I recalled my childhood, the times when we still lived in the old house." "That was a long time ago," Father answered. "Our new house has also become an old one since then." "Well, I don't know if it was all that long ago," objected Grandma primly. "It seems to me as though we were living in the old house only yesterday. And everything was just as it is now. Well, not everything: we didn't have that side table. Also, Albinochka wasn't born yet." She gave a short laugh. "Papa wasn't born yet, either," said Albina. Grandma became serious and gave her shoulders a light shrug. "Grandpa was alive," she said. "So," Albina asked, "are we going to buy that oak sideboard?" "No," said Mother. "It just won't fit in, in this room." "In the old house there was an oak sideboard in the dining room," Grandma remarked in a toneless voice. "Heavens, we're not in the old house, but the formerly new one!" Mother replied. "Well so what? Why can't we still buy an antique?" asked Albina. "Because it's time to go to bed, that's why," said Father with a snort of laughter, carefully folding his newspaper. And all went their separate ways.

A silence descended upon the house. Only the wind whistled outside the window, and the clock ticked, stubbornly, hollowly, and, just barely audibly, the plaster dust continued to seep from the ceiling. A fine white powder lay evenly on everything: on the table, the chair, the phonograph cabinet, the floor . . .

"It is lovely, though," said Mother the next morning. "It looks like newly fallen snow. Do you remember that wonderful performance of the Milanese Piccolo? Snow in Venice . . . " "That was all rather pretentious," objected Grandma. "The snow was too obvious a theatrical effect, though the concept did leave an impression nonetheless." "Well," said Albina, "that's splendid. We shall inhale the scent of plaster and imagine we're on the stage, or in Venice. Everybody chooses what he or she prefers." "Personally, I prefer to imagine I'm at home," replied Father. The ladies glanced at each other, silent. "I doubt anyone would dispute that!" they then pronounced in unison.

Time passed. The layer of plaster grew thicker and thicker. "Don't be surprised," we would warn guests. "We've had some seepage from the ceiling. Of course, nothing like this used to happen in the old house. But what is one to do? Everything changes." One guest took this literally and started to offer condolences. This introduced a kind of unpleasant and shrill note. But, fortunately, such incomprehension was infrequent. Generally, arriving visitors would exclaim, "But this is lovely! It's always out of the ordinary with you. And the white dusting lends a new enchantment to the room."

There were some misunderstandings. A certain Muscovite architect, an acquaintance of Pavel Petrovich, who, it was understood, had introduced him not for social reasons, but because of the plaster, said as he surveyed the room, "This really was worth seeing. You know what it reminds me of? A garden in bloom." "A cherry orchard?" demanded Albina with a challenging stare." "No, not at all," the architect demurred, not taking the bait. "A garden. Just an ordinary garden. Or a building site, for that matter." Mama scowled; Papa raised his eyebrows and began in a demonstrative manner to ruffle the pages of his newspaper, but Grandma hastily restored order by chatting with the architect about his childhood. She then took a few minutes to calm Pavel Petrovich, who was of course culpable to some degree, but who could be forgiven, since he was sincerely repentant and swore never again to bring around incidental people. "After all, not everyone can appreciate this house," he said, raising his eyes to the mountain of plaster at the risk of getting chalk dust all over his face. Grandma tapped his hand and smiled in approval.

Well, after that the ceiling began to leak. We put a pail between the table and the armchair. For the first few days, we had to empty it only once every twenty-four hours, no more. Then a few other buckets appeared, and they had to be emptied of water every thirty minutes—right at the chiming of the clock. Grandma explained: "My father brought this clock, once upon a time, from Switzerland. Who could have imagine it would acquire a new duty seventy years later?" She laughed. Her mood had been excellent of late. "Do you hear? It's the drip-dripping of the spring thaw," she said. "Out there it's December, but in our house it's March." "What's really surprising," added Papa, taking up the theme, "is that it even smells like spring here. As a chemist, I cannot find an explanation for this, but as a man who does not contest the facts, I admit: it is so." Father didn't hide behind his newspaper anymore: he took an active role in everything and demonstrated his water extraction system to everybody. Some of the details hadn't yet been worked out, but the general idea was very clear, and, most important, practicable. Listening to Papa, our guests would try to smile, but it was plain this cost them some effort. Besides, it became cold in our rooms. "Well now, have you frozen solid?" Papa would inquire cheerfully. "I see, Tanyusha, that you've taken a chill," Mama echoed. "Put on a shawl. We all wrap ourselves in shawls when we settle down for the evening. And it's very amusing. Once we had an album with a postcard showing two monkeys at the seashore. They both had on shawls: they sat shivering and looked at the sunset. Wait a moment, I think I remember where we put that album . . . What? Are you leaving already?"

Our guests dwindled in number, and those who came were in a hurry to go, even though the clock Grandma's father had brought from Switzerland reminded us: "Ding dong, dinner's on. Tick tock, start to talk." But our guests would not obey. Hastily dreaming up some excuse and muttering a few unintelligible phrases, they made for the door. "Surely our minor leaks didn't scare you off?" Father would joke, standing to one side. "Misha!" Mama would scold him, playacting. "Surely they aren't that timid!" Grandma would interject benevolently. Albina distributed brushes to the guests so that they could dust themselves off before going out onto the street. Many managed this awkwardly. Grandma, with an ironic laugh, would say, "Not that way, Pavel Petrovich! Why, you're practically a member of the family! I'm amazed that you haven't got used to the routine yet." Pavel Petrovich would concoct some self-justification as best he could, kiss the hands of all the ladies, and beat a hasty retreat. Once he rang and informed us that he had taken to his bed with a severe cold. "I'm afraid it will last for some time," he added firmly. "Pasha never could quite adapt himself to real life," commented Grandma with a shrug.

Our household now maintained contact with the outside world almost exclusively by telephone. Our acquaintances did not succumb to attempts to induce them to visit; and going anywhere ourselves became daily more difficult and unpleasant. Some sort of new reddish-green substance was added to the rain of water and chalky garbage cascading from the ceiling. It was quite impossible to determine what it was, so the strange flakes were not discussed and came simply to be ignored. "How are things? Fine, as usual," Grandma would radiantly inform Tatyana Ivanovna. "Yes, Pavel Petrovich, everything's in order here, thank you," said Mama, playing her part. "How are we managing? Just fine!" Papa would sum up confidently. Only Albina cut in, "Why should 'fine' mean 'as usual'? Who said nothing should ever change? Why can't we buy an antique sideboard that will make the room more attractive?" Grandma shrugged her shoulders and smiled with a sigh. "Age," said Papa. "It's her age." And Mama added drily, "Nobody's against it, dear. If we need a sideboard, let's buy one." "Ding dong," said the clock; and everything continued evenly in its cyclical, routine way.

Papa was finishing up his water extraction project. There was still a great deal of work left to do, but this did not discourage us. Everyone had become used to the buckets. What was worse was something else: the greenish flakes wouldn't settle, but flew about in the air, and it became difficult to breathe. "You know, we're all walking around in masks . . . yes, snow in Venice, Carnival. Tatyusha, how sweet of you to call. Would you care to come over, perhaps? . . . Well, all right, I know you have a million things to do as it is. Yes, yes, best to Shurik, bye." The receiver was reluctantly replaced on the phone. "She never was able to manage her schedule," Grandma said, briskly and cheerfully readjusting her slipping mask. "Well, my friends, what are our plans for the evening?"

Now everyone stayed home from morning till evening. Papa abandoned his laboratory and was transferred to the information division. His new superior was liberal-minded and did not insist he come in to the institute. "I think the scent of spring I give off is a little too pungent for that odd fellow," Papa declared, and everybody laughed. Mama now worked on her translations at home. Albina was in her third month of sick leave: her pneumonia was not improving. "Nonsense," Grandma sniffed, full of confidence. "Thank God, everybody in our family has strong lungs. Sick leave isn't bad, anyway. She studies more seriously at home." "So is everything all right?" inquired Tatyana Ivanovna. "Yes, fortunately, yes," Grandma replied.

Then the ceiling collapsed. All at once. And nothing was left.

"Did you hear?" Pavel Petrovich asked Tatyana Ivanovna. "It's incomprehensible. I still can't believe it!" exclaimed Tatyana Ivanovna, flushed with excitement. "I feel simply dreadful—my blood pressure's gone way up—and Shurik is distressed beyond belief. He wasn't there often, but he did value that house." "And the main thing is how unexpected it was," said Pavel Petrovich, spreading his hands wide in a gesture of astonishment. Tatyana nodded her head in agreement. "You're right. That's the most terrible thing of all."

For Vera Kobets' "There Are No Hopeless Situations," please click here.

Read more from the April 2007 issue
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