The Norm

Cargo City, Germany
Cargo City, Germany. Ellie Ga, ©2003

Norma, written in the early 1980s, is the most radical fictional product of Sots-Art, the Russian version of Pop Art. Its style recreates the banal cheerfulness, faux-naturalism, and hard-boiled tone of official Soviet writing before utterly blowing it up. A remarkable work of anti-totalitarian fiction, it has never been translated into English.

The book opens with a preface: the writer Boris Gusev is arrested while going out to get his newspaper. He reacts bravely, refusing to answer questions while the KGB searches his apartment. They find the third volume of The Gulag Archipelago (“You gave the other two volumes to Feinstein the other night, is that correct?”) and a 372-page manuscript of a novel called Norma (“Recommended Daily Allowance,” or “The Norm”). They immediately send the manuscript to headquarters, at Lyubyanka, where a 13-year-old boy is given the task of reading it. The text then follows.

The first third of that text, Part I, follows—seven scenes are translated, the others are summarized in brackets.

Sveklushin escaped from the crowded bus, adjusted his scarf, and marched rapidly down the sidewalk.

The wet asphalt was covered with fallen leaves, the wind blew at his back and nuzzled the bare branches of the poplar trees. Sveklushin raised his coat collar and ducked into a side street. But the side street soon ended, and Sveklushin crossed the avenue to a newspaper kiosk. Suddenly he received a tap on his shoulder.

“Hey, buddy!”

He turned around, and there was Trofimenko!

“Holy shit!” said Sveklushin, his eyebrows inching up his face. “Trof?”

“That’s right!” Trofimenko brightly held out his hand.

“But, wait, wait, how did you get here? Where are you coming from?” Sveklushin shook the hand.

“From home, Sashuk! From home!”

“But, wait, holy shit, why didn’t you call? Why didn’t you come by?”

“I just got in. Right off the train. My baggage is in a locker.”

“Wait. Wow. Are you in on business, or what?”

“Technically no, but actually yes. I’m looking for an apartment.”

“Yeah? That is business. But look at you, holy shit! You look great. You been pigging out or what?”

“Yeah, right. No danger of that out there.”

“But, wait, holy shit. And Nina?”

“What about her? She’s a sweetheart. We’re working, living. You know. Raising the kids. Sasha’s two, Timka’s almost eight.”

“What? Timka? Holy shit! Just the other day I was throwing him in the air.”

“Wouldn’t be able to do that now. He’s a real porker.”

“Yeah, huh. Wait, Serezh, but tell me, how are things really? How’s Pavel Yegorich? And Senya?”

“Ah, everything’s fine. Pavel Yegorich is hanging in there.”

“Head engineer?”

“Yup. But Senya’s started drinking. Had some problems at work. His wife almost kicked him out.”

“Holy—! What happened?”

“I don’t know. He wasn’t much of a drinker, either. Or not more than anybody else . . .”

“Yeah. That’s something. Smart guy, too . . . Listen, let’s sit down or something, we’re standing here like two idiots . . . here.”

They crossed the street and sat down on a bench near the side street.

Sveklushin looked at Trofimenko, shook his head quietly.

“Yeah . . . wow. Funny how we ran into each other. But you’re a good one. No letters, no phonecalls . . .”

“Ah, Sash, that’s not up to me. I’m away on business six months at a time. Just running around like crazy.”

“Still. A couple of lines wouldn’t kill you. ‘I’m okay, everyone’s healthy. Say hello to your parents for me.’”

“I wrote you.”

“When?”

“I wrote you. I did. Come on.”

“Ah, you!” Sveklushin laughed, slapped Trofimenko on the shoulder. “‘I wrote,’ he says!”

Trofimenko produced a pack of cigarettes.

“Want one?”

“Nah. No.”

“Well, and how’re things with you?”

Sveklushin sighed.

“Pretty much the same. Vera’s finishing the aviation institute.”

“In the evenings?”

“Yeah. And Serezha’s in seventh grade.”

“Grades?”

“So-so. He just can’t seem to get down to work. Just wants to hang out, listen to the radio.”

“Okay. And how’s work? How’s Sidorov been acting?”

“Shitty.”

“He’s coming down on you?”

“Yeah. I’m thinking of getting out. I’m sick of them.”

“Where will you go?”

“I could go to the tech institute. Teach there.”

“Technology?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, why not? That’s interesting too.” Trofimenko kept smoking, adjusting his grip on the very tip of the cigarette.

“And the main thing is, it’s nearby. In Cheremushki.”

“Then it’s God’s will, practically. Do it.”

Sveklushin placed his briefcase on his knees, smiled, sighed.

“Ah, Serezha, Serezha,” he said. “Look at you. You’re getting wrinkles.”

“Yeah, and so? That’s normal.”

“What’s normal about it? Black-belt in sambo, thirty-five years old.”

“Yeah, well, you’ve got plenty of wrinkles yourself. So don’t worry too much on my account. You’ll give yourself a heart attack!”

They laughed.

Sveklushin slapped Trofimenko on the knee.

“Listen up, businessman. You get yourself to the train station, get your bags out of hock, and come on over. I’ll give Verka a call, tell her to rustle something up for a big man from out of town. She’s home already, you know. So get going.”

Finished speaking, Sveklushin stood up, then remembered something.

“But wait. I’ll take my norm first, no need to lug it home. Good thing I remembered.”

He sat down and opened his briefcase.

Trofimenko smoked, shaking the ash onto the asphalt.

“Where . . . ah, there you are.”

Sveklushin took out the neatly wrapped cellophane bag with the norm in it.

“Oh, wow.” Trofimenko reached out for the package. “Look at that. We don’t get them like this. They just put them in little paper bags. And the paper’s real rough. But yours—look how carefully they did this. Even the typeface is nice. NORM.”

“The capital’s the capital,” said Sveklushin. He tore open the packet, shook the norm onto his palm, pinched off a chunk and shoved it into his mouth.

Trofimenko touched the norm with his finger.

“It’s so fresh . . . and soft. Ours is all dried out. Gets all crumbly. So-called ‘organizers.’ They can’t organize shit.”

“You should write someone, let them know.” Sveklushin kept chewing, occasionally pinching off another chunk.

“Write!” Trofimenko threw down his cigarette and crushed it with his foot. “Don’t make fun, Sasha.”

“It wouldn’t help?”

“Of course not. They couldn’t care less. And then they say, ‘Why aren’t the provinces producing?’ They’ve got to be kidding. It’s just déjà vu every time. They keep trucking the norms in, they keep trucking them in, and inside they’re lying there all dried up and stale. They could at least get the norms right. It’s strange.”

“Yeah, some things in this country are still pretty screwy.” Sveklushin put the last piece of norm into his mouth, crumpled up the bag and was about to throw it in the trash when Trofimenko stopped him.

“Don’t throw it out, give it to me. I’ll show my wife.”

He smoothed out the bag carefully and placed it in his pocket.

They got up.

Trofimenko straightened his cap, Sveklushin his scarf. They stood a moment looking each other over.

Trofimenko exhaled quickly through his nose. “Sash, what if a guy wanted to buy that coat. Is it hard?”

“No, not really, but it’s Czechoslovakian. So it’s a deficit item.”

“But I can overpay if I need to. I have some money. What do you think?”

“We can try. Vera knows a lot of the salesgirls.” Sveklushin shifted his briefcase to his left hand, sighed. “We’ll try. But for now, you get yourself to the station, you hear? Get your stuff. You remember the address?”

“Are you nuts? Of course.”

“Well, then, good. Run. Be at our place in half an hour, you got it?”

“Got it.” Trofimenko smiled.

“Good. We’ll be waiting.” Sveklushin nodded, turned, and quickly marched toward home. Trofimenko smiled and watched him walk away.

Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen

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