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Crossing the Square

Crossing the Square

Crossing the Square

by Pavel Lembersky

Come to think, theatre has always loomed large for our family. My dad was an inveterate theatergoer in the old country where theatre reigned supreme before the Soviets, under the Soviets, after the Soviets. Next time you’re in Moscow, do yourself a favor, check out the Novodevichy cemetery. You’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Every third tomb in your path commemorates an actress, a stage director, or a playwright. Ballerinas and top government officials come a close second. The story my dad likes to share around the dinner table features him attending theatrical performances seventeen times while on a two-week college break in Moscow. The feat must have included occasional matinees if both his account and my math are accurate. I know he is telling the truth for the number of performances in his story never varies. “A good liar has to have a great memory” is one of dad’s favorite sayings. It helps to know what line you gave them if your plan is to stick to it later. Dad’s story has a true ring to it regardless. I must have taken after him by default, I suppose. And I don’t mean the honesty bit. I mean theatre. He and mom attended premieres like clockwork in our hometown. Didn’t make for a hectic leisure activity though – there were just four theatre companies back in the fair city of Odesa: the Ukrainian theatre, the Russian theatre, the Operetta and the Opera, a baroque marvel on a par with Vienna Opera house, can’t vouchsafe for the repertoire or the quality of productions. Of course, I didn’t count the theatre for Young Audiences and the puppet theatre, which I probably should have for accuracy’s sake. Mom and dad were also loath to miss the new productions when visiting Moscow. Babysitters were not an option back in the day, much less so when one was away from home. Leaving the kid to his own devices in a hotel room at night would be deemed uncouth even by my parents’ bare bones approach to child rearing. So they’d take me along with them and even try to engage in after-show critiques on our way back to either the pre-war Hotel Moscow or the then just-completed spanking clean modernist Rossiya Hotel, depending on where we were staying at the time. Once, because of some glitch in booking, we actually had to switch hotels mid-stay, and since theatre was on our menu that night, just like it was most of our nights in Moscow, I recall crossing the Red Square on foot, in January, after the theatre, in order to get from Moscow to Rossiya on the other side of the enormous deserted and spooky square. It was probably arranged that we pick up our luggage the morning after.

Light snow was falling on the square’s wet cobblestones, the brightly lit red flag atop the domed roof behind the Kremlin wall was rippling in the wind, and you could see a minuscule pair of soldiers in the distance, rifle bayonets pressed to their sides, guarding the entrance to Lenin’s granite tomb. It feels like an after-show in retrospect, street theatre in its own right, a theatre in the square, perhaps a toy show, starring the toy replica of the Lembersky family, especially if you factor in the size of the motionless guards, or the granite box housing the embalmed leader of the world proletariat, all of it not too real, or maybe realer than real. My young parents in winter coats and fur hats, dad’s square brown one, mom’s light spherical one, snowflakes landing on the furs of mom’s hat only to thaw into the myriad of glistening droplets seconds later, myself in tow, cheeks numb from the punishing wind, mittens attached to the coat sleeves by rubber strings, briskly crossing the square I had previously known only from picture books or military parades on black-and-white TV at my grandparents’ place back home. Exciting and spooky! The diminutive three of us two days later wound up in a red and white plastic sphere with the thumb-nail magnifying glass you had to peek into to see us pose against the dark tomb in the background. Dad looking proud for his attractively stylish young wife, his hand on his big-eyed boy’s shoulder, the family on their first trip to the capital ready to gorge on the new sights and sounds and theatre, but also the restaurants, yes, let’s not forget the restaurants please, most of them named after the capitals of the Soviet bloc countries, some after the Soviet republics, except maybe Tsentral’nii and Slavyansky Bazaar, all of them offering cuisine to die for (shredded white radish & boiled-tongue & fried-onion salad, the specialty of Uzbekistan restaurant, anyone? Or cream & mushroom hot juliennes baked to perfection and served in small piping-hot metal pots just about everywhere? Ah, the quill of Gogol or Bulgakov, where are you when one needs you the most?). Cheese not among the preferred symbolic accessories of street photographers in the old country, no-one is as much as pretending to smile in the picture. We wouldn’t get the knack of baring our teeth for total strangers until after we had crossed the Atlantic. So far, we are just three very formal and solemn-looking thumb-nail size exemplary Soviet citizens inside the plastic ball. Years later, I had the picture extracted from the ball, enlarged and framed, its colors faded by now, it hangs on the wall above the desk in my midtown New York apartment.

What was the play that we saw on the night of our crossing the main square of the nation, the heart of the heart of our “great Soviet Motherland” with the cold corpse resting eternally in the middle of it ready to extend his wordless welcome to the early morning visitors forming a line as endless, cold and silent as eternity itself? Could it have been the Taganka theatre production of Hamlet in Pasternak’s spirited translation with his poems from Doctor Zhivago scattered throughout the play? Possible. The portentous curtain dominating the scenery, moving every which way as it swept the characters along like a bunch of listless marionettes lost in the implacable tides of history. Occasionally the curtain resembled a spider web with actors clinging to it for dear life, going through convulsions as they tried to stay suspended midair. Porous and treacherous, it failed to save Polonius from Hamlet’s sword or Ophelia from her descent into madness. Did the curtain ultimately stand for the “not to be” part of the play’s central equation, that is, death herself? my parents were pondering in the cold winter night, the white steam coming out of their mouths in waves, sometimes commingling in the dark for, in their excitement, they often interrupted each other. What could I possibly have contributed to the animated after-theatre discussion in the falling snow? The experience was entirely new to me. The only theatre I had seen prior was what seems in retrospect a semblance of a morality play mounted by the Operetta theatre in my home town: the stage design taken over by a red and black color scheme, a figure in tights and cloak gesticulating wildly and mocking other characters who were either supposed to be dead or seemed dead because they were lit a certain way, or maybe because they didn’t move about much. Unless it was the intrinsic nature of the spectacle, any spectacle, to resurrect the dead however provisionally? The cloaked character did most of the talking and acting. Then a fight ensued between him and a fellow in a silver coat and elbow length gloves who came from the flys up above. At first, they were hurling insults at each other, then things got physical as each tried to pull towards him a languid young lady clad in a white tunic. She was letting out faint whimpers, seemingly of two minds as to which way to go, then chose the silver-gloved chap and, as if to seal her decision, spit in his rival’s face. The latter recoiled, then hobbled stage left, apparently hurt but full of resolve to take revenge the first chance he got. Granted, the entire experience was not too subtle as plays go but impressive enough to a seven-year-old first timer.

Of course, I liked the Taganka production of Hamlet, infinitely more nuanced and sophisticated it was than the vaudeville morality play seen in Odesa two years previously, but more than anything I liked being a part of the Moscow theatergoing crowd even for a brief period of winter recess, a sense of belonging thrilled me to the bone. After all, that was one of the few things my parents lived for in the land of the commissars long ago and far away, so did their circle of friends (the ones who could afford the infrequent trips to the capital, that is), ditto the Soviet intelligentsia at large: Moscow theatres, the fragile platform where things thought-provoking and seldom spoken could be articulated however obliquely, the controversial status of Taganka, one of a handful of theatres all but inaccessible without the proper connections, Vysotsky, the legendary semi-legit singer as the guitar-playing melancholy Prince engaging the audience by addressing it directly, Pasternak’s soaring verses from the notorious novel by then still unpublished in his home country… How much more privileged could one possibly feel culturally, politically, aesthetically? Theatre, then, was your inalienable access to the locus of dissent, however muted or partial, your pass to a domain of transcendence and sanctified madness where rules were temporarily suspended or turned upside down, your transient yet often necessary refuge from the mundane or the officious. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not rhapsodizing about the country my family and I were happy to get the hell out of as soon as the opportunity knocked. Nor am I waxing lyrical about the ruthless founder of the state taking his eternal nap in the entrails of the tomb by the Kremlin wall, the monomaniacal syphilitic fuck who masterminded the Red Terror that eventually cost the country the lives of untold millions – I’m just focusing on the cultural activity that made my childhood special and my early years endurable regardless of which puppet master behind the said wall was running the show then called “the advanced socialism,” soon, at the inception of perestroika, to be rechristened as “stagnation,” only to be looked back on wistfully now as the current regime is busy laying one rotten egg after another.

This selection comes from the novel 200 Brand New Shiny Cadillacs.

Pavel Lembersky was born in Odesa, Ukraine and emigrated to the United States in 1977. After receiving his BA in comparative literature from The University of California at Berkeley, he did graduate work in film at San Francisco State University and worked in New York City on a number of film projects such as Jonathan Demme–Spalding Gray’s cult classic Swimming to Cambodia and Steven Wright’s Oscar-winning short The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, among others.

Pavel authored five story collections in Russian, most recently, Here’s Looking at You, Kid (Kyiv, 2018) and De Kooning (New York, 2019) and two novels, Aboard the 500th Merry Echelon (2015) and the yet unpublished 200 Brand New Shiny Cadillacs (2022). His short stories have been translated into English, German, Finnish and Vietnamese and have appeared in literary magazines such as Little Star, Words Without Borders, The Brooklyn Rail, Trafica Europe, Fiction International, Gargoyle, Inostrannaia Literatura, Novy Mir, Teatr, Colta, Novy Bereg, Textonly etc. Lembersky’s short story collection Fluss Nr. 7 was published in Frankfurt. For years Pavel hosted a radio talk show in New York City. His most recent story collection in English,The Death of Samusis, and Other Stories came out in 2020. Pavel Lembersky lives in Brooklyn.