Vassily Aksyonov was one of the Soviet Union's prominent novelists until he was exiled in 1980 and came to the United States. His mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, spent 18 years in Stalin's prison camps. Her books, Journey Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind, are classic memoirs of human suffering and strength. Aksyonov came to literary prominence in 1961 with A Ticket to the Stars, a novel that portrayed the generation of Moscow youth in the era of Khrushchev's thaw. As restrictions returned under Brezhnev, Aksyonov wrote fiction mostly "for the drawer" and supported himself by writing screenplays for Soviet movies.
His conflict with the government came to a head when he organized the publication of Metropol (1979), an underground anthology of Soviet writing. "By then," Aksyonov says, "I knew I could no longer stay." He and his wife Maya spent many months as "American gypsies" before ending up in Washington. Since his arrival, Aksyonov has published two novels, The Burn and Island of the Crimea, and will publish another next year, Say Cheese. Burly, funny and skeptical of the new Soviet glasnost, Aksyonov lives in a town house near MacArthur Boulevard and teaches at Goucher College and Johns Hopkins.
The following excerpt is from his forthcoming memoir, In Search of Melancholy Baby. The book begins in Italy, where the author is a celebrated visitor, and follows Aksyonov's progress through America, his adopted country. Initial feelings of alienation, even loathing, gradually evolve into acceptance, yet the novelist's eye on America remains fresh and piquant. The excerpt begins with Aksyonov's decision to reject New York and settle instead in Adams-Morgan.
ONCE WE HAD DECIDED TO SETTLE ON THE SHORES OF THE POTO-mac, we began looking for a place even closer to the center of things. For the apartment rents charged by rapacious District landlords you can get a whole house on the other side of the river in Virginia or Maryland, but the American taste for suburban life was still alien to us. We were drawn to the Parisian-like cafe's and bookshops of Dupont Circle.
"How can you move downtown?" friends warned us. "It's so dangerous." But the Silver Spring house of one of them had been burglarized twice that year. The first time the thieves took the silverware, the second time the television set; neither time did they touch the priceless sixteenth-century Russian icons. Did our friends think the District attracted more sophisticated thieves?
Apartment hunting brings home, so to speak, the duality of e'migre' existence: you want something that reminds you of your former life yet something you did not have -- could not have had -- in that life. Responding to an ad in the papers for a Wyoming Avenue apartment on the mild slopes of the city's only hill, we realized immediately we had found what we were looking for. A white-walled duplex complete with spiral staircase and view of the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the colonnade of the Lincoln Memorial, it could not have existed in Moscow, yet it evoked the vague visions of our Muscovite dreams.
For this smashing pad on the border between Dupont Circle and the popular Adams Morgan section of town we agreed to pay what at the time seemed a fortune: $1,200 a month. At the black market exchange rate that comes to 4,800 rubles, two years of wages; at the official rate -- six months of wages. (Recall the comparative prices of the Soviet and American tanks.)
The manager was a young man of the yuppie tribe, a Mr. Brik. (We later learned that he was of Lithuanian descent and that his ancestral name was something like Olbrikauskauskas.) "I must show you one thing," he said, ushering us into the lobby. "It may amaze you at first, but in time, take my word for it, it will simplify your life enormously."
"What could this marvel be?" we wondered as we filed past the mailboxes and stopped at the elevator doors. "Here, look," he said. "A button. All you have to do is push it" -- he pushed it -- "and soon these doors will open" -- they opened. "You may enter without fear." We walked into the elevator. "On this panel you see two rows of buttons. Each button has a number on it. The number corresponds to a
floor. Push the bottom button" -- he pushed it -- "and the doors will close" -- they closed. "Don't panic now. The cabin will deliver you safely to the floor of your choice, where the doors will open automatically" -- they did. "When you want to go down, all you have to do is repeat the procedure in reverse. That's not too complicated now, is it?"
We waited until he had finished, then responded in our best American, "Come off it, Dave! You don't really believe there are no elevators in Russia, do you?"
Mr. Olbrikauskauskas was crestfallen. A Russia with elevators? We had destroyed an image, a whole system of images. After that he pointed out the apartment's technological extras like an actor throwing away his lines: "Oh yes, and here's a doohickey -- but you know about that -- and there's the dingus -- though I'm sure they're better in Russia." Actually, most of the things we had only read about in Russia, if that -- things like thermostats, a built-in washer and drier, a dishwasher, a microwave oven, a self-cleaning oven (we still haven't figured out the timing device), an exhaust system, a sink disposal unit, and finally a compactor. When we mumbled something about bourgeois decadence, Mr. Brik came back with, "Don't worry. You're in America now." I DIGRESS FROM MY HOMELY DESCRIPtions to cast a glance at our technological civilization. Our every step, our every move is tied to technology. Our white Wyoming cube is stuffed with it, piled high with cassettes, records, the upstairs tape recorder, radio, TV set, the downstairs tape recorder, radio, TV set, a VCR, a single lens reflex, a Polaroid, four typewriters (three electric, one electronic), a PC and printer, a copy machine, several calculators, a baby Benz under the living-room window and the old Omega out in the street, not to mention the Exercycle, shower massage, electric hair drier, electric shaver, electric blanket, electric hair curlers, electric coffee grinder, coffee maker, food processor, toaster, iron, vacuum cleaner . . . And that is only half of what surrounds us (two Russian e'migre's getting on in years and a sprightly cocker spaniel) every minute of the day.
Is there an end to it all? Setting aside the various possible apocalyptic predictions (a necessary though not particularly urgent element of civilization), let us pose a more modest question: have we come to a dead end? When I hear people complaining that America has slowed down or ground to a halt, I can't help wondering whether there's anywhere left to go. Now that capitalism has brought luxury to the millions, it has reached a certain plateau. If it intends to develop, it must branch out in other directions -- work to improve mass taste, for instance.
Even at its present stage, however, capitalism exhibits concentrated pockets of features justly deplored by Marx. Take our alley, that is, the view from our back windows (the ones that don't look out on the Capitol). Every day at 6:00 a.m. we witness the rivalry of four trash-removal companies (my favorite boasts the surname of a once-celebrated French poet and Lenin Peace Prize laureate -- Aragon Waste); one after the other, four huge trucks fill the alley with the din of early capitalism. For all its Mercedeses, BMWs, Jaguars, and Corvettes it has a shabby, run-down quality about it; it is always muddy and full of ruts.
The alley has another eyesore as well: a spooky shack with a roof of bumpy pitch and tufts of wild grass. The cellar is intermittently inhabited by a group of multiracial bums who arrive in the middle of the night in a Rolls-Royce. The trash sometimes piles up five or six feet high because the owner of the restaurant next door -- we suspect him of Socialist leanings -- refuses to participate in the trash competition: he feels his waste should be removed by the public sanitation force. (The public sanitation force obviously adheres to a different point of view.) Who should see to the rats in the cellar appears a moot question.
At first we refused to believe our eyes. Hefty rats running around the capital of the United States of America? No, they must be pets of some kind -- giant gerbils, perhaps. Then we found a dead "gerbil" next to our car. A rat, no two ways about it. We ran to our neighbors, a clean-cut yuppie couple, who shrugged and said, "Big deal. A rat. Forget it"; we ran to the block captain, who promised to work on the capitalist Socialist, and although the trash disappeared (Aragon apparently won the Augean stables contract), the rats did not. In the Soviet Union the situation would have been declared an emergency by the municipal department of epidemiology, but in America no one appears particularly put out.
And the cockroaches! When Yevtushenko discovered a dozen of the little bastards in his Moscow apartment, he shot off a poem entitled "Cockroaches in a High Rise." Since the Russian mind characterizes both cockroaches and Stalin by their "mustaches," the poem was read as an act of civic courage. The association does not seem to hold in America.
When an upright Soviet citizen discovers something untoward going on, he rants and raves and shouts "How is this possible under socialism?" In America no one would ever dream of shouting "How is that possible under capitalism?" No one but a Soviet e'migre', that is.
For us, capitalism is modern technology, efficient service, and sound fiscal policy, whereas socialism is outdated technology, rudeness, and primary market relations of the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" variety: favor for favor, commodity for commodity, commodity for favor, favor for commodity. Anything to get by. But while the USSR inches toward capitalism, capitalism, the Russian e'migre' discovers to his dismay, is undergoing a Socialist warp of apathy, poor service, and hackwork. MAYA TAKES A JACKET TO THE TAILOR. Nothing complicated: the sleeves need a little shortening. "Ten days," says the woman behind the counter, without looking up from her MTV. Ten days to shorten sleeves? Hmm. In the Soviet Union you give the woman an extra three rubles and your coat is ready in an hour. That doesn't seem to work here. And not only that. When Maya returns ten days later, the woman can't even find the jacket. Her response to Maya's indignation? A mocking grin: she is protected by her union.
The sink disposal unit goes on the blink. The management promises to send a plumber. The plumber shows up -- a week later. In the Soviet Union you call in a man, whose name always seems to be Nikolai, and for five rubles in cash he takes care of anything that needs taking care of.
For six months the little cabin that was meant to make our lives so easy was out of service because of a dispute between the elevator company and the building co-op; for six months we struggled up four flights of stairs with our packages. When an elevator breaks down in Moscow, the co-op shareholders chip in and grease the palm of Nikolai the Second. Is that socialism or capitalism?
Shortly after moving in, we had a marvelous experience with a local department store or, rather, with its furniture department or, to be even more precise, with its furniture delivery department. We had bought a glass and steel table, half a dozen chairs, and an armchair, and were promised delivery in two weeks. Two weeks! In the Soviet Union you find the department store Nikolai, grease his palm, and the furniture arrives, under his personal escort, the following morning.
Maybe because that doesn't seem to work here, we had to wait three weeks instead of two, but on the morning of the first day of the third week "Mr. Eskintow" received a phone call requesting him not to leave the house between nine and five. The furniture was coming! Hurray!
Our joy was premature: the furniture did not arrive on that day or the next or during the next few weeks. In response to my calls the operator invariably asked, "What is your name, please?" and "How do you spell it?" and then passed us to another woman who would ask whether "that was S as in soup" and "V as in vase" only to fob me off on a real featherbrain, who asked me to start from scratch: "A as in air. K as in kite. S as in soup. Y as in young. O as in office. N as in new. O as in office again. V as in vase."
The fifth time I phoned -- at the end of each previous call I had been told soothingly, "It's in process" -- I spelled my name: "A as in anapest, K as in kibitzer, S as in surrealism, Y as in Yoknapatawpha, O as in orgasm, N as in nepotism, O as in orgasm again, V as in ventriloquism."
Silence. "Are you with me?" I asked tactfully.
"Yes sir," muttered an uncertain voice.
"By the way, what's your name?"
"Is that R as in renaissance, O as in . . ."
She hung up.
The next day, that is, a full month and a half after our purchase, the furniture arrived. True, the armchair had no casters and the chairs were from different families, but the table seemed all right. "I've got nothing to do with it," said the delivery man. "Talk to the company. I just work there." But we thought we discerned a certain look in his eye. Despite certain differences in race there was something of the Nikolai about him. Had the time come for America to return to primary relations? ADAMS MORGAN: A BABY BABYLON IN GREATER ATHENS ALSO SHORTLY AFTER WE MOVED IN, AN elderly man in a Burberry knocked at the door, introduced himself as Ray Burns, the block captain, and welcomed us to Wyoming. I see him every day now. He's always busy with some project -- mowing the lawn, planting flowers, picking up broken glass. No one pays him a penny for it.
Incidentally, broken bottles are a great American mystery to me. I have never witnessed a bottle actually being broken, yet I find splinters of glass everywhere I look. One of the multitudinous differences between Russians and Americans is that Russians return bottles, Americans smash them. And Mr. Burns gathers up the shards with an understanding smile. People like him, of old Scots-Irish stock, form the commonsense backbone of the country and its patchwork population.
That first day Mr. Burns presented us with a copy of the block newsletter, handwritten in Mrs. Burns's fine hand and photocopied. It began with wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Then Sergeant Jerry Krieger from the Third Police Precinct called on the residents to join the battle against crime. The statistics for Wyoming Avenue for the past six months had been pretty good: one robbery and some minor items taken from parked cars. The precinct's department of social services announced it had handed out twenty-five holiday baskets to needy families.
Next Mr. Burns reported on a chat he had had with Mrs. Claire Sizer, who moved to Wyoming Avenue in the thirties. The whole thing bore an uncanny similarity to Doctorow's Ragtime, which I had translated while still in the Soviet Union. It ran something like this: "The houses on our block were built between 1910 and 1920, and the neighborhood has always enjoyed an excellent reputation thanks to its fine location and outstanding residents. Dr. Stiles, Calvin Coolidge's personal physician (he treated President Coolidge's youngest son for blood poisoning until the youngster's tragic demise), used to live here, as did -- just think! -- Commodore Robert E. Peary, the man who conquered the North Pole." Mr. Burns sticks so close to Ragtime that he places one of the book's heroes on Wyoming. "Mrs. Sizer," he goes on, "is still a sweet and sprightly lady at the age of ninety-two. 'I would not wish to live anywhere but in Washington,' she says. 'I was born here, and come what may I love the place.' "
The newsletter concludes with a debate on the problem of one-way traffic, a notice from the local community center, an item about volunteer crocus and daffodil plantings, and an ad for a neighbor who sells figurines -- elephants, ducks, and owls -- made from seashells. WYOMING AVENUE, WHICH CONSISTS primarily of three-story Victorian houses and has only two commercial enterprises (an all-night 7-Eleven for physical sustenance and a shop specializing in occult books and objects for more spiritual needs), may be considered part of three neighborhoods -- diplomatic Kalorama, aristocratic Dupont Circle, and ethnic Adams Morgan. Adams Morgan, which owes its name to two early desegregated schools, styles itself a miniature New York, which, fortunately for those of us who live there, is something of an exaggeration. New York still lacks the chutzpah to style itself an overgrown Adams Morgan.
If we do resemble New York, it is in the motley splendor of our citizenry. At the Saturday market (at Eighteenth Street and Columbia Road) you'll see just about everyone: local truck farmers, Frenchmen, Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Arabs, Latin Americans, American blacks, Caribbean blacks, and large numbers of Africans, especially the gentle Nigerians. Once my wife told a black saleswoman that we had a holiday coming up: Orthodox Easter. The saleswoman beamed and said, "I'm Orthodox too. I'm a refugee from Colonel Mengistu's regime in Ethiopia." NOT SURPRISINGLY ADAMS MORGAN IS a hotbed of political variety. Passing Revolutionary Books the other day, I recalled a recent Literaturnaya Gazeta article about "raging reactionaries in America." The McCarthy era was back, the author informed his readers. If an American reads a forbidden book, if he even so much as receives a letter from the camp of peace and socialism, he will immedi- ately end up -- oh, how I love those cliche's! -- filling the ranks of the unemployed; he may even land in jail. The Reagan administration has closed the gates to all sources of truthful information: it monitors the sale of shortwave radios and has banned Literaturnaya Gazeta from the newsstands!
On a hunch I went into the bookshop. "What books by Trotsky have you got in stock?" I asked the two young salesmen, who were sitting under a life-size, full-length poster of Lenin in cap and a red bow on the lapel of his jacket.
"Well . . ." said one, hesitantly.
"Actually . . ." said the other, playing for time.
"You see, Trotsky's view of the revolution was rather one-sided," said the first.
"But we do have an excellent study by a professor at Havana University," said the second, perking up. "Here it is. The Vicious Essence of Trotskyism."
"Not today, thank you," I said, "but perhaps you can help me with something else." I pointed to the portraits of men like Stalin, Brezhnev, Mao Tse-tung, and Ho Chi Minh. "Which do you think is most attractive?"
"In what way?" they asked, confused.
"Well, in terms of male beauty."
They exchanged a look, frowned, and said disapprovingly, "An irrelevant issue . . ."
"One last request. Have you got something by Marshal Lavrenty Beria?"
This time the joke was on me. I was immediately offered On the History of Bolshevist Organization in the Transcaucasus in a translation that brought across the author's Georgian accent with great verve.
Reactionary forces may have taken over in some neighborhoods, but in Adams Morgan, Stalin's minister of internal affairs is alive and well and the revolution lives! ADAMS MORGAN IS ALSO A HAVEN FOR street people. Although American English has many words for them -- "tramp," "bum," "hobo" -- we like to think of them as our own version of the French clochard or Soviet Russian bich (which, believe it or not, comes from the English word "beach" and apparently derives from the idea that a bich would rather be lolling on the beach than toiling away at sea). Since, as I learned at a block party, so many of my neighbors are writers, I suspect some of the bichi of having retired prematurely from the profession. One of them always asks me for five dollars. It's the kind of reverse largesse you'd expect from a writer. THE MULTIPARTY SYSTEM
FRIDAY NIGHT IS PARTY NIGHT. OUR destination is Georgetown's O Street, where a Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Reginald Cooper-Clark (!) have requested the honor of our presence.
Maya usually bites her tongue through the Friday evening parking process. Keeping absolutely quiet is the only way she can keep from breaking out into abuse. When the going gets really rough, however, she'll come out with something like, "Couldn't we have called a cab this once?" At which point I inevitably find a spot and squeeze in.
The brick sidewalks of century-old tree-lined O Street click with high heels and swish with fashionably baggy trousers. We can make out at least three brightly lit doorways with guests being shown in. Parties, parties everywhere!
We find ours. "Welcome! Welcome!" cry our hosts. "How are you? Looking great, both of you!" The husband immediately takes me off to the side and says, "Well?" and raising his eyebrows and pointing his head in a southeasterly direction, that is, in the general direction of the government office buildings, he adds, "How do you like it?" "Fantastic," I say. "My sentiments exactly," he agrees. As the conversation progresses, I notice he is looking past my right ear. "Now let me introduce you to our main attraction," he says at last, but just then a new couple arrives and he runs off apologizing.
"Are you sure we're at the right party?" Maya asks me when we are together again.
"Of course I'm sure. Look, there's Greg and Heidi, there's Mel with his mouth full, and isn't that the Princess Trubetskaya sipping beer? It's our crowd, all right, but with a lot of new faces."
The new faces, about sixty in all, are crammed into the living room and dining room, but they work well together, keep up a low, nonstop roar, form a closely knit collective, as we would have said in the Soviet Union. We take some white wine, pile our plates with crackers, cheese, carrot sticks, green onions, radishes, cauliflower, and broccoli, and drift toward the wall where, having secured at least one flank, we hope to munch our harvest in peace.
No sooner do we make contact with the wall, however, than an elegantly dressed, middle-aged gentleman comes up to us and tells us how glad he is to make our acquaintance at last. "You may wonder how I recognized you. It was very simple, actually. I saw a picture of you in a magazine not long ago. A perfect likeness it was too. I even remember your dog. A fine specimen, by the way."
"My dog?" That throws me. There is no doubt in my mind that our little Ushik is a fine specimen, but we have never had our picture in a magazine together. Perhaps our kind American friend was laboring under a false impression?
"Oh no!" he protests. "I remember it well. You had a dog in your lap."
My wife and I call time out and go into a huddle. "I think you once had your picture taken with a book in your lap," she says to me in Russian. "Maybe there was a dog on the cover."
While our interlocutor listens patiently to our foreign speech, an acquaintance of his comes up and he introduces us as those distinguished Dutch visitors . . . "What did you say your name was again?"
We have to disappoint him. "I'm terribly sorry, but I'm Russian, not Dutch."
"But wasn't that Dutch you were speaking to your wife?"
"No, it was Russian. We belong to the same tribe."
"Then why did I take you for Dutch?" he looks awfully puzzled.
"It's perfectly natural. We Russians have a great deal in common with the Dutch. In the first place, neither of us speaks English as a mother tongue, and in the second place, they taught us to build ships."
At that moment a gong rings out from the depths of the living room and our host asks us all for our attention. Suddenly everything falls into place: the guest of honor is a Dutchman, Erasmus Rotterboom, a prizewinning Esso executive. He steps up on a small podium, thanks the host for the introduction, and gives a brief talk about his achievements, and launches into a violin recital.
Through it all Maya keeps throwing me sidelong glances. "Yes," I whisper, "it's a remarkable country, Holland. Entirely below sea level, and look at the contribution it's made to civilization: windmills, skates, canals, tulips, trade on the high seas, and now our violinist friend here. Besides, it was Holland that taught our Party Secretary Peter the Great all he knew, including, or so rumor would have it, the art of love . . . What a shame, really, that Russo-Dutch relations have gone downhill ever since. Why, two hundred fifty years ago Russians made pilgrimages to Holland in much the way Soviets today make pilgrimages to the People's Republic of Hungary."
"That may well be," Maya whispers, "but what has it got to do with the party we were invited to?"
During the following round of applause for Mr. Rotterboom we slip out into O Street. "We must have written the number down wrong," I say. "Look over there at the house with the two small columns and the two winged dogs on the porch. Isn't that good old Rear Admiral T. about to go in? That must be our party."
We walk the hundred yards and go inside. Here the guests are mostly women of what in Russia we call a "Balzacian," that is, mature, age. The very air is redolent with starched lace. We arrive just in time for the main course: a gigot in the finest "vieille cuisine" tradition. I introduce myself to the woman on my right and ask her where to find Mr. and Mrs. Cooper-Clark.
"Just call me Lulu, pal," she says, giving me a clap on the back. "But now that you mention it, I haven't seen the Coop or little Ms. Clarkie all night."
"Don't tell me we're at the wrong party again," I say to Maya, who confesses she has been wondering the same thing. "If it weren't for Rear Admiral T., Greg and Heidi, Mel Dershkowitz, and the Princess Trubetskaya, I'd have hightailed it out of here in a panic."
"You're not thinking of leaving now, are you folks?" asks Lulu.
"No, we'll stick around for a while."
"What's this 'for a while' business?" she says with the coy wink of the boogie-woogie queen she had doubtless once been. "You won't regret it. We're all going skinny-dipping after dinner. By the way, how're things up there in Quebec?"
Trying to picture her in her after-dinner costume, I spy a name tag on her left breast: "Lulu Smiley -- Kiss Me Not Shyly." I glance around and see similar name tags on similar breasts: "Doris Garbowski -- Till Death Do Us Apart," "Nancy Tarantine -- Crossing Mount Destiny," Kandi Ambivalenstein -- When the Heart Calls." . . . Had we listened a bit closer to their conversation, we'd have realized straight away we had happened on a convention of heart-throb romance writers.
We show up at the third party in time for dessert. One waiter is pushing around a pastry cart, another serving liqueurs. Our crowd -- Greg and Heidi, Mel Dershkowitz, the Princess Trubetskaya, and Rear Admiral T. -- is chopping away at cheesecakes and spooning away mousses even while inching toward the door.
"Missed the boat again!" says the rear admiral, shaking his graying locks. "Infantry." He is not far off: it turns out to be a reunion of the mountain climbers who have scaled the east side of Kilimanjaro.
"We must have written the letter down wrong," I realize at last. "Our party must have been on Q Street, not O Street. It may be the same vicious circle, but at least it has a squiggle for an escape hatch." ::