In Soviet Ukraine in 1979, Gleb Yanovsky, a fourteen-year-old guitar prodigy, drops out of music school after witnessing a young girl drown. The following excerpt is taken from Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Brisbane (Plough, May 2022).
Gleb’s father Fyodor found out that he had quit music school. With some delay, a few months later, but he did. And got upset. It was a surprise for everyone who remembered how reserved he’d been about his son’s decision to study music. For the first time in years Fyodor asked his ex-wife Irina if they could meet. Hearing that Gleb had abandoned music in view of the death that awaits each of us, Fyodor became agitated and said that this was the act of a genuine musician. That the distinguishing trait of a musician was not the dexterity of his fingers but the constant thought of death, which should instill us with optimism, not horror. Meant to mobilize, not paralyze. “In other words, true creativity must balance between life and death,” Fyodor summed up. “It has to see a little beyond the horizon.”[Italics indicate Ukrainian is being spoken.] But this was only the beginning of the conversation. The actual conversation took place later – and not with Fyodor but with his father Mefody, who had come from Kamianets-Podilskyi to visit his son. Mefody was tall, broad-shouldered, and gray, kind of like Turgenev. The resemblance was heightened because, unlike Fyodor, his grandfather switched to Russian once in a while. And although his language might not have been Turgenevian, his readiness to speak it was much more important. To his grandmother’s question of what he thought of Mefody from their first meeting, Gleb said without thinking: well-meaning. The definition was exceptionally precise. Mefody meant well with every word he spoke. With every wrinkle, one might say, of which his face had many. Tiny ones spread around his eyes like a cast net, but there were also large ones as deep as trenches traced from his bridge to the corners of his mouth. Yes, Fyodor wanted the boy to meet his grandfather, but he himself hadn’t anticipated that this would be the start of a long-standing friendship. Gleb wouldn’t let Mefody go for a minute. It’s hard to say what this was: a longing for male company, which Gleb had been deprived of, or the qualities of his grandfather himself. Most likely this was about his grandfather, since life without a father hadn’t nudged Gleb toward his own father. Yes, sometimes Gleb wished he could make an impression on his father, but he had no desire for constant communication. With his grandfather, though, he did. His grandfather turned out to be gentle and easygoing. Unexpectedly, Gleb played the part of grandfather in the interactions between these two people. He led Mefody through his favorite streets and told him about them. His grandfather was a grateful listener. Listening to Gleb, he would nod, but at the end of the story sometimes would ask a question or two that made it clear he knew a lot more about the subject than Gleb. “So you know everything,” Gleb said with slow amazement. “Come now.” His grandfather gave him a funny blank look as he switched to Ukrainian. “I don’t know anything.” “Yes, you do!” Gleb would say playfully. One time his grandfather didn’t try to vindicate himself and said, “If there’s something I definitely do not know, it’s why you quit music school.” Caught flat-footed, Gleb fell silent. Then he repeated what he’d already said once: “Because I’m going to die.” Uttered the first time, those words had been hot, like breath, but now suddenly they seemed like cardboard. Not to Mefody, though. To Gleb’s great surprise, his grandfather considered this line of thinking natural and even praised the boy for his philosophical approach to life. But he didn’t forget Gleb’s words. They surfaced a few days later, when grandfather and grandson were sitting by the fountain in Zolotovoritska Park. “If you’re going to die,” Mefody said thoughtfully, “then why should you go to that music school?” Gleb heard new notes in the question and so nodded cautiously. His grandfather stood up from the bench, moved closer to the fountain, and put his large hands under the stream. When they were full, he washed his face. He turned back to Gleb. “But what if you’re not going to die?” “How’s that?” Gleb asked. Mefody’s face took on a puzzling expression: “There’s this idea … ” Gleb looked at his grandfather and smiled. An idea. That’s what a progressive grandfather he had, then. Progressive and even in a way sophisticated. Mefody waved and a taxi stopped in front of them. Like a fairytale! In the blink of an eye! Handsomely. A Volga GAZ-24, which Gleb had never ridden in before. He’d only ridden in a Volga GAZ-21, which Fyodor talked about often, saying it wasn’t quite a tank but it wasn’t quite a car either. The taxi Gleb’s magician-grandfather seated him in had a quiet engine and a smooth ride. His grandfather did in fact remind him of a fairytale character because the waves of his hands produced things he’d never seen before. A small church popped up by the Holosiiv Forest as from the sleeve of Vasilisa the Wise, and in that small church, Father Pyotr – fair hair gathered into a bun, neat beard, eyeglasses. The church was straight out of a fairytale, but Father Pyotr more than likely wasn’t. He smelled of eau de toilette, and it was obvious that, unlike folklore characters, Father Pyotr took care of himself. After he and Mefody embraced, Mefody smelled of eau de toilette too. Observing these dissimilar men, Gleb realized they were linked if not by personal friendship then by firm, long-standing acquaintance. Mefody told Father Pyotr that his grandson had discovered death for himself, and this, understandably, had made him give up music school. Father Pyotr also found this act natural, inasmuch as what in fact did anyone need music school for if everything was ending in we-know-what. Once he’d received Father Pyotr’s approval, Mefody noted that, on the other hand, it was too bad the boy had given up school. Yes, perhaps it was too bad, Father Pyotr agreed, since music links the school to eternity, after all. “Is music eternity?” Gleb asked. Father Pyotr shook his head. “Music is not eternity. But it reminds us of eternity – profound music does.” “What is eternity?” Gleb asked. “It is the absence of time,” Mefody conjectured, “which means the absence of death.” “Ultimately it is God,” Father Pyotr said. “The One you are seeking.” The priest gave Gleb a New Testament, a catechism, and a prerevolutionary textbook, Divine Law. In parting, he asked him to learn the Symbol of Faith, which was marked in the textbook with a piece of velvet. When he got home, Gleb put the three books in front of him and read them in turn. One of them (Divine Law) he took to school the next day. Sitting in his social studies class, he read it under the desk. His teacher, walking along the rows, silently stole up from behind and plucked the book from Gleb’s lap. To general laughter, she read the title, and her first reaction was surprise. That was not what she expected to find in a lap under a desk. She opened the book to the bookmark and tried to read it out loud and stumbled. Obviously, knowledge of social studies was inadequate for that kind of reading. She closed the book. “So, maybe we go to church?” she asked Gleb. The first person plural, it occurred to Gleb, how self-centered. Not only would he not have gone with her to church, he wouldn’t even have gone with her to … She came right up to him and inquired, “Do we pray and beat our brows?” Gleb tried to snatch the book from his teacher’s hands, but she deftly turned away. “Do we beat our brows?” she asked again. “That’s none of your business,” Gleb snarled. “That is where you are mistaken, Yanovsky. It is my business and the business of the Young Communist organization, if, of course, you are a Young Communist.” Gleb actually did belong to the Young Communists. At first he hadn’t planned to join, but Fyodor called that step a bad omen. From his observations, those who didn’t join the Young Communists later did not get into university or conservatory. During the break, the social studies specialist took the Young Communist member to see the principal, an elderly, good-natured lady. Placing Divine Law on her desk, the teacher said, “Here is what our school’s Young Communists are reading. Young Communist Pilgrims.” Leafing through the book, the principal thanked the teacher for her vigilance, and this gratitude, it seemed to Gleb, was not without irony, as the “You may go” tossed casually to the social studies specialist attested. The elderly lady did not believe in God but did not like tattle-tales. She decided not to complicate Gleb’s future and so limited herself to an informational conversation. The principal directed Gleb’s attention to the fact that Gagarin flew into outer space but did not see God. From this, it seemed to her, followed the inescapable conclusion that there is no God. She asked that someone from the Yanovsky family come to pick up his Divine Law – which was a mild summons to the school. The boy gave this a couple of days’ thought and then reasoned that the best thing to do in this case was go to his grandfather. After all, the confiscated book, ultimately, had come through him. When Gleb told Mefody what had happened, he showed no concern whatsoever. He only asked whether Gleb had managed to memorize the Symbol of Faith. No. That’s fine, too (his grandfather smiled), maybe now the principal will. He asked his grandson for a piece of paper and in a calligraphic hand wrote the Symbol of Faith on it. He explained the unfamiliar words and chanted it from beginning to end. He held it out to Gleb: “When you’ve learned it, tell me.” An hour later, Gleb had it by heart. He explained to his amazed grandfather: the music. The music of words. He memorized the Symbol of Faith as musical phrases. When his grandson recited it without a single hitch, Mefody waved his hand again and they found themselves at Father Pyotr’s. At the doors of the church he greeted them with an exclamation: “Behold, one born for eternity is coming!” He blessed his visitors and slowly set about the christening. It was a sunny day, and the splashes spilling from the fount sparkled in the sun’s rays like jewels. And hung in the air for rather a long time. After christening God’s servant Gleb, Father Pyotr intoned, “In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ I release you from mortal fear and counsel you to return to your current affairs – for example, to your studies at the music school. Work, my friend, to the glory of God! While remembering that eternity lies ahead, do not neglect time, for only in time can something be achieved. Your parents asked that you not be registered in the church book to avoid problems with our militantly atheistic state – and so I am not registering you. Know that you are registered with the Lord, and that is what is most important. In difficult moments, rely on me and on your grandfather Mefody.” At these words, the newly christened young man remembered that Mefody had before him his meeting with the principal, and his heart sank. He worried in vain, however. The eldest in the Yanovsky clan took full responsibility for his assignment and headed for school the very next day. Mefody’s gray hair made the most favorable impression on the principal, who began her conversation with him with what seemed to her an irrefutable argument. Returning the confiscated book to Gleb’s grandfather, she took him by the elbow rather theatrically and led him to the window. Pointing to the sky, she said, “Yuri Gagarin flew in space but did not see God. You agree?” Mefody politely bowed his head: “True, Yuri Gagarin did not see God.” Not tearing himself away from the sky in the window, the old man smiled broadly. “But God saw him. And blessed him.”