Fragment of the novel
“Miracles don’t happen anymore, and there is no visible opportunity to make a quick pile of money effortlessly.” Kārlis Ulmanis, 1928.
“And is it not television that shows me the skidding of the wheel of time?” Ojārs Vācietis, “Zilais ekrans”, summer of 1969.
I THE PAST
“The Mission.” “Butterfly on a Wheel.” From the album “Carved in Sand”
because I cried, unavoidably and sobbing, as back in childhood, I cried like all Latvians do, just like you, my dearest; raindrops flowed over the exterior of the windshield, tears flowed on the inside - I felt feelings long forgotten returning, the past several decades removed, lost time; and with it I felt myself returning, that self whom, I think, I have known so long - yet I am considerably exceeding the speed limit on this unrepaired and bumpy road section, and risk my terribly rusty second-hand car hitting the roadside pole or flying off into the gray flowing river, my dearest; or there might be a new pothole to appear on the road which I will not notice soon enough in the dark: save a second – lose a life; something like this was written way back on educational posters and match-box labels which we in childhood so eagerly collected and pasted in scrapbooks - as soon as I drove unto the bridge I felt the cold Baltic Sea wind, my dearest; with no mercy it seemed to grab the delicate shell of the car in its palm and try to blow it aside into the oncoming lane - but I cried, just as in the song that you liked so much; in the “Iron Wolf” song, where they sing about the city at night in neon lights that “caress tears”, my dearest; and I tried to evade looking into my own eyes because I don’t like tears, I cannot bear them, I try to look aside, away - I cannot bear even mine, let alone yours, my dearest; therefore don’t reproach me for looking more often at the tip of your nose, or your ear lobe where it is pierced for an earring; because seeing the tears of another person, I always feel that something shrinks smaller and smaller within me, dries up on account of the tears; and so I don’t understand why memories of the same events appear intolerable or simply laughable to some, but to others provoke uncontrollable floods of tears - but you know very well, dearest, I can’t stand tears, crying people; in general I don’t want to see them any more, especially if someone is crying for me, because to cry for me - is almost like mockery, a useless waste of tears; and even less do I want to watch when the weeper is myself, because who would have imagined that all would end so badly; my dearest, that I should be driving here alone, but you will be no more, will not be next to me, I want to say; and city lights are reflected in the river - reflected just like in the fall, I will think, because these are autumn reflections at a time when wind-blown clouds open up and cover up the moon; but it is just as possible that it is depression, yet men don’t dare admit it: on the radio “The Mission” sings about love that breaks butterfly wings and about wind with the sound of a mandolin; about every angel’s dream; about love that successfully heals broken wings; my tears just poured, I snivelled, I cried; heck that boys don’t cry and the strong never tell lies, although it is possible that you don’t know the group “The Mission” (and you don’t have to, all that was too long ago to make any sense to explain, memories from my punk ‘n goth years, from the eighties of the twentieth century - from times of smeared mascara, of messy tinted black hair and smeared lipstick); do you hear, the rhythm gradually grew more intense, drums joined vigorously the electronic touch and the cold guitar chords, and the missionary continued, continued the song about the wise men; who knows, only in war and love does the end justify the means, and it is possible that a long time ago people felt something similar listening even to the same Bach - Matthew’s Passion - or who knows what in those dark ages, when song texts used lines from the Holy Scriptures and composers didn’t worry their heads about how to get into the 70 minutes of a compact disc as many 2 minute works as possible; because probably then there was more time, I reasoned, and therefore that which now can be said in two and a half minutes could be stretched out to take up two and a half hours; maybe that is why I also cried, because at that moment I realized that it would never be like that again, and there was barely half an hour left to September 12, 2001 and then after fifteen minutes I would be 30 years old; and honestly, I still don’t know whether I should be telling you all this (or, that since the described events almost a year has passed, yet single images - even scents, tastes and sounds - come back more strikingly than the obtrusive sounds, smells and scenes that follow me and haunt me here) and now
I will begin with the incident at the cemetery, although this funeral has little to do with the events described later on. The deceased was my classmate Uldis and, quite naturally, almost all of the graduates of our class from Sigulda’s old primary school had come to attend the funeral. Except Valdis; but no one, of course, hoped even to catch a glimpse of him. This atmosphere of a school reunion in the cemetery was diluted quite a bit by the official funeral guests – they were in a depressing majority. Members of parliament and ministers; representatives from the municipality and businessmen; non-governmental organization activists and the press. Unfortunately, six months ago Uldis was elected to the parliament and became the highest achiever from our public school graduating class. Because Valdis now is rarely remembered. The pleasures of reunion, evaluating the disasters time had caused for the girls from our class and comparing indications of prosperity that our boys had achieved, was spoiled by the furtively circulating information among the funeral guests about the actual cause of Uldis’ death. Of course, nothing like that had appeared in the front page news of “Diena”, and the authors of obituaries also managed with the same old and generations-tested indifferent phrases; yet the funeral guests one and all already knew. Sexual excesses. It was said that Uldis was found suffocated, with a plastic bag over his head. Completely nude. An ambulance was called by two women; you know yourselves what sort. And there is more to it. Real orgies had taken place. The other participants, people connected and witnesses, including two bodyguards from a wellknown security firm, escaped before the police arrived. Before that, the whole jolly company had been seen living it up in the “Lido” complex. Several opposition party faction parliament members or minors were also said to be involved. One service weapon was not recovered at all. A very unpleasant incident, and ugly slurs could hit the security firm and the ones they guarded - parliament members; and, after all, even the supermarket chain whose label decorated the fatal bag.
An awfully hot and humid day.
The minister also was one of ours. In the beginning, Emil had dreamt of becoming a rock star. He looked a hybrid of Bono, Kurt Cobain and Johnny Rotten. He messed around with various groups, yet he never learned to sing coherently, nor to play any musical instrument. Disappointment and rebellious feelings were compensated for with booze, nerve tablets, amphetamines, homemade poppy brew; and finally, probably even with glue, the bright blue window-washing fluid, eau de cologne and shoe polish spread on bread. He tried cutting veins several times but there was nothing left of him to be cut. He went into the loony bin. But there is no evil without some good – he escaped the Russian draft.
I remember once I met Emil near the small Oši family gardens. Late in autumn. Mud and wet snow all over. He was crawling around the wind-torn plastic sheet huts to see if there were any browned poppy stems sticking out. And later when I went to visit him, the whole apartment; no, the whole house, starting already from the stairwell, smelled of acetone. Since that time I never went back. Nothing could be done to save him, I decided.
But amazingly, Emil came through. Got mixed up with the Krishnas; I heard that he had left for the USA and was working as a painter. Probably there he became a Christian. He returned, enrolled in the Faculty of Theology.
Now he stood at the end of the coffin. All in black. Not in the usual long cassock, but in a short jacket with a slightly tucked-in waist. A small beret on his head. Well, just like Bono in the mid-eighties; hasn’t got rid of the rock star dreams yet.
In the chapel the Bible was read monotonously: “And after I saw the night; and look, the fourth beast was dreadful and ferocious and very strong and it had large iron teeth; it ate and smashed and crushed what was left with his feet, and it had a different face from the other beasts that had been before, and it had ten horns.”
Nobody paid attention to the text. And those who heard did not understand, and could not figure out what kind of a beast it was; what horns, and what connection it all had with the deceased. The coffin was pushed into the funeral home hearse; the car exhaust gave out the smell of gasoline; the procession plodded on deeper into the cemetery away from the shady and moss-gathering past into the sun-drenched and desert-like new burial grounds. Hot wind blew into the faces of the darkly dressed mourners. It tugged at Emil’s blond locks.
Our class has never had a reunion yet. We are too inert. No real community spirit. No common interests. Except for funerals. Uldis was the first (if we don’t consider Valdis).
The coffin was placed near the grave; Emil moved to the end of the open grave and scanned the guests. The heat became unbearable, yet there was no smell of decay. Probably the autopsy and embalming methods nowdays have improved and the mourners don’t have to douse themselves, nor the deceased, with Šiprs perfume, as if before a cremation. Emil’s gray face reflected indifference. Something treacherous glittered in his eyes; and at the same moment I realised that it was not tears. It was something like a glittery oily film that separated him from all of us, from the world. For a moment our eyes locked. Dark rings under his eyes. He understood that I had noticed, had guessed; the golden gates had never slammed shut, he had returned and continued to tug the dragon by the tail, nothing had ended. I knew this zombie look too well. In my innocence, for three years I had denied noticing it (but I won’t talk about that now). It began to appear that all around, there were only the dead. And it is a known fact that the dead cannot make new friends. The dead, as opposed to the living, are not subjected to any changes, have no adventures.
At such moments, willingly or not, one begins to think about whether one is still alive or not. And if not to think, at least, according to our modern point of view – to feel. Suddenly Emil turned away, pulled out narrow frameless sunglasses from his black coat pocket, and hid himself. Bright blue sky and pine tops were reflected in the black lenses. The hand returned to the pocket and searched for something. The lips were pressed together. I knew what he had there. Probably rolled in a little ball - the treasure. My Precious. Hope and promise.
Quickly Emil stretched out his hand and took the wooden cross from the grave-digger. Lifted it and stuck it next to himself in the sand pile. Holding on, no, leaning against the cross as if on a sword prepared for battle, he once more studied us. Maybe it just seemed that he smiled. Our class rock star. The voice sounded metallic and shrill. It seemed that he hated us. All that linked him to us was death.
The sand sounded hollow on the coffin lid. By the end of the hymn the grave was filled up. An uncomfortable silence fell.
”Relatives and friends – ” Emil raised his voice and then paused significantly.Some looked scared. – ”Your flowers. And wreaths, please.”
All headed for the freshly heaped grave mound and nobody, except me, noticed Emil’s nervous look after the desperate “Please.” Only a hardened drug addict is capable of such cynicism at the time of death - this flashed through my mind. He took off his sunglasses and, horrified, looked all around. He was drenched in sweat and grey-faced. The hand feverishly searched the pocket.
The rest you probably have heard.
The funeral feast entirely eclipsed suspicions and gossip about Uldis’ infamous end. Either still at the cemetery or already in the car, Emil got his desired dose; and arrived at the rented restaurant more subdued and unconcerned - his lips displayed eternal peace, but his eyes again were hidden by the black glasses.
All took place as expected at such times. Cake first, cabbage after that. Until the moment when, with a short speech, party and faction member Juris B. wished to honour the deceased. The speech of the deputy was interrupted by Emil’s shouts and general hubbub.
”Don’t you really see? Don’t you really have eyes?” he shouted. Either through trying to control Emil or in some other way, the tablecloth with all the dishes was pulled off the table. The candles fell over, something even started to burn. Women screamed. Some funeral guests way at the other end of the hall jumped to their feet – ”Don’t you really see that this is not meat that you are eating and this is not wine you are drinking? Muck and slops, muck and slops, muck and slops . . .”
Emil’s shouts did not cease until the ambulance people arrived. Again he was taken to the psychiatric hospital. Next day the doctor told me that this time, it was for a longer time: unusually strong loss of reality caused by alcohol, amphetamines and “acid”.
”Acid?” I aked, because I did not understand what he meant.
”LSD. In English it is called a bad trip,” the doctor chatted understandingly into the mouthpiece. And added that in his practice he had never experienced anything like this (the minister is a real walking drug cabinet).
As I said, these events have rather an indirect link with all that follows. Just meeting my old classmates that summer after a rather long time, obviously caused me to remember Valdis.
I remember, the funeral coud not take place without the compulsory question: ”Have you heard anything about Valdis?”
And the usual answer followed: ”No. And quite a bit of time has passed.”
Therefore the best thing is to start from Prague International Airport waiting area – a gray expanse that depressingly reminds one of similar areas in hundreds of other international airports. Believe me, Kafka’s plaintive wailing, compared to these “Tax Free Shop” bright interiors, is joyful warbling. No wonder that for two months some Palestinian, who could not find political asylum in any country, could live here unnoticed by anyone.
All around is the sound of loud whispers, beeps of metal detectors and shouts suppressed by sound isolation; the brightly lit commercials on the walls repeat the names of capital cities. The only thing that my imagination will allow is an unhappy, soulless clay Golem wandering in the glassy and lustreless aluminum depths. That’s how it is, I cannot manage without banal literary allusions – probably only because my destination was a writers and translators conference on Rhode island in Greece. But that is not particularly significant.
I must explain right away, that he should have been dead long since. Probably that is why, in the beginning, I did not pay him any attention; I did not know him, denied knowing him. Although it’s not altogether true – for a very short time I noticed him, the first time, specifically in Prague Airport. Two and a half hours were left until the Athens flight, and quite unsuccessfully, I was fighting sleep. My ears continued to hum and hiss strangely because, unfortunately, I had had a prehistoric and extremely slow propeller airplane on the flight from Riga (which will never become the desired object of terrorists). I was leafing through a free copy of a car magazine in clear Czech; in the tire and motor oil advertisments, I looked over the never-absent model flesh; in the cafeteria I got rid of my last metal Deutsche Marksand bought coffee, smelling of cheap instant, in a plastic cup, and a “Twix” candy. Three months were left till the introduction of the Euro. Gradually the waiting area became emptier, and soon I was alone with the twisting and twirling rappers from the German MTV. Behind the glass wall the airplanes landed and took off soundlessly; two policemen jingling keys plodded past me; a girl, caged into a minidress, lowered and locked the iron blinds of the cafeteria. Possibly I dozed off, beause I came to with the feeling that I was not alone in the room. When I looked back he was already leaving. And with him went the rumbling of the suitcase wheels. At the very end of the hall flashed the back of a black windbreaker. No, probably a mistake, I decided immediately. I really did not know him. Because he should have been dead long ago.
People well-known in society don’t just disappear. For disappearances there is always some rational explanation, a secret that can be pulled out into daylight.
Five, six years ago he was very popular among us. Man of the Year; TV programme guest and star; hero of the illustrated magazines; the ideal husband/lover of all women in Latvia.
Valdis was the love of all the girls in our class, who was first to grow a mustache and lose his innocence (maybe the other way around); whose hair was too long according to the teachers; and who, while walking, was not embarrassed to hug his girl of the moment – the black-haired Iveta.
Unlike me, he diligently attended modern dance classes, where a moustached pederast dressed up in a violet shirt and tight white pants taught Latin American dance steps. After the first few times I hid in the physical education locker rooms. And to this day I have not recoverd from the mental stress and the conviction that I have poor coordination. Really I don’t know which has left worse consequences: modern dance or handball (even there Valdis was outstanding). But the story is not about that.
Later I heard that Valdis had enrolled in Maths and Physics; I started in Philosophy, published the first stories. So to speak, our ways had parted early; physicist and lyricist. We met only by chance.
Also that summer, Valdis, out of breath and sweating, jumped into the Riga bus at the last moment and dropped into the seat next to me, beaming. Immediately I noticed his bandaged left hand, in a sling. Valdis matter-of-factly started to explain that the previous week he had been shot at. He was slaving away in Liepāja and had an affair with the landlady, but her husband had not been very pleased about it. Then the crazy old man had loaded his shot-gun with buckshot and went for him. Valdis’ buddy dropped cold dead immediately, but he only had his arm smashed. That was him alright. I did not even try to admire or doubt his story. After all, who was it in school who bragged that his mother was a real ballet dancer? ( All right, it did later come to light that she had, way back in her youth, worked in artistic gymnastics for several years – so they were not complete lies.) And who was it that told us that that his father had escaped across the waves to Sweden in a kolkhoz fertilizer spray plane? But had later participated in the Sarajevo Olympic Games? Not me. Valdis declared that several pellets of buckshot were still stuck in the bone. The doctors had refused to take them out because, in case of an unsuccessful operation, it would be possible to lose the arm. I was silent in agreement; with the rhythm of the swinging bus, I nodded and believed. Believed. Believed.
Later I noticed him in the elite social news items of our newspapers, magazines and television. Valdis smiled, posing with the prime ministers and ministers of the moment; beauty queens and actresses; gave extensive interviews and showed his home to journalists. There were rumours that he had his own personal plane; and connections to Russian, Lithuanian or Chechen mafia. He did not live in Riga, and drove to work, close to two hundred kilometres, every morning in his Benz – as he bragged himself in one of the interviews, doing not less than one hundred seventy kilometres per hour. From communist youth and mathematics Olympiad contest winner, in one split second he had been reborn into a world where one bought and sold football and hockey teams or restaurants with ease; built new and tasteless homes at least three stories high, with Finnish saunas and swimming pools; hastily bought up gold; while racing through the cobblestone streets of the old city, talked to ministers on the phone; lived it up or had fights in “Jūras Pērle”; spent nights in hotels and spas; ordered large numbers of prostitutes; collected expensive cars; rented ships for cruises in the Mediterranian; and enjoyed concerts by Pugachova or those organized by the Rotary Club for his own people. “On the highway in front of me I create sort of a consciousness tunnel – therefore I know nothing will happen to me,” Valdis expounded, and obviously did not even realize that for quite a while already he had been living in a world where no one had arrived just by having a heart as good as gold. One only had to look into these dead faces – it seemed that the gaze of these people paralyzed, stabbed you through like an insect dazed by formalin; and instead of seeing a live human being, one saw only a corpse. In some interview, Valdis declared that in the near future he was about to be married. To Madonna, because “we have what are probably called kindred souls.”
That year the bank crises started; depositors, throngs of them, those craving for profit who had believed promises of fabulous interest, lost their savings, coffin money and future dreams. On the city pavements in the mornings, more and more frequently blood puddles could be glimpsed – some fairly small and already dried up, others considerably larger; absorbed into the stones only around the edges, but still bright raw in the middle. At that time, Valdis also disappeared. However, his place in the cemetery or jail thus was also empty.
An international manhunt was announced, Interpol was involved, all in vain. Gone from the face of the earth. According to the official versions found in mass media, Valdis was guilty of squandering the investments of countless people of Latvia; being involved in weapons and radioactive material contraband; extensive trade in people and narcotics. Taking advantage of the guaranty system and using business plans pulled out of thin air, he had managed to sneak away with huge loans guaranteed by government institutions, funds meant for privatization. Within two months, under a fictitious name, by buying already established companies which, after a few days but not longer than a week, went bankrupt, Valdis had swindled some more funds.
According to the unofficial version (which actually was seen in print nowhere, yet believed by almost all) he had dared to fearlessly appropriate either the cashbox of the Pārdaugava, or some other criminal group, which had been kept in a secret hiding place in the Ilģuciems public baths.
And disappeared without a trace.
Valdis’ properties (those that were not made over to his relatives) were seized and expropriated. A splendid funeral, of course, did not take place, because not the slightest proof was found that Valdis was not among the living. The gossip was that he had been seen in Amsterdam one more time . . . Strange. As if dead, but no grave.
Valdis’ career petered out without magnificent melodramatic effects. He was saved from a gaudy tombstone, an expensive polished coffin, and Mercedeses at the cemetery gates. Apparently, his wife also had not grieved too much over his disappearance.
After a year and a half she married a well known photographers’ model of that time, and the second place winner of Riga’s beauty contest; there was old gossip that he was gay. This was the same man for whose sake a well-known Riga restaurant waiter committed suicide, after separating from his girlfriend under the erroneous belief that he was a homosexual.
After a little while, Valdis was not mentioned any more. And only occasionally, driving by one of his half-constructed castles, already overgrown with bushes and weeds; or the fireproof wall in Riga centre, where still today one can see the slightly fading advertisment of Valdis’ holding company; people recalled his swift rise, and just as sudden fall into oblivion.
Translated by Astra Roze
Here and further on find the appropriate recording, put it in the player and press “Play”. If you wish, press “Repeat one” and listen until further directions. In other words, a real old fashioned discoteque with comments between songs, like those that Ainars Mielavs conducted in the 80’s at Polygraphers Cultural Centre.
At least one did not have to learn by heart the infamous Eglitis’ psychiatry book whre all mental illnesses are described so vaguely that it is possible to identify those symptoms almost in every Soviet citizen’s behaviour.
Because now it is not written “I think, therefore I am”, but rather: “I feel, therefore I am”; which means that one can be proud even when imagining oneself to be an animal, or a gray stone, or another being incapable of thinking.