Sergei Sokolovsky, Ainsley Morse

Expressions of Grief on Social Networks


ISSUE 95 | SYMPTOMS | JUL 2020



Translator’s Introduction

I first met Sokolovsky when our mutual friend Dina Gatina suggested him as a potential partner in a marriage of convenience, toward the acquisition of the Russian equivalent of a green card. Sergei contends that on the evening of our first acquaintance he drank himself into a state of flagrant beastliness, although I had already spent enough time with the Russian literary community by then that I don’t remember anything remarkable about his conduct. (I suppose I was probably none too sober myself—the only excess I remember on Sergei Germanych’s part was a profusion of blown kisses as he backed into a late-night metro car.) In any case, the next day he called and insisted that we meet—when we did, he entrusted to me a beautiful, leather-bound mid-nineteenth-century edition of poems by the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, assuring me that this genuinely precious gift was an absolutely necessary though still inadequate gesture given what I’d suffered through the night before. The book, as he told me then or maybe later, was one of many bibliographic rarities collected by his uncle in the 1990s, when people were selling off their libraries to make ends meet. This enterprising uncle would regularly check the dumpsters located near used bookstores, since people tended to just abandon in despair whatever the bookstores didn’t want to buy from them.

Sokolovsky stands alone in the chaotic, generationally and stylistically divided landscape of contemporary Russian literature. Though there are a few other interesting authors of experimental, short and micro-prose, I can’t think of anyone else who so effectively combines finely honed, nearly crystalline brevity and understatement with disruptive flashes of demented humor. His stories are hard to translate: there is copious punning and other kinds of wordplay that bring the prose very close to poetry; also, nearly all the pieces are shot through with cultural references, often extremely subtle. On the other hand, I’ve found translating Sergei to involve more collaborative creation than most translation I’ve done (even of other contemporary authors). Here are a few of his responses from our email exchanges around the piece you’re about to read:

“We don’t need footnotes. There’s rather too much culture of various kinds here anyway, in my opinion. Some of the denotations can be freely sacrificed. [Viktor] Tsoi, Pushkin, that whole crowd of dead Russian authors only weighs down the reader’s experience.”

“Pilot Powers, yeah, I had in mind Francis Gary Powers, and [my buddy Elephant] sincerely did think of himself as his son from time to time. Did you put Gray instead of Gary on purpose? [No, it was a typo—AM.] Grey [Seryi] as an affectionate nickname for Sergei? This really may be the best possible option within the overall logic of the piece.”

Dozhd’ Vonetskii [The Rain of Vonetsk, a pun on the Leader of Donetsk—AM]—OK, let it be Dead Honcho of Honetsk, but I’m not sure that he’s actually dead. It makes a nice rhyme, on the other hand. On the fifth hand, I haven’t seen him since 1991.”

“Should we say ‘the whole construction’? The whole cycle? This selection, compilation, that we’re working on here? What do you call it? It’s not a book, after all. Material? Just don’t call it a text. We’re not Prigov.”

—Ainsley Morse






SUPPERTIME IN THE HADASSA HOSPITAL

That last cigarette, in all likelihood, was a bit much. He’d smoked half a pack, making his way slowly from the Via Dolorosa to the bus stop on King George, and he sensed that his heart was leading him astray. It had been a bad idea to leave his room, a bad idea to have come here in the first place, to award himself senseless fragments of a stranger’s memory, pain, a stranger’s hopes and disappointments. At the very least it had been a bad idea to trail half the way here behind a person whose silhouette had seemed familiar. He could have found another way to entertain himself.

Or not: the overwhelming melancholy of the inveterate northerner is just too ridiculous, if viewed from the outside. And he could already see himself from the outside, slowly settling down somewhere between the roadway and the vertical surface of the walls, drawing attention to himself, smiling a smile that was really too disagreeable, mechanically going through the change in his pocket in order to pay for the bus ticket. And he somehow settled up, and even took out his phone to check the time, and dropped it on the sidewalk all the same, and caught a whiff of the stalwart aroma of catastrophe. And he spoke to the heart of Jerusalem, and the heart of Jerusalem answered him.


FIFTIES FOREVER

Under the big top, with the attendant tricks. Those that unveil goodness.

Not old at all by today’s standards. What is it about life expectancy over the past two hundred years? If you don’t count wars? But no need to discuss the dark spots. The dark spots in one’s biography. Better not to talk about that. Who among us hasn’t been somewhere, seen somеthing, even done something, though the more decisive tend more often to get mown down? Or vice versa, it’s the less decisive who get mown down more often? I can’t get my head around it. Now I’m thinking it’s the less decisive. It’s possible that one’s mentality has absolutely nothing to do with it.


HEADACHE MEDICINE

An attempt to smuggle the head of the Gorgon Medusa abroad in the trunk of a private vehicle. Was it a successful attempt? Well, how to put it.

If you call literally petrified border guards and customs officials scattered all over the place a success, then yes, it was successful. If you are however attempting to assess the profitability of the operation itself—I would decline to offer an opinion.

As they say, I didn’t see it with my own eyes.


IN DISHEVELED FEELINGS

That night—the one that left you no possibility of surviving—I was on duty in the winter garden. I was guarding a selection of different objects.

“Traces of that are still evident!”

Ustanovka is a repulsive Russian word in its own right, a far cry from ‘woodstove’ or the nets that dragged the dead man in, daddy. We were tender with each other, and this fact rests on millennia of hatred.”

“It doesn’t rest on millennia of hatred. In fact nothing rests on anything, they redid the space here ages ago in modern style: so that nothing could rest on anything.”

A selection of different objects. A first-aid kit, a make-up bag, or a pencil-case.


PROOFS OF MY ENTIRE LIFE

Experiencing pleasure while laying out the second issue of Sixth Column. Experiencing pleasure while laying out the fifth issue of Sixth Column.

Experiencing a sensation of horror. Getting rid of the sensation of horror. Easy for you to say! Sooner or later the only interlocutor left to you will be the autocorrect. “Hrorr,” “horrur,” whatever floats your boat. Dead honcho of Honetsk, where are you now? Where are your unforgettable flowers?

Experiencing new technology the hard way. Talking about it slowly, with pauses, so that no one has any doubt as to the severity of the deprivations endured. Talking about it the way people talk about victims of wartime. Taken all together, the enemies of mankind have seemingly as one learned how to talk about victims and victimhood. Resembling one another like so many dead ringers. Like portraits of the head honcho. Like flowers.

“Say, is similarity just another kind of test?”

“Is it difficult to endure people who are similar to such a degree? Or easy? Is it easy to endure them?

A test of pattern, if we’ve decided to take things to the hilt.


CENTRAL POST OFFICE

Russian avant-garde icons, style icons.

“On the wings of your memory?”

“No, down our memory lane.”

Turning down Streetlight Lane in front of the Directorate of Internal Affairs building, though now I am no longer completely sure that this is the Directorate of Internal Affairs building, it could be that it is some alternative enforcement agency. For the whole time we have been here, no activity whatsoever has been observed on the electronic display monitor.

The central post office is not meant for this at all. This doesn’t even have to do with the fact that a whole series of letters will have to be sent back; the point is that every single one of them—think about that, every single one!—will sooner or later have to go back.

Six or seven nighttime—as their strength fails—shop-signs: the rare case when excess snow does not exclude a certain playfulness on the part of the rules, on the part of justice.

“On the part of Themis?”

“Yes, the way she appears on the Russian Federation Supreme Court building: without the blindfold and bearing a shield instead of scales. The Russian postal service in this respect, is significantly more modest.”

On the wings of someone else’s memory, that’s what you need to know! Someone completely unknown, having utterly no personal relationship to anyone, to the same extent that the blue sky fails to harmonize with the electronic display that has unexpectedly flickered on.


THE PRACTICE OF EXTRAJUDICIAL EXECUTION

Fireside musings of a Saturday evening: nuclear reactor or the human factor. The mournful window-displays of the nineteen-eighties. A level-eighty drama queen. “Old hippies to the nineties degree,” as Sergei Aleksandrovich used to put it; he whose spiderweb tattoo once gave a book its title. Spider on a White Wall, that’s the title it gave, you’ll have to forgive me for talking about this live and on the air.

“Feast your eyes: this man thinks he’s in charge of his life.”

“Eat it up: this man thinks he’s in charge of his life in the broadest possible sense.”

“Have a laugh: he’s standing here before you awaiting trial by his peers—and what lies ahead is instantaneous merciless execution.”


FEVER MOUNTS AT KIRYAT-SHMUEL

Many things will fall into the abyss. Both vain expectations and false promises. And the note penned in attractive feminine handwriting on a matchbox from an Italian restaurant: “Whenever you’re blue—call Andrew for a screw.” And before the Templar towers, naturally.

One could opt not to talk about this in the twenty-first century. I have had to work with manuscripts before, and now they have a slightly strange scent. Considering the current goings-on, I think that the Hamelin-style deratting has gone completely and decisively down the tubes. Only not “considering the current goings-on,” no, absolutely not; something utterly different, “to all appearances,” for instance.

To all appearances, down the tubes.

There could be a continuation here, but for that one would have to have a different soul. With different interiors, with different indoor lighting.


ESSENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN

At all the poles, north, south and otherwise. On other shores—speak, memory. Chicks that have broken free. Not yet throttled and fried. Alive. Speeding away from you in all directions, as far from you as possible.

“From us.”

“At full throttle, like bats out of hell.”


DEFETISHIZING THE LIVER

Internal organs—now that’s a legacy of Stalinism, of course. And I’d be glad not to talk about them, but the chains won’t allow it.

The connection between this or that dietary guidance and national culinary tradition has always seemed to me if not obvious, then fairly easy to work out. As they say, to make your salsa really tasty, add a little fluoxetine. Load up the antihistamines in barrels! Have a nice day! Successful volcanic activity to you!

Modern man, according to many specialists, can easily get by without quite a few of his internal organs. But life is much more interesting with them, and with this point I likewise brook no argument.

It would be foolish to argue: to take one example, the liver is at times extraordinarily fun, even without a tendency to self-haruspication. And the other guts can outdo various comedy shows in wittiness—especially when it comes to plot. And to bear something like that within oneself, regardless of the profundity of one’s godforsakenness, is a great honor.

Parsons’ Chains: the answer to any questions!—this is what I was informed by a British advertisement from the 1960s, pasted to a bathroom-stall door a quarter of a century ago. Above it preened a question snipped out of a Jehovah’s Witnesses brochure: will this world survive? And one more question: why? Good question.


THE OWNER OF SEVERAL COPIES

Here, in this forest, if it is indeed a forest, I copy all sorts of different things. Photographic prints, software. I don’t know why this might come in handy, but, if nothing else, at least I’ve made a start.

I recall the localities in which I happen to have been. These include both thickly settled cities and hamlets of just two or three houses. I don’t know how this might be connected to the process of copying; I rather suspect, not at all.

One photograph called particular attention to itself. I decided to make a copy, but then changed my mind. I decided to just keep it for myself. Like as a souvenir. I rarely keep anything in this capacity, but in this case I yielded to temptation. You could even say I committed a sin. Actually, there’s absolutely no other way to say it—I committed a sin, keeping that photograph for myself as a souvenir.

Now I am experiencing unbearable agony. It would seem that nature herself has decided to drag the last veins right out of me. I don’t know what veins mean in this case. And to tell the truth, I don’t want to know. What’s more, I am sure that I will never find out. I will never find out precisely because I just don’t want to know.


ON THE EVE OF THE SIXTH YEAR OF THE WAR

I can be forgiven: technically speaking it’s the exact same process. I am forty-six and in urgent need of antibiotics. Otherwise I may not live to see forty-seven. Wounds of the soul—as if you have a soul!—are akin to wounds of the flesh in more than just a metaphorical sense. They heal over slowly, painfully, with a great deal of pus. Yes, this is why antibiotics are needed.

In the third decade of the previous century one could take the liberty of saying that society was in need of antibiotics. We have no such luxury: we have lost the right to compare the collective body to the human organism—just as Esau once lost his birthright.

Thus, dear Sergei Aleksandrovich, we will now discuss recipes for lentil pottage. Only we will not discuss this.

Because there’s a war on. A long undeclared war, with no end in sight. “Between the earth and the sky—there’s war,” as Viktor Tsoi once sang. And in answer I hear a voice from the heavens:

“Earth! Earth, do you read me?”

“Roger, Earth here!”

So we’ve had our little chat, dear Sergei. I’ll go weep on your grave. The son of Francis Grey Powers—look what famous friends I have! Buried not in earth. In the sky. In the sky above Mariupol, city of your birth. Corner of Bakhchivandzhi, something like that. You died in Zvenigorod, in a clinic on Mayakovsky St., or maybe it was some other street—the last soldier of the Army of the Lord, Of Which It Is Written On Dollars.

You used to say that money is love. You’d talk about the kopecks that mamas give their sons for ice cream. That that money is love. You called Interferon ‘human liniment.’ That’s almost like money— human liniment.


THE NIGHT

The production of informational sequester machines—now that’s our first order of business! The night that Petr Pavlensky set the Reichstag doors on fire, it became clear that the church schism was happening on the basis of sex. West and East, East and West. I was told this in Moscow. The next day this notebook was purchased. I had planned to call the whole cycle Tongue-tied Mansplaining, but now I realize that I won’t even use that title for a single story. We saw the night, we wandered all night til the morn.

The mechanism of self-control is equal to the mechanism of reality control. What nonsense! Any coherent narrative destroys the natural course of things and glorifies meaning that was never here in any way, shape or form. We ourselves are required to help in only a minimal way.

No, it’s not equal! No, it doesn’t destroy! No, we’re not required! Night! Night! Informational sequester machines—for every day! Accessible to everyone, and most importantly—accessible to you personally. In all of their primeval horror. Like in childhood! Like in childhood!


IN LOVING MEMORY OF THE JUMP KIT

A chemical pencil; I already carry one with me; I don’t know whether I have to explain what chemical pencils are.

“At least don’t give us the Kolyma tram.”

“I yam what I yam.”

I already had one story about chemical pencils.

Let’s continue; a notebook; any notebook. And also footwear.


THE MARRIAGE OF GRUFFALO

Poetry is the last refuge of the scoundrel, as is commonly held in the local jungles. This circumstance always brings about a bungle.

There is always a bungle behind the striving for multiplicity as well. The bungle is meaningless to a true soldier. The Gruffalo and all.

Most likely he just ran off while I was unconscious, but I would like to think that his personal life worked itself out. Yes, in reality I know that I’m just fooling myself. After all, he wanted to destroy all of humanity, right?

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