Discovering America

Tatyana Tolstaya

‘Russia – isn’t that somewhere east of Boston?’ asked the American airport official. In a sense, she was quite right: if you think about it, the whole world lies east of Boston. That’s why I love Americans. They take me back to the beautiful lost world of my sons’ childhood, when every question made one feel a solid, knowledgeable grown-up person, though weighed down with the sad and shameful experience of cynicism, deceit, habitual untruth, insoluble moral problems, with the burden of Europe’s bloody history, and also with the awareness of one’s own mortality – experience from which one would like to protect one’s children.

Americans seem able to resolve Hamlet’s question, ‘To be or not to be?’ quite simply. ‘To be, of course!’ Not to drink wine, not to smoke, in the interests of prolonging one’s health, to jog, to smile, to do sport, to earn a vast amount of money and to spend it with pleasure – generally to enjoy oneself. To the extent that not being unfortunately comes up every now and again, they deal with this unpleasant but essentially transient event as tidily as possible, in order not to spoil their own mood or anyone else’s. One day the citizens of the town of Richmond, Virginia, where I spent last autumn lecturing at the university, received a letter through the post:

Dear friend! For once look truth in the eye. One day you will die. There’s nothing you can do about it! Think how unpleasant it will be for your relatives when they realise that you didn’t make any financial provision for your funeral, that you didn’t buy yourself a space in the graveyard, and that you didn’t take out any insurance, nor arrange for payment of the hospital bills. By contrast what a joy it would be for them to discover you had put all your necessary papers in order! Begin paying now! Begin today. There’s all the more reason as burial costs are on the increase.

And so on. In a word, they badly needed money, and were trying to hurry me up. After my death I would like my relatives to weep and lose their appetites, not to rummage through drawers in search of invoices and receipts: but I would also like to be able to understand those to whom the arguments of these enthusiastic moralists are addressed, their cheerful commonsense, the savage children’s logic.

The sensation of being surrounded by children did not leave me in America. There were the daily television contests in which two families competing for a 10,000 dollar prize had to give the most primitive answers possible to the questions of a host who was also pretending to be a 12-year-old boy – which he hadn’t been since before the war. The families turned out in full: imbecile grandfathers in bright red suits, grannies of incredible size. ‘What food do we know by its smell?’ cried the host. ‘Fi-i-ish!!!’ cried a grandfather, so excited he had to sit down. ‘Correct!’ ‘Hurrah!!!’ his family burst out. ‘Onions!’ a grandmother shouted out. ‘No. That’s not the answer!’ ‘Ooooh ...’ Everyone was upset, the grandmother slipped into the arms of her perturbed daughters, while the infuriated sons beat their palms with their fists, and I had a terrible thought: that’s just how they’ll deal with mom when they get home. But it was worth seeing them all leap up when they won and hug each other, and to see the tears of happiness running as they stretched out their hands towards the room from where equally stupid people, but this time young children and grandchildren of the suddenly rich, were running towards them. The camera didn’t show any losing families: why upset the viewers with the spectacle of human grief? The child psyche can’t bear it.

In the state of Virginia they didn’t want to be upset even when they listened to the weather forecast. ‘Tomorrow in our state the weather will be magnificent,’ said the announcer. ‘Calm and hot. The tornado which is sweeping through Florida will not reach us. We have nothing to fear from the hurricanes in Kansas. The flash floods in Louisiana have nothing to do with us. It’s true, the day after tomorrow we may also have torrential rain, hail, sandstorms and typhoons, but we’re not going to talk about that now: the point is the weather’s going to be quite stupendous tomorrow and I suggest you get out there and enjoy the fine sight of the autumn leaves.’ It was really quite incomprehensible to the hundred people, and to me in particular, who were due to fly next day to the very places where the elements were raging. Was it dangerous or not? Should we fly or not? To be or not to be?

DON’T WORRY. It was a refrain I couldn’t get used to. And it was hard to contain my anger when, as I did everyday, I fished out from the mail box a pile of coloured advertisements urging me to make myself over from head to foot, to change my skin, teeth, hair, legs and head for new ones, to buy a pile of completely new things, with the added incentive that if I bought 11 brassieres I would receive the 12th FREE (actually there isn’t enough space left on my body, but never mind), to buy a new house, a new roof, floor, walls, windows, pipes, porch, chimney and television, vacuum-cleaner, electric lawnmower. And if I do all this I’ll save an enormous amount.

What extraordinary children I met everywhere! For example, a fifty-year-old resident of Richmond who asked me to tell him about New York because he had never been there (from Richmond to New York is an hour by aeroplane). A man who thought that in Russia we wore fur coats made out of horses. A student who supposed that when a Soviet writer finished a novel he took the manuscript straight to the Politburo. A woman student who imagined that everyone in Russia wore the same clothes and had to do time in prison. A fifteen-year-old girl on her way from California to Louisiana with seven dollars in her pocket who showed me photographs of three different young people: the father of her child, her boyfriend and her husband. What’s more, by her own account, she had three mothers and four fathers. She assured me that if you photographed anything in California, even the ocean, you would be arrested, because there were spies everywhere. She asked me why I didn’t clench my teeth and attack her with a knife since I was a Russian. Placing some trust in me, she whispered in my ear that it was a frightening life they led in Louisiana, because there were a lot of blacks there. A person who maintained that no one knew what happened in the Twenties because no one living today was alive then. And the famous Norman Mailer, who had a hammock suspended under the roof of his New York apartment so that when, as he put it, ‘things got boring,’ the whole family could rush from the gallery on the second floor and jump into it. And finally Ronald Reagan himself, who when he came to Moscow for a top-level meeting slipped away from his own security men, so that they looked for him all over Moscow, and, legend has it, found him by an ice-cream stall.

Just like children fighting over bricks or a teddy bear, Americans are always at law with each other: citizens versus the city, the city versus businesses, sister against brother, mice against cats. On the television programme People’s Court it was astonishing to see a young man contesting a suit with a charming girl, whom in a moment of tenderness he had allowed to wear his white sweater. Then they quarrelled, their ardour cooled, and now he was trying to get his sweater back through the court. But for some reason she had already done away with the sweater. So there they both were, insulted and wrapped up in their love, wrestling over a scrap of material that cost about 18 dollars. Knowing their countrymen’s passion for going to court, manufacturers fit all their goods with a label explaining how to use them without cutting off your finger, or poking your eye out, or swallowing anything, and without them having to sue the firm. An apotheosis of all this was the notice on the hand-drier in the washroom of a crummy little bar, standing isolated along the silent road across the Nevada desert: ‘Don’t insert your head into the towel’s loop.’

But if this is a nation of children they are the best children in the world. It’s quite extraordinary how they go out of their way to help the old, the sick, the crippled, the blind, all those whom fate has injured. If there is famine in Ethiopia or an earthquake in Armenia, if there is a flood, a fire or a volcanic eruption somewhere, a mass of people instantly begin collecting money, goods and food. They ready ships, look after children, pay for shelter. They save whales from being culled, clean up sea-birds polluted with oil, and you rarely hear a dog bark in America, because if a dog lives a dignified life, why should he need to descend to vulgar barking? It’s very good to be an invalid in America, for they take you by the hand. They took me by the hand because I didn’t have a car, and a person without a car in America is an invalid. If I happened to come out onto the street carrying a plastic bag or a dress for the cleaners, a car would drive up with a concerned elderly woman in it who had spotted a woman on foot from afar and had rushed to help this unhappy cripple. And had I been a bit younger she would have treated me immediately as her daughter, because they make sons and daughters out of everyone possible, and once they have exhausted the supply at home they’re ready to start buying orphans on other continents. Light-hearted, open, good, quick to get passionately involved and quick to forget, with the assurance of a fool that the history of the human race has no relevance to them – friendly and superficial, and with young faces until they are eighty. ‘Golden butterflies, Americans!’ – as a bitter Greek song says of them.

In Greece, about forty miles from Athens, high above the sea stands the half-ruined temple of Poseidon. Every day hundreds of tourists climb up there to look at the outstanding, unbelievably golden and moving sunset slowly sink into the sea. Byron climbed up there too, and even scratched his name on one of the columns – an example which has been followed by less eminent vandals. As evening approaches and the sun sinks lower, the excitement grows, the crowd becomes denser, people crane their necks, sit on their haunches, stand on tiptoe, not to miss the moment when the sun’s disc touches the still black water. Amongst the crowd when I was there was an old man with red socks, yellow trousers, a pink shirt and a bluejacket, peacefully asleep. He had stretched out his legs, covered his face with his hat and flung to one side the freckled arm holding his purse. My friend, a Greek academic, called me over, looked at him and pronounced with confidence: ‘He’s an American.’ ‘How do you know?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t it obvious? He’s dressed to please himself. He’s fallen asleep where he felt like it. And he’s as peaceful as a child.’

I stayed for a moment looking at the old man who was touchingly blowing little kisses under the hat. A maternal instinct made me want to cover him up with a blanket and tuck him up and say to people around him: ‘Shshsh! It’s an American come to see the European sunset. Don’t wake him. He’ll wake up himself when his time comes.’