Friday, 9 July 2010
Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster
Perplexed by his sudden ennui and unable to shift it, Vladimir impulsively takes flight to the small town of Kolomna, less than a hundred miles south-west of Moscow. He feels better there and is soon contemplating a new affair with the local veterinarian's fashionable wife. But a stranger encounter is reserved for Vladimir... in the window of the pretentiously titled 'Moscow Hair Salon', he sees a remarkable wax mannequin:
'Thick snakes of reddish, almost bronze hair framed a pale face with a greenish opal cast, a burning flush and scarlet lips. Huge black eyes reinforced the composition'.
Vladimir purchases the mannequin from the salon owner at an inflated price; in so doing, he discovers that the wax model has an identical twin, held by the owner's son-in-law. Both were obtained as securities for debts from the owner of a travelling curiosity show, or panopticon. After purchasing the second mannequin at an even more ludicrous price, Vladimir turns detective. He painstakingly traces the originals of both mannequins across Europe, eventually discovering that they are a pair of celebrated Siamese twins who perform as the 'Henrickson sisters' in a travelling circus. Unfortunately, the Henrickson sisters appear to have gone to ground; they don't respond to Vladimir's desperate advertisements. At long last, after expending most of his personal fortune, Vladimir decides to abandon the search, promising himself a brief recuperative stay in Venice before returning to Moscow. As soon as he opens the blinds in his hotel room on his first morning in Venice, he sees an advertisement for the 'American Panopticon', starring the world-famous 'Henrickson sisters'. The twins turn out to be just as beautiful and entrancing as Vladimir had hoped as they perform an erotically suggestive Egyptian dance. Vladimir swiftly persuades the circus owner to introduce him to his star performers. Although they behave with well-bred maidenly reserve offstage, both women are soon charmed by their Russian visitor. Vladimir and Berthe, the more sensuous of the twins, fall rapidly in love - or in lust - while Kitty - described as a 'good-hearted', 'typical German beauty', looks on in horror. Kitty's unwilling but inevitable presence in Vladimir's and Berthe's sexual encounters lends their affair added elements of voyeurism and even violation, reminiscent of the remark made by one of Nabokov's male Siamese twins: 'Not only did our public want us to talk, they also wanted us to play together. [...] I suppose had we happened to be opposite sex twins they would have made us commit incest in their presence'.
In Chaianov's story, Kitty is both performer and public: 'Passion blazed up, the fierce stream carried everything away, and even I, chained by our deformity to my sister, was somehow strangely carried away on its crests. His words, his smiles, his touches, like melted metal, branded stigmata of desire on our souls. And then came a time when, as I sank my teeth into the pillow in a maddened frenzy, Berthe gave herself to him'. The story, which up to this point has been a third-person narrative with Vladimir as hero, is interrupted at this point with a coyly elliptical chapter heading, 'Disaster' ('Катастрофа'), followed by a quote from an Ovid love poem and a row of actual ellipses. The next chapter unfolds from Kitty's perspective via extracts from her diary, describing Berthe's pregnancy, the surgical separation of the sisters during Berthe's labour, the birth of a little girl and Berthe's death. Kitty decides to flee with her niece, ordering the doctors to tell Vladimir that all three died. Vladimir (and the narrative) retreat back to Moscow, a broken man who listlessly resumes his career for want of any other interest in life. In this state of emotional vacuity, Vladimir consciously experiences the same objectivized condition to which he had implicitly reduced all previous women in his life: Vladimir felt himself to be a mannequin, a marionette, dangled on a string by an unknown hand. After the passage of a year, he decides to allow himself a holiday in Venice. All the details of his arrival are repeated: the same touts and porters at the station, the same ambient sounds of gondoliers and street vendors, the same hotel room. But this time when Vladimir opens his blinds in the morning, he is confronted by a sight that consigns him to final collapse and death: the mannequins of the Henrickson sisters, which he had left behind in Venice, now mounted in the window of a stylish hairdressing salon and staring accusingly into his eyes.
I'll post again about Chaianov as I continue to discover patterns and resonances between his stories: you can explore them for yourself at http://az.lib.ru/c/chajanow_a_w/
Please bear in mind that all translations given in this texts are drafts: if you would like to compare them with the original and offer alternate suggestions, please do so.