You Must Go and Winby Alina Simone
In the wickedly bittersweet and hilarious You Must Go and Win, the Ukrainian-born musician Alina Simone traces her bizarre journey through the indie rock world, from disastrous Craigslist auditions with sketchy producers to catching fleas in a Williamsburg sublet. But Simone offers more than down-and-out tales of her time as a struggling musician: she/i>… See more details below
In the wickedly bittersweet and hilarious You Must Go and Win, the Ukrainian-born musician Alina Simone traces her bizarre journey through the indie rock world, from disastrous Craigslist auditions with sketchy producers to catching fleas in a Williamsburg sublet. But Simone offers more than down-and-out tales of her time as a struggling musician: she has a rapier wit, slashing and burning her way through the absurdities of life, while offering surprising and poignant insights into the burdens of family expectations and the nature of ambition, the temptations of religion and the lure of a mythical Russian home. Wavering between embracing and fleeing her outsized and nebulous dreams of stardom, Simone confronts her Russian past when she falls in love with the music of Yanka Dyagileva, a Soviet singer who tragically died young; hits the road with her childhood friend who is dead set on becoming an "icon"; and battles male strippers in Siberia.
Hailed as "the perfect storm of creative talent" (USA Today, Pop Candy), Simone is poised to win over readers of David Rakoff and Sarah Vowell with her irresistibly funny and charming literary debut.
“Singer-songwriter Simone dissects her Russian roots, her convoluted path toward religion, and what it means to be an artist, in this razor-sharp debut essay collection. Born in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1974 Simone moved to Massachusetts with her parents (her father was blacklisted by the KGB) as an infant and grew up loving to sing. But the road to indie rock stardom is a bumpy one, from trying to find a producer on Craigslist in "Gloom-Deflecting Mailman Warrior Gods" to being so close to getting your album distributed, then hearing that all the money’s been stolen, in "Down and Out on Hope Street." Working for a nonprofit that ran a teaching program in Russia, Simone’s own past and her musical inspirations soon merged around the figure of Siberian punk rocker Yanka Dyagileva, who died young in 1991 and whose songs Simone covered in a 2008 album. In "I Wanted Unicorns," she recounts a Russian trip where she not only sees Dyagileva’s grave but is baptized by a renegade priest named Punk Monk. Throughout all of this, she struggles to figure out how to make a lifeand a livingfrom making music. Simone ably juggles the philosophical and the comical, her genuine enthusiasm for arcane subject matter as contagious as the fleas in her long ago apartment.”—Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Most collections of personal essays are dull. This one isn’t. Alina Simone uses her life as material to tell stories that are funny, heartwarming, tragic—often all at the same time. Her subjects, whether music, religion, Russia, or family, are conjured and dissected with warm humor and sharp eyes. Probably it’s a really good thing she never became an international rock star: she wouldn’t have written this if she had.” —Neil Gaiman
“Never has the paying of creative dues been written about with more sincerity and humor. As a twenty-first century Portrait of the Artist, warts and all, You Must Go and Win is a delight and, in all honesty, an inspiration.” —John Wray, author of Lowboy
“At the memoir’s core is a protagonist yearning to establish musical connections to her past. Simone’s earnest desire to represent individuals honestly leads to detailed character descriptions that enliven the people in her memoir.”—Joshua Finnell, Library Journal
“A collection of wry, fascinating essays . . . The combination of her Russian heritage and her escapades as a struggling artist provide fodder for poignant and hilarious tales like arriving in her native Kharkov to meet The Cousin Who Drinks Water. No matter how foreign the territory, be it a studio or the Ukraine, Simone’s writing is imminently relatable.” —BrooklynBased
“Her warm and hilarious new book is full of self-effacing anecdotes about trying to make it as an artist in New York and other madcap adventures—making it one of few memoirs that stands out in a crowd.” — Jewcy.com
“The resulting book is a collection of funny, cynical essays on meeting sketchy producers off of Craigslist, her obsession with Skopsy, a Russian castrati set, and battling fleas in her Williamsburg apartment.” —Courier Life
“After a chance listen by a major publishing editor on Pandora, Alina was asked to write the essays for the book, You Must Go and Win . What comes out are essays about trying to find a roommate in Brooklyn, living in the realm of the music PR machine and explorations of her Russian background. Some would say ‘poignant’ and ‘introspective.’ But there’s also a deftness Alina has in discussing the business of music along with the hopes and dreams wrapped up in it.” —Impose Magazine
“An engaging and honest look at an indie musician’s life…Written with clutter-free concision, Simone’s search for meaning reads pithy and often laugh-out-loud funny.” —Blurt
“Simone reveals the flair of a born raconteur, recounting record deals gone bust; the ubiquity of Britney Spears, even in Siberia; and hanging out with alt-cabaret belter Amanda Palmer, Simone’s childhood friend.” —SPIN
“Amazing . . . Sarah Vowell fans, trust me on this one: pre-order Alina Simone’s ‘You Must Go and Win’ now. The funniest essays I’ve read in years.” —Michael Schaub, Bookslut
Wry memoir from an Eastern European indie-rock sensation.
A significant strength of this literary debut from singer Simone—whose second full-length original album will be released this fall—is her prose style, which is vibrant, taut and humorous. Born in Ukraine, she emigrated with her family to Massachusetts in the waning days of Soviet rule, after her professor father ran afoul of the KGB. The author amusingly portrays this experience as having transformed her family into caustic Kafkaesque eccentrics. The young Simone's response was to retreat into bohemian creativity. One chapter documents the bittersweet review of artsy VHS tapes she made with a teenage pal who went on to fame in the Dresden Dolls. The author married young and pursued a career making independent folk-rock that, for a number of years, seemed cursed. After a particularly futile and creepy audition, she writes, "There is a certain peace that comes with the realization you aren't ruining anyone's life but your own." Yet, over time, Simone managed to build an enthusiastic, cultish audience, bolstered in 2008 with her release of an album honoring Yanka Dyagileva, a Russian folk-punk performer who'd died mysteriously. The most provocative and engaging chapters document the author's wanderlust. In addition to touring the country, playing her music in run-down venues, she traveled on multiple occasions to Siberia, her remote hometown and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. At points, she departs on spiritual tangents, as when she discusses her obsessive research on the Skoptsy, an obscure 19th-century Russian sect that practiced castration—she found this a good conversational topic for discouraging nightclub suitors. The chapters that focus on her travails as a Brooklyn-based aspiring musician are both less interesting and more familiar than Simone seems to perceive. The author skillfully captures the forlorn waiting-to-be-famous existence of young creative people, yet these passages become somewhat self-indulgent and unsurprising.
Sure to prove popular with 20-something hipsters, just as her music seems poised for wider exposure.
- Faber and Faber
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Meet the Author
Alina Simone is a critically acclaimed singer who was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, and now lives in Brooklyn. Her music has been covered by a wide range of media, including BBC's The World, NPR, Spin, Billboard, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of the book You Must Go and Win.
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Read an Excerpt
You Must Go and Win
THE KOMSOMOL TRUTH
In late September 2008, I received an email from one ELMONSTRO with the subject line "Hello, Alina! Kharkov on the Line!" ELMONSTRO's real name, it turned out, was Kiril, and he was a journalist for the Kharkov bureau of the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, which he translated for me as "Komsomol True." He had learned that I was born in Kharkov and wanted to interview me about my new album, a collection of songs covering the Soviet punk singer Yanka Dyagileva. "If will please you," Kiril wrote, "reveal to us all news about your creation."
It was the first time that anyone from the Ukrainian city where I was born had ever taken an interest in my music, and I was surprised. A little touched, even. My family had left the Soviet Union as political refugees when I was too young to remember, but sometimes I felt it anyway: a Kharkov-shaped hole in my heart. Not to mention that the motherland had come calling when I was feeling particularly homeless, having just moved from North Carolina to a temporary sublet in Brooklyn. My new apartment occupied the top floor of an old brownstone that was badly in need of repair. The closet doors were lying in a heap onthe floor when I arrived, and there were holes the size of hand grenades beneath the rotted windowsills. Spinning the hot water tap in the shower felt like placing an outside bet on a roulette wheel. And the water didn't emerge from the showerhead so much as the wall, like it was some kind of life-giving rock. I would press myself against the runoff in the mornings, before the tiles could suck away what little remained of its warmth. It was the kind of place that made you think too much about your station in life, your dimming prospects. If nothing else, I figured, an interview with "Komsomol True" could serve as a pleasant distraction from speed-dialing the three phone numbers my landlady had given me for her possibly imaginary handyman.
We left Kharkov because my father was blacklisted by the KGB, but whenever I asked why, Papa always replied that he'd never know for sure. Did I think he just received a form letter in the mail one day on KGB stationery that began "We regret to inform you ..." and ended with a neat summary of his transgressions? If provoked further, he'd always end up demurring, "Don't make me out to be some kind of dissident freedom fighter," then retreat to a yellow legal pad full of equations. He refused to romanticize our flight from the Soviet Union, to let me imagine it as some kind of action-adventure movie from the eighties. It's not like I ever slayed a Stormtrooper, his warning glance seemed to say, or breakdanced my way to freedom.
Papa did admit, however, that it probably had something to do with turning the KGB down when they made him a recruitment offer in college. In any case, it was soon afterward that bad things insisted on happening to my family. My father's military health exemption (he'd had polio as a child) was revoked without warning and instead of serving in the officer corps, like most college graduates, he was sent off to work in the notoriously brutal building brigades of the Soviet army, alongside violent criminals.My mother was forced to quit her job and was mysteriously unable to find work, despite graduating with top honors from the state university. Unemployment was officially illegal, but she stayed home with me in the flat we shared with my father's parents and sister while Papa drifted through a string of menial jobs, rarely lasting long at any of them.
You wouldn't know it from looking at my family now, though. Within two years of leaving the Soviet Union, my father had his PhD in physics and a job at a good university. My mother, like most Russian immigrants, found work doing something with computers that I didn't understand. And despite having just completed a thoroughly money-losing tour of the United States, even I had distinguished myself enough as a singer to merit an interview request from a newspaper in Kharkov. Thinking that this called for a self-congratulatory moment, I forwarded the message to my parents. I didn't bother including a note, but the subtext was clear.
From my parentsusually quick with the emailthere was a suspicious silence. A few hours later, my phone rang.
"I had no idea that rag still existed," my mother said as soon as I picked up the phone. "You realize that was the official Communist newspaper?"
I knew that Komsomol was the abbreviated name for the youth division of the Communist Party and had to admit that it did sound pretty retro. But I was still willing to give Kiril the benefit of the doubt.
"Well, it's a brand, after allmaybe they just didn't want to give up on a solid brand after investing so much in it during Soviet times?"
"Are you seriously considering doing this interview?"
I hadn't even considered not considering it. And why did Mama always have to act like someone just dropped an ice cube down her pants?
"Of course," I answered.
And then my mother gave a very Russian kind of snort that could roughly be translated as "This is unbelievable and you are an idiot," and hung up the phone.
For the rest of the day, I waited for some word from my father, but finally overcome with impatience, I decided to give him a call, just to make sure he'd gotten the message. When I reached him, he sounded a little surprised.
"From Kharkov! The one from Komsomolskaya Pravda."
"Mmm. I think I remember something about that."
"Well," my father said, with a tiny chuckle, "I guess it is interesting." He seemed to draw some amusement from the situation, albeit from a very great distance, as though something mildly droll had just happened to an acquaintance on a planet in a parallel universe.
I wrote back to Kiril that night and explained that I would love to do the interview, but since I couldn't write in Russian, it would be best if he just sent me the questions in Russian and I responded in English. But somehow I did a bad job communicating this request, because from that day forward, Kiril wrote to me in a dialect of English that might best be described as Google Translate on Acid.
Hello, Alina. I was pleasantly surprised, when got a rapid answer from you. Very interestingly me with you to communicate. Our musicians stick to very with self-confidence and journalists are not loved. I am a rad, that you are quite another man. If you will not objectI prepared questions by which I and our readers able to know you better. Here list of questions:
Though feeling a bit damaged by the Tilt-a-Whirl quality of Kiril's prose, I moved on to the questions themselves and found that they fell into exactly three equally irritating categories.
The first category consisted of questions that I couldn't understand at all. At the top of this list was "Do you have any zoons?" I had no idea what a zoon was. Having spent much of the past eight years surrounded by indie-rock guys whose favorite intimidation tactic always began "You've seriously never heard of [insert name of yesterminute's most popular band here]?," the zoon threw me into a small panic. I was convinced it was some really cool Ukrainian thing, the measure by which my own coolness would be judged. It was bad enough worrying about my relative coolness in one country without exposing myself to the judgment of zoon-loving Ukrainian hipsters. I didn't think that I had any, but regardless, decided it was safer to politely ignore this one.
The second category consisted of questions that I technically could answer, but very much preferred not to. This list included questions like: Are you very beautiful? Did not you think about the career of movie actor? Why exactly fate, considered that it is not quite womanish employment? Do you like to cook? Who you on the sign of zodiac? Did not you have a desire to engage in physics? Do you watch after that takes place now in Ukraine? Do you want to arrive to Kharkov with concerts?
The last category of questions, I had to admit, were best answered by my parents themselves. These included: Where lived? Where walked in child's garden, in school? In what age you were driven away from Kharkov? What now do your parents get busy?
"I hope on a collaboration," Kiril wrote before signing off with his regards, "and will be with impatience!"
Although my parents clearly were refusing to drink the Kool-Aid, I decided to forward the questions to them anyway, pointingout which ones they might answer if they had the time. Minutes later I received the following response from my mother:
Alina, Could you please stop this "collaboration" for God's sake! I cannot read this nonsense anymore! This is pure delirium. m.
My father's one-line response was:
I like "I am a rad" in Kiril's message.
And that was it. Neither of them answered the questions or so much as implied that they would. But the next day, there was a message from my mother with an attachment labeled "Early Childhood" and a note that said:
Alina, Here is a template for all inquiries of this kind. You should keep it for the future and use "cut & paste" for the next idiot from "Komsomol True." m.
Then, despite Mama's professed ambivalence about my interview, I received another message from her within twenty minutes, when I failed to respond instantaneously to the first one:
Is this all? That much for your feedback! In any case please don't forget to bring the kitchen knives for me. Please put them in your luggage right now. m.
I opened the attachment and found that my mother had conveniently decided to write her history of my early childhood from my first-person perspective:
I left Kharkov at the age of one year. To preschool I never did go. This was unnecessary because my mother was forced to take leave of her job "by her own volition" (or rather, that of her supervisor). In this fashion, she was able to stay at home with me.
My father was a night watchman. He guarded the kiosk next to the concert hall Ukraina in Shevchenko Park. The kiosk was called Café Lira. Port wine was sold there and candies as well (probably as a snack for after drinking port wine). Besides this, there was nothing else to guard in the kiosk. Papa was given a job there with the hope that he would drink less than the other watchmen. And this hope was fully realized.
One day my papa had a stroke of good fortunehe was offered a job moonlighting as a night watchman at the zoo, which was located nearby. In this fashion, he could guard two locations simultaneously. But this happiness was short livedhe lasted only a month and a half before someone filed an anonymous report against him, revealing that he had a higher education. The director of the zoo did not want any trouble and Papa was fired.
From time to time, my parents were summoned by the KGB for "a chat." There they were given the neverchanging, standard question: "What is the real reason that you are leaving the country?" To which they would give the standard response: "To reunite with our relatives," and then something about the humane policies of the Party and the government. After these fruitful exchangesthey were usually told, "Wait, we will notify you." And then everything would repeat itself.
My mother had cleverly avoided answering any of the questions I had highlighted and was clearly presenting a version of events Komsomolskaya Pravda was unlikely to deem publishable. So I cheerfully forwarded it on, sending the whole thing off to ELMONSTRO unedited. With my parents' questions out of the way, it was time to focus on my own. I considered just doing a rush job. (Are you very beautiful? Yes. Do you have any zoons? No.) But I ended up dutifully responding to each question in turn. Slowly the fascinating portrait of a Libra with no interest in acting and no aptitude for physics, who could be said to like cooking only if making coffee counts, began to emerge.
The last question was the most difficult: Do you want to arrive to Kharkov with concerts? I had talked to enough newspapers in the various places I'd called home over the past few years to know the kind of local boosterism required of me here, but I could not seem to fluff myself up to the task. I considered trying to explain, but what kind of pixelated meaning would emerge from Kiril's random word generator when he learned that the only relative my family stayed in touch with back in Kharkov was a man known to me as the Cousin Who Drinks Water? I hesitated to put it in cold print, but the truth was that I didn't want to arrive in Kharkov with concerts; I had already gone back once and found there just wasn't much to return to.
It was my grandfather's death that convinced me to go back. A geography professor and decorated World War II veteran, my grandfather was an unflinching Kharkov patriot. Throughout my childhood, he sent us postcards with photographs of impossibly boring buildings born of some hideous concrete wafflemakerthat said things like "Kharkov, My City, My Motherland." He kept sending them even after the economy collapsed, the city shut all the streetlamps off at night, and he was forced to provide the bed sheets, gauze, and syringes for his own prostate surgery. I figured there would always be time to go see him. At eighty-six, my grandfather was still quite spry. It was that way right up until the night he went to sleep and never woke up. I was surprised to be shaken by his death, considering this was a man I had never known, a black-and-white photograph labeled "Dedushka." But I was, and I blamed my own inertia for not visiting him in Ukraine or even just picking up the phone to say hello. I had a lot of excuses for not calling. Mostly I was worried there'd be nothing to talk about. But there was also the very real danger that my aunt Lyuda would pick up the phone. And what could I possibly say to a woman whose last letter to my father had announced, "If I could strangle you with my own hands, I would"?
All families are complicated. Those forced to live according to the whims of a totalitarian regime perhaps more so. And those, like mine, where some members of the family flee, leaving the remaining members exposed to unhelpful levels of KGB scrutiny, can be described as completely fucked. The day my parents filed their application to leave the Soviet Union, both of my mother's parents were forced to resign from their jobs at the pharmaceutical research institutes where they had worked for over twenty-five years. By way of explanation they were posed the following rhetorical question: "How can you be expected to produce good research when you can't even discipline your own child?" A few years later they joined us in Massachusetts. My father's family, on the other hand, was left more or less unmolested; Papa's parents both managed to keep their jobs and seemed to live contentedly enough. But soon bad news began drifting over to us from Ukraine, in letters written on painfullytranslucent paper and via phone calls from my father's cousin. A year after we emigrated, my grandfather was forced to retire from his job. Then, in the post-Perestroika years, the family suffered a series of financial setbacks followed by my grandmother's sudden death from diabetes. Aunt Lyuda blamed Papa's flight from the Soviet Union for putting them all in peril, and for all of the family's current problems besides. So they no longer spoke to each other, and Mama, who already used the word idiot as if it were a common pronoun, especially had nothing nice to say about that side of the family.
But family matters aside, Kharkov lacked other kinds of appeal. It didn't cast a particularly long shadow over world history like the ancient capital of Kiev. Nor was it a beautiful jewel-box city like Lvov. Invariably, the two words people used to describe Kharkov were either industrial or big. Occasionally big and industrial were helpfully combined to yield the illuminating phrase "a big industrial city." I grew up in a sleepy colonial town west of Boston and had very little experience with big industrial cities. So I pictured Kharkov as an apocalyptic version of Springfield or Worcester, places we drove through from time to time on our way to somewhere more picturesque. And I had to admit, traveling five thousand miles just to visit the Worcester of Ukraine wasn't the most enticing proposition.
After my grandfather died, the only member of the family who Papa stayed in touch with was the Cousin Who Drinks Water. This was the nickname we gave my father's cousin Lyonya after he sent Papa a twelve-page letter which began with the question "What is Health?" The answer, it turned out, was water. In particular, salt water. And the letter went on to detail the many benefits of drinking salt water in various unorthodox ways, culminating in the optimally beneficial process of drawing it up through your nose. Lyonya was a loyal proponent of this system and vigorously recommended Papa adopt it for himself. The onlydrawback, he explained, is that sometimes a loose bit of water might fall out of your face during the course of conversation. A small enough price to pay for immortality.
Papa was greatly amused by the letter and felt the urge to share it with someone, but when it came to letters from Kharkov, Mama was never in a sharing mood. So he called me into his study instead and read it out loud, which is how Lyonya became the Cousin Who Drinks Water. It was a long nickname to be sure, a bit awkward in the mouth, but Papa and I were committed to it. The only other story I ever remembered hearing about Lyonya was after my parents' sole return to the former Soviet Union in 1990. I asked Papa how it was seeing his cousin again for the first time in almost fifteen years, and Papa replied, "It was great. He stood on his head for us."
Now, I knew that Papa was very fond of Lyonya, who had supported him through many difficult times back in Kharkov and dutifully passed on the American dollars he sent every month to cover my grandfather's living expenses. The rather fanciful image of his cousin Papa conjured for me can probably be chalked up to the fact that I was a child at the time. Perhaps he also wanted to somehow lighten my impression of life in Kharkov, which only seemed to run the short gamut from crappy to unbearable. In any case, despite my warped image of the Cousin Who Drinks Water, after my grandfather died, Lyonya was the only person left who could show me the things I wanted to see in Kharkov. And it suddenly occurred to me that he wasn't getting any younger either.
When I announced that I was planning to visit Kharkov, my normally absentminded father snapped to attention. The first thing he said was "That's a bad idea," followed quickly by "Do me a favor and don't tell Mama."
But Mama did not react as badly as we thought she would.
"Great!" she yelled, launching into full-throated someone-is-shoving-an-ice-cube-down-my-pants mode. "Now maybe you will finally know what a godforsaken hole we rescued you from!" Mama assured me that I would return from Ukraine and spend the rest of my days showering her with things she liked: marzipan molded into animal shapes, gift certificates to Loehmann's, et cetera.
For weeks Papa kept trying to dissuade me from going, but when I held firm and even managed to convince Josh, my long-suffering husband, to come along, he grudgingly arranged for a meeting with the Cousin Who Drinks Water. Then, shortly before we left, Papa also coughed up the following unenthusiastic summary of Places of Family Importance in Kharkov:
The most important place is the house where we lived. The address is Krasnoshkol'naya Naberezhnaya 26, apt. 96. It stands near a rather stinky river called Lopan. You are welcome to take a walk along the bank.
The next destination is Kharkov State University. This is in a very big square. In the middle of the square is a park named after Dzerzhinskythe founder of the KGB. I skipped many classes reading physics books in this park.
Right next to the university is a park called Sad Shevchenko. The marble statue of Shevchenko (a famous Ukrainian poet) is kind of OK. I studied in this park as well.
From Sad Shevchenko you can get to the zoo and see the sad animals. I had a brief career as a night watchman in the zoo, and a more lasting one guarding a small kiosk in the zoo, called Café Petushok.
And just to make sure I hadn't somehow missed his point, Papa added a final note: "Even if this sounds like fun, I suspect it won't be."
Josh and I arrived by train from Kiev on the Stolichniy Express, seated on a bench of genuine Soviet pleather, nervously squeezing hands when we felt the final jolt signaling our arrival. Then an attendant lowered a metal ladder to the platform, and we stepped down, feet finally firm on warm Kharkov concrete. Blinking back nonexistent tears, I stood there uncertainly, waited for the rush of feeling. But there was nothing. Nothing but this sense of whistling disorientation. Making our way to the station, I stopped to examine the Kharkov city emblem prominently mounted to the wall. It featured wreaths of wheat, bushels of fruit, and, hovering above them both, the symbol for nuclear energy. Radiation and produce, I thought to myself, a combination that screamed an urgent need for rebranding. Once inside, we found the station itself unexpectedly sumptuous. From the soaring ceilings and massive chandeliers, one would think we'd just pulled in to one of the loftier cities of Europe. There was no trace of the cold boot of Soviet oppression. If only my family had lived in the train station, we could have been happy here.
The first practical order of business was to inform my parents we hadn't been vaporized at the border. Conveniently, we found an internet kiosk right inside the station. The cramped room had three computers lined up against one wall and was presided over by a bulbous woman stuffed behind a desk.
"Can I buy fifteen minutes of internet time?" I asked in Russian.
The woman gave me a sour look. I found myself unable to tear my eyes away from her halo of pinkish-burgundy hair. Itlooked like one of those fiber-optic lamps you see in the windows of head shops, and I half expected it to start rotating.
"Internet? What internet?" she barked.
I apologized for mistaking her for someone who might help us and we went next door to see if the lady at the dry-cleaning kiosk knew where to find whoever was in charge.
"Wait a minute," said the dry-cleaning lady, and tore open the side door separating the two rooms.
"Sveta!" she yelled. "For God's sake, you can't just pretend you don't work here whenever the tourists come around."
Confused by the torrent of Russian, Josh turned to me.
"What was that?"
"She was pretending she didn't work here."
"Oh," Josh said. "I'm going to go find a bathroom."
I was still working on the email when Josh wandered back into the room.
"No one will tell me where the bathroom is."
"Maybe they can't understand English?"
"It's weird," he said, "I think they understand me fine. They just didn't want to tell me where it is."
So we went off in search of the men's room, and it turned out to be a good thing because I'd forgotten that the ladies' room would only be marked by an inscrutable Cyrillic letter that looks like nothing so much as a caterpillar trying its best to run away from you.
We had booked a room at the Hotel Kharkov because, in my parents' day, it had been the grandest hotel in the city. And clearly it had once been grand. The richly columned interior looked as though the Sistine Chapel had thrown up on it. Unlike the train station, though, the Hotel Kharkov was also alarmingly run-down. As I struggled to find a camera angle that didn't include child-sized holes in the wall, gaping wires, or what I could have sworn were traces of bullet-strafing, I detected an unmistakable whiffof downtown Beirut to the place. On the way to our room, we found that an army unit had been stationed down the hall from us. The wiry young men, all naked from the waist up, regarded us suspiciously as we made our way past them, their eyes glinting like hard candy.
As soon as we closed the door behind us, Josh went over to one of the cot-sized beds and lay down, face-first.
"Do me a favor?" he said, voice muffled. "Don't go out there."
I took a photo of him lying there, then walked over to the window and pulled back the curtain. There, in vivid green and gray, were the Soviet postcards of my youth. The hotel overlooked Freedom Square, which was supposedly the largest square in Europe, second in size worldwide only to China's Tiananmen Square. As Papa mentioned, it used to be called Dzerzhinsky Square, and perhaps for that reason, its new name still managed to sound ominous. The western end was completely dominated by a statue of Lenin that looked to be about three stories high. And although most of the vast cobblestoned expanse was empty, the grassy stretch surrounding Lenin was teeming with students. They sat in colorful clumps on each of the four tiers that made up the base of his pedestal. Lenin himself was dressed in a business suit, tie tucked into vest, with a rather stylish coat rakishly thrown across his shoulders. In his left hand he held what appeared to be a rolled-up newspaper or an umbrella, but was probably something far more symbolic, like a small, frightened farmer. His right hand was raised, outstretched toward the square in a gesture meant to say, "Come, Comrades, join me in building a glorious future!" but which today looked a little more Vanna White-ish. "Welcome, Comrades, to Europe's biggest parking lot!"
We had agreed to meet the Cousin Who Drinks Water for our tour of Important Family Places in front of the hotel at three, and so we went outside to wait. Ten minutes later, a lonely figure emerged, trekking toward us across the endless slab of freedom.At first sight, I had to admit I was a little disappointed. Cousin Lyonya was a balding, slightly paunchy guy with soft features. He wore beachy knee-length shorts and a black t-shirt that said "Yacht Club," and could easily have been mistaken for a customer-service representative from Hertz Rent-a-Car. He didn't look much like Papa at all. Nor did he resemble Popeye the Sailor or some other quirky superhero who might thrive on salt water alone. It had been my secret hope that at some point during the afternoon, we might slip away to some shady spot where Cousin Lyonya would stand on his head for us. This hope was quietly dashed. Trying not to sound despondent, I asked Lyonya if he was still drinking water. But at this he only shook his head and laughed.
The suggestion to visit Dedushka's grave was waved away as too complicated, so instead we struck off on the scenic route toward our first destination, Krasnoshkol'naya Naberezhnaya 26, the apartment building where my family once lived. It was a beautiful July day and downtown Kharkov's dignified prerevolutionary buildings were lit up like pastel flares in the sun. We had just settled into a pleasant amble, crossing the square and turning down a wide, leafy boulevard, when Lyonya turned to me and asked, "So why don't you have any children?"
Even though we had known each other for all of eight minutes, I wasn't surprised by the question, having grown up fending off the invasive inquiries of ruthlessly blunt Russians. I still remembered being greeted at the door by my parents' friends one Thanksgiving with the exclamation "But you are so much greasier than last year!"
"How old are you anyway?" Lyonya continued. "You must be at least thirty by now."
"We're planning on having kids," I said, feeling like Jennifer Aniston. "We just haven't gotten around to it yet." I looked nervously at Josh, who was enjoying the view of the park.
"Because a woman should have children while she is still young and healthy. Like here in Kharkov. Our women give birth when they are twenty or twenty-two years old. This is considered normal." He shot me a look from the corner of his eye as if to underscore what was not considered normal.
"But maybe that is because our women are so irresistible," Lyonya went on. "Like that one there, eh, Joshua?" He raised his eyebrows at a passing blonde. "Wouldn't you say she is very luscious?"
"What's he saying?" Josh asked, suddenly with us again.
"Oh, you know." I shrugged, taking his hand. "Just Welcome-to-Kharkov stuff."
For the rest of our walk, our attention was focused on the various landmarks. "Here, on the left, you will notice the Monument to a Soldier-Defender of the City of Kharkov, built to commemorate Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War," Cousin Lyonya would say. And I would lamely circle the statue with a camera while Lyonya called after me, "Try it from the other side. Get the sun behind you. Don't forget the inscription!" Nothing, I soon discovered, sucked the fun out of history like a ginormous statue of a guy pointing a gun at the sky. It was a relief when we finally crossed the Lopan River and stopped before a nondescript brick building partly obscured by a billboard for Zlatagor Vodka.
"Here it is," Lyonya announced. "Your old home."
Most people, when taken to the doorway of a typical Soviet-era apartment building, think they've mistakenly arrived at the service entrance. They find a series of crumbling steps, a pair of doors that form a kind of sheet-metal sandwich, and a grim facade of concrete or dirty brick punctuated by the occasional disintegrating balcony. Our apartment building was no different from the rest. The only strange thing was that throughout mylife, everyone in my family had always insisted that the flat in Kharkov had been a primo piece of real estate. "Your grandparents had a splendid apartment, right in the heart of the city," Babushka always told me. Even Mama herself, who could scarcely bear to hold the word Kharkov in her mouth, admitted as much. Of course I couldn't see inside the place, but architecture doesn't lie: the windows were small, the ceilings low, and the balcony held in place with what appeared to be a giant dollop of sticky-tack. It was a squat and ordinary Brezhnev-era flat.
We stood awkwardly in the dirtthe grass having long ago been trampled awayand Cousin Lyonya began counting the windows up from the bottom. He pointed vaguely in the direction of the building's upper right-hand corner.
"See that window? That is where you lived." And then, to fill in the silence a bit, he coughed and added, "I used to visit your father here." Pause. "On many different occasions."
I looked up at a sea of darkened windows and pretended I could see wherever he was pointing.
"Oh right, up there. So that was the apartment, huh?" It was easy now to imagine Mama stuck in this place, hating her in laws and being hated back, waiting for Papa to come home from guarding the zoo, staring out the window at the stinky Lopan winding its way to someplace even stinkier, and plotting our escape. I made a show of looking around, taking pictures of the only things in sighta dumpster; a sad, pokey jungle gym; and Cousin Lyonya standing on his patch of dirt, looking for all the world like he wished he were someplace else.
On our way back to the hotel, we decided to cut through Sad Shevchenko, passing the statue of the Ukrainian poet that Papa had so movingly described as "kind of OK" along the way. It wasa Sunday afternoon and the park was full of families pushing strollers; packs of young guys sporting crew cuts, acid-washed jeans, and collared t-shirts; and dazzling young women. The women mostly walked in pairs, linked at the elbows or holding hands, their dresses glittering fiercely in the sun. I looked down at myself, feeling like I'd somehow surreptitiously slipped past the park's face-control unit. Cousin Lyonya noticed me staring and snorted.
"Eckh, these people. They come to the park looking for attention. They have absolutely nowhere else to go and nothing to do with themselves."
And I thought: Had my family never left, this would have been my Sunday afternoon. I would have woken up, slipped on something scratchy and sequin-covered, then styled my hair for two leisurely hours before hitting the park. There, my friends and I would patrol the trees like a squadron of mismatched bridesmaids, eyeing the bullet-headed men in ball-hugging jeans, hoping that one of them might impregnate us by age twenty-two ...
We stopped at a bench not far from Freedom Square where we were supposed to meet Volodya, Papa's best friend from college, and his wife, Inna. Lyonya pulled a packet of photographs and some papers wrapped in a plastic bag from his man purse.
"These are for your father. Some old family artifacts I think he'll find interesting."
I thanked Lyonya and handed him an envelope with the money Papa had asked me to pass along. In the midst of this exchange, Volodya and Inna appeared. A round of handshakes, and a struggle to arrive at a common topic of conversation, ensued. Time, we decided, for some awkward photos together. Then Lyonya told us to come back to Kharkhov again soon, promising to cook us dinner next time. A quick hug and a kiss and he was gonethe Cousin Who No Longer Drinks Water.
Volodya had apparently also gotten a copy of Papa's dismal list of things to do, because as soon as the niceties were over, he turned to me and said, "Okay then, off to the zoo?"
We set off across the square, passing beneath the lengthening shadow of Lenin before cutting through the grounds of the university where Volodya and Inna had studied together with Papa.
"I remember once," Volodya began, "your father and I lucked into finding some money just lying on the sidewalk. A small fortune, something like twenty dollars. So we decided to realize a long-held dream of ours ..."
Volodya laughed, a bit overcome by the memory, and I imagined a debauched binge of black-market purchases, Papa sitting, pasha-like, atop an illicit blue-jean-and-caviar mountain.
"We set for ourselves," Volodya continued, "the goal of visiting every shashlik stand in Kharkov!"
To me this sounded suspiciously like a quest to visit every Dunkin' Donuts in Worcester, but I did my best to radiate enthusiasm.
"Ambitious!" I chirped.
Volodya was still deep into enumerating the shashlik stands of Kharkov when we reached the iron gates of the Kharkov State Zoo. The zoo's paths were lined with colorful, campy signs that could have been lifted straight from the set of a John Waters movie, but did nothing to hide the state of the animals themselves, who had gone from sad to miserable in Papa's absence. I took off down the darkening, overgrown lane alone, past some dull-eyed bears and a collapsed ostrich, stopping to take a picture of a baboon who looked up at me like he hoped I had some Lexapro.
"I used to talk to them," Papa had told me. "Not the lions, though. They never seemed interested. Also, all of the expensiveanimals were locked up in a different part of the zoo, so I didn't talk to them either."
I was sorry Papa had to talk to cheap animals.
"That's what you did? All night?"
"No. Just until the other guards came around to see if I had a ruble."
"Did you give it to them?"
"I'd better. One of them was just a drunk, but the other was a man with a pasta former chauffeur in the KGB. He used to drive agents to make their arrests. Sometimes big shots. These kinds of visits ... well, a lot of people were never heard from again. Anyway, they'd come by on their rounds and we'd pool our money, go drinking."
"What would you say to them?" I'd asked. "I mean the animals."
"I don't know. I just ... commiserated."
By the time Papa began working at the zoo, he'd been on the blacklist for years. The Ministry of Higher Education had long ago eliminated the graduate position he'd received in physics, a signal that he'd never be allowed to pursue his PhD. He had also quit the Komsomol, a dangerous move for anyone save those who had already given up all hope of a career in the Soviet Union. As the last light faded, I imagined my father there, a young man in a uniform with a gun, staring through the bars, seeking out dark, wet eyes for a few quiet moments of communion. Before the KGB chauffeur came to take him away.
We went back to Volodya's place for dinnera three-bedroom apartment extravagant by Soviet standards, but which could now merely be considered cozyto drink vodka and enjoy a lavish feast of mayonnaise-based salads. By the time Volodya and Inna led us back to the hotel it was well past midnight and the windowsof the concrete boxes surrounding Freedom Square were lit up like giant grids in an epic game of Battleship.
"I have a present for your father that I've been waiting to give to you," Volodya said. Then he reached into his bag and handed me a book. One Hundred Famous Kharkovchiani, it read. Now here was something approximately zero people in my family would have any interest in reading.
"Thanks," I said, but Volodya stopped me before I could put it away.
"First turn to page eighty-four."
I opened the book, and Josh came to look over my shoulder. There, to my amazement, was a grainy black-and-white photograph of Papa and an entry that began:
VILENKIN ALEKSANDR VLADIMIROVICH (Born 1900-Died 1900)
I looked up at Volodya, whose smile only grew wider as he noted my wonder and confusion.
"The text, of course, is not without some errors."
In late September, I received another note from Kiril: "Hello, Alina it is a journalist of Kiril from Kharkov. Thank you very much for an interview. I wrote about Your desire to come forward in Ukraine and, hope, my words will notice. Here that turned out from our correspondence. In my person in Ukraine another admirer appeared for you."At the bottom of the message, there was a link leading to the Komsomolskaya Pravda website. When I clicked on it I found an old photograph of myself in our backyard in North Carolina hovering above Kiril's byline. The article began: Our countrywoman, daughter of the famousphysicist Alexander Vilenkin, tells "Komsomol" about how she became a rock star in the United States.
It was an absurd exaggeration. I had released two albums on obscure indie labels and would have been surprised to learn that sales of either had reached into the high three digits. But it only got worse. Whereas Kiril hadn't known who my father was when he'd first contacted me, it was clear he'd done some research since then. Now the article was mostly about Papa. And he sounded like a dissident freedom fighter.
I read on, with growing horror, as weird conjectures flew around like zoons. Despite the famous father, the article continued, Alina has always opened all the doors of life herself. She has never positioned herself as the daughter of the famous scientist, and even appears on stage under the pseudonym Simone. What was stranger, I wondered, the idea that I would create a pseudonym to outrun undeserved glory should anyone discover my association with the creator of the Theory of Eternal Inflation, or the fact that Kiril, during the course of his extensive research, hadn't managed to discern that Simone was my real last name? But the final straw came when I learned that adopting my alleged pseudonym was also part of a clever ploy to exploit the popularity of Paul Simon.
Kiril, I thought to myself. I hate you. I stopped reading and called Papa.
"This is totally embarrassing!" I said. "What if anyone I actually know ever sees this?"
"Well ..." Papa sighed. "That's what they're supposed to do, isn't it? Make things interesting."
"I would never go around calling myself a rock star."
"And I am a dissident freedom fighter? It doesn't mean anything."
I hung up the phone. Papa was right, it didn't mean anything. Maybe in some parallel universe the Kharkov-shaped holein my heart could be filled, puzzlelike, by Kharkov itself. Here on planet Earth, I would have to settle for filling it with heat and proper water pressure.
Still, I figured Mama would want to know how the story ended, to see the final result of my "collaboration" with Kiril, so I forwarded the link along. A few hours later, I had my response. I thought she was writing to tell me how pleased she'd been to discover the article included her account of my early childhood, unedited and in its entirety. But all I got was this:
Alina, Just to let you know, I want an electric tea kettle for Christmas. Mine is leaking. m.
Copyright © 2011 by Alina Simone
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