Bel canto, p.23
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       Bel Canto, p.23

           Ann Patchett

  “He is a great man, your friend,” she said quietly, watching the empty place where Mr. Hosokawa had been.

  “I have always thought so,” Gen said. He still felt puzzled, despite what Carmen had explained. The look that passed between the two was one he recognized. Gen was in love and the feeling was so utterly foreign to him that he had a hard time believing that others were experiencing it as well. Except, of course, for Simon Thibault, who sat there with his cookbooks, wearing his wife’s blue wrap like a flag. Everyone knew Thibault was in love.

  Roxane lifted her head to the great height of Fyodorov. She composed her face in a different way now. She was ready to listen, ready to receive her professional compliments, ready to make the speaker feel that what he was saying actually had some meaning for her. “Mr. Fyodorov, would you be more comfortable sitting in the living room?”

  Fyodorov faltered under the weight of a direct question. He appeared to be confused by the translation, and just when Gen was ready to repeat himself he answered. “I am comfortable where you are comfortable. I am very happy to stay in the kitchen. I believe this to be a fine room in which I personally have not spent enough of my time.” In fact, as much as he trusted Ledbed and Berezovsky, he would just as soon declare himself in a room where no one could eavesdrop in Russian or English. The occasional clunk of the gun barrels hitting the table or Thibault clucking his tongue over a recipe seemed preferable to being overheard.

  “This is certainly fine for me,” Roxane said. She sipped her glass of water. The sight of it made Fyodorov tremble, the water, her lips. He had to look away. What was it he wanted to say? He could write a letter instead, wouldn’t that be proper? The translator could translate. A word was a word if you spoke it or wrote it down.

  “I believe I need a chair,” Fyodorov said.

  Gen heard the weakness in his voice and rushed forward for a chair. The Russian was slumping down even before it arrived and Gen was barely able to slip it under him in time. With a great exhalation that could have signified the end of everything, the big man tilted his head down towards the floor.

  “My God,” Roxane said, leaning over him, “is he sick?” She pulled a dishtowel off the refrigerator handle and dipped it into her drinking water. She touched the cool terry cloth to the pink expanse of his neck. He whimpered slightly when she rested her hand against the cloth.

  “Do you know what’s wrong with him?” Roxane asked Gen. “He looked perfectly fine when he came in here. It’s just like Christopf, his color, the faintness. Could he be a diabetic? Touch him, he’s cold!”

  “Tell me what she says,” Fyodorov whispered from between his knees.

  “She wants to know what’s wrong with you,” Gen said.

  There was a long silence and Roxane slid her fingers over to his neck to feel the steady thumping of his pulse. Two of her delicate fingers lodged beneath a great flap of his ear. “Tell her it’s love,” he said.


  Fyodorov nodded his head. His hair was thick and wavy and not entirely clean. It had turned quite gray at the temples, but the crown of his head, which Gen and Roxane stared at, was still dark, the crown of a young man.

  “You never said anything to me about love,” Gen said, feeling tricked, feeling he had been put into an awkward position now.

  “I’m not in love with you,” Fyodorov said. “Why should I speak to you of love?”

  “This is not what I believed I was here to translate.”

  With real effort, Fyodorov raised himself up. His skin was not just clammy but the color and consistency of actual clams. “What are you here to translate then, what you deem proper? Are we to speak only of the weather? Since when is it for you to decide what it is fitting for people to say to one another?”

  Fyodorov was right. Gen had to admit it. The personal feelings of the translator were not the question here. It was not Gen’s business to edit the conversation. It was hardly his business to listen at all. “All right,” he said. It was easy to sound tired in Russian. “All right then.”

  “What is he saying?” Roxane said. She moved the cloth to his forehead now that he was sitting up.

  “She wants to know what you’re saying,” Gen told Fyodorov. “I should tell her love?”

  Fyodorov gave a weak smile. He would ignore all of this. No real harm had been done as yet, it was just a little faintness. His only hope was to begin at the beginning, to start the speech as he had practiced it a hundred times in front of Ledbed and Berezovsky. He cleared his throat. “In my country, I am the Secretary of Commerce,” he opened in a thin voice. “An appointed position, I could be gone just like that.” He snapped his fingers but didn’t succeed in getting much of a snap out of them. They were sweaty and so slipped by one another without a sound. “But for now it is a very good job and I am grateful. For a man to know what he has when he has it, that is what makes him a fortunate man.” He tried to look into her eyes but it was really too much for him. He could feel a grinding sensation in his lower intestine.

  Gen translated and tried not to think where all of this was going.

  “Ask him if he’s feeling better,” Roxane said. “I think his color is better.” She took the cloth from his head and he looked disappointed.

  “She wants to know how you’re feeling now.”

  “Is she listening to the story?”

  “You can tell as well as I can.”

  “Tell her I’m fine. Tell her this: Russia never had any intention of investing capital in this poor country.” He kept his eyes for as long as he could on the eyes of Roxane Coss, but when they began to exhaust him too greatly he turned them to Gen. “We have a poor country of our own with many other poor countries to support besides. When the invitation to attend this party came, my friend Mr. Berezovsky, a great businessman, was here and he said I should come down. He told me you would be performing. We were in school together, Berezovsky, Ledbed, and myself. We were dear friends. I am in government now, Berezovsky is in business, and Ledbed, Ledbed you would say deals in loans. We studied in St. Petersburg together a hundred years ago. It is St. Petersburg again. Always we would go to the opera. As young men we would stand in the back for a few rubles, money we did not have at the time. But then jobs came and we had seats, and with better jobs came proper seats. You could mark our rise in the world by our position in the opera house, by what we paid and, later, what we were given. Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, we saw everything that was Russian.”

  The translation was slow and there was a good deal of waiting for all parties involved. “Russia has beautiful operas,” Roxane said. She dropped the dishtowel in the sink and went to get herself a chair, as no one seemed to be bringing one over and this was looking like it might be a long story. When she started to pick one up, the boy called Cesar leapt from the table where he was cleaning his gun and carried it over for her.

  “Gracias,” she said to him. That much she knew.

  “I’m sorry,” Gen said, still standing himself. “I don’t know what I was thinking of.”

  “I guess you’re thinking of Russian,” Roxane said. “That would be a headful. Do you have any idea where this story is going?”

  Fyodorov smiled mutely. His cheeks were pink now.

  “I have a vague idea.”

  “Well, don’t tell me, I want to be surprised. I think this is today’s entertainment.” She leaned back and crossed her legs, then held out her hand as a signal for Fyodorov to continue.

  Fyodorov waited for a moment. He was rethinking his position entirely. After weeks of planning he was realizing now that the course he had chosen was not at all correct. What he had to tell her did not begin in school. It did not begin at the opera even if that was the place it had brought him to. The story he should be telling started much earlier than this. He began again, putting himself in mind of Russia and his childhood, the dark switchback staircase that led up to the apartment where his family lived. He bent his shoulders forward towards Ro
xane. He wondered what direction Russia was from where he sat. “When I was a boy the city was called Leningrad, but you know this. For a brief time it was Petrograd but no one was happy with that. Better the city should have its old name or a new name, but nothing that tried to be something of both. In those days we all lived together, Mother and Father, my two brothers, my grandmother, who was my mother’s mother. It was my grandmother who had the book of paintings. It was a massive thing.” Fyodorov held up his hands to mark the dimensions of the book in the air. If he was to be believed, it was an enormous book. “She told us it was given to her by an admirer from Europe when she was a girl of fifteen, a man she called Julian. If that is true I do not know. My grandmother was one for telling stories. Even more than how she came by the book, how she managed to hold on to it through the war remains a great mystery to me. That she did not try and sell it or burn it for fuel, because there was a time when people would burn anything, that it was not taken from her as it would have been a difficult thing to hide, all of these things are remarkable. But when I was a boy, it was many years past the war and she was an old woman. We did not go to museums to look at paintings in those days. We would walk past the Winter Palace, a marvelous place, but then we did not go inside. I imagine there was not the money for such things. But in the evenings, my grandmother brought out her book and told my brothers and me to go and wash our hands. I was not allowed to even touch the pages until I was ten, but still I washed my hands just for the privilege of looking. She kept it wrapped in a quilt under the sofa in the living room where she slept. She struggled to carry it but would let no one help her. When she was certain the table was clean we would put the quilt with the book inside it on the table and slowly unfold the quilt. Then she would sit down. She was a small woman, and we stood beside her. She was very particular about the light over the table. It couldn’t be too strong because she was afraid of fading the colors, and it couldn’t be so weak that she felt the paintings could not be fully comprehended. She wore white cotton gloves that were perfectly plain and saved for only this occasion and she turned the pages while we watched. Can you imagine this? I will not say we were terribly poor because we were as rich or poor as everyone else. Our apartment was small, my brothers and I shared a bed. Our family was no different from the other families in our building except for this book. So extraordinary a thing was this book. Masterworks of the Impressionist Period it was called. No one knew we had it. We were never allowed to speak of it because my grandmother was afraid someone would come and try and take it away from her. The paintings were by Pissarro, Bonnard, van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Cézanne, hundreds of paintings. The colors we saw at night while she turned the pages were miraculous. Every painting we were to study. Every one she said was something that deserved great consideration. There were nights that she only turned two pages and I’m sure it was a year before I had seen the book in its entirety. It was an extremely good book, I think, expertly done. Certainly, I have not seen the originals of all the paintings, but the ones I saw years later looked very much the way I had remembered them. My grandmother told us she spoke French in her youth and she would read to us as best she could remember the text beneath the plates. Of course she was making it up because the stories would change. Not that it mattered. They were beautiful stories. ‘This is the field where van Gogh painted sunflowers,’ she would say. ‘All day he sat in the hot sun beneath the blue skies. When the white clouds curled past he would remember them for future paintings and here on this canvas he placed those clouds.’ This is the way she spoke to us, pretending she was reading. Sometimes she would read for twenty minutes when there were only a few lines of text. She would say that was because French was a much more complicated language than Russian and that every word contained several sentences’ worth of meaning. There were so many paintings to consider. It was many, many years before I had memorized them all. Even now I could tell you the number of haystacks in the field and from which direction the light is coming.” Fyodorov stopped to give Gen a chance to catch up. He took the opportunity to look at the people around the table: his grandmother, now dead, his mother and father, dead, his youngest brother, Dimitri, drowned in a fishing accident at the age of twenty-one. Only two of them were left now. He wondered about his brother Mikal, who must be following the story of his kidnapping in the news at home. If I was to die here, Fyodorov thought, Mikal would be alone in this world with no other family to comfort him. “Every now and then she wouldn’t bring out the book at all. She would say she was tired. She would say that so much beauty hurt her. Sometimes a week or even two could pass. No Seurat! I remember feeling almost frantic, such a dependency I had come to feel for those paintings. But it was the rest from it, the waiting, that made us love the book so madly. I could have had one life but instead I had another because of this book my grandmother protected,” he said, his voice quieter now. “What a miracle is that? I was taught to love beautiful things. I had a language in which to consider beauty. Later that extended to the opera, to the ballet, to architecture I saw, and even later still I came to realize that what I had seen in the paintings I could see in the fields or a river. I could see it in people. All of that I attribute to this book. Towards the end of her life she could not pick it up at all and she sent me to get it. Her hands shook so, she was afraid of tearing the paper and so she let us turn the page. My hands were too large for her gloves by then but she showed me how to use them between my fingers like a cloth so I could keep everything clean.” Fyodorov sighed, as somehow this was the memory that moved him the most. “My brother has the book now. He is a doctor outside of Moscow. Every few years we hand it off to the other. Neither of us could do without it completely. I have tried to find another copy, but I have been unsuccessful. I believe that there is no other book like this in the world.” Through talking, Fyodorov was able to relax. Talking was the thing he was best at. He felt his breath come easily. He had not before this moment made the connection between the book and the point of his story and now he wondered how he hadn’t seen it all along. “It was a tragedy to my grandmother that none of us showed a talent for painting. Even at the end of her life, when I was in school studying business, she was telling me to try again. But it wasn’t something I was capable of learning. She liked to say my brother Dimitri would have been a great painter but that was only because Dimitri was dead. The dead we can imagine to be anything at all. My brothers and I were all excellent observers. Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it. Don’t you think? It is a kind of talent in itself, to be an audience, whether you are the spectator in the gallery or you are listening to the voice of the world’s greatest soprano. Not everyone can be the artist. There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see.” Fyodorov spoke slowly. He gave long pauses between his sentences so that Gen would not have to struggle to keep up, but because of this it was difficult to tell whether he was finished speaking.

  “It’s a lovely story,” Roxane said at last.

  “But there is a point to it.”

  Roxane settled back in her chair to hear the point.

  “It may not seem immediately evident that I would be a man who has a deep understanding of art and I want you to know that I am. The Secretary of Commerce in Russia, what would that be to you? And yet because of my background I feel I am specifically qualified.”

  Again, Roxane waited to see if there was more of the sentence coming and when there didn’t seem to be she asked him, “Qualified to what?”

  “To love you,” Fyodorov said. “I love you.”

  Gen looked at Fyodorov and blinked. He felt the blood drain away from his face.

  “What did he say?” Roxane said.

  “Go on,” Fyodorov said. “Tell her.”

  Roxane’s hair was pulled up tightly from her face and caught in a pink elastic she had been given from the room of the Vice President’s oldest daughter. Without makeup or jewelry, without her hair
to frame her face, a person might have thought her plain or even tired looking if he didn’t know what she was capable of. Gen thought she was patient to have listened for so long, keeping her eyes on Fyodorov, never drifting off to stare out the window. He thought it spoke well of her character that she had chosen Mr. Hosokawa to keep her company when other, lesser men were available, men who spoke English. Gen greatly admired her singing, that went without saying. Every day when she sang he felt deeply moved, but he did not love her. Not that he was being asked to. Not that she would have thought that’s what he meant, that he, Gen, loved her, and yet still he struggled. He had never thought of it before but he was quite sure now that he did think of it that he had neither spoken those words or written them, either to someone or for someone else. Birthday cards and letters home were signed please take good care of yourself. He had never said I love you to either his parents or his sisters. He had not said it to any of the three women he had slept with in his life or the girls in school with whom he had occasionally walked to class. It simply had not occurred to him to say it and now on the first day of his life when it might have been appropriate to speak of love to a woman, he would be declaring it for another man to another woman.

  “Are you going to tell me?” Roxane said. There was only slightly more interest in her voice the second time she asked. Fyodorov waited, hands clasped, a look of great relief already spreading over his face. He had said his piece. He had taken things as far as he could.

  Gen swallowed the saliva which had pooled over his tongue and tried to look at Roxane in a businesslike manner. “He is qualified to love you. He says, I love you.” Gen framed his translation to make it sound as appropriate as was possible.

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