The Year of the Comet

From the critically acclaimed author of Oblivion (a Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2016) comes The Year of the Comet, a story of a Russian boyhood and coming of age as the Soviet Union is on the brink of collapse. An idyllic childhood takes a sinister turn. Rumors of a serial killer haunt the neighborhood, families pack up and leave town without a word of warning, and the country begins to unravel. Policemen stand by as protesters overtake the streets, knowing that the once awe-inspiring symbols of power they wear on their helmets have become devoid of meaning. Lebedev depicts a vast empire coming apart at the seams, transforming a very public moment into something tender and personal, and writes with stunning beauty and shattering insight about childhood and the growing consciousness of a boy in the world.

 

 

Excerpt from The Year of the Comet

Chapter I

I was born in the afternoon of March 14, when a fault opened
deep below Bucharest.

The inky tips of seismographic recording needles trembled
as the tectonic blow rolled through the Carpathians toward Kiev
and Moscow, gradually receding. The face of the world was distorted,
as if in a fun-house mirror: avalanches fell from mountains,
asphalt roads buckled, railroad tracks turned into snakes.
Flags shook on flagpoles, automatic guns rang out in arsenals,
barbed wire across state borders broke under the strain; chandeliers
in apartments and frozen carcasses in meat processing plants
swung like metronomes; furniture on upper floors swayed and
scraped. The thousand-kilometer convulsion of the earth’s uterus
gave a gentle push to the concrete capsules of missile silos, shook
coal onto the heads of miners, and lifted trawlers and destroyers
on a wave’s swell.

My mother was in the maternity ward, but her contractions
had not started. The tectonic wave reached Moscow, shook the
limestone bedrock of the capital, ran along the floating aquifers
of rivers, gently grasped the foundations and pilings; an enormous
invisible hand shook the skyscrapers, the Ostankino and
Shukhov towers, water splashed against the gates of river locks;
dishes rattled in hutches, window glass trembled. People called
the police—“our house is shaking”—some ran outside, others
headed straight for the bomb shelters. Of course, there was
no general panic, but this was the first time since the German
bombing that Moscow reeled; it was only at quarter strength,
but it was enough to awaken the deepest historical fears. They
surged for a second, these fears: of nuclear war, the collapse of
the country, the destruction of the capital; few people admitted
that they had experienced these fears, everybody talked instead
about a slight confused fright, but they were lying.

Mother worked at the Ministry of Geology and was part of
a special commission that studied the causes and consequences
of natural disasters. She had seen the ruins of Tashkent, the ruins
on the Kuril Islands and in Dagestan, thousands of people without
shelter, destroyed homes, buckled rail tracks, cracks seemingly
leading straight to hell. When the maternity ward was shaken by
a gentle wave from the center of the earth, my mother was the
only person to understand what was happening, and the unexpectedness
of it, the fear that the earth’s tremor had pursued her
and found her in the safety of Moscow and induced her into labor.
The earthquake was my first impression of being: the world
was revealed to me as instability, shakiness, the wobbliness of
foundations. My father was a scholar, a specialist in catastrophe
theory, and his child was born at the moment of the manifestation
of forces that he studied, as he lived, without knowing it,
in unison with the cycles of earth, water, wind, comets, eclipses,
and solar flares, and I, his flesh and blood, appeared as the child
of these cycles.

My parents were wary of this coincidence from the start, they
thought it a bad sign. Therefore they entrusted me to my grandmothers,
hiding me in a sewing box with thread and yarn, among
the accouterments of geriatric life. My grandmothers, who had
suffered so much, lost brothers, sisters, and husbands, but had
survived all the events of the age, were to give me refuge in the
peaceful flow of their lives, bring me up on the margins, far from
real time, as if deep in the woods or on a lost farmstead. But—
and I will tell you about this later—the nearness of my grandmothers
merely intensified the sensation it was supposed to heal.

Why did my parents, who were not superstitious or given to
reading meanings into things, still worry about the portent of the
earthquake? My mother could not get pregnant for a long time.
The doctors were stumped because all her signs were normal; at
last, an old doctor, a professor, changed tack. Instead of asking
about family illnesses and rechecking all her blood and other samples,
he had a long and detailed conversation with my mother
about the family’s history. She did not understand the purpose but
she told him everything she knew—she clutched at every straw.

The professor said that she was not the only patient he had
like her; in many women he saw an unconscious fear of motherhood
connected to the great number of violent deaths the previous
generation had suffered. He suggested they go somewhere
extremely peaceful, where nothing would remind her of time,
history, or the past. Mother was ready to take the suggestion,
but my father resisted at first; he thought that the problem was
between them as man and woman, not in history or psychology.
But they went.

In those years, the Soviet Union was building hydroelectric
stations, and reservoirs were supposed to flood enormous areas
along the Siberian riverbeds. My parents took probably the only
unscheduled vacation of their lives and headed out to the zone
of future flooding. They spent a month there; my father had a
friend in the construction administration, and they were housed
comfortably in an abandoned house of a buoy keeper at the foot
of the cliff, a tall granite remnant that had to be demolished so
that it did not interfere with shipping on the future sea.

It was a place of great emptiness and silence. Hunters’ huts
dotted trails and roads. Letters no longer reached this region,
since the mail codes and addresses had been deleted in advance
of the flooding, just like the telephone numbers of the former
kolkhoz offices; the villages didn’t appear on the new maps ready
for printing. The animals left the river valley, the people were
gone, and even the fish, as if sensing that soon water would flood
the banks, either lay low in the bottom holes or swam upriver.

In a Robinson Crusoe world consisting of house, rowboat,
fishing nets, firewood, stove, food supplies, and rifle, my parents
lived in a time that they had never experienced before or since; I
don’t think they even took photographs, although they brought
a camera.

There, in the ideal nowhere, a place that is now forever
underwater, I was conceived. And I was born in the tremor of an
earthquake, as if my parents’ plan had been discovered and the
big world sent a menacing message to the one they had hoped
to hide from fate.

My feelings, my ability to feel, were fashioned by that
underground blow. I had trouble understanding anything to do
with stability, immutability, and firmness, even though I wanted
those states I could not achieve; disharmony was closer and more
understandable than harmony.

When I took walks in the city, I was attracted by old houses,
sinking and decrepit. Cracks in walls and windows, cracks on
the sidewalk which children sometimes try to avoid, cracks in
the marble siding of the metro joined into a complex network
for me, as if the entire world was tormented by secret tensions.

Kaleidoscopes and puzzles where you had to make a figure
out of parts did not elicit curiosity, but a morbid, stubborn
interest—not so much to put the pieces together as to observe
how the whole can be reassembled and disassembled.

Objects that had lost their companions—a single mitten,
a shoe left alone while the other was being repaired, a domino
dropped in the playground—called me to understand how they
lived in their insufficiency.

Even though I knew I would be punished, I would sometimes
drop a cup to experience the moment of the vessel’s irremediable
loss and the irreversibility of time. Grown-ups tried
to teach me to be careful—for them spoilage, breakage, even
accidental, was tantamount to a crime. They lived as if there
were a finite number of things, and a broken shot glass could not
be replaced by another; a lack of care for things would lead to
having none at all, a regression into the Stone Age, animal skins,
digging sticks, and flint axes.

The grown-ups seemed to be constantly mending the world,
aged, worn, carelessly used; they thought that loss was the result
of age. But when Father cemented the dacha’s foundation that
had cracked from the earth’s spring turbulence, I thought it was
not the foundation’s age that was at fault—rather, the future was
hidden inside the cracks and it was growing out, like leaves or
bushes on old facades, crumbling the exterior.

They sometimes made me listen to classical music, but I was
tormented by its harmonies, sensing that the world wasn’t made
that way, it didn’t have form and discipline, and I sought other
sounds that would correspond to my picture of sensations. I
found them at the German cemetery, where we went a few times
a year to tend the family plot.

Stars, insignias, rifles, propellers; captains, majors, colonels—
every third or fourth tombstone had a photo, their faces
still youthful. The cemetery was dispassionate proof of what the
country had done for a century and where its men had gone;
the saturation of war was so strong that I sometimes expected
medals and orders to grow on trees instead of leaves.

Among the old graves there were Germans of previous centuries:
someone called Hans Jacob Straub, physician and apothecary.
The Russian names alternated with German names, as if it
were a total list of losses after a fierce battle. I thought the corpses
had to be uncomfortable there, underground, lying in graves as if
in the trenches, and that some deceased general had taken command
in order to free our soil from the German-Fascist invaders.

The quieter and more reconciled the cemetery seemed on a
clear fall day, the more horrible, deep and persistent seemed the
underground struggle that supplanted eternity for those who did
not believe in it. The cemetery land, dug up and crumbly, often
sank, buckled, tossed up stones, swallowed fences, tilted tombstones,
and squeezed out tree roots—I imagined these were traces
of underground attacks: recognizing only the enemy, the corpses
dug underground passages with their fingernails, stormed burial
vaults, and broke into other people’s rotting coffins.

Suddenly, with terrifying noise, the wind tunnels of the
nearby aviation plant roared over the cemetery. During the war,
jet fighters were tested there with compressed air. A prehistoric
animal, the mastodon of all mastodons, roared, its voice bigger
than the cemetery, bigger than the city, it even put a stop to the
silent underground war and suspended my heart, which lost its
beat, in the emptiness; the power of the sound was so great it
turned into the sound of power.

Yet my parents went on cleaning the area as if nothing happened,
scraping off the persistent moss and sweeping leaves. But
I was certain: yes, the world was built on discord, yes, my sensations
were truthful, in the way that the sensation of the nearness
of bad weather, of high pressure, of electrically charged air before
a storm was truthful. The roar of the wind tunnels over the family
graves became the sound of the past, the sound of history, the
sound of its ruthless elemental power, and I listened to it almost
gratefully. It explained in a manifest physical manner what forces
were tearing apart and oppressing our family and what echoes of
events lived in it; it tore off the covers to reveal the very core, the
very essence.