To the sacred memory of the poet Regina Derieva
That September, in sweltering dusty Crimea, I was lonely and, more than ever in my life, free. You might even say I was completely happy, if not for that red-haired idiot (either a jealous maniac or someone’s hired kneecapper – how can you tell!?) hunting me down all over the entire south. Finally, I got so sick of feeling like a sitting duck that, violating all the principles of logic, I took myself off to a well-known destination, a small, attractive town, as easily accessible as the darkly rose-colored grapes available for sale at every bus stop. In my bag, swaddled in a beach towel, was a Makarov pistol I had bought with my next to last ruble from some suspicious character on the Fiolent peninsula and which, to be perfectly honest, I did not know how to use.
The town was called Bakhchysarai, and it didn’t seem to resemble its luscious Tatar name one bit. It barely succeeded in keeping its balance on the ancient pock-marked earth, on its rises and slopes, somehow contriving to preserve its provincial tranquility. The family men, in their boxer shorts and wife-beaters, were playing dominos at tables blocking the narrow alleyways, as though these were hallways in communal apartments. The self-propagating stray pups were bathing themselves in the warm dust. From the squat, low-lying homes issued the odor of soup and sweat-soaked mattresses. The legendary Khan’s palace with its minarets was nowhere in sight. What would it be doing here?
But already, just two city blocks away, on any of the town’s numerous hunchbacked hills, the minarets reared into view, like some sort of spears hurled at the heavens, and then placidly, so characteristic of the east, the Khan’s palace sedately rose after them.
What is it about this place that so draws one to it? Is it for no other reason that in the year 1820, that most amazing of Russian geniuses, great-grandson of an African, had spent a languid hour or two here? He was being racked by chills and fevers, and by the meaninglessness of youth. Nothing was as it should be – not “as it is among normal people”. In alternating waves, he felt first the twinge to pursue a new love, followed by the urge to whip out his dueling pistols. In an agitated state, he was almost dragged here by force – to see what? The ruins of the harem and the rusted pipes of the fountain? May it go to hell … Then why later – so much trepidation in his poetry over it and the fiery melancholy for the “ineffable wonders” of Bakhchysarai? Yes, he had used precisely that word, ineffable.
… The fountain stood where it had always stood. It turned out to be modest, almost a miniature – the polar opposite of the highfalutin, gilded hootenanny of the pathetically famous “Brotherhood of the Peoples” pavilions at the old Exhibits of Socialist Progress. It never spurted and made a racket, as a fountain ought to – only oozed and teared up a little bit. Defenselessly naked, pale-skinned marble silently bore the touch of one’s palm; it was nearly impossible to resist fondling it.
A woman guide was clearly appealing to my sympathy for the terrible lot of the khan’s female slaves: they were dying of boredom, had no opportunity to learn anything, no useful occupations. Approaching old age (apparently, somewhere near thirty!) they were kicked out of the harem, and in just such a state – without any occupational training – they’d find themselves out on the street. I imagined how these languid odalisques in their silken sharovary inconsolably stumbled down the streets drawn towards the odor of soup and sweat-soaked mattresses.
I exited into the palace garden, having not an inkling of the shock that awaited me. A row of tall rose bushes was glistening there. The roses were alternatively coquettish then haughty, first paling then flaring up. They stretched their necks and raised up their heads, gazing down at me with such an expression, that I was moved to execute a deep bow and at least minimally acknowledge their beauty…. This garden literally raged, overwhelmed as it was, exhausted by its own densest aroma and by a sweeping expectation of something impossible.
I was entirely alone, and I couldn’t care less about how I appeared to anyone else. Though, considering the pistol in the half-empty bag, I could easily have been mistaken for a crazed killer. I leaned my head on the massive rose buds and breathed in so heavily, as though I was living for the last time in my final incarnation. That which was pervading my nostrils surpassed in its sweetness both wine and honey. My demolished sensorium quickly surrendered to the mercy of my conqueror – my sense of smell flickered off and I passed from one bush to the next no longer sensible to anything.
And that is when I shuddered, as though someone had loudly called my name. There was not a single soul nearby, but something had happened. I stood beside a shaded row, above a small heat-stricken rose, unable to budge, as though nailed to the spot. What exactly had occurred? I was seized by a powerful, permeating smell of a dark, almost black little flower, and within a minute, I understood: I would not be able to break away from it so easily.
To say that I was drawn to its smell – is not to say anything. It compelled one to part from oneself, as though from some unnecessary thing, and to dissolve in it. It dictated an immediate, implicit sense of dependency, which obliged one to act in some way. I could have torn off my treasure trove, possessing and taking it away with me, but I very much doubt I could have preserved that aroma. It was beyond my power to part with it.
That is when I was struck by a classically crystal clear solution: to attempt to name the aroma, as precisely as possible to identify it with the aide of words – and only by means of this to preserve it for myself. It was complex and multilayered. “First of all, obviously lemony,” I said to myself, beginning with the most apparent. This was the simplest one of all. The more submerged layers did not lend themselves at all to words. Cursing my inarticulateness, I finally came up with a clumsy formula: something on the order of “the smell of a proximate ending”. This lacked the aura of precision, but I was incapable of anything more substantial.
Now I felt the urge to test my arrived at result on anyone at hand…. With difficulty tearing myself away from the devilish row, I rounded the rosebushes and stepped into the garden alley. I saw her almost immediately – a middle aged woman in a dark blue dress sitting on an empty bench. An unremarkable face, thin bare arms without a trace of rings, ashen bun of hair. Staring directly in front of herself, she was smoking a cigarette without a filter and exhibited not a dash of interest toward the museum attractions.
In response to my seemingly idiotic request (“Would you do me a favor and come take a look – at this one rose? I must decipher its smell…,”) she replied with a slight shrug of the shoulders. She then stubbed the cigarette out, got up, and began walking after me. The sober indifference of my companion, her simplicity and casualness inspired trust.
She stood, bent above the rose, just for a single moment, then straightened herself out and raised her eyes towards me, in the same calm and serious way. I did not hide my impatience.
– Did you catch it? What does that smell remind you of, in your opinion?
– This rose smells of lemons, Spain, and death.
She turned around and walked off back to her bench, as though to say, what’s the difference what it smells like?
She herself called to me when I was already leaving.
– Do you intend to kill someone? – the woman asked.
– Quite the opposite. It’s more likely it will be me.
– You have nothing to fear. You still have….
And she named a date, hidden in the depths of the next century, and which flooded me with its gust-like piercing chill, like a piece of ice dropped behind one’s collar. The date that is best left unknown.
… I was nauseous on the stifling long bus rides, and would come to, nearly banging the side of my head against the window glass, beyond which, among the greasy crowns of the hilly south, the lights flew irrevocably past. Toward morning, the dream would vanish and I again thought about the Ethiop’s great-grandson, about how he was leaving Crimea for the last time, having fallen in love with one of the most beautiful and prominent women in all of Russia. The mother of the family, the wife of a brilliant dignitary, had bequeathed her exquisite sense of responsibility to the exiled, deprived of his rights, youth. And now, his impossible yearning had suddenly manifested itself as a genuine possibility.
At the caravan-sarai of the Simpheropol airport, in all four directions and too vast for the human eye to take it all in, amassed and preparing for departure was an entire harvest of half-suffocated fruit, over-ripe with a priceless suntan that would all too soon rub off. Suddenly, I caught myself unconsciously scanning the crowd of passengers for that suspicious ginger-haired character with his mottled face, and surprised myself – it seems as though we had exchanged places, no? Now I am hunting him? What the Dickens do I need him for? We’ll never see each other again, and may God let us forget about each other as quickly as possible.
Twenty minutes before boarding was to begin I entered the nearest café, where it was not only impossible to get something decent to eat but difficult even to breathe, but it did have a toilet where one could sequester oneself in a stall for a minute – enough time to take out of the bag and unwrap the gun out of its diaper, and drown it in a flood of rust-colored water.
… The first thirty minutes of the flight, Levon from Yerevan in the neighboring seat showed me the inner workings of his beautiful cherrywood clarinet, and even permitted me to eke out two interrogative phrases on it. Afterwards, Levon recalled a certain miserable Tamara who had badmouthed the best-in-the-world Armenian cognac. He reached into his pocket and, withdrawing a flask, looked over at me with an expression of wistful suspicion – lest I too get it into my head to support Tamara’s position? Nothing of the sort had entered my mind. Together, we denounced Tamara at least two more times, after which Levon began to hint at a session of illegal smoking in the tail section. If it weren’t for him doing it, it would have had to be me doing the hinting. Putting on our guileless faces, we set of for the scene of the crime.
Most of the passengers were asleep by now. When the man in the next to last row of the coach class cabin reading Speed-Info abruptly lowered his paper, I saw the orange, spotted mug of my pursuer. As our gazes collided, his eyes went white with dread.
IGOR SAKHNOVSKY (b. 1958 in the Ural city of Orsk; he now lives and works as an editor in Ekaterinburg) published his first novel, The Vital Needs of the Dead, in Novyi Mir, in 1999. Translated into English by Julia Kent and published in Britain by Glagoslav, it won the author a fellowship from the Hawthornden International Writers Retreat. His follow-up cycle of short stories, Fortunates and Madmen, was recognized as the best publication of the year by the journal Octyabr’ and won the Russian Decameron prize for 2003. His collection that included both of the latter made the short-list of the National Bestseller prize in 2006. His second novel, The Man Who Knew Everything (2007,) a finalist for both the Russian Booker and Big Book prizes, was adapted for film in 2009 by Vladimir Mirzoyev. It also won the Strugatsky Foundation’s Bronze Snail prize. His third novel, A Conspiration of Angels, came out in 2011. Two of his novels, translated into French, are published by the prestigious Editions Gallimard.
“Bakhchysarai Rose” is part of an anthology dedicated to the memory of the Russian poet Regina Derieva entitled Curator Aquarum: In Memoriam Regina Derieva to be published by Ars Interpres Publications in early 2015.
About the Translator:
ALEX CIGALE’s poems and translations have appeared in Colorado, Cimarron, Green Mountains, and The Literary Reviews, and in Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, PEN America, Two Lines, and World Literature Today. From 2011 until 2013 he was Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He is a 2015 NEA Translation Fellow for his work on the poet Mikhail Eremin of the St. Petersburg “philological school”.
Read more work by Igor Sakhnovsky:
Short story and interview in The Morning News
Feature story on Sakhnovsky in Russia Beyond the Headlines
The Vital Needs of The Dead website (including novel excerpt) at Glagoslav Publications
Read more translations by Alexander Cigale:
Translations of Acmeists Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Narbut in New England Review’s “The Russian Presence” issue
Translations of Russian Absurdist Daniil Kharms in Interlit Quarterly, Numero Cinq, and Narrative Magazine