Jul 102017
 

The Death of the Perfect Sentence Book Cover

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At the moment when the telephone rings, Raim is sitting having lunch with his parents. There is a tablecloth on the table, not because it is some sort of special occasion, but because that had always been the custom in Raim’s mother’s home, even if it meant they had to wash their tablecloths more often; they had a washing machine for that very purpose. Not one of those front-loading Vyatka automatics with a window in the door – she wasn’t sure whether she could really trust one of those – but the far simpler Aurika, where you had to lift your washing from one compartment to another so that the drier could do its work. But anyway, Raim’s mother has made meatballs today. And at this very moment Raim’s father has just lifted up a meatball on the end of his fork, and it is halfway to his open mouth. We don’t realise straight away that they are meatballs, because they are swamped in sauce. Raim’s mother is in the habit of simmering her meatballs in sauce for a few minutes before serving them, again because this was the custom in her family – even though Raim and his father preferred the meatballs dry and crunchy. But the meatball on the end of Raim’s father’s fork hasn’t come to a standstill halfway to his mouth because he’s fighting an aversion to the food. No, Raim’s father’s mouth is open because he is preparing to say something. And he knows exactly what that will be, even if he hasn’t fully formulated the sentence yet. Clearly it will be something to do with politics. Raim’s father wants to say that in the current situation only a crazy person, someone who is totally ignorant, who has taken complete leave of their senses, an idiot in fact, would say anything to rock the boat, which is sailing steadily towards a better and freer life. It’s never a good idea to poke a sleeping bear. The finest minds in the West have said that too, experts in their field, Sovietologists in academic institutes, each with a budget bigger than the whole Estonian economy. Moscow holds the keys. It isn’t a good idea to be hasty now that the straitjacket is starting to come apart at the seams. They should just keep moving cautiously towards the destination and be happy with what they have. For him personally it’s more important that he can go on a trip to Finland without having to apply for permission from the relevant departments (and that he is allowed to exchange more than thirty-five roubles), not whether the blue, white and black flag of Estonian independence flutters on the Tall Hermann tower of Toompea Castle. And he is convinced that the majority of the Estonian people, or at least those who are capable of thinking rationally, are of exactly the same opinion. Raim’s father knows that once he has formulated and stated his sentence it will lead to an argument. That Raimond, his only son, this blond-haired, broad-shouldered boy with his wilfully jutting chin, who can become all those things which he was not, will disagree with him again. That’s how it normally goes. He doesn’t like it, and who would, but he has resigned himself. At least that way he has some sort of relationship with his son. It was the same way with his own father when he was young. And so he is annoyed when the phone call interrupts his chain of thought. But Raim is not, because for him those arguments with his father have long since lost any purpose. He doesn’t yet know who is calling, or if the call is even for him, but he has already decided that if someone is looking for him, then he will use it as an excuse to flee this scene of domestic bliss. So what if he is still hungry. If the meatballs weren’t covered in sauce, he would pick one up as he ran out of the room. But this is the way things are.

*

Things weren’t exactly how the authorities thought they were back then: that a multitude of isolated, downtrodden people were embracing a vision of happiness and a historical mission which required them to speak a foreign language and to celebrate a foreigner’s victories – a vision which promised to unite them, to restore them, to make them greater. Neither were things as some people like to remember them today: cinders glowing valiantly in every hearth, ready to blaze up into a tall, proud flame as soon as the first bugle call was heard. There was a quiet war being waged for sure, but it was so quiet that even the sharpest ears might not pick up the rumble of its cannons, and the clever chaps abroad had concluded that peoples’ backs were so bowed that they would never stand upright again. That is until the newspapers told them quite how wrong they had been, leaving them unable to explain exactly what had happened. There was a quiet war being fought, but without a frontline moving backwards and forwards on demarcated territory. In the place of trenches there was something more like the circulation of blood, or mushroom spores: thousands, hundreds of thousands of little frontlines, passing through meeting rooms, wedding parties, family photographs, through individual people, who could be upstanding Soviet functionaries from nine to five and then turn into fervent idealists watching Finnish television in the evenings. But there is no point in asking if things could have been otherwise, only why those people’s descendants are the same to this day, even if they have changed their colours. The printed money wasn’t worth much back then, even if there were plenty of sweaty-palmed people with no scruples about handling it. There was however another important currency in circulation – trust. Some may use simpler terms such as acquaintances, contacts, but nothing would have counted without trust. Because in the end it was impossible to trust anyone if you had not gone to school together, shared the same sauna, gone scrumping with them, studied together, worked in the same office, done military service together, stolen something, eaten and drunk with them, slept with them. If you trusted someone, you could share your books, your telephone numbers, your smoked sausage, your summer house, anything you had, even trust itself – names, places, times. You didn’t use a dentist whom you didn’t trust, you didn’t ask someone to pass a letter to your Swedish relatives if you didn’t trust them. If you could help it you had nothing to do with people you did not trust – they might very well be working for the other side.

Trust was the only valid currency.

It was just so exhausting.

And so we used that trust to pay for our freedom, and we’re still collecting the change to this day.

*

There were two of them walking along, one of them taller, with broad shoulders and a chin which jutted determinedly forward, he was walking a bit slower. The other was older, shorter, but more edgy and animated, evidently his companion’s mentor, the one who was in charge. They walked back and forth along the road between the Victory Square underpass and St Charles’ Church, making sure that no one was watching in front or behind. Raim was speaking while Valev listened with a worried expression on his face.

“It’s a real drag, that’s for sure,” Valev said, casting a quick glance over his shoulder, “and I hope that Karl bears up. It’s going to be really tough for him. I’m afraid that if they don’t let him go after a couple of days that means that they’re getting properly stuck into him. They’re particularly brutal at the moment.”

A passer-by looked in their direction and Valev fell silent for a moment.

“Because we’ve actually won already, you know,” he said. “I found out – don’t ask how – that an order was sent from Moscow, from the head of the KGB himself, telling them to work out a plan for going underground. Including cover stories for their own people and contact points for transferring funds in the future. And of course a network for blackmail operations.”

“Aha,” said Raim.

“That means two things,” Valev said. His voice almost became a whisper, and his cheeks started to flush. “Firstly, that we’ll get our country back, sooner or later. That’s certain. No doubt about it any more. But secondly, because there is a secondly as well … if their plan succeeds, we might end up with a maggoty apple. You understand what I mean, an apple full of maggots.” Raim thought he could see Valev trying to trace the shape of an apple in the air. “A maggoty apple.” Then his arms fell limply on either side of him, he cleared his throat and recovered his voice: “That is if we don’t do anything to stop it.”

“So what can we do?” Raim asked.

Valev started to explain. He looked around again and then took an object wrapped in yesterday’s paper from inside his coat.

It was a miniature camera, originally invented by one Walter Zapp, an engineer of Baltic German extraction who had lived in Tallinn’s Nõmme district in 1936 before moving to Riga. Now known as the Minox EC, it had been significantly improved in the intervening years, was being manufactured in Germany, and had earned renown as the world’s smallest photographic device, capable nevertheless of producing very high-resolution pictures.

And he also had a name to give Raim. Someone who had been stirred from the silence of the shadows: Gromova.

*

Clearly Raim did not ask where Valev had got hold of the information about Lidia Petrovna Gromova, but in the interests of clarity let it be explained. As it happened the source of that information was the same woman from the block where Lidia Petrovna lived, the one who had helped her find work in the security organs. Which had also come about by chance. A certain very handsome man used to visit this woman to comfort her during her husband’s long drinking binges and other absences. He didn’t wear a uniform, but he carried a work-issue gun with him at all times. And this woman was happy to be helpful in other ways too. One time the man told her about a well-paid vacancy, obviously hoping that she would apply; unfortunately she couldn’t type, but she knew that Lidia could turn her hand to that kind of work. Later, when it turned out that this man was only interested in getting information about her husband’s colleagues, they fell out badly. After that another man started to come round and console her. He was no less handsome, but he had completely different views, he was one of the leading figures among the local Russian nationalists. Lidia’s former neighbour was happy to be helpful to him in every way possible too. And this nationalist really liked those plump women with pale skin and a slightly motherly appearance, so they were well suited to each other. You might not believe it but back in those days the Estonian and Russian nationalists got on marvellously, united as they were by a common hatred for the Bolshevik regime – although the Estonians believed that the Soviet occupation which started in 1940 was a much worse crime than the execution of the last Russian tsar and his family, as ugly as that might have been. At the necessary moments they had helped each other out of trouble before. Moreover, the Russian nationalists thought that if copies of KGB files made it through to the West, then it would be a great help for their cause too.

In addition to Lidia Petrovna’s name, two other names reached Valev’s organisation in the same way, but it proved impossible to make an approach to them. And the fact that Lidia Petrovna had once worked at Raim’s school was certainly going to be useful.

Valev knew nothing more about her. And that was for the best.

*

At the precise moment that Lidia opened the door of her apartment – dressed in her dressing gown and feeling some trepidation, since her doorbell rarely rang – Raim had still not thought up the words with which to address his former Russian teacher after all those years.

But when he saw the immediate, complete and unambiguous look of recognition in her eyes, he realised that sometimes it was not necessary to think – only to be.

He closed the door behind him, put the cake and flowers on top of the cupboard in the corridor, took hold of Lidia’s shoulders, pulled her gently towards him, slid his hands under her dressing gown, across her naked back, and pressed his lips on to hers.

In other words, he did exactly what he had always wanted to do every single time he had seen Lidia Petrovna in his life.

*

Who cares about cake when there are fingers, hair, a nose, lips, a hollow in the back, shoulder blades, buttocks, and breasts? Who cares about flowers when a warm, moist welcome beckons from between the legs, and trousers can no longer contain the urge which has been suppressed for all those long years. Fortunately Lidia managed to edge slowly backwards, guiding them into the bedroom, so that they could become one for the first time on her quilt rather than on the corridor floor. But could anyone rightfully demand greater self-restraint when every square centimetre of their flesh yearned to be pressed against the long-awaited other, pressed so firmly that it could never be prised loose? Can you ask why someone who is parched after weeks in the desert drinks so greedily that the water sloshes out from either side of the jug?

If only he had thought to come here before, and not for the reason which had eventually brought him.

*

In the town which Lidia Petrovna originally came from, wherever it was (Voronezh, Suzdal, Irkutsk, some other Russian town, Raim couldn’t remember exactly), they believed that the vocation of Russian teacher was well suited to a pretty, decent girl who had the good sense and motivation to take seriously her studies at the local pedagogical institute. All the more so that with her looks there was slim chance she would be one of those long-serving teachers who end up as shrewish old maids. They taught her how she was supposed to understand those obscure poems, and she even got to stand in front of a class a bit before getting herself fixed up with a man and leaving. Naturally, her love and respect for the great language of Pushkin, Turgenev and Mayakovsky did not go anywhere. And wherever she lived they would beckon her out from the four walls of domesticity to go and follow her vocation. After all, there were schools everywhere, and a shortage of good Russian teachers – here in Estonia too. How could she have known that by choosing to come and live in this country she was getting herself caught up in someone’s grand project, a project which aimed to deprive all those clumsy, lanky boys and precocious plaited-hair girls, together with their parents, uncles, aunts, neighbours, relatives and their colleagues of that strange, incomprehensible language which they spoke amongst themselves? But gradually she started to realise that something was not quite right. It was evident from the way some of them started looking at her in the classroom or corridor, as if she were a guest who had outstayed her welcome. It was evident from the way in which the other teachers suddenly stopped talking when she entered the staffroom. Why didn’t they realise that she was not the problem? She wanted to explain, but somehow she couldn’t get her mouth round that strange and incomprehensible language; it was as if it just didn’t want to give up the sounds it was used to. So she preferred to stick to her wonderful mother tongue, which she spoke beautifully, and she knew that they understood, so it was easier for everyone that way. But some things remained unsaid of course. Over time she got used to the situation, just like everyone else. She comforted herself with the thought that Pushkin, Turgenev and Mayakovsky would stay who they were regardless of what was said in their beautiful language in sepulchral tones on the nine o’clock news on television every night. She didn’t know that not a single one of those lanky boys or plaited-hair girls, nor the women who fell silent when she entered the staffroom, ever watched those news programmes. She took pride when one of her students occasionally saw themselves reflected in the heroes and heroines of Russian literature and she saw a spark of comprehension in their eyes which spanned the gap between two worlds. The chance of that happening made her life worth living. And at home she had her books. She went to the ballet, and sometimes the opera. And to concerts. Occasionally the cinema. There wasn’t much else. And the situation remained the same when she left her position at the school. She used to shrug off any doubts about the nature of her new work; she didn’t have anything to hide. Anyway, the salary was nearly two times bigger, the hours significantly shorter, and she didn’t have to wear a uniform. She quickly got used to leaving gaps in the right places, and she was quite happy that she was not authorised to know what the papers were about. It was other peoples’ business to fill them in.

*

But sometimes things take many years to reach their culmination, and if the outcome is a good one, then why not be happy?

Raim was in the eleventh grade back then. He was standing in front of the class, and Lidia Petrovna was saying nothing. Strictly speaking, Raim had been caught out, but there was something about him which resembled a budding exhibitionist who was savouring being completely naked for the first time.

Raim was good at drawing, especially pictures of things which were important to him. He had gone to art class for six years before his father decided that it was better to be good at one thing than mediocre at many, and so Raim had chosen volleyball – there was no other way, he was already captain of the team by then. But of course he kept on doodling away for his own pleasure. And the picture which he had accidently left in between the pages of his Russian exercise book was a really good one. An Art Institute lecturer wouldn’t have expected anything better from one of their student’s life model sketches – except this picture was not drawn from real life but from imagination, from desire, from adoration.

Lidia Petrovna was lost for words. She raised her eyes and looked at this boy – to be honest he was virtually a man already – who had seen her like that in his mind’s eye. It was clear that the picture had been drawn from the purest and truest of motivations. Of course she knew where to draw the line of propriety, but she couldn’t restrain a fleeting thought which sent a shudder right through to the tips of her toes.

She knew very well that she would have to handle the situation like a normal person. Not like a teacher. If she wanted to remain a normal person, that is. Because she would still be a teacher whatever she did.

“Sit down,” she said with a slightly hoarse voice, and gave the exercise book back to Raim. That was it. She kept the picture, and never raised the subject again.

But Raim would have been happy to know that the very same evening Lidia Petrovna stood naked in front of her mirror for a while, looking at herself. And for the first time in ages she liked what she saw.

In fact Raim had come to Lidia Petrovna’s block two days earlier, but without going in. He remembered the address from his school days; one evening he had followed her all the way to her front door, without her even knowing. It was strange, but after all those years he still mentally referred to her by her first name and patronymic, Russian style. He had just got used to it. Of course the other students had called her Lidia Petrovna too, because that was required as a sign of respect, but when her back was turned everyone knew her simply as Gromova, and that was who she remained, since not a single nickname stuck. Everyone apart from Raim that is, who knew her as Lidia Petrovna, even in his thoughts.

Raim wasn’t sure that his former teacher would still be living there, but Lidia Petrovna was very happy in her small Pelgulinna flat. She had moved there after separating from her husband, part-exchanging it for her three-room Mustamäe apartment, which had left her with enough money to decorate properly and even to buy herself the occasional dress to go to the opera in – so that the men who saw her wouldn’t think she was one of those culture widows. Maybe her new place wasn’t as comfortable as the old one, but she couldn’t stand the sympathetic looks of her husband’s former colleagues who lived in her old block. And she had got used to the new place by now.

And now, it should be added, she certainly didn’t want to move anywhere else.

Raim had stood on the other side of the street, trying as hard as he could to think up what he would say on the off chance that Lidia Petrovna’s flat was not occupied by new inhabitants who might have her forwarding address. But when Lidia Petrovna appeared at the front door he recognised her straight away. Fortunately she didn’t glance in Raim’s direction but headed straight off towards town. Beautiful, majestic and completely her own woman, just as if all those years had never passed.

“I’ve been living here for ages,” said Lidia Petrovna, “and you only just found me.”

It was actually a question, but Raim didn’t yet know how to answer.

“I still have that drawing of yours somewhere,” Lidia Petrovna said with a grin.

*

“What a total bastard you are!” said Lidia Petrovna, trying to hide the tremor in her voice.

She was sitting up in bed and smoking, with her satin pyjama jacket open. Raim had just placed the Minox EC camera on the bedside cupboard and explained to Lidia Petrovna how to use it, and what kinds of pictures she should take with it.

For Raim the moment which followed seemed to last much longer than it actually did, because he had little experience of such situations.

But Lidia Petrovna now had two options.

Her employers would assume that she would inform them about the conversation which had just taken place, and as a consequence Raim would then be arrested, most probably followed by several of his friends and acquaintances, especially the acquaintance who had given Raim that wonderful piece of equipment invented by the Baltic German engineer. In other words, her employers would have assumed that she would betray her lover.

Her lover, however, assumed that she would put her liberty and maybe even her life on the line to join a struggle that she didn’t necessarily identify with in order to enable something to pass across the border between two worlds, something which might eventually determine the fate of many people, most of whom she didn’t even know. In other words, that she would betray her employers.

The question was which of those scenarios would result in Lidia Petrovna betraying herself.

In other words, there was no question.

—Rein Raud translated by Matthew Hyde

Published with permission from Vagabond Voices. Click here for more information.

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Rein Raud was born in Estonia in 1961. Since 1974, he has published numerous poetry collections, short stories, novels, and plays. For his works he has received both the Estonian Cultural Endowment Annual Prize and the Vilde Prize. Having earned his PhD in Literary Theory from the University of Helsinki in 1994, Raud is also a widely published scholar of cultural theory as well as the literature and philosophy of both modern and pre-modern Japan.x

Matthew Hyde is a literary translator from Russian and Estonian to English. He has had translations published by Pushkin Press, Dalkey Archive Press (including the Best European Fiction anthology for the last three years running), Words Without Borders, and Asymptote. Prior to becoming a translator, Matthew worked for ten years for the British Foreign Office as an analyst, policy officer, and diplomat, serving at the British Embassies in Moscow, and Tallinn, where he was Deputy Head of Mission. After that last posting Matthew chose to remain in Tallinn with his partner and baby son, where he translates and plays the double bass.

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