The first thing I investigated when we moved to Barnaul was the town, the river, and the surrounding woods; the second one, within a few days, was the public lending library. It lay downtown, had thousands of books, and was free. I enroled at once. Ever since our deportation I had been thirsty for books, but there weren't any in Kairan and few in the kolkhoz. Now an enormous treasure unfolded before me and I felt like a polar owl over an endless column of lemmings. Ever since I learned to read my life was a mixture of reality and books. At the kolkhoz, someone once lent me a biography of Amundsen just as the winter set in, and, trudging through snow on my barrel-stave skis, I was not a skinny little Jewish boy from Lvov but Roald Amundsen on his way to the South Pole. Crossing a raft on the Ob, holding my fishing rod, and stepping carefully, barefooted, from log to log, I had a problem: I did not know the tune of "There was a woman in our town / In our town did dwell / She loved her husband dearly / But another man twice as well", overheard by Huckleberry Finn on a similar raft on the Mississippi, so I had to invent one because I was him on that particular occasion. And whenever a plane passed overhead, I was a fighter pilot with leather helmet and goggles, bringing down Messerschmitts by the dozen, drawing on cinema newsreels and my own personal experience of having once sat in the cockpit of a Komar glider in Ustrzyki Dolne.
Half-way through the war my Russian was as good as that of any of my classmates, and better than some. To start with, Polish and Russian are both Slav languages and have a lot in common. School, books, and conversation did the rest, Apart from being a good pupil in most subjects, I also seemed to have a talent for languages and a memory for poetry, and found Russian poetry marvellous, although my main interest were stories of adventure. My greatest disappointment with the Barnaul library was that they didn't have a single book by Karl May and haven't even heard of him. But they did have Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and Russian stories of the Civil War, and new heroes: Chapayev the Red partisan leader, wounded in an ambush, swimming across the Ural river and never seen again; the pilot Chkalov who took an expedition to the North Pole; Captain Gastello whose fighter plane was set on fire at the beginning of this war and who, instead of baling out, aimed his blazing plane at an enemy column on the ground to take as many with him as possible. There were also sable hunters in the Siberian forests, and fishermen in the North Sea, and the whole exotic south of which I had only seen the Kazakhstan fringe, not to mention technical books on motorcycles, bicycles, cars, guns, gliders, aeroplanes, fishing, water sports, and practically any other subject of utmost importance.
I would usually exchange a book every day, and of course the days were not long enough for school, play, chores, and reading, so I would read late into the night, by the light of a little home-made oil lamp. There was electricity in Barnaul, but only in the hospitals, offices, factories, and schools. Private houses were either unconnected, or the supply was so unreliable that oil lamps were used most of the time. Factory-made oil lamps were scarce, and even if you had one the glass and the flat wick - like everything else - were in short supply. But it was no problem to make a simple one. You took a small medicine bottle and a rectangular or triangular piece of tin through which you put a hole and bent the corners down to keep it in position over the neck of the bottle. A string or a twisted piece of linen passed through the hole, serving as wick. It gave little light, something on the order of a candle, and had to be placed close to the page, with the reader leaning over. What it did supply in generous quantities was soot, and if you blew your nose after a couple of hours of reading, the snot came out black like a coal-miner's.
Except for one milestone, I do not remember any clear passage from mere adventure stories to truly great writers. Mark Twain was much more than a mere storyteller, and, before turning to theatre, Chekhov wrote a lot of humorous short stories. I laughed myself silly one night over the peasant charged with an attempt to derail a passenger train by removing a nut from a railroad track. He explains to the judge that he needed the nut, with the convenient hole in the middle, as a fishing sinker. The judge repeatedly asks him which underground political organisation he belongs to, and the peasant explains the different methods and baits for different fish. Light and funny as the story was, it was by Chekhov, and one could not help becoming addicted to the power and seeming simplicity of a great writer's storytelling, looking for it in the books one borrowed, and appreciating it when one found it.
There was never enough sex in the books; the Soviet censorship was very strict and efficient about that. One day Vitka Karabanov, who was never a great reader, told us with great enthusiasm about a writer he had discovered and whose name sounded like "Ghidemopasan".
"It's all about pure undiluted fucking," he said, "real great art. As soon as a man and a woman get together, he's on top of her. Beats everything I have read till now."
We immediately took out our notebooks to record the name. "It's in three parts," Vitka said. "Guy is the first name, then "de" because he was a French aristocrat, and "Maupassant" is the family name. Wrote short stories mostly I understand. Fascinating, absolutely fascinating."
The next day, trying not to blush, I presented the librarian with a list of three books I was interested in: "The Motorcycle"; "Parachute Jumping" (a popular and widespread sport in Russia); and "Collected Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant". She came back with the first two. "There's about a month's waiting list for Maupassant," she said. "Shall I put you down?" "Yes, please," I said, displaying a great interest in "Parachute Jumping". (It was not entirely faked. There was an aeroclub in Barnaul which ran courses in gliding and parachute jumping, and in winter, with their small two-seater biplanes on skis instead of wheels, they used the ice of the frozen Ob instead of the distant airfield, and I would watch the parachutes open like beautiful white flowers high over the river. One had to be sixteen to join and I was still a year short of that, and furthermore was quite sure mother wouldn't hear of it if I tried.)
When I finally got Maupassant's stories I finished them at one sitting and remained there, late at night in front of the little oil lamp, completely stunned. The sex in them was not important. Unexpectedly and all of a sudden I have discovered a great writer, a magician who drops little everyday objects into a hat and pulls out - no, not a rabbit - a bird of paradise or some horrid monster; a sudden insight into another man's soul or into a different society which I never suspected could be opened like that. Within a short time, I have read everything by Maupassant they had at the library, and then turned into a detective trying to discover other writers like him. I had a feeling that my whole attitude to literature fell into two parts: before and after Maupassant.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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