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Death is a frequent presence in Ronshin's brilliantly crafted stories but it invariably appears in some funny guise, a toy character in a toy world of innocent violence. His characters often feel as if they themselves were not really real. In Ronshin's world the dead live side by side with the living without suspecting that they are dead.
About the Author
Born in 1962, Ronshin graduated with a degree in history from Petrozavodsk University in Karelia and went on to study at the Literature Institute in Moscow. He now lives in St Petersburg. He started writing relatively late but broke into top literary magazines almost immediately. Ronshin says that for the first thirty years he was "just living a life", moving from one provincial town to another and traveling on foot in Central Russia. He worked at different menial jobs and taught history for a spell before becoming a professional writer. Like Kharms, Ronshin is also a successful children's author with more than 20 books to his name. Unlike Kharms, he wrote the first detective novel for Russian children. Ronshin, whose children's stories appeal to grown-ups as well, considers that "a writer's job is to describe his age and die."
Read an Excerpt
Living a Life
Translated by Joanne Turnbull
Trostnikov lived on the fourth floor of an old three-story building. To get to his room, you had to go past the first floor, home to the girl Inna, who for years now had been waiting for True Love; go up to the second floor, home to Professor Elenevsky and his young wife Muse (an art critic by profession, a train station floozy by calling); then go up to the third floor, home to the snitch Parfyonov, who snitched on everyone he could; turn to the right, climb a narrow iron staircase; turn to the left and run into a filthy door.
Behind this door, in a room always a shambles, on a bed always a shambles, lolled the always sleepy Trostnikov.
He was a philosopher. Because he had various philosophical thoughts. Mostly other people's. Trostnikov wrote them down in a notebook.
The first thought in the notebook was this: Life is a dream.
And so he slept. Seventy-two hours at home. Twenty-four hours at work.
Trostnikov worked as a watchman at some bogus outfit where he had his own trestle bed. Over this bed hung a board with a list of the employees. Turnover was high. People came and went all the time. Trostnikov noted neatly in pencil: fired ... on vacation ... out sick ... dead ... Old Manya had lasted longer than anyone else at this outfit. She had arrived as a 17-year-old girl and now she was past seventy.
Old Manya was a philosopher, too. No matter what she talked about, she always talked about death. She would begin in a roundabout way:
"Sometimes, at the front, I'd be dragging a wounded man — bullets whistling by: fyut! fyut! fyut! — and I'd just keep right on. Never did stop to think I could've been killed ..."
"Why are you telling me all this?" Trostnikov would wonder from his trestle bed.
"No reason," Old Manya replied philosophically. "I'll be dead soon. Then you'll remember that once there was that old Manya."
Besides Old Manya, the outfit employed the drunk Grisha and the former military pilot Rusanov, also a drunk. They mostly drank leg lotion.
Opposite the outfit, across a small dirty river, stood a children's toy factory. Every night, military conveyances came for the toys ...
It was near the end of the day. Time stood still. The clock on the Central Post Office had said five past two for the last ten years. Professor Elenevsky was on television. Looking intelligent and talking nonsense.
Trostnikov ambled down the street. When he didn't have other people's thoughts in his head, he was compelled to think his own.
Is today Monday or Wednesday? he racked his brain.
At an intersection, Trostnikov noticed the girl Inna. She was staring into a puddle on the asphalt.
"Look," said the girl Inna, "you can see the clouds in the sky."
Trostnikov looked but, aside from a soggy cigarette end, didn't see anything.
"Is today Monday or Wednesday?" he asked the girl Inna.
"Today is Sunday," she said. "And yesterday, coming out of the entrance, you bumped right into me and didn't even notice."
Trostnikov looked at Inna, not understanding what she was saying.
Um-hmm, he thought dully. If you can't think straight, there's nothing I can do.
It started to drizzle.
"I love the rain!" the girl Inna skipped with delight. "I don't like umbrellas."
Arms spread wide, she began spinning round and round.
Is she drunk or what? Trostnikov was at a loss.
"All the world's flaws are in me," said the girl Inna. "That's why sometimes I feel a little sad at heart ..."
Trostnikov decided to flaunt his intelligence.
"Everything in life is relative," he said pompously. "For example, compared to some sad sack freezing in Siberia, you're very well off. But if we compare you to a princess, then she probably has it better ..."
The girl Inna looked distressed.
"You say I'm not a princess and that hurts me a little. Every woman wants to be a princess."
"There are too many people in the world," sighed Trostnikov. "You can't be a princess for all of them."
"But what about for one of them? My one and only ..."
"Well, maybe," Trostnikov winced.
This idiotic conversation was making him tired. He just wanted to get to work and lie down.
He quickened his step. The girl Inna kept pace.
"You've lived in our building for three years," she said. "And yet we don't know anything about each other. Even that unpleasant old man Parfyonov always asks me what I'm reading, where I'm going, who I'm seeing ... But you never ask me anything, never care ..."
"Doesn't matter, doesn't matter," Trostnikov waved the girl Inna away like an annoying fly.
He practically ran.
"It does to a woman — a lot," said the girl Inna, barely able to keep up. "If you'd just say, 'Hello, Inna,' when we meet, it would make me feel good."
Trostnikov jumped onto a trolleybus and was gone.
"Oof," he wiped his damp forehead. "What a pain in the ass. She is such an idiot."
The smokestacks were smoking at the children's toy factory. Time continued to stand still. The boss Ivlev looked in on the supine Trostnikov, poked him in the knee, and read him the riot act:
"You're a watchman! It's your duty — your duty! — to go on rounds, answer the phone, and sweep the floor!"
"Fuck off!" Trostnikov replied, without opening his eyes.
He knew how to talk to simple people.
The boss Ivlev backed straight down, sat on the edge of the trestle bed, and began a story:
"Yesterday, swear to God, I went fishing ..."
Trostnikov didn't hear him. He was already asleep. And when he woke up, he was home.
"He says the damnedest things!" Trostnikov sighed.
"That's nothing," said the former pilot Rusanov. "Once I fell asleep on the tram and woke up in the drunk tank."
The snitch Parfyonov was drinking tea at the local greasy spoon. He would take a swallow, take the candy out of his mouth, put it on the wrapper, spoon some brown pulp out of a jar and into his mouth, quickly chew it up, put the candy back in his mouth, take a swallow of tea, take the candy out of his mouth, eat a spoonful of pulp ... And so on.
"How are you?" Parfyonov fixed his keen eyes on Trostnikov.
"Fine," replied Trostnikov.
The snitch Parfyonov dug around in the jar with his spoon.
"Why the kindergarten answer? 'Fine.' You must be more specific."
"More specifically: I eat, I sleep, I talk."
"Well, now, that's better," the snitch Parfyonov slurped his tea. "Now we have a topic for an interro ... for a conversation. Eat when? Sleep with whom? Talk about what?"
"What's it to you?" Trostnikov didn't understand. "What are you, undercover?"
He suspects, the creep, Parfyonov thought, furiously sucking his candy.
It was drizzling. His body ached. His mind was a muddle. Trostnikov looked out the window. Outside it was the same as yesterday.
Trostnikov sat down at the table and opened his notebook.
What should I write? he nibbled his pen drearily.
He didn't have any thoughts. Other people's or his own.
Trostnikov went downstairs. On the first floor, the girl Inna was still waiting for True Love.
"Want me to tell you my innermost thoughts?" she asked Trostnikov.
Trostnikov walked right past her. By the entrance, Professor Elenevsky's young wife Muse was smoking a casual cigarette. A big black car rolled up. And rolled away with Muse.
Professor Elenevsky continued to look intelligent and talk nonsense on television ...
The drunk Grisha was, as usual, pie-eyed, but wearing a white shirt.
"Got married," he boasted.
"Where'd you dig her up?" Old Manya scoffed.
"They'll give us an apartment soon," the drunk Grisha was bursting with self-satisfaction. "She's the worst kind of invalid."
"Why'd you marry a cripple?" Trostnikov didn't understand.
The drunk Grisha gave him a sly wink.
"Just the person to marry. I can relax — she won't tempt anyone."
Old Manya was discoursing on death:
"Being burned's no fun. But being drownded, you don't want that either. Cemeteries are in low places. Mighty boggy come fall. In the conservatorium, though, they say the temperature's enough to raise the dead ..."
"Crematorium," the drunk Grisha corrected her. "You bumpkin."
"Wish I'd drop dead," Old Manya droned on. "Living's become a nightmare. People are worse than dogs ... But God won't let me die. And I can't very well be buried alive ..."
It was a humid night. Trostnikov lay drenched in sweat. He couldn't fall asleep.
"He-e-e-lp!" a woman's voice exploded outside his window.
The night is full of evil, Trostnikov wrote in his notebook.
It was early March. Everything was melting away. Including Trostnikov's money. In the women's changing room they were singing something Russian and long-drawn-out ...
"Those broads've been guzzling again," the former pilot Rusanov remarked. "They get pickled every day, the bitches."
Trostnikov was eating a bologna sandwich. The drunk Grisha looked on with hungry eyes. He had spent his last ruble on beer three days ago.
"Ah, the songs we sang when I was young," Grisha sighed nostalgically, swallowing saliva. "You never heard the likes o' them. A bit of skirt was hightailing it up Broadway. Or this one! Hey, boy, don't you drink from that john! The germs'll send you to the back of beyond!"
As Trostnikov was finishing his sandwich, a piece of bologna fell on the dirty floor. The drunk Grisha swooped down and stuffed it fussily in his mouth.
"You wouldn't have eaten it off the floor anyway," he explained to Trostnikov.
Whatever you give away is yours, Trostnikov pulled out his notebook and wrote.
Thursday dawned. Or maybe Friday. Trostnikov ambled down the street, reading all the signs in turn. A warm summer rain started, then stopped. A rainbow hung in the sky. The girl Inna was skipping along, clutching her sandals in one hand.
"I love to run through puddles barefoot," she laughed. "It makes me feel as though I'm not really me. It's so wonderful ..."
Trostnikov looked at her bright face and thought, Soon I'll grow old and die. As if to illustrate his thought, a black van went by with the sign On his final journey.
At home Trostnikov wrote in his notebook: I do not exist. Even though I'm sitting in an armchair under a lampshade. He put his pen down and thought. The last sentence struck him as rather odd. He owned neither an armchair, nor a lampshade. Trostnikov got up and walked over to the mirror. In the mirror he could see the chair, the table, the floor ... But not himself.
I've philosophized myself out of existence, Trostnikov took fright and rushed out in search of a psychiatrist.
"Follow me," a nurse in a short lab coat beckoned him down the hall.
Trostnikov stared at her long legs. And his imagination ran away with him ... away with him ...
Stop that, right now! Trostnikov reproached himself. You're a philosopher, after all!
They were outside the psychiatrist's office.
"Vadim Nikolaevich, there's another nutcase here to see you," said the nurse, opening the door a crack.
"Well, let me see him!" came the merry reply.
"You may go in," said the nurse.
Trostnikov found the psychiatrist seated at his desk.
"So, you're nuts are you?" he inquired cheerfully, rubbing his hands together. "Happens all the time. Can you imagine what would happen if the whole world went nuts?"
"Sure I can," Trostnikov nodded.
"Well, then, what's the problem?" He gave Trostnikov a wink. "You think you're a vampire-horse?"
"I feel like I don't exist," said Trostnikov.
"Since when have you felt like this?"
The psychiatrist thought for a long time. Then he asked:
"And what's today?"
"Thursday," said Trostnikov.
The psychiatrist thought again for a long time.
"So what does that make?" he said finally. "A week you haven't existed?"
"I guess so."
The psychiatrist was about to have another long think, but Trostnikov got to him first.
"Well?" he asked.
The psychiatrist banged his fist nervously on the desk.
"What's your hurry? What are you, late for a train? Hold your horses!"
"I'm sorry," Trostnikov mumbled.
"Ever had the mumps?"
The psychiatrist wrote all this down. Then he said:
"You may go. You're perfectly healthy."
"What do you mean healthy?" Trostnikov protested. "I don't exist!"
The psychiatrist hemmed.
"So what? Is that any reason to go nuts? For all I know, I don't exist either. One person doesn't have any money ... Another one doesn't have any children ... Son cosas de la vida, as the Spanish say. That's life."
Trostnikov walked out into the street. Soldiers were marching by. Prostitutes were smoking by the hotel. Underground, metro trains were hurtling along. The former pilot Rusanov was telling about the time he went head to head with a Nazi ace!
"Umm, those were the days," Rusanov puffed on a cigarette. "Flew head to head with a Nazi ace! It's all over, I thought. I'm a dead duck! But I never thought of veering away ..."
Trostnikov was asleep. Beyond the window snow was falling. Beyond the snow Parfyonov was slinking. The barbed wire on top of the wall around the children's toy factory was electrified. Then someone else's thoughts surfaced. Trostnikov, without waking, wrote them down ... Downstairs the girl Inna sat by the window, waiting for True Love.
"I don't need anything," she never tired of saying. "Only love. My soul yearns for nothing but love."
"That's your problem," Trostnikov replied and went off to have his picture taken for his identification card.
"Come on, give me a smile!" the photographer chided. "This isn't for your gravestone."
Trostnikov examined the finished snapshots. An old, haggard face ...
A strong wind blew. Bits of trash flew up from garbage bins and whirled over the city. Crows perched on the bins and cawed.
Trostnikov lay on his trestle bed. Old Manya lumbered up.
"You still laying about," she looked askance.
"What do you mean 'laying about'?" Trostnikov said limply. "Can't you see I'm standing up?"
"Weren't any good people before, and there ain't any now," Old Manya went on grumbling under her breath. "Just dregs!"
The boss Ivlev was bored to distraction.
"Maybe I should read something?" he mused aloud. "What do you recommend?"
"Dickens," Trostnikov muttered half asleep.
"Is it about war?"
Dirty clouds sailed across the sky. Two old women had been crushed to death in a meat line. According to a Water Safety Board notice: Ten people drowned in our region last month, three of them in bathtubs.
"How sad our lives are," the girl Inna sighed mournfully. "Both close up ... and far away ..."
Professor Elenevsky went on talking nonsense on television.
"How do these people get to be professors?" Trostnikov wanted to know.
A streetlight swayed in the wind. Dogs barked. Someone banged on a piano.
Fallen leaves rustled underfoot.
A black car rolled up. Professor Elenevsky got out with an air of importance.
"That's all," he let the driver go.
"H'llo," Trostnikov greeted him.
The professor walked right past him.
Old Manya died. Trostnikov noted on his board: dead. And talked about her a bit with the former pilot Rusanov:
"At the front, when Old Manya was dragging the wounded away, and bullets were whistling by — fyut! fyut! fyut! — she just kept right on. Never thought about how she might be killed ..."
Rusanov muttered obscenities, as usual.
"She spent the whole war way back in the rear washing foot wrappings. And you actually bought that bunk about 'bullets whistling by — fyut! fyut!'"
Trostnikov turned over onto his other side and fell asleep. Work time went by.
Winter arrived. The country's immortal leader passed away. Trostnikov went to the baths.
"Whadaya want?!" the woman attendant stared at him as though he were mad.
"What do you mean?" Trostnikov didn't understand.
The woman was purple with rage.
"The whole country's in mourning, and you want a bath!"
She went on ... and on ...
Trostnikov went out into the street. A dirge flowed over the city. Red flags with black ribbons were everywhere. Some guy, his sheepskin coat flapping, was standing in a phone booth bellowing into the receiver:
"But when are we gonna take out the toilet bowl?!"
They buried the country's immortal leader ... a year later they buried another ... and a year after that a third ...
Professor Elenevsky's wife, Muse, was telling a new joke:
"The British Prime Minister says to the American President: 'It's a shame you couldn't come to Moscow for the funeral. The food was splendid!' 'Doesn't matter,' says the President. 'I'll go next year.'"
Everybody laughed. The snitch Parfyonov took notes: Wif. Prof. Elen. tol. antisov. jo.
Winter had ended. Now it was summer: humid and buggy. The drunk Grisha's mother came to visit and cried:
"Not long ago, it seems, I was taking him to kindergarten, and now he's been dead these four years."
"What do you mean 'four years'?" Trostnikov raised himself up on one elbow.
It seemed like only yesterday that the drunk Grisha had been sitting here and dreaming:
"Ah, wouldn't I like to get sloshed and retch!"
The country was all in an uproar. An excited crowd streamed towards the square. A big bozo with a cross around his neck was unrolling a poster:
"Come One and All! To the Rally in Memory of Masha Sukacheva, Poisoned a Year Ago by the Nectar Cooperative in a Routine Rat Poisoning!(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Living a Life"
Copyright © 2018 Valery Ronshin.
Excerpted by permission of GLAS New Russian Writing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Living a Life,
Christlove's Conversations with a 1957 Wireless Set,
A Trip to Amsterdam,
My Flight To Malaysia,
One Cloudy Day,
Zaborov the Dreamer,
How I Became a Fly,
We All Lived ... We All Loved ...,
How Tryapkin the Detective Set out to Moscow and Arrived in,
We're All Long Dead,
The Autumn Carnival of Death,
This is a Recorded Message,
Last Train From the Metro Station "Despair" or A Writer of,
Where Wanes the Rosy World,
Laughing at Death: The Prose of Valery Ronshin by Jose Alaniz,