I was sitting in the international departures lounge staring blankly ahead of me, actually watching the deplaning passengers watching us. Of course, some of them barely glanced through the glass on their way to passport control and customs – the Americans coming home, for example. They came out with their headphones on, attention clearly elsewhere. It was all routine, nothing more. Every once in a while though a plane from an exotic locale would empty out its load of colorful scarf wearing, turbaned, bejeweled arrivals, and a host of wondrous gazes would suddenly be directed our way.
When my great-grandparents first caught sight of this country it was on the approach to Ellis Island, beneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and with the skyline of Manhattan looming in front of them. How can the view inside an airport compare to that? What kind of first impression is that?
What a literary paradise it must look like! How many aspiring authors from all over the world feel a surge of ambition at this sight? I wonder what happens when they leave the airport and all they see in the rest of the country is the occasional newspaper or magazine. Do they write it off as a mirage, a hallucination after a long and tiring flight? Or, with experience of other American airports, do they come to believe that intellectual life in the US centers around its airports, that what the Athenaeum was in Ancient Athens, or the Academia to renaissance Florence, can be found today at JFK, O’Hare and LAX?
A businessman sitting across from me puts his book down on his briefcase so he can take a bite of his expensive, disappointing sandwich. I catch a glimpse of the cover. Of course, that. Like everyone, I’ve heard about it, but refuse to read it. All that conspiratorial, secret society stuff has always left me cold.
A few seats over I spot a teenager enrapt in whatever he’s reading. I get up and sneak a look at his book. Coincidence? No, it’s a bestseller, so obviously a lot of people have bought it.
But when I examine the reading material of a middle-aged woman, another stuffed suit, an old man in ripped jeans and a dreadlocked girl with a Greenpeace T-shirt, and their book covers all have the same cowled monks or runic symbols on them I begin to feel a little disturbed. Maybe it’s just this gate – similar destination, similar taste in books?
Apparently not. Halfway through the next terminal I decide to give up. It’s like a 1984 where Big Brother is more inclined towards entertainment than totalitarianism. It’s a science-fiction nightmare. No, the pod people don’t eat human flesh, they read.
Then and there I would have resolved to escape, to buy a ticket to a country where people read more than a single novel, where they don’t only read a variety of books, but good ones. I might have pulled out my credit card in the heat of the moment and bought a one-way ticket to Russia. For isn’t Russia known as a place where the appetite for great literature is as boundless as the steppe? Haven’t journalists noted repeatedly how the sight of someone on a bus or streetcar reading a fat, forbidding tome by Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn is nothing out of the ordinary? Isn’t it a country where stadiums have been filled to hear poets read, where people have lined up for days to buy a new literary novel?
Yes – true, true and true! And I would have taken this fateful step and bought my passage to such a promising literary destination without a moment’s hesitation were it not for the fact that I already was flying to Russia (That’s why I was at the airport in the first place).
In spite of the horrifying last impression of my native land, the truth was that my trip to Russia had nothing to do with reading. I was going to attend a writing workshop, a desperate, last-ditch measure to get my faltering calling off the ground. My problems weren’t the usual ones: finding an agent, getting published, etc. etc. … but that after a few minor publications, I got carried away. I began thinking of the overall range of my body of work, of my legacy. The result was that for years I haven’t been able to finish anything; not a novel, not a short story, not even my attempt at aphorisms had resulted in a finished piece of work. The only thing I was getting anywhere with were the interconnected (but unfinished) set of short stories I was bringing to the workshop.
They were spy stories set among expats in Budapest and Prague. On the surface they seemed to deal with the shadowy world of espionage. In truth, it was a portrait of the even more shadowy world of my aimless generation rushing off to Europe to get ‘lost’ and not even succeeding in doing that. This was the ‘novel in progress’ I was bringing to the workshop.
Coming out of the plane we were herded like sheep into a tangle of unformed lines leading up to passport control. My Russian was still fairly rudimentary, but I was convinced that my passion for the language increased my understanding two-fold. Anyway, so far so good – Welcome to Russia, PulkovoAirport, Passport Control, WC – I had read all these signs fluently and without sneaking a look at the English translations.
I was so ready to plunge into the white nights that it was unbearable to stand there for nothing. No choice though. There wasn’t anything left for me to do but turn my thoughts back to my writing. I already knew I wanted to write about Russia. That’s why I was coming to a writing workshop here in the first place. The problem was that at the moment my entire experience of the country was confined to the airport. What kind of a story would that be?
We were hardly moving. Like everyone, I’d heard about the legendary lines of the communist era – people waiting in the freezing cold for the novelty of a banana, for bread, milk, or a book. I began measuring progress in inches, then switched to centimeters, not only to conform to local scale but because they’re smaller and it increased the illusion of forward motion. All the extra time wasn’t helping any of my literary decisions either. I assume it’s always difficult determining precisely what to write about.
Far easier is deciding what not to write about. For example, I refuse to write about these lines. Bureaucratic ineptitude has already been done, made symbolic and representative of modern life. All this waiting is just an annoyance I won’t be able to use. I won’t write about Russian criminals either. No luxury cars with tinted windows, driven by goons with gold teeth and designer suits. I might see them in abundance, and they might argue that they are real and not falsified clichés, but I won’t budge.
The line’s beginning to inch forward. I’m close enough now that I can see the policewoman behind the glass taking the visas and passports handed to her and glaring at them, as if all these visits and entries to her country are meant as an insult, a collective slap in the face. I won’t write about her either. Eastern bloc officialdom has also been given more than its fair share of exposure.
It’s almost midnight now. I have no idea how much longer it will take. I expected to be in the midst of a white night by now. Instead of canals and ghostly palaces I have the imposing backs of a group of English journalists in front of me. I’m trying to ignore them, to let their conversation blur into the surrounding Slavic white noise that fills the arrival hall, but it isn’t working. They represent everything I want to avoid here.
“Would you look at this! Hmm, welcome to the new Russia.”
“I just hope the car’s waiting for us.”
“Do you remember when Millington came here?”
“For a conference?”
“No, on holiday. Anyway, he had his wallet nicked his first afternoon.”
“Knowing Millington he was probably pissed. I mean, do you remember the time..?”
So I get to hear about good old Millington and his drinking spree in Shiltinham or Shipinham, or wherever they were. And we might just as well be standing in line at the Shiltinshire airport if that’s all there is to talk about. I mean, here we are, on the threshold of a mythic city, but listening to them it might just as well be anywhere. Forget about the spectral imaginings of Gogol and Dostoevsky! Forget about the even more fantastic notions of Peter the Great! No, it’s all about overpriced food and bad service.
My turn finally arrives and I slip my documents into the narrow window with a whispered, mispronounced ‘Zdravstvuyte’ which, needless to say, passes unnoticed. I’ve been wondering this whole time how it’s managed to take so long and now I only hope I won’t find out first hand. A quick glance at my American passport should be enough, shouldn’t it?
What begins as a glance extends into lingering contemplation. She is going through my passport page by page, as if reading a novel. Then she turns to the computer for some corresponding information and back again. Her eyes have lit up. My first reaction is pride, that she likes it, but then I remember that the book I’m working on is in my bag and that she’s looking at my name, date of birth and other personal data.
Nevertheless, I can’t help recalling the story of Dostoevsky’s initial triumph, where the eminent critic Belinsky read through his novel in a single night and had the aspiring writer woken up in order to declare him the hope of Russian letters. Granted, Belinsky was a critic and not a policewoman, but to think that it all happened right here in this very city. A great critic announces your arrival, the very word I see posted all around me here. Could I too be on the verge of finding my Belinsky? Would I be awoken from a deep sleep with news of my literary triumph?
Then a hand really does begin to tap on my shoulder, attempting to snap me out of my 19th-century reverie, if not actual sleep. Belinsky? No, it was one of Dostoevsky’s friends or acquaintances who came to drag him out of bed. But I don’t have any friends here? And besides the fact that my friends from home aren’t here, they don’t speak Russian, which is the language I am being addressed in.
“Uh … what? Excuse me?” I mumble.
Turning around I see an airport guard with a clipboard.
It opened on a man in military uniform standing stiffly but absent-mindedly in the middle of the room. This was no airport guard or customs officer.
“Litvinov … Captain,” he said abruptly, “Please come in.”
Again I sent a hoarsely whispered ‘zdravstvuyte’ into the void.
“Mister Shtein ..,” he began once I had taken my place.
“It’s Stein … no sh.”
“Ah, American pronunciation … of course,” he said, before jotting something down in one of the files spread out on his desk.
“And may I ask what I’m doing here exactly?”
Finishing his bureaucratic duty, the captain looked back up at me with his frozen, official smile.
“But yes, of course. This is precisely the question we are desirous of answering … so, what exactly are you doing here?”
“Here? … You mean in Saint Petersburg? But I was asking about this …”
Glancing around the room, hoping to spot an indication of why I was here, I noticed the office’s other occupant. He was seated at a corner desk, sporting the same drab olive-colored clothes as the captain, but in a suit of imitation tweed as opposed to a uniform. The file cabinet at his back was of an identical color and, I suppose, explained his temporary invisibility.
More surprising than the fact that I hadn’t seen him was that I hadn’t heard him. The senses work in unison though, so it was only when I finally opened my eyes to look around that my ears began functioning properly, registering the clicking sounds accompanying our dialogue, sounds which had subsided now that no one was speaking.
He was typing, obviously transcribing our speech for official purposes. I was stunned, but for the wrong reasons. Besides all the aspiring Hemingways in Prague I haven’t seen anyone using a typewriter in over a decade. It wasn’t even electric. Still, I was fairly sure it wasn’t affectation on his part.
“And so, Mister Stein, no sh, can you explain your presence here?”
“Yes, of course … I’m here to attend a writer’s workshop.”
He continued eyeing me as if I hadn’t answered, as if I was maintaining a stubborn silence he was devising ways to break. What did he want, an elaboration? Was I supposed to tell him why I was going to a writer’s workshop specifically in Russia? Was I supposed to justify going to a workshop at all, particularly when so much of the writing that comes out of them is bland, uniform, an obvious outgrowth of a string of well-worn clichés: ‘show, don’t describe’, ‘write what you know about’, blah, blah, blah …
I’d been struggling with misgivings from the very beginning, and the sight of the polished black handle of Litvinov’s standard-issue pistol even reminded me how I’d sworn never to be caught dead in one of those literary group therapy sessions, although of course I hadn’t meant the dead part literally.
Then again, what business of it was his? My own aversion seemed more than sufficient. I hardly needed Litvinov’s official objections added to the debate. And even if I hadn’t stifled all my ambivalence, my doubts had been quelled enough to come here. It always came back to the same basic justification, that I was going to Saint Petersburg, that the spirit of the city and its literary past (Didn’t Dostoevsky often tell and not show? Didn’t Gogol write about things he didn’t know about?) would balance out all the negatives.
“And to see Russia,” I added after a pause.
“Ah … to see Russia.”
The typist practically slammed the keys at these words. For a moment I thought I detected a smile creep across his featureless face. I was truly at a loss. Litvinov spread some files and papers across his desk, made a few markings and then stood up, musing aloud, “To see Russia … hmm.”
Thinking this an innocent goal, I tried to find another explanation for this misunderstanding (because, after all, what else could it be?). I bent my head down towards the desk, doing my best to concentrate. It was only after the absolute failure of reasoning my way to an answer that my eyes began taking in some of the written information lying in front of me.
The initial file in which the mispronunciation of my name had been corrected was nothing out of the ordinary. Next to it were various pages in which I could make out my name at the top and nothing else. They were computer printouts (apparently not the resident typist’s work) that had been marked up with a red pen like a grade school homework assignment.
What could they be? Passenger reports? In such detail, and with revisions? Impossible. I squinted and tried to find a word I might know which could illuminate this whole mystery for me, but looking at pages full of Cyrillic letters upside down all I was able to decipher were pronouns and prepositions – ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘by’, along with ‘he’ and ‘she’. She? I suddenly noticed that it was one of the more prevalent words. In that case it couldn’t be a report about me. And since I didn’t have a girlfriend it couldn’t be about her either. So who was this ‘she’? My mother? But why would the Russian military or secret service, or whoever Litvinov represented, want to write about her? What had she ever done to them?
In the face of the incomprehensible I have this tendency to simply zone out. Litvinov continued asking me questions, practicalities, where I was staying in Saint Petersburg and so on. I answered him, but on automatic pilot, my eyes still lingering on all the marked up documents.
As is often the case when forced concentration is abandoned for a thoughtless, empty gaze, a pattern suddenly appeared to me in what seemed like a random pile of papers. Every single page had my name near the top of the page, in precisely the same position, always preceded by the preposition ‘by’.
Where had they gotten their hands on them? They must have scoured obscure literary magazines and websites to find them, the most recently published one being already four years old. Surveying my collected work, gathered together here for the first time (albeit in translation), I had to try to guess which story was which by the length of the titles. Otherwise, the only thing I could interpret were my characters’ names.
I can’t deny feeling a certain gratification. The table was covered with paper. As a body of work it wasn’t insignificant. What was strange was that I only remember having a small handful of stories published. Sifting through the mass of scattered pages I soon realized these weren’t only my published stories, but my unpublished and even unfinished ones. I looked up at Litvinov for an explanation, but his expression was so impassive I wasn’t sure he even noticed what I was doing.
After that, the interrogation may have gone on. I don’t know. My mind was locked in on those pages in a way it should have been while I was writing them. It was the red-penned notations that I was mulling over now. What were they? Not corrections or editing. People don’t do that for free. Maybe they thought that beneath the surface plot and language of the stories there was a hidden code. Looked at from every angle, using every possible combination of letters I have no doubt they could find one. I suppose you could find a code in any text if you try hard enough. And what am I supposed to do if every seventh letter of one of my stories combines to form the name of a secret Russian military installation? It’s the kind of thing I couldn’t plan if I tried.
My grasp of Cyrillic letters was still far from perfect but I began to notice a few passages marked with the letters PP. What could it mean? Certainly not something like relevant information because they contained nothing of the sort. It seemed as if they had been chosen at random, for some were descriptive passages, others had narration or stupid jokes.
“Uh … what does PP stand for?” I finally asked.
The captain glared at me in that cold, official way of his.
“It stands for purple prose.”
My jaw must have dropped because when I next inhaled I felt a gust of putrid, bureaucratic air mixed with stale tobacco smoke and the unmistakable smell of airports, for which no one has ever found an adequate explanation.
“Purple ..?” I protested, “But that’s absurd. I would even go so far as to say the piece is spare and minimalist, and that … Wait a second! That’s a ‘p’, and purple in Russian doesn’t start with ‘p’!”
The captain’s mouth bent down at one of its edges – I assumed, to smile. But when he popped a cigarette in I was no longer so sure.
“Purple prose is not a literal translation. In Russian we say something more like a ‘flowery tendency to exaggeration’.”
Whether he was making that up or not I couldn’t check. It was beyond my abilities. I didn’t even know if the word flowery started with a ‘p’, or whether a tendency to exaggeration could be designated by a single word. Regardless, I had to defend myself.
“But it’s a story about an epidemic! What’s flowery about that?”
From the slouching figure at the typewriter came an inaudible groan, at least to my ears.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“Adjectives,” came the captain’s response.
“You use too many of them.”
He was glaring again, but in earnest this time. And what’s surprising in that? It was true. I toss off adjectives like a teenager who says fuck every other word, so often that they lose any effect they’re supposed to have.
Litvinov sat back down across from me and began leafing through the pages scattered on the table.
“Now, back to the matter at hand,” he announced, looking up abruptly, actually startling me a little. It was probably one of his practiced interrogator’s techniques, learned from an old Soviet textbook. Well, it seemed pretty effective.
“If not,” he went on, “we are liable to end up like much of your longer stories, meandering around without ever reaching a firm conclusion.”
My attempt to defend myself was quickly cut off.
“Anyway, it is not your style which concerns us foremost, but your content.”
“And just what makes you think you can separate the two so easily?” I asked confidently. “Isn’t that a bit of an old-fashioned notion?”
Litvinov’s eyes frosted over again, for a second I expected a sharp blow to the face.
“I am, I suppose, somewhat old-fashioned,” he said through his clenched teeth. “So humor me, and let’s confine ourselves to the subjects of your work.”
“If you say so.”
“You like to write about many things, yes? A broad palette, I believe it’s called. Your own country of course, about your young compatriots in Czechoslovakia…”
“It’s the Czech Republic. They split with Slovakia in 1993.”
“Ah yes, like our own Soviet Union,” he sighed. “And it’s not only places. You write about young artists, Hollywood actors, barons, mythical winged creatures … well, just about everything.”
“The world is an infinitely interesting place, Captain. I’m just trying to catch a tiny drop of its essence.”
My agreeable tone seemed to please him. He was suddenly less tense, as if this wasn’t so much an interrogation as a chat.
“And among that multitude of infinitely interesting subjects you write about don’t you count that of espionage?”
“Well, yes … it happens to be my latest … “
As I said this I tapped my bag where I had my notebooks, vaguely wondering about the coincidence until I noticed the document the captain was sliding to the top of the pile. It was already translated and marked up although I had yet to even type it.
Having laid his winning hand on the table Litvinov sat back to enjoy his triumph.
“You see, espionage is a subject which interests us very much here,” he said happily.
“Me too!” I responded, actually a bit too enthusiastically, as if the captain and I had just found another common interest, a base on which our friendship could deepen and grow. “Of course, I mean the fictional kind, you know, more symbolic.”
At this he looked me straight in the eyes.
“Symbolic? … Hmm … just what is symbolic espionage?”
We were back on my terrain. I felt emboldened.
“The ideal is, let’s say, the specter of espionage … but without any actual espionage taking place.”
“That sounds like the ideal of counter-intelligence,” the captain said flatly, “but never mind. If we could confine ourselves to actual espionage for now … what exactly do you know about it?”
Was he talking about fiction or real life? Obscuring the two like this really bothers me. In a workshop, for example, there’s always the idiot who starts talking about “my father” or “my ex-wife” and you have no idea if they’re talking about their characters’ family members or their own. Then you offer your sincere suggestion that the uncle’s death should have come much earlier and they look at you like you’re a murderer.
“I don’t know a damn thing about actual espionage,” I responded to Litvinov’s expectant glance, “It’s just a story, you know, fiction.”
His eyebrows raised smoothly, like a drawbridge over the Neva.
“And yet you presumed to write a whole book on a subject you ‘don’t know a damn thing about’?”
He had laid a trap for me, without stealth, not only uncovered but right in front of my face. He had even put an eye-catching sign on it with large letters in Russian, English and German saying ‘trap’. And I walked right into it without a second thought.
“Forgive me for being blunt, Mister Stein, but does that not make you a literary fraud?”
What I said next came out as a mere whimper, spoken so softly that he asked me to repeat myself, although probably only to add to my humiliation.
“But … Shakespeare never went to Italy.”
The typist’s fingers stopped dead on the keys and he looked questioningly at his boss whether he should take that down or not.
“Shakespeare?” Litvinov echoed back at me.
I tried to water down the effect by mumbling something about Kafka writing his first novel without ever having been to America, but realized I was digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole.
Naturally, I’d read about the mechanisms of interrogation during the old regime, how people would gradually betray anyone they were asked to, even themselves, heaping accusations on their own head that couldn’t possibly be true, trying to outdo their interrogators in displays of venom. I may well have been led a few steps down that path, and the temptation to make a self-deprecating joke was strong, but I resisted and defended what I believed in.
“All I meant, Captain, was that just as Shakespeare wrote about places he’d never seen, I wrote about things I’ve never done. I was pointing out a precedent, not comparing myself to the Bard.”
He smiled, as if to tell me he remained unconvinced.
“May I ask you something, Captain?”
“Did you find anything in this story that you thought was well-done?”
He considered it for a moment.
“The English double agent was very well drawn … romanticized and unrealistic, but engaging … yes, engaging.”
It was the smallest scrap of praise, but as I made my way back down the corridor towards the airport proper I was grateful for any gleam of hope, for any positive, beyond of course the fact that I wasn’t being arrested or kept locked up. At our parting Litvinov was almost friendly, wishing me success or something like that, although that smile was still there, corroding any friendly sentiment his words were meant to impart.
I assumed the guard was taking me right to the luggage area and that I wouldn’t have to go through passport control again, but when we re-entered the arrival hall it was clear that we were walking away from the exits.
“Excuse me? Where … “
But he didn’t acknowledge me and probably didn’t understand anyway. Eventually we reached another glass booth with another policewoman and he handed her some papers and my passport and left without a word.
This policewoman was a speed-reader compared to the other one. She looked at the paper and pointed me on my way, adding only “Gate A7”. I started to walk away, and then froze.
“Gate A7? But there must be a misunderstanding. I’m arriving here, at Saint Petersburg!”
I couldn’t tell whether she understood what I was saying, but apparently she did.
“No misunderstanding … Gate A7.”
“Yes misunderstanding!” I insisted, “I’m going to a writing workshop which I paid for, where my work will be evaluated and … “
She handed me the sheet of paper the guard had given her. It was a carbon copy, and I didn’t even need to look to know that the word evaluation or critique was written in Cyrillic at the top of the page. She smiled at me then, sincerely I think.
“Captain Litvinov very good … much strict but good.”
As I left her and Russia behind me I could swear I heard her say the word ‘nurturing’, although she may well have been speaking Russian and have said something else altogether.
Michael Stein is a writer and journalist in the Czech Republic and runs a blog on Central European writing called literalab. He is a regular contributor to journals such as Absinthe: New European Writing, The Cerise Press and Berlin’s Readux, has had a book review in Asymptote and published short stories in publications such as Drunken Boat, McSweeney’s, The Medulla Review and Cafe Irreal among other magazines.