My Life as a Russian Novel : A Memoir

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  • Copyright: 2010-08-03
  • Publisher: Henry Holth & Co
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An unsparingly truthful account of love, betrayal, and the traps we set for ourselves, by France's master of psychological suspense In work after work, the critically acclaimed author Emmanuel Carrere has trained his unblinking gaze on the lives of others as they fight a losing battle with that most fearsome of adversariesthe self. Now, determined to escape the bleak visions of his narratives, he takes on a film project in the heart of Russia while also embarking on a new love affair back home in Paris. But soon enough, the diversion he seeks eludes him, intimacy proves too arduous, and Carrvre is left peering into the dark mirror of his own life. Set in Paris and Kotelnich, a small post-Soviet town, My Life as a Russian Novel traces Carrere's pursuit of two obsessionsthe disappearance of his Russian grandfather and his erotic fascination with a woman he loves but cannot keep from destroying. In prose that is elegant and passionate, Carrere weaves the strands of his story into a travelogue of a journey inward. Road trip, confession, erotic tour de forcethis fearless reckoning illuminates the schemes we devise to evade ourselves and the inevitable payment they exact.#xA0;



The train is humming along, it's nighttime, Sophie and I are making love in the berth and it really is her. In my erotic dreams, my partners are usually several women at once and difficult to identify, but this time, no: I recognize Sophie's voice, her words, her spread legs. In the sleeping car compartment where we have so far been alone, another couple turns up, the Fujimoris. Mme Fujimori hops right into bed with us. The entente is immediately cordiale, with much merriment. Supported by Sophie in an acrobatic position, I enter Mme Fujimori, who soon comes ecstatically. M. Fujimori now announces that the train has stopped. It's sitting in a station and has been there for perhaps some time. Motionless in the glare of the sodium lights, a policeman is watching us. Convinced that he's about to get on the train to reprimand us, we hastily close the curtains, then rush to tidy up the compartment and put our clothes back on so we'll be ready, when he opens the door, to assure him blithely that he hadn't seen a thing, that he'd been dreaming. We imagine his suspicious, disappointed face. All this takes place in an exciting blend of panic and helpless giggling. I do point out, however, that there's nothing to laugh about: we might get arrested, hauled off to the police station while the train goes on its way, at which point God knows what will happen. Vanishing without a trace in this muddy back of beyond, we'll die in some dungeon deep in the Russian heartland with no one to hear our screams. My warnings send Sophie and Mme Fujimori into fresh gales of mirth and I end up laughing with them.

The train has stopped, as in my dream, at a deserted but brightly lit platform. It is three in the morning, somewhere between Moscow and Kotelnich. I have an achy head and parched throat— too much to drink at the restaurant before going to the station. Taking care not to wake Jean- Marie, stretched out in the other berth, I make my way among the crates of equipment cluttering the compartment and out into the corridor in search of a bottle of water. The dining car where we sluiced down our last vodkas a few hours ago is closed, the only illumination a single dim light at each table. Four soldiers, having planned ahead, are continuing to get plastered. As I go by they offer me a drink; I decline and, walking on, I recognize Sasha, our interpreter, sprawled on a banquette, snoring sonorously. I sit down a bit farther away, calculate the time difference— midnight in Paris, still okay— and try to call Sophie on my cell phone to tell her about this dream that seems to me extraordinarily promising. When I can't get through, I take out my notebook instead and write it down.

Wherever did M. and Mme Fujimori come from? That's not hard to figure out. Fujimori is the name of the former president of Peru, the subject of an article I skimmed on the plane. The corruption scandals that turned him out of office didn't interest me much, but an article on the facing page caught my eye. It was about missing people in Japan whose families are convinced they've been kidnapped and held secretly in North Korea, some for as long as thirty years. No recent event had triggered the article, no demonstration organized by the families, no anniversary, no new development in the case, closed ages ago, if indeed it had ever been opened. It isn't clear at all why the article appeared yesterday rather than some other day, this year rather than some other year; perhaps the journalist had run into a few people— in the street, in a bar— whose relatives had simply vanished back in the seventies. To bear up under the torment of uncertainty, families had come up with the kidnapping story and then, much later, told it to a stranger, who was now telling it to the world. Was it plausible? Was there any evidence— if not proof—to support the claim, or at least a likely explanation? If I had been the newspaper editor, I would have asked the journalist to dig a little deeper. But no, he simply reported that some Japanese families believed their relatives had disappeared into prison camps in North Korea. Dead or alive, who could say? Dead, most likely, of hunger or beatings by their jailers. And if alive, they probably no longer at all resembled the young men and women who vanished thirty years ago. If they were ever found, what would one say to them? And they, what would they say? Should one even want to find them?

The train sets out again, through forests. No snow. The four soldiers have finally gone off to bed. There's no one left in the dining car, with its flickering table lamps, but Sasha and me. At one point, Sasha bestirs himself, sits halfway up. His big rumpled head appears suddenly above the backrest of his banquette. Seeing me at the table writing, he frowns. I gesture soothingly in his direction, as if to say, Go back to sleep, there's plenty of time, and down he goes again, doubtless certain he's been dreaming.

When I was a foreign aid worker in Indonesia twenty- five years ago, travelers used to pass around terrifying and mostly true stories about the prisons stuffed with people who'd been caught with drugs. In the bars of Bali, there was always some bearded guy in a sleeveless T-shirt going on and on about how he'd survived a close call that had left a less fortunate buddy serving 150 years of slow death in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. One evening after we'd been carrying on this way for hours with jaunty nonchalance, some guy I didn't know trotted out another story, perhaps true, perhaps not. This was back when the Soviet Union was still around. When you take the Trans- Siberian Railway, he explained, you're strictly forbidden to get off along the route, to stop at a station to do some sightseeing, for example, and then get on the next train. Well, it seems that in certain backwater towns, near the railroad tracks, you can find exceptionally hallucinogenic mushrooms (or really cheap rare carpets, jewelry, precious metals, whatever), so sometimes travelers dare to ignore the rule. The train stops for three minutes in a little station in Siberia. Bitter cold, no town, just a bunch of huts, a sinister mud hole that looks abandoned. Without anyone's noticing, the adventurer gets off the train, which departs. Alone, he shoulders his pack and leaves the station— a platform of rotting planks— to flounder through muck and puddles, past wooden fences and barbed wire, wondering if the whole thing was such a good idea. The first person he meets is some sort of degenerate who, in a cloud of appallingly bad breath, delivers a speech in which all nuance is lost (the traveler knows only a few words of Russian, which might not even be what the wretch is speaking), but the gist is clear: he can't go wandering around like that, he'll get himself picked up by the police.Militsiya!. . .Militsiya!Then comes a torrent of incomprehensible language, but thanks to some mimicry, the traveler decides that the derelict is offering him shelter until the next train. It's not a very appealing prospect, but what choice does he have and, who knows, maybe he'll get a chance to talk mushrooms or jewelry. Following his host, he enters a disgusting hovel heated by a smoky stove, where he finds a gathering of even more sinister characters. A bottle of rotgut appears, they drink and stare at him while they argue, and the wordmilitsiyacrops up frequently, the only word he recognizes, so, rightly or wrongly, he figures they're talking about what will happen if he falls into the clutches of the police. He won't get off withjusta stiff fine, oh no! They laugh till they fall over. No, he'll never be seen again. Even if there are people waiting for him at the end of the line, in Vladivostok, they'll simply decide he's gone missing, that's all. No matter how big a stink his family and friends make, they'll never find out or get anyone else to find out what happened to him. The traveler attempts to calm down: maybe that's not really what they're saying, maybe they're discussing their grandmothers' homemade jams. But he knows perfectly well that's not it. He knows they're talking about what's in store for him, he realizes he'd have been better off running into the corrupt police they're threatening him with so merrily, in factanythingwould have been better than this drafty shack, these jolly toothless vagrants now closing in on him, beginning—still in fun— to pinch his cheeks, give him little shoves, punches, to show him what the police will do, until the moment when they knock him senseless and he wakes up later, in the dark. He's naked on a dirt floor, shaking with cold and fear. Reaching out, he discovers that they've locked him into some kind of shed and that it's all over. Every now and then the door will open, the happy half- wits will slap him around, stomp on him, sodomize him— have a little fun, basically, which is hard to find in Siberia. Nobody knows where he got off the train, nobody will come to save him, he's at their mercy. The bums probably hang around the station whenever a train is due, hoping some idiot will break the rules: that guy, he's theirs. They find all sorts of uses for him until he croaks, then they wait for the next one. He comes to this conclusion not by thinking things through, of course, but more like a man regaining consciousness in a narrow box where he can't see a thing, can't hear a sound, can't move. Only slowly does he understand that he's been buried alive, that the whole dream of his life was leading to this, and that this is reality, the last reality, the true one, the one from which he will never wake.

There he is.

And in a way, there I am as well. I've been there all my life. To imagine my own situation, I've always turned to stories like that. I told them to myself as a child, and then I just told them. I used to read them in books, and then I wrote books. For a long time, I enjoyed doing that. I took plea sure in suffering in my own particular way, a way that made me a writer. But I don't want that anymore. I can no longer bear to be locked into that bleak, unchanging scenario, can't bear to find myself, no matter how I begin, always spinning a tale of madness, frozen immobility, imprisonment, fine- tuning the workings of the trap that will crush me. A while ago I published such a book,The Adversary, which held me captive for seven years and bled me dry. I thought: Now it's over; I'll do something else. I'll go toward the outside, toward others, toward life. And a good way to do that would be to return to reportage, to shoot another film.

I spread the word and was soon offered a project. Not just any project: the story of an unfortunate Hungarian taken prisoner at the end of World War II who spent more than fifty years in a psychiatric hospital in the Russian hinterland. We thought it was just the thing for you, a reporter friend told me proudly, which of course exasperated me. That everyone thinks of me whenever there's some poor soul shut up for life in an insane asylum— that's exactly what I don't want anymore. I don't want to be the guy intrigued by that story. Which doesn't prevent me, obviously, from being intrigued. Plus it takes place in Russia, not where my mother was born but where they speak her mother tongue, the one I spoke a little as a child and then forgot completely.

I said yes. And a few days later I met Sophie, which in another way made me feel I was moving on to something new. Over dinner at the Thai restaurant near the place Maubert, I told her the Hungarian's story, and to night, on the train taking me to Kotelnich, I think back on my dream, recognizing that everything that paralyzes me is in there: the policeman watching me as I make love, the threat of imprisonment, the certainty of a trap closing in. Yet the atmosphere in the dream, I reflect, is light, lively, joyous, like the knees- up party improvised with Sophie and the mysterious Mme Fujimori. I resolve that, yes, I will tell one last story of imprisonment, which will also be the story of my liberation.

Everything I know about my Hungarian comes from a few wire stories dated August and September 2000. After being dragged along by the retreating Wehrmacht, this nineteen- year- old country boy was captured by the Red Army in 1944. Interned at first in a POW camp, he was transferred in 1947 to the psychiatric hospital in Kotelnich, a small town five hundred miles northeast of Moscow. There he spent fifty- three years, forgotten by everyone, hardly speaking, because no one around him understood Hungarian and he, strangely enough, never learned Russian. He was discovered this summer, completely by chance, and the Hungarian government organized his repatriation.

I saw a few pictures of his arrival in Budapest, a thirty- second news item on television. The automatic glass doors of the airport slide open to admit a wheelchair in which huddles a frightened old man. The people around him are in short sleeves, but he is wearing a thick wool cap and shivering beneath a lap robe. One leg of his trousers is empty, folded back and fastened with a safety pin. The photographers' fl ash-bulbs crackle, blinding him. He is bundled into a car mobbed by elderly women, who gesture wildly and shout different names: Sándor! Ferenc! András! More than eighty thousand Hungarian soldiers were reported missing after the war and everyone gave up waiting for them long ago, but now here's one of them coming home, fifty- six years later. Basically, he's an amnesiac; even his name is a mystery. The patient records of the Russian hospital, which constitute his only identification papers, refer to him variously as András Tamas, or András Tomas, or Andreas Tomas, but he shakes his head if someone addresses him by those names. He either cannot or will not say his name. This explains why at his repatriation, covered by the Hungarian press as a national event, dozens of families think they recognize him as their long- lost uncle or brother. In the weeks following his return, the press provides almost daily updates about him and the search for his identity. The authorities welcome and interview the families who claim him, while at the same time questioning the old man to try to awaken his memory, repeating to him the names of people and villages. One report mentions that the doctors at the Psychiatric Institute of Budapest, where the patient is being held under observation, have arranged for a steady pro cession of antiques dealers and collectors to show him military caps, gold braid, old coins, objects intended to evoke the Hungary he once knew. He reacts very little, grumbles more than he speaks. What serves him as language is no longer really Hungarian but a kind of private dialect born of the interior monologue he must have kept up throughout his half century of solitude. Scraps of sentences emerge, mutterings about crossing the Dniepr River, about shoes stolen from him or that he fears might be stolen, and especially about the leg that was cut off, back there, in Russia. He would like them to give it back or give him another one. A wire story headline declares, "The Last Prisoner of WW II Demands a Wooden Leg."

One day someone reads him "Little Red Riding Hood," and he weeps.

At the end of September, the investigation is closed, the result confirmed by DNA testing. The man back from the dead is András Toma (although in Hungary one says Toma András, Bartók Béla, the last name first, as in Japan). He has a younger brother and sister living in a village at the eastern tip of the country, the same village he left fifty- six years earlier to go off to war. They are ready to welcome him home.

Rooting around for more information, I learn that András will not be moved from Budapest to his native village for another few weeks and that the psychiatric hospital in Kotelnich will be celebrating its ninetieth anniversary on October 27. That is the place to start.

The train stops in Kotelnich for only two minutes, not much time for unloading our crates of equipment. I'm used to print journalism, which means working alone or occasionally with a photographer; a television crew, right off the bat that's more cumbersome. Even though we're the only passengers getting off and no one is getting on, the platform is fairly crowded, mostly with old women eager to sell buckets of blueberries; they shout at us when we point to all our stuff, indicating that we have enough to lug around as it is. The place looks a lot like the Trans- Siberian station in my story: beaten earth, mud puddles, flaking wooden fences behind which guys with shaved heads watch us with a curiosity that is frankly unpleasant. I find myself thinking it's good that there are four of us here rather than just one. Jean- Marie grabs his camera, Alain pops his mike onto its boom, the old women get grumpier. Sasha goes in search of a car and soon returns with someone named Vitaly, who drives us in his Zhiguli of indeterminate age to the town's only hotel, the Vyatka.

Vyatka is both the original and the recently restored name of Kirov, the next stop on the rail line and the capital of this region. During lunch at my parents' apartment a few days before my departure, we discussed the places I would be visiting and my mother mentioned that the town was named Kirov during the Soviet era, in homage to the Bolshevik leader whose assassination triggered the purges of 1936. My father, who takes a passionate interest in my mother's family, told me that in 1905 my great- granduncle Count Viktor Komarovsky was the vice governor of the city when it was still called Vyatka. The Hotel Vyatka, in any case, is one of those places familiar to travelers in Russia, where not only does nothing work (heating, television, elevator, all kaput), but you get the feeling that nothing has ever worked, not even on the first day. Two out of three lightbulbs are burned out. Tangles of poorly insulated electric wires snake along leprous paneling. Instead of standing upright against the walls, the useless radiators stick out horizontally toward the center of the rooms at the end of long pipes that bend in strange directions. Threadbare grayish sheets so small they seem like towels half cover the sagging single beds, and a coating of greasy dust clings to what ever passes for furniture. No hot water. The day before, when I'd naïvely asked Sasha if we could use a credit card to pay for the hotel, he'd looked at me in mock astonishment, shaking his head. A credit card . . . pfft. And since I speak a little Russian (chut'- chut': just a tiny bit), he'd said,Tut, my na dne: We're in the sticks here.

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