Winter: longing for something else. Spring: a nearly hysterical anxiety. Summer: the
burning space of chineselike, super sophisticated and
torturous love affair… Autumn, will it bring any relief, peace… or “jolt”? You
will be amazed how these “seasons”, or border mental states familiar to all
true readers – how precisely and mercilessly, with all the bonuses of “stream
of consciousness” style (the language of the characters, both real fantoms) they are expressed
in the new novel by Elena
Nekrasova GILGUL. Gilgul means metempsychosis in Kabbala. Step by step we get more and more involved in
their circulation, start seeing them closely and with all covers gone: after
hideous details of Chinese everyday life of 50s we rush into
1. It turns out that I was in a coma at the
same time as Yasser Arafat was. Although
he later died. Lying here I keep watching TV for hours. There’s nothing
I can do about it, although, frankly speaking I should have asked them to take
the set out of the ward. A tsunami hit
Misha took my coma experience quite seriously. He said that
such cases were noted in specialised editions and
many facts found solid proof afterwards. For example, one Frenchmen from
The first definite fact that I know is that before I turned seven or eight I lived in a theatre, afterwards I moved to a rich home, probably adopted by some unmarried woman. I was very attached to her and thought she was my mother. Later she died, and I was sent somewhere on a steamship. I remember enormous suitcases being brought on board, and an elderly woman wearing glasses firmly holding me by the hand. But she was not my nanny, she was a stranger and very unpleasant. I know that mother died, that we are going away from home, and that we shall never return. For some reason I’m sure of it. I remember the ship sailing between very high gently sloping banks, their terraces descending to the river on both sides. I would instantly recognise the place… I’m standing on the deck, some cheerful music is playing, I watch other passengers, imagining them one by one lying in a coffin – how, for instance, would that boy look, who tries to beat his father in spitting overboard as far as he can? His eyebrows are so thick, they would stick out, bristling, of his yellow face with high cheek-bones… and the top row of his teeth would protrude like that of a rabbit… And this girl will have her lips coloured, her face powdered and a wreath of paper flowers will be put on her head, and the wind will gently move them to and fro. Such weird fantasies entertained me during my trip, but what happened later – hard to say. My next clear memories are connected with a large city on the seashore. I was already a grown-up girl there…
2. [scene in a Chinese theatre]
The most important thing is to keep track of the time… even though the old man assures that they will show the way… and the boat will wait, since everything is arranged, but still he has to start on time, at a quarter to ten… now it’s already after nine… Siao Yui is in a state of bliss – passes a stick over a brass basin humming something… amusing old man… what interesting sound, how he does that? It’s nice that I had this little nap, I don’t feel tired anymore… what’s important is that I got hold of this wonderful medicine, so it was worthwhile to make the whole trip… the worse thing are these terrible post-sickness symptoms, but now you simply take a few drops and feel yourself a new man… is he telling me something or this is just the song? He’s showing his hand with outstretched fingers…
- Tell me, Mr. Cat, why do I have five grandsons? Eh? And a granddaughter? And I never had a wife!
- Well… you were lucky, Siao Lao.
- Ha! That’s true! It’s just that I had many friends among the beauties of the green houses. Do you understand? And what about you? Do you like them?
- I… I don’t know… We don’t have green houses… I – no.
- No! But what about beauties? Tell me, where is your woman? Do you have one?
- She… I don’t know. Not now.
- You see! You don’t want to rest and so you fall ill. This is why you’re sick. Animals can love each other once a year, but people cannot. People must love constantly, all the time… that’s how it should be – the Yin-Yang, do you understand? And you just go on thinking, thinking… Oooooh… Thoughts-thoughts-thoughts, they make flowers wither! Do you want to go to a green house? I’ll show you the way.
- What… thanks… but… No, I don’t. I can’t… to pay for it.
- It’s cheap! It’s very cheap! If you want I can pay for you? The girls there are magnificent, the path of pure love, you understand? Take a look at me – good? A lot of Qi! Many years of proper love; while your stem has almost withered, isn’t it sad?
The old man is completely mad, dragging him to some brothel, really getting excited, with no women around to check him. If only Sian-Tse could see this… Now he wants girls… She says that he is over a hundred years old… I would never believe that… And what if I just ask him? “Ni do da?” It’s a normal question, they all answer, even the women… Here it is considered improper to hide one’s age…
- Dear Siao Yui, how old are you?
- Ha! First tell me how old are you?
- Hm… How does one say that…
- Show me with your fingers! Four and two? Forty two? It’s a lie! Small birds don’t live that long.
- But… this is… to sleep… a dream!
- I’m also your dream!
It’s clear… when Sian-Tse asked the old man about these bird dreams of his, he did not say anything particular… well, dreams like dreams, all sorts of things happen… but now he used it to avoid answering the question…
- And you’re a bad bird, stupid! Now tell me – when you’re a bird, you want to become a man, right?
- Well, yes…
- But when you’re a man, when you’re in your body, do you want to be that bird, eh?
- A bird? No… I guess not.
- So you see! You’re almost there!
- I don’t understand Siao Lao…
- And I don’t understand where is that confounded girl? Will she bring water for our hands or not… Yung-Tsiao! Lee Yung-Tsiao! Don’t move! I will take you there myself, right after I find her. You can have a couple of drops more, just two drops, that’s enough! Tomorrow you’ll feel perfect! Do you have any of your tea left? Give it to me, I’ll drip it in your tea. This is how you should take it – five drops during the day and two at night. You understand?
- Yes, I understand. Thank you very much…
Yes… Vasilkov… As a man you’re nothing, and as a bird you’re bad… Well, at least your Chinese evidently gets better… She’ll surely be amazed by the smart conversation he had with the old man, and no one to help him… of course the subject was somewhat… this he won’t tell, obviously… just some talk about different things, about the theatre… Here, at last, is Yung-Tsiao…
When the granddaughter was serving them tea, Vasilkov already made her several compliments – about her dress and about her music. He was indeed surprised – the girl looked much more attractive, even hard to recognise… She got thinner, that’s true… but there was something else. Yung-Tsiao suddenly turned into a real woman, everything was beautiful – the light and slow step, a new hair-style and her face… the face – that’s the main thing! It seemed that Yung-Tsiao changed her skin, as if she shed her old useless skin, grey with blackheads… particularly the forehead… he also had this adolescent habit of pressing pimples, it’s good that his mother kept an eye on him, otherwise he would have ruined his appearance for the rest of his life. Yes… This unexpected change in Tsiao’s granddaughter amazed him… Her forehead was always covered with a bang, now the hair was combed back, the high, clear brow looked very pleasant… no traces of scars. It seems the grandfather interfered… He did know everything about herbs, must have helped his girl…
Vasilkov kept eyeing her… yes… What a change! Yung-Tsiao brought a large bowl and some towels, put them on the table, then began smoothing out the pillows rumpled by the old man… She was wearing a silver-grey tsipao, what a splendid design this traditional dress has… tightly fitting the body, but always stressing only the advantages, at the same time hiding small defects… it’s true, a tsipao makes any woman more attractive, even one who is fat… and it’s a good thing that it once more becomes fashionable… girls shouldn’t spend their lives going around in formless overalls… even under Stalin we did not have that, on the contrary… But Yung-Tsiao’s figure is simply magnificent, what defects are we talking about? In the high cuts of the tsipao one could see the slender legs of the girl flashing, and he remembers it well – before the calves were not so elegant, the legs were a bit too thick… unbelievable. The leg was visible up to the middle of the thigh, and it was a fine-moulded leg of a dancer… Yung-Tsiao was busy collecting various musical instruments, scattered around the room. The old man likes such things – to blow into some intricate horn, to take some pipe and make a whistling sound or to hit unexpectedly some plate hanging in a corner… today he played on a brass basin… Yung-Tsiao is smiling at him… yes, of course… leaning against the wall he almost crushed a panpipe. It’s stupid to keep silent all the time… He must say something… For example, to tell her that this grey fits her perfectly… how is it… well, something like “you look great in grey”, this I can do… yes, “grey” will be “khuysede” (“khuy” in Russian is an obscene term for “penis” – translator’s note).
Vasilkov felt that something was going wrong… yes, it seems that he lost control… was watching an attractive girl, thinking, that everything is in order… but this word… damn it, it turned out quite treacherous, saying “khuysede” to himself he became so greatly excited, that… and his coat was left in the hall… how can he stand up now? And where did the old man disappear, has he fallen asleep someplace? Oh, God… Yung-Tsiao is sitting down next to him… what is this… she touches his erect penis… she is smiling, she reaches for her mother-of-pearl buttons… is she out of her mind, or… Oh, God, this is unbearable, he should… she takes off her tsipao, she is completely naked! So that was what the old pimp had on his mind, he should tell her immediately… but why… why is she so close… impossible… what a strange… as if he sank into a hot bath fully dressed… he mustn’t… how fresh are her breasts, her skin… it feels like silk… but this is… she… what is she doing… how can that be… Oh… with her mouth…
Mum is smiling… She put on that very kerchief that he brought from Torzhok just before the war… and the cabbage soup got cold. But he should finish it, otherwise mum would be upset…
- Thanks, mum, it’s delicious. I miss so much this sort of cabbage soup from the oven…
- Well, Aliosha, you should come more often…
Mama’s fingers are gently pulling the fringe of her kerchief. Something is bothering her, but she seems to be afraid to ask. How big her hands have become, they are the hands of a man… Knotty fingers, ingrown nails… She has to do it all by herself – take care of the house, of the vegetable garden, of the cow… But there’s no other way… Children can’t help her anymore, all of them have decent jobs now… well, she wanted it herself and feels proud…
- Ania has learned to do everything, she helps me so much… and does it all alone… she even knows how to milk the cow.
She suddenly stopped speaking. He would like to know more about his sister, but for some reason hesitates to ask. And his younger brother Kolia… How is he now? What does he do? Kolia was such a telltale… mum used to scold him for that. Do they live here together or in different houses? He does not dare to ask, does not want to upset her, what if mum will start crying… she’s smiling so nicely. Why remind her that his brother and sister died before her very eyes? Although… what is it with him? Mum also died, they all did… their train was bombed. Ania was killed on the spot and mum and Kolia tried to reach the forest… but they did not make it… that’s what happened!
- Mum, why do you keep silent all the time. Tell me how you all live here… How’s Ania? Did she find a good match?
- You’re kidding, Aliosha, there’s non of that around… but we live ok, not bad; well, our cow calved yesterday… Nikolai goes to the forest to pick berries and mushrooms… And the vegetable garden is now his business, can you imagine that? Remember how he argued with father when he was a kid? “I don’t like digging in the dirt!” Now it’s different… And he has fruit trees there, but it’s all so sour, impossible to eat just like that… qui… quince, I think, then this… myrobalan… it’s a sort of a plum, other stuff… but it’s all sour… he eats it fresh, probably not enough acid… Me and Ania – we make jam out of it. So, in summer there’s enough work… And in winter we listen to the radio… keep remembering everyone… well, you know for yourself how it is to be a peasant… everything is all right, don’t worry. I only regret that we don’t see you often… yes… you were such a good kid, helped me more than anyone else…
Suddenly the wooden table, behind which they were sitting, became enormously large… the room disappeared, he saw before him only the roughly planed boards… I’m dreaming, thought Vasilkov. He woke up that same moment.
Mum. Wow, he saw mum in a dream… she looked like she was alive… He wanted to retain her image a little longer and was in no hurry to open his eyes. He knew – in order to preserve a memory you should keep the daylight away as long as possible… It’s so nice that he saw mum in a dream… As if he really visited her… Finally his eye-lids seemed to rise by themselves. What is this… dim light… what is he lying on… some stupid hide… Impossible! There is a naked woman next to him, sleeping… Yung-Tsiao?!
Vasilkov suddenly recalled everything. He is in the theatre! Having sex with the granddaughter of Siao Yui! And what kind of sex… Episodes of the night flashed before him… Oh, God, how obscene it was… And what about work?! Of course, it’s already , he’s late for work! They must be looking for him… how could he?! But… somehow he’s dressed… he must have tried to leave when everything was finished, but passed out and went to sleep… he doesn’t remember that… What… What’s this? His eyes already got used to the half-light, and he suddenly noticed a silent figure slightly leaning against the door-post… it can’t be… but there’s no doubt about it – Sian-Tse. Standing there without uttering a word. Looking straight at him… Vasilkov was suddenly covered with cold sweat… the pulse in his temples was beating furiously… blood rushed up to his head… he could not swallow, even though his mouth was filled with saliva… he felt his tongue becoming enormous, swelling, blocking his throat… he also had a sense that his chest was being crushed… and he could not make a move… what if he is paralysed… a quick distant thought passed through his mind, that, apparently, he is dying… it was a ghost of a thought… Seeing that he is aware of her presence, Sian-Tse came a little closer… he saw her eyes. There was nothing in them – no surprise, indignation… no disgust… Nothing. Then she left. Hearing the sound of her steps disappear down the corridor Vasilkov started crying. Or, better say, he felt something warm run down his face… but his breath was getting steadier… yes, tears brought him relief…
They may already be looking for him since yesterday evening… someone could have noticed his absence… everybody would be on their feet by now. And she… what would I think in her place? That I’m no longer alive… She dashed to see her old man, and… Disgusting! The man who spoke to her about eternal love is lying on a hide with a naked gal… And not just some gal… it doesn’t matter anymore! He lost her, lost her forever! No, this is no accident… no accident at all! The old man deliberately played a trick on him… he is against them being together, who knows why, but he is, one can sense it… Oh God… worse than that… it’s the first time he betrayed his wife… For almost a year he suppressed his feelings for the woman he loved! He suffered himself and made her suffer… and all that just to spend a night with the first whore that he came across! And who will believe… He looked at the old man’s granddaughter with hatred. Yung-Tsiao was still sleeping and breathing gently… Vasilkov rose to his feet and was wondering where he left his raincoat… yes, it’s in the hall. On the small table he could see the vial that Siao Yui gave him yesterday. Then it dawned on him – yes, that’s it! At first he offered him good medicine, but later switched it, pouring it into his tea… and got him drugged with something… then sent his granddaughter… The bastard! Now there’s nothing more to do. How can he look Sian-Tse in the eyes?! What will he tell her? How will he… it would be better… never to see her again… but she is his interpreter, damn it! He must get out of here as fast as possible! Let’s just hope he won’t bump into anyone…
Vasilkov peeped out into the corridor. No one there… It’s very tempting to run to the other end and escape into the street… but then he’s sure to catch pneumonia once again. He must get his raincoat. And his wallet?! It was in his trouser pocket… thank God… it’s there. To hell with the coat! He must get out of here.
Today it’s so warm outside… but it’s always very windy on the ferry. Five minutes to nine… If he hurries up, he’ll still make it! Shit! She’ll surely be there as well… she must have arrived by the boat and now… No, it’s impossible, he can’t… and the office? There’s no way avoiding this, in an hour or an hour and a half he’ll inevitably meet her… but not now! He’d better hire a motor boat or a barge… no, he should go to the Central Supermarket and buy a new lined rain coat… this spring warmth is tricky, and he cannot afford to fall ill… or he’d better buy a jacket, some ordinary, miserable jacket… There’s no reason for him now to go around wearing a long raincoat…
the water is… Especially, when you see it so close.
After a night rain all the sand and the silt rises in the Yang-Tze, and truly… it is a dirty river. Why was it called
“blue”? No one knows… Vasilkov was sitting on the stern
feeling nauseous. No wonder, since he had not eaten since yesterday… he just
had some lunch and then went for a walk… There’s no way back now… One good
thing, at least, is that he didn’t have enough time to write to Valia… even though he originally did not plan to. He wanted
to talk to her face to face… And Sian-Tse, she still
hasn’t given her consent… What if Sian-Tse… no, it’s
impossible, she’ll never forgive him… that’s absurd! But it’s his fault. The
things that passed between them… real feelings, all the romance, their walks
together… he destroyed everything this night. To say nothing
of Valia… And there’s no excuse – seduced,
drugged… He is a male, the active element… No, the old man is absolutely right!
He is really a miserable wretch, he’s full of shit… He
should have acted… acted! Make up his mind and find the courage to return to
this seemed like a way out. To leave. I should talk to
The boat made such a sharp right turn that Vasilkov barely had time to clutch at the side of the vessel. His right sleeve was completely soaked… The owner of the boat made this manoeuvre following an order from a patrol vessel which was clearing the way for someone important. This new shaking was too much for him. Feeling terribly sick, he could no longer restrain himself and threw up into the dirty waters of the Yang-Tse – a stream of greenish slime… some thin substance… what else could there be in his empty stomach…
He was planning to go the construction site straight away, but now, looking the way he did… He has to change. And he must eat, the canteen is already closed… he’ll knock at the kitchen door and ask the girls for something like a slice of bread and a cup of tea. Vasilkov was almost running… or, rather, he hurried on as fast as he could. The soaked sleeve was disgustingly cold and heavy… he felt so weak he could barely stand… At least the nausea has passed. A shabby, wet cat… deep in trouble… no wonder the malicious old man called him that… “Mr. Cat”… No one now in the yard of the hostel, only a Chinese maintenance crew is having a snack in the pavilion… who can be here at this time? Of course, everyone is at work… He automatically headed for the canteen, but as he approached the door he realised that he can’t go in there… He should do something with his clothes first. Oh, dear, and look at the shoes… They are so wet the soles are almost falling off…
- Hi! How are you?
Sian-Tse was standing in the doorway of the canteen, she was just going out… as he was looking at his soles.
- I missed you somehow. Did you go to the polyclinic? Aleksei Gregorievich… what is it with you? You’re all wet, what happened?!
What is this… why is she… how come… this is absurd, what polyclinic… what is she talking about… what should he do… he must…
- What’s going on?! Can you speak? Come on… Let’s go to your room. What happened? Have you been robbed?!
- No, no! I myself, I… But you were there?
- At the theatre, in the morning… I saw you. Wait! I don’t want to go anywhere… Why all this?! It just makes things worse…
- Worse? I don’t understand… what theatre?! What are you talking about?!
- About the theatre.
- Ok… Good. You were in a theatre? In the morning?
- I spent the night there and you know it very well…
- Yes, you! Or you mean to say that you did not go to Khangkou today?! And you did not go to the theatre?
- My goodness, what theatre? You are so pale, absolutely white… We must call a doctor, I’ll do it… Will you be able to reach your room?
- I’ll make it, I’m ok… Sian-Tse, this is impossible, I’m not mad… you were there today.
- I woke up today at eleven. Until five in the morning I and Khe Lun were working on a flower panel… I woke up – you were already gone… and I don’t understand what are you accusing me of. And why did you go to Khankou … but this doesn’t matter now, you’re sick, we’ll talk about it later…
- But this is impossible… wait, I must… one last question, ok? You were planning to visit the yesterday rehearsal? Because your Siao Yui dragged me to the theatre, promising that you would come right away… and I was waiting for you.
- Yesterday? Of course not… well, I did have some plans to see… I told him that I would drop by in a couple of weeks, when Yung-Tsiao returns. Strange… why did he think that… So you went to the rehearsal and stayed for the night, I see… Let’s go. Don’t stand in the wind, you’ll catch cold… Where did you get so wet?
- On the river… I was in a boat…
- There you are… you know how dangerous it is… Yung-Tsiao’s father also fell out of a boat, however he did not go home, but went on fishing… Now he’s on the brink of death, and he’s still a young man… If Yung-Tsiao will be able to reach him with the medicine in time, everything may be ok… but she may not make it… and you just had pneumonia, how can you do this?
- I think that Yung-Tsiao’s father is all right. I wouldn’t say that she is in mourning…
- Well, how would you know what is happening to her father? And where is the key? Let me open the door…
- I saw her yesterday at the rehearsal.
- You could not have seen her. Yung-Tsiao is out of town…
She began addressing him in a more informal way. Well, they were now inside his room.
- Yung-Tsiao was rehearsing yesterday and then we had some tea… Myself, Siao Yui and his granddaughter…
- But this is impossible, you could not have seen her! She took a steamer on Saturday evening, I gave her a parcel for my aunt and a couple of letters to Chuntsin, from someone else, doesn’t matter… the ship will reach Chuntsin tomorrow afternoon and Luzhou is even farther, you see? It’s Monday today, so… Yung-Tsiao will come back home on Wednesday, and you say that you were having tea with her…
- Then she must have gone off the ship and returned.
- All right. I don’t want to argue with you. So she came back.
- I… I’m mad? That’s what you want to say? I saw her, but you don’t believe me?
- It’s just… I don’t know what to think… May be it’s some practical joke of the old man? He could have done it… though I don’t know for what reason… may be he just likes you… You say that he lured you into the theatre… Can you tell me what really happened? Mind you, the first stop is in Shashi, even if Yung-Tsiao would have disembarked there and took a ship back, she would not have enough time to return, so you could not have seen her yesterday… Unless she jumped overboard… Ok. I’ll bring some tea. We should warm you up…
The door lock clicked gently… A practical joke?! They tricked him?! No, impossible… nonsense… wait! The old man found him a girl from a brothel that looked like his granddaughter, of course! And she… No, doubtless, she became more attractive, but it was really Yung-Tsiao… There could be no mistake, and the voice… And that second woman… supposedly Sian-Tse? Is she also from a brothel? Sian-Tse looked exactly like… impossible… damn it, she will come back right now and will start asking questions… No! He will not tell her a thing, he must find out for himself, he’ll go to Khankou… But if Yung-Tsiao really left on Saturday… what if it was her sister? Nonsense, she doesn’t have any sisters, he knows for sure… so?! In any case it is impossible that such feelings… one can play a joke on a man, deceive him… but not like that… he can still tell the difference between reality and dreams… or not anymore? But he perfectly remembers everything! How he was waiting for her in the hall, sitting in the third row… how he was glancing at the door, what thoughts crossed his mind at that moment… about the etiquette… he remembers everything! Sian-Tse may say what she wants about the old man but he would never be able to pull off such a trick… And then they spoke about women, about his dream… spoke about a dream in another dream?! Whatever… And the body?! The female body?! All the things they were doing together… he is himself amazed… never did he expect… yes! He was not himself… But they gave him some strong drops… he felt himself really like in a dream, but it was his conscience dreaming, that was the trick! He remembers everything else… her smooth body… the colour of her pubic hair, how he touched them with his tongue while she softly laughed… every curve… the taste of rice powder on his lips, her perfume… everything! And that secret of hers, to keep the semen for a long time… he remembered that spot well and managed ok… so what was it?!
No! Dreams are not like that… It is just like saying – over there, beyond that door, it was a dream, but here in the room – it is reality… where’s the border? He met the old man at the market, they took a motorboat… then stopped by at the theatre, the rehearsal already began… his granddaughter was on stage, she greeted him waving her hand… then the old man brought the medicine… Where? When did it begin? And when did it end? Even in the morning when he woke up… he saw mum in a dream! So what followed was also a dream… Yung-Tsiao was lying next to him, then Sian-Tse… Sian-Tse! Oh, my God, she may come back any moment… he must think of something… lock the door? Impossible, she’ll start knocking, how can he lock it…
Vasilkov at last managed to take off the damned jacket and threw it on the floor… So the jacket is not a dream? No, this is nonsense, all of it… Nonsense! He spent the night with this gal, was she made up or not… Yung-Tsiao or not Yung-Tsiao… that’s another thing… he’ll find it out himself… yes, he’ll go to the theatre today, and if the old man just dares to… who gave him the right to treat people this way?
Vasilkov crawled under a blanket, and, facing the wall, covered his head. When Sian-Tse returns she’ll think that he went to sleep… surely she won’t be trying to wake him up… she’ll just leave the tea and go… to have some tea would be great…