The White Dove of Cordoba (Белая голубка Кордовы)

 

by Dina Rubina

 

Click here to read the author's biography

 

Click here to read a synopsis

 

***

 

Sample translation by Daniel Jaffe

 

Part One

Chapter One

He decided to call his aunt before his departure, anyway. Typically, he was the first to make a conciliatory move. The important thing here was not to curry favor or pander, but to conduct himself as if there hadn’t been a real quarrel – a mere trifle, a light tiff.

“So, tell me,” he asked, “what should I bring you – castañuelas?”

“Go to hell!” she snapped. But her voice conveyed a certain satisfaction that he’d telephoned – that he’d called despite everything, hadn’t flown off, chirring his little wings.

“A fan, then, eh, Zhuka?” he said, smiling into the receiver and picturing her patrician, hook-nosed face within a halo of blue-dyed haze. “We’ll stick a beauty mark on your little cheek, and you’ll step out onto the balcony of your almshouse like some maja, a juicy wench.”

“I don’t need anything from you!” she said obstinately.

“So be it.” He himself was as gentle as a dove. “Oo-kaay…In that case I’ll bring you a Spanish broom.”

“Why a Spanish one?” she growled. And fell right into his hands.

“But what other kind does your sister fly around on over there?” he exclaimed, exulting the way children do when they make a fool of some ninny and jump around howling: “Gotcha – nya-nya-nya-nya-nya!”

She slammed down the receiver, but it was no longer a full-fledged quarrel, just a thunder shower at the beginning of May, so he could leave with a light heart, especially since a day before the tiff, he’d gone to the market and crammed Auntie’s refrigerator to bursting.

***

All that remained was to round off the corners of one more matter, the subject of which he’d been arranging and working out (flourishes of details, arabesques of particulars) for three years now.

And tomorrow, finally, at the crack of dawn, against the backdrop of a turquoise stage set, up from the sea foam (let’s note: curative-spa sea foam) a new Venus would be born under his personal signature: the final wave of the conductor’s hand, the impassioned chord of the symphony’s finale.

Not hurrying, he laid out his favorite smooth suitcase of olive-colored leather, small but accommodating, like a soldier’s knapsack: you jam it to bursting, to the very, as Uncle Sema used to say, I can’t – then look, you can squeeze in another shoe.

Preparing for a trip, he always took great pains to think his outfit through. He lingered over the shirts, exchanged the cream-colored one for the navy, held up against it a pale blue tie from the bunch in his closet, a silk one…Yes: and cufflinks, of course. The ones Irina gave him. And the others that Margo had given him – he absolutely had to: she was observant.

Okay then. Now the expert was fittingly outfitted for all five days of the Spanish project.

For some reason the word “expert,” uttered in reference to himself, made him laugh to the point of guffaws, even falling face down onto the divan, beside the open suitcase, and he laughed loudly for two minutes in sheer delight – he was always at his most infectious when guffawing alone by himself.

Continuing to laugh, he rolled to the edge of the divan, leaned over, opened the lower drawer of the wardrobe and, riffling through rumpled briefs and socks, pulled out a pistol.

It was a convenient Colt “Glock” of simple manufacture, with an automatic block firing pin and smooth recoil. What’s more, with the help of a hairpin or nail, one could disassemble it in a minute.

Let’s hope, dear buddy, that you’ll spend the entirety of tomorrow’s important meeting asleep in the suitcase.

Late in the evening, he left Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea.

He didn’t like driving those loops in the dark, but the road had recently been widened and partially lit up; it was as if the camel-humped hills that had been squeezing you from both sides, forcing you into the desert funnel, now seemed to be reluctantly parting.

But at the intersection where the road turned after the filling station and followed along the sea, the illumination ended, and the ruinous darkness swollen with salt – the kind found only by the sea, by this sea – descended anew, slapping one in the face with the sudden headlights of oncoming cars. On the right, the black cliffs of Qumran towered sullenly; on the left stretched a smooth black salty smoothness with a sudden splash of asphalt, beyond which the Jordanian shore got all teary with distant lights.

About 40 minutes later, from the darkness below, a festive constellation of lights frothed and spilled: EinBokek with its hotels, clinics, restaurants and shops – a haven for the wealthy tourist as well as the dead-broke panhandler. And farther down the shore, a certain distance from the resort area, stood the gigantic Hotel Nirvana – alone and stretching its brightly lit white rooftops majestically into the night. In room 513, Irina was most likely already asleep.

Of all his women, she was the only one who would, if it were up to her, go to sleep and wake with the roosters, just as he would. Which turned out to be inconvenient: he didn’t like sharing his dawn hours with anyone whomsoever, but safeguarded his store of resilient morning energy when, before a big day, his eyes were both sharp and fresh, and his fingertips were as sensitive as a pianist’s, and his noggin was at perfect boil, and all cylinders were sparking in the billowing steam of that first cup of coffee.

For the sake of those precious dawn hours, he fairly often left Irina late at night.

Arriving at the hotel lot, he parked, got his suitcase from the trunk and, taking his time so as to drag out the final minutes of solitude, he headed to the huge propeller revolving at the main entrance.

“You sleeping?” he barked jokingly at the Ethiopian security guard. “I’ve brought a bomb.”

The guy roused himself, hailed him with the whites of his eyes and mistrustfully stretched his white harmonica of a smile in the darkness: “Well, o-o-o-kay…” 

They knew one another by sight. This hotel – bustling with people, and chaotic like the city, standing off to the side of the main resort area – was where he loved to arrange business meetings, the last and final ones: the very crowning symphonic chord which the interested party could reach only after having sawed through that not so inconsequential road between rocky teeth hanging above the sea, all held in place by braces and wires at the hands of some gigantic dentist.

And it was true: as Uncle Sema used to say – the dog that trots about gets the bone. (By the way, Uncle himself couldn’t trot to save his life in that orthopedic boot of his.)

There it is, room 513. Quickly and soundlessly slipping into the slot that electronic key obtained from the bleary desk clerk: you see, I don’t want to wake my wife, the poor thing’s suffering from a migraine and went to bed early…

He’d never had any wife in his life whatsoever.

She wasn’t suffering from any migraine whatsoever.

And he intended to wake her on the spot.

Irina was sleeping, as usual – rolled up in a blanket cocoon like white cheese in Druze pita.

Forever wrapping herself, burying herself, twisting herself sideways – hire some archeologists if you like.

Dropping suitcase and jacket to the floor, he tugged off his sweater in the doorway, kicked off – foot against foot – his running shoes, and tumbled beside her on the bed, still in his jeans – he got bogged down in the hilly bend of the zipper – and tee shirt.

Irina woke up, and they began fooling around simultaneously, trying to free themselves from the blanket, from their clothing, mumbling face to face:

“…you promised, you no-account, you promised…”

“…and I’m keeping my promise, you’re practically mummified here…”

“…what kind of wild man are you, falling on me like this! Hold on…wait a minute…”

“…I’m hard already, can’t you feel?”

“…hey you bum…just let me…”

“…who’s not letting you…please, like that, just like that…and…li-i-i…”

…In the open balcony doorway, in sympathy with his rhythm, the lemon moon now shot upward over the railing with a shameless goggle-eyed “bravo!”, now sank below, slowly and smoothly at first, then quicker and quicker – as if carried away by these, its first such rockings – now lengthening, now shortening each up-and-down pendulum swing. Then it stood stock still at a dizzying peak, balancing as if to view its heavenly neighborhood for the last time…then suddenly it broke loose and started to rush its tempo, speeding and speeding until it began to moan, snap, flinch without restraint, barely taking a gasp on its dash and – dying down, exhausted, it drooped off somewhere into the backwoods of heaven.

Afterward, Irina splashed in the shower, repeatedly switching the spray from hot to cold (then she jumped into bed – wet as a drowned man, and, come on, warm her up before she gets livid) – whereas he was trying to track with his gaze through the window those microscopic movements of that pale puffy heavenly body, his recent partner in fornication.

Finally, he got up and stepped out onto the balcony.

The gigantic hotel was submerged in benumbed slumber at the edge of the salty lake. Below, encircled by palms, like a polished grand piano lid, lay the pool where the delicate, yellow moon skipped about. Three dozen meters from the pool stretched the beach with its arthropod-like little mounds of plastic arm and lounge chairs piled for the night.

The freezing glimmerings of salt in the distance imparted to the motionless night an icy muteness, a wintry holiday feel – as if in wait for miracles and gifts.

Well, there was no waiting for gifts.

“Have you lost your mind: naked on the balcony?” spoke the lively voice from behind him. “Don’t you have even the most basic sense of shame? There are people around, for goodness sake...”

Sometimes one wished not so much to shut her off as to softly lower the volume.

He closed the balcony door, drew the blinds and lit the desk lamp.

“You’ve put on a little weight,” he pronounced pensively, lying back on the bed and examining Irina in her wide-open terry robe. “I like it. Now you look like Dina Verní.”

“Wh-a-a-t?! Who’s she?”

“Maillol’s model. Take off that idiotic robe, uh-huh…now turn your back to me. Yes: the same proportions. A strong expressive hip line at the base of a slender back. And the shoulder connects so smoothly to the neck…Wowwee, what a model! A shame I haven’t held a pencil in my hand for a hundred years.”

She gave an “ahem,” flopped into the deep arm chair beside the bed and reached for a packet of cigarettes. “Okay, come on, keep going…Tell me something else about myself.”

“By all means! You see, when a woman puts on a few pounds, her breast becomes more becalming, more unsparing…more welcoming. And her skin color changes. The delicate layer of fat below the skin gives the body a more noble, pearl-like tint. A certain…mmm…transparent glazing develops, you see?”

He wouldn’t at all have minded taking a nap before dawn if just for an hour-and-a-half or so. But Irina had begun to smoke, was wide awake and asserting herself. She looked as though about to call for a holy sacrifice again. The main thing was not even to acknowledge the attitude.

“And then, you know…,” he continued, yawning and turning on his side, “that rhythmic swaying of the hip, the view from behind and above – can drive a person nuts if your hands…”

“Cordovin, you scuzzball!” Bending over, she hurled the empty cigarette packet at him. “You’re nothing but an underhanded siren, Cordovin! Some kind of Casanova, some lowly tempter!”

“Nah,” he muttered, irrepressibly dozing off. “I’m just…in love…”

All this was the absolute truth. He loved women. He genuinely loved women – their quick mind, earthy cleverness, strong eye for detail; he never tired of repeating that if a woman were smart, she was more dangerous than a smart man: for the usual shrewdness was supplemented by a truly primal emotional keenness, an ability to detect – from the surface, by feel – what can’t be mastered by logic at all.

He befriended them, preferred conducting business with them, considered them more trustworthy companions and generally – better people. He frequently certified himself “a very female person.” He always knew how to warm a woman up, and always found something to love in each.

***

He awoke, as usual, at 5:30. For many years now, some sort of zealous and implacable angel had taken to blowing reveille somewhere in the heavenly barracks, and at 5:30 on the dot – regardless of the dream he was having, regardless of the exhaustion that had lain him low two hours before – he was condemned to open his eyes…and, swearing, he’d drag himself to the shower.

But earlier today they showed him that tin can again. It’s as if he’s getting up, struggling to turn his body – those dreams always involve an immutable sequence of draggy movements – he’s sitting on the bed straining to unstick his eyes…Then he sees it standing there, right on the hotel coffee table. Holy Mother of God! – that same banged-up tin can standing right there. No, he tells himself (everything per the damn dream scenario learned by heart so long ago) – not a tin can, you’re such a swine, but a silver Sabbath wine goblet, an antique family heirloom, although – yes, somewhat dented on one side; but of course that’s because it fell from a truck. And Zhuka, an orphan (war, winter, evacuation) – fearlessly climbed beneath the wheel herself and got it! And you, you louse, scum, swindler…went and sold it off to an antique dealer, brazenly, without batting an eye. And, most important, for a long time now you’d have been able to read what was engraved all around. You couldn’t in those years, you didn’t understand the odd flourishes, but now you’d be able to read them easily – it was Hebrew, after all, wasn’t it?

But Zhu-u-ka, he groaned, as always (the scenario moves, the dream slides downhill; rather, torturously rolls uphill) – forgiveness a hundred times…I realized…searched for it! Why are we arguing again, for God’s sake: it’s standing right there! It’s standing – massive, unpolished forever, heavily tarnished, barely distinguishable from a toy boat – on its silver domed base.

And he stretches out his lead-weighted hand, struggling as if through water, overcoming the thickness of dream. Stretches his hand, reaches…enough, finally, the heavy goblet, rotates it in his fingers, lifts it to his eyes. And a three-masted galleon sails upon three waves, and curling around the silver domed base, the angular – and now totally understandable letters: “The train to Munich departs from the second platform at 10:30.”

And only then did he wake up. Sort of wake up. Good Lord, for how long…Forgive me, Zhuka!

He stood for a long time under the burning hot lashes of water, then sharply turned it cold and for a minute, sighing in pleasure, scrubbed himself with the wiry loofah he brought with him everywhere.

Then he shaved without hurrying, whistling softly so as not to awaken the boa constrictor there on the bed any earlier than necessary…The splendid, plump boa, whose elastic rings pulsated ever so sweetly, could squeeze…yes indeedy. Still, he shouldn’t let her get any plumper.

Painstakingly shaving his stuck-out chin (this was his main torture during every morning’s shave – craggy as a hard apple, that chin with its tough-to-reach hollow just under his lower lip), he examined himself attentively in the spacious bathroom mirror.

So you’ve dried up a bit, guy…Uncle Sema would say: Got all wiry. He’d been a rather brawny kid in his youth. Often taken for a boxer even. He’d thinned down as he grew, as befitted his face. His nose had somehow…gotten bonier or something… Aristocratic sir? –your mother!

Only the crew-cut of his thick black hair (a persistent family pigment, he’d casually reply to compliments), and those just as jet-black brows, straight and nearly joined over his deep-set grey eyes, had stayed the same as before. And then too those vertical hyphens at the corners of his mouth always lending his face the expression of childlike friendliness, an external preparedness to stretch his lips in smile: I love you, my big wonderful world….Yes, that’s our trump card. Maybe that’s your only trump card, eh, guy?

When he stepped on tiptoe from the bathroom so as to get suit and shirt from the suitcase, it became clear that Irina was also awake – damn, what a nuisance that early bird nature of hers! – and lying in her cocoon, disheveled, in a foul mood and full fighting form. “You’re running off like a coward,” she said, observing him dress with a careful and mocking look.

“Ahah!” he gave her a broad smile. “I’m a terrible coward! I’m completely afraid of you and most humbly seek your good graces. Take a look at these cuff-links. Recognize them? I adore them and show them off to everyone: ‘a gift from my favorite lady.’”

“From your favorite lady. You’ve got about a hundred of them in every city, right?”

“A hundred?! Why the heck so many? God! ‘Who needs it, and who could bear it?’ as my Uncle Sema from Vinnitsa used to say.”

“You’re such a shit, Cordovin. We decided, didn’t we, that from now on we’d travel together.”

She was wasting her breath. The vile communal joinder – “we” – …The perpetually wearisome, weakening, weepy weeniness of love…Not a good symptom. Must he really reconfigure her from lover into girlfriend? A shame, it was so good with Irina, after all. In point of fact, these last three years with her had been ideal, without any kind of base “we”… “us”… My child, what helps us develop and thrive is precisely our solitary keenness, that wolfish leanness, the quivering of our nostrils in premonition of a scented trail. What kind of “we” is there in that?

“Don’t force me to drop my trousers again, ma-a-adam,” he drawled in a silly mournful way. “My ba-a-ackside will get cold. See, my sword belt is already cinched.”

All the same, he went to the bed, lay down – right in his suit – beside her, sleepy and wretched; he grabbed and ruthlessly yanked her naked hand out of the pillowcase, began to kiss it, moving up from fingers to shoulder: meticulously, skillfully, one inch at a time, murmuring something playfully doctorish.

His rule was: no affectionate diminutives. Each only by her complete beautiful resonant name. The female name was holy, to shorten it was heresy, akin to blasphemy.

And she softened up, gave a laugh from his tickling, pressed her bare shoulder toward his ear.

“You smell delicious: jasmine…green tea…What kind of cologne is it?”

“L’Occitane. They were palming it off at Duty-Free in Boston. The salesgirl there was trying so hard, she got on my conscience. ‘An old established firm, an old established firm…Perfume bottles made by hand.’ I bought one so she’d stop.”

He sat up in bed, gave a cursory glance at his watch. “Listen, my joy, seriously: cheer up. I mean, what fun would it be to hang around a university conference with the depressing title, ‘El Greco: un hombre que no se traicionó a símismo’?”

“What does that mean?”

“What’s the difference? It means, ‘El Greco: a man who didn’t betray himself.’ A senseless theme, another senseless conference. Toledo’s altogether a gloomy city, especially in rainy April…Honest to God it’s better to be catching a tan here. And you can slip into one of those bubble baths, to boot…algae baths, are they? ‘Madame is on holiday, Madame has the right.’”

It was one of those favorite little phrases of theirs that had been piling up over the course of three years: a remark by a salesman at an expensive store in Sorrento where Irina tried not to let herself “drop an awful wad of cash.”

She gave a laugh and said, “Okay, beat it. When’s your plane?”

At this point he glanced at his watch openly and anxiously. “Oooh, I’ve got to run! Or else I won’t make it.”

He jumped up, grabbed his jacket, the suitcase, turned at the doorway – blew a kiss toward the bed. But Irina had already wrapped herself up again; only the disheveled top of her head stuck out from beneath the blanket. My poor baby, abandoned. He set the door quietly ajar behind him.

After going down a flight of stairs, he stopped, cocked an ear to the silence of the still sleeping hotel: somewhere below, by the pool, maids were placidly exchanging echoing remarks, were dragging knotted rings of rubber hoses heavily along wet concrete.

Leaning his back against a door, he opened the suitcase zipper and took out two things: a blue knit glove for his right hand – strange, with slits at the fingertips – and his Glock automatic, sinless to date.

But then, why suddenly…so tense? He slipped the pistol into his jacket pocket, pulled off the glove, shaking his fingers like a pianist before his first bravura passage, then got his cell phone and dialed a number.

“Vladimir Igorevich? I didn’t wake you?”

In answer, a grateful wave of a roar: “Zakhar Mironovich, dear fellow! Hello hello! How marvelous of you not to let me down! I’ve been on my feet since six and fretting the whole while. So, when’s convenient for you? I’m in room 402.”

“Terrific then,” he replied. “I’ll drop by in just a minute.”

And again the pistol dove through the toothy slit of the suitcase zipper: that anxious deferential gratitude he heard in the client’s voice was difficult to feign. And, after all, his ear and eye for nuance and intonation were extremely sharp, animal-like.

And it was true: Vladimir Igorevich was waiting for him, with trembling belly, in the open doorway of his suite. Interesting, those inviolable little crannies he must fight his daily morning razor through among all those warts. Why not just let the beard grow – or perhaps in the surreptitious code of these new Croesuses, a beard, like concealment, is a sign of hidden intentions?

“Bad luck,” the fatso exclaimed, “to shake hands over a threshold!” He stepped aside, prepared, his right hand filled with a spatula.

According to certain roundabout information, this newly fledged collector owned some sort of factories in Chelyabinsk. Or mines? Or not in Chelyabinsk, but in Chukotka?God only knew, but it didn’t matter. May Archangel Gabriel bless all who invest money in a strip of canvas smeared with casein primer and covered in oil paints.

He’d truly been waiting and obsessing: through the open bedroom doorway – a bed made up with the fastidiousness of a soldier.

The painting, a canvas stretched over a frame, was awaiting its appointed time with face turned to the back of the sofa.

How nevertheless touching these art lover-collectors were. They all trembled before that first moment when the painting was to be pierced by the x-ray eyes of an expert. Sometimes they’d even cover the sofa or arm chair where the painting was positioned with a white sheet as if to protect the connoisseur’s precious view from any importunate colorful surroundings. The operating room’s antiseptic color scheme or the child’s game of close your eyes tighter, and don’t open them until I say!

In that case, dear Vladimir Igorevich, you’ll now hear a small lecture about the insignificance and ephemeral nature of this same connoisseurship.

He set his suitcase on the floor, tossed his jacket on top of it. “It’s not a problem if I hold out my left?” he asked, awkwardly shaking (he should turn around and hold the hand out from behind his back) the collector’s puffy paw, and flashing one of his most open smiles. “Arthritis for many years now, please forgive me. I sometimes cry out in pain like an old woman.”

“No! Really?” the fatso said, all upset. “Have you tried ‘Gold Mustache’ balm? My wife sings its praises.”

“What haven’t I tried, but let’s not go into that. You arrived just yesterday?”

“Of course! As soon as you said you’ll be flying off today, and this would be the only chance to catch you, I quickly reserved a room, and like that tenor in the opera – ‘at first light – at your feet.’”

Where the heck did he hear that opera, interesting. Maybe in his Chelyabinsk? No sweetheart, God forbid you lie at my feet.

A bottle of Courvoisier and two cognac snifters stood on the coffee table, but it was apparent the poor guy was worn out: he offered neither a seat nor a drink. This really is passion, I understand.

“All right then, let’s get to it,” said Cordovin. “I don’t have much time at all.”

“Just a single word,” muttered Vladimir Igorevich, rubbing his hands as if screwing one into the other. “It’s crucial…You, Zakhar Mironovich, must run into a broad range of people – these days even a herd of cattle knows where to invest money. And I can imagine your aversion to an acquaintanceship based on duty like ours. Don’t object, I know it! But, you see, Zakhar Mironovich…as a collector, actually my age is infantile – I never had the opportunity to collect art before. Where would a run-of-the-mill Soviet engineer-inventor get the money? However, I am an experienced art lover, from my youth. I remember how it was: you show up in Moscow for a three-day business trip, suitcase at the hotel – and you’re off at a trot to the Pushkin Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery…It’s awkward to admit, I monkey around with paint…And, well, I read a lot of things. Your book, The Fate of Russian Art Abroad – I searched it out on the Internet, read it. I’d be happy to invite you to my place.”

“To Chelyabinsk?” the expert asked out of curiosity. With attentive pleasure, he observed the sincere client was trying to dissociate himself from the herd.

“But why to Chelyabinsk,” laughed Vladimir Igorevich. “I prefer to keep my collection here – at my place in Caesarea. And if today…if Cordovin himself gives a positive opinion of authorship…In a word, if you now pronounce your ‘yes,’ it’ll be my third Falk. And the finest!”

He jumped to the sofa – despite his bulkiness, the fatso didn’t lack a certain alpine gracefulness – and turned the painting face-front. He stood beside it as if on guard: tense, with a reddening bald spot, and alternating his searching-beseeching glance from canvas to expert. Had he forgotten to take his blood pressure medicine today – that was the question.

Sinking into the arm chair, Cordovin unhurriedly drew glasses from his jacket breast pocket, silently put them on and began to examine the canvas – from a distance.

The painting was a landscape. In the foreground – a shrub, behind it could be seen a dacha’s fence and a small patch of path along which walked a woman, dim in the twilight. In the background – the red roof of a house and a copse of trees.

“From the Khotkovo series?” Cordovin finally muttered.

“Exactly!” Vladimir Igorevich said, lighting up. “This is what it means to be a specialist! It’s actually called, Overcast Day. Khotkovo. Even the old lady owner remembers that precise title. Imagine: she forgot the painter’s name, but the title, she says, all these years, like verses, she’s remembered!”

“It happens.” He sighed. “And what sort of provenance is there?”

“In my opinion, it’s all irreproachable,” the collector replied, revealing a pleasant knowledge of terminology of the subject. “There’s a written confirmation by the owner. The old lady’s the widow of an Israeli lawyer of average means, his second wife, at that. She remembers the painting on the wall the entire 25 years of their marriage; she says her husband brought it from Moscow in ’56.”

“Purchased? A gift? Details?”

“Nothing, unfortunately. The poor old thing has full-fledged Alzheimer’s.” He waved his hand. “But I think that’s even better: at least it all looks like normal family circumstance. And what’s really meaningful is that we’re a decent distance from the Russian market with its out-and-out fakes.”

That was true. As for the Russian market – you’re right on point, most respected fellow. But old widows – of what particular value are they? Weak eyesight and full-fledged Alzheimer’s: they don’t remember a damn thing except what happened this morning.

(Before his eyes momentarily arose the entire, final, drawn out bonanza meeting when the old woman, having stroked fingers through the packet of greens he’d given, finally deigned to write out the paper: “Well, I forgot the title again…Take a look, Zakharik, maybe it’s written on the back?” And he turned the canvas around and dictated distinctly, straining to see the non-existent inscription: Overcast Day period Khotkovo.)

“Shall I hand you the picture?” Vladimir Igorevich was concentrating with his entire being – to clutch and hand it over, to hold it up, to lay it out and shine a light on it…He felt the urge to circle the painting and caress it with hands and glances – completely natural, akin to being in love, a genuine collector’s state of being that spreads to the respected expert, as well. Incidentally, the history of the subject is known even to include a grateful kissing of hands or two.

“Hold on.” Cordovin removed his glasses and carefully folded the sides of the expensive fashionable frames – like the arms of a deceased. He lingered…” First of all, here’s something I’d like to clarify: upon completion, do you, Vladimir Igorevich, need just my honest opinion or my actual signature?”

The fatso sighed “ah,” blushed. What did you expect…An emotional person and, it seemed, a sincere art lover, not some miser who stole a factory for a song… or a mine, for that matter.

“Zakhar Mironovich! Who the heck would want his collection ruined by a fake!”

“Don’t tell me,” the other said with a laugh. “About eight years ago, I had to be the expert for a buyer. Two paintings, I remember, were being offered: by Mashkov and, by the way, Falk. Even a god-foresaken blind man with ripe cataracts in both eyes would have made the determination that both paintings had been executed by one and the same hand. Without taking a coffee break, at that. The circumstances seemed clear. However, the ‘collector’ lied through his teeth and in a frenzy demanded to bargain. I was in an idiotic situation. Of course in such circumstances an x-ray comparison would have been ideal – after all, as a rule, counterfeiters imitate only the visible aspect, the texture of the final brush strokes; their little hands don’t achieve a coherent composition. But an x-ray assumes that both radiologist and apparatus are available.”

“So then what?” asked Vladimir Igorevich with the same facial expression one has when watching the final chase in a movie thriller.

“I just got in my car without a word and left – inasmuch as I will never authenticate a forgery. But about two years later, those two cowboy twins were being exhibited at a respected auction, with a more obliging authentication by an expert from Art-Modus, and sold quite well. Quite well, indeed. For five times the price, I recall…Yes. And in the home of the legendary “Exodus” captain – the very one, the very one – I saw an enormous Malevich: two-by-three meters, a size the artist had never created. But the glorious captain had taken an extraordinary fancy to it. Despite the frank reviews of many experts.

“You understand…Vladimir Igorevich,” he continued pensively. “We’re going to look truth in the eye. In recent years the hunt for genuinely valuable works of art has become increasingly merciless. An expert’s authority has acquired a certain disproportionate, unjustified weight. And although this is my profession – you will, please, permit me to be open with you? – I’m loathe now to appear in your eyes a magician or wizard. I’m not a wizard.”

“Good Lord, on my word!” the other clasped his hands. “I understand and completely realize, that – “

“ – Now then, if you like, let’s look at it a bit more closely.”

Vladimir Igorevich rushed over, and carefully, with outstretched arms, handed the painting to the expert.

He silently turned it around, started examining the back of the frame and canvas... For several minutes, the silence was broken solely by the fatso’s anxious nasal wheezing, bent as he was in a strained half-bow, and by childlike wails continually breaking out from the floor below, accompanied by wet smacks, and a woman’s voice languorously singing out: “And I say you’ll take it in the a-ass…”

“You know, of course,” Cordovin finally stated, “that a serious expert evaluation is a complex matter; that is to say, besides an art critic’s opinion, an array of technological analyses is essential: an x-ray, a chemical test…One can also practice sorcery through a microscope, mutter a few things about pigments, binders…Such evaluations can be obtained at an established organization of experts.”

“Zakhar Mironovich!” beseeched the collector. “To hell with them, those organizations. I need your opinion exclusively. Just you yourself, what do you think?”

“No, wait. I, of course, am pressed for time, but I value my reputation more than my time. And now I wish to be as open as possible with you. You’re looking upon me like on the Lord God, Vladimir Igorevich, but I, for goodness sake, don’t allocate spots in heaven. The awful truth is that not under any circumstances can anyone take upon himself full responsibility for the conclusions of an expert analysis. You have, of course, read about the most thunderous art scandal of the twentieth century when an expert of tremendous experience, the art historian Dr. Abraham Bredus, took a forgery by van Meegeren for a work by Vermeer? And the recent scandal with a painting supposedly by Shishkin, but in reality by the Dutchman Marinus Koekkoek, which the Tretyakov let slip? And a certain Russian ‘collector’ for ma-a-any thousands of emerald ducats acquired “absolute bullshit” – by the way, I was enriched with this art term by a dealer with a good ten years of criminal past behind him. He decided to switch his racket to the antique trade since in that business there were higher profits and regard.

“But most tragic-comic of all is that sometimes in our business, the artist himself isn’t in a position to distinguish his own work from a counterfeit. When Madame Claude Latour, the famous Parisian counterfeiter, was unmasked and brought before a court, that very Utrillo found himself in a ridiculous situation: he couldn’t definitively answer whether the painting had been forged, or executed by him. And Vlaminck boasted that he’d once done a painting in the style of Cézanne, who acknowledged it as of his own creation.”

“But…then what the heck?” helplessly exhaled the collector. “So where’s the guarantee?”

“There can’t be any guarantee, my dear!” Cordovin angrily exclaimed. “What kind of guarantee: the world’s museums and private collections are cluttered with forgeries, for all their chemical analyses, x-rays, infra-red and ultraviolet lights! Do you suppose that a master-counterfeiter is dumber than us, the experts? One encounters genuine virtuosi among them, high-class professionals. They become incredibly well-versed in the methodologies of expert evaluations, learning all the technological criteria of authenticity – even the psychology of the experts themselves!”

“Then how the heck can anyone be…”

Cordovin took a handkerchief from his pocket, unhurriedly wiped his glasses and put them on – I’ve raised the dead. With evident satisfaction, he inspected his client. Excellent work: the fellow had reached the necessary freezing point. Now we’ll get down to defrosting and reanimating…

“How can anyone be?” he repeated. “By looking and seeing. I prefer to draw conclusions based on the paint layer. That’s what will never let you down or deceive you – assuming you know how to read it. Everything’s right there: the painting’s style, emotional rhythm, individual brush strokes, the means of applying paint – everything characteristic of this, and only this, artist…The way you know in the case of a spy who’s altered his appearance: the shape of brows and nose, hair color – all’s been changed… but he takes a single step with his left foot, and bingo! That very left foot is what unmasks him. Although, of course, one can’t deny the significance of technological expert evaluation. And it’s your right to conduct one later. As for me, I simply look at the canvas and – yes, I suppose the authorship to be Falk’s, and I’ll now explain why: but I ask you to bear in mind that this is simply my supposition based exclusively on experience, that is to say, on intuition, and more precisely – by sniffing like a dog, forgive the vulgarity of expression.”

He leaned back into the chair, his left hand balancing the landscape on his knees…

Now that the overture had been played through, that all the major themes of the symphony entitled “Birth of a New Venus from Sea Foam” had been heard, one could switch to loose variations. He loved these sudden switches to meaningless yarns, gossip about the greats, instructive stories about some passerby…It reminded him of the prelude to love when any impatient movement could crush the growing sweet languor, the craving for possession of – in our situation – a painting rather than of a woman, but it was one and the same. Venus had already come to life…One could say, the tangled red top of her head has already appeared among the foaming waves…Anyway, it wouldn’t be bad to straighten the client up, otherwise – the man wasn’t young after all – he might even get lumbago. And then, indeed, some “Golden Mustache” would be called for.

“In the eighties, in Moscow, on Lavrushinsky Lane, lived an old invalid who moved about on two crutches… So have a seat, for God’s sake, Vladimir Igorevich, and relax. Sit right there, opposite; at the same time, take an extra look at your Falk. That’s the way, old fellow. He participated on a commission of experts at the Pushkin Museum. Not the one on Volkhonka Street, but the other, the literary one, On Prechistenka. But that’s of no importance. When the museum intended to acquire its next painting, they of course convened the commission and all the experts had their say: but the old fellow remained quiet. They let him speak last. Then everyone lapsed into silence, and he leaned over the underside of the canvas and sniffed at it. You understand? He sniffed for a long, long time…And announced his verdict. Nobody knew what he smelled there, in all those old canvases. But they trusted his hairy nostril more than any instrument. You’ll agree, this all hardly resembles scientific method. What kind of science is it really – a connoisseur’s sheer intuition. However, both art dealers and you collectors make little use of our suppositions. You demand uniform positive conclusions, isn’t that so? Look how you worry and want – I see you want very much – for me to acknowledge Falk’s authorship! Draw nearer, a little closer…”

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