Рефераты. Shylock on the Neva

Shylock on the Neva



Issue of 2002-09-02

Posted 2002-08-26

I awoke one day to a phone call from the painter Chartkov, a recent

graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts, a lean, sallow fellow with a

flaxen goatee and the overearnest expression of the Slavic

intellectual—yes, we all know the kind of person I'm talking about.

Bloodshot eyes? Porcupine hair? Uneven bottom teeth? Great big potato

nose? Thirty-ruble sunglasses from a metro kiosk? All of it.

How did I wake up? I felt a sexual vibration in my pocket and realized I

had fallen asleep with my pants on, my mobilnik still lodged next to

that conclusive organ everyone cares so much about. "Af," I said to the

painter Chartkov. What else can one say under these conditions, this

damn modernity we all live in? May it all go to the Devil, especially

these tiny Finnish phones that nuzzle in your pocket all night.

"Valentin Pavlovich," the young painter's voice trembled.

"Oh, you bitch," I said. "What time is it?"

"It's already one o'clock," the painter said, then, realizing he was

taking too many liberties with me, added, "Perhaps, after all, if it's

not too much of a bother, you will still come and sit once more for your

portrait as we have previously arranged."

"Perhaps, perhaps," I said. "Well, why don't I wash myself first? Isn't

that how the civilized people do it, in Europe? They wash first, then

they sit for a portrait?"

"Mmm, yes," said the painter. "I— You see, I honestly don't know. I've

never been to Europe. Only to Lithuania, where I have an uncle."

"Lithuania," I said. "All the way to Lithuania? Such a worldly artist

you must be, Chartkov." I instructed him to await my arrival patiently

and then turned off the phone. Do I sound unkind? A typical New Russian?

Well, let me assure the reader: I'm a very nice person, but on this

particular day I was feeling a little out of sorts, a veritable crab.

The culprit was crack cocaine. On the previous night, I had the pleasure

of meeting three Canadians at the Idiot Cafй, two boys and one girl.

They had been brave (and idiotic) enough to bring a few rocks of the

stuff into our drug-addled city and we adjourned quickly to my house to

smoke it.

It was my first time! Bravo, Valentin Pavlovich! What was it like? Not

so bad, much like going into a dark, warm room, where, at first, some

pleasant things happened, a steady tingle to the nether regions, a flood

of happy tears and gay sniffling, and then some very unhappy sensations,

probably having to do with the miserable past we all share, the youthful

beatings by parents and peers, and the constant strain of living in this

Russia of ours. Yes, these are the sorts of things one babbles about the

morning after he puffs on the crack pipe—"Russia, Russia, where are you

flying to?" and all that Gogolian nonsense.

I retired to the parlor, and discovered that the Canadians were still

there. They were sprawled out on the divans, lost beneath thick worsted

blankets my manservant, Timofey, must have thrown over them. I could

make out the shape of the Canadian girl—twenty-one years old, and with

legs and thighs as powerful as a horse's—and hear her piercing snore. In

the West, even the drug addicts are healthy and strong. I considered

falling in love with the girl, just for some extra Canadian warmth in

the morning. But what foreign girl would want me? They're very

psychologically adept, these girls, nothing like ours, and I can't fool

them with my money and good English.

So I went back to my bedroom to see my cheap, fatalistic Murka, still

asleep, coughing her way through the midday slumber, her pincerlike legs

folded up. Poor girl. I rescued her from some collective farm on a

biznes trip to the provinces a few years back. She was seventeen, but

already covered in pigshit and bruises. On the other hand, you should

have seen how quickly she installed herself in my flat in Petersburg and

fell into the role of rich, urban girlfriend—asleep most of the day,

drugged out at night, weepy and sexless in between. To see Murka with a

shopping basket and a charge card at the Stockmann Finnish emporium on

Nevsky Prospekt, yelling brutally at some innocent shop clerk, is to

understand that elusive American term "empowerment," the kind of thing

the foreigners teach you at the Idiot Cafй. I kissed Murka tenderly,

washed myself as well as I could and called for Timofey to dry me off.

My manservant, a big Karelian peasant, beat me with a twig to improve my

circulation and then strapped me into an Italian lamb's-wool suit

jacket, the kind that makes me look ten years older than my age and fat

into the bargain. Oh, what a business is fashion!

Timofey brought around the usual convoy—two Mercedes 300 M S.U.V.s and

one S-class sedan, so as to form the letters M-S-M, the name of my bank,

for, you see, I am something of a moneylender. As we took off for

Chartkov's neighborhood, the call came through from Alyosha, my well-

bribed source at the Interior Ministry, warning that a sniper was set to

pick me off at the English Embankment. We took an-other route.

Chartkov lived on the far edge of the Kolomna district. I hasten to

paint a picture for the reader: the Fontanka River, windswept (even in

summer), its crooked nineteenth-century skyline interrupted by a post-

apocalyptic wedge of the Sovetskaya Hotel; the hotel surrounded by rows

of yellowing, water-logged apartment houses; the apartment houses, in

turn, surrounded by corrugated shacks housing a bootleg-CD emporium; the

ad-hoc Casino Mississippi ("America Is Far, but Mississippi Is Near"); a

burned-out kiosk selling industrial-sized containers of crab salad; and

the requisite Syrian-shwarma hut smelling of spilled vodka, spoiled

cabbage, and a vague, free-floating inhumanity.

Chartkov shared his communal quarters with a slowly dying soldier just

returned from Chechnya, the soldier's invalid mother, his two invalid

children, and an invalid dog. The painter's studio was at the very rear,

his front door covered with a poster of the American superband Pearl

Jam. When I arrived, Chartkov was busy being thrown out of his room by a

squat Armenian landlord in a filthy nylon house gown. Remember how I

described Chartkov at the outset? The great big potato nose? The flaxen

goatee? Well, picture the same nose now dappled in luxuriant Russian

tears, the flaxen goatee moist with dread, the red-rimmed eyes working

double time to produce these ample waterworks. "Philistine!" Chartkov

was screaming at the landlord. "How can you throw a painter out on the

street! It is we artists who have introduced Russia to the world! We who

wield the brush and the pen! We gave the world Chekhov and Bulgakov and


"Those were all writers!" the dying soldier screamed, peeking out of his

little hole, his invalid children clutching his leg braces as he made

long stabbing motions with his crutch. "What painters has Russia given

the world?" he shouted. "Throw the scoundrel out, I say!"

"Yes, indeed," the landlord said. "If you walk through the Hermitage,

it's all Rembrandts and Titians. Nary an Ivan in sight. Now, if you were

a writer . . ."

The painter almost choked on his considerable tears. "No painters?" he

cried. "What about Andrei Rublyov? What about the famous Ilya Repin?" he

cried. "What about 'Barge Haulers on the Volga'?"

"Is that the one where the little doggie is in the boat and he's

standing up on his hind legs?" the landlord asked, twirling his mustache


Being a patriot and wanting to spare Chartkov any further embarrassment,

I decided to intervene. I proceeded to ask the Armenian the amount he

was owed, and was duly informed that it was eight months' rent, or U.S.

$240. I called my Timofey, who ran up with three U.S. hundred-dollar

bills, and then I told the landlord that no change was needed, at which

point everyone in the flat gasped, crossed themselves three times, and

retreated to their miserable quarters.

I was left alone with the young painter. Chartkov turned away from me,

buried his face in his hands, brushed aside his tears, and sighed in a

heartbreaking fashion—in other words, did everything possible to avoid

thanking me for my generosity. He shuffled into his room, where an old

flower-print divan from Hungary, the kind intellectual families favored

during the Soviet era, proved to be the only furniture in his

possession. A series of incomplete portraits of what seemed to be whores

from the National Hunt strip club were scattered about the room, each

girl's smile vicious and true to life.

"Here's what I've drawn thus far," he said. He showed me a full-sized

sketch, my dour, opaque face staring back at me with all the bravado of

a General Suvorov, my dark hair bleached to a Slavic yellow, in the

background an M-S-M Bank sign in old-fashioned Cyrillic characters—I

looked ready to fight the Turks at Chesme, instead of my usual daily

battle with the hash pipe and the tricky zipper on my khakis. Such


He motioned me to the divan and proceeded to apply charcoal to paper.

"So you're a fan of old Ilya Repin," I said. "Is that what they teach

you at the Academy these days? A little reactionary, no?"

"I'm a m-m-monarchist," Chartkov muttered, scowling for no reason.

"Now, there's a popular position for a young man these days," I said.

Oh, our poor dispossessed intelligentsia. Why do we even bother to teach

them literature and the plastic arts? "And who's your favorite tsar,

then, young man?"

"Alexander the First. No, wait, the Second."

"The great reformer. And what kind of art are you interested in, Mr.

Painter? These days, I'm afraid, it's all showmanship, like that

unfortunate Muscovite who goes around the world pretending he's a dog."

"No, I don't like him at all," Chartkov confessed. "I'm a realist. I

paint what I see. Social justice for the common man, that's what I

like." And he proceeded to mumble some hodgepodge of Western art theory

and comfy Russian chauvinism. "Of course, it is the Jews who have

brought Russia to her knees," he whispered, interrupting his work to

light a nearby candle in honor of a dead Romanov.

"And do you have a lady friend?" I asked.

He betrayed his twenty-four years by blushing crimson and throwing his

gaze in the four major directions, finally settling his eyes on the

sketch of two whores, both provincially pretty, yet one unmistakably

older than the other; one, in fact, quite old, a telltale trail of

life's third set of wrinkles forming a Tigris and Euphrates on her


"A mother-daughter act," Chartkov explained. "They're from Kursk

Province. A sad story." Sad, but rather typical. I will omit the

particulars, except to add that both mother and daughter were graduates

of some local polytechnic institute. "Very cultured people," Chartkov

said. "Elizaveta Ivanovna plays the accordion and her daughter, Lyudmila

Petrovna, can quote the major philosophers."

His use of their patronymics was strangely touching—I knew immediately

what he wanted to do; after all, it is the only path our young

Raskolnikovs can follow. "I will save them!" he said.

"Presumably it is the daughter you fancy," I said.

"Both are like family to me," said Chartkov. "When you meet them you see

how they cannot live without each other. They are like Naomi and Ruth."

I chose to let this comparison stand. "My dear Chartkov," I said. "I

would certainly like to make their acquaintance. You see, perhaps there

is something I can do to better their position."

Chartkov examined me through his dopey thirty-ruble glasses. "I hope you

do not mean to hire them," he said.

"Good heavens, no," I assured him. And then I proposed we cut short our

session and have dinner with his whorish friends.

On the way to the National Hunt club, Alyosha, my well-greased source at

the Interior Ministry, called to warn me of a deadly Godzilla roll set

to poison me at the Kimono Japanese restaurant on Bolshaya Morskaya. I

changed our dinner plans in favor of the infamous Noble's Nest, by the

Mariinsky Theatre, while helping Chartkov empty a small bottle of cognac

in the back seat of the Mercedes, a car to which he warmed immediately.

"I compare it to the troika of yore," the monarchist said without any

irony, wiping his little mouth with my favorite handkerchief.

The National Hunt was all but empty at this time of day, with only four

drunk officers from the Dutch Consulate passed out at a back table by

the empty roulette table. Despite the lack of an audience, Elizaveta

Ivanovna and her daughter, Lyudmila Petrovna, were up on the makeshift

stage grinding against two poles to the sound of Pearl Jam. They looked

remarkably like the sketches Chartkov had drawn. Immediately, I was

reassured about the whole enterprise, about the innate talent I believed

Chartkov possessed, and about my own hopes for immortality.

Mother and daughter resembled two sisters, one perhaps ten years older

than the other with naked breasts pointing downward, a single crease

separating them from the little tummy below. The mother was imparting to

Lyudmila her theory that the pole was like a wild animal which one had

to grasp with one's thighs lest it escape. The daughter, like all

daughters, was shrugging her off, saying, "Mamochka, I know what I'm

doing. I watch special movies when you're asleep."

"You're a dunderhead," the mother said, thrusting to the sound of the

ravenous American band. "Why did I ever give birth to you?"

"Ladies!" Chartkov cried out to them. "My dear ones! Good evening to


"Hi, there, little guy," mother and daughter sang in unison.

"Ladies," said Chartkov. "I would like to introduce you to Valentin

Pavlovich. A very good man who only today has given three hundred

dollars to my landlord."

The ladies appraised my expensive shoes and stopped writhing. They

hopped down from their poles and pressed themselves against me. Quickly,

the air was filled with the smell of nail polish and light exertion.

"Good evening," I said, brushing my dark mane, for I tend to get a

little shy around prostitutes.

"Please come home with us!" cried the daughter, massaging the posterior

crease of my pants with a curious finger. "Fifty dollars per hour for

both. You can do what you like, front and back, but, please, no


"Better yet, we'll go home with you!" the mother said. "I imagine you

have a beautiful home on the embankment of the River Moika. Or one of

those gorgeous Stalin buildings on Moskovsky Prospekt."

"Valentin Pavlovich runs a bank," Chartkov said, shyly but with a

certain amount of pride. "He has offered to take us to a restaurant

called the Noble's Nest."

"It's in the tea house of the Yusupov mansion," I said, with a pedantic

air, knowing that the mansion where the loony charlatan Rasputin was

poisoned would not make much of an impression on the ladies. Chartkov

managed a slight, historic smile and tried to nuzzle the daughter, who

favored him with a chaste kiss on the forehead.


It is no secret that St. Petersburg is a backwater, lost in the shadow

of our craven capital Moscow, which itself is but a Third World

megalopolis teetering on the edge of extinction. And yet the Noble's

Nest is one of the most divine restaurants I have ever seen—dripping

with more gold plating than the dome of St. Isaac's, yes; covered with

floor-to-ceiling paintings of dead nobles, to be sure. And yet, somehow,

against the odds, the place carries off the excesses of the past with

the dignified lustre of the Winter Palace.

I knew that a fellow like Chartkov would rejoice. For people like him,

educated members of a peasant nation catapulted into the most awkward

sort of modernity, this restaurant is one of the two Russias they can

understand—it's either the marble and malachite of the Hermitage or a

crumbling communal flat on the far edge of Kolomna.

Chartkov began weeping as soon as he saw the menu, and the whores

started sniffling, too. They couldn't even name the dishes, such was

their excitement and money lust, and had to refer to them by their

prices—"Let's split the sixteen-dollar appetizer, and then I'll have the

twenty-eight dollars and you can split the thirty-two. Is that all

right, Valentin Pavlovich?"

"For God's sake, have what you wish!" I said. "Four dishes, ten dishes,

what is money when you're among friends?" And to set the mood for the

evening I ordered a bottle of Rothschild for U.S. $1,150.

"So, let's talk some more about your art," I said to Chartkov.

"You see," said Chartkov to his women friends. "We're talking about art

now. Isn't it nice, ladies, to sit in a pretty space and talk like

gentlemen about the greater subjects?" A whole range of emotions, from

an innate distrust of kindness to some latent homosexuality, was playing

itself out on Chartkov's red face. He pressed his palm down on my hand.

"Chartkov is doing those nice paintings for us," the mama said to me,

"and we're going to use them for our Web page. We're going to have a Web

page for our services, don't you know?"

"Oh, look, mama, I believe the two 'sixteen dollars' are here!"

Elizaveta Ivanovna cried, as two appetizers of pelmeni dumplings stuffed

with deer and crab arrived, both dishes covered by immense silver domes.

"We're talking about art like gentlemen," Chartkov said once more,

shaking his head in disbelief.


The evening progressed as expected. We drove to my apartment, taking in

the sight of the city on a warm summer night—the sky lit up a false

cerulean blue, the thick walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress bathed in

gold floodlights, the Winter Palace moored on its embankment like a ship

undulating in the twilight, the darkened hulk of St. Isaac's dome

officiating over the proceedings. Here was our Petersburg—a magical set

piece of ruined mansions and lunar roads traversed by Swedish tourists

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