Bel canto, p.23
Bel Canto, p.23Ann 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
“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
“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.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes