There he was, Early Father and Igoryochek, and we had just gone to the church in the book! The joyous raspberry Popsicle of Chesme Church, some five blocks away from our Leningrad apartment, a pink baroque ornament amidst the fourteen shades of Stalin-era beige. It wasn't a church in Soviet days but a naval museum dedicated, if memory serves correctly (and please let it serve correctly), to the victorious Battle of Chesme in 1770, during which the Orthodox Russians really gave it to those sonofabitch Turks. The interior of the sacred space back then (now it is once again a fully functional church) was crammed with a young boy's delight maquettes of gallant eighteenth-century fighting ships.
* * *
Allow me to stay with the theme of early Papa and the Turks for just a few pages more. Let me introduce some new vocabulary to help me complete this quest. Dacha is the Russian word for country house, and as spoken by my parents it might as well have meant the "Loving Grace of God." When summer warmth finally broke the grip of the lifeless Leningrad winter and lackluster spring, they schlepped me around to an endless series of dachas in the former Soviet Union. A mushroom-ridden village near Daugavpils, Latvia; beautifully wooded Sestroretsk on the Gulf of Finland; the infamous Yalta in the Crimea (Stalin, Churchill, and FDR signed some kind of real estate deal here); Sukhumi, today a wrecked Black Sea resort in a breakaway part of Georgia. I was taught to prostrate myself before the sun, giver of life, grower of bananas, and thank it for every cruel, burning ray. My mother's favorite childhood diminutive for me? Little Failure? No! It was Solnyshko. Little Sun!
Photographs from this era show a tired group of women in bathing suits and a Marcel Proust looking boy in a kind of Warsaw Pact Speedo (that would be me) staring ahead into the limitless future while the Black Sea gently tickles their feet. Soviet vacationing was a rough, exhausting business. In the Crimea, we would wake up early in the morning to join a line for yogurt, cherries, and other edibles. All around us KGB colonels and party officials would be living it up in their snazzy waterfront digs while the rest of us stood weary-eyed beneath the miserable sun waiting to snag a loaf of bread. I had a pet that year, a gaily colored wind-up mechanical rooster, whom I would show off to everyone on the food line. "His name is Pyotr Petrovich Roosterovich," I would declare with uncharacteristic swagger. "As you can see he has a limp, because he was injured in the Great Patriotic War." My mother, fearful that there would be anti-Semites queuing for cherries (they have to eat, too, you know), would whisper for me to be quiet or there would be no Little Red Riding Hood chocolate candy for dessert.
Candy or no, Pyotr Petrovich Roosterovich, that avian invalid, kept getting me into trouble. He was a constant reminder of my life back in Leningrad which was mostly spent slowly suffocating from winter asthma, but which left me plenty of time for reading war novels and dreaming Pyotr and I were killing our share of Germans at Stalingrad. The rooster was, put simply, my best and only friend in the Crimea, and no one could come between us. When the kind, elderly owner of the dacha in which we were staying picked up Pyotr and stroked his hobbled leg, muttering, "I wonder if we could fix this fellow," I grabbed the rooster from him and screamed, "You louse, you blackguard, you thief!" We were promptly kicked off the premises and had to live in a kind of underground hut, where a puny three year-old Ukrainian boy also tried to play with my rooster, with similar consequences. Hence, the only words I know in Ukrainian: "Ty khlopets mene byesh!" ("You boy are hitting me!") We didn't last too long in the underground hut either.
I suppose I was a tightly wound kid that summer, both excited and confounded by the sunny southern landscape before me and by the sight of healthier, stronger bodies bouncing around me and my broken rooster in their full Slavic splendor. Unbeknownst to me, my mother was in the middle of a crisis herself, wondering whether to stay with my sick grandmother in Russia or leave her behind forever and emigrate to America. The decision was made for her in a greasy Crimean cafeteria. Over a bowl of tomato soup, a stout Siberian woman told my mother of the senseless beating her eighteen-year-old son had endured after his conscription by the Red Army, a beating that had cost him a kidney. The woman took out a photo of her boy. He resembled a moose of great stature crossbred with an equally colossal ox. My mother took one look at this fallen giant and then at her tiny, wheezing son, and soon enough we were on a plane bound for Queens. Roosterovich, with his sad limp and beautiful red wattle, remained the only victim of the Soviet military.
Excerpted from Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart. Copyright © 2014 by Gary Shteyngart. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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