The boy Alexander whittled a piece of wood in the kitchen. Golden, delicious peels covered his scuffed hands.
The kitchen opened into a yard. It was spring: doors would not shut, grass grew by the stoop, spilled water glistened against the rocks. A rat took refuge in the trash bin. Someone was frying potatoes. A kerosene stove was lit. The life of the stove began lavishly, in a plume of fire that reached to the ceiling. It died in a tiny blue flame. A neighbor boiled crabs. He would use two fingers to grab a crab by its waist. The crabs bore a greenish tinge reminiscent of the plumbing. Suddenly, a few drops of water escaped the faucet. The faucet snorted. Its pipes rattled back and forth in various voices. Dusk took shape at once. Through the wicket gate in the yard a lone glass tumbler on the windowsill received the last rays of the sun. The faucet continued to grumble. A varied crackle and stir commenced around the stove.
Twilight was splendid. People ate sunflowers; someone sang. A domestic, yellow light fell onto the sidewalk, brightly illuminating the stand of a food vendor.
A critically ill man by the name of Ponomarev lay alone in a room next to the kitchen. A candle burned. A doctor’s script marked the flagon of medicine above his head. When friends visited, Ponomarev would say:
“Congratulate me, I am dying.”
A delirium took him in the evening. The doctor’s script stretched like a ribbon. The medicine flask stared. It turned into a royal bride named Onomastica.1 The patient was hallucinating. He wanted to write a scholarly treatise. He conversed with his blanket.
“Are you not ashamed?” he chastised it in a whisper.
The blanket would sit beside him, lie next to him, exit on occasion, and return with news.
He was surrounded by a few things: his medicine, a spoon, light, wallpaper. Other things left him. When he understood that he was critically ill and that he was dying, he also understood how great and varied was the world of things and how little of it had remained under his control. With every day their numbers diminished. A near thing like a rail ticket was now irreversibly distant. At first, the quantity of things diminished at the periphery, far from him. The diminishing then approached, at a rapidly increasing pace, into the yard, house, hallway, into his room, and toward his center, to him, toward the heart.
Initially, the disappearance of things did not cause him much distress.
Whole continents of possibility disappeared as a matter of old age: the Americas, the possibility of being rich or good looking, the prospect of a family (he was single). Real pain came when he saw that even those objects that followed regularly beside him were receding. So one day left the street, the concept of work, post office, and horses. The vanishing accelerated nearby, close at hand. The corridor was already out of reach and in his very room, before his eyes, his overcoat, door latch, and shoes slipped from his grasp. He knew that death was destroying things on the way to him. From a world of their vast and easy quantity she left him only a few, and those that, if it were up to him, he would never let into his household. He received a bedpan. He received the terrible visits and looks from his friends. He was powerless to resist these unsolicited and unwanted (as he always thought) possessions. They were singular and indispensable now. He lost the right to choose his things.
The boy Alexander was tinkering with a model airplane.
He was more complicated and more serious than others thought of him. He cut his fingers, bled, littered his wood chips, left glue streaks, begged for silk,2 cried, and got whacked upside the head. Adults thought themselves in the absolute right. Meanwhile, the boy’s actions were completely mature. More than that, he acted as few adults can: in total agreement with science. His model was built according to blueprint. Calculations were made. He understood the underlying principles. Although he could object to the harassment of his elders with rational explanations and with experimental results, he remained silent, because he did not feel justified in appearing more serious than them.
Around the boy were arranged bands of rubber, wire, wood planks, silk, airy wisps of silk fabric, and the smell of glue. The sky sparkled. Insects walked on stone. Embedded into the stone one could see a hardened shell.
The boy at work would be approached by another, smaller child: tiny and mostly naked except for his blue elastic skivvies. The toddler touched stuff and was in the way. Alexander ousted him regularly. The naked elastic toddler roamed the house and the corridor where a bicycle stood, with one of its pedals resting to the side. (The pedal scraped through wallpaper—it was as if the bicycle held onto the wall by that scrape.)
Occasionally, the toddler’s head bobbed up and down at the broadsides of the patient’s bed. Ponomarev’s temples were pale, like a blind man’s. The child approached bluntly to examine them. He thought nothing of it. The world was always so: bearded men were supposed to be in their rooms, in bed. He was just entering the understanding of things and could not yet distinguish a difference in their duration.
The toddler turned and started on a march to explore his surroundings. He saw floor tiles, dust under the baseboards, cracks in the wall plaster. Lines converged and diverged around him. Bodies came to life. A focal point of light appeared suddenly. The boy rushed towards it, but no sooner that he took a step, his perspective shifted and the shape dissolved. The child looked for it—up and down, behind the furnace. He searched and finally gave up, perplexed, shrugging his shoulders. Every moment created a new entity. Wondrous was the spider. It flittered away at a mere thought of a touch.
For the dying man, things that departed left only their names.
There was an apple in the world, shining in the foliage. It’s rotation took with it a few shreds of the day, the blueness of the garden, and the window transom. Gravity was in wait under the apple tree, on black soil, among the knolls. Beaded ants scurried among the knolls. Newton sat in the garden. A multitude of causes capable of producing many more effects concealed themselves inside the fruit. But not one of those effects were meant for Ponomarev. Apples became an abstraction for him. And the fact that their matter escaped him while the abstraction remained was painful to consider.
“I thought the external world does not exist,” he pondered. “I thought it was my eye and my ear that ruled objects and I thought the world would cease to exist when I cease. Now I see that everything is turning away from me, even while I am still alive. But I continue to exist! Why then do these objects disappear? I thought it was my brain that gave them form, weight, and color. They left me nevertheless. Only their names—useless, abandoned names—swarm around my head. And what am I to do with these names?”
Ponomarev looked wistfully at the marching toddler, who walked and who was enveloped by things that rushed toward him. He could smile at them without knowing their names. A lush wake of things would break behind him when he left.
“Listen,” the sick man called to the child. “Listen… You. Know that all this will be gone when I die, neither yard, nor tree, nor daddy, nor mommy. I will take them all with me.”
A rat got into the kitchen.
The sick man concentrated on the sounds the rat made as it went about its chores: clanking the dishes, opening the faucet, and rustling about in the bucket.
“Washing the dishes, eh?” he thought.
At once a restless thought came to him: What if, unbeknownst to people, the rat had a name? He began to imagine what it could be. He was delirious. The more he thought about it the more afraid he became. He understood that he must, by all means, stop thinking about the rat’s name and yet he continued, knowing that at the very moment this nonsensical and horrifying name would appear to him, he would die.
“Liompa!” he suddenly screamed in a terrible voice. The house slept. It was early morning, a few minutes past six. The boy Alexander did not sleep. The kitchen door was left open into the yard. The sun was still somewhere beneath. Crooked at the waist, the dying man walked through the kitchen. His limp wrists burdened his already heavy, outstretched hands. He came to take his things. The boy Alexander ran through the yard. A model airplane flew ahead. It was the last thing Ponomarev saw. It flew away before he could take it.
A long blue box decorated in yellow appeared in the kitchen later that day. The elastic toddler watched it from the corridor, his hands folded behind his back. It had to be tediously manipulated to get it through the door, getting stuck across the shelf and hitting a pot as bits of plaster fell. The boy Alexander climbed on top of the stove to help. When the box came through finally, into the corridor, turning black at once there, the toddler stomped ahead.
“Grandpa! Grandpa,” he yelled. “They brought you a casket.”
Olesha’s prose is characterized by choppy, hypnotic, often repetitive diction, lean descriptive lists, and idiosyncratic idiom. The author punctuates short, sentences containing clinically precise description, with flights of lyrical estrangement in which simple things are described in unfamiliar, jarring ways. A sense of melancholy haunts this story, conveyed through ambiguous grammatical constructs that waver between the simple and the habitual past tense. In this way, Olesha purposefully blurs the lines between “the boy approached” and “the boy would often approach.” Such scenes seem to have happened once and to have always been happening continuously, creating a sense of eternal time which transcends the specificity of narrative placement. The rural house comes alive through careful detail, yet lives on as an archetype. I tried to preserve and prioritize these features in translation, where possible.
Previous translations (out of print) include:
Oleša, Jurij K, and Aimee Anderson. Complete Short Stories & Three Fat Men. Ann Arbor, Mich: Ardis, 1979.
Yarmolinsky, Avrahm. Russians: Then and Now: A Selection of Russian Writing from the Seventeenth Century to Our Own Day. New York: Macmillan, 1963.
A few select tools are essential for my translation workflow. The first of these is multitran.ru, a remarkable online meta-aggregation of high quality Soviet-era Russian/English dictionaries which deserves a media archaeology of its own. In addition I use the following common resources:
Oxford English Dictionary Online. The online version includes full etymological entries, which are important in reconstructing English approximates of phrasing that relies on a sense of the Russian root form.
Dal’s Russian Etymological Dictionary. Same as above. Dal’s is the golden standard in Russian etymology.
Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. It is usually on my desk, although writers like Olesha tend toward plain, colloquial expression. I did not have much need of it in this translation.
Garner’s Modern American Usage is my go-to guide through tricky grammatical or stylistic terrain. Garner finds the right balance between proscription and description, and that with a sense of humor and humility that makes this reference work a pleasure to read.
It is worth noting that, according to Russian Federation Federal Law N230-F3 (03.07.2016), copyright of literary creative works applies retroactively for 70 years after publication. Olesha’s “Liompa,” published in 1928, therefore entered the public domain in 1998.
The Russian тезоименитство is derived from an Old Church Slavonic root and means “namesake day,” a holiday distinct from one’s birthday celebrated in Christian Orthodox and Catholic traditions. It is not a common word. I chose the similarly uncommon (in English) Greek-derived name for the holiday: onomastico in Italian and ονομαστική γιορτή in Greek. Names and naming of objects are a major theme in the story. ↩
Silk was (and still is now, in the hobbyist community) commonly used to create an aerodynamic surface around an airplane wing or an aileron. See for example “How to Silk a Model Aircraft Wing” on Airfield Models: https://web.archive.org/web/20170614043457/http://www.airfieldmodels.com/information_source/how_to_articles_for_model_builders/finishing_techniques/silk_a_wing/index.htm ↩