Vassily Aksyonov The New Sweet Style  
Vassily Aksyonov:
The New Sweet Style
The New Sweet Style (Vassily Aksyonov)

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  Three Steps

On August 10, 1982, Alexander Zakharovich Korbach set foot on American soil for the first time. As he was standing in the massive queue at passport control in the Pan Am terminal, the date kept buzzing in his head: there was some further meaning in it. It was only once he was past the checkpoint and alongside the baggage carousel that it came to him: it was his birthday! Every year on this date, he "turned" something, and just now again he had "turned" something: forty-two, was it? No, forty-three. If he had thought a year ago in the Crimea that in a year he would "celebrate" his birthday in a New York airport! August 10, 1982. Forty-three years old--head hurts from last night--an H-1 visa--fifteen hundred dollars and three thousand francs in my pocket, I don't feel anything but a "simoom of sensations."

His first encounter on American soil happened to be a pleasant, if not a liberating, one. Suddenly, his suitcase arrived, among the first ones--came leaping out of the netherworld, displaying a strange agility, not to say excessive familiarity. Looking at the suitcase, Alexander, a man with a penchant for inadequate reflections about insignificant things, thought: Why, here it is, this battered little suitcase, and it's somehow endearing. The heart of the matter, after all, as it turned out, was this: someone killed a large animal somewhere, they made a case out of the hide in Latvia, and now everything "beastly" about it has vanished, and the suitcase has been transformed into an object of nostalgia.

The case went by, collided with a Hindu bundle, and fell over on its side. The next time around Korbach snatched his belongings from among the other bags and took his place in the line for customs inspection.

Customs Officer Jim Corbett was eyeing him from atop a high stool. While it is impossible to examine all the junk coming into the USA, there does exist a system of selective checking, which the professionals have mastered. The customs specialist reads faces, gestures, any movement. The potential violator is always spotted from a long way off. For example, the balding, finely featured head. An individual difficult to put in a category. The shoulders were twitching strangely--too much, somehow. A drug smuggler doesn't give little jumps like that. Let the head and ears go by, or check him out? It's always a toss-up. "Please open your suitcase," he asked politely, and added: "sir." The individual thrusts a piece of paper at him: "Declaration! Declaration!" Doesn't even understand English! Jim Corbett makes a gesture: a sharp turn of the wrists followed by an elegantly proportioned raising of the palms. "If you don't mind, sir."

There is nothing attractive, but nothing particularly repulsive either, in the suitcase. Among perspiration-stained shirts is a book in an old binding, embossed with a large gold D. Obviously no false bottom. Corbett glances in the passport: you don't get many of them, these Soviets. "Got any vodka?" the officer jokes. "Only in here," the new arrival jokes in reply, tapping himself on the forehead. Great guy--Corbett laughs to himself--it'd be nice to sit with him at Tony's.

A Russian must carry a lot of interesting stuff around inside, Corbett went on thinking for several minutes, allowing potential violators to pass without a check. A country of exceptional order, everything under control, no homosexuality--how do they manage it?

Meanwhile, Alexander Korbach was making his way in a crowd toward the entrance to a yawning tunnel, at the other end of which, in fact, the land of freedom began. A body that has just flown across an ocean might not yet be at full strength. Maybe the astral threads, all of these chakras, idas, pingalas, kundalinis, had to reassemble themselves into their natural order after having been transported at a speed so unnatural to human creatures, he mused with a melancholy chuckle. The shuffling of feet doesn't mean anything yet--it's just the movement of indistinguishable mechanisms wanting to end up in America. It takes time for old passions to rekindle.

Beyond the crowd Alexander Zakharovich could make out three steps of varying shades: the first white and of marble; the second rough, of some scorched-looking stone, purple to the point of blackness; and the third of fiery scarlet porphyry. The crowd silently flowed into the tunnel.

A second crowd, this one quietly waiting to greet the arrivals, came into view at the end of the cavern. The lights for the television cameras were already jutting out over their heads. Keep your cool, Korbach said to himself. Speak only Russian. No humiliating attempts at the local lingo. I'm sorry, gentlemen, the situation is unclear. For the moment, the theater still exists. The question of my position as artistic director is up in the air. There are creative forces in the United States with whom I feel an intellectual and stylistic kinship, and the purpose of my visit is to establish contact with them.
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Excerpted from The New Sweet Style by Vassily Aksyonov. Copyright © 1999 by Vassily Aksyonov. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photo credit © André Villers