Reading Roulette

Olga Slavnikova

We’ve emptied half the cylinder in our Reading Roulette series of contemporary Russian literature—stories you won’t find anywhere else in translation, unfortunately. This month we usher to the table a 2013 Russian Booker Prize contender for a shot at blowing your mind.

Courtesy O. Slavnikova.

Next time Olga Slavnikova comes to town (which, judging from her rise on the radar of highbrow New York, I expect to be sooner than later), I will ask her to tea. Then I will tell her that the world will go to hell if she accepts my invitation.

Slavnikova is a busy woman—busy writing award-winning novels, sitting on international literary panels and promoting the next generation of Russian writers—so I will be honored if she accepts. But it would really just be a coy wink on my part, for one of the greatest lines Slavnikova ever wrote is this: “The Russian dilemma posed by Dostoyevsky—‘Shall I let the world go to hell or skip my tea?’—has been resolved in favor of the tea.”

What follows is the story of a man who would much prefer his tea; an excerpt from Slavnikova’s Light Head, forthcoming in English in 2013. Don’t miss the Q&A with Slavnikova after the story. Toronto-area readers may see Slavnikova read, along with TMN’s Pasha Malla, at the International Festival of Authors at the Harbourfront Centre, Oct. 25, 2012. For more contemporary Russian literature, checking the rest of our Reading Roulette series.


A Light Head

From Light Head, forthcoming from Overlook Press. Translation © Andrew Bromfield, 2012. Used with permission.

Maxim T. Yermakov, the happy owner of a three-year-old Toyota and brand manager for several appalling varieties of milk chocolate, drove up to his chocolate office with his customary feeling of having no head on his shoulders. Meanwhile, the head was smoking and it could see the wet car park with the inflatable snowman standing in a black January puddle. But even so—it wasn’t there.

When he was a child Maxim T. Yermakov used to ask his parents a stupid question: How do people know that they think with their heads? His father, whose head was flanked by a pair of ears large enough to suggest it had the secret ability to fly, tried to explain about the two hemispheres of the brain; his mum anxiously touched her child’s warm forehead, seeking for an illness in that space where thoughts drifted about like cosmonauts in zero gravity. The concentration of the human sense of identity in the head, above the arms, legs, and everything else, was the greatest human mystery of all to the young Maxim T. Yermakov. He disliked games that required agility and active movement because he was afraid of the strange void through which the wind blew freely between the neck of his tee-shirt and his denim cap; afraid that a branch might accidentally poke into that void, or a bronze beetle might fly into it.

The nurse at his kindergarten, who survived in his memory only as a pair of icy hands and a tiny mother-of-pearl mouth, used to put the group on the weighing scales every month and then inform his parents that their boy, although he appeared to be well developed, was lagging about four kilos behind the normal weight for his age. His mum, who didn’t understand what was going on, stuffed little Maxim T. Yermakov with cloudy oils from the pharmacy and high-calorie casseroles. As a result, the sluggish, force-fed Maxim T. Yermakov grew into a chubby youth with large pink cheeks and a second chin with the delicate texture of cream. Anyone who looked at him realized instantly that only the very finest produce had gone into the construction of that body. After the young man’s weight reached a hundred kilograms, the missing four were not so obvious. But even so, the heavy bearer of a light head remained constantly aware of the lack of weight on his shoulders.

Despite his lightheadedness, which at first he did not realize was a strictly personal trait, peculiar to him alone, Mikhail T. Yermakov’s grades in school and college were all As and Bs. But even so, he still didn’t understand what his teachers meant when they told him to “get something into his head.” The information that he was given—on everything from Pushkin’s poetry to product rebranding techniques—immediately escaped from his virtual cranium to become a free element of the world around him—which, properly speaking, was what it already was in any case. The world presented itself to him as a flexible information environment, and the knowledge, released into freedom, returned to him fully structured, bearing, like an industrious bee, nutritious nectar that it had gathered in parts unknown. It sometimes seemed to Mikhail T. Yermakov that he could acquire information without any books or Internet, quite literally out of the air.

These personal peculiarities, however, were not enough to make Maxim T. Yermakov into either a genius or a master of life. While still a student, he found himself a job, just like everyone else did, and ended up in a commercial structure that promoted a range of transnational food products. For a brief initial spell he handled an instant coffee that supposedly possessed a ravishing aroma, which wafted through the air in the form of bluish-grey silk ribbons, but since that time the life of Maxim T. Yermakov had been focused entirely on chocolate. Chocolate bricks, chocolate bars, cream-filled chocolate, half a dozen different kinds of chocolate sweets, white chocolate, honeycomb chocolate—all of it positively demanding enjoyment from the consumer in the same way as war demands feats of heroism. For, in real space, the product consisted of a sweet, bitty clay with the addition of soap, a mixture that was produced in a factory somewhere near Ryazan.

The jokes linking Maxim T. Yermakov’s figure with the object of his creative endeavors were groundless: Maxim T. Yermakov did not eat his own chocolate. However, his entire appearance as a flourishing fat man made him an entirely apposite representative of the product, with the ruddy bloom of his cheeks extending right up to his eyes and the sugary bristles on his head producing free-flowing rainbow effects in response to the movements of his thoughts and skin. As already stated above, the delectation presumptively deriving from this chocolate was entirely incorporeal in nature. Maxim T. Yermakov knew a lot about the incorporeal. By combining images in the correct proportions, he created the visual representation of a flavor that did not actually exist in reality. Sales increased. Even the executive director, V.V. Krapinov, commonly known as Crap, a superannuated monster overgrown right up to his eyes with gray stubble that the efforts of stylists had transformed into something akin to a coil of barbed wire, was reluctantly obliged to admit that whatchamacallim, the young chocolate guy, had a good head on his shoulders.

“Every so often, cause and effect relationships enter a vegetative phrase. And then the individuals whom we call ‘Alpha Objects’ appear. And, strange as it may seem, the future course of many, very many events depends on them. You, Maxim Terentievich, are precisely such an Object, if you will pardon us for saying so.”

Youth is ambitious. It took time for Maxim T. Yermakov to accept his common fate. He was a member of the international army of millions of corporate clerks, a single droplet who fused with the masses in the hours of struggle to negotiate the traffic jams of Moscow, which resembled an agglomeration of flies on strips of sticky paper. Meanwhile, in his light head, with its apparent lack of all physical boundaries, a clear truth gradually took shape—things were not looking black, on the contrary, they were looking up. Because, in these modern times, the human rights defended by serious international organizations had been superseded by the Rights of the Common Individual. Maxim T. Yermakov condensed down the essential meaning of numerous messages, apparently originating from a wide range of different sources, to the concept that the Russian dilemma posed by Dostoyevsky—”Shall I let the world go to hell or skip my tea?”—had nowadays been resolved in favor of the tea. To choose tea was to choose freedom—which is what our hero did, focusing his efforts on acquiring several square meters of floor space within Moscow’s Garden Ring Road. Twice he was almost suckered out of serious money, but that only lent a final polish to his character. Maxim T. Yermakov was now entirely prepared for his freedom—which distinguished him favorably from millions of his compatriots who, according to numerous media channels, were entirely unprepared for freedom and were, in fact, totally unfit for anything.

However, he found himself completely unprepared for the sequence of strange and surprising events that began at the moment when the alarm system of his Toyota switched on with a liquid glug and his mobile phone simultaneously swelled up to twice its size and started squirming about in his pocket.

“Max! Why are you so late?” said a mini-micro voice in the phone. The voice belonged to Little Lucy, his immediate boss’s secretary. “Vadim Vadimich wants to see you urgently! We’ve been searching for you everywhere!”

“OK, I’m on my way, I’ll just drop my coat off in the office,” Maxim T. Yermakov muttered, increasing the speed of his stride through the listless winter rain that was mottling his fine cashmere.

“No, no, no! Straight to the seventh floor!” little Lucy squeaked and Maxim T. Yermakov immediately switched her off when he heard a second signal forcing its way through the first one and literally erupting out of his phone.

“Maxim Terentievich? Vadim Vadimovich wants you to come to his office immediately.” This time it was Big Lida, Crap’s own secretary, speaking in a distinctly husky voice, as if her temperature was rising by leaps and bounds.

Maxim T. Yermakov started feeling alarmed. But the sense of alarm was actually pleasant: He had the brief, brazen thought that the outcome of all this ballyhoo would probably be an opportunity to earn money, since everybody needed him so urgently. As he trotted across the soundless synthetic carpeting of the seventh floor, he had visions of those elegant little toy building bricks of life—$10,000 wads in bank wrappers. In the outer office Big Lida leapt up to her full towering height as he came in and gaped at him as if she had never seen him before. Pale-faced, with new silicone lips that resembled two pieces of mild-cured Atlantic salmon, she dragged Yermakov’s damp coat off his shoulders and shoved him into the office before he had time to catch his breath.

There were two visitors sitting opposite the boss of the entire enterprise, who seemed poised rather uncertainly on his imposing chair. They were reflected in the glass desk top like dark islands, with the absolutely pristine, empty ashtray gleaming between them like a thick circle on water.

“Ah, well, at last! Twenty minutes late!” Crap exclaimed in the voice of a jovial school headmaster, which was quite unlike him. “Here you are. Our young colleague,” he said, turning to his visitors and baring a clutch of bluish crowns in a grin.

“Good morning,” Maxim T. Yermakov said to them, and thought to himself: “Fifty grand, at least.”

“May I go now?” Crap enquired, half-rising to his feet.

“Yes, dismissed,” said one of the two visitors, but Maxim T. Yermakov couldn’t tell which.

Crap, who had obviously been waiting with desperate anxiety for the moment when he could bolt from his own office, acted entirely out of character, scurrying over to the doors and giving Maxim T. Yermakov a farewell flash from his dull, metallic old man’s eyes. Only then did the visitors turn towards the person they had come to see. Their faces were entirely bloodless, with prominent foreheads. The individual sitting on the left had totally blurred features, with a tuft of dry hair on the very top of his head; the second or—to judge from the invisible currents running between the two of them—the first and more important individual, resembled a human fetus that had not been born, but developed and matured in some other, more obscure fashion. The thin skin of the inordinately large, bald head seemed semi-transparent, but it was impossible to make out anything inside it, and hideous flames blazed in the wreaths of purple wrinkles below the hairless arches of the brows.

“What an ugly pair of freaks,” thought Maxim T. Yermakov, making himself comfortable in a chair.

“Good morning, Maxim Terentievich,” said Fetus, with his gaze fixed on a spot somewhere above Maxim T. Yermakov’s shoulder. “As you have probably already realized, we are here as representatives of the state.”

In synchronized motion the two opened their ID cards—not the usual format, but large and square, similar in shape to the chocolate slabs of his closest competitor. Glowing in bright gold inside them was the predatory emblem of the state, with solid gold letters stamped into the paper: “Russian Federation. Special State Committee for Social Forecasting.” Despite the strange appearance of the documents presented to him, Maxim T. Yermakov realized immediately that the IDs were genuine and these were very, very serious guys. Far more serious than all the VIPs he had ever seen before, all lumped together. The joyful anticipation of money suddenly switched temperature from warm to icy cold. “A million. A million dollars,” Maxim T. Yermakov thought quite distinctly, twining his fingers together more tightly on his stomach.

“The actual title of our department is rather different,” Fetus remarked casually, lowering his ID into some crevice in his blank clothing, which seemed not to have a single button on it. “And now, permit me to inquire, Maxim Terentievich: Is your head in good order?”

Something like a small tornado took shape in Maxim T. Yermakov’s absent head, drawing the ceiling lamp down into itself. Maxim T. Yermakov thought: “I have a pain between the ears, as the Red Indians—I think it was—used to say.” Out loud he said:

“Well, actually, it’s my head. And whatever might happen to it is my own personal business.”

The state committee freaks exchanged glances. “Like something straight out of 1937,” thought Maxim T. Yermakov, amused at the thought that in this old game he knew everything in advance, and he knew in advance that he was right.

“All right, then we’ll tell you,” Fetus said imperturbably, crossing his legs to display a lacquered shoe as simple as a plain galosh. “Your head happens to cause a certain slight, just a tiny, little disturbance in the gravitational field. That is the feature by which we located you.”

“Do smoke if you like,” Blur put in, nudging the virginal ashtray in Maxim T. Yermakov’s direction. “We know you smoke Parliaments. It’s not really allowed in here, but you can smoke with us.”

Feeling annoyed, Maxim T. Yermakov took out a pack of Parliaments, which had instantly come to seem trashy and tasteless. He really was feeling a quite brutal desire to smoke. As usual, the cigarette smoke filled up his head, rounding it out and materializing it, streaming about inside it with a pleasant sensation.

“And why are you interested in me?” Maxim T. Yermakov asked cautiously, trying to figure out the smartest way to haggle with these two, who had opened the bidding with their artless state security gambits.

“I shall not attempt to conceal the fact that we are extremely interested in you,” Fetus declared, puckering up his face. “In a nutshell, our department deals with relationships of cause and effect. I won’t go into the theory and the know-how involved, especially since I have no right to do so. I can only inform you that these relationships are entirely material structures, one could even call them living organisms. And our research indicates, for instance, that the human sacrifices in pagan cults were not mere superstitions, but rational actions. Every so often, cause and effect relationships enter a vegetative phrase. And then the individuals whom we call ‘Alpha Objects’ appear. And, strange as it may seem, the future course of many, very many events depends on them. You, Maxim Terentievich, are precisely such an Object, if you will pardon us for saying so.”

While Fetus spouted this raving gibberish, Maxim T. Yermakov gaped, as if he were hypnotized, at Foetus’s loosely assembled fingers, tapping out some kind of faltering scales on the desk: they looked as if they were made of ice, and the gold wedding band on the crooked ring finger glinted in the sombre light of day as if it was iron. Naturally, Maxim T. Yermakov did not believe what he had heard but, above and beyond the words, he could feel the character of the space around him changing. “I wonder which presidential candidate is going to be my chocolate now?” he thought, and his heart started bobbing up and down, like a small object set in motion by the impetus of heavy footsteps.

“So you want to offer me a job?” he said out loud, assuming an air of indifference.

The state committee representatives exchanged another quick glance from under their domed foreheads, as if they had instantly dealt each other cards.

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Fetus said in a dreary voice. “You have to commit suicide by shooting yourself in the head.”


Elizabeth Kiem: Poor Yermakov! To suffer as a scapegoat only to wind up the involuntary martyr. Is this a comment on the Russian condition?

Olga Slavnikova: Yermakov is an absolutely new type of Russian. There’s a traditional Russian cult of suffering, both Russian Orthodoxy with its martyrs and Russian literature—just look at Dostoevsky. Suffering has been a necessary condition for spiritual growth. Yermakov doesn’t want to suffer or to sacrifice himself—he could care less about his spiritual growth. But he is important to me because he insists on his freedom and his rights—even just the right to live. To some extent Yermakov is fighting not just for himself but for the rights of every man, because at any moment some officer of a special committee can show up. Anyone can become a scapegoat, whether he is prepared to suffer or not.

EK: How does Russian magical realism differ from other sorts?

OS: It has to do with a particular Russian reality. Here, the very worst things happen but there is always a place for miraculous salvation. A Latin American novel is mythological; Russian magical realism is mystical.

EK: Is there really a chocolate factory outside Ryazan and does its chocolate truly taste of “sweet, bitty clay with the addition of soap?”

“If life in Russia should at some point become easy and fulfilling, that doesn’t mean that we should expect a great novel with a happy ending. There is no direct connection between a good life and a positive outcome for a novel.”

OS: I made up the chocolate factory outside of Ryazan, but there are a number of factories in the Moscow environs that produce chocolate under license of famous Western brands. Those products really do taste like clay. Real Russian chocolate is very good.

EK: “Tiny mother-of-pearl mouth” is a lovely phrase. What would you say is more important—a perfect adjective or a robust verb?

OS: Both. The verb is movement, action, the development of the subject. The adjective is the image, the meat of prose.

EK: I heard you say in June that no great Russian novel has a happy ending. Is this to say that a great Russian novel can not have a happy ending? Or only that there hasn’t been one yet?

OS: Not just Russian literature, but all world literature! Art works with the material of drama and tragedy. If life in Russia should at some point become easy and fulfilling, that doesn’t mean that we should expect a great novel with a happy ending. There is no direct connection between a good life and a positive outcome for a novel. I hope that some day Russian books will have bright conclusions—but that is not quite the same as a happy ending.

EK: Your Debut Foundation is bringing out scores of young writers. At what point did you decide that a focus on a new generation is critical for Russian literature?

OS: This happened in the late ‘90s. Publishing had become commercial. Shrouded by a background of crisis, young unknown authors had stopped being published entirely. There was the danger that Russian literature would come to an end soon, as old writers left and no new ones came forward. I saw before me, like a parade of ghosts, all these unwritten books—both mine and those of people whose names I didn’t even know. Happily, the philanthropic organization Pokolenie organized the Debut Prize, which I’ve directed since 2001. Every year we find the new talented authors, we translate the best of them into English and other languages, and promote this new Russian literature worldwide.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem