Kharms, who was unlucky enough (or perhaps lucky enough) to live through an historical era of shifting governments, ideologies and world wars, sees in all these one thing and one thing only: the absurd. And perhaps there is no other way of seeing reality – especially at a time in which stating one’s opinion could lead to imprisonment, exile and even death – through the eyes of someone who was imprisoned and whose works were barely published only because he dared to be different. Kharms wrote a lot about day-to-day life in Soviet Russia during the 1930s, and there may have been no better way of describing that life than through his grotesque writing.
The two stories appearing here focus on sex and death but include no psychological insights, neither profound nor shallow; sex and death are just as absurd as all the other components of life. The cashier who isn’t actually a cashier dies and the people around her are busy trying to hide her death – isn’t that something we do every day of our lives? Try to conceal the fact of death from ourselves? The second story describes an orgy, but there is nothing sexual about this orgy; it is a no-choice orgy that is the result of an unfortunate sequence of events which led to sexual contact between three people who happened to be in the same place at the same time.
The violence is a mundane violence that lacks any heroic air; petty people argue over petty matters – what more could one expect? After all, how could they interpret the
Translated by: Anne Marie Jackson
One day Antonina Alekseevna struck her husband with a rubber stamp and smeared his forehead with ink.
The deeply offended Pyotr Leonidovich, Antonina Alekseevna’s husband, locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t let anyone in.
However the residents of the communal apartment, in great need of going where Pyotr Leonidovich was sitting, decided they would break down the locked door.
Seeing that he had lost the battle, Pyotr Leonidovich came out of the bathroom, went to his room and lay down on the bed.
But Antonina Alekseevna decided to torment her husband thoroughly. She tore paper into little pieces and sprinkled them over Pyotr Leonidovich, who was lying on the bed…
An infuriated Pyotr Leonidovich jumped to his feet and ran into the corridor, where he began tearing down the wallpaper.
At this point the other residents ran out of their rooms, and when they saw what poor Pyotr Leonidovich was up to, they ganged up on him and tore his vest to pieces.
Pyotr Leonidovich ran off to the housing cooperative office.
In the meantime Antonina Alekseevna had removed her clothing and hidden herself away in a trunk.
Ten minutes later Pyotr Leonidovich returned with the head of the housing cooperative office in tow.
Not finding his wife in the room, Pyotr Leonidovich and the head of the housing cooperative office decided to make use of the available space and have a little vodka. Pyotr Leonidovich took it on himself to run to the corner for this beverage.
When Pyotr Leonidovich had gone, Antonina Alekseevna emerged from the trunk and stood naked before the head of the housing cooperative office.
The shocked building manager jumped from his chair and ran to the window, but then, on seeing the powerful physique of the youthful twenty-six-year-old woman, he was overcome by wild rapture.
At this point Pyotr Leonidovich returned with a litre of vodka.
Seeing what was going on in his room, Pyotr Leonidovich began to frown.
But his spouse Antonina Alekseevna showed him the rubber stamp and Pyotr Leonidovich calmed down.
Antonina Alekseevna expressed her desire to participate in the bender, but on condition that she was naked, and not only that but sitting on the table where the food to go with the vodka would be laid out.
The men sat in the chairs, Antonina sat on the table, and the bender began.
It’s hardly hygienic when a naked young woman is sitting on a table where people are eating. Besides, Antonina Alekseevna was a rather full-figured woman and not particularly clean, so the devil knows what was what.
Soon, however, they had all drunk their fill and fallen asleep: the men on the floor and Antonina Alekseevna on the table.
And silence was established in the communal apartment.
22 January 1935
Masha found a mushroom, picked it and took it to the market. At the market Masha was hit on the head and told that she’d get hit on the legs, too. Masha took fright and ran away. Masha ran to the cooperative, where she wanted to hide behind the till. But the manager saw Masha and said: “What’s that you’re holding?” And Masha said: “A mushroom.” The manager said: “How lively you are! If you want I can put you to work here.” Masha said: “You won’t put me to work.” The manager said: “Oh yes I will!” and he put Masha to work turning the crank on the till. Masha turned and turned the crank on the till, then suddenly she died. The police came, wrote up a report and ordered the manager to pay a fine of 15 rubles. The manager said: “What are you fining me for?” And the police replied: “For murder.” The manager took fright. He immediately paid the fine and said: “Just be sure to take this dead cashier away immediately.” But the sales assistant in the fruit department said: “No, that’s not right, she wasn’t a cashier. All she did was turn the crank on the till. The cashier is sitting over there.” The police said: “It’s all the same to us: we’ve been told to take away the cashier, and that’s what we’ll do.” The police headed towards the cashier. The cashier lay down on the floor behind the till and said: “I won’t go.” The police said: “Why won’t you go, you fool?” The cashier said: “You’ll bury me alive.” The police tried to lift the cashier up off the floor, but try as they might they were unable to lift her, for the cashier was very plump. “You should take her by the legs,” said the sales assistant in the fruit department. “No,” said the manager. “This cashier is serving as my wife. Therefore I must ask you not to expose her bottom.” The cashier said: “Do you hear that? Don’t you dare expose my bottom.” The police took the cashier under the arms and dragged her out of the cooperative. The manager ordered the sales assistants to straighten up the shop and begin the trading. “But what about the dead woman?” said the sales assistant in the fruit department, pointing at Masha. “Good grief,” said the manager. “We’ve made a right fudge of it. Yes indeed, what about the dead woman?” “And who’s going to sit at the till?” asked the sales assistant. The manager clasped his head in his hands. Scattering a few apples round the shop with his knee, he said: “It’s just outrageous!” “Outrageous!” said the sales assistants as one. Then the manager scratched his moustache and said: “Ha-ha. You won’t trip me up as easily as that! We’ll seat the dead woman at the till, and the customers may not even notice who’s sitting there.” They seated the dead woman at the till, put a cigarette between her teeth to make her look more alive, and for the sake of verisimilitude gave her a mushroom to hold. The dead woman sat at the till as if alive, although her face was very green, and one eye was open while the other was completely closed. “That’s OK,” said the manager. “It will do.” But the customers were already beating anxiously at the door. Why wasn’t the cooperative open yet? In particular, a housewife in a silk cloak had begun raising hell: she was shaking her bag and had already aimed a heel at the door handle. And behind the housewife an old woman with a pillow case on her head was screaming and swearing and calling the cooperative manager a tightwad. The manager opened the door and admitted the customers. The customers immediately dashed to the meat department, then to where the sugar and pepper were sold. The old woman, however, made straight for the fish department, but along the way she glanced at the cashier and stopped. “Good gracious,” she said. “Oh Lord save us!” The housewife in a silk cloak had now been to all the departments and was bearing down on the till. But as soon as she glanced at the cashier, she stopped immediately and stood looking wordlessly. The sales assistants also looked wordlessly at the manager. And the manager looked out from behind the counter to see what would happen next. The housewife in a silk cloak turned to the sales assistants and said: “Who’s this sitting at your till?” But the sales assistants didn’t say anything, because they didn’t know what to say. The manager didn’t say anything either. At this point people came running from all directions. On the street there was already a crowd. The janitors appeared. Whistles were blown. In a word, it was a real scandal. The crowd was ready to stand at the cooperative right up until evening, but then someone said that old women were falling out of a window in Ozerny Street. Then the crowd at the cooperative thinned out, because many people had gone over to Ozerny Street.
31 August 1936
Image: mgfoto, Shutterstock.com
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