Publishers Ripol Classic; Prestizh kniga (Prestige Book), Moscow
Pages # 384
Publish Date 2005
Agent: Julia Goumen at email@example.com
Link to the synopsis, author
biography & praise for the novel
Read excerpts from the novel in
English, as translated by Mary
True books, and contracts with the devil, are written
only in blood. No one has yet questioned the quality of this ink. It would
be interesting to know whether the Prince of the World would accept a
manuscript written in tainted blood. Tainted, not in a figurative sense, by
an accident of birth or a gypsy’s curse, but in the most literal sense of
the word. Blood that slowly kills its host, carrying painful affliction
through his veins.
Is it possible to write about love with such blood?
Or will it end up being only about death? God knows. I will have to try to
write about both.
name was born in Naples,
two years ago when we were traveling through Italy. By that time I had
already come up with the nickname “Wolfie” for
the queen of my heart. In some of her habits she really did resemble a wolf
cub. Just for fun I asked our guide how to say “wolf cub” in Italian. “Lupetto,” she answered, very matter-of-factly, as
though the question didn’t surprise her in the least.
a ‘she-wolf’ cub? I mean, when it’s a girl?”
the same, only with an ‘a’ instead of an ‘o’.”
was how my love started answering to the name Lupetta.
had always wanted to find an original nickname for her. The names people
give each other nowadays! “Honey,” “Sugar,” “Kitty-cat”... saccharine
sobriquets dripping from a million mouths, uttered apropos of something, or
nothing. “Honey, did you pay the rent?”; “Sugar, don’t forget to buy
beer!”; “Kitty-cat, I’m staying late tonight at the office!” Dreary,
cloying and predictable. To be honest, “wolfie”
wasn’t any better than the “kitty-cats” or “sweeties.” That’s why I was so
glad to find a real name for my love—a name that, as it turned out, fit her
like no other I could ever have dreamed up.
Lupetta is the name of my love, the name of my
death is Lymphoma. I began this story talking about Lupetta.
Now it’s time for her to share some of the attention with her dark sister.
creation of lymphocyte cells, known by the scientific term of lymphopoesis, is a fairly complex and strictly
programmed process that begins in the bone marrow. Experience has shown
that at certain stages in the process a glitch in the program can damage or
corrupt the process of cell division, and ultimately lead to various kinds
of severe illness, one of which is Lymphoma.
The causes of
impairment in the process of cell division, and the mechanism that sets off
the pathological changes, have yet to be thoroughly understood, though
hematologists continue to study the influence of etiological factors
traditionally associated with such illnesses (ionizing radiation, chemical
carcinogens, and adverse environmental conditions).
Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, unlike leukemia, takes the form of a malignant
tumor, initially appearing not in the bone marrow, but in the lymphatic
tissue. Some lymphomas are characterized by a fairly favorable prognosis
(life expectancy 10—20 years after diagnosis). Others, to put it mildly,
not very favorable (a year or less).
Lymphoma is the second kind.
our first meeting on the Kazansky Bridge,
I stayed up half the night wondering what it was about Lupetta
that had made
such an impression on me. Words like “pretty,” “attractive,” or
“interesting” struck me as too commonplace; and besides, that wasn’t what
it was about. Ten years ago, all that would have been enough; but not
afterwards, after...everything that happened.
morning I began to doze off. Then it
hit me. What surprised me more than anything else was how I acted around
her. Egocentric nonsense, right? Only, at that point in my life I felt that
I was surrounded by an invisible shell that smothered all strong emotion (I still
couldn’t bring myself to say “feelings”).
suddenly, Lupetta was there; and she just had to
look at me, to smile, to say a few words to me, and I felt...I felt that I
could feel again! That morning, I got an e-mail from her. “We’re sort of
alike. Both a tad bit nuts. Though you might not have realized that from
that moment I thought I understood. But without that “tad bit,” life would have been
such a dull affair!
chemotherapy treatment I have undergone for half a year already is called
EPOCH. In fact, it has nothing to do
an epoch or era; it is an acronym from the first letters of the latin names of the drugs—doxorubitsin,
vepezid, vinkristin, cyclofosfan, prednizolon. For
me, though, this treatment really does constitute an era: the last one in
my life, I suppose.
night in the ward I am haunted by a recurrent dream. I get up from the bed
to go the the bathroom. Still groggy from sleep,
I forget to take the drip stand that accompanies me everywhere for days on
end, with tubes stuck into a vein by my collarbone . The tubes sprouting from my chest drag
the stand behind them; it falls, glass bottles full of chemicals
topple over onto the floor as if in slow motion and shatter into thousands
of shards and poisonous droplets, splashing everywhere. Blood gushes from
the dangling tubes in three concentrated torrents. I clutch at them in
panic and race through the corridors looking for a nurse to summon a doctor
from the emergency room. But the corridor is deserted. The nurse has
disappeared. I try to cry out for help, but my throat clamps shut in fear,
and only a hoarse, barely audible moan escapes. My legs buckle under me,
cold ribbons of fear surge through my stomach, the walls start to spin
before my eyes, a knot of nausea rises to my throat, I lose
consciousness...and in a cold sweat I wake up, my trembling hands groping
for the drip stand to make sure it’s there, where it belongs.
doomed have a sense of humor all their own. The drip stand has been
baptized any number of things— “christmas tree,”
“festoons,” and even “floor-lamp.” “Going to the john? Don’t forget your
floor-lamp!” quipped my neighbor with sarcoma in the bed next to
mine. He was one of the first in the ward to die.
encounter with Lupetta turned all my notions about
courting and romance upside down. At first I didn’t want to make any
predictions about the future or entertain any dreams. It was enough for me
that she was walking beside me, talking to me, listening, smiling. That her
eyes shone with a light that seemed to come from somewhere far away.
probably already think I’m crazy,” I wrote her. “I’d think the same thing
if I were you. I mean, ‘real men’ don’t act this way, do they? It’s such a
weird feeling, as if I’m fifteen years old and I’ve met a girl for the
first time. And this is after everything that has happened. What are you
going to do with me?”
want to apologize to you right away,” she answered. “For my cynicism, and for being overly direct. For giving you
reason to think that I expect you to behave like a guy. It’s not that way
at all. You know, a month or two ago I would have given anything for a line
or two from your letters. Just to know that someone felt like that about
me. ‘Real men’ were always making big plans for the future. They never
thought about the beauty of the moment. It didn’t matter whether I was by myself, or with one of them—I felt crushed by the
knowledge of my own solitude. Once, a certain guy, one with a calculator
instead of a heart, told me to pick out some flowers for myself. He wanted
dahlias or roses, but I asked for a lily. The money was paid, and the the clerk handed me the flower.
I said to him. “It’s pretty, isn’t it? Me with the lily against the black
don’t understand how you can like lilies. I hate the way they look and I
hate the way they smell,” he replied.
turned around with my flower and walked off in the opposite direction. We
never saw each other again. Why am I telling you all of this? Just so
you’ll understand, I guess, that
‘not-acting-like-that’ is the way I am, too. Though ‘after everything that
happened’ you should know that we aren’t likely to be happy for long...”
Each of the six courses of
chemotherapy treatment lasts for five days. There is a three-week pause
between them to allow the blood to replenish itself. During the treatment,
various toxins that destroy all growing cells in the body are fed to it
drop by drop through a subclavian catheter. Once
every 24 hours the intravenous drip is changed and the tubes that empty
into the catheter are reattached. My job is to keep an eye on the flow rate
of each of three drips, regulating them by means of a special valve if they
get out of sync. Ideally, one drop should fall every ten seconds; but in
practice, it never happens this way. During the first days after my
“attachment” I constantly readjusted the darned valves on all the drips,
one after another. They seemed to mock my efforts. First, one would flow
faster, then another more slowly, and a third would stop altogether. When I
got sick of playing traffic engineer, I decided to read a bit and was
immediately punished by the resentful glass receptacles: one of the drips
began unaccountably to flow so generously that the fluid that should have
taken 24 hours to empty out was depleted in an hour and a half. When I
noticed in horror what had happened, I cut off the flow altogether, grabbed
the drip stand, and rushed to the nurse’s station, sick with foreboding. No
one made any move to transfer me posthaste to the emergency room, however.
“Well, what can we do about it now?” Olenka, the
sweetheart of the ward, asked with a shrug. “It’s already about gone. Next
time you’ll watch it more carefully.”
That’s the way life is
sometimes. You try to adjust it so that it flows a bit at a time, you watch
the valve like a hawk; and then something else captures your attention and
distracts you—and when you look back, it’s all gone. And you don’t get a
When I was nineteen, like Lupetta, I didn’t like spending time with people my own
age. Girls under twenty bored me. They didn’t read what I read, they didn’t
get excited about the things that intrigued me; and, to be honest, they
didn’t find me particularly interesting, either. Older women scared me,
because of my relative lack of experience. So my relations with the weaker
sex took shape awkwardly, in fits and starts.
This was probably the reason
that her tender age unnerved me slightly, at first. But only at first. Very
soon I discovered that I had never met a nineteen-year old who was as
intellectually advanced as she was. “How was she different from the
others?” people ask. What can I say to that? This genre is as old—and as
new—as the Song of Solomon. Yes, my beloved is slender, she is beautiful,
and her eyes are like... No, I won’t
indulge in comparisons; it’s absurd. It feels like I’m enumerating the
qualities of a racehorse. I should add that in the past my inveterate
cynicism had always confronted me with the deficiencies of any girl I
happened to be with. And after I hit thirty, any lingering ideals deserted
me once and for all. This time, though, there were no faults to be found.
None whatsoever. Lupetta was the pure embodiment
of my abandoned dreams. Outside, as well as in. At one time, I would have
said it was impossible. But I was wrong. Oh, how wrong I was.
made me understand intuitively, without saying a word, how dangerous it was
to dissemble around her. I knew that if I were not sincere, I would lose
her unconditionally and forever. My habitual notions of means and ends
evaporated without a trace, like so many smoke-rings. I was thrilled to discover in myself the
art of taking pleasure in every moment that I spent in the company of the
queen of my heart. And the thought of what was to follow simply didn’t
occur to me.
“Maybe ‘perfects moments’
(remember, in Sartre?) do exist,” she wrote to me.
“At least, I’d like to believe they existed for you. For us both.”
The lymphatic system of a human
being is an enormous network of tiny capillaries that merge into larger
ones, the so-called lymphatics, which in their
turn extend into lymph nodes. Bodily fluids, proteins, metabolic
substances, microbes, as well as toxins and foreign matter are filtered out
from the tissues through the lymphatic system. There are about 500 lymph
nodes dispersed throughout the body. These glands are round or oval in
shape, and one to two centimeters in size. Lymphocytes are formed within
them. These lymphocytes help to ensure the body’s immunity by attacking
foreign matter and cancer cells. Lymph nodes become enlarged when the white
cells in the blood mount a defensive assault against invading bacteria.
More infrequently they are the consequence of a tumor, which can be caused
by a range of oncohematological illnesses, one of
them being lymphoma.
Lymphoma, my last love, why did
you begin with the neck? Your little mushroom-like caps could have crept
into any space or crevice—the underarms, groin, liver, lungs, even the
spleen, for god’s sake! But no, you were determined to give me your first
love-bite just here, the most erogenous place of all, in your expert view.
I have to admit, you turned out to be a true master, kissing me so that
everything went black before my eyes, my breath stuck in my craw. Your
barbed-wire glove turned the whole bright and happy world, all the
pleasures of existence, inside out in the wink of an eye. No one had ever
given me love bites like that before; and thanks to you I learned once and
for all what it meant to be “loved to death.” You no doubt thought I would
succumb—to come instantly from your passionate kiss, didn’t you? After all,
no one before me had been able to resist your advances. But, dunderhead
that I am, I vowed not to lose my head over you, and instead to fill up an
old fountain pen with the blood you had whipped into a
frenzy—that is to say, the cartridge of a printer that had seen
better days. I decided to pour out my sufferings onto paper. Just promise
me one thing—don’t look over my shoulder while you’re sucking at my neck. What are you
so curious about anyway, if the last word in the story will inevitably be
Once, on one
of those warm fall evenings when we were walking down Nevsky Prospect, hand in hand like kids, it suddenly struck
me how out-of-place Lupetta seemed against the
self-important grandeur of this thoroughfare, this city. It was as if her
image had been cut out by the scissors of an otherworldly Warhol, lifted
out of a picture of other times, a picture of elsewhere—and then pasted
onto this alien avenue. That was the day I first understood that I had
never wanted anyone as I wanted her. I don’t mean with such intensity of
desire, but with desire of that particular kind. I’m at a loss to describe
it. Deep? No, that misses the mark. Pure? Wrong again. Actually, it’s all
so insipid: I need you; I Luv U.
It sickens me. It smells like popcorn. What was clear was that for the
first time I realized that I didn’t feel the insipidness of feeling.
It’s possible that I had just lost my sense of smell; or my head. Or both?
Anyway, the main thing was that I had found Lupetta.
when the view outside my window was blurred by the first daubs of cold
whiteness spiraling downward, she wrote: “Yesterday we were together. Today
it’s snowing. Soon November will come. My month. Cold and long. Dreamlike.
Will we be together? Wintry autumn. I’ll turn nineteen then. I don’t know.
This time of year always makes me think of partings. Of how they went
away...I don’t want it to be like that with us. Really.”
too busy right now? Good, then let your head hang limply, and make the
muscles in your neck as taut as they’ll get. Now probe your neck deep under
the chin with your thumbs, on both the left and the right side. You don’t
feel any elusive little marbles slipping around under your fingers? You’re
sure now? Try it again. No? Well then, congratulations. You’re in luck;
you’re going to die of something else. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend
you; it just slipped out...but why, why in god’s name did this happen to
me, and not to any other tom, dick or harry?
Take a look
at this cretin who drags himself down the long hospital corridor every
morning, armed with his drip stand, on his way to the bathroom, where he will
go up to the mirror and indulge in masturbating the lymph nodes under his
jaw. Cuts a ridiculous figure, doesn’t he? He doesn’t really need to probe.
It’s enough just to drop his chin, and when he flexes his neck, the little
buggers appear of their own accord. At first it seemed you could see some
progress, but then—nuts to you!—everything started all over again.
complain? You’re the one who begged for something like this in your moments
of despair; don’t you remember? Who were your prayers addressed to? It
doesn’t matter anymore. Who can guess which office of which authority
responded to your request? The important thing is that it was granted. The
boy who cried “wolf!” fooled everyone with his antics until they stopped
believing him. And then turned into a werewolf and massacred the whole
ago I told a girl, “More than you, I love only my loneliness.” She was
terribly hurt, which surprised me. “If you love your loneliness even more
than me,” she sobbed, “I must mean nothing at all to you!”
mistaken in thinking that everyone valued loneliness equally. What seemed
to me a compliment of the highest order, others felt as an affront. With
time, I found it amusing to test the responses of all the girls I knew, or
even barely knew. “I wonder, if your chosen one
told you that he loved only loneliness more than he loved you, would you
feel ecstatic or insulted?” The response always came in a flash, and it was
not comforting. I finally grew convinced that I would never meet the person
who valued solitude as much I do.
Lupetta was the first girl who most likely wouldn’t
have been upset by such a confession from me. Why “most likely”? Because I
never said those words to her. She vanquished my love for solitude, almost
in passing, like a wolf-cub eats a fledgling fallen from its nest.
Strangely enough, I never regretted my loss. On the contrary, I completely
forgot about the pleasures of loneliness, because every minute apart from Lupetta was filled with the thought of when we would be
“Will I see
you tomorrow?” I asked once when we were saying goodbye. “No, not
tomorrow,” she replied. “I want to be alone so I won’t lose the sharpness
of the feeling.” And that was how all my former girlfriends took revenge on
me for cheating on them with my solitude.
trial run of infusions and transfusions—from several days to several weeks
or months—is an absolute indication before central vein catheterization;
while infusions in the peripheral veins are out of the question. The more rapid blood circulation in the
central veins (subclavian vein, the external
jugular, and the femoral) decreases the local effects on the walls of the
blood vessels of the substances introduced into the body, as well as the
risk of venous spasms. The subclavian vein is
considered to be the most suitable for percutaneous
catheterization, for infusion therapy, and for post-catheterization care.
is carried out under the local anesthetic Sol.Novocaini
0.5-5%. First, the right subclavian vein is
punctured, using the Seldinger method. Then the
catheter is inserted, with the help of a dilator. The accuracy of the
placement of the catheter is gauged by allowing the blood to flow
backwards. In order for the catheter to remain fast, it is sewn in place,
and covered with an antiseptic bandage. The frequency of complications from
catheterization reaches 30%, and does not depend on variations in the
techniques by which it is carried out.
time I received a catheter, the surgeon missed,
and hit an artery. I covered the whole operating room with blood. The
second time, the doctor mixed up the catheters and gave me a triple lumen
instead of a double lumen. When the blunder became apparent, I had to lie
down on the operating table again. The third time, my respiratory nerve
became paralyzed during the administering of anesthesia. I was lucky to live to see the light of
After this Job opened his lips and
cursed the day he was born.
My love and her
mother lived together in a tiny little nest of a room in a communal
apartment on Marat St. After raising
her daughter by herself, without a husband, Lupetta’s
mother decided to take charge of her personal life. When Lupetta and I started seeing each other, she was about
to embark on a serious virtual romance with a gray-haired American.
that Lupetta adored her mother—to say that she
worshipped her would be no exaggeration. She didn’t bow down before her,
and they even argued from time to time; but her mother was, in fact, her
sole ideal. I didn’t realize that such relationships still existed. “Mama
molded me all alone into the shape that I am, the me
that you know,” Lupetta admitted. “No one else
has influenced me like she has. All my ideas, my attitudes, my habits come
If we stayed
out late somewhere, her mother called constantly on the mobile, fretting
and wondering when her daughter would get home. That isn’t at all
surprising—most parents behave the same way. How often have I heard
undisguised irritation in the voice of the wayward child, chafing at such
overweening concern! Lupetta, though, was never
put out by these calls. Far from it. She reassured her mother again and
again, her voice brimming with tenderness: “Mommy, don’t worry; I already
told you I’d be home soon.” It was strange that despite her anxiety, her
mother never interrogated Lupetta about who she
had been with. Even when we began staying out all night, she never
confronted her daughter or made a scene. But I’m getting ahead of myself
that terminally ill patients pass over into another category of being,
irrespective of their social status or station in life. I’m not talking
about the ones who are already on the threshold of life and death. I mean
the ones who already know that there’s no real hope, but who haven’t yet
felt the first timid kisses of the Reaper on the cheek swollen from
becomes visible, it ennobles them. It’s not at all like I once thought—that
it would embitter them. In fact, there isn’t so much as a trace of
aggressiveness or anger. Everyone here is is
extraordinarily genteel, as if they’re in the House of Lords, ready to help
one another and to fulfill any request. Cursing is almost never heard in the
ward, although it’s clear that several of my neighbors were on the best of
terms with profanity just a short time ago. No one raises his voice, and if
the pain gets to be unbearable, many of my fellow patients try to muffle
their groans with the pillow. Only when the platonic caress of the Reaper
becomes a sadistic stranglehold does a bestial moan sometimes escape.
made from a milk carton dangles outside the window. Up until his last day,
my neighbor, eaten away by Sarcoma, hobbled over to sprinkle it with fresh
bird-feed. Then, with tears in his eyes, he would watch the sparrows
flutter around their spoils. After he died, I never thought of replenishing
the feeder, although my bed was closer than anyone else’s
to the window. The sparrows visited us for a few days afterwards, but when
they found there was no food for them, they flew off. Later they stopped showing up at all, and
the feeder, swollen with rain, fell to pieces. Why wasn’t I able to help my
lesser brothers? Probably because in order to feel pity for others, you
have to begin with yourself.
Lupetta took night courses in the
department of art history at the Academy
of Arts. She entered
that program after she had failed to get admitted to the department of
philology at the University. When time allowed, she worked part-time as a
reporter in the Culture section of Petersburg
Business World. One crisp fall day she invited me to accompany her to the
Hermitage, where she had an assignment to cover the opening of an exhibit
called “Three Centuries of Jewelry Arts in St. Petersburg.” Of course, I agreed.
exhibition hall of the cavernous museum was packed. Clouds of heady French
perfume hung thick in the air. Sophisticated art aficionados were altogether
absent. Most of the guests at the opening looked like customers in an
upscale jewelry store. Bald nouveaux riches with long-legged,
vacuous-looking models draped on the their bulky
arms paraded between the brightly illuminated showcases and clicked their
tongues appreciatively at the sight of an outsize diamond.
And there was
ample opportunity for appreciation. Behind the bullet-proof glass, the exquisite
handiwork of Jeremiah Posier, Jean-Pierre Adore,
Jean-Jacques Duc, Johann Gottlieb Scharf, Joachim Hasselgren,
and others, commissioned for the court of Empress Elizabeth and Catherine
the Second, was laid out on little satin pillows. Nineteenth-century
jewelry was represented by the work of Johann Helfried
Barbe, Wilhelm Keibel,
and the renowned masters of Faberge. There were watches, snuffboxes, rings,
bracelets, and small bouquets made of gems.
conservative Hermitage had decided to exhibit the work of contemporary Petersburg jewelers
for the first time. “Look! What a unique piece!” Lupetta
exclaimed, pointing to a choker named after Kandinsky, an intricate assemblage encrusted with
little mirrors. Then she rushed off to get an interview.
stranded. And all because we were together and apart at the same time. It
was probably the first time I had looked at Lupetta
with the objective eye of a stranger. I saw her chatting, but not with me;
smiling, but not at me; speaking, but not to me. And I felt that something
was wrong here. Terribly wrong...
Uranov, the well-known Petersburg jeweler, strolled up and down
between the display cases, deep in conversation with the director of the
Hermitage. Apparently, the Patriarch himself wears a cross covered with
precious stones made by Uranov. The proprietor of
the prestigious Nevsky Prospect jewelry store had
flung a black silk scarf nonchalantly around his neck. The Hermitage boss
wore an identical scarf. They looked like members of some secret masonic brotherhood who recognized one other by their
signature funereal scarves.
Uranov, a man of medium height with a bald patch that
gleamed under the halogen spotlights, would never have caught my attention
if it hadn’t been for one brief moment when his beetle-like eyes fastened
on me. My heart jumped. “What was that about?” I wondered. “I seem to be so
impressionable when I’m with Lupetta. Or maybe
it’s just because I stayed up all night smoking my pipe and dreaming about
wouldn’t it be great if I could get an interview with Uranov?”
Lupetta remarked, suddenly materializing beside
me. “I’m sure some magazine would pay me royally for it.”
are you waiting for? Go up and ask him—he won’t turn down a journalist as
accomplished as you are,” I quipped acidly. A few minutes later she was
waving a business card of enormous proportions under my nose. It vaunted a golden eagle and other such
regalia, all to the greater glory of the owner. “He said yes! He said I
should call him at his office, and he’d make time for it. Can you imagine?”
forget the night when the first patient in the ward died. It happened just
after the New Year. Plastic lights blinked on the artificial Christmas tree
that the soft-hearted nurses had put up in the hospital corridor. For the
last few days, he had asked for only one thing each time he gained
consciousness: “I beg you, please don’t let them dissect me when I die! I
don’t want them to cut me up—burn me right away, please, please...!
He died in
his sleep, pumped full of drugs. His hoarse, ragged breathing suddenly
smoothed into a protracted sigh, and then broke off altogether. An
unbearable, deafening silence filled the ward. His wife, who had stayed by
his side every night and never bothered to wipe her tear-drenched face,
asked the nurse for something to bind up his jaw, which had fallen open.
He ended up
here for good, long before my first stay in the hospital. His death warrant
read: lymphatic leukosis. He struggled
with it for several years, and seemed to be recovering. But the summer before,
he had visited the place he was born, by the sea, despite the strict orders
of his doctors to avoid hot climates. That trip did him in. He arrived here
already on his last legs. The whole
time that death was doing its filthy work he hardly slept at all. He prayed
incessantly, asking forgiveness of those he had hurt during his lifetime.
It was terrible to look at him. Enormous lymph nodes opened in purple
tumors on his neck. His lips and nose were eaten away by herpes, eyes
covered with a yellow film. And his swollen arms, lacerated by the drip
needles, resembled huge yellow bowling pins, cross-hatched with hematomas.
died a priest was called in. Those who could walk left the ward so as not
to interfere with the mysteries of the rite of confession. I hobbled along
the corridor with my drip stand and thought to myself: is there really
nothing in this world, not even death, that will
bring me at least a step closer to faith?
I often met Lupetta outside the editorial offices of Petersburg
Business World, not far from the Sovietskaya
Hotel. We would eat at a cafй, then take a
walk together. It didn’t matter which direction, as long as it led away
from there. I guess everyone has a least favorite neighborhood in the city.
I had an aversion to this part of town, and it answered my dislike in kind.
The gloomy aura surrounding the old industrial district, and the Obvodny Canal, thick with exhaust fumes, produced a
nauseating miasma, the underside of Petersburg’s
elegant overcoat. Not far from here my good friend Erik had been killed. He
was a remarkable jazz flutist with the sad eyes of a disheveled bird. One
morning he was found strangled to death in a small amateur theater on Rizhsky Prospect. During the night he had been
composing music for his friends’ performance. Someone knocked at the door,
and for some reason he let in the uninvited guests... the murderers were,
of course, never found.
As for my
demons, they took the form of a gang of deaf-mutes who also stalked Rizhsky Prospect. One bright spring day near the Sovietskaya, a well-dressed young man in glasses
stopped me. He handed me a piece of paper with an address written on it and
seemed to be asking for directions. Not a sound passed between us. The
young man made it known through gestures that he was deaf and dumb. The handwriting on the piece of paper was
barely legible, and I had to bend over to make it out. At that moment, a
pair of strong arms seized me by the neck and tossed me out into the
traffic. The world turned upside down before I realized what was happening.
My glasses flew off my nose and landed under the wheels of a car. A searing
pain ripped through my elbow, where I had landed on the asphalt. And the
scoundrel had already jumped into a parked minivan, thrusting my wallet
into the pocket of his coat.
then instincts that I never even knew I had awakened in me. Rather than
chalking up the loss of a battered wallet that had never held more than a
few hundred rubles at a time, I leapt to my feet, made a lunge for the door
(not shut all the way) of the already moving minivan, flung it open, and
clutched frantically at the steering wheel. In the van were four
deaf-mutes, along with my ambusher. They bellowed indignantly and flailed
their arms around, threatening to brain me with a crowbar if I didn’t let
go of the steering wheel. But by that point I was beside myself with rage.
I remember only that I refused to let the driver pry open my fingers and
that I cursed wildly: “Give me back my money, assholes!” The whole drama lasted
no more than a few seconds. On a cue from one of the others, the main
culprit fumbled in his pocket for the stolen wallet and threw it onto the road. Caught
off-guard by surprise, I weakened my grip. The driver ripped my hands from
the wheel and forcefully ejected me from the van. The engine revved up and
the van sped off, wheels screeching, thus abandoning the scene of the
crime, as they say in crime reports. I sat in the middle of the road, in
tears, coughing amidst clouds of exhaust. Cars, coming from all directions
and signaling crazily, veered around me. Passersby turned around to stare.
My glasses, covered in mud, were sticking out of my pocket, and my hand,
swelling visibly with every passing second, clenched the infernal wallet,
which hadn’t lost so much as a kopeck.
didn’t understand how I’d managed to emerge the victor in all that
commotion. Those bastards could have crippled me if not killed me outright
when I threw myself into their car. Evidently, heists like this one are
predicated on the factor of unexpectedness. If things don’t go precisely
according to plan, the crooks simply toss out the loot, without considering
other options. However you look at it, the “operation” takes place in broad
daylight, and losing time can draw unwanted attention to the scuffle.
That’s just a hypothesis—I might be able to find other reasons to explain
my luck, but why speculate? To be honest, I plunged into the fray not for
the money, but because I was mortally offended by the idea that I had been
so much putty in their hands and had played a part in my own undoing. If
someone had discreetly and dexterously plucked my wallet on the street, I
might have even applauded the professionalism of a veteran pickpocket. But
I had been humiliated; and if I had just walked away, I could never have
forgiven myself for my inaction. Even with a busted skull I wouldn’t have
regretted my headlong retaliation, whether in this world, or in the great
connected with the hellish district around the Sovietskaya
vanished once and for all only after I had met Lupetta.
She became my good fairy—the demons of my past could not harm me in her
presence. They could only hiss malevolently, spit venom, and bare their
fangs. With the white chalk of her charm, Lupetta
drew a magic circle around us that kept them at bay. But they were patient.
They knew how to wait.
A boy once composed this little ditty:
I will open a little
scarlet wellspring on my neck.
will be the size of a kopeck.
its babbling soothe me,
if it be for eternity.
just need some peace.…
he had just written, the budding author took fright at the words that had
issued from his pen. He had no intention of going for his own jugular; and
suicidal thoughts had never actually taken such a physiological turn in his
mind. The years passed, and the boy almost forgot about his strange lyrical
debut. He experienced his first romantic encounters, and he found new
subjects to satisfy his literary pretensions. The boy, in the best
traditions of 20th century troubadours, scribbled awkward
sonnets dedicated to the objects of his longing, who generally scoffed at
the self-proclaimed poet.
cataclysms, storms, and periods of calm beset the boy’s young life. He
daydreamed, fell in love, quarreled, and grieved like millions of other
adolescents. And, like most of his peers, he comforted himself with the
hope that he was special, that someday he was destined to meet the one girl
who would be the closest and dearest creature to him on earth.
curious thing of all was that many years later it happened in just this
way. But then this forgotten poem played a dirty trick on the author. A
lymph node on his neck suddenly bloomed into a loathsome cancerous orchid,
a hematoma the size of a copper coin at its very
center. And the blood poisoned with sick cells snickered at him, gurgling
quietly. The promise of eternal peace yawned before him.
“Love is the art of hesitation,” Milan Kundera once observed. “I don’t trust the kind of love
that has a long gestation period,” Ortega y Gasset
retorted, belatedly. I decided to kiss Lupetta
for the first time a month after we had met. Actually, I wasn’t the one who
took the initiative.
archway of her dirty red building on Marat Street
served as the sanctuary where the rite was carried out. I thought that by
this time I had already broken the physiological fetters that make “before”
and “after” inevitable in
relations between the sexes. I was already infinitely happy with Lupetta. I came to understand that medieval minstrels
didn’t suffer from being physically deprived of their belles
dames. On the contrary, the very inaccessibility of the objects of
their desire guaranteed the authenticity of their feelings, unsullied by
the laws of cause and effect. Thus, I became the novitiate of love, all but
losing the sensations and awareness of sex.
The seasoned tomcat turned into a dove, cooing happily in the
heavens with his beloved... But it
was time to come back down to earth.
Accompanying Lupetta as far as the archway of her building, as I had
done countless time before, and exchanging a fraternal peck on the cheek
with her, her tender little tongue found its way into my mouth, abruptly erasing
all traces of our previous chaste kisses; that tongue was so jealous it
couldn’t tolerate so much as a hint of rivalry. And it turned out to be so
mighty that it could create anew, from clay moistened with semen, a male
virgin who had never known the taste of a woman’s saliva. I became a tabula rasa on
which the queen of my heart could write whatever nonsense her head dreamed
up. From the most tender confessions to the foulest curses.
Did I respond
to her kiss? Of course I did—but so timidly, for a thirty-year old cynic
with a soiled and creased Don Juan’s list in my back pocket, that it even
surprised me to feel how she trembled.
1. I saw that
the Surgeon placed the first of six catheters, and I heard one of the four
living creatures saying, as with a voice of thunder, “Come and see!”
behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it was Vincristine
and had a bow, and a crown was given to him; and he came forth conquering,
in order to blockade Tubulin and to halt the
division of cells in the metaphase.
3. And when
He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come
came forth, a red horse. To him who sat on it, Doxorubicin, was given power
to penetrate the cells, to link up with perinucleic
chromatin, to obstruct the division of cells and the synthesis of nucleic
acids, acting specifically upon the S phase of the cell cycle, which
generates chromosome aberrations.
5. And when
he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come
and see!” And behold, a black horse, and on it VePesid,
with the means for disrupting the cycle of cell division at the G2 stage in
vitro, to inhibit the inclusion of thymidine in
the DNA, and to lead the cells in mitosis to lysis.
6. I heard a
voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “100 ml of VePesid daily for four days, 100 ml of Vincristine daily for four days, 100 mg of Doxorubicin
daily for four days, and 1300 ml Cyclophosphane
in a single dose.
7. And when
He opened the fourth seal, I heard the fourth living creature saying, “Come
behold, a pale horse, and he who sat on it, his name was Cyclophosphane; and authority was given him to suppress
the proliferation of lymphocytic clones taking
part in the immune response, acting primarily on B lymphocytes.
9. And when
he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who
had been killed for the Word of God and for Lymphoma, which they had.
10. And they
cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, Master, the holy and true,
until you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
11. A long white robe was
given to each of them. They were told that they should rest for a while,
until their fellow servants and their brothers, who would also be killed
even as they were, should complete their course.
12. I saw
when he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun
became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became as blood.
13. And the
stars of the sky fell to earth, like a fig tree dropping its unripe figs
when it is shaken by a great wind.
14. And the
sky was removed like a scroll when it is rolled up. Every mountain and
island were moved out of their places.
15. And the
kings of the earth, the princes, the rich, the commanding officers, the
strong, and every slave and free person hid themselves in the caves and the
rocks of the mountains.
16. And they
told the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us, and hide us from the face of
him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of his Lymphoma,
17. For the
great day of the wrath of his Lymphoma is come; and who is able to stand?”
If anyone is
a good storyteller it’s me. Many of my friends have complained that they
can’t read a book or see a movie after I’ve recounted the plot—the original
pales by comparison. They say that the way to a woman’s heart is through
her ears. I’ve used this fact to my advantage times too numerous to
mention. By words alone I could wrap any girl I happened to like around my
little finger —provided, of course, that she didn’t suffer from a lack of
intellect. True, my narrative
ingenuity didn’t always lead them to my bed.
thing that annoyed me was when a new flame listened to me open-mouthed and kept
repeating, like a mantra, “Wow, you’re
so smart! It’s so interesting to be around you!” Compliments stroked my
ego, naturally, but I wanted to engage in more than just a one-way
briefing—I wanted dialogue, dispute, disagreement,
at the very least.
I was always
impressed by the fact that unlike the others, Lupetta
didn’t just lap it up. Yes, she liked me as a raconteur, but she never hung
on to every word that came out of my mouth. Sometimes she ridiculed my
enthusiastic banter about something or other. There were times when she
didn’t even try to conceal her absolute indifference to my artful
paraphrasing, interrupting me with the laconic question, “Uh-huh. How much
longer did it go on?”
© 2006 Pavel Vadimov
Translated by Mary C. Gannon
Link to the synopsis, author
biography & praise for the novel