When I went to Paris in mid-March 2016 for the Salon du Livre, I stayed at a hotel near the Place de la République. I was free that first evening, so I decided to take a walk. On my walks, I always give myself a destination, even if it’s arbitrary: without that, movement loses meaning for me. This time I decided to go to Père Lachaise. The cemetery is beautiful and quite convincing as an endpoint (it is a cemetery, after all).
Père Lachaise is situated on a gently sloping hill, which I reached in forty minutes. It’s a memorial cemetery, although initially it was not popular with the city’s inhabitants (hard to believe now). Things got off the ground only when, for publicity purposes, to put it in modern terms, the ashes of La Fontaine and Molière were moved there. This made an impression on Paris’s dead, and after that the cemetery started to grow by leaps and bounds. At various times, it has received the graves of Balzac, Proust, Wilde, Piaf, and even Ukrainian revolutionary Old Man Makhno, who got here God only knows how.
Actually, I’d been here before and hadn’t come for their sakes. I liked the quiet of the place. The quiet of a city of the dead in the middle of a Paris seething with life. I may have been drawn here, too, because a few months before, in Ukraine, so far from Paris, I had buried my own father.
At the Père Lachaise gates I was met by two porters. I said hello; they didn’t respond. Cemetery folk are stern. In no way did they encourage my presence, but they didn’t keep me from going any farther, either. I walked on. Before turning down one of the cemetery streets (they have very real streets there), I looked back. The porters were silently watching me go. I understood that from there on I would be on my own; in all likelihood, there was no one else alive here.
My father. He was born in Nalchik and grew up in Baku; his ancestors were from the Volga and Stavropol. He wound up in Kyiv when he married my mother. They lived together for four years, gave birth to me, and then split up. I saw my father infrequently, even in my Kyiv childhood, and, once I’d moved to Saint Petersburg, very rarely. In a certain sense, his death made our visits more frequent; now all kinds of things would remind me of my father. A coat glimpsed in a crowd (he had the same kind), a similar vocal timbre over the radio.
At the cemetery I wondered: Is he responding to my thoughts of him from there? Can he tune in to my wavelength? Never having left the borders of the USSR, was he present now at Père Lachaise? I’m talking about a metaphysical presence, of course. There are no other options. Unlike Molière, there is no chance of my father’s ashes being moved here. Not that there is really any need.
My father is buried in a village cemetery in the remote Ukrainian countryside. My father’s second wife, Taisya, who comes from that village, is a good and considerate woman. She decided my father would rest more peacefully in the country. I think she’s right, even though my father had never sought peace in his life.
During his four years in the navy, he would get up half an hour before reveille so as not to allow anyone to wake him. He always found legitimate opportunities to flout naval regulations. Upon his arrival in Kyiv, his daily routine did not get any simpler: morning and afternoon, the factory; then evening classes at the polytechnic institute; and at night unloading train cars because money was in drastically short supply. Each semester he would get a notice expelling him from the institute. He would take it to the dean’s office and curtly and angrily demand reinstatement. He had no doubt that his anger was justified: they should try studying after a night at the freight station and a day at the factory. They always reinstated him. What else could they do?
Later, in exactly the same way, he prevented one of our relatives from being denied entry into regular high school after the eighth grade. My father didn’t want him to go to a vocational school.
“But that’s the same kind of school Korolev graduated from, you’ll note …” the principal countered weakly.
“Well, if the boy were Korolev, I wouldn’t object to the school,” my father cut him off. “But he isn’t Korolev.”
I learned of my father’s death one night, and the next day, without waiting for a telegram of confirmation, I flew to Kyiv. I flew via Minsk, forewarned that without that telegram complications might arise with the Ukrainian border guards. They didn’t. The border guards asked the purpose of my visit and let me through without a murmur. I guess we’re still one nation.
Early in the morning, Taisya, my stepbrother Sasha, and I picked up my father from the morgue. They put the casket in a van, a Gazelle, that had come from the village. We got into Sasha’s car and drove ahead of the Gazelle. As we were leaving Kyiv, we stopped at a market to buy flowers; this took about ten minutes. When we got back, we found the Gazelle’s driver in a state of bitter mirth: there are facial expressions common to crying and laughing. He pointed to the police car next to him. He’d parked illegally. I offered to talk to the police, but the driver just gestured in despair:
“You think they’re people? Animals.” 1
The people he was talking about were writing a ticket – or rather the one in the front seat was writing, the other was standing, leaning against the car, smoking. I headed toward them anyway. Basically, I was on my way to pay. They saw me coming closer but didn’t turn away. I said hello and then:
“I’m taking my father to be buried. Do we need to pay a fine?”
No pressure, no expression even, you might say. The one sitting stopped writing though. He released air noisily through fingers pressed to his lips. An unnaturally long “f.” He wiped his forehead and leaned back in his seat.
“No, you don’t.”
How’s that for you: No, you don’t. Rather unexpected even. I shook the policeman’s hand and got into my brother’s car. The Gazelle’s driver looked at me with respect. Cheerful music filtered out from his cab. Let my father listen; he liked music like that. When he was tight, he used to sing Soviet songs.
There was music playing at Père Lachaise, too. Not Soviet, naturally, but not bad, either: jazz, presumably. Drifting in from far off, it was barely audible: not even music so much as a beat being knocked out by a double bass. You don’t get that effect with amplification. In disregard of the emotional state of any listeners, live music was playing at the cemetery. I moved slowly toward the sounds. Yes, jazz.
My stepbrother Sasha. He stepped on the gas, and I pictured my father in his casket bouncing over the potholes in the Gazelle behind us. Maybe even in time to the music. Sasha was in a hurry because we had to get to the village by a certain time. He spoke to someone on the phone occasionally and gave brief instructions in Ukrainian regarding the funeral. A downpour was followed by sunshine, which lit up shyly in the drops on the windshield. Then the downpour started back up. Without taking his eyes off the road, Sasha expressed the hope that the clouds would part because if there was going to be a downpour it would wash off our father’s makeup. Yes, I agreed, that would be unpleasant. I’d forgotten they had applied makeup at the morgue.
Upon our arrival it became clear that our haste had been for nothing. There wasn’t a trace of bustle in the village. People would walk up to the vehicles stopped by the church and then walk away, walk up again, and this time stay, come to a stillness, arms crossed at the chest (hands shoved in pockets, or stuck behind the lapel of a quilted jacket), sometimes scratching their cheeks and making an emery-board sound. They smoked.
Someone said we should go pick up Tonya, so Sasha and I drove to the next street for Tonya. After a brief wait, there appeared on the garden path an old woman bent ninety degrees at the waist. Leaning on two crutches, she moved slowly toward us. The synchronized movements of her arms and legs held something as athletic as it was exotic, something akin to beetles racing. Though she was bent, Tonya’s head was lifted, and her big eyes looked at us without blinking. We delivered her to the church.
Two supports for the casket and a wooden construction in the form of the letter п with several holes drilled in it floated slowly down the street. When all this was inside the church, my stepbrother and I and a few other men carried my father’s casket in and set it on the supports. The church, which was gradually filling with people, was cold. A few people went outside to warm up before the service started. The п-shaped construction was placed over the casket, and candles were inserted in the holes. It seemed to me that when they were lit it got warmer. The sight of fire, no matter how small, always makes it warmer. More joyful, too, perhaps. Surrounded by dozens of agitated flames, my father no longer looked so doleful.
A woman was binding his feet and was about to bind his hands but noticed that only his left arm was resting on his chest. For some reason, his right was extended alongside his body. The woman froze with an astonished face. She didn’t understand how to bind the hands in this instance. I didn’t either, nor did I understand why this had to be done before the service. Evidently, it had its own hidden meaning.
“It won’t bend,” the woman said.
Amid the general silence, Tonya hobbled toward the casket.
“I’ll bend it.”
She leaned both her crutches against the casket and picked up my father’s arm. I tensed inwardly, but she pressed his right hand to his left without special effort. Indeed, it was a good thing we’d brought Tonya. Now nothing prevented the woman with the rope from binding my father’s hands.
I raised my eyes and saw the priest, who had just entered. He was standing at the head of the casket, thoughtfully observing the binding. The service was held with the same calm dignity with which everything in this village was done, evidently.
“Have you bound God’s servant German?” the priest asked when the women had finished.
“Yes, we have, father.”
I saw they’d bound him.
“Well, then, go with God.”
A few instructions were given in that divine language which my father, in all the years he lived in Kyiv, never did learn. A few minutes later, an old Zhiguli with a trailer drove up to the church doors, and the open casket was placed on the trailer, which was nearly as imposing as a gun carriage.
The procession started moving. Up ahead was a man with a cross, a little behind him two men with gonfalons, behind them the priest and chorus, then the Zhiguli with my father on the trailer, behind the trailer Taisya, Sasha, and I, and behind us Tonya (with a mongrel to either side), and then the entire village. The Zhiguli drove slowly, but the unpaved road was bumpy. My father’s arms (especially the right one Tonya had bent) started lifting up. His elbows were still resting on his stomach, but now his hands were hovering in the air. Lying in his casket, my father looked like he was talking to heaven. His arms were swaying, which lent the conversation a peaceful and even casual look.
It was about half a kilometer to the cemetery. Every hundred meters, the procession would halt and the priest, accompanied by the singers, would recite prayers for the repose of the dead. Compared with our drive, our time at the cemetery felt short. When the first clods of earth struck my father’s casket, I was shocked at how loud they were. They were like a drum and not at all in accordance with the funeral’s quiet. After the grave was filled in, everyone headed for the funeral repast at the café directly opposite the ceremony. I was about to follow them, but someone stopped me:
“The relatives have their own path.”
“Path” in Ukrainian is feminine. I don’t know what that implies, if anything. They showed me the way only relatives of the deceased were supposed to go. I was joined by Taisya and Sasha, and fifteen minutes later we were at the café. After the prayer read by the priest, silence reigned. That is, from time to time you’d hear a quiet murmur, or utensils clattering, but there were no general conversations, to say nothing of toasts. The prayers were the toasts.
A jazz band was playing at Père Lachaise. When I reached the music’s sounds, I observed the casket floating slowly through the crematorium doors to the blues. I hadn’t known there was a crematorium at this cemetery, but most of all, I never would have thought it was active. That right here, you could lie down without further ado, or at worst have your ashes scattered next to Sarah Bernhardt, Beaumarchais, or, say, Chopin. It turns out, you could – and to remarkable music as well.
It was truly professional playing, not some cemetery band. It wasn’t a cemetery repertoire either. They understood each other at the slightest hint, nodded to each other and made faces – the way jazz musicians are supposed to. They improvised. The rays of the setting sun lent them a redness. Especially a woman in a provocatively scarlet coat, who positively blazed. She wasn’t playing anything, she was just standing there next to the musicians, tapping her foot. Her face was decorated with a clown nose – also red, held on by an elastic strap.
Some were going into the crematorium building, others coming out. It was like a party at the moment the general gaiety has died down and each prefers to find his own spot. Hesitant, I stopped at the door, but someone (such a hospitable institution) opened it and asked:
“Excuse me, are you coming in?”
“Yes. Of course.”
Just from my laconic speech he realized immediately I wasn’t French. He smiled, as if to say, what does a foreigner need a crematorium for? And indeed, what did I? Although I knew the answer, of course. I’d needed a toilet for a while, the usual cemetery story, because at cemeteries it’s cool and windy.
I found the restroom by following the signs. Sitting outside it on a chair was a good-looking attendant (in Paris they’re called “Madame Pipi”), and for some reason I immediately realized she was one of us. The way a customs officer unerringly susses out a smuggler, someone who has lived abroad for a long time (as I had) easily recognizes his compatriots. I addressed her in Russian. She replied with a slightly provincial accent. Taking advantage of this unexpected encounter, she told me how lots of people miss when they pee – decent people to look at them, but in fact …
“Comes with the job,” I joked.
She gave me a dubious look.
Little by little, everyone gathered in the open area in front of the crematorium. The band sparkled with magical improvisation. I went up to someone standing at the edge and asked:
“Excuse me, what is this?”
“An unusual one.”
He nodded. I wanted to asked something else but couldn’t bring myself to. Actually, I didn’t understand what exactly there was to ask.
The woman with the clown nose gathered everyone in a circle and invited them to dance. The band switched to folk tunes. At least they felt folk to me because they were simple and beautiful. And people were dancing folk-style to them, with toe-tapping and clapping. I wanted to dance, too, but I realized that would be a bit much for a guest of the capital.
“Who is this woman?” I did find a question for my interlocutor.
“The widow. Her husband was a jazz musician.”
When the widow walked past us, I noticed that her eyes were wet with tears.
“But why did she put on the nose?”
He squeezed his own nose between two fingers and said nasally:
“She’s expressing her contempt for death.”
Is that so. I stood there a little longer and then moved toward the exit. I wasn’t leaving the cemetery yet, I just decided to stroll closer to the exit. For some reason it occurred to me how easy it would be for people strolling in the far corners to get locked in for the night. On the road I saw another funeral procession. This time the casket was being carried to an open grave, not the crematorium. That means you don’t have to be in the form of ashes to be buried in Père Lachaise. Well, that’s good. If I can resort to an oxymoron, I’d say a cemetery should be alive. That is, while being memorial, it should not forget its primordial calling. Outsiders weren’t being let into the second funeral. Cemetery employees stood on the path, cutting off any gawkers. Probably so as not to attract attention, funerals here are scheduled for the evening.
At the gate I ran into the jazz musicians. Even as they were walking out, they kept on playing. Evidently they were on their way to the nearest bistro to commemorate the deceased. So as not to give the impression that I’d set my sights on joining them, I crossed to the other side of the street. My interlocutor recognized me and, shouting over the band, reminded me: “Contempt for death!” He raised his two clasped hands. I repeated the gesture, and we stood there like that for a few seconds. Total solidarity. I recalled my father’s raised arms – also an expression of contempt for death. Perhaps not as vivid as in Paris (different funerals, to say the least), but also quite definite. He’d just died and he was already looking over. Over its head. Death’s.
This essay was originally published in Russian in Esquire (Russia Edition) on August 22, 2016. Translated by Marian Schwartz.
- Throughout, italics indicate Ukrainian.
Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Laurus won Russia’s Big Book Award and the Yasnaya Polyana Book Award. He is also the author of four other critically acclaimed novels, Solovyov and Larionov, The Aviator, Brisbane, and A History of the Island, which have also been translated into English.Learn More