Excerpt from Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Forty Rooms

by Olga Grushin

Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin X
Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin
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  • Published:
    Feb 2016, 352 pages

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Poornima Apte
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My thoughts return from their wanderings, and I study the book opened before me. There is one large reproduction on the page to the left, and three smaller ones on the page to the right, with thin rivulets of text snaking between them. They are views of various cities – or perhaps it is all one city, for, while the painted vistas are different, all four are united by a certain sameness, a kind of stiff geometrical precision, beautiful and cold. The skies are flat, distant, and pale, devoid of clouds and winds; there are no curving streets, no cozy nooks, only vast, many-arched, many-columned expanses of architectural perfection in the full glare of brilliant noonday, with not a shadow, not a blade of grass, not a flower to be seen anywhere, the ground itself an intricate pattern of pastel-tinted marble diamonds and ovals in majestic perspective. The orderly chessboards of empty spaces, the magnificent heights of deserted staircases, the sleek facades all seem unsettling, even vaguely threatening, as if something roaring and monstrous is just poised to erupt into the sunlit silence from somewhere below the horizon.

I wait until my father finishes his explanation.

"So, if this city is so ideal," I say, "then where are all the people?"

My father thoughtfully chews on his beard, then puts on his reading glasses, and makes a careful inspection of the paintings.

"There are some people here," he points at last.

"No, those are statues. Or if they aren't, they are the size of ants and have no faces, so they don't count. There is a dot moving here, which looks like a girl my age wearing pajamas, but at this distance I can't tell for sure – it may be just be a smudge."

"Well," my father says, "perhaps all the people are inside. They are sitting around drinking wine – moderate quantities of well-diluted wine, mind you – and discussing philosophy or creating masterpieces or whatnot. This is a perfect city, after all, so they are content wherever they are, indoors or outdoors, see?"

I look again; but the evenly spaced windows are dark and dead, and the doorways gape blindly. A while back I discovered a delightful secret – some paintings possess a deeper layer of life below their still surface: if I concentrate, then glance away quickly, I can often catch things moving out of the corner of my eye, women powdering their noses above the stiff lacy collars, cherubs tickling each other, cardinals relaxing their glum faces to yawn or sneeze.

I am certain that there is no hidden life lurking here.

"There aren't any people," I say stubbornly. "There aren't even any cats or dogs. And look, there are no doors anywhere, just these open passageways. People wouldn't live in houses that have no doors."

"Ah, but that's where you are wrong," he says smiling. "If you listened to me with more attention, you would see that everyone in the ideal city is kind and honest, and there is no need for locks and chains." He takes off his glasses, pulls out a folded square of suede always ready in his pocket, and begins to wipe the thick lenses, thoroughly, with deliberation, like everything he does, before putting the glasses back in their velveteen case. "But perhaps you are right and there are no people there after all," he adds, no longer smiling. "Perhaps that is really the point. Ideals are all very fine until you start applying them to real life, you see. Just let people into your perfect city, just wait until they make themselves comfortable, and before you know it, well –"

Vivaldi has just stopped playing, and beyond the crackling of the radio void, I can suddenly hear the ticking of the clock on the desk. My father rubs the bridge of his nose in a gesture I know so well, then glances toward the window; I see an odd, stark look cross his face, a look of not quite anger, not quite grief. In the spare darkness of the early spring night, the enormous construction site just across the road is abbreviated to mere grayish hints of fences and sketchy gallows of cranes in the sky, but I know it is there all the same, as it has been throughout the ten years of my life. The rising edifice itself is only a shapeless bulk blotting out the stars. None of us has any idea what it will be when it is completed. "Temple of the People," my father used to say when I was four or five and pestered him with endless queries.

Excerpted from Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin. Copyright © 2016 by Olga Grushin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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