Piranesi

30 August 2013 | Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel För många länder sedan (‘Many lands ago’ Schildts & Söderströms, 2013; Finnish edition: Monta maata sitten; Otava, 2013). Introduction by Pia Ingström

‘I assume your father wanted you to become a doctor?’ asked Igor at the beginning of our life together. My parents did indeed want me to become a doctor. Not a pathologist, but a general practitioner. I became an art historian instead. There was a time when my area of research aroused curiosity in Igor.

‘Why Piranesi?’ he wondered.

‘As a child I devoured classic novels about pale, emaciated families living in a cellar,’ I explained jokingly. ‘I became interested in catacombs and vaults. That’s why I wanted to study the history of drawing.’

I’ve always had a fascination for underground spaces. I’m drawn to them like a homing missile. This interest of mine must have genetic roots. My mother was born in a bomb shelter during the first German air raid over Leningrad.

My grandmother was a schoolteacher. During the war she often had to teach her classes down in the shelters. The first light my mother ever saw was the dark, obscure light of the underground vault.

While studying at the university, I’d first wanted to write my thesis about Albrecht Dürer, but that was before Giovanni Battista Piranesi suddenly came bounding into my life.

I was dating a young artist. We had met in a discotheque at the Muchina Institute of the Arts. He was a fragile creature with angelic features that he tried to keep hidden behind a bandit’s beard.

The artist sketched courtyards. He was besotted with their sinister magic. One courtyard led into another, and this in turn into a third. To me it all looked more like geometry than art, but I liked his work nonetheless. I was twenty years old. I was studying Marxism-Leninism and the dogmatic theory of art. Then came perestroika, bringing with it new exhibitions, magazines, mass meetings. Everyone was moonstruck back then, not just us twenty-year-olds.

When the artist finally managed to lure me into his lair, I discovered a photo album on his bedside table. The album contained etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an artist to whom I was soon to devote my academic career – and, indeed, my entire life.

Suddenly the courtyard interiors sketched by the angel bandit didn’t seem all that original any more. My passion for him dwindled. Such was the grim maximalism of youth. Since then I have loved Carceri, the prison suite by Piranesi.

My interest in vaults also stems from an old secret. I was eleven years old. One evening I was on my way home from the skating rink and walked past an old church that was to be demolished any day. The dark-blue sky was as peaceful as it can only be in the eyes of a child. My path was lined with tall streetlamps, glittering snowflakes dancing in their buttery yellow light. The snow creaked beneath my feet. Above my head I heard a voice saying hastily:

‘Little girl, my hands are full. Come and help me get out my door keys.’

I cannot remember whether the man’s hands really were full. However, I do remember that I declined to follow him. He became angry and shouted again:

‘Come and help me take out my keys!’

The word keys he pronounced as if in baby language. It didn’t fit the otherwise threatening air about him. I was amused. The man isn’t right in the head, I thought.

Barely had the thought entered my mind when the man knocked me over, skates and all, and I fell into a gap between two planks in the fence around the church. In that split second, it never occurred to me that I might have called for help. When I realised this, it was too late: I was alone with him in the church vaults, lit only by his pocket torch. I was gripped by such a powerful wave of fear that I could neither cry nor breathe; I just stood there, my whole body trembling.

The man was missing a few of his front teeth. On his head he wore a battered old rabbit-skin hat with earflaps.

‘Now let me show you something,’ he said.

He sounded like the flasher my friend and I had once encountered in Sosnovka Park. But instead of opening his flies my kidnapper started unbuttoning his dirty, heavy quilted jacket. Beneath the jacket his upper body was bare. Two thin leather straps were cutting into his colourless skin, one of them pulled tightly around his upper chest under his arms, the other tied further down beneath his ribcage. Between the straps I caught a glimpse of a tattoo.

‘Look!’ he commanded me, illuminating himself in the light of the torch.

My heart was beating so much that I could hardly breathe, but at that moment I realised that perhaps he wasn’t thinking of murdering me after all – and burst into tears.

‘Look, I said!’ bellowed the man.

The tattoo showed a cockerel and a speech bubble saying ‘I suck real good’.

‘Now, you see?’ The man sounded almost triumphant.

‘Yes,’ I sniffled. ‘Please, sir, let me go. My mother is waiting for me.’

This is what hundreds of children kidnapped by maniacs must say. The words rarely have an effect. Suddenly a blade flashed before my eyes.

‘Take it!’ cried my kidnapper in a high-pitched squeal. I backed off. The knife fell to the concrete floor. The man bent down and picked it up again.

‘Take the knife and cut!’

This was the worst of it. What did he actually want? For me to start cutting up his bare chest, the cockerel crowing the words ‘I suck real good’? Or did he want me to slit open the leather straps constricting his chest? I reached out my hand and took the knife. The shaft was padded with several layers of duct tape.

With the knife in my hand, I stood there for an eternity. I didn’t dare lift my eyes. Gradually the shaft of light shifted direction. I looked at the man. He looked absent. It was as though he had forgotten all about me. His breathing was shallow and he seemed to be looking above my head, muttering something to himself. Slowly he sank down on his folded jacket. All of a sudden he let out a shriek and landed on his back at my feet. His chest convulsed. His head slumped in different directions at an unnatural angle. His jaws were clenched tightly together. But most disconcertingly, his black, rabbit-fur hat still sat perfectly on his head. I never did find out what colour his hair was.

When the man finally lay still, I thought he was dead. As I was making my way out of the vault I stumbled over my skates and slammed my chin against one of the steps. I staggered out into the street and was overcome by a sense of shock. I hadn’t expected the world outside the vault to remain utterly unchanged. The darkening, bluish evening was every bit as benevolent as before and the streetlamps gleamed, buttery yellow.

I never spoke about this incident to anyone. When I was younger, I kept quiet primarily because I had broken the most important rule of all and allowed myself to be kidnapped by a stranger. As I grew older I kept quiet because the whole episode was so unfathomable that nobody would have believed me.

Nowadays we have the internet; checking different facts is no problem whatsoever. As a child I had to piece an explanation together all by myself. I didn’t know what the tattooed cockerel and the man’s knocked-out front teeth really meant. Ten years later I learnt about it from a young man who had spent his military service as a prison officer.

For a long time I was convinced that my kidnapper had never left that vault. I imagined his body being discovered by a janitor. I saw the vault man’s body, naked and vulnerable, lying on my omnipotent father’s rust-free, stainless-steel autopsy table.

When I was fifteen years old, I read about epilepsy in an encyclopaedia. At that, I experienced yet another shock. The man in the vault had probably not died as a result of that seizure.

To my mind, not only did the man’s presumed death represent atonement for his sins, it also lent me a sense of guilt. For so many years, he had been my invisible companion; I spent far too long thinking about him. In some way, that man – poverty-stricken, repellent, deranged – had taken possession of me. I was incapable of resistance. I allowed him to become a part of my personality; he had a right to that much. He hadn’t murdered me; he had given me life. And at the same time he’d entrusted me with something: he had infected me with a love of vaults.

His spirit appeared to me on a school visit to the Kazan Cathedral. Back then, the Cathedral included a museum on the history of religion and atheism, and at that time it featured an exhibition on the Spanish Inquisition. Even in the prison beneath the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg could I make out the shadow of the vault man. I saw the contours of his face in The scream by Edvard Munch and The disasters of war by Francisco de Goya.

When I began researching the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, I stumbled across another odd coincidence. It was the vault man looking back at me from one of Piranesi’s graphical self-portraits. The same expression, the same penetrating stare. In this portrait Piranesi even had a prisoner’s haircut. For the first time I became a bit scared. A month went by – and eventually I began to take pleasure in this likeness.

Piranesi’s Carceri gave my soul a strange sense of peace. The black-and-white repetitions of small motifs seemed to calm me, like a dark but life-affirming lullaby. Beauty and fear were woven together, promising renewal and rebirth. As a native of this city, I had quickly learnt to find security in insecurity. Piranesi helped me fight the force of gravity. No other artist had ever managed to convey the essence of this city better than he, though he had never visited St Petersburg.

A ghost was passing through the Soviet Union – the ghost of perestroika. Established art historians watched it, followed it with disconcerted eyes. Choosing Piranesi as the subject of my thesis was almost as hopeless as it would have been ten years previously. His prison suite Carceri was an expression of megalomania, a cosmic singularity, the unbearable nightmare of being – in short, everything that the Soviet theory of art had spent all those years resisting.

 One of my friends wanted to write her thesis about Giuseppe Archimboldo, motivated by the fact that he was said to be one of the forefathers of surrealism and cubism. The faculty administration dourly pointed out to her that Archimboldo’s works ‘certainly represent something, but nobody knows what’.

I ended up having to defend my thesis long before it was completed. I wrote an essay about my motivation for the work and ran, brandishing it, from one professor to the next. I posited that Piranesi’s works were ‘imbued with anti-bourgeois pathos’ and compared Carceri with the London Suite by Gustave Doré. I claimed that the repetition of visual motifs symbolised the excesses of the individual in a totalitarian society (by which, of course, I meant capitalism). A few quotations by Friedrich Engels came in very handy. My greatest and most important trump card, however, was Sergey Eisenstein, who held Piranesi in very high regard.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s black-and-white works may look three-dimensional, but they have a fourth dimension, too: Time. The era during which one-dimensional concepts such as societal classes and the masses were seared into the minds of Soviet citizens had most definitely passed. The word ‘space’ no longer sounded suspicious. Time had also become a righteous concept. New Russian translations appeared of the works of Marcel Proust, one of the most prominent interpreters of time and space. He had previously been denounced by our ideologists. As it happens, I’ve never particularly cared for Proust – in fact, I’d cared for him about as little as I cared for the delicious idleness of dolce far niente. As my parents’ diligent child, to this day I feel a sense of anxious necessity to busy myself at all times.

My father respected my choice of subject. He himself was not unacquainted with a sense of the macabre. My mother, on the other hand, was unhappy.

‘Even Doré has more joie de vivre than Piranesi,’ she commented sourly. ‘How can a young girl become fixated with something so gloomy?’

As it happened I had my finger on the pulse. Shortly after defending my thesis on the works of Piranesi, gloominess suddenly became the next in-thing. A new strand emerged within the world of cinema: necrorealism. In the faculty smoking room I was introduced to Yevgeny Yufit, the father of the genre.

Reviewers scoffed at Yufit, though in fact necrorealism was merely a natural reflection of our own existence. As Brezhnev was nearing the end of his life, he was wheeled out on to a stage by members of his entourage, propped up, praised, carefully placed in front of a microphone. They opened his eyelids, just like in Gogol’s horror story Viy – and with that, it began. Amidst all the slobbering and muttering (which our teachers respectfully called simply ‘discourse of lesser clarity’) we made out the words:

‘Dear oil workers in Afghanistan!’

Leonid Ilyich was an old man. He was confusing Afghanistan with Azerbaijan. The party took good care of Brezhnev’s living mummy, and all the while the regular flow of zinc coffins bringing home the bodies of Soviet youngsters killed in battle continued from Kabul.

The most important mummy in the country was preserved in a mausoleum in Moscow, a small pinkish body trussed in a smart suit. This was the place cosmonauts visited before setting off for outer space. What did they whisper to Vladimir Ilyich? Morituri te salutant?

In my father’s archive there was one book that he considered a pathologist’s pride and joy: a guidebook to the Lenin mausoleum, published in 1946.

Its author, one Boris Zbarskiy, who had singlehandedly embalmed Lenin’s body, was unable to avoid reprisals. It was clear that he had somewhat misunderstood the honourable task he had been assigned. In his guidebook he described embalming techniques used by the Ancient Egyptians. On top of this, he mentioned that the leader of the global proletariat had undergone an autopsy.

Igor understands the feelings I have towards Lenin’s mummy. Like many Muscovite children, he has memories of standing in that mausoleum, utterly petrified. And this was long before the advent of necrorealism as an artistic genre.

They say that, at the end of perestroika, the Lenin Museum in Tampere enquired into purchasing the embalmed body. It’s surprising that Yeltsin never sold it. This, the man who, on the eve of economic collapse, tried to sell Eastern Karelia back to Finland and the Kuril Islands to Japan.

Translated by David Hackston

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