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"Silvering" - excerpt from Stet by James Chapman 

James is the author of five novels, most recently Daughter!
I Forbid Your Recurring Dream!  He operates Fugue State Press, a publisher
of experimental and advanced fiction. He lives in New York.


© 2004 James Chapman


Not everybody in this country is dead or arrested. Look, here is a citizen of Leningrad who's even feeling fine. He still has his work (silvering mirrors), he has his family (they see him sometimes) and even has time for a hobby: he collects autonomy, he gathers it into his republic, and each day his republic breaks away. This is a way of speaking; in plain words, he's a soak. He finds freedom in his hobby, like many good workers do, but in his case his hobby is collecting time and spending it freely.

You cannot love without adopting the opinions of those you love, it can't be done. You may say you've done it, but was it love? How did it end up? Did you suspend judgment, night and day, refrain from criticizing, did you keep your beliefs to yourself? Or did you both argue, love, love and argue? Are you still together? Forgive these questions. We are taught early on that we love our parents, whether this is true or no; when we first learn the word love our feelings for those people are given us as the example. This man, the drunken mirror-silverer, he hates his wife, for the quite common reason that he knows his mother hated her. His only other choice would be to love his wife and learn to hate the memory of his mother; this would have been more brave. But an exalted man is able to love and forgive absolutely anybody, and this is where alcohol comes in. Drink is the suspension of judgment. Unfortunately, when he drinks he beats this wife of his, but he does so in sorrow, his soul overcast with philosophy.

Let's move on, we're stagnating. He's not here in the Summer Garden anyway. You'll find him under the little bridge at Lebyazhaya Kanavka, in the company of no other experts in his field. The Summer Garden is fenced in by iron railings topped with gilded deadly spear-points, and this citizen, whose last name is Jewish, who is no less than a Goldberg, he is not comfortable in the Summer Garden, he prefers this cement shelf under the bridge crossing the little canal called Swan Ditch, a shelf nobody sees, where you can sit and drink enough undisturbed to be capable of understanding the river.

Goldberg the mirrorer has breathed enough silver vapor to possess mirrored lungs, and when he drinks he feels the silver rise to his brain, making slippery and easy the pieces of world which normally resist him. He is a member of the Party, proud of it, and he hates Jews as much as any drinking Russian.

Excuse me, I understand your question, but it can't be answered unequivocally. Better to ask, is he still Jewish while consumed by his hobby, or not? Are you still a mailman when a car is hitting you? When you're falling off a cliff, are you thinking about brushing your teeth? They put wings onto birds because without them a bird is not enough. With wings a man could float above national problems such as the presence among us of the Jews, he could float above his own little house as easily as doing cartwheels past his mother's grave, he could drift to the horizon and find out what's happening in the land of other opinions. His passport, under Nationality, says Jew, but what is a passport to a bird?

A Sufi who didn't mind getting executed by religious experts could say God is me, and thereby create something that would always stay in the minds of men, even though the Sufi in question, Shamsetdin Tebrizi, did not last long. It was a question of the freedom to make remarks. This outstanding mirror-silvering specialist sits under the bridge even on the coldest day of this cold year, because he has looked all around, he's tried to find the arching Russian sky with burning stars into which a soul can rise, and he has found only a tempera-paint sky pasted with foil stars. But he knows that with a bridge over you, hiding you, you can cry out as softly as you like and still be heard. You will be heard.

Goldberg knows more about Sufism than he knows about the Jewish prophets. He knows intimately more about the effects of alcohol on blood circulation than about Marxism-Leninism. He knows more about deceitful faces than about the NKVD. He is God, and has decided to run the waters of the Neva backwards until all the saboteurs and rootless cosmopolitans are washed out of the city. Tsar Peter watches him, giving thanks. All the historic conflict between capital and humanity is pivoted on Goldberg's drunken wrist as it floats on the air like a feather. Nothing can harm the man of faith, because the man of faith has the freedom to talk to himself.

Goldberg turns his head so he can put his ear to the concrete of the bridge. He hears every footstep in Leningrad. He will be listening. He will be here, at his post, waiting for the flight of birds, he who believed in the new utopia, and in the fathers of the Revolution, and who gave his life to the future creation of Communism.

Goldberg who was rejected, Goldberg who rejects everything, furious at the cement bridge, the filthy water, the smug pigeons, the moronic sunshine, the cretin snow. He is no longer expansively but fascistically drunk, wanting the bullyboy heaven to open for him, the heaven of freedom-for-me, where the world will have to respond to the turn of that wrist, the wrist that looks so big from where he's standing, all right he's angry, he knows what happened to all the friends whose graves he cannot even visit, because we do things differently here than in the decadent West, where graveyards just lie there shameless.

He stares into the water because he will never be considered anything but a twig on the surface. All he can achieve is an antisocial, parasitical, private, unimportant transcendence of his own unimportant unhappiness. A chain and a noose for you, my friend, if this were old Russia. In the new Soviet, you will have the opportunity to die unseen. Only a few comrades, the sentinels of the basements, the workers of machine pistols, will see you in your ditch.

When you are dead, you will have wisdom, so plan wisely for your death. The day will arrive when Goldberg is able to accept the extremely outlandish, inexplicable life he is confronted with, and say, I will shut up, here. Here is what I don't understand. He will say I'm not qualified and become silent. Silence his diploma.

             We mention this man because on the day Stet was arrested, Goldberg also disappeared. Nobody knows whether he managed to disappear without the assistance of the State. A legend says it's possible to buy false papers, change identities, and start again, no stigma and no memories. They say you can efface yourself so well, you won't even remember the cruel things your mother used to say to you. If that's so, then perhaps Goldberg's still alive somewhere, a Grigorenko now, autonomous, a hidden bit of light like blackened silver.






All work is copyrighted property of James Chapman.





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