Greetings from Siberia. I have read your letter little comrade. How pleased you are with the turn of events. Remember, Andrei, if the history of our people teachers nothing more, it warns us of the dividing line between care and excess. Don’t be overly confident, my friend. Optimism is alien to the Russian soul.
Have you come down with fever? Has Moscow’s winter eaten so far into your soul? So much enthusiasm! Perhaps you are simply hungry. People cannot be free if they cannot eat, Andrei, and their enthusiasm. your enthusiasm, I fear, will pass as quickly and as pleasantly as a bout of influenza. Historians will measure it in pretty much the same way as a market vendor measures sausage. Heroism is another alien. After all, these new rights and freedoms have implicit in them the right to despise one’s neighbour.
Zealous friend, my little Saint Paul with the hot head’s tight black beard and the enthusiasm of the flagellant, I was also distressed by your words about words. We wrote together, my friend, we believed in poetry in secret together, through the darkest days when Hell was on earth. It is the memory of these youthful follies that I draw upon for sustenance, for the strength I require to make my denunciation against you.
You are writing fiction now. Short stories for those organs of the truth we used to wipe our arses with. Tell me, Andrei, have you been reading Time lately, bought yourself a Big Mac yet?
As I understand it (and who am I but an old man who used to write forbidden poetry) your fiction writing is a rubbish bin. You take a dream, a memory, a member of your family, an enemy; you throw them all in together; mix them up; rinse them out; hang them up to dry on the page. And there you are. Short fiction piece number one.
Concerning your politics, I warned you before against enthusiasm. In reference to our art, I suppose you will take what I now have to say as hypocrisy. What happened to the fervour of your youth, your poetry, your belief in the moment, the spontaneous combustion, the collision of images and meanings, of experience and revelation? Your experiments were based upon the secret doctrine that literature should be colatile or not at all. If we had been anything but Russians, I would have described your theories on the explosion of art as saintly anarchism. What you are doing now is the very antithesis of what you once believed. In America, my friend, it is possible to go to colleges where there are classes for people such as you. Creative writing.
The next time I cook a pot of cabbage soup and I stir it with a wooden spoon, I will imagine that I am you and that I am writing.
In answer to your first question, no I do not wish to read what you have written.
Your second question amazed me only a little less. It’s too late for me, Andrei, on both counts. I suppose that explains my pessimism. What do I think of the current political climate, the new liberalism? Like you, I’ve had to put my trolley in the supermarket of world beliefs to find an answer. Class consciousness? The state? The individual?
How shall we prepare ourselves for the world to come? Lucky were those who lived in previous ages when they only had to ask that question at the hour of their death. Now the ground is always shifting, the answer is always elusive. I want to draw you back, back to the underground, back into an earlier consciousness from which I have never departed, back to the days when your soul was always on fire and always on guard, looking over your shoulder.
It is late. My wife is in bed with influenza. Her breath smells of vomit and vodka. We have eaten today. We have kerosene enough for the heater for tomorrow. I shall not go to work in the morning. One less bureaucrat equals a lot more efficiency. So, Andrei, I would like to present you with a pantomime, a little extempore drama for your edification and your entertainment.
Imagine, we are on a Greyhound bus arriving in New York. We have been for three months in New Orleans where we were called to the bedside of a Black man addicted to the blues. We diagnosed his melancholia. I am a monkey. I am wearing a red cap, a white vest and a pair of blue shorts. My name is Edward and I smoke a big cigar. I have been awarded a doctorate in philosophy from the school of the blues.
You are awaited at the poly-technicolour college of the arts. You are an eligible bachelor with an eminent qualification in the cuisine of short stories. Your recipes for literary success are renowned the world over. New York awaits us. The faculty of automatic writing at the poly-tech throws open its arms.
Why am I with you? My ambition was to be an astronaut, a space monkey for the fatherland of socialism. Like a jockey, though, I couldn’t keep my weight down. I was weaned from cabbage to caviar too quickly. Since my dismissal from the launching pad I have devoted myself to the exploration of inner-space instead. I wont be sitting on your shoulder, Sonny Jim. My job is to spike your drinks and brainwash your students. I’m the water boy, awaiting the birth of an imaginary Soviet baseball team. To the game!
We are greeted by the professor who leads us amiably into the auditorium. She turns upon her faculty and speaks.
“Friends and colleagues, my message is plain. I dream of the novel of the New Age, the novel that precedes by non-confrontation, the novel that does not seek to state and does not serve to strengthen the division of the Old Order – rich and poor, man and woman, black and white.
“Before this work can be written, we must dare to imagine it. We must dare to invoke a notion of words that do not divide us, that do not engender the cruelties, the beastialities, the excesses of the past. More importantly, we must dare to imagine a novel going nowhere, a work of art that does not displace time, space, matter. An invisible novel.
“It is our duty to renounce violence, to renounce reality in so far as it persists, to renounce our very identity as authors so long as we still have hidden within us any agenda or intent. If our spears are to reverted to ploughshares our words must be returned to the ploughman.
“I dream of a novel in which there is a fluid freedom of thought and expression, free of value and free of aggression.”
Fanfare. It’s our turn. I have induced a collective hallucination. The seated jury and the sainted prof. are mesmerised. They have just observed a huge black cat lumbering down a dark alleyway. There is an acrid smell. As they awaken, I take to the table.
“My partner and I intend to play pass the microphone.”
You are beside me at the lectern. When I hold the microphone up for you, you have to lean down awkwardly to speak. I push it into your face. You are about to introduce yourself as confidently as you can when your consciousness changes. What you say is from elsewhere. I am your interpreter.
ANDREI: I am a monkey.
MONKEY: His name is Andrei.
ANDREI: I am a poet and I live in the service of art.
MONKEY: He started out by spelling literature with a capital ‘L’. Now he retails sad misnomers to lethargic organs of the applied mistruth.
ANDREI: My passion resides between bananas and breasts.
MONKEY: His forebrain is a sewer soup of chemical imbalances.
ANDREI: I am a Russian
MONKEY: With a green-card.
ANDREI: …and I want to learn.
MONKEY: His idle dream was his finest hour. A hermetic-ally sealed continuum through which the servants of the book would pass in mute but profound acknowledgment.
ANDREI: …to understand the suffering of the scribe and the silence of the word…
MONKEY: His rhythm was the footsteps o the language flowing out, his metre was the down and the in and the up and the out of the breath.
ANDREI: I have become a slave to Mammon.
We are being led out to your next performance. Our first tutorial takes place in an arts complex that has been refurbished from the ruins of an old brewery. Draught-horses, eminent Clydesdales, used to clatter their barrel-laden drays over these paving stones. On winter mornings this foyer steamed with their excrement. Their drivers were found asleep, half dead on the wooden bench seats, icicles hanging from their nostrils, their lips blue, their cheeks exploding in red nebula. In those days this building produced something. Now the unused machinery is employed for its post modernist sculptural effect alone.
We go in. The lighting is subdued, the seating comfortable. Later this evening a one act play is to performed here. The stage is set, the props are ready. High above the centre stage is a crucifix of dark wood from which an ivory Christ is hanging. Stage right is an altar, covering to the floor by a starched white sheet. The microphone is beside a bare gold cross. It is at an awkward angle.
You dont know where to stand. Then you realise that the altar’s only a prop. It’s really a kitchen table. There’s a chair behind it. You sit down. From the pocket of a demobilised sports jacket you remove an envelope with a fake seal on it, just like those with winners’ names in them. You take out the typescript and begin to speak. Your voice is smooth. Your hair is thin on top. Your scalp shines through in the spotlight’s glare.
“I was employed by this faculty because of my outspoken originality. I have measured my identity by the endurance of the words I write.”
You have your glasses on. The papers are in front of you. You continue.
“I was employed because of my originality. This, however, is my first lesson in creative writing. It has been prepared for me by the prof. and I have been instructed to read it.
“The basic premise of the course on which you are about to embark is that it does not matter what you write. Neither does it matter what you have to say or if, indeed, you have anything to say at all. It is not literature that we are concerned with here. Theme and content, purpose and audience, art and artifice; all off that comes later and can be dealt with elsewhere. All that matters now is writing…”
You set the papers aside. You take the glasses off. You begin to chant.
“I am a monkey. I am wearing a red cap, a white vest and a pair of blue shorts…”
In this village, in this season, there is no dawn, Andrei. But I have whiled away some hours that I would not otherwise have known to, live through. It was late when I began this cruel parody. Too late for me, too late for you. These have been the words of a bitter man, an old man, a man who remembers what it was like to be young and to believe and to fear the impulse to write. What has happened to the night on which I embarked with this slander designed to sabotage your future? It has simply grown darker, it has simply grown deeper. Having now vented my spleen at your expense, having now completed this dialogue of the soul, I extend to you friendship and I beg your forgiveness. And as an act of contrition and a gesture of goodwill I will end this letter from the dead with a poem I have written for you.
If our years of solitude have taught us anything
then let it be this –
that a writer has two prerequisites: something to say
and the liberty to say it.
Our spirit is as free as the troika in the snow
our spirit is in chains like the brakeman in a blizzard.
The ties that bind, grind us into men
and when our masters and our mistresses demand
to what extent do we condemn then
we will say
to the extent that you have offended this spirit
and lavished on our liberty your contempt.
We have heaped our praise and poetry on heroisms
at the moment when we quivered in our cowardice
infuriated but fearful, turning away from our tormentors.
Is the writer now a civil servant
His conscience controlled and condemned by secret police?
The better craftsman as you are
I would dedicate this poem to you.
To forget is to desecrate the memory
and the memory of our suffering is the well-spring of our freedom.
Do not turn against the peasant labouring in a field of mud
or those condemned in cities to the treadmill off machines.
But most of all, do not forget
that when you dreamed of art
like love, you dreamed of something that would endure
born perhaps of little things, minor observations, details
conversations underheard, the smell of cabbage leaves
but destined to outlast them.
I charge you.
It is these that you must charge with meaning.
Having now offended you, I beg forgiveness
but I am a monkey
and you are reading me! Adieu sweet friend
and may we exit from this page in history
with laughter ringing in our ears!