An Excerpt from a Novel that Will One Day Rival Tolstoy in Scale and Dostoevsky in Existential Despair

By Vanessa Knauf


I left Russia and arrived home at the end of July 2006; my suitcase followed 6 months later.  It was January in Atlanta and I was still wearing a t-shirt and sandals, when the knock came on my front door.  I opened the door and there it was: my Russian experience packed neatly into a cardboard box and wrapped in blue packing tape that read Rossiya Rossiya Rossiya.  I took a furtive glance at my neighbors’ houses, to see if anyone was watching, then dragged the package inside.   

I’d left the suitcase in Moscow to expedite my trip across Eastern Europe.  They call it “backpacking” because you wear a backpack, which facilitates hopping from country to train to country; you don’t drag luggage that weighs 75 kilos. But there were all my winter clothes and other sentimental items I’d accumulated throughout my year in Russia that I was hesitant to part with.  And then there was also Gogol, the 19th century Russian author I had tucked into the front pocket of my suitcase; only 3 inches tall he’d fit perfectly. 

Gogol had wanted to go to Eastern Europe with me: 

“I won’t stay here, in your stupid suitcase!” He’d shouted, “I want to go to Greece too!”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to come.  You’re sick all the time and always with the drinking.  And we need time apart — you’re always in my head!” 

“Oh!  Well, you’re fat and ugly!”  And then he’d buttoned his coat up over his face and gone to pout behind my Russian-English dictionary.  I was fond of the little hypochondriac, but May had just arrived and the days were getting longer, shocks of electric green grass shot out of the ground and birds were singing!  Gogol’s dour humor was better suited for the dark days of winter, not the rejuvenating islands of Greece. 

“Look,” I’d told him.  “I promised I’d take you back to America.  But I need to take this trip alone.  So just stay in the suitcase for a couple of weeks and then Susana will fly it back to Atlanta and I’ll be there, waiting for you.” 

“Fine,” he’d said from behind the dictionary.  “Leave me with the fat Peruvian.” 

Susana, my flat mate, was also from Atlanta, but her mother was from Peru.  When the homesickness had crept in, Susana had made the one Peruvian dish she knew: pasta and chicken sautéed in a tomato sauce.  She’d cook it almost every night and then watch DVD’s of George Lopez who reminded her of her dead Mexican father.  Gogol had resented her predictability:  “I wonder what Susana is doing — stuffing her face with pasta and watching that stupid spick?” 

“You shouldn’t be so mean.  How would you feel if your father had died recently?”

“Please, this is Russia.”  

Susana had planned to spend the summer in Atlanta, and then return to Moscow the following fall.  Since she wouldn’t be taking much luggage back to the States, she’d agreed to fly my suitcase home for me. 

Under Gogol’s hateful glare, I packed everything I wouldn’t need on my summer trip: winter clothes and Russian souvenirs.  My journals and photo CD’s were the last to be packed.  I’d thought about taking them with me to make sure they weren’t lost, but now I saw them as an opportunity to make amends with Gogol.

“Gogol.  I’m not going to take my journals with me because what if my bag gets stolen on a train?  I think they’re probably safer with you in the suitcase.”

“Of course they’d be safer with me.  I’m only one of the greatest writers in history and you think I can’t watch over your amateur scribblings?”

“Well, you did burn the second part of Dead Souls.  Not saying that my journals are my life’s work, but I’d like them back un-singed.”    

“My God!”  Gogol shouted as he clambered down from the bookcase, “Dead Souls was my work to do with as I pleased.  But I have always had the utmost respect for the work of others.  Unlike you, always dog-earring the pages.”

“Of course, you’re right.  So you won’t mind looking after them?”

“Of course not,” said Gogol and his face softened, like ice cream melting over the hard cone of his nose.  “I would be honored.” 

“Thank you.  I’ll put the journals here in this front pocket, where I think you’ll be most comfortable.” 

“That’s fine,” said Gogol and with some effort he climbed up the edge of my suitcase and lay down in the pocket, pulling the pages of my journal over him like a blanket.  “Spokoyney nochey, devushka.” 

“Good night,” I said and zipped the pocket shut.     

I was in Athens, Greece, when I got an email from Susana explaining that due to unforeseen circumstances, she would be unable to bring my suitcase back to the States.  She had reasons: money, time, she didn’t know if she would return to Moscow next fall and would have to bring all her things home.  But between the lines of her stock e-mail, I felt an enmity, which meant only one thing: Susana had met Gogol.  He’d probably climbed out of the suitcase in search of cough syrup and wandered into the kitchen to find Susana preparing her favorite dish. 

“Do you think there’s a correlation between the amount of pasta you eat and the size of your ass?” 

Susana jumped back from the stove.  She thought she was alone in the flat, finally rid of her flat mate.  She turned round and round looking for the source of the abuse but saw no one.  Gogol stepped behind a table leg and continued his assault, “Or maybe all spics have fat asses; are they all as lazy as you?” 

Gogol never showed himself to Susana and she took the offensive voice to be the culmination of bad energy that had built up between us over the past ten months; our quiet dislike for each other had festered into the poltergeist that now haunted her.  Because I was the cause of her suffering she couldn’t justify doing me the favor she’d promised, so she sat down and wrote me an e-mail that rationally explained why she would have to leave the suitcase behind. 

I yelled my own curses at Gogol from across the Black Sea and took consolation that this would hurt him more than me.  Since Susana had abandoned the effort he’d be stuck in that flat until I could make arrangements for some one else to ship the baggage home.  And that was another concern; some one would have to transfer the contents of my suitcase into boxes.  Would Gogol make it into the boxes unnoticed?  And if he were noticed, what would happen?  And customs!  Would the Russian government even let him out of the country?  The situation was precarious.  I needed a Russian. 

Vera was the girl who wouldn’t shut up in my upper-intermediate English class.  We were both 23, and I envied her role as the wisecracking student while I was stuck playing the ball-breaking teacher.  But Vera did not resent me for my position of authority and offered me rides home after class.  Her boyfriend Anton would pick us up and I would get in the back seat and watch Anton’s blonde head and Vera’s black-hot-red-striped head bounce as the car rolled over the potholed roads.  They both spoke English well and would ask me questions about America: 

            “So in America there are lots of niggers?” 

            “What!?!  Oh we don’t use that word.  It’s very bad.”

            “But we hear it in the hip-hop songs all the time.” 

            “Yes, but really we just say ‘black’ or ‘African-American’.”

            “What does it mean: ‘I ain’t sayin’ she’s a golddigger?'”

Then Vera would produce a thermos from under her seat, which contained her homemade cranberry vodka.  I decided if anyone could rescue my suitcase and manage Gogol it was Vera. 

I emailed Vera and explained about my suitcase.  She found the situation very amusing: only an American would leave her belongings behind in a foreign country.  I wired her $200 and three months later the package arrived at my door. 

I took a pair of scissors and carefully gutted the cardboard: 5 sweaters, 2 pairs of long underwear, one pair of black patent leather dress shoes, one pair of black leather Ugg boots, 3 pairs of dress pants, 5 dress shirts, 2 blazers, 4 pairs of wool socks, a matroshka doll, jewelry, a bootleg DVD of War of the Worlds and a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire.  I went through the contents again and again whispering, “Gogol where are you, where are you?”  I turned every piece of clothing inside out, opened each matroshka doll, flipped between every page of Pale Fire, but Gogol wasn’t there, and neither were my journals and photo CD’s.  

I sent Vera an e-mail thanking her profusely for sending my things home, but had she seen my journals anywhere; were they not in the suitcase?  I didn’t ask about Gogol.  I didn’t want to sound crazy.  Two days later I received the following reply:

Hello, Vanessa.

Hope u are ok.

But I’m in the f@cking troubles.

My father died last week. And I have great problems with Anton.

So it’s better for me not to write letters in this mood 🙂

I’ll write u later, ok?

I’d been wrong: Gogol had poisoned Vera’s life as well.  I could see Vera and Anton transferring my things from the suitcase to the cardboard box; Gogol probably slipped away to look for an aspirin and found that the apartment was cozy with few drafts.  He made himself a nest between the sofa cushions and coughed and sniffed through the night.  Vera assumed Anton was the one coughing and when she rose the next morning for work she yelled at Anton for keeping her up all night.  Vera’s timing was impeccable.  Anton had been engaged in a mild flirtation with a petite blonde at his office and was toying with the idea of having an affair.  When Vera yelled at him that morning, for something he hadn’t done, he decided that he would take the petite blonde to lunch that day. 

While Gogol rested in the sofa his resentment toward me began to grow.  Why had I not taken him with me to Greece?  He’d been my companion all winter and as soon as spring hit I’d dumped him.  He’d been left with the very important task of guarding my journals.  Well, while cramped in that suitcase he took the opportunity to read some of those pages and it was crap.  He hadn’t gone to Greece so he could guard my crap.  That afternoon, while Anton was screwing the petite blonde, Vera took my belongings to the post office.  But before she left, Gogol extracted my journals from the box.   

After screwing the petite blonde for a week, Anton decided to leave Vera.  He came home and told her everything.  The small flat shook with Vera’s screams and sobs. 

“How could you do this to me?” she roared, “I deserve better!”  As the argument escalated so did the rage Gogol felt from my betrayal.  He’d intended to keep my journals but he could no longer bear to look at them.  Gogol crept about the flat until he found a match and a can of air freshener.  He soaked the journals in freshener and lit the match; the journals were gone instantly.  Vera and Anton stopped fighting and watched the fire that had magically appeared on the sofa between them and the three-inch figure who stood amidst the flames cackling madly.  And then the phone rang.  Vera’s father also had impeccable timing.    

I sat on my living room floor, surrounded by winter clothes and thought about Gogol.  He wouldn’t have liked America anyway — too puritanical.  But I was sorry that I’d hurt him because he had been a good friend.  We’d kept each other company during one of the coldest Russian winters in 50 years by sharing stories, food and wine.  But I could already feel Gogol’s presence and my Russian memories slipping way from me.  They were poor competition for the American roar that now occupied my senses.  Urgently, I opened the back cover of Pale Fire and began to rewrite the story of Gogol and me; I hoped Nabokov wouldn’t mind– it was only a few sentences — but I knew Gogol would have been pissed.

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