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The 1998 winner of the Anti-Booker Prize, Hurramabad describes the bloody national strife and the eviction of Russians from Tadjikistan following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The title is the name of a mythical city of joy and happiness where there is always plenty of fresh water and shade. When civil war erupts in the country, many Russians are reluctant to leave their home. But normal life gradually vanishes, replaced by atrocity and death. This shifting world is the setting of Andrei Volos’s powerful ...
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The 1998 winner of the Anti-Booker Prize, Hurramabad describes the bloody national strife and the eviction of Russians from Tadjikistan following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The title is the name of a mythical city of joy and happiness where there is always plenty of fresh water and shade. When civil war erupts in the country, many Russians are reluctant to leave their home. But normal life gradually vanishes, replaced by atrocity and death. This shifting world is the setting of Andrei Volos’s powerful novel. He masterfully creates vivid pictures from street scenes, snatches of conversation at the bazaar, comments by wise old men, and life stories of simple people, Russians and Tadjiks alike. His prose is poetic, with colorful lyrical digressions. Mr. Volos continues the tradition of stern realism in Russian literature, with his economical but expressive language, his sharp psychological insights, and his gorgeous descriptions of nature and national traditions. “The best book to come out of Russia in the last decade.”—Neue Zuricher Zeitung.
The bus trundled into the square and juddered to a halt at the bus stop. The grandson jumped down on to the asphaltto help the old lady with the steps. Shuffling her feet on the brin for a moment and thrusting her dangerously motile walking stick forth, his grandmother leaned forward, swore, and started to collapse like an over-ambitious plaster statue trying to step down from its pedestal. The grandson spread his arms out wide, turned his head away from the stick directed straight at his right eye, applied his shoulder, caught hold of her, took her full weight, and a moment later she was standing safely beside him on terra firma. Standing, but not of course as he was standing. She was standing with her stick pressed into the ground in front of her, both hands clutching it, and herself bent like a question mark, recovering from her exertions, gasping for breath, and repeating, "Ouff! Ouff!"
Over by a brick wall flowers were peeping brightly out of zinc buckets, roses were smelling sweetly. He chose four firm heads of lilac and paid for them.
"How much were those?" his grandmother asked severely, nodding at the bouquet.
"Two roubles," he replied.
She shook her head in horrified disbelief.
"Let's make a start," he said, taking her arm.
They went out the open gate. He took a small enamelled can out of their shopping bag and filled it with rushing water. He settled the flowers in the space left by the can and they looked gaily out of the bag like puppies in a basket. He took the opportunity to have a good long drink, biting again and again into the jet of water gushing from the tap.
He wiped his lips and asked, "Right, then, should we be making a start?"
"You'll crush those flowers," his grandmother grumbled. "Give them here."
"They're fine," he sighed. "They're only going to wilt anyway."
The sun was climbing higher in the sky but for the time being the air was fresh and fragrant, still bearing minute droplets of dew in its invisible substance. Soon it would become hazy and divide out into layers, forcing sweat from the body which would leave behind a sticky salt residue when it dried.
"Let's make a start then," said grandmother. "Let's be on our way. Oh, my legs, my feet! I should just cut you off and throw you to the dogs."
Biting her lip, she grasped his forearm. She leaned on it, readied the stick, adjusting her grip and, thrusting it forward, tensed herself for the battle to come and marched off.
The road didn't look to be rising all that steeply, but even his healthy young legs could feel the deception. For his grandmother the going was agony, every step demanding a special effort. She hobbled along, limping and leaning ahead as if hoping to move her body weight so far forward as not to have her legs under her at all. She wallowed so rapidly from side to side the hem of her crumpled dark brown dress danced up and down and was tossed back, yet even so their progress was slow because the steps she took were as small as those of a child. There was little he could do to help, but it pleased him to feel how heavily she leaned on him, until it hurt.
"Wait a bit ... My legs, my feet. Ouff!"
They stopped. The stick was thrust defiantly forward into the ground and his grandmother, groaning painfully with every breath, stood slumped on the handle of her stick looking ahead. Before her the road climbed higher and higher, and they had to follow it to the very end.
"We'll go on in a moment, let's just rest a little now," she said.
He waited patiently. To either side of them spiked railings and the tops of monuments jutted up, leaning in different directions. Dust-covered photographs of faces looked out from the round or oval cells of medallions on the obelisks. Some had been split open and the photographs torn out by somebody's spiteful hand, leaving the unpleasant impression of an empty eyesocket. The coloured paper wreaths had bleached in the sun, but now the same sun gilded them with its rays and they seemed to have been retouched.
"Are you tired?"
"I said are you feeling tired."
"We've come quite a way already," she replied uncertainly.
He felt the tremor in the hand pressing his arm and nodded. Actually they had made little progress. The road seemed to be dragging itself uphill reluctantly. It ran downhill far more cheerfully. There the slate roof of the bus station rose up out of the greenery. The gate was already lost from view. In the hot dusty haze immediately beyond sprawled the twisting streets of Hurramabad. The haze had a pearly grey hue to it, presumably from exhaust fumes. Further away, hovering above the other side of the valley on a divide between what could be seen and what could only be guessed at, were the unattainable bluish snow-covered peaks, as remote and transparent as if their coolness had been traced on muslin.
He turned away and worried that there might not be enough silver paint. He had plenty of the bronze — a whole bottle, and in any case very little of that would be needed, just enough to touch up the globes on the corners. They should be painted bronze and the railing silver. There were five bottles of silver paint, but last time he had used six, he thought. To the last drop. He would have to be a bit sparing. It should help that this year he had a smaller brush, where last time it had been quite wide and round. That he did clearly remember. That had been three years ago, if not four. God, how time flew by!
He glanced at the sun. It had completed roughly a third of its journey. The time was a few minutes before eleven, and they had barely started.
"Right, then, should we make a move?" he asked.
"What?" grandmother asked.
"I said, shall we go on?"
"Yes, yes. My legs, my feet ... What?"
"Nothing. I didn't say anything."
"Speak up, will you?"
She leaned on him, tensed herself, and headed on uphill, swaying along hurriedly. A lock of grey hair came loose from her bun and tickled her neck which was moist with sweat. She had had a good rest. You needed to rest often if you didn't want your legs to pack in completely; but if you did stop for just a moment that seemed to help. Ouch! Sometimes there was no problem, but another time she would take a step and it hurt so much she could cry. Her knees were burning. If only she could rub some snow on them.
The next time they stopped to rest, she followed her grandson's eyes and saw that he was looking at the mountains. For some reason when people look at snowcapped mountains their expression becomes very sad. The peaks are so incredibly beautiful you can't believe your eyes. You think it must be a mirage.
As she reflected on this she suddenly for some reason remembered the water parting lazily, like oil, under the metal cheekbones of the border patrol's launch as it chugged its way laboriously up the Amudarya Gorge.
What had suddenly brought that to mind?
Oh, yes, the mountains. It had been the height of the hot season, the end of July or the beginning of August, in the summer of 1930. The launch had kept well over to the left, the Soviet side. From time to time the wispy shadows of trees fell over the scorching deck, trees which were desperately clinging by their matted roots to outcrops of the gorge's cliff. The roots had evidently been washed clean by the spring floods.
Yes, the mountains. To the right and to the left of them. On that other, foreign, shore they had been just the same as on this side — grey and lifeless. But how could that be snow? At the end of July, or the beginning of August! How could there be snow! She would have laughed if anybody had told her snow could fall here if, of course, she had not cried. The mountains rose up as if carved out of enormous lumps of dusty papier mâché, or from musty grey cotton wool which had been lying until spring between the frames of the double glazing. They were unreal. She was later to see many more mountains, but none ever made her feel the way these ones had.
Towards evening she had watched from beneath the awning the distended, revoltingly hot sun coming down on them like a sack of potatoes. The water turned pink and the wake behind them sparkled like golden fish scales. The launch's motor was labouring and something inside it was spluttering. The boat would occasionally rock from side to side for no apparent reason. The deck planks cooled slightly, and a gentle breeze from the water brought air which, if not cool, was at least slightly moist. None of it really troubled her. When you are nineteen years old nothing does.
"Stop!" grandmother commanded hoarsely. "We'll rest here for a bit."
She was out of breath. Leaning on her stick and stooped over, she seemed really quite small. Her swarthy wrinkled brow was covered in perspiration.
"Of course," he agreed readily. "What's the hurry?"
She had plainly not heard what he said, but did not ask him to repeat it, and only nodded mechanically, having no doubt inferred from his expression that the question was rhetorical.
Something rustled and fluttered above their heads. The grandson looked up to see a starling swinging dashingly on the thin branch of a Judas tree. His glance had the effect of a stone or a bullet.
The starling noisily took off at speed, leaving behind only a transient whorl of air.
"Not taking any chances, that bird," the grandson said in amazement, still gazing upwards. He suddenly frowned, blinked, and started rubbing his eye.
"What bird? What sort of bird?" she asked anxiously. "What's happened?"
"I've got some dirt in my eye," he complained. It hurt.
"A magpie?" she asked in surprise. "There never used to be magpies here."
"Dirt," he yelled. "I've got some dirt in my eye."
"There's no need to shout," grandmother said testily. "I can hear perfectly well without that. Give it here."
"Give what here?" he muttered. "I can't take my eye out."
"Eh? Speak up!"
"I can't yell for all the cemetery to hear!" he shouted, covering one eye with his hand and staring out with the other. "We'll have all the corpses complaining!"
"Tfu!" Grandmother spat the evil out on the ground. "Watch your tongue. What a thing to say! Give it here, give it here."
Groaning and blinking, he finally submitted his twitching and watering eye to her, trying to open it as wide as possible, against the inclinations of his convulsively resisting eyelid. He had to bend his knees, which was uncomfortable but meant his grandmother could peer down into his face. He almost broke away when she unexpectedly prised his eye open roughly with her fingers and abruptly, like a buzzard swooping on its prey, shoved the sacking-like corner of her handkerchief into a part of him more accustomed to the delicate touch of a weightless tear. He tried to jerk away but a moment later was blinking freely as grandmother pushed a black speck on the fabric of the handkerchief under his nose.
"There! Do you see that?"
"An absolute beam," he nodded. "I do see it. Shall we go on?"
"Wash it now with some water," she advised him.
"It's fine. Come on!"
"Come on, I said," he repeated loudly. "Let's go. Everything's fine."
"Let's go on," she consented. "We've had our rest."
She held his arm tightly, more tightly indeed than she needed to. The truth was that his support did not really relieve her of any of the trials her attempt at walking entailed. It was mainly moral support she was getting, but she thought it was good for him to feel that she couldn't get by without his help. And indeed she would never have attempted the journey without him. She wouldn't have got far with her legs in the state they were in.
Then there was her deafness. She could hardly hear at all in one ear, and the other wasn't much better. It was less of a problem when you were just talking to one person. You could arrange things, sit near them at just the right angle, and if you concentrated everything was fine. If they spoke even a little bit louder than usual, everything was perfect. If you had several people speaking to you at the same time, though, you couldn't begin to understand them. Their voices got mixed up, and there was such a ringing and a booming in your ears you might as well be sitting under a belfry. She no longer enjoyed sitting out on the bench in the yard because of this. The women would get together, maybe nine or ten of them, all chattering away about their own concerns. You were lucky if any of them were quiet for a minute. At first she had tried putting in the odd word herself. As they seemed always to be talking about the same things, it shouldn't really have mattered that you couldn't listen. They talked mostly about their children, then about their aches and pains, and that was about it. Only very occasionally would one of them recall some memory. She seemed to be the only one who was forever reminiscing. She had her whole life in front of her eyes like a filmshow and only had to describe what she was seeing. Well, anyway, she tried putting in a word or two on the basis of guesswork, and usually that was fine, but then she had made a fool of herself once or twice and had stopped. It wasn't quite true that they were always talking about the same things. One might have a son where another had a daughter, and the son or daughter might be alive or might have died. If you just came out with things at random you could end up upsetting someone, and that wasn't right.
She looked across at her grandson. Some of the water was spilling out of the can. She had been going to tell him at the outset not to fill it to the top but had thought better of it. People didn't take kindly to being given advice. They just decided the old woman had lost her marbles, when in fact she was not doing too badly. Although it was terrifying how fast time went by. Here was her grandson already the age her husband had been when she came out here to join him.
She thought back again to that battered lime launch chugging away as it struggled on up the dazzling golden river. There had been a crate of tomatoes in the stern, which they ate without even washing them. You didn't have to in those days before chemical pesticides. Or perhaps they had washed them. Actually, yes, almost certainly they had. What a chatterbox Shura turned out to be as they sat for two days on the same bundle of someone's belongings. She never stopped talking about her husband. Shura had gone on and on, until she felt she knew as much about him as Shura did herself. She knew he smoked cigarettes but not a pipe, and that he was a junior officer and everybody respected him. She knew he had been stationed in Aivadj for three years already, and that Shura had come to join him two years ago just as she was now coming to join her husband. She knew that Aivadj was the smallest of the frontier posts, and that the ceiling in a tent dwelling was lined with chintz to prevent all sorts of nasty things from falling on your head. Scorpions, for example.
She listened, smiling at the bits she found hard to credit, like the chintz on the ceiling. Who had ever heard of scorpions falling from the ceiling? She was quite sure Shura must be making that up. She didn't actually know what a tent dwelling was either, but could easily guess. Shura might be a year older than her, but actually she too had seen a lot for her years. She kept it to herself. The words she could have said came from somewhere far removed from this place, from a different life; they would have sounded rather naive here and as yet they were completely unconnected with these rough grey mountainsides, so intimidating in their blazing hot monotony. So she kept them to herself.
Shura widened her eyes every second word she spoke, as if that was quite the most important word of all. In her lean face with its high cheekbones her eyes seemed very large, and they shone. Shura was really quite thin, perhaps even skinny. It was the waters now not of the Amudarya but of the River Pandj that were rushing by, divided into two proud streams by the stern. Shura was looking across at the other bank. She said that Basmach units often used to mount raids from over there, and had again even quite recently. Shura said her husband had a medal and started talking about him again. As for her own husband, there was almost nothing she could volunteer in reply because she hadn't really known him very long and hadn't seen him for a long time, and now, wondering how pleased he would be to see her, realised with a blush that she had almost forgotten what he was like. They sat on the baggage, twilight fell, and the mosquitoes were whining. Shura suddenly said, "He probably loves you lots and lots. You are pretty."
Quite unexpectedly she burst into tears, sobbing quietly, but then calmed herself.
This was not by any means the first time he had heard this story. He knew what was coming next and how it would end, and could have carried on telling it himself from any place, or he could simply have let it go in one ear and out the other while he concentrated, for instance, on proceeding along the path, which meandered between the grave railings, at just the modest pace needed by the old lady leaning on his arm. He believed this was what he was doing, but in fact he was listening attentively and possessively to make sure all the elements of the story were brought together just as they should be. So far everything was going without a hitch.
Grandmother leaned heavily on his arm, taking those necessarily hurried little steps, uphill, uphill.
He began to feel the heat too. The sun was shining straight in his eyes, burning his skin, and already the mountainside was being covered by dry, quivering air which would shortly begin to tremble and shimmer.
The old lady thrust her stick into the ground and put her weight on it, and each time the gravel grated as if an auger were being bored into it. She found it difficult to talk while she was walking. She aspirated every word, and the words were rushed, not fully articulated; and yet she carried on talking and he who had heard her story so many times that he felt it belonged to him, would not have dreamed of trying to stop her. The hem of the brown dress danced up and down and was tossed back, he could feel his arm going numb, but on she walked, limping, swaying, deploying her walking stick, biting her lip with the pain, and retelling him the story of this distant page of her long life with a stubbornness which suggested that it mattered how well he understood and remembered it.
It struck him that now she was like a mammoth, one of those last mammoths which had once gone up into great hills which were being covered in ice and darkness. They had gone up, no doubt trumpeting into the dark sky, and their roaring had echoed far over an earth awed by the grandeur of what they had to say. So now the old lady was trumpeting her message as she hobbled uphill along this broken path, higher and higher to the goal of their simple-hearted pilgrimage, and the beads of perspiration united into drops of sweat which covered her forehead and her cheeks.
"Phew! Stop!" she said on the very verge of exhaustion, her breath laboured and fitful, her brow furrowed with pain. "Wait, let's pause for a moment. Phew! I'm weary."
He stood and tried to imagine those waters of the Amudarya or Pandj which had long since flowed on their way; dark, heavy water bearing sand and clay from distant foothills. They had slapped against the bottom of the launch, which was moored for the night because the shifting riverbed could easily leave it grounded in the dark on a sandbank, as Shura had explained. Directly in front of her a Red Army soldier stood sentinel, and the rifle slung over his shoulder looked like one of the branches reaching out from the black trunks of the soundless trees. Sometimes he patrolled the deck, which gave back the muffled thudding of his steps. After a time an orange crescent moon came from behind the mountain and dangled like a lopsided fruit over the fanciful silhouette of the mountain tops; now the river turned to molten silver; the trees stood out and their leaves could be seen; the sentry before her became wholly visible, and the would-be branch at his back turned into glinting steel. A great choir of crickets and cicadas roared their song like the shrilling of a timber mill. Something was snapping in the tops of the trees. In the end she had fallen asleep and heard it all no longer.
Neither did she hear the launch silently casting off from the bank in the green tinged light of the chilly dawn. It rocked from side to side, coughed, and the engine began turning over. They woke an hour later, having kept warm under a man's jacket they had found who knows where in the middle of the night. The sun was crawling out, the deck was trembling, the waves rushed by. Along the bank twisted bushes ran down towards the grey-yellow water. Glassy dead grass sprouted from the stones between the boulders. Beyond that rose a lifeless brown hillside, and further still was the giant tongue of a kilometer-long scree which was already beginning to shift in the early morning haze. The launch was approaching Aivadj, and Shura was strangely silent, as if she had woken up a different person.
"Phew, my legs, my feet. I should throw them to the dogs."
She stood there with her stick thrust into the ground. A thick ropy vein pulsed insistently on the hand clutching it.
"Do you want a drink?" he asked. "The water isn't warm yet."
She shook her head, then let go of his arm and wiped a hand over her brow. She looked at the road ahead with despair in her eyes. The path ran on uphill, all around them were grave railings, tall grass swaying and broken shadows running over the surface of the monuments. The foliage on the apricot trees was eaten away, as if grapeshot had been fired at every leaf. The trees themselves were bent, and their twisted trunks seemed carved out of burnt cork. Beneath them lay windfalls, quite large dark orange-coloured apricots. This climb would never end. Why had they ever come to these parts. Some places just have cemeteries on flat ground, but here there was a churchyard, and it had to be on a mountain. Her legs, her feet. Damn them!
"It's not far now," she said without conviction.
Her grandson looked doubtfully ahead and nodded. They moved on. The excess water had all spilled out of the can, and at least now it wasn't splashing on his legs. The hillside slanted up before them. The soil was a light coloured loam and if he stepped on a clod, the clay crumbled beneath his heel with a crunch. The ground was uneven and open. The sun hung over his shoulder. The hill looked like a great wave which had risen up and then frozen. "The ills to which all flesh is heir," he thought with a sudden moodiness which he himself could not explain. The story needed to be told to the end, so he shouted,
"What happened when you got to Aivadj?"
Aivadj? There had been a little jetty there, huts of some sort nearby. To the right a brook ran out of a gorge whose gently sloping sides were covered with bushes. Some dusty trees, a little square fenced off behind stakes, evidently the parade ground, that's all there was to Aivadj. Shura said goodbye and went off. It was very hot. Then two men came from the outpost, an officer and a Red Army private. The officer was young and tanned. He helped the private load the bundle on which she and Shura had been sitting for the past two days up on to his back. The soldier hauled it over to the huts, his shadow compacted beneath him into a small dark patch.
The officer had to get to another outpost. He brought a bench up from down below, out of the hatch, and invited her to sit on it. She sat down. The bundle had been softer, but she had to sit on something. The launch was already casting off. Aivadj was soon hidden by a bend in the river and was gone as if its trees and huts had never been. They got talking. If it hadn't been for an uneasy sense of foreboding which had been with her for several days now, she would have been glad to flirt with him a little. He was talkative and evidently conscious of making an impression. Her uneasiness was only to be expected. Too much in these surroundings was unfamiliar. She would get used to it all in time.
Excerpted from Hurramabad by Andrei Volos. Copyright © 2001 by Glas New Russian Writing. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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