A Tale of Three Lands

by on Tuesday, 16 April 2013 Comments

Everybody thought she was a lucky girl, set for life. She worked at the small library of this huge and important boiler factory, one of the few young people there with a college degree, from a nearby provincial university. Her boyfriend, a young engineer in the same factory, was known to be gentle and attentive. They would get married when they qualified for "late marriage". The only quibble people could find was she cared too much about her appearance, compared with other Chinese women in the late fifties: she wore her silky black hair in two long braids, had a light mauve summer dress with elastic collar and dark mauve polka dots, even her jacket was fitted because she made alterations... But she had the redeeming quality of being really friendly, always smiled before speaking. Her warm presence made the library one of the favorite gathering places for the employees' lunch-time breaks.


Then came the "Hundred Flowers Movement." People in the entire country were encouraged to criticize the Party and the government. Meetings after meetings were held to pressure people to contribute to socialism through their criticism. She really did not have much to say, spending her days in the library with her nose in the books. When pressed, she finally said one thing: a famous poet from their province wrote better poems in the twenties, but his most recent collection of 101 poems, which he wrote in 10 days, was simply full of slogans. By writing more slowly, he might be able to produce socialist poems as beautiful as those written by Pushkin. Nobody in the factory paid much attention at the time to her bookish comment, which in the end got her into trouble in so many ways: praising poems written before the "Liberation" over those written after it, a foreign aristocrat over a socialist Chinese poet, and slowness over high speed. She was designated a "rightist", dragged from meetings to meetings to be criticized and humiliated. She lost her job in the library and was assigned to work in the cleaning crew. Her boyfriend disappeared from her view and publicly announced that he "had a clean break" with her. When running into her, people looked aside when they did not have enough time to walk away. For the first time in her life, she found herself in complete isolation.


The day Soviet expert Alexander walked towards her, she caught sight of his eyes looking straight at her before she had the time to turn hers away, and their blue gleam shone upon the darkness of her life. He used to go to the library frequently during breaks and had always felt a special connection with her. Knowing that she had fallen into misfortune by praising Pushkin, he came to her defense. Like before, they managed to communicate with his little Chinese and her little Russian; every new word or phrase they learned seemed to bring them closer to each other. When he read to her one of Pushkin's most famous poems "If life has deceived you", although she did not know enough Russian to understand the original much beyond the title, she was so familiar with its Chinese translation that she wept, bitterly.


After a few weeks though, he was called to a meeting with the Party secretary, and the director of the Women's Union came to see her. In order not to "damage international relation between two brotherly countries", they either needed to get married or avoid contact. They were by then inseparable and agreed to be married. Their marriage improved her situation. She stayed in the factory while other "rightists" were sent into exile in the countryside or the border provinces. Alexander enjoyed the warm weather and lush landscape of this picturesque southern town. They forgot themselves in the nearby bamboo forest dotted with ponds dyed green by bamboo reflections. When spring arrived, they immersed themselves in the clouds of peach blossoms on the hills, and ocean of undulating golden rapeseed flowers in the fields, under the splendid luminosity of the southern sky.


When the Great Famine (officially called the Natural Disasters) hit in 1959, they were largely spared thanks to the special treatment afforded to the Soviet experts and were even able to help her parents, but they could not have foreseen the split between the Soviet Union and China, and the abrupt withdrawal of all the Soviet experts. There was no choice but to follow Alexander back to his country. From the day she unfortunately talked about the Chinese poet and Pushkin, she felt like a small train driven by an invisible and silent conductor, never knowing where would be her next station or what landscape she would encounter. Alexander went back to the aviation plant where he used to work, in a mid-sized city near the Ural Mountains. They arrived in summer when the weather was mild. She gazed at this hilly city by a river, a tributary of the famous Volga, and was determined to make it her new home.
- We will go downtown so that you can get a haircut and buy some new clothes, he said the next morning.
- Haircut?
- Yes. There will be a gathering with friends and co-workers tonight.


bendu009decv11He was looking at her braids. He used to enjoy playing with them. He never had to change his hair or clothing styles while in China. Then it occurred to Anna that he was in China as a Soviet expert and she came to his country as his wife.
As weeks went by, Anna made increasing progress in Russian and met more people. Each new person encountered was like a new word endowed with its multiple meanings and shifting forms, wrapped around a sentence and surrounded by a paragraph, except that words do not look back at you and judge you, making you feel clumsy or awkward. They patiently wait for you and welcome you to discover their hidden messages. She started to work a few hours a day in the library of the city's technical school, completing simple tasks such as dusting the shelves and reshelving the books. Shy and meticulous, Anna felt a great satisfaction working in the library.
Then winter set in, and it seemed never-ending. Anna had never seen anything more than a few flurries that melted as soon as they hit ground, but now snow blanketed the entire mountains and the city, while the river was frozen, and gusty bone-piercing wind made her stumble as soon as she stepped outside. Before winter was over, she received her older sister's "last letter": Their parents had died during the continuing Natural Disasters. Food had to be rationed; there was not enough even for blameless people, not to say a family with a rightist relative who left for an enemy country.


As Anna spoke more and more Russian, Alexander was losing the little Chinese he had acquired over his years in China, as if the more she moved towards him, the more he was drifting away. To make matters worse, none of the doctors they consulted was able to determine the cause of their infertility. Meanwhile, the relationship between their two countries – yes, China still counted as Anna's country even though she could no longer go back to it and had nothing there to go back to – worsen, until the border disputes escalated into a military confrontation in 1969. Alexander lost his security clearance as a senior engineer in the aviation plant and was reassigned to teach in the technical school where Anna by then worked full-time in the library circulation department. They started to have those silly arguments which left them both upset and frustrated, even though she never knew how they started or why they mattered. She tried to make peace by apologizing.
- I am really sorry to have made you angry.
- If you know you were wrong, why did you do (say) it?
- Until you became angry, I did not realize it mattered.
- Are you trying to justify yourself?
- No, I am really sorry.
- How many times have you done the same thing? You always apologize, but there is never any improvement.
- I would be happy if you apologized just once.
- Are you apologizing or you want to make me apologize?

Anna realized when Alexander became angry there was no way to bring him around. Words were useless. The only thing she could do was to wait, for hours, days, or weeks. Patience was what she needed. She was grateful that he always returned home. She had nowhere else to go, and the small apartment felt so much warmer when he was there, even in silence. She would sit quietly close to him, but not too close. By observing him she could tell how a storm was gradually fading, and when a faint ray of sunlight was about to reappear. She learned to stop digging, stop talking as soon as she sensed a small trace of upset in him. She would watch him while he looked away, and her eyes would try to tell him how grateful she was, and how sorry she was to have messed up his career, his life. Marriage is a box. You feel safe inside not only because of where you are, but also because how people think of you: since you are so neatly "arranged" they would not wonder about you, try to figure you out, or project their inquisitive gaze on you. A natural librarian, Anna liked things neat and tidy.


The year Gorbachev visited China, Alexander had a stroke. He suffered speech loss and partial paralysis, with the ability only to move his left arm and hand. Anna retired from the library to take care of him. She learned to understand what he wanted by looking into his eyes and, in the most unexpected way, she finally felt her heart at peace. Words can hurt. Now that they could no longer talk with each other, they were safer than ever before. She would hold and stroke his left hand, let time drip away in the sand of eternity. To paraphrase Rilke with a twist: their story consists of two solitudes that met, warmed and comforted each other. For about a year, his condition fluctuated. One day, he fell asleep and never woke up again.


bendu 007dec11Anna continued to live in their small apartment. A year later, the Soviet Union dissolved. With inflation skyrocketing year after year, Anna's small pension became barely enough for bread and butter, while breathtaking changes were occurring all around her: highways, tall buildings, and new stores sprang up before she even noticed when the constructions had started. The worst part though was the weather, the monotony of seasons. She dreaded winter even in summer, as if she were waiting for the other shoe to drop. She felt like she was on a train, a preprogrammed automated train, which circulated predictably from short summer to long winter, very long winter, with snow everywhere, and gusty bone-piercing wind. What if she jumped off?


On a late summer day when she could already feel a slight coldness in the breeze, she walked by a newly opened travel agency, which displayed attractive photos of faraway lands. She had her eyes set on one place: tropical islands surrounded by the warm blue ocean, luxuriant forests with splashing waterfalls, cascades of unknown rainbow-colored climbing flowers and abundant fruits: mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and coconuts... no winter, no visa required for Russian citizens. The native people on the pictures somehow bore resemblance to her.

She sold her apartment to a crafty developer who had been pestering the residents of the building where she lived, and went back to the travel agency. She bought a one-way ticket to the only place she had ever chosen.

Drawings by Bendu

 

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

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