The two Russian writers were young—billed as under forty—but in the month of touring the United States, they’d acquired heft and world-weariness. Seven days a week they answered questions: What does new Russian writing offer readers in the United States? and Do you see yourself continuing the great Russian novel tradition? The two writers learned to speak slowly and to pepper their mediocre English with Russian words inflected with a faux French accent.
The two writers bulked up physically. Food was provided by their hosts with apologies for slashed budgets and truncated monetary compensation. The writers left their plates clean after each meal. At ten in the evening, their hosts installed them at a Ramada or a Comfort Inn. Victor changed into his shorts and tried to run for an hour, but most nights he, a Muscovite, got spooked by the unlit roads and long suburban blocks, seemingly populated only by crickets and deer. Mikha, a son of professors exiled to Siberia, believed that rest was a change of activity, so he went to his room and tried to work on his new novel. After speaking English all day, his writing came out in small, clichéd phrases. Mikha’s favored remedy against anxiety was bourbon, and he kept a bottle at hand, so when Victor came back from his run and knocked on Mikha’s door, they always had something to drink.
Brought together by chance in this foreign land, the two felt like long lost brothers. By the glow of Mikha’s laptop, they shared stories about the dirtiest and the most despicable acts they’d committed. Sex, yes, and, by the end of the month, their professional misdeeds. Victor earned his living as a literary critic in Moscow, and he admitted to accepting money for positive reviews. To protect his reputation, he panned some of the authors he’d taken money from. Mikha made deals with business magnates—he’d set one novel on a modernized and ecological oil rig in Sakhalin; in another, he’d engineered a character with a healthy passion for a particular brand of vodka. Later, Mikha all but confirmed the rumor that he employed “literary slaves” to finish his novels.
“You’ve built a successful brand,” Victor nodded. “Companies turn to you for product placement, and if you don’t deliver a novelty item every six months, people will forget who you are.”
Mikha took a swig of bourbon. “So, the new Russian writing? Offers a guarantee that everything has a price. And even that’s not exactly news.”
“Writing’s a job like any other. You see a demand, and you fill it to the best of your ability,” Viktor said, coughing up phlegm.
“But don’t you wish you could honestly write about things as crappy as they are?”
“Has America made you soft-hearted? Will you go on TV now and beat yourself in the chest? That would add to your popularity, of course.”
“But what of literature, the true art? Don’t you believe in all that?”
Victor smiled a slow smile, like a cat who’d just swallowed a mouse. “That must be your provincial upbringing speaking. Your Pasternaks and Solzhenitsyns weren’t made differently from you. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. You’re it now. Have the guts to own your success, to take it like a man.”
“If you truly believe this, how can you go on? Why wake up in the morning?”
“A question like this means it’s time to call it a night,” Victor said and tried to pick himself up out of the chair. The alcohol and the extra kilos he’d put on made it difficult to stand in a single motion.
Three months after their tour of the United States, Mikha published a novel, a workplace romance, set in a coal mining town in the Urals. A carbon copy of his previous novel, it included a new plot line about an idealistic district administrator whose refusal to accept bribes unleashed a war between two mining consortiums. Soon, Victor’s review appeared in a prominent Moscow paper, praising the book for its portrayal of Russia gathering steam to assume leadership in the world economy. It wasn’t a coincidence, Victor pointed out, that the author wrote this novel while traveling in the United States, where bribery was hailed as evil. Overfed Americans, afraid to step outside their cookie-cutter houses for fear of the outside world, thought they could dictate their laws to everyone else. The reality was more complicated. The do-gooder district administrator became the worst enemy of the people. Bribery was a cultural legacy that highlighted the innate feelings of brotherhood and loyalty that made Russians superior, Victor speculated, and he lauded Mikha’s understanding of his fellow countrymen, who even in their path to world domination chose to remain human.
~ ~ ~
Olga Zilberbourg is a bilingual author who grew up in Russia and moved to the United States at the age of seventeen. Her English-language fiction has been featured in Confrontation, World Literature Today, Narrative, Outpost 19’s Golden State 2017 anthology, and others. She co-hosts the weekly San Francisco Writers Workshop.