But whom I really missed that summer, the reason for my violent outburst against all manner of Ukrainians, was my real best friend. My father. Because all those other memories are just cue cards for an enormous stage set that has long evaporated along with the rest of the Soviet Union. Did any of this really happen? I sometimes ask myself. Did Junior Comrade Igor Shteyngart ever really huff and puff his way across the shoreline of the Black Sea, or was that some other imaginary invalid?
Summer 1978. I lived then for the long line to the phone booth marked by the word leningrad (separate phone booths for different cities) to hear my father's voice crackle dimly against every technological problem the country was experiencing, from a failed nuclear test in the Kazakh desert to a sick braying billy-goat in nearby Belorussia. We were all connected by failure back then. The whole Soviet Union was just fading out. My father told me stories over the phone, and to this day I think my hearing is the most active of my five senses because I would strain to hear him so acutely during my Black Sea vacations.
The conversations are gone, but one of the letters remains. It is written in my father's clumsy childish script, the script of a typical male Soviet engineer. It's a letter that survives because so many people wanted it to. We are not an overly sentimental people, I hope, but we have an uncanny knowledge of just how much to save, of how many wrinkled documents a Manhattan closet will one day hold.
I am a child of five in a subterranean vacation hut, and I am holding in my hands this holy scribbled letter, the Cyrillic dense and filled with crossed-out words, and as I am reading I am speaking the words aloud, and as I am speaking them aloud I am lost in the ecstasy of connection.
Good day, dear little son.
How are you doing? What are you doing? Are you going to climb the "Bear" Mountain and how many gloves have you found in the sea?
Have you learned to swim yet and if so are you planning to swim away to Turkey?
A pause here on my part. I have no idea what these sea gloves are and only a dim recollection of "Bear" Mountain (Everest it was not). I want to focus on the last sentence, the swimming to Turkey one. Turkey is, of course, across the Black Sea, but we are in the Soviet Union, and we obviously cannot go there, either by steamship or by doing the butterfl y stroke. Is this subversive on my father's part? Or a reference to his greatest wish, the wish that my mother relent and let us emigrate to the West? Or, subconsciously, a connection to the Chesme Church mentioned above, "more pastry than edifice," commemorating Russia's victory over the Turks?
Little son, there are only a few days left until we meet again, do not be lonely, behave yourself, listen to your mother and your aunt Tanya. Kisses, Papa.
Do not be lonely? But how could I not be lonely without him? And is he really saying that he, too, is lonely? But of course! As if to soften the blow, right below the main text of the letter, I find my favorite thing in the world, better than the chocolate-covered marzipan that excites me so feverishly back in Leningrad. It's an illustrated adventure story from my father! A thriller along the lines of Ian Fleming, but with a few personal touches to appeal to a peculiar little boy. It begins like so: ?
One day in [the resort town of] Gurzuf [where I am presently gaining color along my cheeks and arms], a submarine named Arzum sailed in from Turkey.
My father has drawn a submarine with a periscope approaching a phallic Crimean mountain, covered either with trees or beach umbrellas; it is difficult to tell. The illustration is crude, but so is life in our homeland. ?
Two commandos wearing Aqua-Lungs departed the boat and swam for the shore.
The invaders look more like walking sturgeon in my father's broad hand, but then the Turks are not known for their litheness. Unbeknownst to our border guards they headed for the mountain, for the forest.
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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