23 May 2012


     Moscow to the End of the Line (also translated as Moscow Circles) is a funny and savage little paean to drinking in the Worker's Paradise.  Written in 1969, it circulated in manuscript for 20 years before it was finally published in the Soviet Union, the year before the author's death of throat cancer in 1990, at the age of fifty-one.  The narrator, who like the author is named Venedikt Erofeev, spends the book trying to take the Moscow commuter train to the outermost suburb, Petushki, to see his girl, while drinking whatever he can find.  His fellow passengers also drink as much as possible: there seems to be no other way for them to tolerate living.  In this book, alcohol has the same function as the anomie in Chekhov's plays: it is the means and the medium of paralysis, and the consolation for it, and later, of course, also how it is punished.  The train ride to Petushki becomes increasingly phantasmagorical: tall tales, literary speculation, visions of angels, and the blue horrors--all spiked with Soviet slogans in ironic counterpoint--succeed one another like a photomontage as the drinking picks up.

     But simply getting drunk isn't the point here: this kind of drinking is an aesthetic, poetic, philosophical, even religious ritual, and what one might consider drinking comes in a range of subtle variations in quality and character, finesse and mood--even in terroir--that is far broader than is available to even the most refined late-capitalist Scotch-fanciers.  Of course the materials from which such subtlety is evoked are a little different from ours (unless you drink Sterno regularly):

     To drink vodka, even from the bottle, is nothing other than weariness of spirit, and vanity.  To mix vodka with eau do cologne, there is a certain caprice, but no pathos whatsoever.  But if you drink a glass of 'Balsam of Canaan,' there is caprice and an idea and pathos, and beyond that a hint of the metaphysical.
     Which component of 'Balsam of Canaan' do we value above all else?  Well, the methylated spirits, of course.  But, after all, the methylated spirits, being only an object of inspiration, are themselves simply devoid of this inspiration.  What is it, in this case, that we value in the methylated spirits even more?  Of course, the naked taste sensation.  And, even more than that, the miasma which it exudes.  In order to set off this miasma, a touch of fragrance is necessary.  For this reason velvet beer or, best of all, Ostankino or Czech beer, is added in the proportion 1:2, with one part refined furniture polish.
     I won't remind you how to refine furniture polish--any child knows that.  For some reason no one in Russia knows why Pushkin died, but how to refine furniture polish--that, everyone knows.

     This concoction "in plain speech is called a Black Fox and the liquid is a blackish brown, of moderate strength and a staunch aroma that is really not an aroma, but a hymn.  A hymn of democratic youth, because this cocktail fosters vulgarity and dark forces in the drinker."  This recipe is followed by one for "The Spirit of Geneva," which has "not a drop of nobility... but it does have bouquet... the key [to that bouquet] lies in the fact that you shouldn't replace White Lilac eau de cologne with any other kind... your Lily of the Valley Silver is not White Lilac even in the moral sense, not to speak of bouquet.
     Lily of the Valley, for example, excites the mind, disturbs the conscience, strengthens a sense of one's inalienable rights.  While White Lilac, on the other hand, soothes the conscience and reconciles man to the sore spots of life.
     Once I drank a whole phial of Lily of the Valley Silver, sat down, and started crying.  Why was I crying?  Because I recalled my Mama, recalled her and couldn't forget her.  'Mama,' I say.  And I cry.  And then again, 'Mama,' I say, and once more I cry.  Somebody else would have just sat there crying.  But me?  I grabbed a phial of Lilac and drank it.  And what do you think?  My tears dried up.  And I was overcome by idiotic laughter, and as for Mama--I even forgot her name."  The crucial ingredient in "The Spirit of Geneva" is (as you might have guessed from the previous recipe) alcohol varnish.  The next cocktail offered is "Tear of a Komsomol Girl," which has the capacity to leave the drinker with either his right mind or with a clear head, but never with both, nor with neither.

     This short list of dream-potions culminates with "the cocktail 'Bitches' Brew,' a beverage which overshadows all others.  This is more than a beverage, it is the music of the spheres.  What is the finest thing in the world?  The struggle for the liberation of humanity.  But even finer is this (write it down):

                                       Zhiguli Beer                                     100 g.
                                       "Sadko" Shampoo                             30 g.
                                       Dandruff Treatment                         70 g.
                                       Athlete's Foot Remedy                     30 g.
                                       Small Bug Killer                                 20 g.

The whole thing is steeped for a week in cigar tobacco and served at table... and should be drunk with the appearance of the first star, in large gulps.  After only two goblets of this cocktail, a person will become so inspired that it is possible to go up to him for half an hour and, standing one and a half meters away, spit in his fat face without his saying a word."

And in the end?  "I'll die and He will ask me: "Was it good there for you?  Was it bad there for you?"   I will be silent, with lowered eyes.  I'll be silent with that muteness familiar to everyone who knows the outcome of days of hard boozing.  For isn't the life of man a momentary booziness of the soul?  And an eclipse of the soul as well?  We are all as if drunk, only everybody in his own way: one person has drunk more, the next less.  And it works differently on each: the one laughs in the face of this world, while the next cries on its bosom.  One has already thrown up and feels better, while the next is only starting to feel like throwing up.  But me, what am I?  I've partaken of much but nothing works on me.  I haven't really laughed properly, even once, and I've never thrown up, even once.  I, who have partaken of so much in this world that I've lost count and the sequence of it all, I am soberer than anyone else in this world; it's simply that nothing much works on me... I'll just be silent, silent...

If 'Bitches' Brew' is the music of the spheres, surely the silence of this sobriety beyond drunkenness is Pascal's fearsome 'silence eternel de ces espaces infinis.'