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Fiction

In Search of Yana

by David Stromberg

[Excerpt]

The reading room of the Soviet Jewry Library had been converted into a makeshift presentation hall. It was lined on either side with tall metal shelves buckling under the weight of an ungainly amassment of old newspapers. A reading table had been jammed long-ways at the front end of the cramped room with chairs facing it in three rows of four. On it were several copies of the book Sherman had helped Boris edit.

The library’s director squeezed her way up a middle aisle that had been left open. She was a sharp-eyed woman in a pleated dark green skirt and a loose brown blouse with puffed sleeves. She had raspy reddish hair that crowded either side of her over-rouged cheeks and drawn-over lips. These were contrasted by a pale and porous forehead, a rounded nose, and a reddish neck. She came up and stood, practically in jitters, in the back of the room next to Sherman and Scheinhorn.

“It’s a Friday afternoon,” she said to Sherman, hushed yet pressing. “As it is, we try not to schedule events before Shabbat because so few people can come. I don’t know how long I can keep everyone waiting.”

Sherman looked at the audience from behind. Except for two young guys in the back corner, one of whom was in his army fatigues, it consisted of a hodgepodge of eight or nine heads, mostly bald, balding, or garnished with some form of artificial hair. They were rushing nowhere but to the next world.

“Five more minutes,” Sherman said. “I’m just waiting for someone. I’ll go check outside, maybe she’s lost.”

“I’ll give one last announcement asking them to wait,” she said to Sherman, her trenchant whisper betraying a piqued panic turning into indignation. “Then you’ll have to go and speak. You’ll be talking for a fraction of the time they’ve been waiting.”

“Yes, I know, I’m sorry, I’ll be right back.”

The woman squeezed back down the small aisle to plead with the shrimpy audience, while Sherman stepped outside to look for Yana.

Scheinhorn leaned back against a dusty window, grated to keep out thieves staking out the Russian language. He lowered his hat over his eyes, trying for a quick doze that was sabotaged by two male voices next to him.

“. . .I’ve only been in the army for two months.”

“So you have two years and ten months left. . . That’s a long time. Sorry, what’s your name again?”

“Yaro. And yours?”

“Slava. Well, my full name is Yaroslav. The same name as yours, basically.”

“And you? How long do you have in the army?”

“Me? I finished four years ago. I’m twenty five.”

“I’m nineteen. I haven’t even had a chance to get behind the wheel yet. Not of a jeep, not a tank.”

“You will. You have almost your entire service left. You will, and then you will again.”

“Yeah? You think I’ll be able to run over someone?!”

Lifting the brim of his hat from his brow, Scheinhorn saw a well-built young man with thin blond hair, pale blue eyes, a flat nordic forehead, wide Slavic lips, sharp high cheekbones, and slightly slanted eyelids. He wore an olive green Israeli Defense Force uniform with an M-16 semi-automatic rifle, unloaded, hanging on his shoulder. Next to him was a thin young man in tan slacks, his white shirt tucked in, his cropped hair a mixture of black and gray, his expression weary and arrogant.

“Run over someone? Why would you do that?” asked the older of the two Yaroslavs as he sighed and ran his hand over his short hair.

Scheinhorn watched the two men exchange a glance of mutual understanding that somehow also acknowledged everything they failed to understand.

“Listen, what are we doing here?” the older Slava said. “Nothing’s going on.”

“I don’t know,” answered young Yaro, “someone told me they were showing some free movie or something.”

“This is a library. Don’t you see there’s nothing here but old books?”

“Maybe I misunderstood something.”

“You want to get out of here?”

“Do you know any girls in Jerusalem you can call?

As the two Yaros drifted off, another pair of voices came into earshot, these ones high-pitched, exaggerated, hardly trying to restrain the tragedy in their tone.

“. . .and what did you do?”

“What did I do? I did nothing. What can I do if she puts on these scraps of cloth she calls clothes and goes out barefoot?”

“You have to lock her inside the house!”

“Lock her in how? She has a key! Her mother gives her a key!”

“And what’s with her mother, she doesn’t say anything?”

“She works fourteen hours a day, she doesn’t have enough wind in her to say anything.”

“Ay, that Natashenka. And after Yasha left her like that, too. What a heroine!”

“That’s right! A true heroine. And I’m a heroine too, dealing with her daughter all day so I have a bit of money to eat.”

“That’s right, Larochka, you are a heroine.”

“We’re all heroines, Dorinka, every single one of us.”

Just then Scheinhorn was assailed simultaneously from two directions, flanked on one side by Sherman, and on the other by the library’s director.

“Mr. Berman, two people have already left, we have to start the reading!”

“I just need another minute, in case – “

“We don’t have a single minute more! The audience has patiently been waiting for forty-five minutes, Shabbat falls in a few hours, the busses will stop running soon, and these people will have to pay a workday’s salary to take a taxi home. And I don’t think that what you have to tell them is worth even half that!”

“Fine!” Scheinhorn blurted out. “You want someone to tell these people something, I’ll tell them something!”

Scheinhorn threw his hat to Sherman, who, for the grime and grease of which it reeked, preferred not to catch it and let it instead fall and roll under the table. Then Scheinhorn blundered his way past the three little rows of seats, and, drunk as ever, began to roar.

“They want someone to tell you something, so I’ll tell you something. I’ll tell you something about Russians:

“It has come to my notice that Russians always act as if they are in a rush, that they have no patience to wait for anything, even though, or maybe because, waiting is what they are doing most of their time. Sitting around, waiting for someone else to do something, on the one hand tolerating hours of waiting, and on the other feeling rushed in that waiting. Getting mad at the waiting rather than fixing it, feeling like everything is happening too slowly but apparently unable to hurry it. The result is agitation that comes from waiting too long for something that may not be worth the wait. Which creates a perpetual frustration and irritability. They feel behind at everything, even if they are the first at something – first to arrive, first to achieve, first to conquer. Even when they are first they are never really sure of it. Looking for validation but counting no one – not even their fellow countrymen – -worthy of validating them. And so, acting always impatient, they sit around and wait.

“If they were truly in a rush they would just go, they would just do something else. They would not stand the wait. It’s the same thing with queues as with culture and science. Impatience at their own patience, their insisting persistence, from which develops an irredeemable sense of tardiness. A feeling of always having to catch up that requires someone or something concrete to catch up to. An adversary to which to compare themselves. And since for the West progress is a cardinal value, it is positioned as a convenient opponent, with which Russians seem to be in a contest only they really care about. Appropriating with superb skill from the West under the pretension of improving it. Maintaining Peter the Great’s historic jealous enchantment by Western forms while never ceasing to despise the West itself. Pestering themselves and each other with this attitude of, You should have known this already! Compulsively looking to the West as a false prophet, and always returning to some Russian essence, proclaiming, ‘But of course! We’re Russian! There’s no other way but ours!’ Repeatedly looking abroad for ideas, immediately employing them locally without an ounce of effort to authentically understand or reform them – to understand them on their own terms – and then being utterly let down, disappointed, disgusted by the inadequacy of Western cultural products. Which in fact are useless to the utmost only once they are emplaced in Russia.

“And then, to boot, castigating one another for the foolish hope of having sought a foreign solution. Yelling to and at each other, ‘Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and National Spirit!’ Driving themselves to an increased but no wiser form of nationalism. They battle in themselves between a drive to grow, to develop, to establish a form and culture of their own, and an insistent essential penchant for quick solutions, for copying and pilfering, which pervades their every undertaking. Because when they look around – when they look at each other – they realize it’s simply not worth it. Their own people don’t care for real progress.”

“What progress?!” a pudgy man yelled in agreement, his worn striped shirt stained yellow under his waving arm. “Russia was never interested in progress. And, in general, what is the idea or direction of progress worth when Russia and China are calling for a New World Order?!”

“What else do you expect,” Scheinhorn continued, invigorated by this vocal support. “The Russian people have no use for Western ‘progress’ except as a novelty. They didn’t ‘take after’ Peter the Great as much as they got stuck with his Westernized legacy, the fact of his rushed city built on a foundation of jealousy, envy, lack. They became enchanted with the only cultural richness left to them, expressed in a completely foreign form. So they came to express their own history in the Western idiom, which neither belonged to them nor was suitable. A sort of disguise whose essence was to completely reveal itself as an impostor. A lie that didn’t pretend to be truth. A fiction that didn’t try to be reality. Their history and culture became readable, interesting, even digestible by the West, but never really open or vulnerable to it, never a part of it. Comprehensible without being understood. Which is why its most important writers – who were fully aware of the insurmountable distance between the national spirit of their people and the incompatible Westernized lives they were expected to lead – wrote precisely about this distance, which they portrayed as either absurd, or dark, or dangerous, or tragic.

“By never really caring to open up to the West, Russia has also stayed on the verge of irrelevance, attracting attention with the danger posed by its power and magnitude – the substantial dark influence of its ambitions – but never truly becoming a deep, genuine concern for the West. Which, even though it knows it shouldn’t, irritates Russia. And so it continues to insinuate itself into the West’s history, culturally and politically, by playing with its form. It almost participates with the West’s goings on, but ultimately it fixes, arranges, and orchestrates for itself – through brute force and natural resources – a grander stature than it perhaps needs.”

“We were heroines for surviving!” Scheinhorn heard one of the two tragic voices shout out. “If our Soviet education hadn’t so shrewdly stuffed us with its glorious Russian literature, if every piece of the knowledge we worked so hard towards didn’t come out of our mouths in Russian, we would have long ago abandoned the damn language!”

“Ah, but Russia gave you much more than that! It prepared you for life here in Israel too! Because one of the things Russia has in common with Israel is that, deep down, the West could care less about either one. The West had never invested in Russia, never capitalized the country, because it never saw there the possibility for profit. And it left Russia, uncapitalized and unindustrialized, in a rush, as usual, to modernize itself in a very short time in order to keep up with this shadow race only it recognized. Just like Peter the Great had rushed to built St. Petersburg – and killed 30,000 people in his rush – so Lenin and his cronies killed 4 million people in their rush to modernize the country. Not in the Imperial and Bourgeois way, which was too slow and hesitant, but by finding a faster way, exploiting the workers’ will to participate. Lenin used Marx to try and convince me that my labor – which was the only capital I had, the only thing in myself I had to sell – that my body actually belonged to a communal proletariat to which I was more responsible than to myself, and with which I had more power than by myself. And the son-of-a-bitch succeeded. I didn’t own the only thing I had: my blood-filled flesh.”

“You are a hero!” the second tragic voice yelled to Scheinhorn.

“Let me tell you: There is little in common between Bolsheviks and Jews except that they were both denied existence in Europe. The same way that the West, deep down, could care less about investing in Russia – because her situation is not worth exploiting – it could care less about investing in Israel, a place to which the Jews have pulled it after its miserable failure to colonize the Middle East, and where the West also sees nothing but a long-term loss.”

“Hero!” yelled a stout woman with arms dangling at her sides.

And a man with an aluminum cane across his lap: “Our hero!”

Scheinhorn, unfazed, pressed on:

“It’s a good thing I didn’t forget how to be Soviet. It comes in very handy here in Ha-Aretz. And it would come in handy if I were to return to Berezino, where every day the dictatorship over people is strengthened. But it is also why I could never travel to the West. Because there’s no place for me there. I don’t know how to live with their kinds of freedoms. I don’t know how to profit, and I don’t know how to exploit. I was bred with a taste for different kinds of freedoms: the freedom of insignificance, failure, underachievement, worthlessness, powerlessness, and impotence!”

“HURRAH!”



imageDavid Stromberg is a writer, translator, and journalist. His publications include four collections of single-panel cartoons—including his most recent BADDIES (Melville House 2009)—and he has written on arts and culture for The Believer, Nextbook, St. Petersburg Times, Jerusalem Post, and Ha’aretz. His fiction has appeared in the UK’s Ambit. Born to ex-Soviet parents in Ashdod, Israel, Stromberg grew up in urban Los Angeles, and currently resides in Jerusalem. This piece is an excerpt from his novel: In Search of Yana.