Katya Knyazeva (avezink) wrote,
Katya Knyazeva

Andrey Bitov "Lessons of Armenia" excerpt

At last, I found myself on an old Yerevan street. You could not really call it old; it was hardly thousands or even hundreds of years old. More likely, it was a century old. Two and three-story houses stood side by side; their rounded, bloated window frames made them seem nearsighted and squinting. Their attempt to appear straight and to camouflage their rough hewn clay construction was naïve. Back in the day, this street must have been pretty well off: this is probably what lanes perpendicular to the main street in a prefectural town looked like. There was no notable architecture. The houses looked like old refrigerators before the age of electricity, when ice was purchased from a carrier and loaded into a tin-clad casket. Tiny deep windows suggested darkness indoors and afternoon naps. The walls looked pudgy. They seemed to have been drawn by a child. Sometimes the line of windowsills would creep downward, like a lazy pupil’s copybook. There were no people on the street.

—    Look!

I bent a little and peeked into the arch. I did not have to bend: a normal person could go under without stooping over. But I had the idea of peeking in, as if through the peephole of a shared apartment, where you would see an incredibly distorted visitor in a hallway, and he, presumably, would see your horribly distorted eye.

The deep dark tunnel with a rounded ceiling revealed a courtyard with incredible sharpness and clarity. The air could not be any more transparent than the air in that courtyard. In contrast to the entrance, the courtyard was brightly lit, but the sunlight was different from the blunt and annoying heat that had been roasting our backs in the street. The light was calm and even. A stair led to the right: four dented steps, steep and narrow, bound by a ridiculous banister with a swirl at the tip. Further away, three kids were playing some forgotten game: painted pins were thrown to the ground. Further still, some terrace with an annex, a grapevine clinging to the railing, someone sleeping on a cot. A tree overhangs the right corner. A small stove smoking with coals crackling inside. Some dark old woman at the end of the courtyard is gathering something, or scattering something.

There are some things you can never say you have seen for the first time. They are in your blood. Formally, this was the first time I ever saw this courtyard, but this is not saying anything. I’ve always known this courtyard. The feeling was like coming back to one's hometown. Look, this tree is broken now, and that bush has grown so big. Everyone has died. Can this girl be so big now? I remember lifting her in my arms as a child. Oh, I remember this barrel, I’m surprised it’s still here. Touch the earth. You’re still alive, old devil...

We walked and peeked into those deep gateways. I forgot about my companion, although the fact that she was there convinced me I was not alone in my silent excitement.

The courtyards were not identical, but not one seemed any different from the other. Not one was any more beautiful or more interesting than the other – each one was perfect. It was not possible to examine how this chaos of sheds, cul-de-sacs, trees, darkness and light combined to form this harmony and artistic unity. Life organizes itself according to its own unwritten laws and is incapable of creating anything less than perfect.

Such depth and translucency is reminiscent of the Old Masters. A pregnant woman is reading a letter at the window: such light! This is how a window frame can frame. The world becomes more meaningful and self-contained when you are looking at it through a window and not just seeing it in the street, on the road, in the fields. A frame is an idea, a conception of the world.

This is how every courtyard looked through the frame of its dark gateway.

This is why it is said: “people live here.” There is no need for any abstract notions. People live, love, have babies, get sick and die. Someone was born. Someone grew old. Somebody painted this wall. Someone moved this old three-legged table out of the house, planted flowers. Someone tore down the old shed, cleared out this spot, built a chicken coop next to it.

The courtyard grew like a tree – old branches died off, new cul-de-sacs grew up. The branches of a tree are never imperfectly arranged. It’s thicker here, thinner there, crooked there, broken there – but it’s a tree! Children chirp in its crown, lovers prop up its trunk, and a black-clad grandmother keeps busy at the roots, stooping down, kindling the stove, picking up bits of wood and dropping them. The perspective of the generations, each courtyard is a genealogy.

Every archway beckons you to peek even though spying is bad. As you walk to the next one you cannot imagine it could be as good, and yet every new one makes you sigh – sigh with relief that you don’t have to part with it; it gives you this sweet faith in another possibility of happiness.

This street and these courtyards have no historic or architectural value. They will be demolished. New, comfortable buildings will replace them. People will live in them, and they will love, have babies, die, suffer and rejoice. But I am not sure if one hundred years from now the walls of these houses will be as warm with love, life and death. I don’t know if stepping into a new street and turning a corner will make you feel the same unity and happiness as this nondescript, clay-walled street makes you feel at every turn. Maybe feelings will reflect away from the clean, even and shiny surfaces…  

We value human labor and yet we don’t value it enough. Do we value what is even more valuable – the things that happen without our participation, the great harmony of nature and time? Wooden planks are, of course, more valuable than the growing pine. But that is only their material value. You should not confuse price with value, expensiveness with preciousness. The most sublime creation of human labor is still a lonely trinket compared with nature; a clear but isolated chord overheard and borrowed from the absolute harmony and polyphony of life. You cannot measure value by the cost. A car is not more valuable than the paddock where travelers stopped for a picnic. We cannot create an early morning, we cannot forge a sunrise, the dew, the grass. No painter has the imagination to scatter houses and sheds as naturally in relation to the river, the road, the sky and the forest, as any village has them scattered. He won’t be able to situate a lonely cow or a horse, a haystack or a windmill, cannot even put some tins and jars on the fence in the right sequence. He cannot even tilt the fence correctly! He can only glimpse it somewhere.

Life gave us a great book of harmony, free of charge. We need to remember that if we tear out all the pages, we’ll have nothing to learn from.      
Tags: bitov, book, quote

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