by Goar Markosyan-Kasper
by Susan Brownsberger
Goar Markosyan-Kasper was born into an artistic family in Yerevan, Armenia. Her father, an opera singer, sang the leading parts of the bass repertoire; her mother was a ballerina; and her great-grandfather was ashug Sheram. Goar attended a Russian school – hence her writing in Russian – and afterwards studied medicine, specialising in acupuncture. She went on to work as a doctor and became head of the Reflex Therapy Division at Yerevan’s Scientific Research Institute.
Goar had started to write poetry as a teenager and steadily developed her literary talent. After occasional publications, she finally published her first full collection of poems in Yerevan in 1990. She then turned to writing prose; her short stories and novellas were subsequently published in Russian, Armenian, and Estonian magazines (Literaturnaya Armeniya, Raduga, Russki Ekspress, Druzhba Narodov, Looming).
Up to the end of 1990, Goar lived in Yerevan, but when she got married to the Estonian writer Kalle Kasper, the couple relocated to Tallinn. At first, she continued to work as a doctor, but after Estonia had left the Soviet Union difficulties began to arise. She learned Estonian and applied for a licence for a doctor’s surgery, but when opportunities for work became less and less, she eventually had to stop working in her special field. Instead, she turned her full attention to literature.
PENELOPE was written in 1995-6 and has been longlisted for this year’s Russian Booker Prize. In 1998, the novel was published in Zvezda, one of the old and renowned magazines for literature and criticism (which since its first publication in 1924 has published the likes of Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Maxim Gorky, and Alexei Tolstoy). AST Publishers will publish in hardback in December 2000. By current time this novel has been translated into German (ROWOHLT), French (BELFOND), Spanish (SIRUELA) and Dutch (CONTACT). Her next five novels, “Elena” (2000), “Caryatides” (2003), “Penelope Sets Forth” (2007), “At Mycenae, heavywith gold” (2009) and “Memento mori”(2012) were published in “Zvezda” and “Neva” and first four of them in hardback in Tallinn.
Note on the Translator
Susan Brownsberger holds degress from Radcliffe and from Boston College. For Farrar, Straus & Giroux she has translated a number of Andrey Bitov’s books, amongst them PUSHKIN HOUSE (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988, and, with the author’s commentary in paperback, Ardis, 1990; Harvill, 1990) and A CAPTIVE OF THE CAUCASUS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992, and, as paperback, HarperCollins, 1994). She is also the translator of THE FUR HAT by Vladimir Voinovich, THE HAND by Yuz Aleshovksy, and SANDRO OF CHEGEM by Fazil Iskander.
by Goar Markosyan-Kasper
(Translated by Susan Brownsberger)
Introduction and Summary of pp. 1-53
PENELOPE is set in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, in the mid-nineties. After the country had more or less recovered from the catastrophic earthquake of 1988, it was almost immediately beset by the break-up of the Soviet Union and the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The violent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over this disputed territory (which escalated into full-scale civil war in 1991) is just one of numerous conflagrations that have broken out since the demise of communism, centering around issues of ethnicity, religion, and self-determination.
* * *
The novel’s eponymous heroine Penelope is a thirtyish literature teacher, living at home with her parents in Yerevan. The war has caused various hardships. Houses are cold, and people only have electricity for a few hours a day according to a strict schedule.
In Chapter One, the power fails at home (yet again) before Penelope can eat or take a shower. Determined to bathe, she sets off on foot to visit a friend who might have heat and light.
En route, in Chapter Two, she encounters a former lover, Edgar-Garegin; Garegin is his real first name, but she likes to think of him as Edgar. He has been away for several years, developing a business in Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg), the Russian free economic zone located within Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. Because he is driving a Mercedes, Penelope accepts his offer of a ride and coffee. He takes her to a fancy restaurant, where he orders trout, champagne, and cognac.
“Penelope,” said Edgar-Garegin, as his well-satisfied companion lazily considered a long, elegant, still quite firm grape she had plucked from the bountiful cluster, wondering whether to dispatch it to her mouth at once, or procrastinate, twirl it for greater effect in her slim, lithe fingers with their impeccable nails. “Penelope, marry me.”
“Marry you?” said Penelope, with natural surprise. “But you’re already married!”
“Penelope.” The owner of the Mercedes shook his head reproachfully. “She’s here, I’m there. It’s a hundred years since I lived with her. Don’t pretend you don’t know it.”
If she hadn’t drunk the champagne, and then the cognac, Penelope would not have let his reproach prevent her from pretending a while longer – you have to keep your guard up with men – but now she felt done in, too lazy to fake ignorance or bewilderment, just curious enough to ask, “You intend to start another such family with me? You’re there, I’m here.”
“Just say yes,” Edgar-Garegin blurted, with a passion that was unexpected and therefore even more absurd, “and in two days I’ll finalize the divorce and the marriage and take you away with me. What are you doing here? Knocking yourself out all day, for a pittance? But I have a substantial business there. A corporation, I might say. An apartment, a car, an airplane. If you want, you can have the whole day free.”
“Free to roam the range!” Penelope said vehemently.
“If you’d rather, I’ll find a job for you, too. There’s plenty of work. Let’s go, Penelope! Say yes.”
“No,” said Penelope.
“Well…” Penelope hunted for words, but nothing suitable came to mind. Of course, she could start with the fact that when asked to say yes she always answered no, and vice versa, but somehow that was insubstantial…
“The train has left,” she said suddenly, to her own astonishment, and blushed horribly. It never fails: the moment calls for wise, majestic words, and boom! you come out with some cliché, something totally trite and threadbare. At once she saw the departed train, dirty and battered, yes, a thoroughly Soviet train, nothing but coach cars with stuck windows, rattling platforms, cracked glass, rust-stained wet linen, and sleepy conductresses in mismatched skirts and blouses. No lights in the train, of course, broken locks on the doors, and all night, instead of sleeping, you lie trembling that someone will break into your compartment… what compartment? It’s a coach car! Never mind—he’ll break in anyway, grab you and carry you off somewhere to Kaliningrad, Königsberg, the tomb of the tiresome Kant, the shore of the disgusting, cold, gray puddle called the Baltic Sea…
“It’s too late, you see,” Penelope said, trying to get off the train as it sped rapidly away, wheel-tapping an interminable iamb sometimes attenuated by anapests, traveling non-stop, not even slowing at way-stations. No help for it, she had to jump and hope for the best. Or look for the emergency brake… “Too late.”
“Why?” the downcast owner of the Mercedes, the corporation, and the airplane repeated stubbornly, and Penelope made a fresh attempt to find profound and heartfelt words, encountered that blasted train again, automatically set one foot and then the other on the running board… damnation!.. leaped off, and in a fit of rage shoved the train as far away as possible—-now it was a toy, a wind-up train rolling helplessly back and forth on a short little half-circle of track—shoved it away, and, finding nothing more appropriate to say, remarked carelessly and enigmatically, “I love another.”
“Who?” Edgar-Garegin inquired incredulously.
“A man,” she replied, obscurely and evasively.
“I realize it’s not a cat,” said the owner of the Mercedes, the corporation, etc. (see above), and Penelope stared at him with a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment, and also, perhaps, secret hurt—he would never start to cry, shout, pound his head, that little spot on the very top of it, the tiny but promising bald spot that she had noted with malicious pleasure the very first instant he turned his back… pound his impenetrable noggin against a thick tufa wall… oh, sure, right, pound his head, are men really capable of an impulse like that—the self-involved, self-confident, self-satisfied cheats, toads, monsters!…
She stared, and then understood: he simply didn’t believe her. Didn’t believe that it was all over, that she had reached the massive mountains…
Desolate the steppe, calm the air, not far the mountains massive, where I will hide me from the whim of your irresistible lips and arms.
She had read it to him from a slim orange collection, trying to get him used to poetry, but my God, men and poetry, that’s ludicrous, two incompatible things… Didn’t believe there was another man, men never believe it, they think that they’re forever, they can betray, abandon, humiliate, leave, yet they’re supposed to be loved and loved, devotedly and humbly. Not on your life! Penelope grinned in triumph.
“A cat, a dog, a man—what’s the difference!” she remarked haughtily. “The point is, I don’t love you any more.”
No, I don’t love you any more, she sang in her thoughts, abruptly flourishing her red fan and sweeping the long train of her black lace dress across the sand of the arena… or vice versa, the dress red, the fan and gloves black?.. tossing her head proudly and throwing a scornful glance at the pathetic and bewildered ex-hero of her novel, who was ready to fling his corporation and his airplane at her feet (shod in gleaming scarlet spike-heeled pumps) and become a bandit or whatever she wanted, but no, she didn’t need his rotten corporation and filthy airplane—que sera, sera, though the fatal steel flash!… Your entreaties are futile, I will not yield…
But Edgar-Garegin was not about to unsheathe a knife that he didn’t even have.
“Think about it, Penelope,” he said mildly.
Penelope was thrilled. “I don’t intend to,” she snapped.
“Think about it anyway.” In his persistence Penelope thought she heard the anticipated threat, but he concluded peaceably, “I’ll call you.”
And got up, leaving Penelope’s angry rebuff in her overwrought larynx, in her larynx and below, the speech was long, it snaked its way down her trachea, bronchi, bronchioles, thrust its tail deep into her lung—too long to blurt out in a second, and yet a rebuff aimed at the back of a departing man is worse than absurd, it’s as bad as starting to answer an oral exam after they’ve already given you a D.
“But what is love, really, Penelope?” the owner of the Mercedes and other blessings asked thoughtfully as he pulled out into the street. “For example, in all this time I’ve never once dreamed about you. And I don’t think of you every day. And I’ve been with quite a few women. But after every one of them I think: It was better with Penelope. Is that love, or not?”
Penelope shrugged. Just try and explain to this clod what love is. And besides, who really knows? Her sister had once said:
“Love is when you’re glad your beloved snores—then you’re always aware in your sleep that he’s breathing, he’s alive, nothing has happened to him.”
Yes, but… We should have her worries. We can’t be bothered with subtleties like that—it’s all right to psychologize when you have the man lying around, day in and day out, but if he’s away God knows where, you can only try to guess, does he love you or doesn’t he, does he remember or has he forgotten. Of course, if he’s in a dangerous place you’ll start thinking about life and death too, there’s no way around it, but whether he’s breathing or not breathing, he’s beside you in the bed…
“Then?” Penelope lit up her last Pierre Cardin, crumpled the empty pack, put it in the ashtray, elegantly leaned back in the armchair, greedily inhaled, or rather pretended to inhale—mindful of her defenseless lungs, she didn’t actually let the smoke past her tonsils, didn’t screen it through her lungs but blew it in her eyes… smoke gets in your eyes, smoke screen, smoke up a storm!.. and remarked carelessly, “Then he started kissing my hands furiously and swearing that he dreams about me every night, he thinks of me ten times a day, and every time he looks at a woman—even a movie star, a model—he says to himself…” The rest of the text more or less matched the original.
“And you believed him?” asked Penelope’s best friend Margusha, who was sitting across from her and manipulating her cigarette with equal vigor.
Frankly, Penelope had enough best friends, she possessed a gift for acquiring them, and in the course of her short life she would undoubtedly have become overgrown with them like a breakwater covered with slippery green seaweed, if at the same time she hadn’t also had the ability to leave one of them behind every so often—majestically sailing past, the way a boat passes a life buoy that has fallen overboard: just a minute ago it was lying handsomely in the stern, and now there it is, rocking in the distance, a white speck on the blue water…
The sea metaphors completely overpowered Penelope, and her thoughts involuntarily skipped to three girlfriends with whom, many years ago, she had vacationed by the sea, in Pitsunda… or rather, skipped to Pitsunda, where, many years ago, she had vacationed with three girlfriends—after all, girlfriends leave, but Pitsunda stays…
Pitsunda, where for days on end they had reclined under gigantic ancient pines on huge mounds of pine needles (first raking them into a pile with a simple but effective instrument, namely, a foot), and crawled from these couches only to plunge into the dark blue noonday water and warm themselves on the scorching sand, or to eat tomato omelet or aubergines that had been fried in the morning and wrapped in a blanket surreptitiously borrowed from the landlady, so that in the cool of the forest they wouldn’t get so cold as to be uneatable when it came time to eat. Just like here in Yerevan, two years ago, when there was no more gas, and no one had kerosene stoves yet—if you were scheduled to have light in the wrong half of the day, you had to pack the dinner pot in newspapers and blankets to keep it at least relatively edible until the moment when everyone gathered at the table…
At the seashore they took turns cooking, it worked out to once every four days, not a burden at all, even a recreation – work days are invigorating when they’re sprinkled like black dots in the whiteness of a holiday… And where are they now, those girlfriends, those bright specks left on the dark water behind the stern? They have drifted away, or more exactly, drowning men have taken them… drowning men, or candidates for drowning? Sometimes on close acquaintance a life buoy turns out to be a stone around your neck. And some best friends deny you the right to the secret passion of a pathetic Königsberg entrepreneur… But then, it’s not from spite, or envy, it’s just thoughtlessness – Margusha is much too tranquil a creature, not calibrated for emotional highs (or lows, naturally). After all, it’s hard to upset the equilibrium of a system built on such a firm foundation. Physicians from time immemorial, both her grandfather and grandmother and father and mother, with the neurosurgeon papa industriously complemented by the neuropathologist mama, which makes for a healthy family, the world’s least-prone to nerves—never mind great upheavals, there’s not even a tiny, not even a microscopic particle of nervousness in their domestic and daily lives.
With parents like that, the only thing a child can do, after surviving the entrance exams without stress—if the word “survive,” redolent of inhuman tortures, is appropriate to a case where the applicant is expounding the principles of chemistry or physics to an admissions committee in which almost all of the members – and on more than one occasion – have taken meals in the large living room of his or her (the applicant’s) own home, since both her papa and mama, having long ago jointly overcome the barrier of the kandidatskiy minimum (they aren’t just M.D.’s, they’ve defended dissertations to achieve the further goal of a post-doctoral maximum), are pursuing successful careers in the friendly department at the medical school—and so, after surviving the entrance exams, and then all the others, right up to the nationals, the only thing to do is to get a diploma (not the red one, by the way, but the banal blue, although many of Margusha’s classmates, with the help of God and their parents, had dyed their sheepskins Marx’s favorite color) and go to work as—what? Right, a neuropathologist.
Interesting question: Is life interesting when you can see it all in advance, from beginning to end? Margusha would spend her whole life, the pre-retirement segment of it anyway, working as a neuropathologist in a fairly prestigious but not excessively demanding job, making gradual changes in her rank and salary, decreasing the numerical value of the former and increasing that of the latter. In theory she too could have defended a dissertation, not so much with God’s help as her parents’, for she wasn’t so stupid that she couldn’t scribble some sort of thesis under the dictation of her doctor papa, though she had failed to be born smart enough to aspire to a real scientific career, yet she wasn’t so stupid as not to understand this, and in the end she had brains enough not to get involved in the tiresome hassle with thematics, problematics, computations, calculations, statistics and other mystistics, but instead to work quietly as an ordinary staff doctor, writing out case histories in her large round hand, sipping coffee, opening the presents that patients she had “treated” (a Moscow clinic word that had very conveniently replaced the outdated concept “cured”) gave her—boxes of Yerevan’s Assorti chocolates, from which she extracted the few edible pieces and sent the rest straight to the wastebasket—occasionally reading novels from Foreign Literature instead of dull medical books, and last but not least, periodically bearing children, for which purpose she had entered into an altogether felicitous and timely marriage with a promising journalist who had a sound pedigree and a reliable family support system: papa a retired colonel, mama a mid-level clerk in the Council of Ministers, and so on.
Actually, this was another thing you could see in advance, back in their school years (and Penelope had known Margusha since grade school). Of course, an outside observer might have had doubts about her early perspicacity, but Penelope would have sworn—and she did love to swear, specializing in strange oaths of the noble-officer type, “I swear on my honor,” or the fantastic-gastronome type, “If not, I’ll eat my easy- (rocking-) chair (my couch, bed, bookcase, etc., see furniture catalogue)”—Penelope would have sworn, to anyone, anywhere, that back in their senior year she had read the chief milestones of Margusha’s future outlined invisibly on her pure brow: felicitous marriage, child-bearing without delays or complications, a long unclouded existence as a respectable wife and the fond mother of well- (in the future) fixed children, and later as a venerable matron, happy mother-in-law, grandmother…
When rosy-fingered Dawn once more lit up the world…,
…a voice behind Penelope intoned, a cracking, boyish, nasal voice that she didn’t immediately recognize.
“Arsen, be quiet!” Margusha said crossly.
“When rosy-fingered Dawn—” the boy persisted.
Penelope turned around. The sly face of the unabashed little boy disappeared for an instant, then reappeared from behind the door jamb.
“Penelope, where’s your Odysseus?” he drawled impudently, and made a face.
Margusha grabbed a pillow from the sofa and threw it at her refractory son, who only then bounded off down the corridor, giggling.
On his mother’s lips this sounded more coquettish than cross, and Penelope good-naturedly dismissed it. “It’s all right! Let him recite.”
“You wouldn’t believe the memory the brat has. Ovik brought him the book two days ago—”
“The Odyssey?” Penelope asked in surprise.
“No, Legends… or maybe Myths… Something like that.”
“I didn’t look. He sat down and read it, and now he’s tormenting everyone. Imagine, he’s christened Artem ‘Artemis,’ and…”
Penelope threw back her head and laughed. This time the ten-year-old wit was right on target. Margusha’s brother-in-law Artem was so fine-boned and diminutive that the feminine name seemed not merely apt but inalienable.
Of course, Artem was extremely nettled by remarks that offended his already suffering masculine dignity. Because of his small size he could never put things to rights in his “private life,” as Soviet greeting cards mysteriously call it. Penelope knew this as well as anyone, because the pathetic pygmy had tried to court her, back in the long-ago days when Ovik and Margusha were just dating, which meant, in addition to sighing on a bench and strolling in the moonlight (or rather, instead of those rituals, which are not very prevalent in Armenia), arranging “evenings,” as they were then customarily called, where a few girlfriends and their male friends would gather, preferably men and women in equal numbers, mainly to dance, or more exactly, embrace under the guise of dancing, and sometimes even exchange a couple of cautious kisses. Acquaintanceships begun at such gatherings not infrequently developed into marriages, indeed almost all relationships between young men and women in Armenia ultimately prove to be a prelude to marriage. Almost, but not all.
Artem, who as Ovik’s brother was sure to be present at these choreographic exercises, did not mind starting a romance with the girlfriend who always accompanied Ovik’s partner—and no wonder! Next to Margusha, whose good nature (which was mostly just an outer reflection of her inner laziness) and society manners only partly compensated for her prominent ears and crooked legs, Penelope looked like a Hollywood star, home for the Christmas holidays.
In point of fact, Artem wasn’t stupid, or even bad-looking—he had a rather delicate face and beautiful eyes, like a woman… well, just like Artemis, which hadn’t occurred to Penelope herself… but all his virtues taken together did not compensate for the fact (not his only shortcoming, perhaps, but the most obvious one) that even when he stood at attention the top of his head only reached to Penelope’s ear. Even when she wasn’t wearing heels. And Penelope did love to wear shoes with very high heels. So that Artem-Artemis was decisively and irrevocably rejected and dispatched to search for women close to his own size. The search was not too successful, it must be confessed. One time he did marry “by height,” a wife just as small and delicate as he was, found for him by none other than his own father, but although outwardly so harmonious, inwardly the marriage proved to be a contest between two Lilliputians for the title of Gulliver and came to an end when the young wife took the three-month-old baby and departed to her mama and papa, warning Artem that he could consider himself free of paternal rights—but not obligations, since his flown spouse made no promise to forget alimony.
In addition, despite the fact that her aforesaid mama and papa owned their own two-story house, she took advantage of the humane Soviet laws and successfully sued the shocked Artem for half of his room in his parents’ apartment, where he had incautiously registered his spouse as a resident. Granted, she was in no hurry to move into that half-room, preferring her advantageous position as a Damoclean sword. As for Artem, he swore that he would never again get anybody a residence permit, even on the recommendation of his own father—though in fact he had nobody for whom to get one.
As luck would have it, he was attracted to tall, full-figured ladies of the gynecologist type (Penelope had noticed that most female gynecologists were astonishingly large of build, equipped with massive and abundant flesh), and sometimes the ladies even reciprocated, corroborating the popular wisdom that big women like small men, but whenever he tried to introduce one of these soul mates to his friends or his brother, they invariably held him up to ridicule, thereby averting the danger of any new problem about a residence permit.
From time to time he turned his searching gaze on Penelope again – if he happened to encounter the object of his past dreams at Margusha’s – but Penelope’s pitiless response was to get up from her place, pointedly draw herself up to her full five-feet-eight (“I have a model’s height,” she liked to say), sometimes even stand on tiptoe, and start to pace around the room, absently looking down on the disheartened Artemis without compassion, for what compassion can one feel for an admirer who has been dispatched to seek happiness elsewhere?
Who had been the dispatcher Penelope did not recall, and besides, it was entirely irrelevant, that’s what admirers are for, after all, to be rejected, and as the Armenian saying goes, when you order them out the door they climb in the window. And when you throw them out the window they infiltrate through the air vent, water pipe, sewer system, and other crevices accessible and inaccessible, until their efforts are duly appreciated. If events had taken that turn, even Artem would have stood a chance, especially since he did come up, not just to Penelope’s elegantly long earlobe, but to the upper edge of her flawlessly shaped auricle. Artem had let all his chances slip, however, which gave Penelope reason, as she looked at him from on high, to reflect pessimistically that she was sickeningly unlucky with admirers: one a Lilliputian, one a fatty (the fatty was a colleague, a drawing teacher who once a week, with revolting regularity, offered to paint Penelope’s portrait)…
Margusha, meanwhile, was still talking. As it turned out.
“Of course, Arsen is unusually advanced—Penelope, you’re not listening!”
“Me?!” Out of habit Penelope assumed the interested expression with which, year in and year out, she listened to the discoveries of married friends reveling in the uniqueness of their biped creations. All were unique, one wunderkind after another, everything they did and said was brilliant—from sterile imitations of Chukovsky’s aphorisms to especially picturesque sessions on the potty. Since Margusha had had time to acquire—only!—two kinder exhibiting these wunders, her best friend Penelope was about to become familiar not only with the latest of ten-year-old Arsen’s profound thoughts, but also with the insights of three-year-old Allochka, presently napping in the next room, and she (Penelope) was preparing to endure this trial with the stoicism of Zeno and the crafty dissembling of… whom?
Oh, damn! At times her encyclopedic mind let her down, left her at a dead end, like the sage who learns the Great Soviet Encyclopedia by heart and keeps on discovering colossal gaps in his supposedly all-inclusive knowledge. Come on, who was the dissembler? There was one, so help me there was! Penelope simply could not think of his name, but this didn’t trouble her very much, Zeno alone was quite enough, she could be proud of Zeno—how many people are capable of not only remembering but freely using such characters and concepts…
Wonder if that was the same Zeno who wrote the silly stuff about Achilles and the tortoise? Either Achilles outran the tortoise, or the tortoise outran Achilles—she didn’t want to believe that Achilles was so sickly as to surrender to a tortoise, he was a native of the Peneloponnesus after all, but on the other hand, if the tortoise didn’t outrun Achilles where was the paradox? and it was a paradox, wasn’t it? Admittedly Penelope had clean forgotten the point, it was a bizarre story… because however the tortoise may snort and cavort, in a race with Achilles, however achy and ill he is, the tortoise will come up short…
Diverted by Zeno… or the Zenos—must check the encyclopedia… Penelope happily heard out Margusha’s dithyrambs (not that she heard them, but she sat them out) about her two bipeds… her one quadruped? Could you add them? What would Zeno say?
“Margusha.” She interrupted the spate of words from the self-blinded mother… all mothers reminded Penelope of Oedipuses who had put their own eyes out… columns of Oedipuses, regiments of Oedipuses, armies of Oedipuses—or Oedipesses… unbelievable! not to see one’s own offspring as objective reality… “Margusha, could I go wash before they turn off the lights?”
“They won’t,” Margusha answered, a little disappointed. “There’s still a whole hour.”
“Couldn’t something happen?”
“Oh all right, go ahead.”
In the bathroom Penelope hung up her towel and clean underwear, took out her lipstick and comb. She was studying the abundant collection of shampoos that Margusha offered, when the outer door slammed.
“Ovik!” Margusha exclaimed in surprise. “So early! Penelope, would you wait a couple of minutes, let him wash his hands, he must be hungry.”
So Penelope had to tear herself away from contemplating the shampoos, shut off the already opened faucet, and abandon the promised land for an indeterminate stretch of time, after first stuffing into a plastic bag the most revealing items of her toilette, the ones she had readied to replace those which must abandon her soon-to-be-antiseptically-clean body (washed till it shone, let us note, every night, or every morning, at any rate every day). Like any other woman, she wasn’t actually devoid of exhibitionism, in one form or another, and if her panties hadn’t suddenly seemed too faded and over-laundered, it would not have occurred to her to put them away, but alas, new underwear had to be saved for grander occasions.
“Penelope!” The master of the house had had time to take off his coat. He folded his arms, bowed slightly, and said with feeling, “Greetings to thee, O wise one.”
Margusha lifted her eyes heavenward and sighed noisily.
“Hello, Vanya,” Penelope replied. “How are you? How’s that trashy scandal sheet of yours doing?”
“Pretty well, thank you,” Ovik-Vanya grunted, fidgeting. “Spreading scandal in a small way. Fibbing a little, inventing a few things, covering up others, keeping mum about certain trifles. But on the whole we write the truth. Pure as Yerevan water.”
“Or Yeltsin vodka. Apropos, what’s happening in Chechnya?”
“Nothing yet. The valiant Russian troops are taking initial positions. If you’re following events—”
“I am,” Penelope declared bravely, although she had only heard half an hour ago from Edgar-Garegin that events were taking shape in Chechnya, otherwise she would have had no inkling of it, and besides, where would she get it, that inkling, the newspapers weren’t being delivered, the television wasn’t working, the radio had been silent for a month now, the batteries were dead and there was no money for new ones, and also classes had been suspended—at least at the institute big and small news did travel, although in the process of transmission it often acquired unrecognizable and even unthinkable forms…
And besides, to be honest, all this didn’t interest Penelope, she was apolitical by nature and usually discussed national issues only with people who could talk about nothing else, there are people like that: even if they conscientiously change the subject, they get sidetracked and end up talking politics again… Besides politics, Margusha’s husband discussed only soccer, which excited Penelope even less than zero, if anything could be less than nothing… of course it could: minus one, two, and so on out to minus infinity… that arithmetical progression… or regression? sounds more appropriate… that progression/regression would accommodate anything, from soccer and politics to, let’s say, bee-keeping or feather-plucking…
“I hear that Grachev claims the Russians will knock them over with a feather,” she put in, to show how well informed she was. “What do you think?”
Ovik shrugged. “They will. But hardly with a feather. More likely bombs. What do they care? They’ve got so many bombs there’s no place to keep them. And besides, what to do with the obsolete ones? Rather than dispose of them somewhere, isn’t it simpler to drop them on the heads of the Chechens? Actually, in Grachev’s place, I’d only send officers against Dudaev. Kill off a few more officers and you won’t need to build apartment buildings. They’ve been moving the officers in from all over, and nobody knows what to do with them next. But get them killed off and there’s no problem!”
“Ovik, stop clowning around,” Margusha said crossly. “Explain what’s going on. What’s the story on Chechnya?”
“Know your place, woman,” her husband said dismissively.
“Your place is in the outhouse,” Penelope finished his thought politely.
“Outhouse or no outhouse, none of this concerns us,” Ovik moralized. “It’s not our affair.”
“What do you mean, not ours?” Penelope immediately challenged him. “Why doesn’t it concern us?”
“It just doesn’t. The Chechens fought against us in Karabakh, after all. The Turks are their best friends. When they needed independence, oh, give it to them right away. But if Armenians are dying under the Turks, so what? Double standard.”
“You have a double standard yourself,” Penelope persevered. “You go around yelling right of self-determination, right of self-determination, but if somebody’s friends with the Turks, to hell with his rights?”
“Oh, Penelope,” Ovik sighed, “you’re not a Pene-lope at all, you’re an Anti-lope. If only out of defiance.”
“Antelopes have horns,” came Arsen’s menacingly close voice from the corridor.
“Not horns. Claws,” his father grunted. “Claws and fangs. What you need is a tamer. To keep you from contradicting us black and blue.”
“People just shouldn’t contradict you,” Penelope said spitefully. “What about freedom of speech, Mr. Journalist?”
“Mr. Journalist is tired,” he growled. “Tired and hungry. Damn it, will you women let me wash up and eat?”
“But you won’t deny that right is on the side of the Chechens,” Penelope persisted.
“Right, wrong,” Mr. Journalist objected wearily. “Right is a relative concept, as everyone knows. Now, the Muslims always present a united front. For them, he who is Muslim is right. We’re the ones who have all sorts of silly reflexes—human rights, democracy, opposition…”
“We? Who’s ‘we’?”
“Well… Europeans, let’s say.”
“You think of yourself as European?” Penelope needled him.
“Do you think of yourself as Asian?” he inquired ironically.
Asian. Well, no. Penelope did not think of herself as Asian. Even she had not escaped the common error that prompts the Armenian nation, despite the unmistakable evidence of geography, to reckon themselves among Europeans.
“We’re a spiritual scrap of Europe, tossed into Asia,” Ovik stated, so pleased with himself that he even put his hands on his hips.
“Tossed? By what force?” Penelope shot back.
Ovik frowned. “You’re not arguing, you’re playing ping-pong,” he declared scornfully. “Ultimately, European is a psychological concept, not geographical.”
Penelope had no answer to this, Mr. Journalist was already celebrating victory, she feverishly but unsuccessfully sought a parrying rejoinder—but now Margusha beat her to it and inflicted an unexpected blow from the rear.
“Wait, Ovik,” she said suddenly. “Do the Muslims really always act in concert? What about the war with Iraq?”
Penelope exulted, she opened her mouth to bombard her adversary with a dozen more such examples, but he treacherously sidestepped her and stabbed her in the back.
“I think you wanted to wash, woman?” he asked insinuatingly, and Penelope’s ardor cooled immediately, like an unwrapped teapot in an unheated apartment. Her soul abandoned the vain world and rushed off to the bathroom, like the souls of the righteous to the promised bliss of paradise… oh, but that’s no place a normal person would rush off to, only the righteous man, who was a fool on earth and will remain a fool, on earth and up in heaven. A totally absurd idea! Paradise. Instead of dying and escaping various damnable tribulations once and for all, sit up there and watch: everyone who loved you gradually forgets you, you inevitably turn into a photograph on the wall (and people very soon get used to photographs on the wall and cease to notice them), the man for whom you were the only woman recovers from his supposedly incurable grief, he acquires a new sweetheart, and what’s the point of waiting for him in the sky? After all, when he gets there he’ll probably prefer to be reunited with her, the other one, the later one, she’s closer to him now. Go on then, torment yourself for all eternity. And the whole reward for these truly hellish torments is heavenly bliss. Free food and nothing to do. Coffee in bed. You loll on the softest pillows, and angels with swansdown wings bring you coffee in Dresden china cups, or more likely ice cream, they take little silver spoons… ugh, I hate the taste of silver!… and put it right in your mouth, Finnish ice cream, or better, Swedish, yes, right, that’s delicious, that’s even very delicious, but to endure such a nightmare just for the sake of ice cream? You could croak from bliss like that, I mean, you can’t even croak, you’ve already croaked once! That’s paradise for you. A lumpen’s ideal, not even the ideal of the average man, and yet it’s the ideal by which Christianity has managed to hold on for two thousand years…
Oh! Christianity! That’s the force! He didn’t put it badly, the happy scandal-sheet editor, not badly at all, even though slightly backward, like Hegel, whom Marx and Engels turned upside-down—really Armenia is a scrap of Asia, torn out and dragged into Europe, and the force that performed the operation was Christianity, which was brought to our remote corner of the world in unimaginably ancient times. But after all, the Christian attitude took shape in this remote corner not only long before the birth of Islam, and of many nations that adopted it, but also before Christianity became the religion of Europe. Which is to say, we’re not even a fragment of European culture, but of a pre-European culture later adopted by Europe. Well, what do you know!
Penelope wondered whether to share her discovery with Ovik, but she was afraid his pre-European origin would hit him on the head like the champagne which the presumptuous Edgar-Garegin had given her and which was still causing, if not a buzz, then a faint hum in first one and then another remote part of her unwashed…
Stop, Penelope! Bad enough that twice in a row you’ve used “which,” nightmare of stylists, a word as importunate as the self-satisfied oafs of the male sex who once upon a time got a woman confused and have come to believe that that’s how it will be from now on… as annoying as they are, too… but you’re also a step away from the danger of erecting two heads in the same place—turning the sentence into an unfinished Orthodox church… Not the danger, no, the disaster. Collapse! Two heads, and so different besides (an architect would be sent to the wall for something like this): Mr. Editor’s noggin, a squarish cylinder, as if carved any old which way by an inept Cubist sculptor, and a noble prolate skull of the Hellenic school…
But my God! The question is, what can the man be doing for this long in the bathroom if he’s not getting into the tub? He can’t have drowned in the washbasin! Penelope clutched her already tousled head in agitation—she repeated this gesture no less often than Agatha Christie’s justifiably famed hypostasis—but now Ovik reappeared in the doorway, and from somewhere under his elbow Arsen’s little face poked out.
Sensing that he was securely shielded, the boy shouted impudently, “Antelope, where are your horns?”
“Arsen!” Margusha wrung her hands. “Will you stop or not?”
“Go easy on the child. He’s joking,” the indulgent father reassured her.
Heartened by his support, the little hooligan rolled his eyes mournfully and informed him, “They don’t let a poor child say a word. It’s terrorism.”
“Look at the way he can express himself!” Ovik said delightedly, and turned to Penelope. “When your Chechens start using terror, then you’ll know. They’ll plant a couple of bombs in the Moscow subway, and you have a sister in Moscow—”
“Bite your tongue!” Penelope said indignantly.
“The Muslims make the whole world groan,” Ovik said, shaking his head in distress. “Only our Penelope-Antilope defends them with her life.”
“It’s not the Muslims I’m defending,” Penelope bristled, ”it’s… it’s… Truth! Objective truth does exist. To listen to you, you’d simply make friends with Zhirinovsky because he doesn’t like the Turks, the real ones, or those unfortunate Azerbaijani, but next thing you know he’ll come to power and start a small war, crush Turkey—”
“Aha. We’ve seen their wars. First the Russians attack Turkey, and the Armenians support them. The Russians clear out, and the Armenians are left face to face with the Turks. It’s already happened. Thanks a lot.”
“But what do you propose?”
‘“Me?” Ovik asked in surprise. “I’m a quiet man. I have a wife, children, a trashy newspaper, I sit and keep my trap shut. You’re the one who’s proposing. To fight for the Chechens against the Russians. To fight for the Russians against the Turks. And the time, by the way, is quarter of two.”
Oh, Lord! Penelope was torn by contradictory emotions. This cynic, scoffer, dirty trickster had the last word. The last word… yes, but her unwashed head? Not to mention her body. She vacillated for a moment, finally made her choice, and rushed off to the bathroom with a hasty “Just wait, I’ll be back!” And now the lights went out. Preposterous!
“Not preposterous—it’s quarter of two,” Ovik said with malicious glee. “They’ve turned it off fifteen minutes early. Which isn’t surprising, considering the innocent human desire to earn a little extra on the side. Economize on some people so as to sell to others.”
“May they drop dead!” Penelope exploded angrily.
“Oh, it’s all right, let them live. Don’t be such a shrew. Sit down. Now that you can’t wash, let’s at least have a bite to eat. Before everything gets cold. And while the room is still warm.”
“I don’t want anything. I’ve eaten.”
“Well, have some coffee.”
“No,” Penelope said stubbornly. “I don’t have time. I’ll go to Kara’s, she has light today too.”
“Antelope, are you going to Odysseus?” Arsen inquired with interest, as the frowning Penelope moved toward the door with her hastily collected belongings.
“Antelopes don’t go to Odysseuses,” Ovik explained to him. “Penelopes go to Odysseuses. Or rather, vice versa—Odysseuses go to Penelopes. Antelopes can only go to zebras. As a last resort, behemoths. One or the other. Got that?”
Arsen nodded joyfully.
“They’re both nuts. Like father, like son.” Margusha sighed hopelessly and gave Penelope a noisy peck on the cheek, but Penelope, without a word, put on her coat, picked up her baggage, and left the de-energized apartment.
“Penelope, where’s your behemoth?” she heard behind her, echoing down the stairwell.
By an odd happenstance, all of Penelope’s best friends were concentrated in an appealingly small area that could, on a whim, be walked from one end to the other in a couple of hours, which Penelope not infrequently did, alone or in company, for the area exactly coincided with the one which tourist brochures call the historic center of the city and which does double duty as the main territory for rambles on foot—or promenades, as Penelope sometimes put it, imagining herself heir to a vanishing class of intellectuals with a Francophile bent.
Of course, as applied to Yerevan, the phrase “historic center” looked like blatant hyperbole, if anything here had survived history it defied detection by the naked eye—and maybe the historic center wasn’t even in the center but on the outskirts, on the hill crowned with the ruins of famous Erebuni Fortress, now excavated, researched, extolled, reconstructed… pardon, not reconstructed, but it would be fun to see the citadel of our Urartian non-ancestors erected once more… Except that it’s unclear why they’re not our ancestors, you have to ask where they disappeared to, well yes, those vagabond bullies the Armenians came in, they raped the Urartian women and killed off the Urartian men—but not all of them, most stayed right where they were and intermingled with the aggressor. In all probability the Armenians themselves leveled the fortress, as usual, and now they’re raising an outcry, Erebuni, Erebuni, obsessed with their inscription… Argishti, son of Meinua, founded this fortress to affright his enemies and rejoice his friends, to preserve and augment the might of the nation…
Actually, that sounds wrong somehow, who can remember it, that inscription, even though it does stand out, displayed to public view in the middle of Lenin Square—pardon, Republic Square—and if you’re fluent in ancient Urartian cuneiform you can read it. Silently for your own satisfaction or out loud for the public. But I think there’s a translation too. Is there, or not? God knows. You walk past it dozens, hundreds, thousands of times, naturally you don’t see anything any more, I mean, you do see, of course, but mechanically, without focusing, you don’t even notice this stone, this hundred-ton hulk, never mind some sort of translation… oh, there must be one, there must, below the cuneiform somewhere, or maybe even instead of cuneiform, maybe in the heat of the moment they erased it, the cuneiform, in the passionate era of the battle for the purity, or rather supremacy, of the national language, at the same time that they undertook feverishly, trembling with impatience, to translate microphones, tanks, quartets, ballets, Mafia, and electrocardiography into Armenian… but take care, Ms. Penelope, don’t touch language, language is sacred, there’s a reason our streets are sheer literature. Teryan Street, Tumyan, Abovyan, Sayat-Nova…
Penelope crossed Sayat-Nova and paused, deliberating whether it was worth it to walk up to the bookstore and see what they had—more precisely, see if they happened to have anything new—or whether she’d better go straight to Kara, who lived right across from where Penelope was shifting from foot to foot in indecision. Probably not worth the effort, the bookstore was such a wretched spectacle… “Wretched”—the Russian for that is ubogiy, looks as if it comes from Bog, their word for “God”… Wonder who invented that adjective, maybe skeptics who shared Penelope’s feeling that paradise deserves to be called a wretched place, even though it’s also God’s place. Sounds like a neighborhood beer joint. God’s Place. A pint of beer for Mr. Commissar! A brewsky for the Russky, as her cousin used to say, in the days before he took off for the Antipodes. Antipodes—not because they’re opposed to feet, but because they’re on the opposite side of the podium, if you consider the earth a podium, and there’s no reason not to…
Penelope crossed Abovyan Street and went into the store. It used to be called Sintetika, you could even buy something here, especially at the end of the year or even the quarter, she and Margusha used to look in fairly often, before Margusha got married of course, or rather, before she brought into the world the first of her wunderkinder, who had kept her housebound for several years, though Ovik, unlike other Armenian husbands… sounds nice, doesn’t it? Armenian husbands!.. trumpets and drums, clatter of hooves, clank of armor… unlike other Armenian husbands, who were short on heroic virtues but acted as high and mighty as Ajax, Ovik did not limit Margusha’s freedom of movement (within a reasonable distance, naturally), or her freedom of speech, meetings, demonstrations, or any other freedoms constitutional or unconstitutional, except of course sexual, otherwise he wouldn’t have been an Armenian husband. But he was. Progressive, but Armenian. Armenian, but progressive. A journalist, after all, even though editor of a trashy paper.
Penelope considered all newspapers published in Armenia—left, right, middle, high, low, lateral, whatever—to be trash, and unconsciously likened scandal sheets to fig leaves, assuming that both of them covered very similar things. It’s comical to think that journalists believe what they write. Penelope didn’t think that, naturally, but still, now and then it seemed to her that Ovik was quite serious about the nonsense his little paper disseminated. In any case he believed the stuff he wrote (or sanctioned) about the Muslim threat, far more deeply than he believed in holy writ. But then, everyone believed in the Muslim threat. If not the Muslim threat in general, the Turkish specifically. Stop ten passersby at random on the streets of Yerevan and ask whether, in their opinion, the Turks will use the very first convenient opportunity to wipe Armenia off the map and kill all its inhabitants—nine of the ten will answer yes. Yes. Of course, naturally, obviously, absolutely, without fail, goes without saying. And the tenth will elaborate: the Turks not only go to bed and dream of making mincemeat out of Armenia, they also dream of getting their hands on every Armenian who has somehow or other evaded the Turkish knife.
So everyone believed in the Turkish knife. Except Penelope. Remarkable. Could her disbelief be blamed on her eternal stubbornness? Stubbornness, spirit of contradiction, antilopism. Ultimately, for whom if not for her, whose great-grandfather and great-grandmother the Turks had murdered… It’s a strange thing. All those words, “genocide,” “massacre,” “nineteen-fifteen,” sound utterly abstract, remote.
Even if you walk to Tsitsernakaberd year after year on the twenty-fourth of April like everyone else, bring flowers, lay them on the crest of the wall of tulips, roses, and carnations, which by midday already rises high over the granite base—for a time you perceive this as mere ritual, something generic, indefinite and indistinct, far in the past, sunk in oblivion. And only when it suddenly occurs to you that this, right here, is the symbolic grave of your great-grandmother and great-grandfather—symbolic, for no one is privileged to find the real one—and all of this happened, in point of fact, quite recently…
And yet she, Penelope, did not tear her hair or throw fits like Ovik, all of whose great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, by the way, were laid in peaceful rows in a village graveyard within easy reach—in Odzun, or maybe Goris. But come to think of it, she, Penelope, was personally a victim, hadn’t she suffered the whole 1915 nightmare as encoded in her grandmother’s genes!…
True, this would surprise nobody in Armenia, Ovik was the one who was the exception, with his super-happy ancestors, and Margusha too, her mother’s people were an ancient clan from Shusha in Karabakh, although the great-grandfather had left Shusha with his family even before the revolution, and especially before the massacre, except that their old home, their ancestral seat, was plundered in the “predatory city,” its dead windows supplementing Mandelstam’s forty thousand. Their old home and the graves of their ancestors. The graves of their ancestors. When you’re young this is a meaningless phrase, merely a formality, what is a grave if not an ordinary hole where they’ve buried something that no longer has anything in common with a human individual? And really, does a gradually disappearing hump in a random patch of dirt generate more memories than a room, a chair, a bed, books? Than a shawl?
Where was Great-grandma Shushan interred? Penelope did not know and was not especially eager to know. That shawl said more, though it bore no name, and what can a stone slab say, even if engraved with Armenian letters? And yet your feelings about graves do change over the years, and the thought that your great-grandfather and great-grandmother are interred somewhere in the desert, or still worse, not interred but carelessly and routinely buried, and they have no graves of any kind, just a place that hundreds of feet pass over, step on, trample—this thought sometimes causes a spasm in your throat.
But she, Penelope, was by no means the only one, here in Yerevan wherever you dig you find descendants of people from Mush, Kars, Van… Vanians who have never in their lives taken a dip in the curative waters of blue Lake Van—they say the Lake Van water improves your skin, makes it elastic and fresh, like the much-vaunted series of NeuWeiss creams distributed, or to put it plainly, foisted on one friend after another by Margusha’s sister-in-law, formerly a junior research associate at an academic institute, a snob and stuck-up prig, now a “deeler” (is that right? these new English words! a “broker”? “broiler,” “menedger,” “teenedger”?), who had persuaded Margusha’s dolt of a brother to move to Moscow the year before last and get into God knows what, apparently bootleg liquor… blue Lake Van, where on the ancient island of Ahtamar stands a tenth-century monastery… if the Turks haven’t torn it down—they say the Turks are destroying everything Armenian that’s left in Western Armenia, or at least letting it collapse, although this doesn’t make sense, ancient architecture is capital after all, a tourist attraction… but Turks are Turks, dissemblers and hypocrites, it’s not hard to imagine them escorting all kinds of gaping westerners around Ahtamar and saying, with a mournful wag of their treacherous heads, Look what a deplorable state this very valuable architectural monument has come to, and all because the frivolous Armenians, lovers of la dolce vita and the blessings of civilization, have abandoned their homes and churches and taken off for America. They don’t give a damn that everything here is falling down, and we have our own worries, we don’t have time for the sighs and groans of their Tamar, may God, I mean Allah, Hagia Sophia, succeed in restoring… you’re always mixing things up, Penelope, Hagia Sophia has no more Turkish blood in her than Ah-Tamar… Ah, Tamar!
Penelope was quite little when after some family festivity she discovered on the uncleared table, lost among the dirty dishes and crumpled napkins and apparently forgotten by one of the tipsy relatives, an elegant little grayish blue box with a slender, silvery woman’s figure and the mysterious inscription “Ahtamar.” The dark brown cylinders hiding under the lid did not interest Penelope, they were merely an obstacle to the undisputed ownership of an object she liked, for which reason she shook the contents into the garbage pail without a qualm and took the box to her father to demand explanations. And Papa Genrikh, suddenly serious, told her the legend of the beauty Tamar. In telling it he forgot to specify the location of the island where the beauty lived, or perhaps he didn’t even dare, lest he lead his inexperienced child astray from the correct internationalist orientation of a Young Pioneer (or was she even younger, an October’s Child?) by debating forbidden topics like “the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire” (all this had happened long before a book with such a title appeared in the bookcase, even before Yerevan was swamped by the youth disturbances of 1965, which culminated in the breaking of glass in the opera house doors: this barbaric act, out of all the events that Penelope had been too young to witness, was the one she remembered, for this and only this had been discussed and condemned in the worthy family of the opera singer and Party member).
As a result, for another four or five years Penelope had retained an unshakable certainty, admittedly inculcated by no one, that the beautiful, unlucky lighthouse keeper had lived on Lake Sevan, and only when they were driving to Dilijan and passed a restaurant with the familiar name Ahtamar, and she wondered with childish naïveté whether this was where the island beauty’s ardent admirer had jumped into the stormy lake, only then was she told—not by Papa Genrikh, of course, but by Uncle Manvel, who was less burdened by internationalist prejudices and in any case left such things at the office, unlike the Ahtamar cigarettes that he and the elite of the entire Party and government smoked in those years—only then was she told about the accursed Turks and blessed Lake Van, the most beautiful in the world. More beautiful than Sevan? Oh, yes. Impossible—than Sevan? the way it was on that April day, as blue as… as… as Sevan!… under a sky that was just as deep a blue, separated from the water by a chain of snow-white mountains without a single dark speck?
Penelope loved Sevan in all its moods—spring and fall, summer and winter, deep blue and light blue, lilac and satiny gray, green and turquoise, in its setting of ever-changeable, many-colored mountains, she loved it already in her childhood, instinctively and unreasoningly—but Van was more beautiful, they told her, and she went cold inside at the thought there could be something in the world more perfect than perfection. Yes… And the Turks… Well, what about the Turks? Probably even the Turks have their merits, everyone has merits of some sort, each nation is good in its own way…
 Kandidatskiy minimum – the candidate system is a Russian educational term roughly equivalent to graduate studies such as Masters programmes or higher.
 Pavel Grachev – Russian Defence Minister at the start of the Chechen War.
 Dzhokhar Dudaev – leader of the Chechen forces.
 Punning on the assonance of the Russian words antilópa (“antelope”) and Penelópa.
 Erebuni – the ancient fortress pre-dating Yerevan, from which the city takes its name.
 Urartu (biblical name Ararat) – a kingdom flourishing between about 850 and 650 BC in Eastern Turkey.
 God’s Place – Penelope is punning on the use of the Russian preposition u (equivalent to the French chez) in conjunction with Bog, the Russian word for God.
 Refers to the “Armenian Massacre” of 1915.
 Van – the capital of the ancient kingdom of Urartu.