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There is no other writer at work today like the award-winning Geoff Dyer. Here he embarks on an investigation into Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, the masterpiece of cinema that has haunted him since he first saw it thirty years ago.
An empty bar, possibly not even open, with a single table, no bigger than a small round table, but higher, the sort you lean against—there are no stools—while you stand and drink. If floorboards could speak these look like they could tell a tale or two, though the tales would turn out to be one and the same, ending with the same old lament (after a few drinks people think they can walk all over me), not just in terms of what happens here but in bars the world over. We are, in other words, already in a realm of universal truth. The barman comes in from the back—he’s wearing a white barman’s jacket—lights a cigarette and turns on the lights, two fluorescent tubes, one of which doesn’t work properly: it flickers. He looks at the flickering light. You can see him thinking, ‘That needs fixing’, which is not the same thing at all as ‘I’ll fix that today’, but which is very nearly the same as ‘It’ll never be fixed.’ Daily life is full of these small repeated astonishments, hopes (that it might somehow have fixed itself overnight) and resignations (it hasn’t and won’t). A tall man—a customer!—enters the bar, puts his knapsack under the table, the small round table you lean against while drinking. He’s tall but not young, balding, obviously not a terrorist, and there’s no way that his knapsack could contain a bomb, but this unremarkable action—putting a knapsack under the table in a bar—is not one that can now go unremarked, especially by someone who first saw Stalker (on Sunday, February 8, 1981) shortly after seeing Battle of Algiers. He orders something from the barman. The fact that the barman’s jacket is white emphasizes how not terribly clean it is. Although it’s a jacket it also serves as a towel, possibly as a dishcloth, and maybe as a hankie too. The whole place looks like it could be dirty but it’s too dingy to tell and the credits in yellow Russian letters—sci-fi Cyrillic—do not exactly clarify the situation.
It’s the kind of bar men meet in prior to a bank job that is destined to go horribly wrong, and the barman is the type to take no notice of anything that’s not his business and the more things that are not his business the better it is for him, even if it means that business is so slow as to be almost nonexistent. Far as he’s concerned, long as he’s here, minding his own business and wearing his grubby barman’s jacket, he’s doing his job, and if no one comes and no one wants anything and nothing needs doing (the wonky light can wait, as can most things) it’s all the same to him. Still smoking, he trudges over with a coffeepot (he’s one of those barmen who has the knack of imbuing the simplest task with grudge, making it feel like one of the labours of a minimum-wage Hercules), pours some coffee for the stranger, goes out back again and leaves him to it, to his coffee, to his sipping and waiting. Of that there can be no doubt: the stranger is defi nitely waiting for something or someone.
A caption: some kind of meteorite or alien visitation has led to the creation of a miracle: the Zone. Troops were sent in and never returned. It was surrounded by barbed wire and a police cordon. . . .
This caption was added at the behest of the studio, Mosfilm, who wanted to stress the fantastical nature of the Zone (where the subsequent action will be set). They also wanted to make sure that the ‘bourgeois’ country where all this happened could not be identified with the USSR. Hence this mysterious business of the Zone all happened—according to the caption—‘in our small country’, which put everyone off the scent because the USSR, as we all know, covered a very large area and Russia was (still is) huge too. ‘Russia . . .’, I can hear Laurence Olivier saying it now, in the Barbarossa episode of The World at War. ‘The boundless motherland of Russia.’ Faced with the German invasion of 1941, Russians fell back on the traditional strategy, the strategy that had done for Napoleon and would do for Hitler too: ‘Trade space for time’, a message Tarkovsky took to heart.
Excerpted from Zona by Geoff Dyer. Copyright © 2012 by Geoff Dyer. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Geoff Dyer is the author of four novels (most recently Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi); a critical study of John Berger; a collection of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition; and five highly original nonfiction books, including But Beautiful, which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize, and Out of Sheer Rage, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. He lives in London.