I stood in the arrivals terminal of the Zurich International Airport, holding a sign with the name Kovalev and feeling happy.
Our son wasn’t even a year old and my wife was at home with him. Meanwhile, I couldn’t seem to find a steady job. Life was hard in those days and we had to scrimp on everything. It was sufficiently demeaning that I couldn’t earn enough money for my family, and on top of that we had two birthdays coming up—first my son’s, then my wife’s. I desperately needed money for gifts. I wanted to buy my loved ones something wonderful and special, or maybe whisk them away on vacation somewhere; do something, in short, to make them happy. But there wasn’t even enough money to pay the rent. And then luck struck: I got a call from the interpreter agency. They needed me to meet a client at the airport, drive him to the hotel, then the bank, then to Montreux. So that’s how I ended up standing in the airport, enjoying life. Aside from the promise of good pay, I was especially excited that the trip would take me to an extremely important place for me—to Nabokov. The client had reserved the very same room at the Montreux Palace where the writer had lived, so even the lowly interpreter would have a chance to visit that sacred place, the dream of any Russian reader. I waited for the delayed flight with my sign and daydreamed about how I would sit at his desk, open the drawer, and finally see the famous inkblot that I’d read so much about. Nabokov’s inkblot! I’d be able to touch it with my fingers! Joy!
Then I saw Kovalev. I recognized him immediately. And he, of course, did not recognize me. I hadn’t even thought that this could be the same Kovalev. Of all the Kovalevs in the world!
My first crazy thought was to thrust the sign into his hands, turn around, and leave.
But his wife and daughter were with him. The girl was around five years old; she smiled at me and handed me a penguin, the stuffed toy she carried with her on the plane. I didn’t know what to do with it, but it turned out that I was only supposed to make his acquaintance. The penguin’s name was Pinga.
So instead of leaving, I shook hands with Kovalev and started saying everything that’s expected in such a situation, things like “Welcome to Zurich! How was your flight?” and so on.
We drove to the Baur-Au-Lac, the hotel where they were staying.
In the taxi, Kovalev kept trying to work out some sort of urgent problems on two cell phones at once and in his short breaks engaged me in conversation.
He had emphatic opinions on every subject.
“Swissair has really let itself go! The flight was late and service was horrendous!”
Or, “Those Alps are nothing. You should see our Altai Mountains!”
Or, “The Swiss are so good-natured only because nobody’s kicked their ass in two hundred years!”
As the lowly accompanying interpreter, I didn’t argue. They paid me by the hour.
I remembered Kovalev as a skinny blond kid wearing a Komsomol pin that nobody else bothered to wear, and that he, too, took off when he left the Institute each day. But now, here he was, a “New Russian” in an expensive suit, complete with a stately paunch and premature bald spot.
At one point we were students together at the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute, I in the German department and he in the English department, two grades above me. He was a Komsomol official and gave speeches at faculty meetings and school assemblies. They loved Kovalev in the administration because he announced the decisions of the Party congress in a pleasant voice, as if they were joyful revelations, and we hated him for it. After finishing at the Institute, he stayed on the Komsomol line in the capitol’s district committee. It was clear; a guy like him would go far in that life. I despised him.
Life was completely different now, but Kovalev still ended up on top. And I ended up on the bottom.
Kovalev didn’t even think to use my services as an interpreter—at the hotel he checked in using fluent English and headed to the bank for his meetings, sending me off on a walk around Zurich with his wife and daughter. My former classmate quickly made it clear that he was paying for a lackey, not an interpreter. He was obviously convinced that his high status made him deserving of such service.
Kovalev’s wife’s name was Alina. A wife like that was also guaranteed for someone of Kovalev’s status; she was young, beautiful, and, of course, blond. And the stroll around Zurich was also appropriate for her high class—she bought only the more expensive things in the boutiques on the Bahnhofstrasse. Yanochka, the daughter, was bored with shopping, so I amused her with conversations about penguins.
“Did you know,” she asked, “that penguins love their children so much that they don’t eat anything at all for half a year while they warm their baby’s egg so it doesn’t get cold?”
“Yeah, I think I’ve seen something like that on TV,” I answered. “And I think it’s actually the father penguin who sits on the egg.”
“Really?” Yanochka wondered. I think this increased her pride in her own father. “My daddy buys me anything at all that I want! And also he promised me that I could ride a pony!”
It seemed like Alina had been to Zurich before, because in the end she was leading me around the stores instead of the other way around. I gloomily trailed along behind with her purchases. Then we sat in the Sprüngli café where Alina told me that she was a former athlete who used to do rhythmic gymnastics. I could tell from her figure. It seemed like she wanted someone to talk to, and I found out that her dream was to work as a trainer, but that her husband wanted her to stay at home with the child. And then she started telling me about how good a father Kovalev was, how much he loved Yanochka, absolutely doted on her!
I stared at Alina, trying to understand. Did she really love him or had she simply made an advantageous marriage? She didn’t give the impression of a dumb blond, and she actually seemed to love Kovalev.
“To be honest, I can’t stand shopping,” she admitted suddenly. “I just have to get presents for some acquaintances and I’m always afraid I’ll forget someone.”
And as a parting gesture she even told me a joke:
“Two New Russians meet in Zurich on the Bahnhofstrasse. One shows the other a tie: ‘Look! I bought this at that stand for two thousand francs!’ And the other says: ‘You’re such an idiot! I saw the exact same tie at that other stand for three thousand!’”
She burst out in happy, youthful laughter. Pinga waved goodbye with his wing, or maybe his flipper, and we parted until morning—the next day I was to go with them to Montreux.
That night our son didn’t fall asleep for a long time, cried, and had a fever. My wife sang him the lullaby her mother used to sing for her.
Schlaf Chindli, schlaf
De Vater hüetet d Schaaf
De Mueter schütlet s Boimeli
Da falled abe troimeli
Schlaf Chindli, schlaf
I couldn’t sleep either, so I lay awake and listened to her lullaby and my son’s light wheezing. These were the two most important people on earth, and I really needed a job, urgently needed to get money for them. I wanted my son too to be able to say someday:
“My daddy buys me anything at all that I want!”
But I had no money and still couldn’t find real work, getting by on these chance jobs instead. There was also the fear that my wife was secretly asking her parents for money. I was ashamed. Just a jobless Ausländer. A poor foreigner in a rich country.
The child finally fell asleep and my wife lay down and pressed up against me, but I still couldn’t sleep.
“So, tell me what’s wrong,” she said. “I can feel that something’s bothering you. Come on, love, tell me about it. We’re together; what can be so bad?”
I told her about Kovalev, how, many years ago, he was a lackey to the regime, and how I despised him.
“If we had met somewhere by chance, I wouldn’t have even given him my hand to shake. But here he is with this pile of money from who-knows-where—and I’m his lackey.”
“You’re not a lackey. You’re earning money. Doing honest work, that’s all. Any job can be done with dignity.”
“You know,” I said, “money smells everywhere, but in different countries it has different odors. In Switzerland, money masks its smell with deodorant, but in Russia, money reeks. Petty cash stinks like poverty, but big money stinks like dirt, crime, theft, bribery, deception, and blood. Big money can’t be honest there. Where do you think Kovalev got all that money? You don’t make that kind of money in Russia in ten lifetimes through honest labor. And now he comes here with his bag of dirty money and opens a bank account. And I get a cut of the action. Here I am, earning his filthy money with my ‘honest labor’ as a lackey! And I’m supposed to do this with dignity!”
She said, “Love, don’t do it! Turn it down, then. To hell with the money! But go to sleep now, it’s so late.”
The next day I headed to Montreux with my clients.
On the way, Kovalev shared more of his views on the world:
“They’ve put up all this radar on the autobahn, and they’re so scared. You don’t even really live your lives here, you’re too afraid.”
Or, “Why do the Swiss need an army? How many billions for a couple of airplanes so that someone can fly around over the Alps as much as they want? You have so much money here you don’t know what to do with it!”
Or, “Now Nabokov—he was a genius. All of these modern writers are shit!”
My former acquaintance’s passion for Nabokov didn’t fit with either his Komsomol past or his Big Business present. But I didn’t ask him about it. Because what an idiotic question—why does a person admire Nabokov?
But still, it was strange. When we were young, Nabokov was banned. You had to copy him out by hand, type him out on the typewriter. We passed him along secretly to one another and thought of ourselves as a persecuted sect, his books our treasured riches. No, maybe we felt like a battalion at war—because there was a war on, a war of the system against our minds and souls. And Nabokov was more than a writer; he was our weapon. Reading was more than a way to pass the time out of boredom, but a fight, a defense. We didn’t want to be slaves and defended the only morsel of freedom in that life—our heads. Nabokov was our symbol in those years. Nabokov marked the dividing line between Us and Them. Kovalev was definitely a part of Them. And now he was driving me to Montreux. Everything was so strange . . .
The little girl got carsick and we had to stop several times. Kovalev moved to the back to sit with his daughter and started to distract her with different stories. He thought up fairy tales in which the main character, played by Yanochka, was always landing in the hands of bandits or dragons and battling her way out. The Yanochka in the fairy tale always won. She listened intently, not smiling.
It was February. Moscow was still in the midst of a blizzard, but in Montreux spring had already begun, the sun beat down from the sky, and seagulls flew lightly and playfully over the mirror-like lake.
The famous quay was not yet black then from Muslim burkas—instead it was full of neat old ladies in furs and sunglasses taking their daily walks. Kovalev unzipped his coat and squinted in the direction of the Alps, blue in the haze:
“Yeah, this is just how I imagined everything would be!”
I had to take endless photographs of him with his wife and child at every corner.
When Kovalev registered at the Montreux Palace, he questioned the girl behind the counter suspiciously to make sure he really was given the same room where Nabokov had lived. The affirmative answer did not satisfy him, and he asked again when the bearded bellboy wheeled the suitcases into the hotel room. The bellboy also assured Kovalev that he was not being tricked. The bellboy turned out to be from Serbia. The Americans were bombing Belgrade and blood had only very recently been spilled in Yugoslavia, so the Serb, having heard Russian being spoken, refused to take his tip out of gratitude to Russia—and immediately received twice as large a tip. Kovalev and the bellboy even hugged.
Kovalev was disappointed with Nabokov’s room. I explained to him that after Vera’s death everything had been remodeled, and the writer’s space had been divided into separate rooms; but he was appalled by the crooked low ceilings, narrow windows, and tiny balcony.
“How could he stand to live here?”
Old photographs of Nabokov hung on the walls of the room, and Kovalev wanted to recreate each one. He called room service to request a chess set and sat down at a table on the balcony with Alina, just like Nabokov with his Vera. He made me take lots of replicas.
Of course, Kovalev also wanted to have a picture of himself behind Nabokov’s desk. For the first time, I was glad Nabokov was dead.
When Kovalev and his wife went out onto the balcony, I opened the treasured drawer—the memorial inkblot, the one I had once read about, the one I had dreamed about touching for so many years, was right where it was supposed to be. I touched it lightly with my finger. I don’t know what I was trying to discover but Yanochka prevented me from doing it. She ran up and peered into the drawer.
“What’s that? Show me!”
“Here, look!” I said. “The inkblot.”
She was surprised and obviously disappointed.
“An inkblot . . .”
Kovalev said the room was too small, and they ended up staying in another room, a giant one.
They put me up in the hotel next to the train station for two days.
First thing in Montreux, I had to look for a pony. After all, Kovalev had promised Yanochka a pony. Kovalev and his wife stayed behind in their hotel room, while Yanochka and I set off to ride a pony. The little horse was sad and smelled terrible.
Yanochka was keen on me for some reason and didn’t want to say goodbye, so the Kovalevs invited me over for dinner. At the table, Kovalev was either in raptures over the beauty of Lake Geneva and Swiss cleanliness and order, or else he expressed dissatisfaction: the hotel’s sauna was not properly heated, security at the entrance was lax—an invitation to any old person off the street if he isn’t lazy—and most importantly—you trip over Russians at every turn! For some reason the abundance of his compatriots bothered him most of all.
I was amazed at how lovingly Alina looked at her husband. You can’t fake eyes like that.
The riddle of Eva Braun. How can women sincerely love criminals, crooks, and ruffians? Will anybody ever be able to explain this?
Maybe it was animal instinct? The male’s place within the herd does determine the survival of his offspring. The most cruel and devious ones become the leaders and wield the power, so their children have a better chance of survival. Women want to bear the children of leaders, of alpha males who give them and their offspring protection. Maybe that’s it?
Or maybe everything is simpler: a woman doesn’t fall in love with a criminal, but with a man, with the vitality and strength he exudes. She falls in love with his force of life.
At dessert Kovalev declared, “How can you live here? It’s so boring! Are you even living here? You’re just rotting away!”
I was eating on his dime and had to agree with everything.
“Here, in the West,” he said, chewing with pleasure, “people are so miserly, putting everything off until tomorrow. But back home in Russia, people are greedy with life. Because if you don’t take something from life right now, tomorrow there might not be anything left!”
He did everything greedily—ate greedily, laughed greedily, sucked the air coming off the lake greedily into his nostrils. He even took photographs greedily. Nothing was enough for him.
But more than anything, Kovalev loved taking pictures with his daughter. It seemed like he sincerely loved her a lot. He called her “bunny,” which was distasteful for me because that’s what we called our son—“bunny.”
That night I tossed and turned in my bed at the train station hotel. I couldn’t sleep out of self-hatred. Was I really jealous of this guy? Why was he the one staying in Nabokov’s hotel and not me? I’m the one who loves Nabokov. I’m the one who was saved by his books, banned long ago in our homeland. For some reason I had always thought that if I were able to touch that sacred inkblot, I would understand something very important, very deep. And now I had touched it—and what did I understand? What was the revelation?
I lay there, listening to the occasional late train pass, and the same miserable thoughts kept crawling into my head: why can Kovalev afford to spoil his wife and daughter while I have to play lackey to his rich family, just so I can get some money for my son’s and wife’s presents from this impossibly smug guy? Who is he? How did he get his money? Was he a better student than I was at the Institute? In that late Soviet era life, when you could make the choice between a small debasement—to be quiet—and a large one—to give speeches—he voluntary chose the large one. In any country, at any time, there is always a minimum level of immorality necessary to survive. But it’s possible to stop at that level. Though maybe it’s not, if you actually want to accomplish something in this life. I was certain that in the new epoch he was still choosing the larger debasement, disgrace, dishonor, in order to get even richer. I suddenly imagined that tomorrow morning I would tell him all of this right to his face and then leave. And only then did I fall asleep.
But the next day I drove them on an excursion to Chillon castle and was friendly, talkative, and attentive. I was gathering material for my Russian Switzerland and probably made a pretty good guide—I told them all about the Russian crowd in Chillon, sprinkling in amusing quotations.
I couldn’t stand myself, but I knew why I was doing it.
Russians are familiar with a particular kind of conversation: train talk. Strangers meet each other in a train car and spend a day, two days, three days in a cramped compartment together. And then they part forever. You might spill out your soul to a random traveling companion, tell him things that you’d never tell friends in your daily life. On that evening, our last evening together, we had one of those train talks.
Alina went to put her daughter to sleep, while Kovalev and I sat at the hotel bar, and he ordered a bottle of the most expensive cognac. It was unlikely that Kovalev was interested in me as a conversational companion; he probably just needed a witness to the causal manner in which he ordered the bottle, which cost the average monthly salary of a cashier at Migros Supermarket.
We drank. The cognac was actually outstanding.
I remember I told him a funny story about how Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn, two giants of Russian literature, never met in the Montreux Palace Hotel. They wrote to each other and agreed to meet: Nabokov wrote in his daybook: “6October, 11:00 Solzhenitsyn and wife.” Apparently Solzhenitsyn was waiting for a letter confirming the date. He came to Montreux with his wife Natalia, walked up to the hotel, but decided to drive on, thinking that Nabokov was either sick or for some reason didn’t want to see them. Meanwhile, the Nabokovs waited for their guests at the restaurant for an entire hour—without ordering lunch—not understanding why they weren’t showing up. After that, they never ended up meeting.
Kovalev shrugged his shoulders. I guess he didn’t think the story was funny.
Then we drank some more, and he suddenly smiled crookedly.
“I thought your face looked familiar right away, but I just couldn’t remember where I had seen you. Have we bumped into each other before?”
I assured him that, no, we hadn’t.
Alina called and said that she would stay in with Yanochka.
Kovalev started asking me about how I ended up in Switzerland, about my Swiss wife.
“Aren’t you bored among all these flowers and chocolates?”
He drank more than I did and quickly began to get drunk. Out of nowhere he started telling me about how his first wife was a bitch and how happy he was when they divorced.
“I came out of the courthouse and felt like I was flying! I swore I would never get married again. I kept my word for five years and then Alinka came along! I love my Alinka like a madman! How could you not love a woman like that? Have you seen her body? Tell me, have you?”
He had a revolting habit of slapping his companion first on the knee, then on the shoulder.
“And I love my Yanochka so much that I’d do anything for her! You believe me?”
I kept nodding my head the whole time. That was enough for him.
We sat there for a long time. In any case, one bottle wasn’t enough and he started ordering himself more shots.
Kovalev told me something muffled and unclear about his business, about the criminals he had to deal with, about how disgusting it was for him to take part in all this filth, and how he was doing it all only for Alina and Yanochka.
“See,” he yelled so loudly that everyone in the bar kept turning around to look at us, “I don’t have anything on this earth as dear as Yanochka! I’d kill anybody for her sake! If he so much as touches her with one finger! I’ll do everything for her! I’ll become a murderer myself! I’ll stuff my face with shit! I’d do everything for her, for my bunny! Got it?”
And then he whispered confidingly in my ear that he had ensured a future in Switzerland for his wife and daughter in case something were to happen to him.
“You never know,” he explained. “Anything could happen. But I did everything so that Yanochka can grow up here. Among all the flowers and chocolates! I’ve fixed it so that everything’s provided!”
When he was totally wasted, he started to confess that his enemies were out to kill him.
“See, I’m already a marked man! And I know it! And I know who!”
I think he didn’t really understand where he was and who he was talking to. He drunkenly growled, “But I won’t let them get me! I’ll hang onto life by my teeth, see? By my teeth!”
We left the bar and went outside to get some fresh air down by the lake.
We stood on the waterfront. We couldn’t see the mountains in the fog and it felt like we were standing at the edge of a great sea.
Kovalev yelled out to the whole Lake Leman in the night.
“You think they marked me alone for death? No, they marked all of us! All! And you too, understand? No, you don’t understand shit! You have to live now! Maybe this lake won’t even be here tomorrow!”
I smirked. “So where’s it going to go?”
He waved me away with his arm. “You didn’t fucking understand anything!” and trudged back to the hotel on unsteady legs.
But I spent some more time walking along the waterfront. I felt like I was drunk, like I was talking to myself. The rare passersby turned to look at me. I told myself, “What if something happens to you? He ensured a life for his wife and child—you didn’t. You despise him, but how are you any better than he is?”
And then I felt very sharply that the lake might not in fact exist tomorrow.
The next morning, we said our goodbyes. Kovalev seemed crumpled. His eyes were red and glazed. He looked at me strangely, with a heavy and unpleasant stare.
“Yesterday I might’ve blabbed a little too much—forget it! Got it?”
The tip I got from Kovalev was fit for a king. In a good movie I would leave his money on the table and proudly walk out. But we were not in a movie.
Alina and I said goodbye almost like friends, and Yanochka just hung on to me and wouldn’t let go.
We didn’t see each other after that.
On her birthday, my wife unwrapped the boxes of presents. I badly needed to hear her laugh happily, to see how our son smiled from his bed.
Having your loved ones near you is the only important thing, and everything else has little meaning.
One morning a couple of months later I sat down at my computer and on the Yandex newsfeed I stumbled upon a familiar last name. Kovalev, one of the executives of a well-known bank, had been shot to death on the street right in front of his building. Just a typical news story for Moscow at that time.
The killer had waited for the victim next to the entrance lobby and fired an extra shot at his head to be safe—the neighbors saw this from their windows.
I don’t know what happened to his wife and daughter. So many years have passed. Yanochka has to be so grown up by now. I wonder what she’s like today. Who did she become? What happened to her life after the death of her father? She must have grown up somewhere around here, in Switzerland.
What if you’re here now, reading this, Yanochka? The strangest things can happen in life . . .
I wonder what you have left in your memory about our trip? Maybe everything’s been erased, besides the pony? How’s Pinga doing? He’s probably long gone by now.
And what do you remember about your father?
He would’ve explained to you himself about our Institute, and about everything else. And about why he was killed.
Or maybe he wouldn’t have.
You know, the only important thing is that there was a person for whom you were the most important being in world. Everything else is inconsequential.
Tell me, do you remember that inkblot?
—translated from the Russian by Mariya Bashkatova