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March 20, 2023

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 2

By Robert Earle

Valery Asimov and Ivan Karamazov have come to America at the urging of the man called River -- the man also called Lenin. Valery has been designated Russian consul in San Francisco; Ivan has had a more immediate role forced on him -- that of lover, seduced by the lovely wife of Thomas McGrath. Yet their journey across the United States has little meaning without the history that preceded it ...


London -- like New York afterwards and Washington briefly after that -- with its reproving monuments, fogs, sulky river and human infinity (every imaginable skin color and costume festooning the urban panorama) had not been their designated destination, but Ivan had to concede that Valery was right when they'd got there from Berlin. They had needed time to prepare themselves before going to America. They had needed time to think how best to devise their double lives. Valery knew London better than he knew St. Petersburg or Moscow, though Ivan had felt that he was walking on a sheet of ice on which he would either slip or fall through.

They stayed in a hotel suite until Valery had the opportunity to call on the Russian ambassador and offer his services. The ambassador, with the Germanic name Stoltz, spoke French fluently but English badly, so he leapt at the opportunity to engage Valery as his private secretary, a role Valery had intermittently played for his father, Stoltz's predecessor times three, when he was thirteen.

"It's cheeky," Ivan laughed. "What will you do for him?"

"Manage his correspondence and accompany him around," Valery said. "I can't eat his dinner for him, but once he's had it, he can tell me what he thinks he heard in the evening's conversation and I'll tell him what he's got garbled and what he actually understood."

Ivan was fascinated. Apparently the whole world was full of Russians doing the czar's bidding. There were the ambassador, the minister, a first, second and third secretary, a few clerks, and a man who coordinated the Okhrana's agents in London, Smedlov. Smedlov reported to the minister of interior and spied as much on the ambassador and his diplomatic staff as he did on malcontented Russian exiles.

Valery, understandably, was queasy, schooled by his father to think the czar should not in fact exist but not to do anything about those thoughts, much less feed Ivan information that would undermine Stoltz's mission to pretend that Russia wanted good relations with Great Britain despite the Panjdeh Incident. But he pushed himself, remembering the jolly Engels giving his father "what for" and smiling Valery's way as he did it -- Russia was an anachronistic beast, a vast piece of miserable soggy toast that ate whole peoples for breakfast and not the other way around.

"What was the Panjdeh Incident?" Ivan asked

"We had an idiot general who charged across the Oxus River and there was a great to-do with the British. Afghanistan is theirs. They pushed us back. We settled on a line of demarcation. But there needs to be more reassurance that we still don't want Afghanistan ... and Persia ... and Tibet ... and why not China? There's been a whole to-do about China as well."

Ivan thought about the use of "we" and "us" and reflected on the embarrassed irony with which Valery spoke these words. Everything was twisted and uncomfortable. From Skotoprigonyevsk, Katerina Ivanovna wrote that River wanted them to leave London as instructed, not use themselves up in a place where there already were more than enough alienated Russians in play. But what could he possibly do in America when he did not know what to do in London? He, too, was embarrassed, deeply embarrassed. He missed Katerina Ivanovna and puzzled over the paradox that he could only preserve their love if he transcended, or abolished, who he had been. The question he asked himself over and over was why he had been born with the sense that the world must imminently come to an end.

They took a house in Kensington on the street where the poets Browning had lived and hired an Irish housekeeper named Iris Murphy and an English cook named Jenny Lamb. The sitting and dining room were on the first floor along with the kitchen. The second floor offered a study and two bedrooms, one for Ivan (whom they knew as Mr. Morris, as in Morris Brawley) and one for Valery. Iris and Jenny lived in a large room on the third floor divided by a curtain for privacy, but the pipes knocked whenever they used the loo, trumpeting their privacy's demise in its moment of greatest need.

If Mr. Valery was the one with the job at the embassy, the women assumed Mr. Morris was the one to give them their instructions, house money, and pay. They simply waited for him to come downstairs for breakfast (Mr. Valery already had left) and presented him with their requests, requirements and suggestions.

"Would corned beef and cabbage be suitable for dinner, sir?" Jenny asked.

"I wouldn't think so," Iris said.

"Why not?" Ivan asked, not quite sure what corned beef was.

"It's never fresh, sir," Iris said.

"Oh, it can be fresh all right," Jenny said.

"But it isn't gentlemen's food," Iris said.

"Well, I think it could be with the right preparation and a certain mustard sauce I know," Jenny said.

Ivan suggested they try the corned beef and cabbage. He authorized the purchase of flowers and the purchase of a second set of second sheets while wondering why said sheets weren't referred to as a third set of sheets. He also agreed it was too much for Iris Murphy to clean the outside of the windows as well as the inside. Then he went to the street corner and waited for a red horse-drawn trolley that took him to a coffee house famous for its newspapers -- all the English papers and the continental papers and Russian papers, too. He didn't want to be seen reading the Russian papers so he sat where he could read the English and German and French papers and yet still see the Russian papers being read by others. The news, taken all in all, struck him as significant as several battle lines of ants marching nowhere in proper formation.

He had to do better than that. He had to reunite with what he had thought -- or thought he thought -- reading and thinking in Katerina Ivanovna's yellow house in Skotoprigonyevsk. So next he went to the British Museum where he found the volumes he needed to trace Russia's historical dissatisfaction with being Russia, always seeking more land, better access to cold water and warm water, more Tashkents, more Kivas, Bokaras, Kokands and Bakus ... things he could fling in the British Empire's face to anger and stir the British and make them ask themselves why they had lost sixteen thousand in Afghanistan only to give it up ... or sacrificed so many sons and daughters of John Bull to civilize India, only to give it up. To whom? Nicky Romanov? Ivan could see that would enrage them; he didn't need River's instructions via Katerina Ivanovna. Tell the British they might not get Lhasa! Tell them what Russia had in mind for China and beautiful Hong Kong! He'd sit there looking at the pallid, doughy faces of the Englishmen who surrounded him in the reading room and imagine their indignation, their concern ... almost sharing in it ... revising his parable of Christianity's failure so that it read like a prophecy of a dark, calamitous century ahead ... a pit into which, yes, he could feel himself falling as well.

Corned beef and cabbage one night, hake another, liver and onions another ... tiny partridges, but a lot of them ... something Jenny called "savory stew" ... welsh rarebit, actually rabbit, which both Ivan and Valery liked ... so next they had venison ... and after that duck ... and after that the little partridges again because it was the season for them.

As a young man in Moscow, he used to write things under the nom de plume "Eyewitness." It was how he paid the bills, receiving not a kopeck from his greedy, complaining father, the man who taught him the feeling of contempt before he knew the meaning. Now he began to write something he called "The Annals" by Taciturn (his homage to Tacitus). He showed Valery the first article, only 800 words in length, entitled, "The Czar's designs on Middle Earth."

Valery said, "If you had this published, it would be most disturbing to my master His Excellency Stoltz."

"It's nothing, only a précis of what I would intend."

"But what you intend is clear: inform the British public of how ravenous Rus is. We will consume England's vanities like candy."

"We" again. There was no way not to say it, although "we" were not who they were. Not anymore. They were changing, all the time changing, Ulyanov becoming Lenin, Valery losing his baby fat and hair, Ivan -- Morris Brawley -- growing grayer and developing crows' feet in the corner of his eyes. When Ivan thought about it, as he often did, he doubted Katerina Ivanovna could have any idea who they were becoming ... each of them acquiring a certain strength and style ... false but true ... an alchemy of roles transmuting them into the non-Russians that all of Russia would become ... except she was still there, her role to be her Russian self.

He wrote article after article and they were published and Valery would take them in to His Excellency Stoltz and Stoltz would make a little gasping noise.

"Everything I do this man undoes!" he would cry. "I'm asked about him all the time! All this history! Ancient history! By 'Taciturn' does he compare himself to Tacitus? How dare he?"

He dared because he liked Tacitus's dryness so much, his rapier succinctness and focus on the personages and acts that doomed Rome. And it was a way of keeping himself in check, not ranting and railing -- no booming Ciceronian thunder, no Dostoevskian wildness, no brain fever distorting and discrediting his annihilating judgments. Subject: Catherine the Great. Subject: Peter the Great. Subject: Ivan the Terrible. Subject: Ukraine usurped. Subject: Finland finished. Subject: Estonia Under Control. Subject: Dead Decembrists. Subject: infant mortality ... typhus ... the famine of 1891 ...

Ivan wrote four articles on Chekhov's book about Sakhalin, the penal colony in easternmost Russia where he assumed Dmitri and Alexei remained. He described the destitution, the forlornness, the forgottenness, the clanking of shackles, the hunger ... the men who slept head to foot on planks and dared not move to brush off the insects that swarmed them for fear of tumbling to the ground.

He said to Valery, "I like Chekhov so much because there is no God in him. Do you see any God in him? You see it in Dostoevsky, you see it in Tolstoy, you see it everywhere in Russian letters, but this man, he's the real Taciturn ... what a mood he must have been in to put himself through that journey! I want so much to do something like that. How can I do something?"

"But you are doing something! Who in England has any idea of what Chekhov had to say? Yet thousands read your essays."

Ivan couldn't accept it. He thought he was just sitting in London making meaningless noise and had begun to hate the reading room in the British Museum, playing at being Marx, not wanting to reread what he'd already read in Skotoprigonyevsk after he destroyed his religion and watched his family destroyed and felt his head on fire for months and years afterward. He wanted to act; he wanted to get off the charred plane of his mind; he wanted to find a path into the forest, or the city, or the world where one would hear things singing and scuttling and see them flee and stalk and mean what they said.

To be continued ...

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-01-21
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