Automatically, Leonid Vitalevich gripped his wallet tight in his trouser pocket, against pickpockets. Gangs worked the trams, and you couldn't tell which of these faces, these polite faces, aggressive faces, drunken faces, was really a pokerface, a front for a hand down below extracting surplus value. He couldn't see anything beneath chest level, so it was best to be careful; couldn't see his feet, though he could certainly feel them, now that the fuggy warmth of the tram had thawed the crust over the annoying hole that'd appeared today on the sole of his left shoe. He had a small wad of newspaper in there, and it was turning soggy. This was the third time this winter the shoes had sprung a leak. He would have to go back to the retired cobbler Denisov this Sunday, take him another present, listen to more self-contradictory reminiscences about the old man's adventures with women. Of course it would be much better to get a new pair of shoes altogether, or maybe boots. Who could he ask? Who would know somebody who knew somebody? He would have to think about it. He gazed through the sliver of window visible between heads, and fragments of city slid by: a patrol car parked on a corner, grand facades streaked with damage from leaking gutters, red neon flashing FIVE In FOUR, FIVE In FOUR, the word more on the bottom corner of a poster, which he knew at once would read in full Life has become better, more cheerful! Those posters were all over the place. The slogan advertised Soviet Champagne. Or the existence of Soviet Champagne advertised the slogan, he wasn't sure which. But now he was looking without seeing. His thoughts had dived into his satchel, clutched tight with his other hand. Halfway down a lefthand page in his notebook, the blue ink scribble of equations broke off, and now his mind was racing on from that point, seeing a possible next move, seeing the thread of an idea elongate. Today, something had happened.
He had been doing a bit of consultancy. It went with being attached to the Institute of Industrial Construction; you had to sing for your supper every so often. And he didn't really mind. It was a pleasure to put the lucid order in his head to use. More than a pleasure, a relief almost, because every time the pure pattern of mathematics turned out to have a purchase on the way the world worked, turned out to provide the secret thread controlling something loud and various and apparently arbitrary, it provided one more quantum of confirmation for what Leonid Vitalevich wanted to believe, needed to believe, did believe when he was happy: that all of this, this swirl of phenomena lurching on through time, this mess of interlocked systems, some filigree-fine, some huge and simple, this tram full of strangers and smoky air, this city of Peter built on human bones, all ultimately made sense, were all intricately generated by some intelligible principle or set of principles working themselves out on many levels at once, even if the expressions didn't exist yet which could capture much of the process.
No, he didn't mind. Besides, there was a duty involved. If he could solve the problems people brought to the institute, it made the world a fraction better. The world was lifting itself up out of darkness and beginning to shine, and mathematics was how he could help. It was his contribution. It was what he could give, according to his abilities. He was lucky enough to live in the only country on the planet where human beings had seized the power to shape events according to reason, instead of letting things happen as they happened to happen, or allowing the old forces of superstition and greed to push people around. Here, and nowhere else, reason was in charge. He might have been born in Germany, and then this tram ride tonight would have been full of fear. On his professor suit would have been a cotton star, and dark things would have looked out of people's faces at him, just because his grandfather had worn earlocks, had subscribed to a slightly different unverifiable fairytale about the world. He would have been hated there, for no reason at all. Or he might have been born in America, and then who could say if he would even have had the two kopecks for the tram at all? Would a twenty-six-year-old Jew be a professor there? He might be a beggar, he might be playing a violin on the street in the rain, the thoughts in his head of no concern to anyone because nobody could make money out of them. Cruelty, waste, fictions allowed to buffet real men and women to and fro: only here had people escaped this black nonsense, and made themselves reality's deliberate designers rather than its playthings. True, reason was a difficult tool. You laboured with it to see a little more, and at best you got glimpses, partial truths; but the glimpses were always worth having. True, the new consciously-chosen world still had rough edges and very obvious imperfections, but those things would change. This was only the beginning, the day after reason's reign began.
Excerpted from Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. Copyright © 2012 by Francis Spufford. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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