The Hall of the Singing Caryatids, Page 1Victor Pelevin
of the Singing Caryatids
Translated by Andrew Bromfield
A NEW DIRECTIONS PEARL
LENA ARRIVED FOR THE AUDITION TWO HOURS ahead of the scheduled time, but she was still only ninth in line.
The girls who had gathered among the yellow leather, glass, chrome, and vintage Hollywood posters that decorated the walls of the small foyer instead of paintings were evidently nervous.
Lena was too.
The girls disappeared through a pebble-glass door at an approximate rate of one every fifteen minutes, then emerged and walked to the exit. Their faces gave absolutely nothing away.
When the electronic chime rang out in the foyer and the secretary called her name, Lena panicked and took so long stuffing her book into her purse that the secretary actually pressed the button again. But Lena recovered her self-control on her way to the pebble-glass door, and pushed it open with a steady hand.
Inside was a small office that looked like a cosmetic surgeon’s front office: a desk, a couple of armchairs, and a hard medical couch upholstered in imitation leather. The owner of the office, commonly known as “Uncle Pete,” was sitting on the couch with his hairy legs crossed, smoking a cigar. Uncle Pete was a chubby man of about fifty, with a naked cranium and a fleshy face, sporting stylish rectangular glasses. Although he was freshly shaved, he gave the impression of being unshaven: his greying stubble was so invincibly thick, it looked as if he had sprinkled the ash from his cigar over his head and then, to complete his penitence, rubbed a certain amount of ash into his cheeks. He was dressed like a child — in crumpled white shorts and a t-shirt with a rainbow-bright slogan:
He gazed at Lena for a while, chewing on his cigar, then pointed to the desk and said:
“Take your clothes off and climb up. . . . No, I mean the other way around. Climb up and take your clothes off.”
Lena had been aware that she would have to sing naked, but she was shocked to realize it was all going to happen on a desk in a smoky, poky little room. That just didn’t seem serious, somehow. But on the other hand, this place was about as serious as they come, and she knew it.
This manifest incongruity could mean only one thing — her idea of what was serious and what wasn’t didn’t correspond to the true reality. But that kind of thing had happened to her before. And so, casting her doubts aside, she climbed up on the desk and quickly stripped.
“Sing,” said Uncle Pete.
“I’ve got a keydrive with music,” Lena replied. “Is there anywhere to put it?”
“Let’s do it without music.”
Lena had prepared a song for just this contingency, one that the t.A.T.u. girls sang, about Yugoslavia — it was a great vehicle for her thin, clear voice. Lena started singing:
The Danube in the evening is flooded with
White light, white light, white light . . .
“Lift one leg,” said Uncle Pete.
Lena blushed but went on singing as she raised her left leg, keeping it bent at the knee. It was awkward standing on one leg, but she could manage it. She spread her arms wide and tried to make her pose as elegant as possible.
The feeling of shame lent her voice a certain piercing, crystal clarity. Uncle Pete didn’t even look at her — well, maybe he gave her a couple of sideways glances. He was preoccupied with his cigar, which had burned down too rapidly on one side. He anxiously anointed the trouble spot with saliva and puffed streams of smoke up toward the ceiling, but he still couldn’t get the cigar to burn evenly.
When Lena sang “You are leaving, consumed by the flames, Yugoslavia, without me without me without me,” it seemed to trigger some kind of content-addressable relay in Uncle Pete’s head. He shook the ash off his cigar, frowned, and said:
“That’s enough. Let’s have something else.”
“And can I put my leg down?” Lena asked
Uncle Pete shook his head. By this time Lena was pretty tired, and she made a mistake.
She started singing Nautilus Pompilius’s “Wheels of Love.” It was a beautiful song, but it had an elusive, gliding kind of motif; she should really only have sung it with music.
“Eve and Adam, they both knew, the wheels of love roll on through . . . ,” she began, but after a few seconds she squawked such an obviously false note that she stopped in embarrassment, then started again.
“Don’t bother,” Uncle Pete told her.
He put his cigar down on the edge of the couch and quickly jotted something down in a notepad.
“Can I lower my leg?” Lena asked again.
“Sure,” Uncle Pete said with a nod. “You can get dressed already.”
“What about the recitation? Aren’t you going to listen to the recitation?”
Lena got down off the desk. She felt a red flush of shame on her cheeks, and there was nothing she could do about it. As she got dressed, she gazed self-consciously into the trash can — as if she had accepted that that was where she belonged from now on.
Uncle Pete called a week later, when Lena had already gotten over it. The call came early in the morning. Lena’s sister, who answered the phone, said: “Some hotshot looking for you”.
Lena didn’t realize who it was at first, but when Uncle Pete called her “Yugoslavia” she guessed she must have passed the audition.
“I never had any doubts about you,” Uncle Pete told her. “The moment you lifted that leg, I knew. . . . Are you free this afternoon?”
“Yes,” said Lena. “Of course.”
“Know where the Radisson-Slavyanskaya Hotel is? Be there, at the entrance, at three, and bring your passport. You’ll see someone there holding a placard that says ‘semiotic signs.’ Go up to them.”
“Because, my dumb little dolly, the person with the placard will take you where you need to go. Were you expecting something bad? Don’t you worry, there’s no more bad stuff to come. Only good stuff and really good stuff. Unless, of course, you forget how to blush. That’s the most important thing in our business . . .”
And Uncle Pete laughed.
Lena was there at a quarter to three.
It looked as if the Slavyanskaya Hotel was hosting some event of enormous importance for global semiotics — there were several women in hotel uniforms standing at the doors, holding those placards in their hands. One of them checked a list and led Lena to the business center, where a whole crowd of semiotic boys and girls had already gathered — it reminded her a bit of September and the first day of school.
Another woman in a uniform delivered Lena to a little, semi-circular conference room with black armchairs. It was clearly intended for small, private presentations. Some girls she’d never seen before were sitting there. By force of habit, Lena went to the back row and sat down next to a petite girl with an Asiatic slant to her eyes who looked completely Japanese.
“Asya,” the Japanese girl introduced herself, smiling so enchantingly that Lena immediately realized the other girl had also passed the audition.
“Lena,” said Lena, shaking the outstretched hand. “What’s going to happen now?”
“I heard it’s some kind of introductory session.”
Lena looked round at the gathering. In all, there were twelve girls in the small conference room — they were all beautiful, but different, as if they had been specially selected for contrasting types of physical appeal that would reinforce the overall impact. There were two black girls, one mulatto, two dusky girls from Central Asia, two with narrow, slanting eyes (Asya was more beautiful than the other one
), and five generally European-looking girls: three blondes (Lena included herself), one brunette, and one with chestnut hair.
After a few minutes of waiting, Uncle Pete entered the room, wearing a brown, double-breasted jacket over a black turtleneck sweater. He was accompanied by a young man with dark hair wearing a grey Zegna suit and a tie of such a discreetly elegant shade that any lingering doubts Lena might have had about the seriousness of what was happening were laid to rest once and for all.
Uncle Pete was clearly not the senior partner in this duo: he treated the young man very obsequiously, turning the microphone on for him and even brushing non-existent dust off his chair.
After seating himself at the microphone, the young man looked round at the girls, smiled sadly, and started speaking.
“You know what’s going on in the world right now, don’t you, girls? The geopolitical confrontation between civilizations based on service to the principles of spirit or of matter has intensified to the ultimate degree. This is the result of that same secret tension of forces as in that early morning before the Battle of Kulikovo Field, when the Orthodox host awaited its hour of the star and the cross. . . .”
The young man glanced round sternly at the girls, as if he were hinting at who the Orthodox host would be this time around — but Lena had already figured that out ages ago. Although that “star and cross” business wasn’t clear — she thought it must be a kind of loan-translation from the Americanism “stars and stripes,” a response to the dictatorship of McDonald’s, filched for lack of a decent copywriter, but leavened with a correct spiritual principle.
“The situation is rendered particularly acute,” the young man continued, “by the fact that in the course of a predatory and criminal process of privatization, the wealth of our country fell into the hands of a bunch of oligarchs specially selected — by agents operating in the dark wings of the international stage — on the basis of their spiritual squalor. Not that they were irredeemably bad people, no, you shouldn’t think that, papa mama nuthouse eighteen. They were more like little children, incapable of striving for any goal except the satisfaction of their constantly shifting desires. Hence all those soccer clubs, giant yachts, twenty-thousand-Euro bottles of wine, and other ghastly aberrations, about which I think you have already heard more than enough. . . .”
Lena didn’t understand what “papa mama nuthouse eighteen” meant (the young man had muttered those words rapidly and quietly), but she forgot about that right away — she suddenly wanted so badly to take a sip of twenty-thousand-Euros-a-bottle wine that her mouth started watering. A quiet sigh ran round the room, confirming that the girls had not only heard a lot about these aberrations but had actually studied in minute detail every bit of available information.
“In recent times the intelligence agencies of the West have launched a genuine manhunt for our wealthy goofballs,” the young man continued. “You have heard, of course, about the notorious scandals and arrests: first Courchevel, then Fiji, then the Hermès boutique, and now St. Moritz, the Maldives, and Antarctica. This carefully planned campaign has pursued two fundamental goals — first, to discredit Russian civilization, and second, to establish control over Russia’s resources by gathering compromising material about the owners of the country’s basic assets. Our elite has become a target, and the objective reality of the current point in the space-time continuum is such that we have become a target together with it.”
He frowned and stopped speaking, as if giving his listeners a chance to appreciate the full seriousness of the situation. Then the sad smile reappeared on his face and he continued:
“We have to get the situation under control. What does this require? In the first instance, we must create conditions in which these infantile knuckleheads can no longer disgrace our country abroad. We must, so to speak, recreate here, on our side of the border, the stupefying mirage that attracts them to the West. Thus we shall ensure the security of the Fatherland’s strategic reserves and at the same time retain, here in Russia, the immense financial resources that the oligarchs waste on their perverse pastimes. This, we can say, is one of today’s absolutely top-priority national projects — although, for obvious reasons, you won’t hear a single word about it on TV.”
He looked at his watch.
“My friend Pyotr here will tell you the rest. The most important thing you must realize is that, despite the apparent — ambivalence, let us say — of your work, it is every bit as important as a tour of duty in a nuclear submarine that forms part of our nation’s defensive shield. Perhaps even more important, because today’s war is not the war of fifty years ago, and it is fought with quite different means. The country needs a new kind of defensive shield, one that protects our frontiers from within, and you girls will be the ones to bear it! Today the cause of Alexander Nevsky becomes your cause! This is an immense responsibility, but also a great honor. And on this journey, may your hearts be illuminated by the inexpressibly beautiful principle that Borya Grebenshchikov refers to as ‘the Work of Master Bo’ — which simple folk like myself call ‘the transcendental extralinguistic imperative.’ Everything depends on you now. Good luck!”
The young man whispered something in Uncle Pete’s ear, stood up, waved good-bye with his elegant little hand, and walked out of the room.
“Did you all understand what he was talking about?” Uncle Pete asked, staring up eloquently at the ceiling. “Yes . . . well then. He used to be an éminence grise. No one ever saw him in person. But now he speaks in public on all sorts of subjects, he communes with the people. A genuine democrat, by the way, in the best sense — he arrived in a plain, unpimped BMW. But I strongly advise you not to talk about this conversation with anyone else.”
Lena didn’t understand what an éminence grise was, but she decided not to ask anybody about it — in case she accidentally gave something away.
“Get this into your heads right now,” Uncle Pete continued. “In your job you need more than just long legs, you need a short memory. No one — not your mom, or your dad, or your little brother, or even the priest at confession — must know what happens while you’re working. I think you already understand the consequences of any breach of this principle. Or is there anyone who still hasn’t figured that out?”
Uncle Pete looked around the hushed hall.
“Have we just joined a spy school, then?” one of the girls asked.
“Near enough,” Uncle Pete said with a smile. “Do you think we’re playing with buckets and spades here? If you leaf through glossies from the last few years, you’ll see your Uncle Pete here is always complaining to the society columnists that he never gets any orders for girls from the Rublyovskoe Chaussee, all his clients are in the provinces nowadays. Of course, we pay the columnists, and the magazines. We’re working intensively on public opinion, implanting the idea that in the contemporary oligarch’s system of values the family comes first, a foreign education for his children comes second, and Orthodox ideals come in a close third, but nowadays debauchery is really old hat. Serious resources are being devoted to that effort, girls. But just imagine one of you starts trading in nookie. . . . The entire edifice collapses. Do you understand the consequences?”
“Everybody understands that already,” a blonde with short-cropped hair sitting in the front row said in a man’s voice. “Let’s hear something constructive. Where are we going to work?”
“Under the Rublyovka.”
“You mean, close to the Rublyovka?”
Uncle Pete shook his head and pointed down at the floor.
“What does that mean?” the blonde asked tensely.
“You’ll be working in a complex that is currently being completed close to the Rublyovskoe Chaussee. It is located a thousand feet underground and can withstand a direct hit by a nuclear bomb. The complex will act as a bomb shelter for the national elite in the case of war or terrorist attacks. In peacetime it will be an exclusive recreation center that the elite can visit confidentially, without e
ven leaving their own neighborhood.”
“You mean no one’s going to know about this shelter?” Asya asked.
“It’s not easy to keep construction work on this scale secret,” Uncle Pete replied, “but it’s quite possible to keep what’s going to happen there secret. All the staff, including you, will know only what concerns them directly. And by the way, don’t go thinking that now you’re the bee’s knees. You are by no means the most important element of the project. You’re not even USAs.”
“What do you mean by USAs?” one of the girls asked.
“A USA is a Unit of Sexual Attraction,” Uncle Pete replied. “Our professional jargon.”
“Then who are we?”
“You are simply a decorative element in one of the auxiliary areas. You are Singing Caryatids. Do you know what that is?”
Not everybody did — that much was clear from their faces.
Uncle Pete was obviously feeling hot — he took off his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair. Down at stomach level on his black turtleneck was a picture of a spermatozoid curved into the Nike squiggle with the caption:
JUST DID IT
“The dictionary of the Russian language,” said Uncle Pete, “tells us that the word ‘caryatid’ signifies a sculpture of a woman that acts as a support for a roof or appears to perform this function. . . . What is meant by ‘acting as a support for a roof’ has just been explained to you, that’s the political aspect. But now we’re going to talk about what ‘appearing to perform that function’ means. We are creating an entirely new type of personal pleasure zone. Its fundamental, distinctive stylistic element will be the naked female body. Of course, that doesn’t mean a room full of naked broads. No one nowadays is interested in some Neapolitan tarantella, the kind of thing once mocked so viciously by the writer Averchenko. No. . . . What we are doing here will outdo anything that even the decadent Roman emperors ever witnessed.”
Uncle Pete leaned his body back, assuming an air of Roman decadence. In Lena’s opinion, it was highly convincing — even with the rectangular glasses.