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Original Essays

Finding an Ally in My Own Illiteracy

by Jon Fasman
  1. The Geographer
    $1.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Alchemy, Fasman tells us more than once, is the science of transformation. Good fiction aspires to the same lofty goal, and it is achieved in The Geographer's Library, a cabinet of wonders written by a novelist whose surname and sensibility fit comfortably on the shelf between Umberto Eco and John Fowles." Allen Kurzweil, Los Angeles Times
Look, I wrote The Geographer's Library three years ago. I've talked about it, thought about it, dissected it, read from it to audiences, (cringingly) read it alone, stacked it on shelves (first watching, with pride, as the stack grew smaller and I sent out copies to friends; then watching, with resignation, as the sales slowed, copies kept rolling in and I ran out of recipients), and lived with it, almost constantly, ever since. I will even admit here to ripping a copy clean in half (can't remember why; I think I discovered a sentence I should have rewritten). I don't want to talk about whether or why I do or don't believe in alchemy; what I think will happen to Russia in the next ten years (and what is it about Russia that provokes such an urge to predict??), or how much of Paul Tomm, the protagonist, is me. What I want to do instead is talk about the central fact that allowed me to write this book, the most important single shift in my life that changed me from someone who thought about, dreamed about, talked about writing fiction to someone who actually did it. I'm talking about my own illiteracy.

In the summer of 2002, I moved from New York to Moscow. I had spent essentially my entire professional life in New York; most of my friends and much of my family lived there. By contrast, I had never been to Moscow; in no meaningful sense outside of a labored ability to transliterate simple signs did I know the language; I knew not a single soul who lived there. I headed there for the only reason I ever did anything: I met a girl. She'd lived the first part of her life in Moscow and always wanted to return. Both of us had jobs that we liked well enough, but we both wanted to do other things. I met her in the late spring of 2001; later that year, for obvious reasons, the immanence of death struck us more forcefully than it ever had before. Neither of us wanted to die on subways heading to jobs we just sort of liked, dreaming about something else.

So, after some planning, and a few cavils and arguments and misaligned apprehensions, we moved out of our apartment, put everything in storage, and headed for a city where I would be a total stranger to everyone, where I couldn't read a newspaper or hold a conversation, and from which I had absolutely no expectations. We enrolled in a month of immersion language classes at Moscow State University (MGU), the combination spaceship-wedding cake skyscraper overlooking the city from an area of southwestern Moscow known, depending on who was talking and whether the apposite sign had been modernized, as either Lenin Hills or Sparrow Hills. When we landed in Moscow someone from the program met us at the airport. I think his name was Valery; he drove a rickety little blue Lada, perhaps one step up the mechanico-evolutionary scale from a hair dryer, and he spoke incessantly in his voluble, raspy smoker's voice. He had an Ichabod Crane, bean-shaped head that bounced everywhere on its narrow stalk as he babbled excitedly. I believe we were the first Americans he'd ever met, and he was thrilled. I sat in the front seat nodding every time he reached a pause in his monologue and turned to me. Sadly, I managed to insult him twice: first by refusing a cigarette; second, even worse, by fastening my seat belt as we sped bumper-to-bumper along the city's ring road. I remember passing an enormous black metal abstract sculpture right by the side of the road. He thrust a thumb toward it and began explaining; later I found out that it marked the furthest advance of German soldiers during World War Two. An IKEA — supposedly the world's largest and busiest — loomed behind the memorial.

The next day I was dropped into the lowest-level class the university offered. My classmates were all Italian army officers, learning Russian as part of their military service. As soon as I set foot in the class, its mean intelligence level dropped precipitously. Lena, the patient, stylish teacher, spent two hours trying to make me answer the question, "Do you look like your father?" Answer: sure, I suppose, more or less. I managed to convey this, once I finally understood the question, by moving my head from side to side, equivocally. Everyone understood, but she was a stickler for actual speech. Eventually, for the good of Italy, I had to be put into a remedial, one-on-one class. By the time I got out, I learned what my friend, an English journalist based in Moscow, once pricelessly observed were the only five Russian words a foreigner need know:

  1. Spasiba: "Thank you." To be used sparingly: if you thank people too often, they'll think you're soft.
  2. Davai: Literally, I think it means "give it to me" (n.b.: In saying that I was illiterate, in no way should this be understood to negate the possibility of my continued illiteracy), or "Give it here." It's used at the beginning of any undertaking to connote, more or less, "Let's go," or "Let's roll," or "What the hell," or "I'm game if you are," or, with the right inflection, "That is totally, stark raving batshit insane, but I can't afford the loss of face I would incur by refusing to go along, if only for morbid curiosity's sake."
  3. Choot-choot: This wonderfully onomatopoetic word means, "Just a little bit." Used most often either when answering whether you speak Russian, or when in proximity to a Russian host and food and/or booze.
  4. Kharasho: "Good" or "well." When someone asks you how you're doing, or how everything's going, use this only if you've just won the lottery or suddenly regained the use of a crippled limb. Otherwise, you say...
  5. Normalno: "Normal." Used for every other circumstance known to man, ranging from just getting married to an airplane landing on your car.
From these five, other words followed, but I never progressed to the point where I could watch and understand an entire newscast, or read a paper without much guesswork and reference to dictionaries. This made each day, every venture out of my apartment, an adventure; it forced me to rely on imagination, intuition, and deduction much more than I ever had before. Sometimes this could be frightening or annoying: the police enjoyed hassling me for my ID papers, because, apparently, I look like a Chechen, or at least — with my stocky little build, big nose, and heavy beard — like some sort of suspicious ethnicity. Mostly, though, it was thrilling, addictive: quotidian routine suddenly developed a whole new dimension.

At the same time, I was cut off from routine entertainment: television did nothing for me; we had to pay for every minute we were on the internet; we had only one friend there; we couldn't afford to see movies regularly. So we played a whole lot of Scrabble, and I wrote. I knew it was what I'd always wanted to do, even if I shied away from admitting it to others, or even to myself, in the hyper-competitive fishbowl of New York: I had no M.F.A. and no published stories; I had always disliked creative writing classes, and lacked the confidence to start or join a writing group. As for "wanting to write," well, who doesn't? But I arrived in Moscow in my late 20s; by that age, my parents had one child with another on the way. Back in New York, old friends were steadily advancing in their chosen careers, marrying, moving on, and here I was, seemingly regressing, jobless, friendless, in a rickety flat in Moscow. And it was precisely this attitude — this inspiring, nerve-crushing mixture of hopelessness, desperation, jealousy, and insecurity that told me if I was ever going to turn back to fiction (I'd written one execrable, boring, puerile little book in my early 20s), this was the time. This was why I'd come, even if I didn't know it. If it doesn't work, well, there would still be plenty of time to suit up for battle beneath the fluorescent lights and Au Bon Pains of the working world. I'd done it before — and, in all likelihood, I'll probably have to do it again — it wasn't so bad. But I knew I'd never forgive myself if I didn't try, and not just try in a way that let me save face if it didn't work, but really try. And, with my imagination constantly engaged and routine distraction unavailable, that's what I did. A far better writer than I found weapons in silence, exile, and cunning; I found allies in privation, friendlessness, and illiteracy. spacer

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