When he was a child, David Rosenthal had a small aquarium with two fish. He’d given them names: Lucy and Dotty. One day, without warning, Lucy had changed into a male. He started chasing Dotty around the tank in ever-tightening circles, frantically, weaving around the ceramic sunken galleon and the limp straggly plants and the conch shell a previous fish had swum into to die. That had been unexpected. For a few days the aquarium water was cloudy with eggs. David had watched as a few tiny specks of matter slowly uncoiled themselves into darting little things with shining eyes and sad gulping mouths. He’d named them too. Then, Lucy killed and ate his entire litter. That had also been unexpected. David was upset for a while, but not for long. They were only fish, after all.
A few years later, David started to realise that Lucy and Dotty had no idea that they were called Lucy and Dotty. They didn’t care about him, or the entertainment they gave him, or the little domestic narratives he’d constructed around them. They were machines for making more fish, and everything they did could be explained in terms of that fact – even Lucy’s massacre of his children. It was the same with all animals. A bird was beautiful, but it was just a machine for making more birds. A dog was friendly, but it was just a machine for making more dogs. Even human beings were ultimately just machines for making more humans, and everything they’d built and done was just a big complex attempt to disguise that fact. David didn’t want to be a machine. He didn’t know exactly what he did want to do, but he knew, instinctively, with a certainty located somewhere between his colon and his navel, that one David Rosenthal was enough.
David Rosenthal first discovered Transporenia while trying not to stare at Jean Parson’s arse in the Szent István-bazilika. This was no small task. Cherubs and saints were glancing ruefully at her from every cornice. Even the Virgin Mary’s expression of chaste benevolence seemed to dissolve for a moment into a twisting confusion of envy and lust as she walked past. Jean and Craig were dawdling behind Alexandra as she strode around the cathedral, solemnly reciting long passages from the Global Traveller’s City Guide to Budapest, dithering for a while over the reliquary, cooing at the organ, running her hand over the architectural details. Suddenly feeling very Jewish, David had sat down on a pew to catch his breath. With nothing else between him and the pneumatically cadenced bobbing of Jean Parson’s arse except the prayer book, which was written entirely in Hungarian, he began to flick through his disintegrating copy of Eastern Europe on a Shoestring 2009, which he’d stolen from a bookshop as an undergraduate and taken on nearly every holiday since. Leafing through the various descriptions of Balkan cities with absurd monosyllabic names – Vłod, Prag, Čup, Splat, Bread – he found, near the end, a small section he didn’t recall having read before.
The small territory of TRANSPORENIA (also known as ‘the country that doesn’t exist’) is unlikely to be of interest to any but the most diehard travellers. With its hammer-and-sickle flag, disintegrating high-rise buildings, ubiquitous portraits of long-standing dictator President Bogarikov, and diplomatic isolation from much of the rest of the world, it has the dubious honour of being the last place in Europe still behind the Iron Curtain. While a de facto sovereign state, Transporenia’s independence from Moldova is not recognised by any bodies other than the disputed polities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, along with the Palestinian Authority. Nonetheless, several thousand Russian soldiers are stationed within its borders. For those brave enough to visit, minibuses regularly depart from Chişinău and other Moldovan cities. Tourist visas can be obtained at the border, although horror stories abound of innocent travellers detained and questioned for hours before being granted entrance. The capital (and only) city Suvorovigrad has some sites of interest: along with a moving abstract memorial to the victims of the War of Transporenia, it is home to the Transporenian National Museum, several ancient Greek archaeological sites, and a spectacular tank graveyard not far outside the city, where hundreds of abandoned Army vehicles are slowly disintegrating. Accommodation is limited to small guesthouses and the towering Hotel Rimniksky, a decaying Soviet relic. Be warned, though: Transporenian roubles are not exchangeable outside the country, and a Transporenian stamp in your passport may cause problems with Moldovan border authorities if you choose to leave.
David didn’t say much at dinner that night. They ate in an obsequiously hip restaurant in Várnegyed, with abstract expressionist paintings hanging off 14th Century walls. A deconstructed veal palacsinta with tejföl foam was artfully arranged on his plate. As Alexandra talked David picked at it miserably. The entire holiday had been one slowly unfolding catastrophe. He had always assumed that what he and Alex had was somehow normal and to be expected – the rows, the silences, the resentment, the sexlessness. But it showed – painfully, embarrassingly. Objectively speaking, they ought to have been the perfect couple: they liked all the same things – Kandinsky, Calvino, the Velvet Underground, organic coffee, drugs on the weekend – and they disliked all the same things as well – themselves, each other. Meanwhile Jean and Craig seemed to be comfortably, cheerfully in love. It was infuriating.
That night, in the cream-coloured hotel room, he could just hear the steady thud of Jean and Craig fucking next door. He drew himself closer to Alex. She pushed him away with an ineffectual hand.
“Oh, knock it off,” she said. “Not tonight. It’s been a long day.”
David hadn’t really wanted to either, although he felt somehow as if he ought to have. He laid back and thought of Transporenia.
David Rosenthal had been three years old when the Berlin Wall was torn down. As his parents watched the reportage, David had drawn himself right up to the TV screen until the crowd fell apart into a mess of dancing red, blue and green dots. For once, they hadn’t pulled him away.
“What are all the people doing?” he’d asked.
His parents had tried to give him a comprehensible account of the history of Actually Existing Socialism. It left him even more confused.
“But why were they in prison?” he said. “Had they been bad?”
“Yes,” his father said. “They’d been very bad indeed.”
“Oh, don’t,” his mother said. “That was a long time ago. The main thing, David, is that all these people were locked up for no reason by some very mean leaders, and now they’re free. Just like us.”
David Rosenthal never found out about the War of Transporenia that was fought three years later. The world’s attention was for the most part focused on the far more glamorous wars breaking out in the former Yugoslavia, and David’s attention was for the most part focused on a gang of wise-talking crime-fighting cartoon animals called the Action Power Justice Squad.
As a teenage socialist, David regretted his unthinking acceptance that the Warsaw Pact had been one big prison camp, feeling somehow as if his three-year old self should have had enough intrinsic knowledge of historical materialism to leap to the defence of the Soviet experiment. Later on, it was his mother’s blithe assurance that the people of the East were free ‘just like us’ that troubled him. He could see that freedom everywhere around him in Budapest. The sweeping banks of ancient brown-stained buildings frowned on his countrymen as they surged through the city’s broad streets, babbling in Mockney accents, gulping down Dutch and Danish beer for two Euros a pint, streaming in and out of McDonald’s restaurants, forming tributaries that lapped in and out of crooked alleys, leaving intertidal zones of broken glass and the stench of piss. Just like us. David felt like a rat in a cage, scurrying about for some great unknown’s idle amusement.
Transporenia would be different. In Transporenia, David knew, there would be no plasticky fast-food restaurants, no bulky luxury developments, no thudding euro-house. In Transporenia there would be something entirely different to what he’d known his entire life, something that with its little Cold War timewarp broke the unwritten rules of the mundanely artificial world, something genuine. Everything in Hungary had turned into a replica of itself; the whole country had been desiccated, stripped of signification, freeze-dried into a saleable tourist attraction. Only Transporenia, the country that didn’t exist, could be real.
He told the others about the place over breakfast the next day.
“That’s fascinating,” said Jean. “To think there are still places like that. I had no idea.”
“The poor people,” said Alex. “It must be awful.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said David. “You’ve seen the poverty here. There wasn’t any homelessness in the Soviet Union, you know.”
“Yeah,” said Alex. “Anyone could find a home in the gulags.”
Jean stared fixedly at her plate.
“We could go,” said David. “It’d be a change from the usual. We could do some real exploring.”
“Doubt you can get a flight there from Heathrow,” said Craig. “Bit of an effort, isn’t it?” He prodded his meal. “Don’t think you could get food like this there either.”
“We’d probably have to queue for bread,” said Jean.
“We could go now,” said David. “We’ve got the car. And it’s not that far. Manchester to Paris, maybe. I looked at the map.”
“I mean, what’s the economy even based on there?” said Craig. He pulled a mock-serious face. “Ve are number one of exporting pig-iron in entire of region!”
Alex pursed her lips. “Oh, Davey. Don’t be ridiculous. We’ve already got the whole itinerary.” She gave a grin of blinding falseness. “One to think about for next time, though, isn’t it?”
They all agreed. One to think about, definitely. Wouldn’t it be an adventure.
David tried not to talk too much about Transporenia for the rest of the day, not necessarily succeeding. All the while it fizzed in his mind. As they strolled down Andrássy Avenue, the leaves of the gently fluttering trees almost seemed to melt and run together, hardening and darkening, turning rust-coloured as they shrunk down to the ground, until he was walking down an endless line of wrecked T-64 tanks. The elegantly neo-Gothic towers of the Fisherman’s Bastion moulted their whiteness as they spun like clay on a potter’s wheel, growing taller and boxier, their delicate traceries weaving themselves into flaking balconies bristling with TV antennae. His mind was already halfway in Transporenia. He had to go.
It turned out to have been another long day. David watched the BBC with the volume off as Alexandra changed for bed.
“I think you should go,” she said suddenly, standing in jeans and a bra. “You’ve been acting like this- like a petulant child the whole holiday. Clearly this Transporenia means more to you than your friends. Than your own girlfriend. So go.”
David didn’t say anything. He walked over to the minibar and poured himself a glass of whiskey from a tiny plastic bottle.
“I knew this was happening, you know…” Alex gave a bitter little laugh. “But fool I am, I thought it would at least be another woman. Not some shithole East European- some nowhereland. But of course. I’m an idiot.”
“It’s not like that. It’s not.”
“Come with me.”
Alex’s mouth flapped open. “Why? Why on earth would I want to? So I can watch you can be a miserable prima donna against a different backdrop? Christ no. I know what you want. Go on. Go to Transporenia.”
David downed his drink. Alex flopped down onto the bed. “Just don’t expect to find me waiting for you when you get back,” she said.
David Rosenthal left the hotel early in the morning, without leaving so much as a note, settled the bill, and took the first train to Moldova.
Chişinău sprawled out under a wispy-grey sky. The minibuses to Transporenia were departing from the middle of a crowded market in the centre of town. David walked semi-dazed through it, taking a few joyless bites from a train station pastry in which a few gristly chunks of meat waddled in their oleaginous matrix. Corrugated-iron stalls were piled high with flourescent-coloured produce: iPhone cases arranged in a brightly chequered mosaic, shellsuits rippling like velvet robes in the breeze, fake branded t-shirts strung heraldically along the lintels. One or two sold Orthodox icons, the saints and patriarchs looking glum in their fading wooden cages, resigned to their slow defeat at the hands of the gleefully kaleidoscopic tat surrounding them. Just like us. Transporenia would be different.
A man with a bald head and a Stalin moustache was smoking a cigarette by the side of a humming white minibus.
“Suvorovigrad?” David asked.
“Suvorovigrad,” he confirmed, pronouncing it correctly. He held up both hands. “Zece euro. Sută și șaizeci lei.”
The bus was mostly occupied by old women in shawls, spitting sunflower seed shells on the floor and coughing fricatives into their mobile phones. It idled for about half an hour as a few stragglers filed on; when they set off the sky was already darkening. Mopeds buzzed around the minibus as it crawled through the city traffic, past half-finished office buildings with reflective blue glass façades, churches sliding into entropic perfection, shabby apartment complexes. For the first time since he’d left, David thought of Alex. What was she doing? Crying, dejected, alone? Not her style; Alex was tough, she’d always been tough. Dancing in the sweaty embrace of some Hungarian Lothario? The thought didn’t trouble him at all. He was happy for her. The bus hummed. He wafted, smiling a little, into sleep.
The Transporenian border was marked by a long barbed-wire fence running over the overgrown hills just before the Tsporeno, a broad muddy river as placid and still as a lurking crocodile. A pair of bored-looking Moldovan soldiers waved the bus towards a low steel structure that crouched over the half-paved road by the bridge like a latticed spider; rusting letters hanging from one face reading Транспорэниа. Inside, David was made to surrender his passport and given a three-month visa form in English and Transporenian. The Transporenians wanted to know his name and address, where he planed to stay in the country, whether he had ever been divorced, and if he was taking any psychiatric medication. Stamped in large letters on the top and bottom of the form were the words VISA VOID IF BEARER ACQUIRES TRANSPORENIAN ONTOLOGY.
As David handed his form in at a window, one of the babushkas reached from behind him and rapped on the glass.
“Americanul,” she said. “Engleză. Infliltrat.”
The border official, a thin man with round glasses, gave a weary frown. “Nyet, nyet. Zatknis. Slăbește-mă.” He handed back the form and David’s passport. “I am sorry. She is Moldovan. Welcome to Transporenia.”
David was almost disappointed. Something about the idea of being detained and interrogated at the border had appealed to him. He’d had a hunch that being forced to reveal his secret intentions with a light shining in his face would be a more revelatory, more cathartic, and less expensive experience than a session with his psychoanalyst. As they set off again the air taste sharp, as if it were charged with electricity, and David thought for a moment that he could see a shimmering bluish curtain of light hanging above the middle of the bridge. When they crossed he felt a throbbing just under his skin, coming in three quick waves that spread from his fingers and toes to his abdomen. He put it down to excitement. Some of the old ladies tittered. And then he was in Transporenia.
The land was shrouded in gloom now. As they drove through the Transporenian countryside ghostly objects reared up by the roadside. A pile of haystacks by a shack built from furrowed wooden beams and plastic sheeting. Signs in Cyrillic, some still crisscrossed with lines of bullet-holes. Rusted tractors and harvesters, looking skeletally saurian in their overgrown fields. After twenty minutes, with the orange lights of Suvorovigrad glowing clammily in the low clouds, they stopped at a Russian army checkpoint. The black shapes of a few dozen tanks were hunched over by the roadside, prognathic turrets jutting towards Moldova. The soldiers all wore gas masks; the torches on their helmets swept across the night like errant moths. David began to worry. He’d expected to find a Transporenia tailor-suited to counter his neuroses about the rest of the world. Instead he’d swapped the ennui of Budapest for a place filled with menace. Transporenia would be different.
Suvorovigrad wasn’t really much of city. It lay low, skirting the hills surrounding it almost entirely, like a puddle of light; as if it had coalesced when some demiurge poured out a cosmic beaker of urban slop into the valley, with only a few drops splashing onto the higher ground. Near the centre, though, there stood five enormous Vysotki wedding-cake skyscrapers, their massive triangular frames dwarfing both the town and the peaks around it to the extent that it was hard to say exactly how tall they really were. A few windows were lit in two of them; the others were visible only as hulking silhouettes. Surrounding them, a dense tangle of broad empty boulevards, twelve-storey housing blocks, gutted warehouses, rust-stained smokestacks.
Finally the bus stopped in a small square with weeds breaking through the cracks in the paving stones. A few taxis were waiting nearby. David leant in to the window of one.
“Sure. Six million rouble. Two euro.”
David got in.
“You are English?” the driver said as he started the engine. “London?”
“I’m from Manchester.”
“Oh! Manchester United! Yes?”
David, nominally a City fan, nodded. “Yeah.”
“Glory, glory Man United, as the reds go marching on! I am Eduard. What is your name?”
“David from Manchester. You must not go to the hotel. You are a guest in Suvorovigrad! You should stay at my home.”
“Oh, no, I-”
“You must. We will have kvinitsk and coffee. Do you know it? It is Transporenian brandy, very famous.”
“I’ve already paid, you see.”
Eduard sniffed. “OK. Hotel Rimniksky. We are almost here anyway.” As he turned a corner, one of the skyscrapers suddenly loomed up, all but filling the windscreen.
“That’s the hotel?”
“Yes. It is the tallest hotel in Europe, did you know this? All of Transporenia is very proud of this hotel.”
“How tall is it?”
“A quarter of one mile.” The car pulled around the tower and into the middle of a large square. With the hotel in the middle, the other skyscrapers were arranged in a semicircle around one side, staring down at the barren concrete. It was entirely empty. The clouds formed an empty ring above, as if it were in the eye of a hurricane. “Listen,” said Edouard. “Tomorrow night, me and my friend will drink in the bar of the hotel. You must join us, yes? We will show you how to drink like Transporenians.”
“Of course,” said David, handing over a five-euro note.
“This is good. Be careful of the wind when you leave.”
As soon as David stepped out of the car he was almost knocked down by an immense gust of wind blowing from across the square towards the towers. Its roar was drowned out by the shrill oscillating whistle of the air as it surged between the tall buildings and their crenellations. Flecks of paint ripped from their crumbling faces were dancing as thick as mites. Some of them stung David’s hand and ears, his coat billowed out in front of him, his hair whipped across his face. Crouching down slightly, suitcase in tow, he made his way towards the entrance of the hotel.
Shostakovich’s fifth symphony in D minor was playing tinnily on an invisible speaker system. The lobby of the hotel, vast and barren, echoed with it. Innumerable rows of square columns were reaching out from the lift-shaft on the far side, their grouting showing where the mosaic tiling had been stripped away. A few red and gold tiles lay broken here and there in the dust collecting at their bases. To one side of the entrance two men in string vests sat on two off-white plastic chairs, cigarettes drooping at identical angles from their lips, staring down the lines of pillars. One’s lips were moving silently; he seemed to be counting them. To the other side stood a small booth. A young woman frowned at him from behind wire mesh.
“How much for a night?” David asked.
“You want cold water, hot and cold water, brandy?”
“Twenty-three million, five hundred and eighty thousand rouble a night. You do not know how long you are staying.”
It wasn’t a question. “I suppose not.”
“Pay when you check out. Your passport, please.”
She exchanged it for a heavy iron key. “You are room eighteen, floor nine hundred and eighty-seven,” she said. Then, twisting her face into a vague approximation of a smile, “Thank you for choosing Hotel Rimniksky. Enjoy your stay.”
There was, in fact, a floor 987 on the antique console in the lift. David stared at it for a while. There were two buttons for the first floor, with one imprisoned behind a small wire cage. Then one for the second floor, the third, the fifth, the eighth, the thirteenth, the twenty-first, the thirty-fourth. The penthouse appeared to be on the 75025th storey. Were these the only floors accessible? The tower certainly had more than twenty-five storeys, but surely even a building a quarter of a mile high couldn’t contain tens of thousands. Suddenly aware that he was entrusting his safety to an architectural team of numerical illiterates, David pressed his button.
After the lift had been groaning and creaking its way upwards for ten minutes, he gave up and sat down on his suitcase to read his guidebook. The room, when he finally arrived, was sweeping and threadbare; pipes with flaking paint running along the edge of a domed roof, the faint remains of scrubbed-out frescoes just visible in patches towards one wall. There was a single bed, looking preposterously small in so much empty space, a kitchenette huddled in a corner, two chairs that smelled of mothballs, a row of windows looking out onto the blackness of the countryside. When he wandered into the en-suite bathroom he saw that it was hardly smaller than the room itself. Across a stretching plain of cracked white tiles, a portrait of Stalin hung above a squatting toilet. The sink had three taps with ornate brass fixtures: hot water, cold water, and, yes, brandy. David poured himself a glass of the latter and sat on the end of his bed. By his third brandy flashes of Alexandra started to project themselves unbidden into his mind. Alex’s occasional tenderly mischievous smile, Alex’s look of subdued entrancement as she examined some forgotten painting or medieval knick-knack, Alex in the cramped kitchen of their old flat, frying eggs in her underwear. They had been in love once; it was as if they’d willed themselves into indifference. It was his fault, he’d soured her, he’d always known it. And now he’d got what he wanted: he was away from her, away from Jean and her temptations, in a hotel room in Transporenia with no company except the phlegmy gurgle of the pipes and his own accusing thoughts. He’d made a terrible mistake.
Everything seemed somehow easier the next day. David Rosenthal endured the long elevator ride down to the lobby with a placid stoicism, he smiled and nodded at the girl behind the reception desk (it might have been the same one, he wasn’t sure), he knew instinctively to hug the wall of the hotel closely when he left to avoid the worst of the wind. He whiled away most of the day wandering around Suvorovigrad’s old town, a dense little maze of Habsburg buildings. Eventually he came to large square, dominated by the Supreme Soviet building. A portrait of – he assumed – President Bogarikov hung from the central balcony. Flanked with hammer-and-sickles, he was a fleshy, jowly, unsmiling man with suspicious little eyes. Even in the portrait, his suit had a Mafioso sheen to it. Bogarikov’s cross-eyed stare settled on the Memorial to the War of Transporenia, standing between the building and the obligatory statue of Lenin. David strolled up to it. A tall hollow concrete cylinder peppered with irregular holes of varying sizes, the whole thing seemed to be slowly and noiselessly rotating. But as he approached the thing, David realised that the concrete was entirely static; it was the holes themselves that were moving. The memorial was slightly warm to the touch; as he held a hand against it one hole the size of a two-pound coin passed underneath, its jagged rim rippling through the surface of the concrete like a wave, scratching at his palm.
But that was impossible, surely?
With little else to do, David found himself returning to that square by the evening. Across from the Supreme Soviet building was the only bar in Suvorovigrad aside from that in the hotel, a strip joint called, enticingly, Olga’s. Onstage, a woman naked but for two nipple tassels was performing a Cossack dance to a farting trumpet melody. It wasn’t so much erotic as queasily gynaecological, but the few punters were observing with an expression of studied contemplation, as if they were trying to enjoy an opera. David recognised one of the men without being able to say where from. Trying to ignore it, he had a brandy and looked glumly at the entry on Budapest in his guidebook.
Eventually, he noticed a woman with a short peroxide-blonde pixie cut and a faded Joy Division t-shirt sitting in a secluded corner, reading something with Latin lettering on the cover. He wandered over.
“Hi,” he said. “What’s the book?”
“Oh, it’s trash,” she said. “The Dark Wind trilogy.” She had a slight accent; German, perhaps, or Dutch. “I’m Hanna.”
She nudged a chair out from the table with her foot. “You sound English. I’ve not seen you here before. How long have you been trying?”
David sat. “Trying?”
“You know, to stay. I’ve been here for over a year. Every three months I have to cross back over to Moldova and get another visa. It’s a bitch.” Hanna yawned. “But I’m close this time. I can feel it.”
“I’m just visiting,” said David.
She laughed. “Just visiting! Do you not know what this place is?”
“Uh, yeah,” said David. “Or I thought I did.”
“No you didn’t.” A suggestive little grin. “But let me guess. As soon as you knew that Transporenia existed, you suddenly realised that you had to come here. You didn’t know exactly why. But you had to come. Like the whole country was some one big magnet pulling you towards it.”
“Oh, you had reasons. The rouble is very weak, you could buy lots of cheap stuff. Or you wanted to see the tank graveyard. Shit, maybe you’re some kind of nostalgic commie. Whatever. That came afterwards. But first, you knew you had to come. You weren’t satisfied with your life at home, and you knew you had to come. It was like an itch. Am I right?”
“Yeah. How can you know that?”
“Goddamn it. You’re going to stay here. You’ll never leave this country.” She poured him a glass of brandy. “Congratulations, man.”
Hanna’s confidence worried David a little. It was true; he couldn’t explain exactly why he had come. But Transporenia was strange and threatening; he certainly had no intention of setting up his home there. He didn’t say that, though. They clinked glasses. “Nazdrav,” said David. Hanna eyed him suspiciously.
“How long have you been in Transporenia?” she said.
“Since last night.”
“Nazdrav is what the Transporenians say when they drink. You’ll stay for sure. You’re learning the verdomd language already.”
“I doubt it. I have a job to get to back home, you know.”
“And what job is that?” She twirled the straw of her drink round a finger.
“Why don’t you tell me? You seem to know everything about me already.”
“I don’t know a thing about you. I just know about people who come to Transporenia. But let me see… you’re an actuary. No. A funeral director. Something very, very dull and very, very serious.”
David laughed. “Not quite.”
“Give me a day. I’ll work it out.”
“And what about you?”
“I’m trying to stay in Transporenia. Believe me, it’s a full-time job.” Onstage, the dancer lay on her back and performed the splits. Hanna stood up “This part of Transporenia, though, I do not like. I think I will go to bed. I’ll see you, I’m sure.” As she turned to leave she paused. “I don’t suppose you want to fuck.”
It was a statement, not a question. “Sorry,” said David. With her pointedly elfine little face and her air of wry knowing Hanna was far from unattractive, but she was right; he didn’t.
“Oh, not at all. You’re in chrysalisation. See you around, grazadya.”
David knew that grazadya meant citizen; he must have picked it up by osmosis. He finished his drink and left not long after. As he walked past the stage he realised where he recognised the silent watching customer from: it was President Bogarikov.
David ran into Hanna again the next morning buying coffee at a bakery in the old town. She refused to expand on any of her gnomic comments from the previous night, but did say a little about why she was trying so hard to stay in Transporenia, matter-of-factly, without any apparent shame.
Hanna van der Kolk had never really enjoyed her life all that much. The girls at school hadn’t been very kind to her; she’d worn her hair short even then, she listened to death metal and didn’t have any boyfriends. They’d called her a dyke. Her mother kept on telling Hanna to just grow her hair out; she couldn’t understand that her daughter didn’t want to be happy. Hanna had gone to the University of Antwerp and it’d been slightly better; there were people a little like herself, people who wore a lot of black and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of made-up worlds, but she was still acutely aware that, in some ineffable way, she wasn’t like them at all. She’d had flings but there were still no boyfriends; she was fond of some of the men in her circle but their advances repulsed her, they were always bungling or lecherous, their foreheads clammy with desperation. Hanna tried it with girls a few times and almost managed to convince herself that she liked it, but she could never climax – every time she came close the whispered taunt of lesbisch and all the shame and fury that went with it would sound in her ear. One bright cold morning, she climbed up to the top of the main building in the Middelheim campus and stood there for an hour, contemplating the spindly tree-trunks and the grass coruscating with frost below, thinking about jumping. She hadn’t actually wanted to, she explained, but she’d wanted to want to. Not long afterwards, Hanna read something about Transporenia on the Internet. Within a week she’d abandoned her studies and was en route to Moldova, because she knew, instinctively, that Transporenia would be better.
“And is it?” said David. “Better, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” said Hanna. “I’m not here yet.”
When he was 17, David Rosenthal had written an essay on the Freudian death-drive for school.
Freud’s late concept of Thanatos, he wrote, has been subject to extensive criticism. Many in the analytic community found it untenable that human beings nurse a secret desire for self-extinction. In fact, with Thanatos, Freud offers humanity its salvation. Without it, we are slaves to our id and the repressive mechanisms that seek to rein it in, reducible to our sexuality. The will to death liberates us. In our own deaths we find a higher purpose above our animal pleasures.
He was, of course, still a virgin at the time. Needless to say, the school counsellor was highly concerned.
Hanna insisted on showing David some of the local attractions. They walked to the home of Ivan, a Transporenian friend of hers who she said would drive them to the Greek ruins outside the city. Ivan was a slight man with pince-nez and a tweed jacket slightly too big for him; he greeted Hanna with a slightly bashful kiss on the lips. His tiny apartment was full of chintzy ornaments; a fat white cat wallowed on one table, lazily flicking its tail at the Lilliputian porcelain figurines that surrounded it. After the obligatory coffee, served in thin glasses with artificial sweetener and strained conversation, they set off.
The ancient Greek archaeological site lay a couple of miles down the valley from Suvorovigrad. As he drove his battered Trabant 601 through the hills, Ivan talked in fractured English about his studies at the Suvorovigrad Technical Institute, until at one unremarkable point he pulled over suddenly by the side of the road.
“Over this hill,” he said, opening the door. “Come.”
As he crested the hill, David saw why. Below them, a small valley was filled with tanks piled up on top of each other in a monstrous heap almost as tall as the hills themselves, some torn into molten fragments, some rusting into each other, their hulls scarred and warped, mottled with the gently decaying shades of a forest floor in autumn. Here and there were white flashes of sun-bleached bones, tarnished shell casings, and what looked like spear heads. The crickets sang a monotone threnody.
“Jesus,” said David.
“But –I thought we were going to the archaeological site.”
“This is it,” said Hanna.
Ivan went to stand against one of the bombed-out tanks. “The ancient Greeks come here in the sixth century before Christ,” he said. “The city they build here is a colony of Miletus. They call the city Hephaestopolis. In the War of Transporenia the Greeks fight on the side of Moldova. From here in Hephaestopolis the Greek tanks, the Anaximenes division, they fire at Suvorovigrad. Very bad. I am only a child when they do the bombing, but I remember. Every day, you hear them… boom! Boom! The next shell, it can kill your friend, your family, it could go into your home. No shops are open, everyone is scared, everyone stays inside, we are very hungry. Many hundreds are dead. Then the Russian MiG fighters come, and fwoosh! They blow up all the Miletus soldiers. Suvorovigrad is saved.”
David walked up to the closest tank. Fading into the rust, the letters ΜΊΛΗΤΟΣ were just visible in bubbling white paint. A Corinthian helmet was half-crushed under its treads. He knew that something about the archaeological site didn’t make sense, but he couldn’t work out what; it frustrated him, like a word on the tip of his tongue.
When he arrived at the hotel bar that night Eduard and his friend were already there. They were drinking vodka and eating some kind of shellfish David didn’t recognise: as he walked in Eduard’s friend was prising open a dark purple shell with a steak knife and dousing the thing inside with salt.
“David from Manchester United!” said Eduard. “Join us, my friend.”
His friend shook the shellfish into his glass. It frothed and flailed a little, then went limp. He drank it down. He was a tall, sheer man, all points: pointed cheekbones, pointed elbows, a pointed stare; an absurd stick insect of a man next to Edouard’s tumescent caterpillar.
Eduard poured David a shot. “Nazdrav!” he said. “David, this is Konstantin. He is a very good friend of mine.” Eduard’s bloated nose was red; his eyes were threaded with fine veins. His voice was already slurred.
“David,” said David, shaking his hand. Konstantin looked into his eyes with the clear watchfulness of a predator lying in wait. David drank. “Cheers.”
“You are drinking wrong,” said Eduard. “This is Ukrainian pertsivka; it is not your Smirnoff. You do not throw it down your neck. You drink like this, slowly. Look.” He poured himself a glass. “Nazdrav!”
Konstantin took up the steak knife. Instead of cracking open another shellfish, he twirled it on his fingertip. “Ya chotz vas glaznotzha ablukh,” he said, slowly, drawling over every syllable.
Eduard giggled. “My friend is saying: I will cut out your eyeball.”
“Vas glaznotzha,” said Konstantin again. He didn’t smile. Eduard collapsed into a laughing fit. Konstantin took a small dark marble out from the pocket of his threadbare coat. “Vas glaznotzha.”
“I think I should go,” said David.
“No, no, you must stay. You are a guest here. It is just Konstantin’s joke. Shutka, da, Konstantin?”
“Da,” said Konstantin. His gaze hadn’t moved from David. “Prosto shutka.”
Eduard poured out three drinks. “Good, good. We are all friends, yes?”
Konstantin was still staring at David. He didn’t seem to blink. Without looking, he opened another shellfish, salted it, and slid into his drink. He didn’t put the knife down. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” he said eventually.
“Eine kleine,” lied David. “Français?”
“Nyet, nyet.” He jabbed a bony finger at David. “You… you are very ugly.”
“Thanks,” said David, with a hemiplegiac smile.
“Eduard, he very ugly also. He is old man. But you are very ugly. You are very ugly young man.” He drank, as if to underline the point. “Is this why you come to Transporenia? Because you are very ugly man?”
“He has come to Transporenia for the women,” chortled Eduard. “Haven’t you? The most beautiful women on Earth.”
“What do you know of Transporenia?” said Konstantin. “Nothing. You… you do not know Transporenia. You come here. But you do not know it, this country.”
“That’s why I came,” said David. “I wanted to find out. I’m interested.”
“To find out! You sit in your house, your big house, and you say: I will find out Transporenia! Very easy for you, yes? A good… a good… optusk?”
“Vacation,” said Eduard.
“A good vacation. Da. You do not know Transporenia. Let me tell you story. I fight War of Transporenia in year 1992. We are at Battle Priadzhat. We are in town Priadzhat. The Moldovan men, they are around us on all sides. All the men, the women in town Priadzhat, the Moldovans kill them all. When we come there, they have bodies on the street. We are in trenches. My friend next to me, he stand up, a sniper bullet take him,” – he placed his finger on David’s cheek, just below his left eye – “it take him right here. I see this, I see his skin tear off, I see his bone break, I see his glaznotzha – his eyeball – I see it fall in the mud. He is dead. Very good friend. This is why I say to you: I will take it out your eyeball.”
Eduard tried to suppress a giggle.
“Then his mother, my friend, for days she cry. She does not eat. She has no husband. No son. She die as well. From sadness. He was a real man. She was a real woman. A human, understand? And they die. For this!” He looked around at the half-empty bar. “For Transporenia. For independence. For you to sit and say: I want know Transporenia. I want find out. I’m interested.” Konstantin poured himself another glass of vodka and looked at it gloomily. “You should not have come to Transporenia,” he said. “You are young man. Even though you very ugly. Transporenia is not for young men. When you old, and you tired, and you no longer love your life, then you come to Transporenia when it calls. Not now.”
“How do you know I’m not tired already?” said David.
“Maybe you are. But you are young man. It can get better.” Konstantin looked up at David again, but there was no menace in his predator-stare now. “You should go back to your mother. Go back to your girlfriend. Say to her: I am sorry. I was wrong. I love you. I should not have come to Transporenia.” He raised his glass. “Nazdrav,” he mumbled.
Eduard clapped his hands. “We must play cards!” he said.
David didn’t see Eduard and Konstantin for the next couple of days; he didn’t see Hanna or Ivan either. She was right: the Transporenian language was remarkably easy to pick up. The odd word would rise out of the hubbub of conversation surrounding him in canteens and parks and make itself known. Transporenians complained about the price of bread, they talked about their hopes for their children, they gossiped about the indiscretions of their friends. But some of their conversation was plain bizarre. David heard two cackling toothless old women in peasant shawls telling each other fast-paced jokes; from what he could make out of them, they were all about the penises of nineteenth-century philosophers.
“Schopenhauer,” one said. “Korotik, no ochen tolsty.”
“Nietzsche,” said the other. “Ona dolyazha ibyet kroshenka!” She held up her thumb and forefinger to demonstrate.
“Kierkegaardat ochen, ochen stronay.”
Other stuff filtered in as well. He woke up one morning suddenly knowing what the other towers that surrounded the Hotel Rimniksky contained: the other operational building housed the Ministry of Ephemera, the three empty husks had been shelled in the War of Transporenia; before that they had been the Palace of Arts and Meteorologies, the headquarters of the Transporenian Union for Socialist Journalism, and the All-Soviet Institute for Experimental Research in the Science of Marxism-Leninism. That same day he noticed the secret police agent who had been silently trailing him since he’d arrived in the country. After that, whenever they saw each other they’d share a nod of mutual recognition.
Not long after, David went out in the morning to find a strange silence had enveloped the streets of Suvorovigrad. Even his secret policeman seemed to have other business. As he meandered in the direction of the old town a taxi pulled up suddenly next to him.
“My friend, you must come!” said Eduard, leaning out the window. “The big parade is today!”
The boulevard running to the Supreme Soviet was packed with people grinning and waving flags. On the street, a detachment of Transporenian soldiers in olive-green uniforms with peaked caps and ceremonial scimitars goose-stepped past. They were followed by workers in boiler suits holding up hammer-and-sickle flags and portraits of Stalin and Bogarikov. The biggest cheer went to the Russians, who were parading in their black uniforms with a hefty assortment of tanks, artillery pieces, and flatbed missile launchers. They were all still wearing their gas masks.
“Why are they wearing masks?” said David.
Eduard waved a hand. “It is nonsense. The Kremlin is worried. They don’t want them to breathe the air in Transporenia.”
“It’s not safe?”
“Ha! I have been breathing the air of Transporenia all my life. Do I not look healthy to you?” David didn’t say anything. Eduard let off a stinking laugh. “OK, OK. But that is because I drink too much kvinitsk. You are a sensible young man, no?”
After the last rocket launcher crawled past there followed a group of old men in grey suits waving at the crowd.
“These men, they are the Party officials,” said Eduard.
“Communist Party, right?”
“Kommunistichesk? No, no. The Communists are banned. They would be arrested. Everyone in Transporenia must be a member of Partiya Yedintsev. It is the only party.”
“But the hammers and sickles?”
“Yes. That is a kind of a joke. All Transporenians are Slavic, yes? Like in Russia. And the Moldovans speak Romanian. So we are saying to Moldova: you might be the big country now, but remember, we used to rule you!” He laughed. “It is a very funny joke.”
“And the Partiya Yed…”
“Partiya Yedintsev. It is the only party.”
“What’s it mean?”
“The Only Party. Because it is the only party allowed.”
“So if everyone’s a member of the Only Party, who’s in the Communist Party?”
Eduard gaped at him as if he were simple. “Who would be in the Communist party? Nobody is in the Communist Party. It is banned.”
The parade had been in commemoration of the opening of Suvorovigrad’s first Internet café. David had almost forgotten about the Internet; he hadn’t even read a newspaper in weeks. When he went the next day the place was all but deserted: Transporenians might like a good parade but they didn’t seem to particularly care about any new technology that couldn’t be used to vaporise Moldovan soldiers. When he checked the news online everything was pretty much the same. Wars were going badly; governments were double-dipping into various financial abysses; celebrities were racists, rapists, or otherwise thoroughly unpleasant people; the whole pointless business of the world had been continuing its diurnal cycle of disintegration quite happily without his knowledge. People didn’t read the newspaper in Transporenia, he realised. Transporenia always stayed the same: there was Bogarikov, and an independence that would never be recognised by the rest of the world, and that was that.
There was slightly more going on when he checked his email inbox. It was stuffed with messages, all of them from Jean Parson:
where are u? jean x
Seriously, David, where are you? None of us can contact you, all Alex is saying is that you’ve ‘gone’, she’s really upset. You haven’t gone off to Moldova have you? Please reply as soon as you get this!!! Jean
ok david this isn’t funny, please at least let us know you’re alright. jean
david this isnt a fucking joke. alex had to go back to manchester, she’s in a really bad state, you’ve seriously hurt her, she thinks its her fault. i cant believe youd just desert her like this, it’s incredibly selfish and frankly revolting. i don’t know what you think youre doing but you’ve completely wrecked our holiday & broken the heart of a good person who really cared about you. the very least you could do is try to explain yourself, this silence is infantile & pathetic!! grow some fucking balls at least. jean
hey david. fuck you, you piece of SHIT
Another world. An impossibly distant world, one David Rosenthal didn’t live in any more.
That night in his big empty room in the Hotel Rimniksky, David dreamed he was having sex with Jean Parson. They were twisted together on the sofa in Ivan’s apartment in Suvorovigrad; the ornaments covering every flat surface tinkled with every movement, Jean was making all the right noises, her body writhing deliciously, and David was utterly bored by the whole ordeal. Eventually, overcome by desperation, he made one long thrust and let out a low groan. Jean feigned satisfaction, but he’d clearly overdone it. She knew he was faking.
In the morning, he found Hanna waiting for him in the hotel lobby. One of Ivan’s lecturers at the Technical Institute was hosting a small dinner party that evening; as a foreign guest his presence would be very welcome.
David wore a nice striped shirt Alexandra had picked out for him once and a pair of Oxfords he hadn’t worn since the restaurant in Budapest. He found his way to the apartment, which was on the other side of the city, almost instinctually. From the address Hanna had given him he knew to take the number 3 tram from Pritneskya Street; he even knew that the apartment would be in the tower block with the stained white tiling covering its West face. It was as if he’d lived in Suvorovigrad his entire life.
There were only six people at the party. The two other students were a little like Ivan: gangly, with big eyes and archaic clothing. They were very interested in David; they wanted to know everything about England.
“Is it true,” one asked over drinks, “that in England to see a woman’s ankle is offensive?”
“Is it true that in England it is only allowed to hunt for foxes?”
“Is it true that in England they have statues of the Queen in churches instead of the Virgin Mary?”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” said David. “I’m Jewish.”
They didn’t really get the joke, but it set them off with increased vigour. They wanted to know if the Zionists really controlled the British parliament, if the Jews really spat on crucifixes in synagogue services, if David really owned an entire bank. Their antisemitism was naïve and without much malice; they weren’t accusing him of anything, they were genuinely curious. Throughout all this the lecturer stayed silent. A knowing grin was buried somewhere under his bushy auburn beard.
After a dinner of veal stew the lecturer served coffee, and Ivan and Hanna fucked on a table. As they watched Ivan’s lecturer would occasionally raise a finger and nod, as if to commend the student on his technique. There was a light smattering of nervous applause when she came. David felt claustrophobic; his collar stuck sweatily to his neck, he thirsted for cold air and solitude. For the first time in years he really needed a cigarette. Having wordlessly borrowed one from one of the students he went out to the balcony to smoke it.
Across the glittering plain of Suvorovigrad, the Hotel Rimniksky reared up like a Japanese B-movie monster. David felt a sudden need to be back there, in his room with its vast empty spaces and brandy on tap. But it would be rude to excuse himself from the party before Ivan had finished, and in any case he had no real desire to go back into that room. Of course, he realised: he could fly. So he stubbed out his cigarette, and leapt from the balcony.
David hovered in the air for a while just outside the window. None of the people inside seemed to have noticed him; they were still busy watching Ivan and Hanna. He set off. At first he flew straight for the hotel, but after a minute or so he decided that he may as well have some fun: he adopted a Superman pose and roared into the night, he described a series of increasingly vertiginous loops, he flew straight up to see the whole of Suvorovigrad spread out below him. Eventually, coasting lazily on his stomach high above the streets, he came to the hotel. Just as he was about to alight on the roof, the wind blowing up one face of the tower hit him and he was suddenly caught, tumbling upwards in a flailing panic, faster and faster, corkscrewing into the upper atmosphere. David’s breath came in jagged gasps. His heart tapped a frenzied drumroll. The air was freezing; it was taking on the chilling touch of the void. For a moment David saw the whole region arcing in front of him: Suvorovigrad was a tiny splodge of light; Chişinău a messy blot, Bucharest a shining sprawl in the distance. The golden fringe of dusk hung perilously on the edge of the Earth’s curvature. It was beautiful. David knew he was going to die.
Somehow he managed to stabilise himself and fly out of the ferocious column of air. David half-fell, half-flew back to the ground. Exhausted, he dragged himself through the hotel lobby and collapsed into bed.
The next day, just before dawn, he was arrested.
First came the loud knock on the door. Then the voice.
“David Rosenthal,” it barked. “You are under arrest. Please pack your possessions.”
It was David’s secret policeman; he was surrounded by Russian soldiers in heavy black armour clutching Kalashnikovs, the goggles of their gas masks gazing unfeelingly into the middle distance.
David was cuffed and blindfolded. In the lift he heard the gentle click of a key: his secret policeman was unlocking the cage to the other, forbidden ground floor. The soldiers marched him out the hotel and into a waiting vehicle; he didn’t struggle; knowing, somehow, through his fear, that he was guilty, that he deserved it all. As the car bumped through pothole-riddled boulevards, rattling along until his terror faded into boredom, he didn’t speak. Eventually he was dragged out and taken into another building; when his blindfold was removed he was sitting in a large well-furnished office before a broad mahogany desk. A man sat across from him under a portrait of President Bogarikov. At first David couldn’t make him out in the sudden brightness, but as his eyes cooled the stick-thin man in front of him was unmistakeable. It was Konstantin.
“Konstantin?” said David. “I confess. I-”
“Look again,” said Konstantin.
Bogarikov looked at him from the portrait. Bogarikov looked at him from across the desk. His face and Konstantin’s were overlaid on top of each other, occupying the same space, shifting into each other like colours in an oil spill.
“Sometimes. I’m surprised you didn’t recognise me after you saw me at Olga’s. That you didn’t realise that Eduard was also your secret police agent. Or that your friend Ivan was also the border guard you met when you arrived here. I’m disappointed. Well. No matter now.” He shuffled a stack of papers on his desk. “You are under arrest because you have violated the terms of your tourist visa. You acquired Transporenian ontology. You flew.”
“How did you know?”
“How could we not know? You’re no great aeronaut. Now. You have a choice. We can deport you. We can put you in a car under armed guard and send you back across the border to Moldova. You can go back to your flat. You can go back to Alexandra. She’ll be angry, I’m sure. But she’ll take you back. She loves you, you know, even if she doesn’t always know how to show it. That is your first choice. As I told you before, you’re a young man, David. You might feel like you are not at home in the world. But it can get better.”
“And the other choice?”
“You can stay. Here. In Transporenia.”
“I want to stay. There’s nothing for me back there.”
“You know what this place is, I take it?”
“I think so.”
Konstantin arched his fingertips on the desk. “Tell me.”
“It’s a country that doesn’t exist. It’s not real. When you fought that war, you weren’t just fighting for independence from Moldova. You gained your independence from the whole of reality.”
“It might not be better, you know. Just because this place isn’t real doesn’t mean you’ll be happy here.”
“I know. I want to stay.”
Konstantin sighed. “I can’t stop you.”
“What about Hanna?”
“Hanna van der Kolk? She will never stay here. She wants it. She wills herself to be unhappy. Not like you. She is not of the symparanekromenoi. She will keep on trying. Maybe for the rest of her life.” Konstantin drew out a single sheet from the stack of papers. “This is your naturalisation form. Before I sign it: are you sure you want this?”
“I’m sure,” said David. “I’m sure.” He frowned at Konstantin. “Where are you from?”
“I am from Transporenia, of course. Maybe before that I was from somewhere else. It’s hard to say.” He took a quill pen and signed the document. “Congratulations, grazadya.”
Afterwards, David went outside, and saw Transporenia as it really was.