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The other passengers in soft class were either suspicious, drunk, or
unpleasant: a Goldi (Goldis are Siberian aborigines, related to Eskimos) and
his White Russian wife and small leathery child rode in a nest of boots and
blankets; there were two aggrieved Canadians who ranted to two Australian
librarians about the insolence of the provodnik (porter); an elderly Russian lady who did the whole trip wearing the same frilly nightgown; a Georgian who looked as if he had problems at the other end; and several alcoholics who
played noisy games of dominoes in their pajamas. Conversation was hopeless,
sleep was alarming, and the perversity of the clocks confounded my appetite.
That first day I wrote in my diary, "Despair makes me hungry."
The dining car was packed. Everyone had vegetable soup, then an omelette wrapped around a Wiener schnitzel, served by two waitresses -- a very fat lady who bossed the diners incessantly, and a pretty black-haired girl who doubled as scullion and looked as if she might jump off the train at the next clear opportunity. I ate my lunch, and the three Russians at my table tried to bum cigarettes from me. As I had none, we attempted a conversation: they were going to Omsk, I was an American. Then they left. I cursed myself for not having bought a Russian phrase book.
I stayed in the dining car, sipping the sticky wine, watching the scenery change from flat snowfields to hills. The drooping sun gilded them beautifully, and I expected to see people in the shallow woods. I stared for an hour, but saw none. Nor could I establish where we were, and it was only in the evening that I learned we had passed through Poshkovo, on the Chinese border.
The fat waitress' name was Anna Feyodorovna, and though she screamed at her fellow countrymen, she was pleasant to me, and urged me to call her Annushka. I did, and she rewarded me with a special dish, cold potatoes and chicken -- dark sinewy meat that was like some dense textile. Annushka watched me eat. She winked over her glass of tea (she dipped bread into the tea and sucked it) and then cursed a cripple who sat down at my table. Eventually she banged a steel plate of potatoes and fatty meat in front of him.
The cripple ate slowly, lengthening the awful meal by sawing carefully at his meat. A waiter went by and there was a smash. The waiter had dropped an empty carafe onto our table, shattering the cripple's glass. The cripple went on eating with exquisite sangfroid, refusing to acknowledge the waiter who was muttering apologies as he picked up pieces of broken glass from the table. Then the waiter plucked an enormous sliver of glass from the cripple's mashed potatoes. The cripple choked and pushed the plate away. The waiter got him a new meal.
"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" asked the cripple.
"Yes, but very badly."
"I speak a little," he said in German. "I learned it in Berlin. Where are you from?"
I told him. He said, "What do you think of the food here?"
"Not bad, but not very good."
"I think it's very bad," he said. "What's the food like in America?"
"Wonderful," I said.
He said, "Capitalist! You are a capitalist!"
"Capitalism bad, communism good."
"Bullshit," I said in English, then in German, "You think so?"
"In America people kill each other with pistols. Pah! Pah! Pah! Like that."
"I don't have a pistol."
"What about the Negroes? The black people?"
"What about them?"
"You kill them."
"Who tells you these things?"
"Newspapers. I read it for myself. Also it's on the radio all the time."
"Soviet radio," I said.
"Soviet radio is good radio," he said.
The radio in the dining car was playing jazzy organ music. It was on all day, and even in the compartments -- each one had a loudspeaker -- it continued to mutter because it could not be turned off completely. I jerked my thumb at the loudspeaker and said, "Soviet radio is too loud."
He guffawed. Then he said, "I'm an invalid. Look here -- no foot, just a leg. No foot, no foot!"
He raised his felt boot and squashed the toe with the ferrule of his cane. He said, "I was in Kiev during the war, fighting the Germans. They were shooting, Pah! Pah! -- like that. I jumped into the water and started swimming. It was winter -- cold water -- very cold water! They shot my foot off, but I didn't stop swimming. Then another time my captain said to me, 'Look, more Germans,' and in the snow, very deep snow ..."
That night I slept poorly on my bench-sized bunk, dreaming of goose-stepping Germans with pitchforks, wearing helmets like the Rossiya's soup bowls; they forced me into an icy river. I woke. My feet lay exposed in the cold draft from the window; the blanket had slipped off, and the blue night-light of the compartment made me think of an operating theater. I took an aspirin and slept until it was light enough in the corridor to find the toilet. That day, around noon, we stopped at Skovorodino. The provodnik, my jailer, showed a young bearded man into my compartment. This was Vladimir. He was going to Irkutsk, which was two days away. For the rest of the afternoon Vladimir said no more. He read Russian paperbacks with patriotic pictures on their covers, and I looked out the window. Once I had thought of a train window as allowing me freedom to gape at the world; now it seemed an imprisoning thing, and at times took on the opacity of a cell wall.
At one bend outside Skovorodino I saw we were being pulled by a giant steam locomotive. I diverted myself by trying (although Vladimir sucked his teeth in disapproval) to snap a picture of it as it rounded curves, shooting plumes of smoke out its side. The smoke rolled beside the train and rose slowly through the forests of birch and the Siberian cedars, where there were footprints on the ground and signs of dead fires, but not a soul to be seen. The countryside then was so changeless it might have been a picture pasted against the window. It put me to sleep. I dreamed of a particular cellar in high school, then woke and saw Siberia and almost cried. Vladimir had stopped reading. He sat against the wall sketching on a pad with colored pencils, a picture of telephone poles. I crept into the corridor. One of the Canadians had his face turned to the miles of snow.
He said, "Thank God we're getting off this pretty soon. How far are you going?"
"Moscow, then the train to London."
He said, "I don't know what day it is. It's going to be Christmas soon. Hey, did you see that house burning back there?"
"No." The previous day he had said, "Did you see the truck that was crossing the river and crashed through the ice? Well, the back wheels anyway." I wondered if he made it up. He was perpetually seeing disasters and events. I looked out the window and saw my anxious reflection.
I went back into the compartment.
Vladimir had stopped sketching. He looked up and said, "Chai?"
I understood. The Swahili word for tea is also chai. He hollered for the provodnik. Over tea and cookies I had my first Russian lesson, copying the words down phonetically on a notebook page: a dreary occupation, but it passed the time and was preferable to dozing into nightmares.
The dining car that night was empty and very cold. There was frost on the windows, and such a chill in the air that the breath of the arguing employees was visible in steamy clouds. Vassily Prokofyevich, the manager, was doing his accounts, snapping his abacus. I had been in the dining car often enough to know that by late afternoon Vassily, a short, scar-faced man, was drunk. He jumped up and showed me his breath -- vodka-scented steam -- then dragged out a case of beer and demonstrated how the beer had frozen inside the bottles. He rubbed one in his hands to thaw it for me and barked at Nina, the black-haired girl. Nina brought me a plate of smoked salmon and some sliced bread. Vassily pointed to the salmon and said, "Kita!"
I said, "Eto karasho kita."
Vassily was pleased. He told Nina to get me some more.
I tapped on the frosty window and said, "Eto okhnor."
"Da, da." Vassily poured himself some more vodka. He guzzled it. He gave me an inch in a tumbler. I drank it and saw that Annushka was at her usual place, dipping bread into black tea and sucking the bread slice.
I motioned at her tea and said, "Eto zhudki chai."
"Da, da." Vassily laughed and refilled my glass. Nina came near with the plate of salmon. "Eto Nina," said Vassily, "and these" -- he seized the pretty girl -- "are Nina's tits."
The mornings now were darker, another trick of time on the railroad that seemed to be speeding me further into paranoia. After eight hours' sleep I woke up in pitch blackness. In the dim light of the December moon, a silver sickle, the landscape was bare -- no trees, no snow. After hours of this desolation we came to Chita, a satanic city of belching chimneys and great heaps of smoking ashes dumped beside the tracks. Outside Chita there was a frozen lake on which ice fishermen crouched like the fat black crows with fluffed-out feathers that roosted in the larches at the verge of the lake.
I said, "Vorona."
"Nyet," said Vladimir, and he explained that they were fishermen.
"Vorona." I insisted on the crow image until he saw what I was driving at. But it didn't take much insisting, for the sentimental fanaticism I had detected in the Russians I had met was a flight from their literal-mindedness. Vladimir was in the habit of reciting -- reciting rather than saying -- long sentences, and then muttering, "Pushkin" or "Mayakovsky." This compulsive behavior is taken for granted in the Soviet Union, but I think if I were on the Boston & Maine and a man began to quote, "This is the forest primeval," I'd change my seat. Vladimir returned to his sketching. I persuaded him to show me his sketchpad and, amazingly, it was filled with page after page of telephone poles, pylons, high-tension wires, pictures of girders with wires webbed to them, and skeletal-seeming apparatus. This was his hobby, sketching vertical monstrosities, though he might easily have been a spy. He showed me how to draw a telephone pole. I feigned an interest in this unappealing thing, and he called to the provodnik for wine. Two bottles of Hungarian wine came -- the provodnik wouldn't go until he got a glassful -- and Vladimir drew a black cabin in a black and brown landscape, a low orangey-red sun, and a sky full of spiders. This he labeled "Siberia." Then he drew a picture of several spires, some large buildings, a blue sky, a sunny day.
"Nyet," he said. "London." He wrote "London" on the picture. He did another picture of London, a harbor scene, a schooner, ships at anchor, a sunny day. He did one of New York -- tall buildings, a sunny day. But they were fantasy pictures: Vladimir had never been out of the Soviet Union.
Because he had insisted on paying for the wine, I broke out my box of cigars. Vladimir smoked five of them, puffing them like cigarettes, and the wine and the cigars and the knowledge that we were now traveling along the shores of Lake Baikal returned Vladimir to his own language. He strode up and down the compartment, waving away the smoke, telling me what a deep ozero Baikal was, and finally slipped his hand inside his coat and, blowing a great cloud of smoke, said in the halting, momentous voice Russians reserve for quotations, but coughing as he did so:
"I dym otechestva nam sladok i pryaten!" and raised his eyes.
I said, "Eh?"
"Pooshkin," he said. "Evgen Onegin!"
(Months later, in London, I recited my phonetic transcription of this verse to a Russian-speaker who assured me that it was indeed Pushkin and that it could be rendered in English: "Even the smoke of our motherland is sweet and pleasant to us.")
In the dark corridor early the next morning the Australian librarians and the Canadian couple sat on their suitcases. Irkutsk was two hours away, but they said that they were afraid of oversleeping and missing the place. I thought then, and I think now, that missing Irkutsk cannot be everyone's idea of a tragedy. It was still dark as Irkutsk's flaming chimneys appeared above a plain of shuttered bungalows with tar-paper roofs. It is not the steel fences, nor even the tall cellblocks where the workers live, that give these Russian cities the look of concentration camps; it is the harsh light -- searchlights and glaring lamps fixed to poles -- that does it, diminishing the mittened figures and making them look like prisoners in an exercise yard. Vladimir shook my hand and said a sentimental farewell. I was moved, and thought charitably about the poor fellow, stuck in Irkutsk for life, until I went back to the compartment and discovered that he had stolen my box of cigars.
We were truly in Siberia. Until now we had been traveling in the Soviet Far East, two thousand miles of all but nameless territory on the borders of China and Mongolia. From here on the Siberian forest, the taiga, thickened, blurring the distant hills with smudges of trees and hiding the settlements that had swallowed so many banished Russians. In places this dense forest disappeared for twenty miles; then there was tundra, a plain of flawless snow on which rows of light poles trailed into the distance, getting smaller and smaller, like those diagrammatic pictures that illustrate perspective, the last light pole a dot. The hugeness of Russia overwhelmed me. I had been traveling for five days over these landscapes, and still more than half the country remained to be crossed. I scanned the window for some new detail that would intimate we were getting closer to Moscow, but the differences from day to day were slight. The snow was endless, the stops were brief, and the sun which shone so brightly on the taiga was always eclipsed by the towns we passed through: an impenetrable cloud of smoky fog hung over every town, shutting out the sun. The small villages were different; they lay in-sunlight, precariously, between the taiga and the tracks, their silence so great it was nearly visible.
I was now the only Westerner on the train. I felt like the last Mohican. I bribed Vassily for a bottle of vodka (he said they'd run out, but for two rubles he discovered some) and spent an entire day emptying it.
I saw in my solitary activity something of the Russians' sense of desolation. In fact they did nothing but drink. They drank all the time and they drank everything: cognac that tasted like hair tonic, sour watery beer, red wine that was indistinguishable from medicine, the nine-dollar bottles of champagne, and the smooth vodka. Every day it was something new: first the vodka ran out, then the beer, then the cognac, and after Irkutsk one saw loutish men who had pooled their money for champagne, passing the bottle like bums in a doorway. Between drinking they slept, and I grew to recognize the confirmed alcoholics from the way they were dressed: they wore fur hats and fur leggings because their circulation was so poor; their hands and lips were always blue. Most of the arguments and all the fights I saw were the result of drunkenness. There was generally a fist-fight in hard class after lunch, and Vassily provoked quarrels at every meal. If the man he quarreled with happened to be sober, the man would call for the complaints book and scribble angrily in it.
"Tovarich!" the customer would shout, requesting the complaints book. I heard the word used only in sarcasm.
Another day, another night, a thousand miles; the snow deepened, and we were at Novosibirsk. Foreigners generally get off at Novosibirsk for an overnight stop, but I stayed on the train. I would not be home for Christmas as I had hoped -- it was now the twenty-third of December and we were more than two days from Moscow -- but if I made good connections I might be home before New Year's. I decided that what I needed was a routine. I would start shaving regularly, taking fruit salts in the morning, and doing push-ups before breakfast; no naps; I would begin a short story, writing in the afternoon and not taking a drink until seven, or six at the earliest, or five if the light was too poor to write by. My mind needed tidying. I decided to start my short story immediately.
As we left the station, the door of my compartment flew open with a bang, and a man entered carrying a cloth bundle and several paper parcels. He smiled. He was about fifty, with large red hands, baldness revealing irregular contours on his head. He had the rodent's eyes of someone very nearsighted. He threw the cloth bundle on his berth and placed a loaf of brown bread and a quart jar of maroon jam on my manuscript.
I put my pen down and left the compartment. When I returned he had changed into a blue track suit (a little hero's medal pinned to his chest) and, as he stared through the eye-enlarging lenses of glasses askew on his nose, he slapped jam on a slice of bread with a jackknife. He munched his jam sandwich and, between bites, belched. He finished his sandwich, undid a newspaper parcel, and took out a chunk of gray meat. He cut a plug from it, put it in his mouth, wrapped the meat and took off his glasses. He sniffed at the table, picked up my yellow sleeve of pipe cleaners, put on his glasses, and studied the writing. Then he looked at his watch and sighed. He monkeyed with my pipe, my matches, tobacco, pen, radio, timetable, books, checking his watch between each item and sniffing, as if his nose would reveal what his eyes could not.
This went on for the rest of the day, defeating what plans I had for establishing a routine and eliminating any possibility of my writing a story. His prying motions made me hate him almost immediately, and I imagined him thinking, as he tapped his watch crystal between sniffs of my belongings, "Well, there's thirty seconds gone." He had a little book of Russian railway maps. At each station he put on his glasses and found the place on the map. There were about fifteen stations on each map, so he dirtied the pages in sequence with his thumbs before the train moved to a new page, and I grew to recognize from the jam smears and thumbprints on his maps how far the Rossiya had gone. He read nothing else for the rest of the trip. He didn't speak, he didn't sleep. How did he pass the time? Well, he yawned; he could sustain a yawn for five seconds, sampling it with his tongue, working it around his jaws and finally biting it with a loud growl. He sighed, he groaned, he sucked his teeth, he grunted, and he made each into a separate activity which he timed, always looking at his watch when he had completed a yawn or a sigh. He also coughed and choked in the same deliberate way, studying his eructations, belching with disgusting thoroughness as he exhausted himself of wind in three keys. In between times he looked out the window or stared at me, smiling when our eyes met. His teeth were stainless steel.
I spent more and more time in the dining car. When the drunken soldiers had been turned out, and the others, either very gaunt or very fat, lifted their faces from their metal bowls and left, scuffing their boots, the dining-car doors were locked and the kitchen employees cleaned the place up. They allowed me to stay, because under the terms of our agreement Vassily continued to supply me with bottles of Hungarian white wine as long as I bribed him for it and shared it with him. Vassily turned the accounts over to his assistant, Volodya, who had his own abacus; Sergei, the cook, ogled Nina from the kitchen door; Annushka wiped the tables; and Viktor, a waiter (who later told me that he paid Anna to do his work -- he said she would do anything for five rubles), sat with Vassily and me and pumped me for information about hockey teams: "Bostabroons, Doront Mupplekhleef, and Cheegago Blekaks." Viktor often stood behind Vassily and scratched his right cheek, meaning that Vassily was a drunkard.
There was a young, black-haired man who swept the floor and rarely spoke to anyone. Viktor pointed him out to me and said, "Gitler! Gitler!"
The man ignored him, but to make his point Viktor stamped on the floor and ground his boot as if killing a cockroach. Vassily put his forefinger under his nose to make a moustache and said, "Heil Gitler!" So the young man might have been an anti-Semite or, since Russian mockery is not very subtle, he might have been a Jew.
One afternoon the young man came over to me and said, "Angela Davis!"
"Gitler!" said Viktor, grinning.
"Angela Davis karasho," said Gitler, and began to rant in Russian about the way Angela Davis had been persecuted in America. He shook his broom at me, his hair falling over his eyes, and he continued quite loudly until Vassily banged on the table.
"Politics!" said Vassily. "We don't want politics here. This is a restaurant, not a university." He spoke in Russian, but his message was plain and he was obviously very angry with Gitler.
The rest were embarrassed. They sent Gitler to the kitchen and brought another bottle of wine. Vassily said, "Gitler -- ni karasho!" But it was Viktor who was the most conciliatory. He stood up and folded his arms, and shushing the kitchen staff, he said in a little voice:
Zee fearst of My,Later, Viktor took me to his compartment to show me his new fur hat. He was very proud of it since it cost him nearly a week's pay. Nina was also in the compartment, which was shared by Vassily and Anna -- quite a crowd for a space no bigger than an average-sized clothes closet. Nina showed me her passport and the picture of her mother, and while this was going on Viktor disappeared. I put my arm around Nina, and with my free hand took off her white scullion's cap. Her black hair fell to her shoulders. I held her tightly and kissed her, tasting the kitchen. The train was racing. But the compartment door was open, and Nina pulled away and said softly, "Nyet, nyet, nyet."
My depression increased as we sped toward Perm in a whirling snowstorm. The logging camps and villages lay half buried, and behind them were birches a foot thick, the ice on their branches giving them the appearance of silver filigree. I could see children crossing a frozen river in the storm, moving so slowly in the direction of some huts that they broke my heart. I lay back on my berth and took my radio, its plastic cold from standing by the window, and tried to find a station. I put up the antenna; the zombie watched me from behind his clutter of uncovered food. A lot of static, then a French station, then "Jingle Bells." The zombie smiled. I switched it off.
Late on Christmas Eve, I knocked on the door of the dining car and was admitted by Vassily. He told me, with gestures of shrugging, that the place was closed. I said, "It's Christmas Eve." He shrugged. I gave him five rubles. He let me in and got a bottle of champagne, and as he shot off the cork I looked around at the deserted car. In the best of times it was cold, but without the trickle of warmth from the stove, and buffeted by the snowy wind, it was colder than usual -- lighted by a single fluorescent tube and holding only the two of us. I could not imagine anything worse for watching Christmas approach. In the funereal chill Vassily drew up a chair and poured us both a drink. He screwed up his face as if the champagne was rotgut, and said, "Yagh!"
We sat facing each other, drinking, not speaking, until Vassily lifted his glass and said, "U.S.A.!"
By then I was drunk enough to remember one of the Russian lessons Vladimir had given me. I touched Vassily's glass with mine and said, "Soyuz Sovietski Sosialistichiski Respublik."
I finished my drink and went back to my compartment through the bouncing train.
The next morning, Christmas, I woke and looked over at the zombie resting with his arms folded on his chest like a cadaver. The provodnik told me it was six o'clock Moscow time. My watch said eight. I put it back two hours and waited for dawn, surprised that so many people in the car had decided to do the same thing. In darkness we stood at the windows, watching our reflections. Shortly afterward I saw why they were there. We entered the outskirts of Yaroslavl and I heard the others whispering to themselves. The old lady in the frilly nightgown, the Goldi man and his wife and child, the domino-playing drunks, even the zombie, who had been monkeying with my radio: they pressed their faces against the windows as we began rattling across a long bridge. Beneath us, half-frozen, very black, and in places reflecting the flames of Yaroslavl's chimneys, was the Volga.
...Royal David's city,What was that? Sweet voices, as clear as organ tones, drifted from my compartment. I froze and listened. The Russians, awestruck by the sight of the Volga, had fallen silent; they were hunched, staring down at the water. But the holy music moved through the air, warming it.
Where a mother laid her babyThe hymn wavered, but the silent reverence of the Russians and the slowness of the train allowed the soft children's voices to perfume the corridor. My listening became a meditation of almost unbearable sadness, as if joy's highest refinement was borne on a needlepoint of pain.
Mary was that mother mild,I went into the compartment and held the radio to my ear until the broadcast ended, a program of Christmas music from the BBC. Dawn never came that day. We traveled in thick fog and through whorls of brown, blowing mist which made the woods ghostly. It was not cold outside: some snow had melted, and the roads, more frequent now, were rutted and muddy. All morning the tree trunks, black with dampness, were silhouettes in the fog, and the pine groves at the very limit of visibility in the mist took on the appearance of cathedrals with dark spires. In places the trees were so dim they were like an afterimage on the eye. I had never felt close to the country, but the fog distanced me even more, and I felt, after six thousand miles and all those days in the train, only a great remoteness. I resented Russia's size; I wanted to be home.
The dining car was locked at nine. I tried again at ten and found it empty. Vassily explained that as we would be in Moscow soon, the dining car was closed. I swore at him, surprising myself with my own anger. Under protest he made me an omelette; he handed it to me with a slice of bread and a glass of tea. While I was eating, a woman came in. She wore a black coat and had a Soviet Railway badge pinned to her black hat. She spoke to Vassily: "Kleb." Vassily waved her away: "Nyet kleb!" She pointed at my meal and repeated her request for bread. Vassily shouted at her. She stood her ground and got a mighty shove from Vassily, who smiled at me apologetically as he delivered the blow. The woman came back and put out her hand and screamed loudly at him. This infuriated Vassily. His eyes became small, and he threw himself on her, beating her with his fists. He twisted her arm behind her back and kicked her hard. The woman howled and was gone.
Vassily said to me, "Ni karasho!" The fight had left him breathless. He smiled his idiotic smile. I was ashamed of myself for not helping the woman. I pushed my food away.
"Pavel?" Vassily blinked at me.
"You are a fucking monkey."
"Pozhal'sta," said Vassily, in glad welcome.
The train was going at half-speed for the approach to Moscow. I walked down the corridors of hard class to my compartment, to pack my belongings. The other passengers were already packed. They stood in their arrival suits, smoking by windows. I passed them all seeing criminality and fraud in their faces, brutishness in their little eyes, fists protruding from unusually long sleeves.
"Monkey," I said, squeezing through a group of soldiers.
A man stroking his fur hat blocked my way. I went up to him. He agitated his enormous jaw with a yawn.
"Monkey!" He moved aside.
Monkey to the provodnik, monkey to the man at the samovar, monkey to the army officer in soft class; and still muttering I found the zombie sitting by the window in an overcoat, his jam-flecked thumb on Mockba. "Monkey!" I wished him a merry Christmas and gave him two pipe cleaners, a can of Japanese sardines, and a ball-point pen that would run out of ink as soon as he wrote his name.
Copyright © 1975 by Paul Theroux. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1975; "The Last Mohican Between Khabarovsk and Moscow"; Volume 236, No. 2; pages 41-46.