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THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN FICTION
IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION


Valery Ronshin

ABSURD TALES

Translated by Sofi Cook

(from Living a Life, Glas 29)

Zaborov the Dreamer

Zaborov the dreamer liked to fly around in the clouds and dream his dreams. Zaborov's neighbour, a retired colonel who could see right through anyone, didn't approve at all.
"I've no time for all this flying around," he used to say. "Someone has to do the work, don't they?"
This didn't stop Zaborov though. He would soar high up above, like a bird. And quite often he would shout down in a burst of delight: "People, I love you all!"
The people, however, all tended to be like his neighbour, the colonel. Whenever they spotted Zaborov the dreamer soaring in the sky, they would throw stones at him, or fire their shotguns in order somehow to bring him back to earth.
One day, as Zaborov was flying over a military unit, they tried to bring him down with a burst of machine-gun fire.
"Well, what did you expect?" said his neighbour, the colonel, who could see right through anyone. "Every Soviet is a KGB man at heart. Here you are flying around without anyone's authorization! We can't have that, you know! What if everyone suddenly took it into their heads to start flying around? Who would do all the work around here then, eh?!"
After this Zaborov the dreamer stopped flying.
"Good lad," his neighbour exclaimed approvingly. "Now all you need to do is get a job, and start being of some use to society."
Zaborov the dreamer did not become of any use to society, however. He took to visiting the town park, where he would lie on the grass and watch the clouds go by. Yet even this did not last long. One day, he was approached by a policeman.
"What do you think you're doing, lying around, then, eh?" inquired the policeman.
"I'm watching the clouds," replied Zaborov the dreamer.
"And why is that?" inquired the policeman again.
"Well, I just feel like it," replied Zaborov the dreamer.
"Perhaps you should come with me then," retorted the policeman.
At the police station Zaborov the dreamer had to make a statement and was fined for unruly behaviour in a public place.
After this Zaborov the dreamer stopped lying in the park and watching the clouds.
Winter came, and one day Zaborov the dreamer was walking along a sleety street, looking carefully underfoot so as not to fall, when suddenly by the Intourist Hotel he bumped into his childhood flame and first love, Nadenka. The two used to go to nursery school together.
Now Nadenka worked as a prostitute, for foreign currency only. She invited Zaborov the dreamer to a nice restaurant.
"Still flying around?" she asked, sipping her champagne.
"Do you remember how we used to roll about in the snow?" reminisced Zaborov, smiling. "Those huge white snowdrifts!"
"No," replied Nadenka. "No, I don't remember."
"And in the summer we used to go down to the river. Remember when you got that fisherman to let you have the fish he'd caught which you let go?"
Nadenka didn't remember any of this.
"I'm worth three hundred dollars now, you know," she boasted.
Zaborov touched her hand timidly. His soul wept for her.
When Zaborov the dreamer returned home his neighbour, the colonel, who could see right through anyone, immediately saw through his soul.
"I suppose she's been snivelling again?" he sneered.
"I shall fly again today," Zaborov said quietly.
"Idiot!" shouted the colonel.
But Zaborov the dreamer flew away anyway. He floated quietly above the sleeping earth and dreamed his dreams: "Wouldn't it be wonderful if all people could learn to take away each other's pain. And share their joy in return."
Zaborov the dreamer was so full of his dream that he didn't even notice the intercepting fighter plane heading straight towards him. In the cockpit sat a fighter pilot whose code number was "Nineteen".
"I see the target!" Nineteen reported to his command post.
"Destroy!" came the order.
"Yes, sir!" replied Nineteen and destroyed Zaborov the dreamer. With an "air-to-air" missile.

 

How I Became a Fly

Once upon a time there lived little me. And, one fine day, there I was, as usual, standing behind the counter of my little shop. Outside the sun shone brightly. A fly was buzzing around the room. In short, everything was just as usual. All of a sudden, the door opened and a strange customer walked in. Or rather, he wasn't strange until he began to speak.
"I would like to buy a heart," he said.
"In that case, you should try the shop next door," I suggested. "I'm afraid we don't sell toys."
"You misunderstand me," the strange customer insisted gently. "I wish to buy a real, live heart."
"I'm sorry," I said, "but we don't sell anything like that."
"I'll pay you well," he insisted, pulling a thick wad of notes out of his pocket.
"But I don't have any live hearts in my shop!" I exclaimed. "You may buy a typewriter, or a television anything down to a box of matches!"
"No, no," the strange customer retorted firmly. "I need a heart. Your heart."
"Mine?" I gaped in astonishment.
"Yes, yours," he nodded calmly.
"Well, I'm afraid you're wasting your time," I concluded. "My heart is not for sale."
"I do understand," agreed the stranger. "Of course you won't sell it cheaply. But if I were to offer you a very substantial sum..?"
Upon which he pulled a second wad of money from his pocket. It was three times as thick as the first.
I gazed thoughtfully at the notes lying on the counter.
"But... how will I live without a heart?" I ventured falteringly. "It's impossible!"
"It's perfectly possible," the stranger disagreed. "Think of all the people who do!"
Saying this, he stretched his black gloved hands towards me and his fingers entered my chest as though it were water. In an instant my red heart lay in his palms. Whereupon the strange customer took a soiled plastic bag from his pocket, smoothed it out and carelessly threw my pulsating heart into it.
"See you," he uttered meaningfully as he disappeared behind the door.
My chest now felt light and airy. I pounced on the notes to count them again.
The next day the stranger appeared for a second time.
"Are you looking for another heart?" I asked. "I'm afraid I don't have another one."
"Ah, but you do have a brain," he grinned unpleasantly.
Involuntarily I put my hand to my head.
"A brain," I whispered hesitantly. "But... what will I think with?"
"Why think at all?" riposted the stranger.
"How much?" I inquired, business-like.
"Enough, never you worry," he answered, taking three fat wads from his pocket.
And then he plunged his fingers into my head and took out my brain.
We stared at it for a minute. To tell the truth, there didn't seem to be that much grey matter. Getting out another dirty plastic bag, the strange customer threw my brain in it and withdrew.
I immediately counted the money. The sum really was very substantial. And now my head, as well as my chest, felt light and airy.
On the third day I found myself awaiting the arrival of the mysterious stranger with impatience. He did not disappoint my expectations and appeared in due course.
"Good afternoon," he said politely. "And how are you feeling today?"
"Wonderful!" I enthused. "My head is no longer crammed full of utter rubbish. Perhaps you would like to purchase something else?" I suggested hopefully.
"Your right leg," the stranger said curtly.
My jaw dropped.
"And I'll just hop, I suppose?" I inquired sarcastically.
"What for?" he shrugged disdainfully. "Just stand still."
Saying this, he was already pulling the money from his pocket.
"You'd convince a dead man!" I surrendered, and continued with abandon: "Well, in for a penny, in for a pound! Take both legs!"
To cut a long story short, pretty soon I had sold him everything: my arms, legs, torso, liver and spleen, even my bladder! Only my head, emptied of its brains, remained sitting on the counter. This he didn't even think was worth talking to, and simply flung it in his dirty plastic bag before departing.
My soul alone was left in the shop.
Imagine my astonishment, when the following day the strange visitor appeared again!

"You would like to buy my soul?" I asked.
"What would I want with your soul?" he grimaced disdainfully. "No, give me a box of matches."
"What can I give it to you with?" I asked, a little surprised. "Remember, you bought my hands a good week ago! You might as well just help yourself."
He took a box of matches and lit up, quite unruffled.
"How would you like to become a fly?" he asked unexpectedly.
"A fly?" I repeated.
"You know a fly," the stranger nodded. "Then you can fly around the lamp, buzzing away to yourself. Come on see if you can buzz a little!"
"Buzzzzzzzzz," I buzzed obligingly.
"See how good you are," he concluded in negligent praise.
And so I became a fly.

 

We All Lived... We All Loved

Mum rang towards evening. She told me that grandfather had died. I went back into the other room. The first drops of rain were falling on the window pane.
"It's raining," Vika said.
When I first met Vika she was lying on my friend's sofa, eyes half-closed, reading a poem:
"Blue people walk among the red..."
Now Vika lay on my sofa.
Grandfather had lived for fifty-two years before I was born. A whole lifetime. What did I really know about him?
"Why don't you put some music on," said Vika. "You know silences disturb me."
We would come and visit every summer. Grandfather would water the vegetable garden with the hose, breed rabbits, and mess around with his motor-scooter in the shed. What else? Read the papers.
Now he was dead.

"All men are brothers,
But we're cousins many times removed.
And we're travelling somewhere,
not knowing where and why!"

blared the music from the speakers.
At the very moment grandfather was dying I was kissing Vika's breasts.
"Darling," she was whispering in my ear, "when are we going to go to the registry office?" Vika badly wanted to get married.
Instead, she got hit by a tram. There you are, you see. You want one thing and you get another. Outside it was drizzling.

"My neighbour can't take it,
he wants to escape
But he can't get away
he does not know the way."

Sorrowfully, Jesus Christ gazed down at us from the icon in the corner. Night was falling. From the gathering shadows the midges flocked to the light of the lamp.
"He wanted you to come so much," grandmother had said, "but you never came."
Our cold tea stood untouched in the cracked teacups.
The next morning I went for a walk around the town. Not much had changed.
Beside the old maternity hospital where I had been born there now stood a new hospital where grandfather had died.
And you could now go on a bus tour around the town.
"The writer Gogol stayed in our town," commented the young guide. "Now, if you look to your right..."
Everyone looked to their right.
The cemetery fence had collapsed in places. The photograph on the iron tombstone was the same as the one in the little frame in the kitchen. Was it really possible that my grandfather was buried here? Strange idea. I couldn't imagine it. I just kept on hearing his voice in my head.
Four men were carrying a nailed-down coffin along one of the little paths. Another eight or so people followed. An old woman in black had to be supported on either side.
"If you die this year, you can't die next year!" winked the man who brought up the rear, a little drunk.
In the bus someone had scratched on the back of the front seat: "Is this how we should be living?"
The guide, whom I knew, was sitting to my left. Turning to face him I asked:
"Why was it that Gogol stayed in this town?"
"His carriage had broken down," he replied.
The bus left a long trail of dust. Somewhere a dog barked. The rather tatty "unknown soldier" kept his lonely vigil by the eternally dying flame. The bus drove onto the main square, where the plywood stands were ablaze with figures: rows and rows of red numbers showing our achievements.
Brezhnev stared pompously at himself from three huge posters. The sun was setting. I thought of Vika.
"I suppose I'd better go now," she had said, not moving.
"'Bye then," I had replied.
"You pig," she had said.
Sitting in my armchair I could hear Vika in the hall as she put her coat on. The door slammed. Where was she now my first love? And where was the guide who had talked about Gogol? And where was Gogol himself Gogol, who wrote "Living is a dull business, gentlemen"? Where's the unknown soldier? And that well-known Leninist, Leonid Brezhnev? Where is Jesus Christ, who said, "Save us, o Lord!" Where are they all, I would like to know? And where, indeed, am I myself? So clever! So handsome! And so unique!

 

Doctor Gogol

Once upon a time there lived a doctor, whose surname was that of the greatest Russian writer. That is to say, Gogol. Doctor Gogol was rather a strange chap. One day, for instance, a pretty young girl came to see him.
"Oh, Doctor Gogol," she wept. "I've trapped my finger in the door."
"We'll have to amputate," Gogol snapped curtly, not even glancing at the finger.
"My f-finger?" the young girl stammered, white as a sheet.
"Your hand!" the doctor replied firmly.
Crash! the young girl fainted.
One day Doctor Gogol had a rather strange idea. He decided to go to the cemetery where his namesake was buried and dig up his coffin to see what exactly remained of the great Russian writer.
So off he went, armed with a spade. At the cemetery he dug up the grave, opened the coffin, and...
There was no-one inside!
It was totally empty.
"Hmm," pondered Gogol. "I wonder where the writer could have got to." Then he had another idea: "Why don't I lie down in his place just to see what lying in a grave's like!"
So he got in the coffin, closed the lid and lay still.
Just then an old drunkard was passing through the cemetery. Seeing an unburied coffin, he said to himself: "This ain't right!" and buried Doctor Gogol.
And so there was Gogol the doctor lying in the coffin of Gogol the writer, marvelling at the vicissitudes of life: an hour ago he had been at home, happily eating dumplings with sour cream, and now he was lying in a grave in the middle of a cemetery. Six feet under.
So he lay there and marvelled, until finally he nodded off.
Now it so happened that at the same time, some scholars from the Academy of Sciences also decided to dig up the coffin with the remains of the writer Gogol. With a scientific aim in mind, of course.
So they dug up the coffin, took it to the Academy of Sciences, put it on a table and carefully opened it.
And there was Doctor Gogol, fast asleep.
Astonished, the scholars gathered around the coffin.
"Gracious!" they said.
"Isn't the body remarkably well-preserved!"
One professor named Paukin ventured to express some doubt, however.
"Wasn't Gogol's nose rather pointed?" he asked timidly. "This chap's got a snub nose. And also Gogol always wore his hair long and this one's bald as a coot."
The other scholars soon brought him to reason.
"What do you expect?" they screeched. "The body's been buried for years! Of course there'd be a few slight changes!"
At this point Doctor Gogol awoke, climbed out of the coffin and jumped down onto the tiled floor.
"Greetings, my good men," he said.
The learned scholars were gobsmacked.
"So he didn't die at all," they whispered. "He was just in a coma."
Academician Vasilenko, president of the Academy of Sciences, inquired politely:
"How are you feeling, Mr Gogol?"
"Well enough," replied Doctor Gogol.
"Can I get you anything?" Vasilenko offered invitingly.
"Some vodka might be nice!" said Doctor Gogol.
The vodka was brought immediately. Doctor Gogol had a drink and livened up.
"Now bring me a woman!" he shouted.
"I still say there's something funny about him," insisted Professor Paukin.
"What do you expect?" the others came down on him again. "All those years without a woman! It's a perfectly natural wish!"
By now Doctor Gogol had got completely out of hand and was bawling: "Get me a woman! I want a woman!"
There was nothing for it but to get him a woman.
The woman was Nastasia Petrovna, the cleaner. Now Nastasia Petrovna was a large woman. People say of women like her, "She could give birth to a tank and the tank crew."
The professors and academicians retired tactfully to another room. Doctor Gogol remained staring at Nastasia Petrovna. He couldn't believe his eyes: could this really be Nastenka, that same Nastenka he had had such fun with twenty years ago?
"Nastenka!" he growled in disbelief. "Is it you?"
"Grigory!" gasped Nastasia Petrovna.
"Dear Nastenka!" reminisced Doctor Gogol sentimentally. "What's happened to you, my dear? Remember you used to write poetry! Come, oh come, our souls are pining. In the heavens the stars are shining."
"I did," Nastenka agreed, "and now I clean toilets. You're not so fine either, Grigory: remember when you used to rush to your lectures, a fresh-faced young student and look at you now! They pulled you out of a coffin like a dead'un!"
"Indeed, my dear, indeed," Doctor Gogol shook his bald head sadly. "Life is a strange thing."
Round about this time the scholars, encouraged by their first success, decided to nip up to the Pushkin Hills and dig up the coffin of Alexander Pushkin in the vague hope that he had not been killed in the duel, but had also fallen into a coma.
So they dug up the coffin, took it to the Academy of Sciences, put it on a table and, not without considerable trepidation, opened it.
Inside lay a woman, blind-drunk. She looked around with a dull expression, heaved herself up into a sitting position, letting her legs dangle from the table, and inquired sullenly:
"Where am I then? In the nick?"
"You are in the Academy of Sciences," announced the scholars.
"Blimey," she retorted indifferently and hiccoughed.
"Excuse me, madam," Academician Vasilenko questioned her, "but who exactly are you?"
"Don't know," shrugged the woman and hiccoughed again.
"Madam, I must insist," Vasilenko continued coldly, "that you tell me how you came to be in the coffin of Alexander Pushkin."
"Can't remember, shit!" snapped the old bag and blew her nose into her fingers. "I remember I bought a bottle with the boys, and I remember we drank it in the alley by the skip, but I don't remember nothin' else. Passed out, didn't I!"
The learned scholars were somewhat taken aback. And indeed, the situation was rather odd: no Pushkin just some old alkie in his place. What was going on?
Suddenly the silence was broken by a very perturbed Professor Paukin.
"She's my wife," he confessed hoarsely. "Her name's Emma. She's a chronic alcoholic."
"That's right!" the old bag brightened up. "I'm his wife I am! 'Cause my husband's a clever sod he's a professor he is! How could I forget that?"
"I thought you said your wife was a ballerina," Academician Vasilenko began sternly. "Now it turns out she's a chronic alcoholic."
"Well I got muddled up," Paukin sighed in contrition.
Taking Nastasia Petrovna's arm, Doctor Gogol intervened:
"We're leaving. Goodbye."
The scholars all rose up in alarm.
"But, Mr Gogol, why leave so soon?"
"Wait, Mr Gogol, please wait!"
The doctor looked round.
"I make about as good a Gogol as she makes a Pushkin," he retorted, pointing at Emma.
And this was only the beginning.
In Leo Tolstoy's coffin they discovered Peter Titkin, the plumber at housing office No 14 in Kazan. He swore dreadfully, and even bit Professor Paukin on the thigh.
Instead of Anna Akhmatova they discovered Klavka Zudova the beer seller, whose nickname was "Slut". She was forty-three and single, but had chalked up twelve abortions.
In Alexander Blok's grave they found the sex maniac Makarov, for whom the police had hitherto searched in vain.
And as for Fyodor Dostoyevsky well, the story is really rather embarrassing. You see, when they dug up his large, old-fashioned coffin in the Alexander Nevsky cathedral and opened it, they found a stark naked girl, making love with two men at once. Furthermore, one of these two men was none other than Academician Vasilenko who had, just the day before, allegedly departed on urgent business to the Kuril Islands.
Living is a dull business, gentlemen.

 

How Tryapkin the Detective Set out to Moscow and Arrived in Arsehole

Once upon a time there lived a detective named Tryapkin. One day the detective Tryapkin received an order from a very important general to go and see him. Or rather, her since the general was a woman, Maria Petrovna.
"Tryapkin," she began, adjusting her mighty general's bosom under her uniform. "Tryapkin, I would like to entrust you with a most unusual case."
"Yes, general," Tryapkin moved closer to show his readiness to serve.
"All our passenger trains travelling from Petersburg to Moscow have begun simply to disappear! What is more, they disappear without a trace, Tryapkin without a trace!"
"What do you mean `they disappear'?" Tryapkin inquired in bewilderment.
"That's up to you to find out!" concluded Maria Petrovna the general. "You're not a detective for nothing, are you now?"
So off went Tryapkin to the railway station, to find out.
He bought a ticket, boarded the train and was soon on his way to Moscow.
"Now, I must be on the look-out," said Tryapkin to himself, and he stayed awake all night waiting for mysterious terrorists to attack. But no-one attacked him at all.
The night passed, morning came, and still no-one had hijacked the train.
In fact, here was Moscow! The loudspeaker announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, our train has now arrived in Moscow. Please check your documents and belongings to make sure that you have not been robbed during your journey. Goodbye."
So Tryapkin and all the other passengers got off the train and started to walk down the platform. Tryapkin's keen detective's sense told him that something was wrong, however. Everything appeared to be right and because everything appeared to be right, Tryapkin felt there had to be something wrong.

There were the long-distance trains and there were the suburban trains. There was the big digital clock showing the time, and there were the passengers making their way towards the station with their luggage.
And then suddenly Tryapkin understood what was the matter!
There was no-one there to meet them! And there was no-one there seeing anyone off! And, in fact, there was no-one leaving to be seen off. Actually, there didn't seem to be anyone there at all! The place was deserted.
Just the passengers plodding towards the station. Plod-plod. Plod-plod.
Tryapkin followed them, of course. Though he had a most unpleasant feeling in his stomach, as if he'd eaten a live mouse or drunk some prussic acid.
They neared the station doors, and Tryapkin's heart sank. For this was no station it was simply a plywood wall, made to look roughly like a station. The digital clock was only painted. In short, it was basically a stage set.
Behind this wall, as far as the eye could see, stretched an unearthly landscape: a brownish soil without a single blade of grass and a brown cloudless sky. And so right up to the very horizon. Above the horizon there hung two black suns.
And it was full of cockroaches. Cockroaches, cockroaches, cockroaches the place was teeming with them. Not just little ones either, but the size of a good cow.
Brown ones, with long feelers, who ordered everyone in flawless Russian:
"Lay down your luggage to your right! Go round to your left! Hands behind your backs! Get into groups of five! Don't mill around like sheep!"
The former travellers obeyed without a murmur. Nobody seemed too surprised at this turn of events: they were used to everything. Certainly, obeying orders was no novelty. Hands behind their backs, they arranged themselves in groups of five and off they marched across the brown earth and beneath the brown sky.
The cockroaches marched alongside.
Tryapkin the detective found himself beside the biggest cockroach of all, who was evidently in charge of the rest.
"Tell me, my friend," Tryapkin inquired amicably, "how are we to understand this? And where are we?"
"In Deepest Arsehole," answered the cockroach.
"And where are we going?" Tryapkin asked again.
"Where you always were going," replied the cockroach, pointing a furry leg at the two black suns. "Towards the Radiant Future!"
A day went by, then two. Another month passed, then a whole year. And still they all dragged dejectedly on like so many dead men. All of them or not quite all.
"Serve us idiots right!" a bearded old man in a Russian shirt shouted cheerfully. "The cockroach is an intelligent animal, not like some old louse or bedbug!"
Soon people in the crowd began to volunteer to help drive the crowd on. They would approach the cockroaches deferentially and offer their services. The cockroaches had no scruples about allowing this. And soon the column were flanked by people as well as cockroaches, cracking their whips in the air and shouting: "Look lively there, lads! Don't lag behind!"
As the column reached the top of a hill, Tryapkin looked around and his jaw dropped. The whole of Russia was there.

EVERYONE!!!
Every single Russian was present, like in that Glazunov painting. And there, indeed, was old Glazunov himself, marching along in the next column, biting his lip. Serves you right, mate. Look where your painting got you.
On and on trudges Holy Russia, the living and the dead all together. Some are wearing bast shoes, some sneakers.
Here's Ivan the Terrible, leaning heavily on his bloody staff, scratching his bonce underneath the crown with his ringed fingers.
There's Emelyan Pugachev with Stenka Razin two brave peasant leaders!
And there's Catherine the Great, the nymphomaniac empress.
Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy pass by arm in arm, discussing non-resistance to evil.
Pyotr Stolypin strides along with determined step, an overcoat thrown over his shoulders.
He is followed by the Georgian Joseph, nicknamed Stalin.
A little way on there's a junior barrister, Vladimir Ulyanov, nicknamed Lenin, with his sisters Manyasha and Dunyasha and his wife Nadyusha.
There's Grigory Rasputin, sloshed as usual, his face as red as his shirt, marching along without a care in the world, bawling ditties:

"In an arsehole I shall live,
Be as merry as can be!
Put in windows, make a door,
Make it warm and cosy!"

Here comes Holy Russia! Make way!
From the brown sky above little bits of something unlike rain or snow started to fall. They appeared to wriggle as they fell, slimy and revolting like worms.
Tryapkin the detective put up the collar on his raincoat to stop the worms from slipping down his back.
"Well," he thought to himself. "Here I am in Moscow."