For the love of a city

Issue 4/2004 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel I väntan på en jordbävning (‘Waiting for an earthquake’, Söderströms, 2004). Introduction by Petter Lindberg

Nonna Rozenberg lived quite near the special school where I was a boarder, in a block nine stories high with a bas-relief to the right of the door. This bas-relief featured a fairy-tale figure – the Firebird or the Bird Sirin.

I often saw Nonna stepping out of a tram carrying a large brown case. She moved carefully, as if afraid of falling.

She played the cello, and resembled that bulky, melodious instrument herself. Women’s figures are often compared to guitars. But Nonna’s appearance never hinted at parties at home with parents away or singsongs around the camp-fire.

She was no beauty. Her slow, precociously mature body was neither graceful nor girlishly delicate. If I’d met her later, when I was working at a gym, I’d have said she was overweight and lacking in self-discipline.

But at thirteen I didn’t see things like that. To me, Nonna came from another world – a world where people played cellos and harps, and looked each other in the face rather than checking each other’s figures.

I remember her long fluffy plaits and heavy eyebrows, and the look from under her fringe. I also remember the dark birthmark under her chin. But I wasn’t conscious of anything lower down than her birthmark.

I think I once helped her carry a milk-can home. I may even have done this several times before the day I summoned up the nerve to ask her to come to the cinema with me – a dizzy deed nearly as daring as making a proposal of marriage.

On the other hand I very well remember the first film we saw together. Mackenna’s Gold, at the Vyborgsky cinema, now a casino where shots are constantly being fired.

I also remember the cafe where we ate blackcurrant ice-cream with syrup and discussed films about cowboys and Indians which Nonna liked as much as I did.

We communicated through scraps of paper which we left for one another in a hole in the back wall of the building where she lived. You could close the hole with a brick I did get hold of her phone number, but never used it. It seemed to me entirely natural to hide our friendship from our parents, by which I mean Nonna’s parents, but I would have been just as secretive with my own. ‘If they find out there’ll be problems,’ was the universal wisdom in those days.

What did she see in me? Perhaps she was subconsciously registering a protest against the formal conditions under which they were cultivating her like a mimosa.

Her father was a second violin in the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and her mother taught music theory at the Conservatoire. Nonna went to an ordinary school, and twice a week to the Conservatoire music school as well. To get there she had to change trams three times, carrying her huge hollow cello. She also took piano lessons, essential for anyone destined for a career as a professional musician.

When I remember the details now, I think Nonna must have been interested in me because our lives had so much in common. She had her everlasting scales and I had my everlasting training sessions. We had both been sacrificed from early childhood to a special mission in life. Applause and honours lay ahead of us both, but so did physical and spiritual injury, nerves stretched to breaking point and hands with sweaty palms.

Do I need to I explain why Nonna Rozenberg interested me? It was an old, well-worn tale: a country boy finds himself in a chilly and unfriendly former imperial city full of museums and theatres. When he finds a breach in the armour of this snobbish place, he fixes his greedy barbarian gaze on it…

That was how I saw Nonna Rozenberg.

She was the golden rain that I soaked up like a ravenous sponge, but I had no idea why I had been granted such grace, and no understanding of what I was doing.

I’d never met anyone with a name like Nonna Rozenberg before.

‘Are you a foreigner?’ I asked her.

Behind my question lay respectful curiosity; deep down I was proud to know someone with such an exotic name. In those days I hadn’t yet learned to recognise Jewish people at sight. Everyone was just a person to me, except gypsies.

Since then many years have passed, and I can now tell Jewish blood even in someone with nothing closer than a Jewish brother-in-law. Now I’m an expert at that kind of thing, I’m a real Russian now!

Nonna was embarrassed. She watched me from under her fringe in her characteristic way.

‘Certainly not!’ she said. ‘I was born here and so were all my family. I shall always live here. Always.’

She emphasised the last word. I think she even stamped her foot, like a headstrong princess in a children’s film.

No, I invented that. She never stamped her foot. She wasn’t that sort of girl.

It was a year of secret meetings, long conversations and waiting for something one could not put into words.

After we’d seen half a dozen films in which the Yugoslavian actor Gojko Mitic played the Indian chief, Nonna asked me to her place – in the middle of the day, when her parents were out.

They had an enormous library, with a little black and white drawing inside the covers of their books – an ex libris, Nonna explained. The drawing showed a flame rising from a bush.

‘I burn but am not consumed,’ the text under it read.

This was the first time I’d heard Nonna play the cello, and during those minutes it was as if my heart was born again. She played with her mouth clamped shut and her eyebrows pulled together. Her dark moist eyes shone from under their long lashes. The long white arm that held the bow moved powerfully but gracefully like the neck of a swan, now vibrating in a gentle, discreet tremolo, now bouncing in a restless, fiery staccato.

Nonna sat with her knees apart in the ungainly pose cellists use. She was ugly, shapeless and stern, and looked a good deal older than she was – but I sat dumb and bewitched, as if seeing fire for the first time in my life. Sometimes I felt some inner force might tear me to pieces at any moment, and at other times I heard my mother’s voice call me from the deepest places of my childhood, places ordinary mortals are not supposed to be able to remember.

‘Can you lift a piano?’ Nonna asked shyly, pouring me tea.

I pursed my lips.

‘You must be joking! They weigh three hundred kilos. It would be a world record!’

She nodded, disclosing prominent, slightly uneven, protruding teeth in a smile. A slight disappointment hung in the air. I looked askance at her and bit into a chocolate.

‘I think I could lift you. How much do you weigh?’

‘Forty… fifty-one,’ admitted the unathletic Nonna in a miserable little voice.

Before she knew what was happening I’d grabbed her in a bear-hug. I have to admit she was very heavy. And holding on to her was extremely difficult. I quickly carried her out of the kitchen, narrowly missing banging her head on a doorpost.

‘Where now?’ I gasped.

Nonna didn’t say a word, just hugged me round the neck. She was clearly afraid I’d drop her on the floor. To be honest, that was what I was afraid of too.

I unloaded her onto the living-room sofa – clumsily, side first – and dumped myself beside her, with her long plait against the sofa by my bottom. The springs in the sofa whined piteously, accompanied by the strings of the cello and the piano.

I suddenly realised the situation was dangerous and absurd. Nonna was still clinging round my neck, her eyes tight shut. Her pale lips were so near mine it would have been criminal not to kiss her. Calmly, as if taking off a scarf, I disengaged myself from her arm and placed her hand on her knee.

‘I’d really like to invite you to one of my competitions sometime,’ I said graciously. ‘And you can ask me to your concert.’

Strangely enough, this awkward incident didn’t damage our friendship.

Nonna was well brought up and had lots of common sense. Unlike me; I’ve suffered all my life from my inability to understand my feelings, impulses and thoughts, but she seemed to see her own feelings with terrifying clarity. And, as I now know, she was well able to control them.

We never had much time, Nonna and I. Once we went to the Artillery Museum outside the Peter and Paul Fortress. Another time it was the Naval Museum on the point on Vasilyi Island. We took care not to meet in our own part of town: we had an unwritten agreement about that.

At that time in Leningrad there was a craze for the band Boney M. It was every young person’s dream to be able to hum along to their songs while dancing at a disco.

When I discovered how good Nonna’s English was, I begged a friend to lend me a tape of Boney M’s songs for an afternoon. That afternoon the flat of the musical family Rozenberg, in its block adorned with the fairy-tale bird, echoed with unprecedented and unthinkable sounds:

Ra-ra-rasputin, lover of the Russian queen,
They put some poison into his wine.
Ra-ra-rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine,
He drank it all and said ‘I feel fine!’

Nonna translated conscientiously for me in her rather grating voice. The cello and the piano listened and reeled. Nonna didn’t know what ‘love machine’ meant.

Nor did I. For many years I imagined a beautiful merry-go-round, all lit up, on which the besotted queen, the Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, happily whirled round with Rasputin. When it finally dawned on me what the phrase really implied I nearly died of embarrassment. I’m no innocent and I’ve always had my share of feminine attention, but the fact is that to this day I still have no clear idea of what a ‘love machine’ is! And I haven’t the slightest wish to find out.

In the middle of our linguistic studies we heard the lock of the front door.

Nonna’s mother, a thin lady with a small dark moustache, appeared on the threshold just as the vocalist Frank Farian uttered the song’s final words in a tone of gloomy reproach:

‘Oh, those Russians!’

Once the shocked expression had faded from the lady’s face she asked me my name and where I was from (even now my pronunciation betrays that I’m not a native of Leningrad). She put her questions in a friendly tone, which calmed me down. But Nonna looked as if she’d just been told she was about to be married off.

‘Do come and see us again, young man,’ said Nonna’s mother, smiling indulgently as I stuck my arm into the wrong sleeve of my jacket.

Next day, smitten by pangs of conscience, I slipped round to Nonna’s and pushed a piece of paper into our secret hole.

‘Did you get into trouble? Tell them you were helping me with my English homework.’

But the main reason I felt guilty was that I wanted to use the Rasputin song to impress the school beauty, the slalom-skier Lyuba.

My message was not answered.

My contact with Nonna had occasionally been interrupted for a few days before. But this time two weeks passed, then three – and our secret hole stayed empty. Something stopped me writing her another note. Despite my enormous admiration for her home as a blend of museum and library, deep down I nurtured a dark hostility against these custodians of musical purity.

Leningrad hadn’t yet become my home city, my foster-father so to speak. For me it was still nothing more than a fussy aristocrat in whose shops I could buy sausages, cheese and toilet paper for my mother back home in the country.

One morning, after a sociology lesson in which the deputy principal spouted at great length about Soviet Jews going astray and moving to Israel, I was sent for by the principal.

‘A telegram has come for you, Demidov.’

I froze.

Mum? Or Dad? A little grey thought dismal and habitual, darted through my brain. From early childhood I have lived shadowed by such thoughts. I could never separate my worry for my old and much loved parents from a selfish fear of being left on my own.

‘WILL EXPECT YOU TOMORROW 6.30PM OUTSIDE VYBORGSKY CINEMA STOP WE LEAVE FOR GOOD STOP NONNA’ was what I read.

When I looked up the ends of my mouth were somewhere up near my ears: clearly my parents at home were fine.

‘You’re a bit young to be chasing the ladies, Demidov!’ said the principal in a voice like lead. ‘What does she mean, ‘leave for good’? Where’s she off to?’

‘I don’t know, Victor Ilyich,’ I answered aimlessly. ‘Maybe another city….’

‘You don’t write like this if you’re merely moving to another city! So that’s where she’s going, your long-nosed darling? Maybe you’d like to go there too?’ The principal rubbed his bald head with a worried expression and blew his nose. ‘You’re going nowhere tomorrow, Demidov. Are you trying to wreck your career? Soon you’ll be off to Poland, to the junior championships. It’s not for nothing we’ve spent two years educating you and trying to make a human being out of you!’

I sighed as I closed the principal’s door.

Next day, right up to sunset, I was tormented all day by a word unfamiliar to me till then, the strange word ‘never’. It seemed such a ridiculously large word that it wouldn’t fit into my mind, so that I felt I was not myself.

‘What’s the matter with you today?’ asked my trainer. ‘You’re not concentrating, your breathing’s all wrong…’

The training session was due to end at 6.15. The nearer the hands on the wall-clock approached that time, the worse my usual exercises went. Finally there was the bell, and I rushed for the door.

‘Not so fast, Demidov!’

The trainer stopped me with an omniscient grimace.

‘You’re not going anywhere today.’

‘I suppose I’m allowed to go to the toilet?’ I asked crossly.

‘Okay, hurry up,’ said the trainer graciously. His gold tooth flashed.

‘I’ll be waiting in the corridor.’ He looked thoughtful. ‘Though the fact is, you’re too young to need escorting to the loo.’

He had a tendency to philosophise whether it was appropriate or not, so we’d dubbed him The Philosopher.

‘One day, when you’re grown up and start competing abroad, you will be watched by experts when you go to the toilet – you’ve heard of doping, of course.’

Opening the window was as easy as pie, and it was no more than a couple of metres down to the ground.

That it was April (and felt like February) and that I was wearing a singlet, training shorts and gym-shoes was another matter. But once I’d opened the window there was nothing for it but to jump. I would certainly have got pneumonia if I hadn’t noticed through a half-open door that the huge quilted jacket belonging to aunt Dusia the caretaker was hanging in her den. In this rig-out I reached my final rendezvous with my almost foreign princess.

‘It must’ve been a surprise when you got my telegram,’ said Nonna without reacting to my strange clothes.

‘No, not really,’ I answered. ‘How else could you have reached me? You couldn’t very well hang around outside the school.’

We went into a tall building next to the cinema and took the lift to the top floor. I pulled at the iron door to the attic, but it was locked. We sat down sadly on the landing at the top of the stairs. For a moment neither spoke. Finally I asked, ‘Did you get into trouble because of me?’

Nonna shrugged her shoulders and said nothing.

‘Is it because I’m such a… such an ignorant country bumpkin? Because I can’t tell the difference between Schubert and Schumann?’

Nonna shook her head.

‘No, Vanya, it’s not that.’

‘Why then?’

‘Because you’re Russian, Vanya.’

I was so astonished at her answer that I didn’t even take offence. I sat silent for a time, thinking. In the end I said sympathetically:

‘So your parents are Zionists?’

Nonna sighed.

‘Yes, they are,’ she said. ‘But… they’re Zionists who are very dear to me.’

Suddenly Brezhnev’s speech popped up in my confused mind, the famous one when he accidentally began with the words: ‘Dear Comrade Zionists!’’

‘So you’re moving to Israel?’ I asked.

‘To the USA. It’s where my mother’s brother lives.’

‘But what about you? D’you… want to move there?’

Nonna lifted her head but didn’t look at me.

‘I don’t know if you’ll understand me,’ she began. ‘My parents… have made a mistake. They always said they’d give me a special education not the sort people get… in Soviet families. I read world literature and went to art lectures at the Hermitage. My parents thought this would all be… a sort of preparation for the day we … left the country. They said classical music and the Hermitage art collections belong to world culture. But now I know I have roots in this part of Leningrad. Part of Russia. I don’t know how I’ll be able to… just forget everything. Leave everyone I know. Draw a line through the whole lot.’

I said nothing. Little by little something like contempt began to grow in my soul. Nonna was sitting beside me on the stair, but the fact was we were already separated by a national boundary – the holiest boundary of all for every good Soviet citizen.

‘Then obviously you have to go. It’s your destiny.’

How could I know that fourteen years later I myself would find myself in the despicable role of a rat leaving a sinking ship?

‘Please write your home address,’ said Nonna, offering me a notepad. ‘Perhaps best not to put your name… just to be on the safe side.’

I hurriedly wrote down my address in Mikhaylovka and stood up.

‘I’ve got to dash,’ I said. ‘It wasn’t easy to get away. The Philosopher will be after me. All the best for the journey… to your American uncle.’

Nonna got up too.

‘Wait, Vanya, I’ll come down in the lift with you!’ she said and her voice, melodious as a cello, echoed down the stairwell.

‘Hell, I’m no prince, I can use the stairs!’ I muttered and rushed down them.

I’d expected real trouble from the school authorities. But surprisingly the Philosopher showed a certain respect for what I’d done.

‘That’s enough Romeo and Juliet, Demidov,’ he said without conviction. ‘Just get on with your lessons, you… dissident.’

None of my schoolfellows knew anything about Nonna. When I had a date with her I used to say I was getting a visit from my brother from Cherepovets. I never discussed Nonna with anyone. Sportsmen mature early, and even at twelve years old we chattered a lot about girls. We classified some as ‘attractive’ and some as ‘not bad’, while others were ‘cows’ or ‘crocodiles’.

If I’d discussed her with my friends, I’m afraid poor Nonna would have ended up as a cow or a crocodile. On the other hand, even the first category wouldn’t have been enough to hold Lyuba the slalom girl. She needed a special category of her own. Even ‘bloody attractive’ wouldn’t have done her justice.

A couple of years later Lyuba was found to be pregnant by her trainer and was quickly removed from the school. The trainer’s wife was some party bigwig and they had a daughter and he didn’t want to divorce just for the lovely Lyuba. But girls like Lyuba usually don’t end up as Single mums. After going back home to the hostile Vologda district to have her son, she married a man from Moscow and that’s where she’s settled now.

A whole year later, after I’d already been abroad for the first time and had perhaps grown a little wiser, a letter reached me from Nonna. I was disappointed it didn’t come in an American envelope with colourful stamps but in a crumpled Soviet envelope specially printed to celebrate the seventieth birthday of Comrade Ustinov the Defence Minister.

‘Dear Vanya,’ wrote the Zionists’ daughter. ‘We’re living in New York, in a place called Brighton Beach. Lots of people from the Soviet Union live here, and there are Russian shops and restaurants. My schoolmates are nice. Americans know nothing about Russia. They think Leningrad used to be called Stalingrad. They think everybody in Russia must be starving and that no one is allowed even to have a camera of their own. They are astonished that I’ve read Mark Twain and Fenimore Cooper. I often think of Leningrad and my old school. I often think of you. We shall never meet again, so I’m no longer afraid to say something I couldn’t say last time we met. I knew right from the beginning there was almost no chance at all you would respond to me. You’re good-looking, Vanya, and popular, but I’m not pretty at all and could have offered you nothing but my music. I hope things are going well for you at school and in sport. It’ll make me happy if one day I see your name in the papers. Now I no longer live in Leningrad, it’s your city. Take good care of it and love it. There is no other city like it in the whole world.

‘I wish you success and happiness.

‘Nonna.’

That was the first love-letter that ever came to me.

The first – and the last. I’ve never had any from anyone else.

For me, Nonna’s letter was the start of a new love, my love of the City.

At first I couldn’t understand the City, no matter how hard I tried. I couldn’t understand what it all meant: the Alexander Column in Palace Square, the golden dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral, the eternal flame on Mars Field. I didn’t understand why they Dred the cannon every day at noon at the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Where I came from everything had its function: the forest and the river and the kolkhoz acres; all beautiful, but not with an abstract beauty. There were berries and mushrooms in the forest, and the river was for bathing and fishing. Even the church had its function somewhere old women could pray – while in Leningrad the whole of Nevsky was full of unused churches.

But time passed, and gradually the City bewitched me. The first thing I fell in love with was the atlantes that hold up the portico of the New Hermitage….

These ten granite giants in Palace Square became the greatest weight-lifting idols in the world to me. When some architect told me they are known as ‘lazy atlantes’, meaning they have no actual weight-bearing function, I took it as badly as if I’d been accused of laziness myself.

To hell with architectural theories. All I know is that the City wouldn’t survive without those fellows; maybe even the whole vault of heaven might fall on us if they were moved from the New Hermitage portico. Inside the Hermitage I came to love the 1812 Gallery with all its portraits of young Russian generals, and the enormous Georgiy room, whose ceiling needs neither atlantes nor caryatids since it hangs from invisible chains. Among the paintings my favourites were Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ and ‘Danaë and the Shower of Gold’. Danaë’s frank expression and irregular features reminded me of Nonna Rozenberg.

My poor Danaë. In 1985 a madman with a knife and sulphuric acid destroyed her. Now, when I return to the City of my youth, I have nowhere to go to see Nonna Rozenberg – the girl who for me turned into a shower of gold.

Translated by Silvester Mazzarella

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