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TETE-A-TETE WITH DEATH
On the next painting I saw myself at an exhibition in the art college in the town of Togliatti in Russia. I bought up all the paintings on display and so closed it in the happiest way possible for an exhibition. And the red-haired slim artist who had recently been introduced to me brought me in touch with Yuzhakov.
Yuzhakov regarded the world as a grotesquerie. On one of his paintings I saw Death. She was an emaciated lady who had destroyed herself through her ruinous behaviour seated on her table with a drink and thin, long cigarette in hand. At any moment the cigarette could slip through her bony fingers. Her face lacked life but was not expressionless. Upon it was imprinted the ugliness of an aged whore. I seemed to inhale the stench of death. This was not only the stench of sweat — the place stank of a pub’s lavatory and of a table oilcloth on which some one had vomited. Under the ugly mask of death, far, very far, I discerned the grimaces of a hysterically raped virgin, weeping aristocratic lady, whom circumstances have forced to go begging. This image focussed in itself all the sewage of the craziness of the world.
In Yuzhakov’s Death there was no lament, there was even a perceived mockery. She was terrible and at the same time wretched like the streetwalker whom she personified. This Death was a reminder that she existed, that she awaits everyone and no one can run away from her, that even if she is wretched in the eyes of some for others she is terrible. Defeated and victorious alike, she was also a woman who could awaken the man in you because her despair begged assistance from any man. She also promised the delight of oblivion. Death is above all Oblivion and Oblivion is the cheapest pleasure. The Old Testament prophets themselves saw how the temptress lures us into the abyss. Solomon saw her as a woman with honey dripping from her mouth, her words flowing like olive oil. The New Testament Evangelist St John the Divine in his book of Revelations depicts a drunken prostitute dressed in red upon the back of a beast on whose forehead were written blasphemous words. Yuzhakov had the view of an ancient prophet although he had dressed his prostitute in such modern clothes.
This is how I came across the man I had been looking for and from whom I could buy the picture I wanted. Besides the incomparable canvas I brought from the town of Togliatti I also came away with inforgettable memories.
The evening Yuzhakov and I drank to our meeting I went back to my lodgings tired and melancholy… A little later, half sleeping half awake, I saw Death as he had painted it. I watched her walking about my room and fussing before the mirror. I tried to wake up but was convulsed with something like electrical impulses. Yuzhakov’s Death was eyeing me from head to toe while I was nailed to the bed by the repulsive nightmare. I woke up drenched in perspiration while Death went away with the darkness.
Had she visited me really? Anyway, for the time being she had given me up.
I lay down once again to dispel my sombre thought. I again writhed in convulsions as if from electric shocks, viewing the room from a different angle and again saw Yuzhakov’s whore pace it up and down. She smirked and the odour of her rotten teeth filled the room. Then I had a feeling of awakening and getting out of bed but the moment I reached for the electricity switch I felt myself incorporeal and turning my head toward the bed saw my body in it sleeping. I was terrified to have parted from it, returned to myself and was again engulfed in the nightmarish merry-go-round. I could no longer tell sleep from awakening. When morning came at last and I opened my eyes I realized I had indeed woken up and indeed beaten off Death. This nightmare was repeated several nights after that. But that morning I went to church and found a father confessor. And now the picture in the Gallery of Memories grew grayish and began to dissolve. I murmured:
“You’ve done me some favour, my friend!” I spoke this to the painting but I had in mind the magician from the town of Togliatti.
A few days after the nightmarish night we met again and viewed his picture. I for my part, though completely recovered, felt an urge to scream SCREAM and tell him in words what he had done in paint.
In this world
of so many insanities
the only eternal thing is the direction towards you!
“What’s that? What are you saying?” he asked, dumbfounded.
“It’s you who’s saying it,” I replied.
It’s like the anecdote about Picasso. In occupied Paris an SS man dropped in on Picasso in his atelier. The great artist was introduced to the SS man. “Did you do Guernica?” asked the German, politely smiling. “No, you did it,” Picasso replied. And the German officer understood him. The Russian artist now understood me. I said I felt like screaming but was in fact sad:
From the heavy water
of all memories,
from the HIV virus
and from the bitterness
you are conceived in our souls
and in our hearts.
Because FEAR is the starting point of
all roads to you…
Oh, Death! — A woman and a whore
in whom we believe;
unfaithful to EVERYTHING
and to ourselves…
Later on, at the table, Yuzhakov asked me to repeat my verses.
And I repeated them. Quietly this time.
And still more quietly he said:
“To your health!”
I raised my glass, too. I was glad that two kindred souls were drinking to friendship. And to Life.
And”The Death” I took to the Papa Jan Gallery.
But the secrets of my meetings with her I kept to myself. In the safe of memory, allegedly so fragile and vulnerable.
The painting again took on a grayish hue and I was about to move on to the next when it noisily split into two and from it jumped out Death as painted by Yuzhakov.
Chill shivers went down my spine.
“Hello!” Death said. Her voice was croaky and husky like that of a singer from a death metal group.
I looked at her. She was slightly taller than on the painting and her face was more life-like and human but that made her still more dreadful.
“I have done you no harm, so why are you looking at me like that?” she said. “I have made you think of the Truth. This is in my character: to deal straightforwardly. This makes me disgusting in the eyes of fools but you are no fool, are you?”
I smiled. She was a real woman. And she asked questions whose only answer was “yes”.
“You oughtn’t to walk about this Gallery alone. You might get lost and you might forget where the exit is. Nothing is more horrible than to turn into an article for sale on the Shop for Airy Towers. I realize I won’t be such pleasant company as the previous gallery manageress but my turn on the job has come…”
“Is that why the Manager said I was entering another part of the Gallery of Memories?” I asked.
“Oh, yes!” croaked Death. “Didn’t this strange man alarm you with the questions regarding Atonkreezle Styoplo Fillan Rakayata…
“I pronounced only a small part of the name of the scientist whose discovery you have destroyed. In fact nobody quite understood what kind of man he was now that is gone forever. As a boy he used to have epileptic fits accompanied also by frequent amnesia… After his last fit he suffered during his duty as a military doctor in Afghanistan he even forgot his name. He re-learned it from documents but it seemed to him rather alien. He sought an opportunity to change it.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because that problem still exercises you. And I am the one to remind you of all problems you try to forget… They continue to exist. As you yourself!”
“Did I do the right thing then?” I asked her almost trustfully.
“If you hadn’t acted the way you did, I would have had a terrific lot of work on my hands now. The scientist who created the condenser was incurably ill. A psychotic who seemed reasonable. There are such people aren’t there? But let’s go!”
I followed her. Wasn’t she the new gallery manageress?
In front of the gray canvas of the next painting I was again sucked into the vacuum of memory. I was in that flat holding in my hands the Gospel of St John Chrysostom. It had been stolen from me and I was now thinking I had recovered it. I counted out the money to the person who had re-stolen it from them for me to get it back. Behind the door stood trusted collaborators of mine and I had a sense of security the first time I went through this experience, even if I was anxious. Now that I re-visited this picture I knew how alone I had been. “My boys” had already begun to serve two masters…
And here are again the well-known gorillas. They entered the room I was in and pointed at me their revolvers. I did not have the time even to reach for my pistol.
“Come, now, Papa Jan,” one of the two said. “Give us over the booklet.”
As before, I pretended not to hear and put it in my breast pocket. And just like the previous time I told him:
“This ‘booklet’ is about the life of a Bulgaria saint and must be returned to the country of that saint.”
During the previous encounter I had thrown myself behind the nearby chest of drawers, had got hold of a vase and had hurled it at the man I was talking to. Before, however, I had managed to pull out my revolver and shoot down the other one who was to have given me back the Gospel he dealt me a lateral blow with the hand on the carotid artery. I came to after several hours with blurred senses and without the Gospel, without money or documents. I stank horribly of vodka. They had drenched me all over in that liquid before throwing me in the ditch. But they had, after all, been generous in their own way. Otherwise they could have tied a heavy stone around my neck and sent me to the bottom of one or other of Russian great rivers. Probably their bosses had ordered so. They still hoped that if they could scare me out of my wits I’ll start working for them.
“The place of the Gospel is in a Bulgarian museum,” I said again this time and the crazy notion occurred to me of leaping out of the window. The window was on the fourth floor but I remembered well that many antennae protruded from every floor, so if I could…
The gorilla smirked faintly and while he wondered whether to shoot or go on bargaining I leapt backwards, performing an incredible somersault. I heard the noise of breaking glass and saw myself falling in the abyss. I managed, though, to grab hold of the antenna. It failed to sustain me and I dragged it with me. With it I fell down heavily upon the antenna of the floor below and dragged it too… In the end I dropped from a height of four metres almost unimpeded. That was why I did not lose consciousness but at the moment in which I recovered my balance I was assailed by… Alek, armed with a baton. The dirty pig! My own bodyguard, too! I managed to kick him in the groins. Someone fired a bullet in my back. I wheezed. My mouth filled with blood. This had not happened the first time. With bitterness I remembered those reflections that even if one could one must not change one’s past. Everything swam before my eyes. I was dying! Dying!
I came to in the Gallery. I was sprawling on the floor and Death was touching with her bony finger my new wound. I felt that the wound disappeared.
“Sometimes I am a good healer,” she told me.
“Incredible!” I said and even stood up. They had killed me, hadn’t they?
“YES!” she giggled. “But I managed to set you right. If one day you get out of here and again set up your gallery don’t forget the Gospel and remember I myself cured you. And now let us go!…”
I was in the next picture. I was again a student. With two friends — Sasho Kutryana and Lyudmil Ivanov — I had been drinking quite a lot at The Kale and was now on our way to the night club. Sasho was again telling his merry stories at such speed as to make them virtually incomprehensible. He was soon to reach that point at which he changed the speed of his talking from too fast to too slow.
I was mostly silent and did not ask him to stop. Nor did I think it peculiar when, passing by a group of people, Sasho cracked a teasing joke.
We had not reached the bar when we were encircled. Fortunately, Lyudmil had escaped or had simply strolled off somewhere. In any case he would not have been much use to us as he was close to the condition in which the laws of the Earth’s gravity are particularly strongly felt. The bellicose group numbered five members and I had remained with Sasho alone. On top of it all Sasho had reached the point when he did not care what he was saying nor what he was doing and went on teasing those who surrounded us. His courage would not have been misplaced had he been a little capable of fighting.
The others assailed us. Then I understood what luck in adversity means. They were also rather drunk so much so that the first whom I hit barely managed to approach me. I kicked him first in the stomach and then in the head, bent down after the spasm. His friends got a little frightened but I had no intention of allowing them to summon up their courage. I jumped on the biggest and landed a first on his face. A third I hit under the chin. He slumped to the ground. I had hardly caused him much suffering but the whole act was rather impressive and his bellicose friends began with-drawing. I shouted several times to them and took by the elbow Sasho who, convulsed with laughter, was only repeating: “Come on, Papa Jan, come on, Papa Jan!” I was annoyed with him but when we entered the bar my anger subsided. We had had two glasses of liquor each by three in the morning. The oddest thing was that after his two glasses in the bar Sasho became sober. I had become merry. The attendants were winding up their business for the night but I did not want it to end yet. I suggested to Sasho that we complete the night at my place. He usually accepted such invitations anyway but now he was enthusiastic and once at my place he offered me an alcoholic duel. I refused. I declared to him that this evening he had proved all his courage. He replied that even if I could have the upper hand on him in fighting I could never outdrink him. I swallowed his bait and said curtly “You’ve asked for it!” We opened a bottle of vodka each pouring the contents into seven and a half glasses for each one of us. It was already one minute to four so as soon as the clock struck the hour we started. I choked several times but my sporting zest was so keen that I stopped at the fourth glass. Sasho also paused. He had begun drinking the fifth when he told me that any moment I would have slumped to the floor. And suddenly he slumped without being able to complete his sentence. “Veni, vidi, vici,” I roared victoriously.
Now, in the Gallery, I repeated it in the presence of Death.
“You, young folks, are not afraid of me and often wish for me. But when you woke up with a splitting headache you didn’t realize how close I was to you. You might never have built your gallery,” she said slowly and almost solemnly. “But why should I be sermonizing you now!? We both know that youth errs and that is why it is youth. Youth is headstrong and far from me because life shouted be a smooth transition into death…”
She was being ironic.
“Were you really so close to me then?”
“Yes and no. It was not a case of dying from alcoholic poisoning but you seemed to rather like your hangover…”
“Rubbish!” I smiled. “I felt so horribly that will not forget it as long as I live!”
“You surely remember what you said to yourself!”
I could not recall so she quoted my thought:
“You told yourself: ‘What ample information for the cells this pain is! How soothing to the brain this slight dullness. I feel more alive so, rather than when my brain is preoccupied with everyday problems… The alcoholics are not stupid at all… ’ So you could have gone on. You could have ended your days like your friend Nikolai Geshev. He still does not acknowledge that he is that.”
And we went further.
I passed painlessly from one medium into another, from one memory into the next as if I was passing from room to room through an ordinary door. I went back to the days when I was expelled for the first time from Russia, then the biggest part of the then Soviet Union. I was not chased by mafiosi, moreover, but by official who were not supposed to be members of the mafia. The charges were invariably the same: criminal dealings in unique objects and precious works of art. Gor forbid! In point of fact I had become an embarrassment to them.
Even if I stay in the Gallery of Memories for thousands of years more I will not forget the seeing off at the station. The man seeing me off was Lenko Vesselinov, poet and journalist. Although I had many would-be “friends”, he alone had the courage to remain a friend of the wayward and not repudiate him. In the end, just before I boarded the train, he wrote upon my knapsack “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR!”
In Kiev I could not help myself and got off the train in spite the danger I was in. I wished to see Natalia! Our love affair of was now of half a year’s standing and I couldn’t just up and leave. This was a very bad decision but how was I to know at the time?
It was May 30, 1985. The fatal May of nineteen eighty-five. Natakia and I met at a villa outside Kiev and gave ourselves completely to each other, as if we expected the end of the world. It may have come but we were not aware of that. At the villa we remained for more than a week. In her garden she grew all sorts of vegetables and fruit ahead of season so that in those days we never reached for anything else. We breathed in the seemingly pure air: weren’t we supposed to be closer to nature? On the third day we grew dizzy and we thought it was from the alcohol. Although the negligible amounts of alcohol we had consumed could in no way have caused us to feel the way we did. We could not for an instant even imagine that a break-down had occurred at Chernobyl and we were among the many people who had to suffer for the sake of the few culprits. How sinister was the inscription on my knapsack: “Make love, etc.” No, she was among those who were poisoned. I had no wish for the second time to live through the experience of those days which then seemed the most beautiful in my life. Now that I knew more I had no wish to hide myself in Natalia’s embraces…
The escape was, as in most cases, illusory.
But let us return to the Gallery of Memories. I got there and froze: Death had been a tall woman always but now she had become enormous! I was facing a woman over two metres and fifty centimetres high who had changed the tatters of a streetwalker for a long dark and frightening tunic. Her eyes were enormous, too, one could even say that her face had no other features but a pair of blinking black eyes. And was it a mushroom cloud that flickered in them? In any case her eyes emitted a pulsating fiery being which careered about the Gallery. The entire Gallery was bathed in white light and after that everything took on an orange colour. It darkened after some time till at last everything even Death itself settled into their previous forms.
“Terrible sight!” I said almost timidly.
“I would say it was beautiful as well!” said Death in her imperious voice. “Happiness did not succeed in uniting people for centuries on end but misery can do it in a trice. Maybe some day people will opt for it in order to settle their accounts with that damned injustice after all. Then there will not be rich and poor, cruel oppressors and defenceless oppressed, masters and slaves. All problems will be solved. Isn’t that a way out after all?”
“Yes it is. After all what does a man need?”
“Recognition,” she replied.
“He has it. The whole world shames him and glorifies him. Isn’t that recognition?”
“If that was the only need, why doesn’t the world love then?”
“Man has got it. Didn’t he conquer the atom? Some day he may take it into his head to push around the quanta…”
“But man loves his slavery!”
“Why did man repudiate Nature?”
“This is now real avarice. Isn’t the whole universe enough for him?”
I fell silent. What else could I ask.
“Indeed what does a man need?”
The dialogue had brought us to the next picture without we noticing it. For the first time I had taken Maria and Gergana to the former Soviet Union. I got off at the Kiev station to buy soft drinks because my elder daughter had been whining and I myself was thirsty. I miscalculated the time. The train left. I frantically ran after it but it was gathering speed. All my money remained on the train and in Kiev I knew no one at that time. I hailed the first taxi in sight and told the driver he could get not only his fare but much more money that he could charge. I hoped to catch my train at the next station. That was what indeed happened but while riding on the taxi a thought occurred to me which I recall again now. It was as if Lucifer appeared saying: “Be careful not to miss the train of time… If you miss it there will be no taxi for you for Purgatory…”
“That may have been an omen indeed,” Death said. She was behind my back.
I was startled. I may have not been in the taxi at all and had not entered the picture but had only imagined it all.
“You may not have entered the picture indeed.”
“You’re reading my thoughts!” screamed I.
“I learn them. It’s not very difficult!… I know people so well that I could pass for a psychologist…”
I was dazed.
“Tell me, do I really enter the picture?”
“To some extent. Before now, when you were with the girl, you were part of the picture itself. Now you’re usually beyond it.”
“But not everything proceeds in the same way as before…”
“Doesn’t it?” she laughed.
“For instance the episode with the Gospel of St John Chrysostom.”
“You mean you got wounded? The wound was the same as the first.”
“But then I did not ache at the same place.”
“Oh, yes, of course. The first time you were sorry they had not killed you while the second time you did everything possible for them to do it. It was silly of you. But what’s to be done: heroism is heroism… Half my clients are all heroes. I still fail to see the point of heroism. Sounds funny.”
“Do I enter into the pictures or not?” I repeated my question. Perhaps I thought it very important.
“I said not. A very small part of yourself experiences again the memories while otherwise you are outside the memory itself. Before now it was quite different.”
“I have become more alien to my memories, or what?”
Death nodded. I knew that meant something bad. And she continued:
“Perhaps I need not worry you just now. Even I don’t like it when people are seized by destructive panic. The truth is you have stayed too long in the Gallery of Memories and in the Shop for Airy Towers. You have become more alien to your own self and that’s why you cannot return so easily back in time as you did before.”
“Shall I be all right?”
“The only way is for you to find the exit at last. Otherwise, as a friend of yours says, I shall be your betrothed. I am not at all pretty, am I?”
“You do possess a certain charm…” I was calm and my voice even had a playful merry ring. “It’s not only that you’re frank… No! There is something else besides…”
“But I resemble a whore.”
“You are a whore with the whores… But others see you’ve changed…”
We were silent.
“You’re trying to reconcile yourself to Death!”
“The condemned to death alone ought not to do it!”
“You are wrong! Many are reconciled and repent… This is for their own good…”
“But many more are those who are not reconciled, aren’t they?
Death nodded. She was indeed ugly and resembled a streetwalker. But one could not treat her like a streetwalker. And maybe I indeed do fall for gallery attendants.
“Why did none other than have be the gallery attendant?” I asked.
“And why not? When all’s said and done, this is my job.”
“Because you keep reminding and are straightforward, eh?”
“Because of that too… But after all nobody chooses their profession…”
“Because next to you one asks oneself so many questions, doesn’t one?”
“None of the reasons means anything in itself. They can be seen in everything. Everything leads a person to the situation he or she is in and this robs of significance everything taken in isolation. When everything is the reasons, reasons are lacking.”
And she was wise, into the bargain. As painted by Yuzhakov she resembled a lunatic.
“But that, too, is wisdom!” (Lunacy, that is) — she had again read my thoughts.
“But lunacy distances me from my memories and I don’t know now whether I’ll get out of the Shop for Airy Towers at all.”
“If anything takes you out of here, it will be it! Reason is subject to delusions. This is also what your friend Nikolai Geshev talked to you about in the villa ‘The Jaded Truths of the Lie Seen Through’… What you need is lunacy with its weird logic. The drawback is it not always leads to survival. At the moment you are gambling with Death… And not with me but with the real one.”
Truly, I failed to understand her. Once she says she is Death itself, at another time she says the opposite. There’s no belief in reason after this!
And we paused at the picture showing my studio in Zhe¬lez¬no¬gorsk. This time I was careful. It seemed I was really not within the picture itself. I observed my self from OUTSIDE as a painter observes himself when painting his SELF-PORTRAIT. At one and the same time he is himself and not himself… Outside it and outside the BRUSH…
My studio was shaped like a pyramid. So that I could collect and store up cosmic energy. In addition to many of my completed and incomplete woodcarvings, it was here I had started work on “The Divine Rose”.
In the studio I kept also two particularly valuable icons: “The Virgin with Child” and the other, depicting Jesus with an inscription from the famous Kiev-Pechor lavra established way back in 1051.
The night to which I reverted was celebrated with a large party.
I was glad to possess the two icons, to have successfully begun “The Divine Rose” which was going to be truly divine.
A party is the best thing for such a moment. You share your joy and relax.
I had already made friends with Igor.
I liked his interest in art. He honestly admitted he understood nothing but he had a clear vision and an honest heart for beauty.
He was a drug addict. But for me that had never been the most important thing. There are quite many “normal” people who even if dressed elegantly, knowing how to live and having a swell time are in fact killing everything with their Philistinism and snobbery. The “beautiful” people could also kill beautifully. But the others. For ever the others… And the drug addicts had reached the brink of the abyss but over it swayed only they… They themselves and no one else.
So, for Igor drug addiction was nothing more than a peculiarity.
Well, of course, it interfered with his drinking.
And that evening he drank an almost whole bottle of vodka.
He strummed on my guitar and daubed upon of my blank boards some “Dragon” saying he used an appropriate Chinese method: he switched off his own self and all of that used hand to paint the Dragon. He even suggested to me, just like that, in jest, to hang his work in my gallery, fixing for it an incredible price. He guaranteed that I’ll have no problems. The price itself would turn the daub of paint into a work of art. The evening passed in the same jovial spirit till at last I saw Igor off who never stopped congratulating me for my acquisitions, the icons, and my new painting. I remained alone regretting Igor’s early departure. The excitement from the newly acquired icons did not abate and I would not be able to sleep… I dozed off at last but I saw in a dream the two icons. Even in my dream I felt enjoying possession of the icons. Then I kept opening my eyes but the excitement did not leave me.
There was plenty of time for sleep! I had so many years ahead in which I could sleep as much as I wished. Now I could surrender to my excitement.
I got up and made for the studio to see them once again.
Pressing the lighting switch, I slightly shut my eyes… The icons were missing. The empty spots on the wall seemed to suggest: “Igor!” I had not expected this of him and yet he was the culprit. I realized this the moment I clicked the switch.
After many years we met again. He had spent his time languishing in jails for other reasons and had suffered much. He had probably changed. I had forgiven him a long time before. One cannot all the time accuse others! He admitted to the theft. The worst was not the stealing of works of art, of truly sacred objects. His act proved that sometimes we do not live with a friend but with our illusion of friendship. And it is better we don’t rely upon illusions.
I turned my eyes towards Death to return completely to the Gallery and The Shop for Airy Towers. Death was silent. And her silence was quite telling. It told me more than any words…
Here is the next picture.
It was in Komi . With Stoicho Majarski, a poet and friendly neighbour, I frequently went fishing. This time we had embarked on a hunt for wood-grouses. I don’t exactly remember how it happened but I lost my way. The temperature was thirty-five to forty degree Centigrade below zero. At first the loss of the way seemed even amusing to me but as time went by I realized that I would long be roaming in the forest. I had lost all bearings and got more and more entangled in the woods. My sense of humour had evaporated despite the low temperature, the cold got worse and I did not know whether I would be alive the next morning.
The gun was getting heavier and heavier. The clothes, too. I was dog tired but I had to move. I had to go on because that was the sole, albeit small, chance of me staying alive. I got even more entangled with walking perhaps but if I stopped certain death awaited me. I did not feel like dying at all, least of all in that place.
With the fall of darkness I began to suspect that I had moved in a circle, dissipating my strength. The most horrible was the howl of the wolves. They would hardly attack me as long as I kept moving and held a gun. But once I fell to the ground I was lost. I still walked but I did not know when my strength would ebb. Five hours had passed and at my pace of walking it was possible I had moved thirty kilometres away from the right direction. I no longer knew whether I could rely on anything in that wilderness. The labyrinth of Nature seemed more dangerous than any devised by man.
I already knew that frequently the way “ahead” could mean the way to “nowhere”.
But I walked.
Should I stop for a moment I would freeze.
Just like at Vekhny Mezen, but then…
Yes, at the time I was saved by “The Kiss”. Mirages are certain shelters which turn us towards ourselves.
Roaming in life turns the soul cold but now my body had frozen… Did Jules Pascin ever roam?
I had to move on.
Towards salvation and the Papa Jan Gallery. Hadn’t I been moving in its direction all my life.
I went on, led by “The Kiss”, and now my direction was indeed “forward”. Whether I’ll be saved from death so that “the server of surprises”, i.e., life, can go on with its post-graduate course at Oxford or was I to find the end of my path in life. I could not pause for a solution to this dilemma, I went on. Nor could I tell when my strength, cut short as if by a knife, would leave me.
“You bet Stoicho Madjarski’ll be worrying now…” I thought not without friendly malice or subtle humour, upon my word. Thank goodness, my sense of humour had never left me in such moments. I had an unclouded prevision of the wolves tearing my flesh apart. “No go, nothing doing,” I said to myself. “As far as I’m concerned they’ll die of starvation.” If I turned my head back again I would see Death waiting for me in the Gallery of Memories. No, no, Death is also behind, even in my memories.
I had to go on!
Towards “The Kiss”!
A little later I saw a flickering light and at first I thought I had only reached the anteroom of death. It was so unusual to find it in this wilderness. A little later I realized that it was no illusion. An izbushka had appeared in the wild forest. Wasn’t that how the Russians call their cottages. And its window gave off pale light as from a candle of gas lantern. I smiled because I felt like going crazy. What was that small hut for in this wilderness? It seemed a product of the imagination.
In it was my salvation. I was let in by a tall, bent, yet resilient as a whip old man. His whole face was covered in a big, snow-white beard while his even more profuse snow-white hair reached his shoulders. Dyadya Vassya — no uncle but a truly old man — possessed vitality which could be the envy of many forty-year-old, prematurely obese men. He was seventy-five and full of good humour telling me the funniest stories of his life over a warm cup of tea. He had been living in the wild forest for thirty years, most of it absolutely alone. Thirty years ago he was interned in the forest for a manslaughter which he inadvertently committed. And Old Vasya started life in the forest, getting so used to his lonely trapper’s existence that after the term of the sentence expired he did not leave but only a little shortened the distance between himself and the habitats of ordinary people.
That was when I understood what it was for a man to come to love his slavery!
He had been sent here to deprive him of his freedom. But in fact it was given him forever. He had learnt to speak to himself and to heed his inner voice. He had learnt to admire his own spirit to commune with his drives and to subdue them. He had learnt to converse with the branches of trees, with the wolves and with the cold.
Old Vasya had everything that can be called freedom.
I have always known that among loners you could find the most communicative and smooth-tongued people. Now I had found further proof of that if proof were needed. The loner is ready to give to his fellow being his whole heart so he was now pouring out a veritable avalanche of words; after all I had been through before I came upon his hut, I felt more alive than ever. “Should you be a loner,” I thought, let all other loners be your brethren…”
I turned towards Death and smiled:
“I had abandoned hope of survival. But in his company I could not believe I had faced such a danger.”
“Did you ask yourself then why he had survived and you would not have come back alive if had not met him?
“Not then,” said I. “Since then, however, I have often asked myself that question. But I have not found the answer. One never knows how one would react upon meeting with one’s death.”
“You have not understood everything,” Death said. “Your Old Vasya would hardly have been pleased when he remained alone amids the icy wilderness. he only wanted to be left alone and his sentence revoked. He wanted to be alone with himself because he was sick and tired of living among those whom he didn’t understand and who did not understand him. And he kissed the ice and the tree making even the wolves wonder why he loved them so much. Nature expressed her gratitude for his love by letting him stay alive. That is all.”
“So what could have killed me is love for people. It has distanced me from Nature.”
“Nevertheless,” she concluded, “this love did not kill you but saved you. You found your salvation in a man, though remote from the others.”
“I kept thinking it was ‘The Kiss’ that saved me. That, and the lust for existence.”
“It was no struggle but love that saved you! Our age is surfeit with struggle… You simply love!”
“Isn’t love struggle as well?”
“It is surrender. That surrender had saved old Vasya too…”
I looked away and my glance fell on the next picture.
It was the party after that night when Milena Slavova almost ruined the show. And she had traveled for it all the way to Komi.
A short time before coming onto the improvised stage we had hurriedly built she noticed she had forgotten the cassette at the hotel which was 100 kilometres away from the venue of the show.
The was no other way! I jumped into the service jeep and stepped on the gas. The road was so slippery I could have killed myself. Now that I was looking at myself in the picture for the second time I realized how truly serious the danger had been.
But I had only myself to blame.
I rounded up Milena and the other performers immediately after the concert given in the central settlement of Ussogorsk, squeezed them into the minibus and brought them to Verkhni Mezen.
Now all my organizational talents could be severely compromised.
But I succeeded! In the end I did succeed!
I can only guess how Milena awaited me. She let Bogdan Tomov and Rossitsa Ganeva take the stage before her. When all of a sudden I arrived in the nick of time like D’Artagnian who places the diamond necklace in the hand of the Queen a second before the scandal breaksout.
At long last I relaxed and with real delight I listened to Milena singing better than ever.
And I laughed long and heartily at the endless string of jokes and witticisms which Dimiter Todjarov — Shkumbata produced from his bosom and from his heart.
First on the improvized stage and then in the very thick of events. The event was the party in honour of our guests.
We had everything for the quests! Alcohol and salmon and good mood. (The salmon had been caught by me and Stoicho Malarski).
Shkumbata was the crown of the festivities.
“You could have had an accident and missed that party,” Death said.
“I could have,” I quickly agreed. “But I was game for everything where that girl was concerned. That was her first international performance… The first! You remember it for the rest of your life. And Milena Slavova was only 18. As a self-appointed prophet, I was holding her hand in mine, assuring her that she would become the brightest Bulgarian star. And I was very pleased with my prophecy! Particularly when I learnt one day that she had a video clip on MTV…”
“Prophets risk nothing,” Death pursed her lips in a smile. “And you were so lavish with your praises of Shkumbata.”
“For him I would run a risk, too!” I said with renewed excitement. “But what do you know about the people of mirth…”
Death was silent but was smiling ironically.
“The sadness of a merry person is the deepest. But, on the other hand, how high his laughter can get! Above all banalities, pains, and misunderstandings… Merriment can outlive all transient accidents of an actor and produce its own true karma after any existential collapse whatever…”
Death kept silent.
“Well, yes,” I said,” your role is not one of the merriest.”
Then she laughed.
I was familiar with that kind of trick. I have often had to bluff with my laughter, to brandish like a flag my sense of humour when across the table I was dealing with a business partner.
To be funny is even fashionable.
Women also value all shades and brands of laughter.
But Shkumbata had one very important gift: he could make you laugh so much that makes you wonder how we could live such drab lives.
Clowns are the least understood but most needed philosophers.
They lie because they cannot tell the truth. And they laugh because weeping aloud is not the done thing.
“I see,” Death said and squeezed me with her cold hand. “And was Shkumbata merry all the time?”
“No,” I said. “He remained lonely in his sadness. His job was making people laugh. And he could not share his sorrow with anyone.
And I feel silent.
When will all people find bridges to one another? Not to the illusion about the other but to the true one… Or when will people be able to approach their true friends, or enemies for that matter, with their own truth and nothing but the truth.
“Were you not sad then?” inquired Death.
“I laughed, I laughed very much,” I recalled. “But I was also sad…”
“Despite all witticisms and jokes?” exulted Death in her cunning.
“Yes,” I sighed. “Despite all that…”
“ I know,” Death said. “You were not simply upset. You were bitter about the fact that no one appreciated your exploit. And no one told you you were living a second life… People enjoy not so much the exploits themselves as the applauding of them… Every one is like that. And my sad exploits are measured by the others’ fear. Heavy is their price.”
I was silent. By now I felt cosy in silence as well.
“Anyway, your reasoning is very interesting,” Death com¬pli¬men¬ted me, too.
Now what could this mean?
I smiled bitterly.
“Merely a dilettantish attempt at psychoanalysis,” I forced my smile to make it playfully teasing.
“You are angry!” she said.
“I am alive!” I replied.
“Unreasonable?!” — I failed to understand whether that was a conclusion or question.
“So I’ll live on in order to vindicate my brains!”
“After all, could I establish my gallery without it? Am I not Papa Jan?”
“Our remarks much resembled the exchange of cards in the amusing but forgotten game “Cupid’s jokes”
“Cupid’s jokes?” No, no, Joking With Death!?
“Have you never written a poem about that?”
“About the daredevil nature of the adventurer .”
“But I am still alive! You may be sure I will get out of the Shop for Airy Towers.”
“I wish you would, too,” she interrupted me. “Only then will I become beautiful. My face may remain the same but my soul will be different… It depends upon your existence…”
That was some expression: Death’s soul…
I passed into the next picture.
Those were the days when for the first time I felt materially provided for, in other words rich, as is the custom to call that condition of the flesh. I was only twenty and already had so much money -= mainly in works of art — that even the totalitarian officials could not compare with me. It was incredible! I had my bodyguards, too. And that, in the years of totalitarianism, was downright scandalous. The man entrusted with responsibility for my protection, Mitko Byalkata, was a veritable Goliath. Sometimes, jokingly, he alleged he was 2.10 metres tall. Well it wasn’t quite like that. He overreached the height of 2 metres by no more than 1 or 2 centimetres but as if to compensate for that, his bicepses reminded you od Arnold Schwarzenegger… He had done several stretches in prison, only for beating up policeman. I beg your pardon, militiamen, as they were called back then, under communism. As the saying goes, they had right of way in those days.
One day after he and I drew a large sum from the bank we decided to take some refreshment at a restaurant or coffee bar. A boing fellow, however, made a poor choice, selecting me for the butt of his cheekiness and aggression. So Mitko Byalkata grabbed hold of him, lifted him up from the ground with one hand and pressed him to himself. The finger of the other hand aimed at the eye ball.
“If you don’t keep quite and behave yourself,” the giant told him imperously, “say goodbye to your eye…”
He let the impertinent fellow go after slightly pressing his eye. The instant he touched the floor with his feet, the stranger bolted like a rocket out of the bar. Mitko Byalkata and I laughed and sat down seriously and calmly to drink to the fine holiday. The people at the tables nearby liked us. It turned out that the shameful fugitive had not troubled us alone.
That day I had taken my philosophy exam so I attempted to look at the problem philosophically. That fellow must have overdone the quantitative accummulations and must have reached the stage of the struggle of contradictions.
It only remained to put into operation the law of negation of negation.
And we activated it.
We tested its effect upon the young chicks, seated near us. If they did not have escorts at their table they had no choice but to sip soft drinks and estimate through half-closed eyes the alcoholic content of some of the more acceptable gallants.
We were super-acceptable. And generous, to boot.
There was every chance of us participating in a naked ring dance and bathing the naked dancers in champagne. As was the custom to stage such events in the old days. So that the show would be up to standard.
I tooked for the money only on the way home and froze: I was not carrying the bag. Nor did Mitko, whose high spirits were much higher than 2.10 metres, know anything about it either.
The contents of the bag amounted to no less than twenty grand. In those days that some could buy you a small house, 12-cylinder “Moskvich” car, a new piano and second-hand TV set. After which you would have still money left for a fitting binge to celebrate your new acquistions.
We went back to the bar in search of the bag. It wasn’t there.
I look it philosophically. (Hadn’t I taken my examination in philosophy?) And I giggled. My laughter had to prop up the courage of my bodyguard at least.
On the next day my bag was returned by the barman in person. And not a single banknote was missing from it.
“How many riches you’ll take with you should you remain in the Shop for Airy Towers forever!”
Aw, gosh! Enough of those tricks!
“I have never been greedy,” I spoke slowly to emphasize each and every word. “Some of my ambitions might sometimes resemble avarice to you. But their meaning is different…”
“Their meaning is different?” Death intoned a question. “Was that a slip of the tongue or do you see any meaning in avarice?”
“Yes, a meaning which is the most self-centered, the most inhuman but for many it is the meaning… “Didn’t that woman realize I had long taken my exam in philosophy?”Avarice is not a means, nor an urge, it is an end in itself devoid of any by-product. But nevertheless money is a necessity! Even as a betrothal gift…”
“Do you, too, like me as your betrothed?” she smiled.
“No. I was only quoting him… But I, too, lay claims to being a poet… And all poets are considered Death’s betrothed…”
“And secretly they hope for immorality,” Death said. “What irony! Wouldn’t I be in their way, then.”
“You take pleasure in making out you are cruel,” I said.
“But I am cruel!” she hissed. “Ask the alcoholic man about my sado-masohistic games at night. I tie him up to the bed at night and after raping him I slowly smash his skull and steal from him first the day-dreams, then the pain, then the memories and at last even his urine. Ask the drug addict who gets his dose in order to see me like a fairy in a ballroom dress after which we dance long on the brink of my domain, until he voluptuously slobber and tears the neck opening of my dress in order to see under it my rotting flesh… Ask the teenge girl, raped on her birthday by a group of ‘friends’ and dead from a haemorrhage. Or ask the dead destitute professor in theology, philosophy, linguisics and semiotics in the most run-down part of the neighbourhood where the police even don’t venture to tread. Ask the elderly artist, dead of starvation, whose paintings are going to fetch big prices only after his death.”
It seemed to me she was completely nuts. She she even hated herself.
“Why do you tell me all that?”
“That’s the done thing, otherwise, there’s absolutely no reason why. The done thing is for Death to remind people of herself, so that the living should seek for enough madness in himself to get out of the Shop for Airy Towers!”
The rotting stench from her mouth assailed my nostrils.
I immersed myself in reminiscence so that I could even momentarily escape her madness. And I saw myself in Moscow, in the Manege, in 1990. I had visited the splendid exhibition of Ilya Glazounov. I had not enough money to buy any of his paintings, so I took a place in the line of people waiting to see it and buy a post- card with a reproduction from his painting and then get his signature.
I waited in the line, gazing at his paintings. I was going to remember them for ever. And now can you not remember them? He was showing the “20th Century Mystery” — a group of pigs strutting about on Christ’s table. And what about “The Eternal Russia?” History had truly come to life again and was marching past. Majestic and brutal.
I waited three days to get to see Glazunov and receive an autograph from him. Sometimes wealth is measured in patience.
At that exhibition I made the acquaintance of one less well known but no less magnificent artist. It was he who painted one of my first portraits. My portraitist introduced me to the charming Nina. But it was not of her charm that I was thinking now. Nina introduced me to Zhirinovski himself. As a metter of fact, at that time he was not “himself” but simply Sergey. But he could ardently speak about the tasks and aims of the Liberal—Democratic Party. Nina’s eyes glowed with admiration as she listened to him. And admiration is the best material for building pedestals and airy towers.
At our very first meeting Zhirinovski gave me loads and loads of his printed speeches and party brochures. I thought he resembled a preacher from an American sect.
“So this is your ‘Eternal Russia’!” I heard the caustic remark of Death.
She walked behind me, peeped into my memories and eavesdropped on my thoughts.
And she calmly went on:
“I revert to Ilya Glazunov’s canvases. His ‘Eternal Russia’ has also spwaned Zhirinovski… Nor do your insights amount to anything! Didn’t you realize back then that I, Death, am the melody of the pictures of your memories?’
Was it a rocker’s guitar that broke the silence in the Gallery of Memories? Its husky timbre was well suited to the voice of the gallery attendant. Because Death was dancing and singing:
Loneliness, o Loneliness,
Your vampires chase me.
They feed on the blood of my memories.
Our dreams are so brittle
And delicious and tasty indeed
The vampires prefer them fresh…
And how Death twisted her body! Did I hear castanets or was it her bones that rattled?
The new gallery attendant was dancing and singing.
Alive are the vampires from all tales,
From all past truths and all memories…
Immortal and cruel are the vampires!
And only human spite is more immense
Than the spite of the friends of Hell
Long did she sing and wriggle. I saw sweat come out on her polished skull. A bottle of rum was only needed for me to shout:
“Yo-ho-ho”. But I was polite so I said:
“I had no idea what a rocker you are…”
“And are we going to play traditional dance tunes at the betrothing ceremony?” she asked and rattled her teeth. These must have produced the sound of castanets. “I am joking, naturally… But I am the melody and mood of those canvases and of your memories of Zhirinovski… This is your eternity…”
“Because you collect pieces of it and establish galleries. And what will you fill a gallery with except with eternity?” Her logic was irrefutable. “And what is more eternal than death? I told you, didn’t I, that I am a professional gallery manageress.”
And then she took me by the arm and told me very interesting story about a German officer during the Second World War. He was a bit potty (probably like me — she did not say so but it was implied) and used his rank and position to pile up material for his museum of palentology. It was precisely in allied Bulgaria that he conducted his digging.
“Your lands have bones to fill all museums in the world,” the gallery manageress laughed. “This land was overrun, wasn’t it, by Slavs, barbarians, and by Aryans. According to the new allies.”
She was right and held my tongue.
“And what became of the officer?”
“He perished at a railway station in Yugoslavia, trying to escape with his wooden boxes full of bones… In Yugoslavia they live bombs, don’t they? Some things are truly eternal, my dear fellow.”
I got angry.
“The previous gallery attandant thought of eternity in a different way!” I said.
“Yes, she stretched instances… A very old technology… And she had such a fragrant smell…”
“And you stink horribly!” said I.
“Good for your courage!” she told me smiling. “I had already read that thought of yours. But I waited for you to muster up the courage to say it. You are innocence itself…”
No, someone else was innocence itself.
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