Pravda: A Novel

Pravda: A Novel

5.0 1
by Edward Docx

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A sweeping transcontinental novel of secrets and lies buried within a single family

Thirty-two-year-old Gabriel Glover arrives in St. Petersburg to find his mother dead in her apartment. Reeling from grief, Gabriel and his twin sister, Isabella, arrange the funeral without contacting their father, Nicholas, a brilliant and manipulative libertine. Unknown to the…  See more details below


A sweeping transcontinental novel of secrets and lies buried within a single family

Thirty-two-year-old Gabriel Glover arrives in St. Petersburg to find his mother dead in her apartment. Reeling from grief, Gabriel and his twin sister, Isabella, arrange the funeral without contacting their father, Nicholas, a brilliant and manipulative libertine. Unknown to the twins, their mother had long ago abandoned a son, Arkady, a pitiless Russian predator now determined to claim his birthright. Aided by an ex-seminarian whose heroin addiction is destroying him, Arkady sets out to find the siblings and uncover the dark secret hidden from them their entire lives.

Winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Pravda is a darkly funny, compulsively readable, and hauntingly beautiful chronicle of discovery and loss, love and loyalty, and the destructive legacy of deceit.

Editorial Reviews

Eugenia Zukerman
Pravda is a book on fire. Ignited by a family secret, Edward Docx's novel of lies, betrayals, revelations and repercussions is written with a mastery and passion that summon up Dickens and Dostoevsky, peppered with a hip, wild 21st-century perspective…a novel so vivid it glows in the dark—like truth.
—The Washington Post
Julia Scheeres
Docx has said that the revelation of a secret Russian connection in his mother's family was an inspiration for the novel. And at its core, Pravda is a meditation on family—on who and what it embraces and how its singular ties can make us feel both trapped and transported.
—The New York Times
The New Yorker
This telescopic tale, sweeping from London to St. Petersburg, has elements of the thriller—the discovery of a dead body in the first chapter; a threatening drug dealer; a disaffected long-lost son with a claim on the family fortune—but it’s primarily a novel of ideas. The overeducated editor of a self-help magazine finds himself paralyzed by the “complete and utter evaporation of all possible belief, or consistency, or any good way for the intelligent man to live”; an aging latter-day Dorian Gray fondly remembers his life of “sexual chaos,” while recognizing that his romanticization of the past is “the true sign of a monster.” Docx has a gift for assessing “the exact shape and weight of other people’s inner selves, the architecture of their spirit,” and although the book teems with characters—the cast reaches nearly Dickensian proportions—even the most ancillary flare into being, vital and insistent.
Publishers Weekly

Docx's second novel (after The Calligrapher) wrings out all the theatrics to be had from unhappy urban-dwelling twins, their sexually voracious father and dead Russian mother. Twins Gabriel and Isabella Glover, both 32 and leading lackluster lives-she at a New York PR firm, he the editor in London of Self-Help!magazine-see another crack form in their perennially tortured existences when their mother, Maria, who defected to marry their British father, dies alone in St. Petersburg. (Their despised father, Nicholas, meanwhile, dabbles in art, decadence and self-important interior monologues in Paris.) All are unaware of an additional family member: Arkady Artamenkov, their mother's first son, who had been kept afloat by Maria's financial assistance and the guiding hand of his junkie friend, Henry Whey. After the checks stop, Henry hatches a plan to send Arkady to plead for money from the family that doesn't know he exists. Though Docx's prose can get dangerously overheated ("Give me the sincerity of nakedness and the honesty of desire, O God, and deliver me from the turgid bourgeoisie and all their favorite phrases"), the crushing atmosphere will draw in fans of dark Euro-fiction. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

A young Englishman finds his mother dead in her apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia, and there begins the unfolding of a saga based on the author's family history. His writing supercharged with high-voltage prose, Docx (The Calligrapher) drives his characters from New York to London to St. Petersburg in a relentless search for the truth-the "pravda" of the title. When the twins Isabella and Gabriel Glover attend the funeral of their Russian-born mother, Maria, in the former Russian capital, they are unaware that their lives are about to become forever intertwined with that of a lone Russian piano student Arkady Artamenkov. In their subsequent peregrinations, the twins discover unbelievable family secrets that make them question their very relationship to their closest kin. Though Docx's prose veers out of control at times-it is both well written and well overwritten-he manages to elevate this most dysfunctional family to the level of international intrigue. Caustic, hip, and highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ9/15/07.]
—Edward B. Cone

Kirkus Reviews
British author Docx follows up his debut novel (The Calligrapher, 2003) with a tale of family secrets that draw together siblings from three continents. Gabriel Glover, living in London, and his twin sister Isabella, in New York, are equally at loose ends in trendy but unfulfilling jobs and live-in relationships that don't really engage them. When the novel opens, the two have no notion that they have a half brother in Russia. They will not meet Arkady Artamenkov until very near the story's end, but readers learn of his existence shortly after Gabriel finds their mother dead on the floor of her St. Petersburg apartment. Maria Alexandrovna had returned from the twins' native England to her motherland several years earlier to search for Arkady, whom she had been forced to abandon in a Soviet orphanage when she was an unwed mother at age 22. After defecting and spending more than 30 years married to irresponsible, bisexual Nicholas Glover, now living in Paris with a male lover, Maria hoped to make amends. Arkady wanted nothing to do with her, but his drug-addicted friend Henry Wheyland, who knew how embittered the brilliant pianist was by his inability to continue his classical training in chaotic post-Soviet Russia, persuaded Maria to pay for Arkady's studies at the once state-subsidized conservatory. Her death stops the money, and Arkady goes to hunt for the half siblings who have all the privileges and ease he was denied. Docx writes densely and intelligently about complex relationships among complicated people. Self-indulgent yet scathingly honest Julian is perhaps the most fascinating character, but angry, vulnerable Arkady and self-destructive Henry come close. In the hands of a lessskillful author, Gabriel and Isabella might have been irritating examples of drifting, entitled yuppies; Docx makes them intriguingly neurotic, self-aware and essentially good-hearted. As in his previous book, the final twist is a stunner, both totally unexpected and carefully prepared for. Longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, and with good reason: well written, vigorously plotted and perceptive about human nature.
From the Publisher
Docx has a gift for assessing “the exact shape and weight of other people’s inner selves, the architecture of their spirit,” and although the book teems with characters—the cast reaches nearly Dickensian proportions—even the most ancillary flare into being, vital and insistent.
The New Yorker

A novel so vivid it glows in the dark—like truth.
The Washington Post

Longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, and with good reason: well written, vigorously plotted and perceptive about human nature. Kirkus Reviews, Starred

Caustic, hip, and highly recommended. Library Journal

Docx's ability to capture the feel of St. Petersburg, London, New York and Paris adds depth to this portrait of a family in turmoil. Drug addiction, sex, the emptiness of superficial relationships, poverty and music round out the ambitious narrative.

As the mystery of Maria's life and death is revealed, the haunting story hurtles toward a startling conclusion.

Docx has plumbed the depths of understanding and forgiveness with this fascinating book.

Tampa Tribune

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Part I OCTOBER The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure, to live it you have to explode.
—Bob Dylan, “Where Are You Tonight?
(Journey Through Dark Heat)”

LOVE AND CHAOS 1 Gabriel Glover

He was relieved to be again among the Russians. Nothing to do with his head, or even his heart, but in his soul: some kind of internal alignment or tessellation. He looked up at the clock on the wall above the brown lift doors. He’d lost two hours with the delays. But the London panic had given way to cool urgency, a calculating haste. There would be the visa and passport queues. There would be the usual wrangle with the taxi driver—unless he agreed up front to pay the tourist price. And then there would be traffic on Moskovsky . . . An hour and a quarter and he should be there.
The doors opened. The other Europeans and the Americans hesitated. He pushed his way inside with the Russians and a Finnish businessman with a tatty attaché. Everyone was already smoking. He squashed up and breathed it in: the flavor of the tobacco—more aromatic, smokier. An old woman swathed in a heavy black shawl with her hair tied up in a scalp-tightening white bun began shouldering her myriad straps, grasping numberless bags, grimly determined to be the first out.
But he was quicker. He walked swiftly across the vast immigration hall—the high two-tone walls, light Soviet tan at the base and dark Soviet mahogany at the top. There were only two queues for nonresidents. He had hoped for three or four. The first was shorter but comprised disorderly families and excited tourists; the second was mainly businessmen, money people. Follow the money. Money, after all, had won.
He put down his bag. These last few miles always seemed such an incremental agony, especially when the previous thousand he had scorched across the curve of the Earth. And now the candor that he had been evading for the past thirty-six hours finally ambushed him: okay, yes, it was true, this call had been different. Much worse. Something was really wrong. Something serious. Otherwise why would he have gone straight to the airport this morning and taken the first flight via Hel-bloody-sinki?

The slab-faced man in the booth looked up from the pages of the passport and met his eyes through the bulletproof glass.
“Your name?” “Gabriel Glover.” “How old are you?” “Thirty-two.” There was a long scrutinizing pause, as if the official were formulating a difficult third question, something beginning with “why.” Gabriel straightened up, consciously pulling his shoulders back, as both Lina and Connie reminded him to do—one thing at least they had in common—and stood with proper posture at his full fiveeleven. He was dressed half scruffily, in cheap jeans and scuffed boots, and half elegantly, in a dark tailored pure wool suit jacket and fine white shirt—as though he had not been able to make up his mind about who he really was or which side he was on when he set out. He had the figure of someone thin through restlessness, through exercise of the mind rather than of the body; he had liquid dark eyes and his hair was near-black and kicked and kinked at the ends, not so much a style as a lack of one, stylishly passing itself off. Immigration officials usually had him down as Mediterranean before they opened up his passport: Her Britannic Majesty requests and requires . . .
The official’s silence was becoming a test of stamina. He felt the urge to say something—anything—whatever confession was most required. But at last the Russian gave a grotesque smile followed by a parody of that long-suffering American imperative: “Enjoy.” “Thank you.” And his passport was returned to him slowly beneath the glass, as if it documented nothing but the transit excuses of a notorious pimp turned pederast turned priest turned politician. (Truly these people were the masters of contempt.) Now he had to wait for his luggage. They had forced him to check it in: too heavy.
For five minutes he fidgeted by the jaws of the empty carousel like an actor misguidedly aping madness. Then he could stand it no longer. He struck yet another deal with himself—no smoking in London, but okay, fine abroad—and set off to buy some cigarettes from the kiosk with the rubles he had left over from the last trip. When was that? Six weeks ago? No, less . . . Four weeks ago. This had to stop.
There was no relief at first—just acridity and watering eyes—but by midway through the second he was tempered, smoking greedily and watching the Russians. If ever there was a nation that understood waiting . . . And it occurred to him all over again why she had wanted to come back: because there was something that appealed to her particular vvanity here, something fierce and irreducible, some semi-nihilistic condition of character.
He remembered her speaking about just this quality when he was a child. She too must have been quite young then, at one of the London parties, perhaps—he and Isabella, his twin sister, had been allowed to stay up, listening carefully for their cues in the adult conversation. She had been talking to Grandpa Max: “The difference between the Russian character and the Western is that we Russians have learned to live our days in the full knowledge that whatever transpires in the interim, the sun will eventually expand and humanity will be incinerated. It’s a way of life precisely opposite to the American Dream. Call it Russian fatalism if you like. But it gives us a sense of perspective, a sense of humor, and perhaps a certain dignity.” He exhaled smoke through his nose. Her declarations and her pronunciations—was ever a person so convinced of the absolute truth of her latest opinion? She must have been unbearable when she was younger. Her voice was in his head too much these days, especially since the calls had started in earnest; indeed, there were moments when he found himself unable to distinguish his thoughts from hers. His luggage.

“You’re just like your father.” “I’m not listening to this. That’s not even true. I’ve got to go to bed now.” “You are still with Lina?” (Lina’s voice through the open bedroom door: “Gabriel? Are you off the phone? Can you bring me some water? And put the lettuce back in the fridge.”) “Since we spoke yesterday?” It was Sunday night. He tried to keep the anger out of his voice. “Am I still with Lina since this time yesterday? Yeah. Since yesterday, I’m still with Lina. The same as the last four years. Nothing has changed. Listen, I am—” “And Connie?” The line clicked irregularly, all the way across Europe.
“Nothing has changed in the last twenty-four hours.” He almost hissed the words. That was unusually devious and unnecessary, even by her standards. “But you know I can’t speak . . .” “You can always speak to me.” He had started whispering. “Lina is awake. It’s . . . it’s midnight. I have to go to bed.” “Going sideways, going sideways, going sideways. Can’t go forward. Can’t go back. So you go sideways.” “I’ll call tomorrow from work.” “Like your father.” “No. Stop. That’s it. I’ll call you tom—” “Don’t go.” Her voice contained a new note of . . . of what? Desperation?
“I promise I will call you tomorrow.” “Gabriel.” He felt her reaching in for his heart. And he felt his heart uncoil. “Okay. But I do have to go soon. And—and you should be in bed too. It’s what? Christ, it’s past three with you. It’s the middle of the night.” “It’s difficult for you. I know.” “What is? You’re not sounding great. You’re rasping. Seriously, is everything okay?” “To inhabit yourself fully. Very few people do this anymore. But you and I, we try—correct? We try to hold the line . . . Even though this will cost us almost everything we have—this great indignity, this great antagonism, this great protest.” She coughed. “Which is itself pointless.” He was unnerved now. More riddles. His attention wholly focused.
“But—listen to me.” She spoke more steadily. “You have to be fierce in the face of all the cowardice you see around you. And you have to say, ‘No. For me, no. I will not. I will not lie down and I will not give up. I will not do or be or become anything that you wish me to. However you disguise it, however you describe it—politics, religion, economics—I will continue to stand here and tell you that what you believe in is a lie and what you have become is a falsehood.’” “Why—why—are you talking to me like this?” Another cough and suddenly she became urgent. “Will you come tomorrow?” “To Petersburg?” “Yes.” “I can’t. I’m at work tomorrow.” “Your work is a joke. Come tomorrow.” “I can’t just . . . Why are you laughing? Jesus—you’re coughing.” He continued to speak, but he knew that she could not hear. “Oh God . . . It’s getting worse.” For nearly a minute he stood there listening to her hacking. But it was unendurable. So he started up again, shouting into the phone, regardless of waking Lina. “Can you hear me? Are you there? Hold the phone up.” A few seconds of quiet, her breathing like wind through rusted barbed wire. “Oh God . . . You’re crying.” And then this: “Do you love me, Gabriel?” She had never asked him such a thing. Not once.
“Yes. Of course. You know I do.” “Say it in Russian.” “Ya tyebya lyublyu.” “Come tomorrow. Promise me.” “You’ve got to move back to London. And you don’t have to live in the old house.” He would have set out that instant if he could have made it there any faster by doing so.
“Petersburg is my home. You must be here tomorrow. I will give you the money. I want to see you. I will talk. There are so many things I have to tell you.” “I need a visa.” “Come the day after, then. Get an express visa. I’ll pay.” “Are you crying?” “Promise me.” “Okay. Okay. I promise.” It was one thirty-five U.K. time when he finally hung up. Three and a half hours later, he was standing at the front of the already lengthening queue outside the Russian embassy on Kensington Palace Gardens, watching a grout-gray dawn seep slowly through the cracks in the east.
The driver was crazier than he had dared hope. He clasped the handrail above the passenger door, the muscles tensing in his upper arm as the taxi veered left onto Moskovsky. Wide and straight, the road into town was as Stalin-soaked in the monochrome of tyranny as the center of the city was bright and colorful with the light of eighteenthcentury autocracy.
“Democracy is difficult for us, Gabriel,” she often said. “In Russia we are required to live within the pathologies of the strongest man—whatever he titles himself. That way we all know where we are and what we are doing. However bad it gets.” The cars were moving freely—the battered Czech wrecks and tattered Russian rust crates, the sleek German saloons and the tinted American SUVs, overtaking, undertaking, switching lanes in a fat salsa of metal and gasoline. Still no phone network; it didn’t usually take this long. He shifted in the back seat, lit his fourth cigarette, and wound down the window as the cab slowed for the lights. A mortally decrepit bus bullied its way across the intersection, discharging plumes of what looked like . . . like coal dust. The pollution was worsening: particles seemed to hang heavy and brazen as nails in the lower air, a blunt parody of the fine mists that must have once come dancing up the Neva from the sea to greet great Peter himself as he rode out across the marshes to meet his enemies.
He would stay with the cab: twenty minutes and he’d be there. No need to jump out and take the underground. Gorolov-Geroev Park was just ahead now—he could see the scrub trees behind the tarnished railings, and there was the crooked-nosed old man with that same heavily lapeled sports jacket still selling books and magazines on the corner. Not really selling. More like minding them for someone or something never to come. Jesus, it was as if he had not been away. How many times was he going to have to do this?
He bent to look up. The sky was low and lowering. The plane had been in rainclouds for much of the descent. The wind must be carrying them inland from the west. He tried to listen to the music from the ill-tuned station on the car radio; it sounded like Kino. Something off Gruppa Krovi maybe— he couldn’t be sure—beauty and despair bound in razor wire and thrown overboard together, whitelipped now beneath the ice, thrashing it out, life and death. His sister would have known the exact song, the exact version. A current of anger joined the stream of his thinking. Isabella hadn’t been over for nearly a year. Longer, in fact—twenty-one months: Christmas—the Mariinsky—that vicious wind on the walk home, which froze the nose and iced the eyeballs, three atheists on their knees at Kazan Cathedral early the next morning.
The truth was that he wished he had managed to get hold of Isabella last night instead of leaving a message. The truth was that he was no longer sure of the truth. And he trusted his sister to apprehend things precisely—to seek out the quiddity of things and, once grasped, never let go, to insist, to assert, to confirm. Whereas for him . . . for him the truth seemed to be slipping away with each passing year, losing distinctiveness, losing clarity, losing weight. Duplicity, hypocrisy, and cant, the primary colors he once would have scorned, he now saw in softer shades. Perhaps this was the aging process: bit by bit truth grows faint until she vanishes completely, leaving you stranded on the path, required to choose a replacement guide from those few stragglers left among your party—Surly Prejudice, Grinning Bewilderment, Purblind Grievance.
The thin beep of his phone locating a network. He sat up smartly, let the cigarette fall outside the window, and pressed the last dial button. A child’s unmediated eagerness ran through him. With every second he expected her voice . . . But the ringing continued as if to spite him. And he began to picture the phone shrilling on the side table by the bay window—the dusty light, the red-cushioned casement seats, the chess set forever ready for action. He imagined her climbing from the bath, or hurrying from the shower, or fumbling with keys and bags at the door.
ventually the line went dead.
He hit redial. They were coming toward Moskovskaya—he could see the statue of Lenin a little farther on, the right arm aloft—one of the few still standing. This time he listened intently to the exact pitch and interval of the ring tone. No answer. No bloody answer.
The line went dead again. She must be out. Maybe she was tired of waiting and he’d get there to find one of her notes on the table: “At café such and such with so and so, come and join”—as if he should know the café or the friend. Or maybe she was just refusing to pick up the phone for reasons she would soon be telling him— something dark and colossally unlikely involving organized crime, her time in the Secretariat. Redial. The fact was that he was utterly at a loss as to what she was really trying to communicate to him. The direct accusations, sly allusions, subject swerves, sudden changes of register that served (and were meant to serve) only to draw further attention to the preceding hints. Redial. Individual exchanges made sense, and yet when he got off the phone he could not discern what lay behind her pointed choice of subject, her denouncements, her fabrications. He gave up as the line went dead the fourth time. Why wasn’t she answering the bloody phone? And suddenly all his anger passed away. And he knew that he would do this forever if necessary.
His mobile had heated his ear and he put it down on the seat away from him as the driver slowed for the traffic again. And here they were crawling beneath mighty Lenin’s arm. “That failure,” she always said, “is our failure, Gabriel, is the failure of all of us. Such dreams expired. More dreams than we can imagine—all extinguished by that failure. Not just in the past but in the future too: and that’s the real sadness, the real tragedy. We have—all of us, the whole world—we have all lost our belief in our better selves. And the great told-you-so of capitalism will roll out across the earth until there is no hiding place. And every day that passes, Marx will be proved more emphatically right. And all the men and women waking in the winter to the slavery of their wages will know it in their heart.”

He stood for an anxious moment by the iron railings of the canal embankment, putting away his wallet and glancing up at the secondfloor balcony. The tall windows were closed. But the curtains were not drawn. The driver struggled with the lock of the buckled trunk, the gusting wind causing his jacket to billow. Rain was coming. Gabriel could smell the dampness in the air. He took his bag and hurried across the street.
He reached the gates that blocked his way to the courtyard—like most in the old part of town, the flats were accessed from the various staircases within. And only now he remembered the need to punch in the security code. What was the number? He couldn’t recall. He pressed the buzzer and waited. Maybe she had been in the bath when he rang. Or maybe her phone wasn’t working. He simply hadn’t thought about this. He’d assumed she would be home. And if by some strange chance not, then he had all the keys to let himself in . . . but the security code? No. He’d forgotten all about the bloody security code.
He tried a few combinations at random. He jabbed at her buzzer repeatedly. Nothing happened. And there was no voice from the intercom. The first twist of rain came and he leaned against the gate to get beneath the shallow arch. Water began to drip onto his bag. Maybe he could try one of the other buzzers and explain . . . But even if they spoke English—unlikely— there was no way on earth they’d let him in; crime had seen to that. He pressed her buzzer again. He did not know what else to do.
No answer.
Abruptly the full force of his panic returned—a tightening in his throat, a clamping of his teeth at the back of his jaw, the sound of his own blood coursing in his ears. (The fear—yes, that was what it was —the fear in her voice on the telephone.) He looked around, face taut now, hoping for a car or another resident approaching. Someone to open the gate. Where was everybody? The whole of the city had vanished. This was insane. Over on the other side of the canal, two men were sprinting for shelter. They ducked down the stairs into the café opposite.
Yana. Of course. Yana would know the code. Yana’s mother was in and out all the time—cleaning, officially, though mainly consuming expensive tea and gossiping. Oh please Christ Yana’s working today. He picked up his bag and dashed across the bridge. The Kokushkin Bridge on which poor Rodya stared into the murky water to contemplate his crime— Gabriel, can you imagine it? He was across. He dived down the café stairs, slipped on the wet stone and nearly fell, reached out for the door to stop himself, and somehow bloodied his knuckle as he crashed inside. But he cared nothing for the eyes that were on him as he walked over to the bar cursing under his breath.
“Is Yana here? Do you speak English?” “Yes, I do.” The girl at the bar had a staff T-shirt: “CCCP Café: The Party People.” “Is Yana here? Yana.” “Yes. She is. What—” “Can you get her?” He had not seen this girl before; he tried to ameliorate his manner, but to little effect. “Sorry. I’m sorry. Can you tell her Gabriel is here? It’s about Maria—she’ll know.” “Okay.” The girl had registered his urgency and locked the till as quickly as she could. “Please. Wait here.” “Yes. I’ll wait.” He glanced at the walls, which were pasted with lacquered old editions of Pravda: Khrushchev kissing a dead astronaut’s son, Andropov, Old Joe himself—always a shock to see that, yes, he was a person of flesh and blood and conversation—leaning forward to say something to the woman seated beside his driver as the state car processed down Nevsky Prospekt. How many times had he and Isabella tried to read these walls and recreate in their minds what it must have been— “Gabe. Hi. Hello. How are you? I did not know you were coming back. Katja says you are a man who lost it.” “Sorry. Yana, I’m just—I can’t get in.” He raised his thumb to indicate behind himself. “What’s the combination? The security gate. Do you know it?” “Yes, of course.” She told him the number, becoming conscious of the alarm in his eyes. “Is everything okay? How long you here? I didn’t know you were coming back. It’s lucky you came today, though—I am going to Kiev tomorrow. I have to—” “It’s a flying visit.” He interrupted her. “I just got in. But I’ll be back later. Promise.” He was already turning for the door. “We’ll go out. Definitely. You can tell me about what is really happening—the news isn’t clear.” The rain had soused the cobbles but this time he crossed the bridge at a flat sprint, all the while keeping his eyes on the window above the balcony. Nobody paid him any attention—the random autumn flurries of wet weather that came squalling in off the Gulf of Finland often caused old and young alike to scurry and dash. A woman holding a magazine above her head left the shelter of the hairdresser’s canopy and scuttled to her car door.
He was back at the security gate. He pressed in the numbers. The metal doors began to swing open jerkily: a moment to marvel at how the simple fact of knowing the right combination was all the difference and then he was through, into the courtyard.
The rain was slicking his hair onto his forehead and causing him to blink. The cars within looked more numerous than the last time. He was unashamedly thinking with her voice now: There you go— capitalism’s pubescent little triumphs on every hand, see how they vaunt it. Water was gushing down the side of the building where the guttering was broken. His mind would not focus. But his heart was pestling itself mad against the mortar of the present, suffering now from some inarticulate dread—a terrifying feeling that came at him as he reached the staircase in the corner of the quadrangle, grinding his very quick to powder.
The stench of cat urine assailed him, slowed him, as he hit the stairs. She was a little demented, perhaps. Admit it. That’s why he couldn’t get at what she meant, what she was really saying to him. She contradicted herself twelve times a day, twelve times an hour, and who can believe someone who . . . Distraction, though, distraction, he breathed: back to now, back. Up we go. Up we go. Why wasn’t he running anymore? Maybe she was refusing to answer the entryphone on purpose. And the telephone. In two minutes she would be taking her perverse Petersburg pleasure in telling him how the criminal gangs were now calling door to door in the afternoons in the hope of being admitted without the need for time-consuming breaking-and- entering procedures. It’s not as bad as Moscow, but it’s very dangerous sometimes here, Gabriel. And there was another murder just over in Sennaya . . .
He turned to take the third flight. The seconds were stalling. He noticed details he had never noticed before. The filth and the smell, the colors, the lack of colors, the chipped and broken sad stone stairs, the million cigarette butts underfoot, the unconcealed pipes all caked thick with dust and grime forever wheezing and choking up and down and back and across the stairwell, the metal-slabbed apartment doors riveted with legions of bolts and locks and tarnished somehow—despite the steel—by nameless cats or poisonous leaks or dogs or rats . . . Her thick exterior padlock was undone.
So she must be in.
She must be in—because there was no possibility that she’d leave that padlock undone if she had gone out. She must be in. But he turned his key and entered the apartment in silence because he could not bring himself to call her name.
The light was dim. The wooden floor smelled of polish. He stepped onto the narrow carpet that ran down the center of the hall. And now he stopped moving altogether. The familiar pictures—his father in Paris in 1968, Isabella in New York, the Highgate house, his father on the telephone with a cigarette, Nicholas II and his family, he and his sister as babies in a pram, some famous clown white-faced in Red Square, the map of Europe stained with the brown ring mark of a wineglass over the Balkans, the icons, especially the bloody icons . . . These familiar pictures seemed suddenly remote, alien, unconnected with him, as though he had wandered into the flat of a vanished stranger whose life he must untangle. Someone dropped something in the apartment above. He let his bag fall and ran, left, toward her bedroom. The door was open. The heavy curtains drawn. Her books piled untidily on the floor by her fallen lamp. Flowers thirsty in the vase. Her favorite shawl spread across the floor by the chest. A full mug of black tea by the bed. Pills. The upright piano. The bed itself empty. He ran back down the corridor, pushing doors as he went—bathroom, kitchen, study . . . But he slowed on the threshold of the last, the drawing room, as she called it—high ceilings, grand, with my tall windows for the White Nights, Gabriel, for the cool air in the summer, for the best view in all of Petersburg, where our history is made.
His mother was lying on the floor by the desk. He was on his knees and by her side in an instant. Her eyes were open but shrouded somehow in a shimmering film of reflected light. And when he called her name out loud at last and raised her up, her body was cold and slight. And she seemed to have shrunk, to be falling down—down into herself, down into the floor, seeking the earth. And there was neither voice nor breath from her lips.

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Meet the Author

Edward Docx is the author of the acclaimed The Calligrapher, named a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year. He lives in London.

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Pravda 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago