"He might have passed for a Cupid, were it not for the long socks." Extract from a book by Maria Stepanova.
I knew I already had the real alef of this story in my pocket.
It was a small, three-centimetres-long white porcelain figure – a very basic moulding of a naked curly boy who might have passed for a Cupid, were it not for the long socks. I bought him at a Moscow antiques market, where they realised untimely that the past is an expensive business. But some cheap things could still be found, and so on a tray with all sorts of jewellery, I saw a box containing a whole heap of these white boys. The strangest thing was that there was not a single whole one among them, they all displayed all sorts of injuries: some were without legs or face, and all of them were in shards and scars. I searched through them for a long time, looking for a handsome example, and at last found the most beautiful one. It was almost entirely preserved and shone with the brightness of a gift. The curls and dimples were in place, as were the ribbed socks, and neither the dark spot on the back nor the missing arms prevented me from enjoying his good looks.
Of course, I still asked the seller if she had a boy who was entirely intact, and in return I heard a story that I decided to check up. These cheap figures, she said, were produced in a German city for a period of 50 years, starting from the late 1880s. They were sold anywhere, in grocery and hardware stores, but their main purpose was another: cheap and unpretentious, they were used as shock absorbers during the transport of goods – so that the heavy objects of the century would not rip off each other’s sides in the dark. In other words, the boys were produced in a deliberate expectation of injury. Then, before the war, the factory closed down. Warehouses filled with porcelain products were locked up until they came under bombardment – and, sometime later, when the boxes were opened, everything turned out to be shattered.
I bought my boy, then, without writing down the name of the factory or the phone number of the seller, but knowing for certain that I was carrying away the ending of this book in my pocket: the solution in the task book commonly found on the last pages. The figure was about everything at once. About the fact that no story reaches us in its entirety, without punched feet and chipped faces. About the fact that lacunae and gaps are the constant companion of survival, its hidden engine, its mechanism of acceleration. About the fact that only trauma turns us from a mass product into distinct individuals. And, of course, about the fact that I myself am such a boy, a result of mass production, a derivative of the collective catastrophe of the past century, its survivor and unwitting beneficiary, who miraculously survived and found herself in the world.
Extract from Pamiati pamiati (In Memory of Memory), by Maria Stepanova. Originally published in 2017 by Novoe Izdatelstvo. This extract is translated by Ingunn Lunde, professor of Russian.
© Maria Stepanova 2017
© Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2018
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