As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Dear soldier from the long-forgotten war over the disputed mountain,
I was left abandoned, a rectangle in the middle of a square. Dasvidanya, they said, and kicked me on my side. It hurt so much that I wanted to cry, though I’ve also shed a few tears of joy during my many travels. Today, I want to focus on my travails, the collective groans, tics, and farts of my owners. The miasma of their misfortune still hangs from me like an albatross during the silent hours of the night. But if truth be told, my nights were far from silent, and I can provide an exhaustive taxonomy of toots and other flatulent gusts released from astern as proof, thunderous stink bombs that still cloud my thinking, olfactory blasts from my unsavory past, especially the foul wind broken by Yevgeny, my very first owner, who hailed from the Ukrainian city of Lviv. That smell was insufferable, from the deepest— and meanest—of his precincts.
Yevgeny, or to be precise, Yevgeny Vladimirovich Volokh, bought me from a department store next to the Church of the Protecting Veil. Nine months later he hauled me with his books, beliefs, and belongings to Moscow. Yevgeny was a pastor with a deep belief in the Orthodox Church and always kept a portrait of Saint Alexander Hotovitzky on a peeling, jaundiced wall above his bed. He suffered from a bad back and blamed me for everything, including the evil wars in the south and the spike in the price of cabbage. One day, Yevgeny offered me to his friend on the ground floor of his zdanye and took the train back to Lviv with his books, beliefs, and belongings. An unforeseen conflict between Russia and the Ukraine prompted his return, or maybe it was the insistence of one of his neighbors that Gogol was a Russian writer, not a Ukrainian one, before she spat on him and roared: “Go back to where you came from, you old fart.” The customarily loquacious Yevgeny became reticent and ripped a blustery whopper that was also a lament, and did just that.
My second owner, Yakov Fedotov, was an upstanding professor of English at Moscow Polytechnic University, and I am most indebted to him for my syntax. It is always good to have an English professor sleeping on you. I have learned so much under Yakov. But one day, he took up yoga and resolved to sleep on the floor, and so he no longer had any use for me, and sold me for 2,780 rubles to the Balayans, a seasonal migrant family that moved across a vast expanse, with their bulging bags and fraying furniture, to resettle in a far-flung outpost at the edge of Transcaucasia and Anatolia.
The Balayans were a lovely bunch. I was happy with the bed sheets they dressed me with much more so than with the polyester that spindly Yakov had a proclivity for. I liked them because of the additional weight from their twin babies, like warm and tender bulki tucked in a basket. The elder Balayans divided their time between playing chess, applying for jobs, and nursing their newborns. Their sheets, I remember, let out a dignified daily snap and bore a twist on a regional motif, the sundried apricot. Respect. That’s something we see less of these days on both sides of the mountain.
Yevgeny once said that habit, if not resisted—not unlike his unruffled farts—soon becomes necessity, and so I was thrown out again. This time the Balayans dropped me off at Opera Square, which has the shape of a circle actually. There was a demonstration underway against a war. Then something terrible happened. I was minding my own business in the middle of the square when two activists spat on me. Then they sat on me. They were heavy, like sins weighing on a conscience. One was an angry, fist-waving mujik, a homeless peasant trying hard to live in the big city. The other had just returned from the forgotten war over the disputed mountain. “Get your asses off of me, now,” I wanted to tell them, “you’re hurting me. Have you no respect? How are you going to govern if you can’t even get those under you to respect you?” I know what you’re thinking, that I’m a chronic curmudgeon. But it has not been easy ever since they patched me up in a now shutdown factory of the people for the people; yet through a combination of luck and deft recoil, I bounced back.
It was late in the day, dear soldier, when demonstrators left the square, chanting irreverent slogans. Large banners bellowed in the cantankerous cold wind. I remember how you pulled over in a runty Lada next to my side. You salvaged what had remained of my humiliated self, tying me to the top of your car. Your wife watched as you gingerly tied a rope around me. I wondered if, as a couple, you would treat me differently than the Balayans had. They dropped me off in the square because they, too, caught the bug to resettle elsewhere—somewhere on the other side of the mountain. Who could blame them? They fled during the year the chopper fell over the disputed farm on our side of the disputed mountain next to two fat, secular pigs. They were slaughtered, too, an offering to a great god perhaps still unknown to me. That day was indisputably a Friday, and I felt the weight of the Balayans sitting on me while watching the sordid news, that never-ending dread-stream of fatalities, more than 137 teenagers killed by enemy drones, and I remember one of them let out a wallop, an expansive cumulous cloud of rage and beans he had just had for dinner, and said, “It’s time to leave. The shit has just hit the fan.”
Scattered across the soil were tumescent faces, tender elbows.
You sheltered me in your home far from the long-forgotten war over the disputed mountain. Your well-meaning wife, Shoush, covered me with lowthread-count bed linen from the land of the Kazakhs, and for that, I am most grateful, because, I admit, I’m not always a pretty sight to see. The Balayans complained that I was a mattress of poor quality. It’s true. I don’t have that technologically advanced visco-elastic memory foam like my western polyurethane counterparts do, but I somehow manage to remember everything, including all those times you woke up screaming in the middle of the night. Moments later, you’d humiliate me in front of your wife. “Your coils are crap,” you reproached me, and it hurt more than your beaten and spent back. I don’t know what came over you because soon after you’d apologize and ask your wife to come back to bed. I’m here to comfort you, dear sleep-deprived wife of soldier of the long-forgotten war over the mountain. How I love the supple weight of your body sprawled across me. What a relationship it has been. Keep looking out for me, and I shall do the same.
Dear soldier, I’ve tried to give you the best bounce I could. My resilient coils have been used and abused, but I have tried to make life comfortable for the two of you. This will surely sound syrupy, but I need you more than anything. I don’t want to witness your wanton anger. I don’t want you to put me down in front of your beloved Shoush. I don’t want to see more tears on my stained surface: a composite of barley, sex, and traces of epidermal protein left behind by people I never really got to know. And I don’t want to be thrown out on a sidewalk. I don’t want to be homeless. I don’t want to lose your love and fealty. I don’t want you to stuff me with devalued currency either, unless it’s the loonie. I don’t want to lose you over a demonstration or a war, especially a forgotten war over a disputed mountain, because that would mean that your wife might switch to a smaller bed and have no need for me, or, perhaps, bring home someone else, someone who will keep us awake all night because of his emphatic snore. And promise me you won’t hit me the way the enemy broke a bottle of Xan Premium over your head when you were on the other side of the disputed mountain, because my life expectancy isn’t that long. And one more thing: please stop farting under the bed sheet.
One day the two of you caught the resettling bug, too. Enough of rallies in squares, you said; enough of rainbow-colored revolutions and disputed pomegranates; enough of people smoking in restaurants and taxis; enough of people not reading books in the metro; enough of the mashutkas; enough of having no money; enough of the corruption; enough of the four-day wars over disputed mountains; enough, enough, enough, you said, and packed your books, beliefs, and belongings—including yours truly—and left.
You took out a loan you never repaid and drove from one fledgling republic to another where life was a little saner, but only a little, and so you crammed your belongings into a quarter of a ship’s container in transit to a faraway land. It was dark and damp in the container. I sustained injuries from the unrelenting pokes of a stool on one side and your umbrella on the other (could you not have let this sundry behind?), but this was a small inconvenience to what awaited us on the other side of the world. We sailed for a month from a port city to a country with great lakes. Yet even this vast country dotted by thousands of lakes and forests of yews, maples, and hemlocks was a speck compared to the billions of stars in the Milky Way; and I know that being the wistful person that you are, you did not forget to pack a heap of disputed land with you, except that the glass jar that contained the soil broke in transit, and the loamy granules dispersed, and I’m still stained because of it.
There were no Putin rallies in this corner of the world where you were free to partake in Poutine, though you didn’t. You rode the bus with people of different shades and beliefs and orientations, including people from the Orient. This was a first for you since the Chinese in the monochrome city of your birth kept mostly to the embassy. It was odd at first, and it took time to reprogram your sensibilities. You realized that no one prosecuted you here for wearing a nose ring or a dastaar. You were confused when they fined you for mixing plastic with glass, and I empathized because this was a strange type of segregation for me, too. If truth be told, it was colder at times; it felt nearly arctic, but you wore Sorel boots and went out into the cold undeterred and returned with rye bread that cost more than one day’s work in the old country. It was worth it. You had stopped being a soldier, enfin.
The day they took me out of the ship’s container, I had no idea what a cabaret was. I thought it was just a performance in a nightclub. It turns out it’s also a tray. It was not as though we were free of bibettes here. We had our share of problems, but they were mostly confined to what Georges Perec referred to as the infra-ordinary, you told your wife, Shoush, one day, after great sex, and I was most grateful for this historical moment, because your collective toots were less in quantity and ferocity than all of my other owners. Maybe it was the change in diet. I experienced heightened olfactory orgasms and approved of your uncharted experiments. You went on to enroll at a local college and studied photography, and did not even have to change your name since Van, the namesake of the majestic lake that is now in an eastern province of the biblical land you left, is easy enough to pronounce, and it also means a rather large motor vehicle with a sliding door in English, a machine that traffics goods and people from one destination to another. It is a name that is ironic, easy-to-pronounce, and symbolic—traits that would define much of your photography, which you sold for twenty-five dollars to a tourist for the very first time, not including the frame, until a client, who also turned out to be a dealer and an avuncular guide, signed you on and shepherded your art for months and years as you continued to wash dishes at the brasserie, until your first exhibition at the national museum of modern art, and your first low six-figure sale to a high-heeled patron from the undisputed hills across town. Boom! It all happened unbelievably fast. We would soon move from our one-bedroom rental to a three-bedroom brick home overlooking a leafy park full of children’s din. Then one day, I overheard the two of you saying that you were planning a trip to IKEA. I feared that I would be soon replaced, but after all these trying years and my long peripatetic travels, you never abandoned me. Respect. I finally feel safe in the hearth of your home, and my French keeps improving. C’est tiguidou! Everything is going to be okay.
From the bottom of my coil,
Viken Berberian’s novels are The Cyclist and Das Kapital. His graphic novel, The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade, with illustrator Yann Kebbi, was published in France this year by Actes Sud. Translated by Claro, it is available under the French title La structure est pourrie, camarade.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.