Honey for the Bears
A running commentary by © Liana Burgess
When he reaches the Great Sea Terminal, he finds that "jaunty girls from Intourist called cowed blue-clad serf porters tovarishch; ill-dressed and handsome, ear-ring jingling, they strode among the crowd of disembarked." Paul notices with relief that his and Belindas luggage stand disregarded by the money-changing desk. He joins the queue for roubles and kopeks ( "his spirit rose with the excitement of one who knows he is at last again on foreign soil. It was important to note the most trivial of details".)
But after having endless troubles with his lower teeth, he cannot find a taxi anywhere and Miss Travers rejects him from her students coach. What he can do, he decides, is to carry the two dangerous suitcases as far as the bus-stop or taxi-stand and leave the harmless ones in the Terminal for later collection :
He saw activity in the office marked INTOURIST, a man searching manically for a lost document, a goddess in a faded rose dress yelling Allo, allo into the telephone. Nobody heeded him as he carried the two safe bags into an inner chamber, dark and smelling of crumbs. With confidence he said, coming out of it, Bagazh. Distractedly they thanked him.
So now Paul can proceed to the hotel.
What follows is a splendid description of Leningrad : colour and smell. (Pages 54-55-56) "Paul tried to smell Soviet Russia, knowing that only to the rawest newcomer does a country reveal its smell; after a day it becomes deodorised."
But then the taxi sailed bumpily into Byzantium - over the Neva of Byronic Pushkin to St Isaacs Square, a prancing equestrian statue, the vast barbaric cathedral itself with its dull gold dome like, in the sun, an army of Mussorgskian brass, the sparse traffic, the pigeon-moaning piazza, the feel of the centre of an imperial city.
Getting out at the Astoria, his eyes still on that fiery dome, Paul paid the driver a rouble. He pulled out his luggage himself and then his heart dove to find he had brought the wrong bags. Later he would be able to call it an understandable mistake, hiding what was forbidden in a dark cache for Intourist to guard. But now he cursed emphatically, dislodging his denture again.
Paul is looking for somebody who can be identified as Mizinchikov, he even prowls around the atrium with the photograph in his hand of "poor dead Robert embracing M." At a certain point, a bald man calls out asking to be elucidated on some grammatical English rules ("in the corner" or "on the corner"?) "Look," says Paul, "I have to see about the booking of a room. A double room. My wife and myself."
The man sends him to the Intourist counter, but resumes immediately with his grammatical questionings. (Everyone in Russia seems to be studying.) The man Mizinchikov is not there, and the only other address Paul possesses is that of the Dom Knigi or House of Books, where M. seems to have some indefinite job. Paul sees an empty space at the Intourist counter and rushes to claim it. The girl is reading. "A double room," he says. "...his name is Mizinchikov."
The girl looks around a great many number of pieces of paper. "Mizinchikov?" she frowns. "Yes yes yes yes, I think somebody here knows about that."
When Paul writes his name, she examines it closely. "Gussey," she says. "Mr Paul Gussey You have changed your name." It was not what she has on her list. On her list stays Robert's name... Paul starts explaining, but the girl says, "The porter will take you upstairs. It is the third floor." She doesn't want to hear any explanation. She seems suddenly bored. Perhaps it is common for patrons to change their names between booking rooms and claiming them.
Paul follows the little man in shabby uniform to the lift. "Getting out on the third floor, they were met by the floor-concierge, a fat waddling woman, fearsome, all bulges Paul was given a massive key, as to the whole of Imperial Russia, and the woman said sternly :
"Go to your room."
What Paul does not know, and neither does the reader, is that he - Paul - is restricted to his room by police order: The scenes that follow are very funny: every time Paul, washed and refreshed, tries to go out, the floor concierge warns him: "Go back to your room!"
"To your room, go."
"Your room. Go back."
"Back. To your room. Go."
"Khorosho, khorosho" a kind voice was saying from the door. Two men with suits bequeathed from the time of Lenin, each with a zip portfolio, one stocky and boxerish, the other drawn and intellectual looking, both smiling kindly. The huge woman complained at length and loudly she used the word zhestokosty several times. "Brutality, she means," smiled the drawn man. "She accuses you of brutal behaviour".
..The two men came into the room. "Zverkov," said the drawn man. "And this is Karamzin. Now we shall all sit down and be comfortable." He spoke English with a composite accent hard to anatomize : there were shadows of Sydney in it, flashes of Newcastle-on-Tyne, a peppermill-grind of the Bronx. It was as though he had made a pilgrimage in search of an English accent. Paul rather liked his face: the many lines, the fleshy mouth, pale eyes, an Audenesque forelock. Karamzin brought chairs to the desk, humming. He was very pyknic-looking: neckless and bullbodied, he showed in eyes and mouth a more dangerous volatility than his mate Paul was frightened
But he took one of Karamzins White Sea Canal papirosi. "Spasiba "
"Ah, so you speak some Russian," said Zverkov. "But that, of course, we knew. From your letters." He unzipped his poor cheap brown portfolio.
"Letters", said Paul. "Ive written no letters in Russian."
"Oh yes," said Zverkov. "Oh yes indeed." He waved a sheaf of them humorously at Pauls nose. Paul could see clearly Roberts painfully printed Cyrillic... and at the right, above, Roberts address in Roman script. "To your friend Mizinchikov," said Zverkov. "Him you will not see, if at all, for many many many many years."
Now Paul explains that the letters were not written by him. And he shows the signature in his passport and at this point he realises that something unusual had been nagging him ever since leaving the Intourist counter: that girls failure to ask, following the normal Continental procedure of hotels, for his passport. The passport-ploy had been deliberately reserved for something more than a formality. Theyd been waiting for him.
Mizinchikov? "What happened to Mizinchikov?" he asked. The two Russians were poring over his passport. Karamzin raised his head and said, in a sobbing kind of German-style English:"In the lavatories. It was very wrong. He sold roubles to tourists on the black market. A black market, you understand, in the vaysay or tualet. But he was caught".
"How many to the pound?" asked Paul.
"Five to the pound. Two to the American dollar. Illegal," said Karamzin. "Very illegal. So as to ruin the financial, the financial - nye znaiu slovo," he said impatiently to Zverkov.
"Structure," said Zverkov. "Or fabric. Or framework."
"Framework," said Karamzin, smile-nodding his thanks swiftly to his colleague.
"Of the Soviet Union."
"I see." Paul was having difficulty in getting all this, along with its various implications, to settle in his mind and breed disquiet. "So Mizinchikov is in prison."
"He awaits trial," said Karamzin. And then, "Gussey," he said, looking, with Zverkov, into the passport. "That is not the name we have."
"The name you have," said Paul, "is the name at the foot of those letters. My friend. My friend is dead."
They looked up with interest. "So," said Zverkov. "Death seems to be a hard punishment Mizinchikov will get some years in prison or be sent to a correction centre or a labour camp, but his crime certainly does not deserve the death penalty."
"My friend," said Paul loudly, "died of a weak heart. He was shot down by the Germans. He was exposed to bitter cold in a dinghy on the open freezing sea "
"We will be calm," said Zverkov. Then he said gently, looking down at the passport again: "You have brought your wife with you?"
"Yes," said Paul. "Shes still on board the Isaak Brodsky ; ill. Under sedation." He looked at his watch. "I must get back to her."
"Is it, do you think, fair to your wife to carry on this kind of work?" asked Zverkov.
"What kind of work?" said Paul. "My wife and I are here on a visit."
"Yes yes yes yes yes," said Zverkov with humorous weariness. "We are big men, all of us, not little children. Why did you try to contact Mizinchikov? You are trying to carry on where your friend left off. Let us have no foolishness and pretending. Life is very short. What do you have in those bags there?"
"Theres a divinity that shapes our whatsits, were looked after, we really are, God works in a mysterious way," Paul sang within. "Open them up if you like," he said. "The customs have already examined my baggage. I dont know what you think youll find, but open them up by all means."
"I see," said Zverkov. "You are too ready." He and Karamzin seemed to embark on a brief exchange of humorous proverbs. Then Karamzin said:
"The rest of your luggage will be on board the ship."
"No," said Paul readily. "Not at all. On board the ship is only my wife."
He frowned at that; that did not seem idiomatic.
"It will be a pleasure," said Zverkov, "to run you back to the ship "
"Thank you," said Paul. "Ill get a taxi." They both smiled at that, as at engaging youthful innocence. Zverkov said to Karamzin:
"As a formality we ought to examine his baggage. Remember, he is a guest in our city. Do not make the contents too untidy."
Karamzin sighed, stubbed out his papiros, then got up and clicked open one of the cases. Paul said hotly:
"Look, who or what are you, anyway? You barge into my hotel room without knocking, you interrogate me, you insult the memory of my dead friend, now you start examining my luggage. I have a right to know what you are supposed to be."
"We can take you," said Karamzin, puffing as he rummaged among shirts, "to our headquarters. There you can be told what we are. And after that we can take you to the port to see your wife."
"You have," said Zverkov, "a custom declaration form showing how many pieces of baggage. Please let us see that."
"My wife has it," lied Paul. "I asked her to keep to keep it in her handbag. My pockets are already stuffed with forms and travellers cheques and things. I tend to lose them if I carry too many of them."
"Well, then," said Zverkov, "we had better all go to the ship together."
"What exactly am I suspected of?" asked Paul in reasonable calm. "What exactly am I supposed to be doing or proposing to do?"
"Carrying on your friends bad work," said Zverkov. "Bringing in capitalistic goods in order to sell them and thus upset the Soviet economy."
"But," said Paul, "I could sell anything. I could sell that pair of shoes there or those ties or that dirty shirt your friend so seems to like the colour of. Its the selling thats the crime, isnt it?"
Karamzin said, "This is all ordinary baggage." He began to shut the case petulantly.
"Of course its all ordinary baggage," said Paul. "My wife and I have come to Leningrad on an ordinary visit. As Ive been trying to tell you."
"And Mizinchikov?" asked Zverov.
"A contact," said Paul. "A man my friend knew. My friend had asked him to book a room for himself and his wife. Then he died. So I took up the booking instead. How was I to know that Mizinchikov was a great criminal? I had understood that crime no longer existed in the Soviet Union."
"Yes yes yes," said Zverkov. "It is the selling that is the crime. I agree. You have spoken with logic." He began to nod and nod and nod. Karamzin, back in his chair, caught the nodding, like yawning. "Dont sell anything," said Zverkov. "Your time is better taken up with seeing our city than with trying to sell things. There is much to see. The Hermitage, the Field of Mars, the Admiralty, the railway stations, the Decembrists Square, the Karpinsky Geological Museum, the Dokuchayev Soil Science Museum... Oh," he cried, seemingly suddenly depressed, "there is a terrible amount to see."
With this Chapter 7, at one third of the book, we reach one of the climaxes of the drama, with the co-protagonists coming out into the open onto the stage where they will remain, off and on, turning up unexpectedly or not turning up when expected but imagined to be there, till the end of the book and even outside the Soviet Russias territory. In Chapter 8 they temporarily disappear :
Well, they had parted very amicably, he and his two official visitors. He had even seen them off in their 1959 Zis. It was not improbable that they would be waiting for him at the port, even in the cabin, but Paul did not think it very likely. A certain tired depression, very Slav, had come over them at the end...
Paul, after a long trip with a very communicative taxi driver who insists in doing the city, goes to the Isaak Brodsky but finds Belinda gone, both bunks stripped of linen in the cabin, blankets folded at the foot of the bunks, no ghost of perfume in the air, no hair-clip or hint of powder on the table.
(But "meanwhile behind them in the Intourist office, a large number of drilon dresses lay smug and dangerous".)© Liana Burgess