Snoopy Goes to Kasimov
I used to torture myself over the question, I was baffled by it: to what could I attribute the incontrovertible fact of my total lack of literary talent? A fluke of nature? Blind chance? Genetic aberration? And this in a family tree, mind you, that’s produced five writers minimum, two of which, in the opinion of their contemporaries, made a sizable contribution to the treasurehouse of Russian belles-lettres. My grandfather, who during his lifetime was honored with two major awards and several prizes for his literary achievements, wrote a dozen or so novels and screenplays, and in his capacity as an outstanding engineer of the human soul was buried with full honors at Novodevichy cemetery. My samizdat father couldn’t get published for a long time; they came to their senses in the early sixties and started publishing him, then they stopped again, but these days, thanks to the enlightened eighties, it suddenly turns out that he was a fairly mediocre writer, and now his labor-camp prose, a cut below Shalamov’s and almost as boring as Solzhenitsyn’s, is safely gathering dust in central and peripheral bookstores alike. And really, how can he hold a candle to Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon? For entertainment value and insider Hollywood knowledge, I mean.
But this story isn’t about my father and grandfather. And not even about my grandfather’s cousin, the people’s poet Ignat Timofeich, who wrote all those marvelous songs during the war, and then marched into Berlin where not long after the Yalta Conference he opened a little cafe on Kurfurstendamme called Chez Ignaz, still going strong. This story is about me. About who I was before the concert and who I became after it.
I grew up as a carefree child of Litfond, my relatives paved the way ahead, and thanks to my grandfather’s connections I had a brilliant career in store; at the beginning of perestroika I found myself in a small college town on the east coast of America, where I was studying economics along with the other fortunate few who had landed a spot on a university exchange program. Perhaps I didn’t yet have a precise macro-goal, but I did have a number of micro-objectives in its stead. For example, not flunking finals, going to the right place on break, doing the right things around Americans to feel like their kind of guy, or at least to let them know that I was their kind of guy but still my own man etc. The majority of the micro-objectives were eminently doable: my classes weren’t difficult; time flew by almost imperceptibly; the fruits of Americanization were there for all to see: pizza, beer, weed, and Saturday morning cartoons were now an integral part of my life in the West. Plus if you add in a rather favorable success rate among my openminded female classmates, who found “that Russian guy’s” attentions rather engaging, then it will be quite clear, I hope, that I wasn’t especially homesick for our three-room digs on Zemlyanoi Val in Moscow. And besides, in practically every letter from my parents they were sounding the alarm about THE THINGS that were going on at home, you’d have to be God knows what kind of idiot to come back RIGHT NOW. Just sit tight there at your college, they wrote, and not a peep out of you. Here I should note that I myself had come to the same conclusion, and had already sent out my applications to a number of prestigious schools in the hope that my grade-point average, letters of recommendation, and personal charm upon being interviewed would produce the desired impression on at least one of the admissions committees in one of the graduate schools in economics or business administration or whatever-and they would have to accept me. Which would mean two or three more years of clear sailing in the US. Who would have thought that fate would throw me head first into an entirely different scenario?
My latest girlfriend invited me to a concert on Saturday, the Grateful Kennedys or something like that. Before the concert, as per usual, we stop in at Häagen-Dazs for some frozen yogurt, I try to pay, she of course refuses (the babes here are awfully independent, not like at home), we get into her old Plymouth, and we have a nice chat along the way: “Do you have yogurt in Russia?” “Yes, we do,” I answer, and at this point she offers me a little scrap of paper the size of a baby’s fingernail, no bigger. On the scrap is a picture of Snoopy in dark glasses. “What’s this?” I ask. “Acid,” she replies. “What kind of acid?” “Acid acid, LSD, are you from outer space or what?” she says, sticks out her tongue, and puts an identical scrap of paper onto it. “And what happens?” I ask. “It’ll be a lot of fun,” she promises, swallows the paper, and adds mysteriously, “on the molecular level.” “OK,” I think, “this’ll be interesting.”
We pull into the stadium where the Talking Kennedys are supposed to be playing, I swallow the Snoopy paper and . . . nothing happens really, except maybe I feel a little warmer. We go into the auditorium, find our seats, granted, they’re a long way from the stage, but Naomi brought binoculars, the crowd is whistling, the musicians are coming onstage one by one, and I also notice that one of them is wearing an outfit the color of meat with veins running through it, and he’s fidgeting a lot, but the crowd is ecstatic, and the musicians are starting to twitch and flip around, but diagonally instead of upside down, and that’s when I had the urge. “Where are you going?” I hear Naomi’s voice somewhere above me, but instead of answering I lay one finger on her lips and walk forward into the darkness, tripping over somebody’s feet, trying to steer by the Exit sign, and then the Toilets, and then the Men, and I think, “God, everything’s all so messed up and confused, all these signs! And each one of them means something! There’s something or someone behind each one! This one for example, what’s it supposed to mean? That some men are waiting for me behind that door, is that it?” And what the hell do I need men for? I’ve gotta piss. In short, I’m standing there in front of the door that says Men, I stand there for an hour or so and don’t know what to do to save my life. Finally, I make up my mind to look in on them (although I have to admit I was really tempted by the Women) and along with me some thirty people squeeze in, and most of them are these mirror guys, especially down there, like in a kaleidoscope, but without so many facets, and here I am looking down the urinal and not believing my eyes. It’s all true, macro divided by micro equals mucro with almost no remainder, I’d known it deep down all along, sixth sense, but just now did the exact calculation, and I-well, I’m Snoopy, they just pulled a switch, doesn’t take them long, you don’t have to be a genetic engineer from Stanford to know that. That is, it was me stuck on the piece of paper in dark glasses and scarf, and me swallowing myself, and these doors of course aren’t really doors but just blinds and where it says Exit you enter and where it says Entrance you exit, thank God I figured that out! And the tile! The tile’s cold! and the Dead Kennedys are pounding out something really dark, really hostile, really anti-establishment, but finding Naomi doesn’t seem very realistic, at least that’s how it looks to me-she has the tickets-and I don’t feel quite right here without her. Good thing I’ve got some money in my pocket, a little wet and mucky but still money, and a couple of credit cards, also damp, and now everything around me turns into dots, dot-to-dot just like Seurat, I’m wagging my tail I’m so happy all of a sudden. And who cares how I got to the airport?
On the plane I kept trying to work it out-which am I, a drawing or a print? If I’m a drawing, then how do I reproduce? Only by means of a pencil, right? But better not think about that right now. So-and this is essential-this means now I can put all my nose, my energy and talent (which is quite extraordinary even for a dog, you must agree) into the war on drug-arms-and-flesh trafficking. But where’s the traffic? It’s here, in my micro-power, my molecular motherland, understand? I even started salivating at the thought, and the guy sitting next to me moved to an empty seat by the Exit sign. My life suddenly seemed to have more color, more outline. A crystallization of the macro-meaning of it all. So what if I’m utterly devoid of literary talent? So what? Now I can be a catcher in the rye! If that’s not a job for a hound, what is?
And I started waiting for my signal from the pilot. But it was no go. Yeah, the FBI’s not too brilliant sometimes. The CIA’s no ace at this either. There’s a lot they just can’t seem to get right. Plus the bureaucracy really is bloated and out of control; taxpayers’ dollars really are being squandered. Good thing it’s private-sector me footing the bill here, cute little caricartoon that I am. And then it struck me like a bolt from the blue: it’s not the pilot-it’s MURZILKA!1
I land in Moscow, take a cab from Sheremetevo (outrageous, these prices, totally out of hand!) to Ryazan station and a train from there to Kasimov. Why Kasimov? Because Kasimov = i + mosKva, that’s why. I mean you don’t have to be a structural linguist from Harvard.
So. I’m sitting by the pissoir on the town square in Kasimov, waiting for agent M to establish contact-no sign so far. M was nowhere to be seen. At this point I was assailed by certain misgivings. Why did I eat myself on that paper, when Naomi’s such a sweet little bitch with such nice chestnut hair and such a nice cold pug nose. No doubt she’s searching for me high and low, whimpering. It’s all like a dream, but I can’t wake up. I wait for Murzilka. I wait one day, I wait two days.
Meanwhile, it’s already October and the mornings are cold, and I can see my breath, and the railings on the wooden bridge on Sverdlov Street are covered with a thin layer of frost, and the old geezers at the beer stand by the market pull their “Barley Ear” bottles out of their bags and wink at each other and joke “Drink Barley Ear and have no fear,” and rub their chilled hands together. In short, winter’s almost here. And then I think, wait just a minute here. This must mean something. It’s a password. That’s it! Any minute now Murzilka, a shadowy figure in scarf and beret, will appear in the distance, look at me with those coal-black eyes of his, sit down beside me on my bench and say, looking off into the distance, “Drink Barley Ear.” And I’ll come right back with the countersign. And he’ll shake my paw, scratch me behind the ear and give me detailed instructions on what I’m supposed to do next. Because otherwise I’ll freeze here on this bench for dead sure, I will. Yeah, I know I’m just a drawing (or a print) but either way, it’s very cold out. And I was drawn (or printed) above zero, but now we’re obviously way way below.
But there he is, there’s Murzilka! Finally-it’s about time! Lord, he’s so tiny! Well I’m no Hound of the Baskervilles either, I guess. What’s that he’s squeaking? Ah right, the password. Come again? Can’t hear a thing. How do you turn him up? “Drink Heineken?” What’s Heineken got to do with it? The password’s “Drink Barley Ear”; the countersign is “and have no fear.” What did they do, switch passwords at the last minute and forget about me? Or adjust for possible Western influence? This is a fine mess! What am I supposed to answer? I mean he could get up and leave. And then my God, I’ll croak here in Kasimov, I mean my money’s running out and I have no idea where their safe houses are. “Drink Heineken,” Murzilka repeats, and shoots me a sidelong glance. I’ve got to come up with an answer! Some answer, any answer, just so long as it rhymes! But what’s a Russian rhyme for Heineken? There isn’t one? What a disaster! Uncle Ignat from Berlin, that’s who I need here, he’d find a rhyme in two shakes. Ich habe kein eineken, zweineken, dreineken. This is ridiculous. I’m starving. And now he’s getting up. He’s going away. He’s turning the corner by the store. No! I can’t just let him go like that! I can’t. If I let him go, then what’s left for me-going “shoppink” and to “parteez,” watching TV and pretending to be an American?
“Hey, pal, wait, where you going? I came all the way from Stony Brook to get here. On the Long Island Expressway. See, friend, I didn’t know they’d switched the password. I didn’t. Nobody warned me about that. What am I supposed to do next, eh? I don’t know how things work here anymore, been away a long time, forgotten a lot . . . I’m up for any assignment you give me. Any and all! Just tell me my mission!? What brought me here? Who brought me here? Say something, Murzilka! Please!”
And at this point he turns around, stares straight at me like those coal-black eyes of his are taking my picture, adjusts his beret and says in a cold-roughened high-pitched little voice:
“Lord, what a dumbshit! What am I supposed to do with you, my American friend? Forgetting the countersign! That takes some doing. No wonder they say that as a nation you’re generally a little dense. Although your Russian’s all right. You could pass for a local. OK, then. Come on boy, heel, headquarters is right around the corner.”
And so Murzilka and I quick-march toward the wooden bridge on Sverdlov, and on the way he gives me detailed instructions about my first assignment, and I feel like Savushkin in Dead Season2 and I nod my head eagerly, show my teeth, wag my tail and hang on his every word.
1Murzilka: a Russian comic strip character.
2Savushkin: a reluctant, amateur agent from the Russian 1960s detective movie The Dead Season.
It all started when my Grandpa Emma, a year after my grandma died, suddenly discovered America. America had of course existed before his particular discovery, but that was a different America. That was America the nation of contrasts, peopled primarily by the unemployed masses and a disenfranchised proletariat exploited by a handful of greedy billionaires who would regularly destroy whole orange crops (and more besides) just to jack up the price of juice (among other things). The billionaires were in bed with the military-industrial complex, which never paused for a second in its runaway arms race, and fast-buck artists and their dream factories, all of whom together not only refused to acknowledge the racial unrest, student demonstrations, and general collapse in morals enveloping the entire nation, but made every possible attempt to keep the rest of America from looking truth in the face and realizing once and for all that the system was rotten to the core, falling apart at the seams, and had only this much time to live, and let somebody give it a good shake and wait for the right wind and, armed with the vanguard of progressive theory, toss a match in the right place and something incredible will happen just you wait. And you won’t put out that fire so easily oh-h-h no.
But when Grandpa Emma returned from his two-month trip to the United States, where he’d been invited by his sister Leah who landed there in the early twenties, it turned out that America was a long ways from collapsing, and that the country was populated not by a disenfranchised proletariat and bloodsucking moneybags but by plumbers, yes, plumbers, who made, can you believe it, more than our professors and also by electricians who made even more than the plumbers, and as far as dentists-well, better you shouldn’t know so you don’t get upset for nothing. And the houses, and the cars, and the conveniences, and the opportunities! That’s democracy-real democracy, not just paper. You want to spit in the president’s face-go ahead, spit to your heart’s content! Want to strike? Be my guest! And the thing is, it’s all so civil: just tell the management when you’re planning the strike for and what exactly you’re unhappy with, get a police permit-and strike away! In stores everyone smiles at you and asks you to come back. In a word, a dream come true. And we’ll have that too someday-sure, when pigs fly, maybe, and crabs whistle.
This discovery stunned our whole family, except for Mama, who was by nature a rather skeptical person. Behind his back Mama dubbed Grandpa Christopher Moiseevich Columbus, and to his face she said that tourists might like even the Sahara Desert if somebody was there to feed and water them and trot them around on a double-humped camel and tell them tall tales and what could some old man who didn’t speak the language understand about America after being there just two months?
“Who needs to speak the language?” parried Grandpa. “As if I didn’t have eyes in my head! I went to visit one dentist there, Leah’s nephew, you should have seen his house, you’d have fainted dead on the spot! A color television in practically every room, and a swimming pool. Heated. You think the Politburo lives like that? And what do camels have to do with anything, I’d like to know?”
“So how often do you go visiting the Politburo?” inquired Mama, letting the camel reference slide.
Grandpa just waved her off, grabbed his pack of Sal’ve cigarettes, and disappeared into the bathroom, from which ten minutes’ worth of muttering then issued; all we caught were a few choice phrases like, “Other people have normal daughters-in-law. Me, I’ve got the very spirit of contradiction instead of a daughter-in-law . . . .”
“What’d you say there, Emmanuil Moiseevich?” Mama shouted from the kitchen. “We can’t hear you from in here.”
Eventually the agitated old man, burned-out cigarette in hand, flew out of the bathroom and started pacing from one end of the kitchen to the other, furiously tripping over kettles and pans. When he calmed down a bit, he sat down at the table:
“Listen to me,” he said to Mama. “If our whole family can sit down and try very hard to scrape together just half a brain’s worth of pure reason- counting on anything more would be too absurd-then we’d realize that we should pick up and go to America, soon. That is my firm conviction. And the sooner, the better. That is, if we can scrape up that little half. That’s all I have to say. And I won’t bring up the subject again.”
“What’s the hurry all of a sudden, Emmanuil Moiseevich,” asked Mama, who considered getting up and going to the grocery store for eggplants a major undertaking.
“I’ll tell you what the hurry is,” Grandpa answered her in the tone that grade-school teachers use with particularly slow students. “In-fla-tion. Do you know what inflation is?”
“A disease, I think?” said Mama, wrinkling her brow. She knew perfectly well what inflation was.
“Almost the same thing,” Grandpa was trying to be patient. “A disease that occasionally strikes basic sectors of the economy. And so the price of everything goes up. And that’s why the later we go, the more expensive things will be. Is that clear, or should I repeat it?”
“But if we don’t go anywhere,” Mama persisted, “then there’s nothing to worry about. Am I right?”
“Mmmm-yes,” Grandpa drummed his fingers on the table. “One thing is clear to me-there’s nobody here I can talk to. Why’m I wasting my time? And how much time have I got left to waste on anybody? What, you think I need so much more than other people? Traipsing off somewhere, looking for adventure? Life here suits you just fine! My photographer son works five months of the year, June to August it’s tourists, September and October it’s weddings, in the winter he hibernates. My daughter-in-law teaches music in a school for the deaf-and-dumb, and she’s in hibernation most of the year. No, you better not go to America, I’ll tell you where you can go . . .”
“Emmanuil Moiseevich, one more word and you and I are at war,” Mama interrupted his tirade.
Mama didn’t particularly like Grandpa’s jokes about her profession; she did teach music, not to the deaf-and-dumb, but to children with speech defects, and she didn’t find anything funny about it at all.
“You-you’re my only hope,” Grandpa appealed to me. I was sitting on a stool in the corner, with a book, finishing off a tea-glass of cold fruit compote.
“Me, what’s this got to do with me?” I tried to look surprised. “I’m fine right where I am.”
“He’s fine! Bonehead! Try and understand one thing.” Grandpa was grasping at me like he was drowning and I was his straw. “Fish look for deep water, people look for smooth sailing. It’s their nature. And if you had just half a brain’s worth of pure reason, which means the three of you together should have one and a half, then you can’t help doing a simple little calculation: their plumber makes more than our professor, right? Their electrician makes more than their plumber, are you following my train of thought here? So how much do you figure their professor over there would make? Roughly speaking?”
“No less than a plumber here, anyway,” I answered.
“Exactly . . . bonehead!” Grandpa was mad.
Within a few minutes, though, he was already cooling off (he wasn’t one to bear grudges), and called me over to the desk in the living room, where he got out a miniature Statue of Liberty and proffered it to me with the words:
“A gift from the people of France to America.”
“Gee, thanks, Granddad,” I said, “but I’ve already got four of them. Maybe five. You gave me two for my birthday, one for New Year’s . . .”
“Well, so?” The old man objected. “You know where you shouldn’t look a gift horse?” And then he added out of the blue: “And I’m not even going to say how much their dentists make. Why upset yourself for nothing?”
“Well, how much do their not-dentists make?” I started in after my granddad. “And how about their not-plumbers? And basically, Granddad, just how thorough was your poll of the U.S. population by professional group?”
“Just like your mother!” fumed Grandpa. “You don’t want to go to America, fine, stay here. It’s your business.”
“I’m not saying I don’t want to go.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that things aren’t that bad for me here. In the land of the Soviets.”
“What’s so good about it?”
“But what’s so bad?”
“You’re fine right now, but just you wait, pretty soon there’ll be college, and we’ll just see what tune you sing then. How’ll you get in with no connections, given any thought to that?”
“Well, Granddad, think for yourself-how might I get in with no connections, you being so friendly with half the rector’s office and all?”
“My point exactly! But in America you don’t need connections. Everybody’s equal and everybody has a chance.”
“A chance for what?”
“For everything. For anything at all.”
“But only one, right?”
“Only one chance, and then, pffft, you miss it. What then? You dive headfirst off a skyscraper?”
“No. You try again.”
“But you already missed your chance.”
“Well, what about here?”
“Here we’ve got zero chance. For anything. Zip. Zilch. But there’s nothing to get upset about either. Nothing to lose.”
“So stay then. Chucklehead. I’m not dragging you kicking and screaming anywhere.”
“Granddad, look, I’m not against the States.”
“Then why all the lip?”
“But I’m not exactly for them either.”
“Well nothing. I don’t care.”
“Don’t care about what?”
“Don’t care where I live.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Grandpa flushed crimson with indignation. “That a young man should be so pigheaded.”
“I’m not being pigheaded, I’m saying it’s all the same to me.”
“Well, not to me!” Grandpa was on a tear.
Actually, in that conversation with Grandpa I didn’t really state my position as clearly as I might have: it wasn’t so much a matter of being indifferent to where I lived, but that I wasn’t sure whether I was indifferent to where I lived or not. Or rather, I didn’t want to have to make a choice. For me making a choice is the worst thing in the world. It’s a very painful process. I’m always afraid that if I choose something, what I didn’t choose will suddenly turn out to be better. Suddenly what might have happened will turn out to be more interesting than what did happen. I mean only time will tell which is better. And sometimes it won’t even do that. For me making a choice is like death-or worse. And I try to avoid it.
“And I do care where you’re going to live!” crimson-faced Grandpa Emma was yelling. “And if you don’t, young man, I’ll show you a state or two! Because it’s not all the same to me!”
From time to time Mama would interrupt the bullfight with remarks like: “He has a father, you know, let him be the one to decide” or “That’s enough political agitation for now!” or “Shh-the neighbors will hear. You’ll get us all in trouble, you and your America,” but Grandpa didn’t pay any attention to her. The next day, in spite of Grandpa’s promises to drop all the talk about leaving, the topic came up again, this time in the presence of my father, whose position on the matter showed a certain oscillation from the very start. Mama, as formerly, was hostile to all of Grandpa’s proposals; I decided to keep my mouth shut so as not to set the old man off.
But after two or three weeks of nightly discussions, even the uninitiated observer (Grandpa’s second wife) was able to discern that Grandpa’s press was having its effect on Mama. In the first place, now Mama wasn’t objecting to Grandpa’s every word, but merely to every other word, which wasn’t characteristic of her at all, and in the second place, she was starting to show some interest in the purely technical details of heating swimming pools-for example, how you controlled the temperature in cold weather, and to what degree the water temperature depended on the sum total weight of the swimmers in it at any one time, and so on, and who knows, maybe she just wanted to change the topic of conversation to something else. As far as Papa was concerned, the amplitude of his oscillations from one side of the argument to another kept increasing, and if at first he seemed to be entirely on Grandpa’s side, then soon enough Mama seemed to have lured him over to hers, but then for about five days or so Papa managed to maintain a neutral stance, after which he went down under Grandpa’s ideological onslaught and surreptitiously fled to Grandpa’s camp, where he remained right up until the family council.
At the family council, which for conspiratorial reasons was held while shouts of “Goal! Goal! Goal!” issued from the depths of our “Ruby” television, we voted by simple majority (Grandpa and Papa: For; Mama and I: Abstained; Grandpa’s second wife: Against, because she always got airsick) to go to America, and at winter’s end we filed documents requesting an exit visa. During the vote Papa did make one meek attempt at sabotage (it’s just possible that the night before the vote Mama had worked on him some more), but when he posed his provocative question, “And just what am I supposed to do over there in America?” and Grandpa answered him with another “And what exactly do you do here?” and he couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer, the outcome of the vote was a foregone conclusion.