Public Republic random header image

“Worlds” by Vladimir Zarev – Excerpt II

March 21, 2012 by · No comments

Vladimir Zarev. Worlds. Sofia: Five Plus, 2006

Translated by Zlatko Anguelov and Elizabeth Frank

Continued from: “Worlds”, Excerpt I

Worlds, Vladimir Zarev
Photo: drvglvd1


[The love encounter between Diana and Samuel takes place in a typical Balkan setting, far away from the world, amidst gunshots, self-aggrandizing talk, madness, and mysticism. It is the plot’s culmination where two people from two worlds far apart meet and strive to achieve an impossible liaison. (pp 348-373 of the original edition)]

Diana entered the hotel lobby at three minutes to nine exactly. She wore her long fur coat and familiar tailored suit; always elegance itself and so obsessively different from his wife, she nevertheless once again reminded him of Doris. With her head proudly erect, she advanced toward him, and Samuel suddenly realized that he could no longer regard her simply as an interesting and gorgeous woman.

He’d had the misfortune of reading her manuscript, which had not only had a depressing effect on him but had in all likelihood alienated him from her. But now Diana seemed to be a different person. More remote. Elusive. Beyond his yearning for them to be together.

“I didn’t bring your folder, Ms. Popova, because I don’t know where we’re going.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said with a smile.
“But I think I understood why you needed the books by Jung.”
“Please, let’s not talk about it,” she said, cutting him off tactfully. “Outside the sun is shining. It’s a wonderful day.”
“We’re not going to talk about it … and the day with you is going to be really wonderful.”

Two husky guys with butch haircuts burst into the lobby in black outfits, with black T-shirts beneath their jackets, black sunglasses, gold chains flowing down their necks. They were noisy and as if faceless, brazen no doubt like their master—for it seemed unlikely that behind such an unabashed display of freedom there stood no master; handguns swung under their jackets.

The men showed Diana and Samuel to a new Mercedes, also black, and polished like a cavalryman’s boot. On the seat next to the driver a Kalashnikov had been propped up; its cartridge clip shone with grease. They drove out of town, took off on a deserted highway, then began moving uphill.

“Where are we going?” asked Samuel.
“Top secret,” answered the shorter of the men, stroking his bristling head, and shifting the automatic rifle to his other side.
“Is smoking allowed?”
“Everything is allowed,” he replied, grinning mischievously. His teeth were horse-like—yellow and big.

Diana huddled in her corner; she looked worried, perhaps even scared. Attempting to compose herself, she told him that they had driven into the Stara Planina—she translated it, Old Mountains, or, in the Bulgarian vernacular, simply The Balkan—and that this was the longest mountain range in the region, cutting across the entire country.

They passed through several tunnels and began to descend on the other side of the ridge; the sky was a stunned blue, held together by the surrounding hills, which merged into one another. It was beautiful and somehow unforgettably wild. The highway ended abruptly and the car continued on a muddy road, then turned right and came out on another one, with a rundown tarmac.

“But where are we going?” demanded Samuel, this time angrily.
“Surprise,” the driver said, scratching himself uningratiatingly. “Right into the secret; we have orders to keep our mouths shut.”

They passed by tiny, emptied, godforsaken villages; at a turn they ran over a hen, but didn’t stop. The road was obstinately climbing higher and higher and getting narrower and narrower. They crossed a stream over a wooden bridge and leaned over a precipice on the right, for an instant the wheels didn’t grab hold. It felt at once dangerous and sickeningly beautiful.

“This friend of yours, Ms. Popova, is he a real businessman?” Samuel couldn’t restrain himself.
“Yes, but I warned you,” Diana replied rather to herself.

Unexpectedly, the boggy lane came to an end, and they found themselves right up against an old, squat, sprawling building. Its roof-tiles were covered with mold, and the surrounding wall ended in a tin-rimmed wooden gate with an iron cross sticking up above it.

He felt kidnapped, and most likely he really had been. For miles around there was nothing but this cheerless, snow-covered wilderness without a single living soul. He didn’t cower; his fear, rather, was odd and untamed, like that he had felt yesterday while he was reading, in bed, Diana’s dissertation. It was a fear at once abstract and full of detail. “They’re going to ask for a ransom” flashed through his mind; he felt feverish. “Oh man, I’m carrying four billion dollars in my briefcase. And they know it!”

Suddenly a bell chimed: soothing, mellifluous, improbable.

“Here! They meet us” said the big-toothed guy in broken English.
“Thank God, a monastery …” Diana said. He felt her relief but couldn’t understand it.
“But what if she’s in it too?” This repulsive question took possession of his mind once again and displaced his fear. He gave her a menacing look. She smiled back encouragingly. Temptingly.

The tin-rimmed wooden gate before them opened wide and the car crawled into a spacious yard, paved with cobblestones; a poky church stood shyly crouched at its far end. There was a long building to the right with flowers peeping through the windows.

Next to the well with its hanging bucket bonfires were burning and tough guys in the same black outfits were turning whole lambs on a spit. The roasted meat was seared and covered with crackling; he felt it sizzle. Hens strolled about, a goat stuck its head out of the pen, a spotted cat was sprawled next to her little bowl and licked her paw in complete bliss.

“Thank God, a monastery …” Diana said again.

They got out of the car. In the effort to keep his presence of mind, Samuel lit a cigarette. A man sprang out from the distant and lowest building and charged toward them. Diana and the man embraced; “twenty two years ago he and I were close,” Samuel recalled her saying and instantly took a dislike to him.

The two of them were chatting intimately, laughing aloud and time and again throwing themselves into each other’s arms like people who haven’t seen each other for a long time, yet haven’t forgotten anything about their common past. Left out and somehow feeling squalid, Samuel turned his head away.

“Mr. Greenberg,” said the man, breathing out cordiality and alcohol; he was clad in a loose but expensive tweed suit, his bald head gleaming with sweat, “Over the past thirty years I have bowed down before your brother. Now it’s a true honor to meet you.”
“Is this your office?” asked Samuel coldly.
“This is my freedom ….” The man winked familiarly.

Ringing and soothing, the bell continued to chime, as if Christ were just risen from the dead or as if a dead man were being seen off at the monastery.


The room in which they put him up was on the vaulted second floor—Diana called it tchardak, translating it for him as “gallery.” To reach it they had to climb up screeching, wormeaten stairs. The room was huge and hot like a sauna, stuffed with pricy furniture, which, however, couldn’t conceal the lumpy, whitewashed walls.

By its aristocratic outline the queensized double-bed reminded him of the one in the Sheraton; across from it prominently stood a couch upholstered in lozenge-patterned leather, a small table with twisted little legs, and a facsimile of a bookcase with empty shelves. Two electric stoves with open resistors and another, antiquated one, which burned wood and ended with rusty pipes, were heating the room.

Smoke poured out of the latter, and its sides glowed red as if they were on the verge of melting. The four little windows peeked marvelously out toward the mountain, but they shared only a single sash and through the hinge-gaps there was blowing in a terrible draft.

The door opened right onto the tchardak. The floor was made of boards in a washed-out color—later on Diana explained that they were scrubbed with a roof-tile—covered with hand-woven Persian rugs.

It smelled of desolation, smoke from logs, burned incense, and geranium preserves: a smell that emanated the presentiment of something pagan and cast about an unwarranted melancholy.

There was only one common bathroom with a shower in this wing of the monastery, and it could only be reached through the tchardak. Inside it was ice-cold; the moisture had worn out and eroded the walls.

The floor was cemented and lightbulbs blown with flies flickered from the ceiling. The remaining accessories, from the toilet bowl to the bidet and the towel racks, were brand-name and ultramodern. A disheveled, filthy broom had been tossed into a corner.

Samuel spat squeamishly, flushed the toilet, and returned to his quarters. The whole way the room had been furnished was stupefyingly eclectic, ornate, and at the same time pitiable; it had all been done in a tasteless hurry, lacking in everything but money.

Such an incredible mixture of reckless luxury and tyrannical meanness he hadn’t seen even in the port brothels of Portugal, Greece, or Turkey, where they’d been anchored during his service in the Navy. He didn’t dare unpack, but sat down on the couch and lit a cigarette.

He felt confused to the point of impotence. It was as if everything in this unknowable country were disguised, losing its focus, being flushed away, breaking down into meanings that he succeeded in grasping one by one, but which afterwards there was no way for him to assemble into a logical whole.

Today, he had prepared himself to conduct business negotiations, to meet with one of the successful new entrepreneurs. However, this Mr. Evstatiev, who looked like a touring fire-juggler from a circus, had brought him to this sacred, out-of-the-way place and was having these thuggish-looking guys roast lambs just twenty feet from the altar.

Years ago, Samuel had been given a kaleidoscope as a gift, an invaluable object in which the little colored glass pieces shaped themselves into magical figures. Now this kaleidoscope had broken, scattered its colors, and morphed into chaos. It was hard for him to judge whether he ought to leave, and, most disgusting of all, he didn’t know whether he ought to laugh at the situation or dread it.

There was a knock on the door. Diana came in; she too looked troubled.

“Mr. Greenberg, they’re waiting for us” she said without enthusiasm.
“You know what I’ve been thinking?” He was at a loss for words; his head suddenly emptied like a bucket. “That I’ve been kidnapped, that you and I have been kidnapped together. I’m scared.”
“Me too, quite frankly.”
“What’s really unfair is that I came here with an open heart, utterly committed to helping. But even such criminal impertinence would follow a certain logic, would have a clear and discernible cause, compared to,” he made an unconscious gesture toward the incandescent stove, “what I’m seeing.”
“I did involve you in this story.”
“Yes, you did!”
“But my intentions were good.”
“You did it because I asked you to. But there’s something else that doesn’t add up. Since the age of five I’ve always believed that life is manageable, that it’s not only something inside me but something I have control over.”
Diana jerked her hair back and smiled as if he were an unruly, boisterous child.
“I quit the Navy on my own steam. I got a lot done in business and alone I blew a lot, too, but it was all because I had a vital goal. Arriving here I’ve been positive that I’m in the right place at the right time. But even to manage myself I need at least to understand whatever’s going on around me.”
“Mr. Greenberg,” Diana said quietly, “we are a part of this accident called life.”
“Everything is predetermined, because it is accidental,” he quoted from her dissertation. “I don’t accept that. Accident is not an argument!”
“Accident is everything we have,” she replied in complete seriousness, “everything that is ordained for us to possess in this world.”

He was reluctant to argue with her; there was no point. The wood in the stove crackled.
“The only thing that inspires me is that you’re with me. God help us!”

He rose to his feet and followed her; outside, the scent of melting snow and roasted meat wafted toward them, redolent of mountain purity and a binge orgy defying reason. Evstatiev’s tough guys were knocking back rakiya right out of the bottles and turning the spit; oil was dripping from the fat.

With the skill of surgeons, they were using a butcher’s knife to skin another lamb, flaying the hide, peeling it off as if they were turning a glove inside out. The meat was a ghostly blue; their faces were glowing with a kind of audacious, barbarian absentmindedness.

They went down the stairs, crossed the cobblestone yard, and entered a basement-like space. The dusk inside was the gloomy color of a shrine and stuffy. A fire burned in the fireplace. The floor was covered with unpolished tiles; a long, crudely assembled table for about twenty people slashed the room in two.

Behind it copper bells hung from the ceiling—Diana called them tchanove—and the stone-built wall was decorated with a stretched bear hide and the antlers of a noble deer. Here at least everything was authentic.

Ignat Evstatiev and an elderly gentleman with silver temples had made themselves comfortable at the head of the table. The old gentleman exuded strength and power; you could say he was a handsome man had it not been for his cleft lip, a visible defect that halved his face. One of the halves left the impression that he was constantly smiling—in a sinister way.

Trays with all kinds of nuts and bottles of sparkling water were scattered across the table. A bottle of that whisky, the seventeen-year-old Ardbeg with its color and flavor of smoke that Doris had bought for their dinner with Oldon, gravely sat there as well. It had cost three hundred dollars a bottle, he remembered, but here a whole case of it had been just left in the corner.

“Welcome to my cloister, Mr. Greenberg,” Ignat Evstatiev grinned familiarly.
“I can’t stand twilight,” Samuel replied sharply. “Especially when I have a deal to make, I insist on being in daylight.”

The bald-headed man made an agile leap and turned on the chandelier. Like everything here, this particular fixture was odd: a wooden wheel turned lightbulb-frame, an old-time wooden wheel, from a donkey cart, wrought with a tin rim.

“I came here to make a deal with you, but feel as if you’ve kidnapped me,” Samuel said with unflagging peevishness.

Ignat burst into laughter. The other man remained rigidly serious; only his right half was smiling.

“I invited you here because I adore this place. During the socialist times atheism in this country was compulsory, but my mother believed in the Savior,” Ignat observed. “To avoid prying eyes, they baptized me in secret in the midget-church outside. I was already ten when I waded in the font—trust me, I’m a sentimental person, I cry at the drop of a hat—so I decided …”

He poured whisky in the clay mugs and added water and ice cubes without asking anybody if they wanted some.

“You can take it that this monastery is mine,” he announced rather menacingly. “You are a preferred guest, and consequently, it is also yours. Make yourself at home.”
“Did you buy it from God?”
“I paid his proxies … the Holy Synod. Actually, let’s drink to Diana. She deserves it, doesn’t she?”
Without concealing his admiration, he gave Diana an odd look—a look of unsatisfied lust. Once again Samuel felt the tension between Ignat and Diana and shivered. Diana didn’t say anything: she either couldn’t or didn’t want to take part in their conversation. She was simply translating.

They took a sip of their drinks.
“Indeed, she does,” Samuel answered anxiously.
“Later on I’ll give you a tour of the estate, the church too; its frescoes date from the fifteenth century. But for the time being, please meet my uncle, he and I are partners in ‘Balkan Investment.’ Ours is a joint holding.” He uttered the word “holding” with special pleasure, as if it were a spell.

The silver-haired man stood up and bowed respectfully: his hand was dry and hot, his face impenetrable and smiling on the right.

“He too is an Evstatiev, Peter Evstatiev Senior. I am Ignat Evstatiev—Evstatiev Junior. I have read that the hereditary industrialists in America refer to themselves in this way.”
“They do, but only when they are father and son. You’re not.” Samuel said. He was wondering what he was doing here, smack dab in the remote recesses of The Balkan, in a monastery that was a negation of his own faith, amidst this unknown pair, Senior and Junior, both of them most likely two provincial hustlers. His stomach was churning from the whisky; he was starving. ‘At least,’ he thought, ‘I’m gonna stuff myself.” His stretched stomach grumbled as he sniffed the sizzling aroma outside.

“This is a Bulgarian specialty—the lamb has to roast over slow heat for twelve hours; it’s called tcheverme,” Diana would tell him later. Right now, Evstatiev Senior was reaching out to one of the bowls with nuts: something next to him slipped involuntarily and rattled heavily on the floor. It was a brand new Kalashnikov, polished as if for a parade.

“Something’s been bugging me. I’ve been wondering,“ he didn’t even blink, “why have you chosen Bulgaria? Four billion is serious loot, in fact a really impressive amount of dough crying out for a matching mouth, a huge fish …”

Samuel had no desire to explain the thrilling triviality that there had to be plenty of well-prepared technologies and computer specialists here, that the Bulgarians had saved their Jews, that he was a sentimental person too, that he had flown over the ocean to get something going for this people, but he was sick of repeating all that, and besides, they wouldn’t understand him.

“I’ve been in the business for quite a while” he said. “I know it—no, I’m quite positive that I’m in the right place at the right time.”
“And you would pour all this incredible money into the pockets of the communists?”
“But isn’t the current government a democratic one?” wondered Samuel.
“Oh yes, but two thirds of them are former communists!” uttered Evstatiev Senior with unruffled calm, patting his smiling half with his hand. “Give us a chance. Trust us, Mr. Greenberg.”
“Even if I wanted to, I‘m not authorized to do it: I only carry a letter of intent. The negotiations will be conducted at AT&T headquarters.”
“But it’s you who pushes the buttons?”

“In a certain sense … It’s my idea, and I have voting rights.” His stomach was rumbling with hunger. “Thanks to Ms. Popova, I know that you’re in the field. Can you provide enough specialists who are also knowledgeable about software?”
“Absolutely no problem,” brashly responded Evstatiev Junior. “The plants are in complete decay, absolutely dead, the Institute for Computer Technologies is a mess—how many top-notch guys do you need? A thousand? Two thousand?” He placed an almond on two fingers, slapped them with his other hand, and caught the almond in the air with his mouth.

“I was hoping to hear that.”
“Look, we’re in a position to play around with at least three to four hundred of your dapper millions.”
“The millions are not mine; neither are they dapper.” Samuel was no longer interested in talk, but asked, in any case, “What do you mean by that?”
Evstatiev Junior laughed broadly, and, who knows why, winked at him.
“I mean spending these hard-working monies!”

“What my nephew has in mind is… appropriating,” Evstatiev Senior coldly interrupted.
“In other words,” Evstatiev Junior smiled obsequiously, “we and you each get about fifty million green ones.”
“Listen to yourself! Do you hear what you’re saying?” Samuel had barely taken two sips of whisky, but he became instantly sober, as if he’d just been sucker-punched. They had assaulted his self-respect: these weird, grotesque speculators had hurt his integrity.

Did they have the slightest idea what integrity meant for a Greenberg? On top of everything, in the refectory, where it reeked of cellar, burnt candle, and spilled wine, a recording device could be turned on; any trick could be set up beforehand to trap him.

“When I get back to Sofia—if I ever do,” the thought sharply crossed his mind, “I’ll have to check and see if someone hasn’t opened my suitcase!”

Diana caught his fit and desperately turned her head away; she took a gulp of whisky for the first time, and firmly clutched the glass. She couldn’t or didn’t want to interfere in such a lowdown game. She was simply translating.

“But you’re offering me a bribe!” Samuel grew furious.
“Don’t be offended, Mr. Greenberg, my nephew is a bit tipsy. He slipped up a bit, uh, what he meant is that you will receive the usual ten percent that is legally commissioned in any deal. That’s quite a hit!” Evstatiev Senior said with disappointment and hurled the kalashnik—this was how Bulgarians affectionately nicknamed this famous weapon—on the sofa behind him.

“Business is not about making hits, Mr. Evstatiev, but about perseverance and morality. The art in business is not to trick anyone, not even once. The fine line is to manufacture a good product at an affordable, competitive cost and to look for a minimal but long-term profit.”
“Seems to me it’s like brewing beer,” Ignat Evstatiev said condescendingly. “You waste a lot of time with beer …”

“And morality in business derives from the fact that,” Samuel pressed on as if he hadn’t heard him, “when you make a profit, you, as a matter of fact, also help your partner make a profit. Money, the world’s money, is like water in connected vessels: keeping it in balance is what is called integrity.”

“Looks easy, and too beautiful to be true,” Evstatiev Senior said between his teeth, in apparent disbelief.
“If you think of it, that’s actually what’s hard, awfully hard, but it’s really beautiful,” Samuel said in a calmer tone. “Everything has its price.”
“Yes … even human life!” Ignat Evstatiev uttered threateningly.
“Even human life … I’ll get big money for the Inter World, but I’ve fought for it for thirty years. It’s my life.”

“I’m sixty,” Evstatiev Senior cut him off coldly, “and I don’t have thirty years to waste.”
“Suppose I make a presentation about your company before AT&T,” Samuel said, following his train of thought. “They’re going to want—they’re going to insist on knowing …”
“Knowing what, Mr. Greenberg?” The left side of Evstatiev Senior’s face looked frozen.
“The source of your capital.”

“Ah, don’t worry … our money is clean.” He turned his smiling half toward him. “Let’s continue this conversation in our office, with clear heads. Mrs. Popova gave us the heads-up that you like shopska salad.”

He clapped his hands and instantly two of his boys dashed into the room. Owing either to the rakiya or the fire outside, they looked warmed up; they had thrown off their jackets, and their guns, hung on broad elastic holsters, were shaking as if having a heart attack.

An authentic earthenware baking dish was brought in, filled to the very brim with shopska salad. Steam breathed out from the lamb roast, and he could feel the scent right in his stomach. The pieces of meat had also been tossed on the monastery’s traditional earthenware plates. To blunt his hunger Samuel lit a cigarette and leaned in closer to Diana.

“Ms. Popova, did you get any of this?” he whispered to her reproachfully.
“Take it easy, Mr. Greenberg, all is accident. Enjoy it,” she retorted with a sickly smile.

Related posts ↓

No comments so far ↓

  • Nobody has commented yet. Be the first!