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    The Table (Still Life with Almonds) by Maurice de Vlaminck

    You Have to Tend to Friendship

    A gifted impersonator with intellectual disabilities leaves a lasting impression on a future star.

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    September 21, 2022
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    In this excerpt from Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Brisbane, young Russian musician Gleb Yanovsky has married a German, Katarina Gärtner, (Katya), whom he met at college in St. Petersburg. He and Katya have just moved to Munich, where he has landed a job teaching music at a theological college. The campus also houses people with intellectual disabilities. The Yanovskys make friends with one of them, Franz-Peter.

    An open car was racing along the road alongside the soccer field. Fortunately, it was racing at a moderate speed because it didn’t have a gas pedal. It had two pedals, which were connected by a chain to the wheels – and pushing the pedals made the vehicle move. Simply put, the car moved thanks to the work of the driver’s feet. This driver was Franz-Peter. Neither the speed nor the expression on Franz-Peter’s face allowed one to say that the car was “racing.” It was his zeal in pushing the pedals. He simply flew past the tour and stopped about ten meters away. With a weary driver’s gait, Franz-Peter approached the halted group and said, “You have to tend to friendship.” Admiring the impression he’d made, he added: “Now I’m on my way to see a certain Fräulein in order to rehabilitate myself, so to speak.” He slapped his gloves on his hand and held a match in his teeth. That movement, that intonation, and even the match in his teeth – Gleb had seen that once, only he couldn’t remember where. Katya had the same feeling. Later they realized that Franz-Peter’s gestures and words came from the television. Franz-Peter was not just a viewer but the most exact and merciless imitator of television hosts and soap opera actors. The more convincingly these people appeared in his performance, the more banal and primitive they looked on the television screen. Franz-Peter conveyed with special success the speech of the officials who flashed by on the television no less often than the entertainers. Many “it does not appear possible,” “in the current circumstances,” and “it should be emphasized” phrases flew out of him with the steadiness of a musical robot – not indulging us, perhaps, with any purity of sound but always turned on. From time to time he would drop by the Yanovskys’ and they would offer him tea and cake. Franz-Peter would tell them about the hard fate of someone in constant demand. The administration of the bus plant where he worked were constantly consulting with him. “You mean you work?” came out of Katya unexpectedly. “Day and night,” Franz-Peter confirmed with a steely expression. What was most surprising was that he really did work there. Twice a week, as a form of work therapy, he was taken to the bus plant, where he swept up the metal shavings. One time, arriving at the Yanovskys’, Franz-Peter found Gleb alone. In Katya’s absence, the host could offer his guest only a roll and milk. “This I categorically reject,” Franz-Peter said with dignity. Moving toward the exit, he said he hoped to get cake from little Daniela. Gleb wished him success with little Daniela, remarking at the same time that he didn’t actually know who he was talking about. Franz-Peter admitted with a sigh that he didn’t either; he was extremely honest in his relations with friends. As he was leaving, he said: “Life is the long habituation to death.” Said it in passing. Without any particular connection to the preceding conversation. Gleb saw his guest out, put on his light jacket, for some reason went over to the calendar (April 15), and slipped his wallet into his jeans pocket. He went downstairs and crossed the yard. “You Russians, are you still Romans or already Italians?” Pilz the gardener asked him. Gleb waved to Pilz, not even attempting to answer. No, Franz-Peter was clearly cooler: the long habituation to death. … Gleb stepped under the awning where the bicycles were parked. He threw his leg over, got comfortable in the saddle, and rode out. Where he was going, he didn’t know. Something had driven him out of the house. He knew only that he would remember everything he’d just now seen. Even the most unremarkable things. This had happened to him before, and each time in spring. His memory, like a video camera suddenly turned on, focused sharply and began filming all by itself. Just like a BBC series, he caught each blade of grass with its raindrop, a clinging leaf on a tree, a trembling spiderweb, for instance – everything they so love to film. On top of that, a cat licking itself on a car’s still-warm hood. Lying under the car, a man with a radio (tuned to classical music) and a set of tools. Symphony for violin and crescent wrenches: each clinked its own way, depending on its number. The cat stopped its washing, wondering at the impression it made. Stretched. Admired the legs poking out from under the car. To Gleb: I told him this morning, basically, to check out the gearbox, you can take the radio along, I told him, and listen to classical, class-i-cal, none of that Bavarian tilly-tilly-bom-bom, I’ve had it with folk art, especially those damn bagpipes, worse than a nail across glass, and he says to me, don’t worry, puss, half an hour’s work, like, and that’s it, we’ll lie in the sun half the day, half the day, because if arms don’t grow out of there, then how can you repair anything? The cat winked at Gleb and fell silent. He moved on; the camera was rolling so you could see its red light. April 15, diffused sun. He rode past the tennis court; a wall of twisting grapevines hid the players. You could hear rackets striking the ball. Life is the long … Please tell me, how, philosophically – it couldn’t have been Franz-Peter who made that up. Maybe little Daniela? Gleb was sure she wasn’t made up. The girl had probably stepped into Franz-Peter’s twilight consciousness out of some Latin American soap. Little Daniela. That’s what all the young women were called in those serials. Like his own two names, Franz-Peter had combined fiction and reality in his mind. And come up with a reality. The ideal viewer. Gleb coasted down Ludwigstrasse, cutting through puddles on the bike path. … I’ll remember it all one day, Gleb promised himself, inhaling the scent of the first greenery and last year’s rot and listening to the artificial waterfalls and the natural birds. Thinking about how at that same moment little Daniela might be treating Franz-Peter to cake.

    The Table (Still Life with Almonds) by Maurice de Vlaminck

    Maurice de Vlaminck, The Table (Still Life with Almonds), 1907

    The novelty of college life slowly wore off. And became so familiar as to cease to feel like life. It started to resemble memories that have both good and bad to them but all of it is past. It can’t surprise you. Of all the people around them, only Franz-Peter retained the ability to surprise Gleb and Katya. He regularly appeared at evening lectures and watched the speakers with the unblinking gaze of someone whose convictions are firm, if not indisputable. Franz-Peter listened closely to talks on the most complex theological topics, but his questions were simple and maximally specific. He asked one of the speakers why they crucified Christ and, most important, why he was resurrected. She replied that these were undoubtedly key questions, but limited herself to that. The auditor told another speaker that his mother had died two years ago and asked where she was now. The answer was vague enough that not only did Franz-Peter not understand it, but neither did most of the classroom. Actually, individual disappointments could not affect his devotion to knowledge, and he continued to attend the theological sessions. He listened raptly, which was why there was always a shiny spot under his nose. This had no effect on the process of cognition, but it did interfere with Franz-Peter’s other important enthusiasm – his weakness for kisses – and very much so. The young women at the college didn’t want to kiss him. When Franz-Peter’s embraces caught them unawares, they would shout indignantly: “Оh, diese feuchten Küsse!” What wet kisses! He didn’t kiss married women, which allowed him to visit the Yanovskys and eat their cake with a clear conscience. It must be said that Franz-Peter was nearly the only person Gleb and Katya shared a meal with because they had long since refused the shared breakfasts and dinners.

    As Mayer predicted, Gleb skyrocketed. In one interview, the producer even called Gleb a vertical-lift fighter jet. This comparison appealed to Mayer for some reason and started appearing in most of his interviews, which actually worried Gleb a little. Yes, he’d seen those planes in war reports, but the comparison to a fighter plane was not obvious to him because, he once asked Mayer, who was he supposed to destroy? You’re going to destroy your competitors, the producer explained. What’s not to understand? If you think the music market is undersaturated … No, Gleb didn’t think that. He didn’t have much of an idea about the music business. Mayer, on the other hand, did – and gave detailed explanations. You can’t amaze people with supernatural technique. You don’t even have absolute pitch (the German was a master of the compliment). However. Mayer paused and held his protégé’s chin. You have an incredible energy, a radiance, what in German is called Ausstrahlung. And naturally, this is your vocal effect. Effect or defect, call it what you like, but it resonates with the guitar and most orchestral instruments – to say nothing of human souls. That’s what Mayer said. Time proved him right. Unlike the bellicose Teuton, Gleb had no plans to destroy anyone, but he had to admit his flight was vertical. The aviator’s field of vision expanded extraordinarily, and as he gained height, St. Thomas College began gradually to shrink until it vanished from view altogether. Before it did, though, it blazed up in his and Katya’s life with a touching farewell dinner. For the dinner, to which everyone living at the college was invited, the cook was asked to prepare a Russian dish of his choice. After long thought, he settled on beef Stroganoff. Getting a taste for the food, this master of his trade also made “Russian salad,” known in its country of origin as Olivier salad. The cook’s knowledge of Russian cuisine was extensive, although it had its quirks: for dessert he suggested serving ice cream coupes with roasted sunflower seeds. Gleb and Katya dissuaded him. To heighten the Russian flavor, along with the usual wine and beer here, they bought a few bottles of vodka. The guests drank it with pregnant looks – taking small sips and savoring it. Gleb wanted to tell them that vodka isn’t savored in Russia; on the contrary, people take a deep breath before drinking it down, but at the last moment he stopped himself. Gleb couldn’t have explained to them what kind of drink this was if it was better not to taste it. … As for Franz-Peter, he arrived in an elevated mood since he didn’t know the reason for the occasion. Even before, he hadn’t been interested in reasons; delicious food and well-dressed people made him happy in and of themselves. When Gleb and Katya told him they were leaving, Franz-Peter said, “I’m very, very sorry, but not to worry.” Then he smiled, but tears rolled from his eyes. Katya got out a tissue and wiped his nose. “Good timing on your part,” Franz-Peter said, and he started complaining about the neighbors of his father, whom he visited periodically. The married couple, both over sixty (a bird’s low flight), wouldn’t look Franz-Peter straight in the face. “What am I supposed to do, you think? Throw a bomb?” Franz-Peter narrowed his eyes and enjoyed the effect he’d produced. While Gleb and Katya tried to talk him out of bomb-throwing, the essence of the charges changed.

     
     
     
     

    These neighbors, it turned out, had harassed him with their questions and requests, pestering him day and night. You see, their lawnmower wasn’t working. And this was a reason to drag a person out of bed at night? Understandably, Franz-Peter had no wish to get up. But he also didn’t want to leave his neighbors unaided. He shouted sternly to them to check the lawnmower’s electrics. They did and – what do you think? – the mower started right up, and they immediately mowed their entire lawn. “Immediately. You mean, at night,” Katya clarified. “Immediately. I mean, at night,” Franz-Peter confirmed, and he lapsed into thought. When Gleb brought him some apple juice, Franz-Peter sadly said, “Finally something positive.” At his request, Gleb went to get a straw. Sucking up the last drops (the straw snorting at the bottom of the glass), Franz-Peter praised the juice. Only little Daniela gave him such delicious juice. With a sigh he added that life is the long habituation to death. Saying goodbye, he hugged Gleb and Katya. According to him, they were the only people he could talk intelligently with. “Evidently you can with little Daniela too,” Gleb corrected him. “Evidently,” Franz-Peter nodded. “I never tire of emphasizing that. Despite how insanely busy I am, she still loves me.”

    Contributed By EugeneVodolazkin Eugene Vodolazkin

    Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Laurus won Russia’s Big Book Award and the Yasnaya Polyana Book Award. His novel Brisbane was translated from the Russian and Ukrainian by Marian Schwartz.

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