Swan Lake for Beginners
by Heather O’Neill, recommended by Diane Cook
AN INTRODUCTION BY DIANE COOK
I’ve been a fan of Heather O’Neill’s writing since I first heard it on This American Life. She’d written a short piece about the moment when your life collides with another’s and their name becomes forever known to you. It reads like a poem, its language the kind of simple that ends up knocking you down with a hidden emotional power. I was enthralled by her singular voice and the imagery of her world, and overcome with a warm yet uneasy nostalgia for all the people whose names I’d come to know in an instant, though I barely knew more about them than that.
Then I read her first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, and was awed by the complex, gritty, dark, disturbing yet whimsical childhood O’Neill portrays. The novel is harrowing, but O’Neill’s protagonist, Baby, is young in voice and eye. This mix allows O’Neill to truly convey what it is to be victimized, but also full of yearning and life. And so a young girl can retell her story to make it more bearable, like a fairy tale, allowing the story to become a heroine’s tale and not just the tale of a childhood cut short.
So it makes sense that the stories in O’Neill’s first story collection, Daydreams of Angels, are reminiscent of fairy tales and fables that marry the dark and the magical. The collection is full of rough characters and situations, but also shrouded with a kind of fantasy that can, like a child’s viewpoint, make difficult places easier to enter. The stories are funny and beautiful and the created worlds are endlessly fascinating.
For example, see this story here? It’s called “Swan Lake For Beginners” and I’m honored to be able to introduce it to you. On its face the story is an enchanting tale of a Soviet government cloning experiment that resulted in thousands of Rudolf Nureyevs running around rural Quebec. The experiment is, in essence, a giant middle finger to the real Rudolf Nureyev who had recently defected, leaving the Soviets dejected. What use is Rudolf Nureyev if his talents become ubiquitous? It’s the Soviet’s attempt to have a Nureyev of their own, while punishing the original. But surprise! All does not go according to plan. The delight, as is true of so much of O’Neill’s writing, is in the details. This is a story that includes shock-haired scientists, menacing wolves, a comforting Siberian tiger, a re-created Kremlin and chain-smoking ballerinas, amidst of sea of sad Nureyevs, sensible Nureyevs, suicidal Nureyevs and even jailed ones.
But really in some part, it’s a cautionary tale about hunger and how a life of experiences, the good and the terrible, shapes us into people who could struggle to make something beautiful or flee from the scrum. As the scientists blunder through the rearing of this flawed horde of Nureyevs, trying to re-create the magic confluence that spawned the original, O’Neill asks us what makes a life, what special alchemy makes you you, and what can be done to survive the hunger for art?
Author of Man V. Nature
Swan Lake for Beginners
by Heather O’Neill
Recommended by Diane Cook
It all began with a very young scientist named Vladimir Latska, who lived and worked in Moscow. He had graduated from university in 1949 when he was eleven years old, and for a time he was often seen on television and heard on the radio, babbling prettily about cells and biology. He had big blue eyes and he would tilt his chin up to the heavens when he lectured, as if to accentuate his concern with lofty spiritual matters. His hair stuck straight up in the air, which was all the rage among young geniuses at the time, and he wore the same shabby suit covered in soup stains for three years straight, as he was too profound to bother changing his clothes. He waved his hands excitedly when he spoke. It was as if he was a conductor and the world was his orchestra, and he was trying to get it to perform a magnificent concerto. He almost danced when he spoke about science, lecturing at times on his tippy-toes. It made him beloved by audiences even when, at times, they didn’t understand a word he was saying. They would line up after his lectures on genetics to have an opportunity to pinch his cheeks.
After several years in the laboratory, he went to the government and announced that he had discovered a way to clone animals. To prove it, he had with him a cage filled with white kittens that he declared were identical and were all named Boris. The kittens were all curled up together, like a pile of snowballs that had been patted together by small mittened hands in preparation for a war. Latska quoted dozens of poems, explaining the wonders of cloning and the beauty of multiplicity. Of course no one believed him, and they weren’t sure why they had arranged to have a meeting with this teenager. The officials held up the kittens and claimed they saw subtle differences. Latska offered to take them to his laboratory outside the city, where he had thousands of additional cloned Borises running around on his property. They laughed because there didn’t seem to be a point in having three thousand kittens named Boris, and what with the Soviet Union being what it was in 1955, they were very busy.
Never living up to his early potential, Latska began to be seen more as a flamboyant entertainer than anything else. The world had all but forgotten him when, years later, in 1961, Rudolf Nureyev, the country’s most exciting young dancer, ran screaming to the police at an airport in Paris, demanding to stay. Nureyev defected, much to the government’s and the Soviet people’s dismay. It was considered so damaging to Soviet propaganda that it was kept out of the national press, and the government tried to pretend Nureyev had never existed. “Rudolf who?” was the official party line. The rest of the world, however, went batshit crazy, in a manner of speaking, for Nureyev, celebrating his every movement, putting him on the cover of magazines and catapulting him to fame. That was when Vladimir Latska chose to return, approaching the government this time with a proposal that they found intriguing. Latska claimed that through cloning, he could deliver back to Russia a new and improved Nureyev.
The government decided to give Latska a chance. They gave him a vial of blood that a nurse had collected from Nureyev during a routine checkup, and almost unlimited resources for the project. Ordered to keep the operation absolutely top secret, Latska and his men, a group of unemployed scientists and unlicensed doctors from the countryside outside Moscow, got into planes and headed to a small town in northern Quebec called Pas-Grand-Chose. In addition to being a desirable location because of its isolation, its proximity to tundra, and the fact that it had not had a tourist in a hundred years, the town was also singled out because of its high unemployment rate. It had been the country’s largest manufacturer of bloomers, and when they went out of style after 1941, the citizens of the town found themselves in dire straits. The area had the broken, random look of a train set that a child had abandoned years before. The Canadian government turned a blind eye as the town welcomed the project with open arms, hastily constructing a makeshift enclosure around Pas-Grand-Chose in preparation for the arrival of the covert scientists.
Banned from most universities, Latska’s team of misfit scientists was also wildly enthusiastic about the idea of regular work. Vladimir Latska believed that the only worthwhile scientists were the mad ones. Other scientists asked too many questions about the implications of their research, never taking the irrational leaps of faith necessary for true discovery. Latska believed that the Nureyev Experiment was really a magnificent project, certain to be a shoo-in for the Nobel Prize and to reestablish his credibility. Latska put an ad in the newspaper looking for homes for his three thousand kittens named Boris. He took only one Boris with him though, that being all he really needed. Perhaps he should have taken it as a sign that we only really need one of a good thing.
There was a parade in Pas-Grand-Chose for all the mad scientists when they got off the plane. They were a curious sight with their hair sticking straight up in the air, their bottle-cap glasses and their briefcases that had smoke coming out of them. They had cardboard boxes filled with beakers and Dungeons & Dragons sets. None of them had girlfriends.
With a bunch of Nureyevs, the Soviet government would be able to open shows every night in every major city in the world. They could even have two or three of them touring together so that they wouldn’t get tired. They could do three-month engagements, and if one broke an ankle or had a nervous breakdown, it wouldn’t be a problem in the least. They had put a spacecraft on the moon, and now this! Nureyev would be sorry that he had thought himself unique. He was replaceable. It was the Soviet Union that was unique.
There were twelve Nureyevs cloned in 1961. The scientists and indeed the whole town were reverent of the handsome little Nureyev boys. Everyone was in awe of the fact that these children were actually the greatest dancer of the twentieth century. The boys walked around town in fancy little suits, carrying red balloons, and everyone kissed them and told them how wonderful they were.
The scientists were determined to give the Nureyevs happy childhoods. Whereas the real Nureyev had only been able to join a professional dance school when he was seventeen, these Nureyevs had dance classes starting when they were five years old. They would learn both Russian from the scientists and French, which was the language of ballet, from the inhabitants. They wouldn’t have a father who would be away at the front for most of their childhoods and who hated their dancing. They wouldn’t have to wear the same shabby velvet coat for a decade, go hungry on a regular basis and live during a devastating war. This way, the carefree clones would be even greater dancers than the actual Nureyev had ever been. The scientists shivered with joy when they imagined the results.
These first Nureyevs were raised in happy, middle-class, two-parent families who adored them and showered them with praise. They were given puppies, had fairy tales read to them and were given holidays on the banks of the Saint-Laurent River. They went to puppet shows. An effort was made to paint everything pink and blue and green.
Cartons of butterflies were brought in from Brazil and were let loose in the town square. It looked as though someone had opened a window while a nerd was working on her stamp collection and the wind had lifted them all up in the air. The children ran around with their arms stretched out in joy. The butterflies died of shock and fell to the ground hours later, but they were quickly swept up by groundskeepers. The townspeople made the boys crowns of dandelions and daffodils to wear on their heads, telling them that everything was always going to be all right.
However, to the scientists’ dismay, when this generation of Nureyevs became teenagers, they had very little interest in dance. They were sensible and well balanced, and so they wanted more reliable careers, ones that promised economic security. They wanted to become political attachés and commodity traders.
Those who could dance did so with proficiency but had no edge. No one would be throwing underwear at them, let’s put it that way.
One of the boys was given a biography of Nureyev to read. A scientist thought he would be inspired by the glory and fame that Nureyev had achieved. Instead, the young clone was horrified. He shared the book with the other clones, who were equally shocked. All they took away from the biography was how rude and irritable the dancer had been, how miserable and conceited, and how difficult and unpredictable life as an artist was. They slammed the book shut, like a folk dancer pounding his foot on the floor to announce the end of an act.
With the next generation of Nureyevs, the scientists decided they’d try a less hands-on approach. They hired local childless women to raise the Nureyevs. The scientists allowed them to be raised unsupervised, in order that they might have normal childhoods.
But it was found that the mothers had too much influence on the Nureyevs. One of the mothers spent all her time watching medical dramas on television. This boy grew up wanting to be a surgeon. He wore a white bathrobe around the neighborhood, carrying a clipboard and insisting on checking other children’s pulses. Another mother was very good at making cupcakes. To the scientists’ consternation, her little Nureyev announced that he was going to open his own bakery and name it Jeannette’s Delight, in honor of his mother.
Then, rather disturbingly, one of the clones opted for a career playing the accordion. The scientists tried to account for this abnormality. After questioning his mother, they found that she had sung a Parisian ditty about the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to him when he was a little boy. Now he wore a black beret, smoked all the time and had changed his name to Pierre Gaston. His cigarette smoke wavered above his head like a French philosopher’s thought bubbles. The shock of this forced the scientists to reexamine their methods altogether.
When the Russian government read Pierre Gaston’s self-published volume of poetry, called A Lonely Winter on the Seine, they withdrew significant funding.
Exasperated, the scientists decided to make one group of young clones dance like Nureyev by force. These young boys had to endure eight hours of training a day. The dance instructors humiliated and hit the boys when they messed up their steps. The callous teachers threatened to murder their dogs if they didn’t execute their pirouettes perfectly. They wouldn’t let them eat unless they managed a grand jeté. Half-starved Nureyevs would crouch in the corner, massaging their aching legs and whimpering unhappily. So joyless was this group that they barely resembled boys anymore.
This was indeed a dark period. They practiced so much that they didn’t even have a chance to change out of their leotards. You would see a sixteen-year-old Nureyev, in a black leotard with little red sequins and boots, standing outside for but a moment, trying to figure out who he really was. His sequins glimmered like a distant galaxy whose constellations were emitting their tragic messages in Morse code.
Nonetheless, the scientists achieved some surprising successes with this group at first. As a whole, this generation was composed of remarkably skilled dancers. But by the age of seventeen, when they should have been ready for an adoring public, they hated dancing with a fervor. So repelled were they by the thought of spending their lives on stage, they began to sabotage their dancing careers. They were known to jump off the roofs of two-story houses. This wouldn’t kill them, but it was almost certain to break both their ankles. They threw themselves out of cars. One ate hamburgers all day, and he became so fat that he couldn’t jump at all anymore. One would close his eyes when passing ponds, so that he didn’t have to look at swans reaching about gracefully with their necks. He ended up falling in and drowning.
It is almost impossible to believe that these dark events took place. It is hard to get anyone to admit to having taken part in these Nureyev years. Participants explain how their own jobs and livelihoods were on the line. The events scarred everyone, especially Latska, who was known for wanting to bring whimsy back to science. This project was turning into something ugly.
The government threatened to withdraw funding anytime one of these generations of Nureyevs didn’t work out. The project was diverting money from Olympic teams, the circus and outer space. It was with some level of desperation that Project Siberia was launched.
Project Siberia generated the most press in relation to what The Globe and Mail referred to as “the Nureyev Debacle.” It is always brought up in documentaries about the subject as evidence of the insanity of the project as a whole. There was, however, a very clear method behind the madness. The scientists were, in essence, looking for the missing link that would turn Nureyev the man into Nureyev the dancer. They weren’t quite sure what they were leaving out, so they decided to omit nothing whatsoever. A large-scale effort was put into place to more accurately simulate the conditions and main events of Nureyev’s actual childhood. Nureyev was famously born on the Trans-Siberian train near Irkutsk, Siberia, and he often cited that as being the most romantic event of his life and symbolic of everything that followed. He had been raised in the town of Ufa, south of the Ural Mountains. The scientists tried to make the part of the town where the clones were cloistered resemble the time and place where Nureyev had come into this world, opened his eyes and decided who he was going to be.
The Nureyevs were told that their country was engaged in a great war and that all the men were at the front fighting. The scientists had citizens walk around with crutches and with their heads bandaged in order to appear as if they had recently returned from the front. Everyone wore sheepskin hats and leather boots. Citizens were supposed to dress up as soldiers. It didn’t seem to particularly matter what war they were supposed to be taking part in. Teenagers opted to wear red military band jackets with gold buttons and piping, looking more like members of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band than soldiers. It became trendy for girls to wear grey caps resembling those worn by Confederate soldiers in the American Civil War.
In order to re-create the harsh poverty in which Nureyev had been raised, the boys were only allowed to eat gruel. They couldn’t find the recipe in The Joy of Cooking, but one of the town’s cooks improvised with some watered down Quaker Oats. Under strict instructions from the top, the groundskeepers air-conditioned the Nureyevs’ bedrooms all the time. In summer, the foster parents were told to keep the lights on in their rooms while they slept — in order to re-create the white nights in Russia, when the sun never sets. All the little Nureyevs had dark rings under their eyes from trying to get some sleep under eight lamps with one hundred–watt bulbs glowing around their beds.
They weren’t allowed to go to church and they had to tear the story of Noah and his ark out of their French textbooks. Their reading primer was called See Citizen Spot Run. All Monopoly boards were burned. They were given classes in Marxism and told to hate the bourgeoisie. When they asked who the bourgeoisie were, they were told they were property owners. One group of Nureyevs smashed the window of a hardware store with rocks, thinking that the owner was an Enemy of the People.
They walked home in their oversized men’s boots and scratchy cable turtleneck sweaters. They curled up on their hay-filled mattresses, kissed their pet rock good night and then went to sleep. They fantasized about one day washing their hair with shampoo. They were a cantankerous group of little boys.
Indeed the citizens of Pas-Grand-Chose began to complain as loudly as the Nureyevs about some of the implementations of Project Siberia. All the inhabitants of the town were having their comforts curtailed, which was natural given the fact that they were supposed to be living in Ufa in the 1940s. The post office was shut down, as there was to be no communication with the outside world. Some of the town children wept bitterly. One girl had a subscription to Canadian Geographic, which she would never be able to get. Another boy was awaiting a shipment of sea monkeys that he had sent away for.
A row of new buildings was shoddily constructed. They had roofs that made them look like soft ice cream cones, like those of the Kremlin. This part of town became affectionately known as Little Moscow. This area became the closest thing that Pas-Grand-Chose had to a red-light district. Villagers, including the Nureyevs, would buy modern Western music in some of the shops in Little Moscow. The shop owners served hot dogs inside to regular citizens under the table, although they were supposed to be only serving borscht. Citizens squeezed in there to watch Eddie Murphy films and drink Coca-Cola at an underground theatre. They watched Rocky IV, in which Rocky defeats the Russian. They didn’t know which side to root for. They didn’t know what side they were on. The citizens didn’t even know where exactly they were.
Speaking today with some of the town’s residents about the past, however, you will note a marked nostalgia for life in the make-believe Soviet Union. Indeed, some aspects of life in Project Siberia seem quite lovely. There was a snow machine blowing snow year-round, and it was apparently wonderful to lie out on a beach towel on warm summer nights and watch the flakes falling like blossoms off a cherry tree. A reindeer would sometimes stroll by, the antlers on its head looking like the arms of a skinny diva, supplicating the heavens.
Almost every resident you speak to will mention the wolves. A scientist had read that Nureyev’s mother had to trudge for miles through the snow to bring back potatoes and she was surrounded by wolves one terrifying night. A group of three hundred large grey wolves was rounded up from rural Quebec and set loose in the town in the middle of the night. They lurked around town, behind trash cans and telephone booths. The villagers were all terrified of the wolves and regularly petitioned for their removal, but the Nureyevs seemed to take to the animals. One witness described seeing an eight-year-old Nureyev walking the most terrifying-looking wolf down the street on a leash, calling her Susie. The skinny wolf had a rib cage that resembled a xylophone.
The Nureyevs left out bowls of Kibbles ’n Bits for the wolves. They tried to teach them to sit. None of the other children were allowed near the wolves. Their mothers put little cans of pepper spray in their lunch boxes, in case they encountered a wolf on their way home from school.
Then, in a move that seems strange even in light of all the other extraordinary occurrences, the scientists decided they couldn’t re-create a distinctly Siberian awakening without a Siberian tiger. It took quite a bit of paperwork to have one of these endangered tigers delivered. They wrote a three hundred–page grant proposal detailing their need for the animal. Nobody in Moscow wanted to read the ridiculously long proposal, so they put a tiger on a plane and sent it over. The townspeople had to build a cage that seemed to be the size of a castle just to be able to contain the measurements of the beast that was coming.
There was great excitement the day the tiger arrived. For some reason everyone thought that the Nureyevs would finally feel the grandeur of their original’s past and begin performing. Everybody cited the day when the tiger came as being a happy one. The cage was taken off the plane, loaded onto a truck and driven through town to where they had built the makeshift zoo. Everyone who lived there had come outside onto the street to watch the procession. The children had written signs on pieces of paper that said the French version of things like “Go Tiger Go!” and “Welcome Home!” It was as if the tiger were a victorious football team returning home.
The hype surrounding the arrival of the Siberian tiger was almost religious. Everything else about Siberia seemed to entail some sort of deprivation. In this case, they would be granted something amazing. They were entitled to this tiger. It was their birthright.
Whenever a young Nureyev was feeling low or uncooperative, the school psychiatrist would send him home with a note saying that he should spend thirty minutes with the tiger. The Nureyevs would whisper things to the tiger through the bars of the cage. Or they would go and sit on one of the little chairs positioned in front of the tiger’s cage and cry in frustration. The bright-orange tiger looked like it had been covered in gasoline and set on fire, always in flames.
The Siberian tiger seemed to always be escaping. One witness saw a dozen young Nureyevs running down the street, being chased by the tiger. They were all laughing hysterically and clapping their hands and leaping off the ground, almost making sautés.
“They all had a dark, wicked little streak,” the witness said. “They were always plotting to let the tiger escape.”
This statement reveals the growing strain that the citizens were feeling toward the clones. How much of a burden it was to live in a place filled with so many Nureyevs began to be apparent to everyone. Many of the clones didn’t work. Some living off disability checks they’d received after a class lawsuit was launched against the Russian government by the generation of Rudolf Nureyevs who had been forced at gunpoint to dance. Although they didn’t share the real Nureyev’s desire to dance, they did seem to share his temperamental and tempestuous nature.
Since there was no work for them in the town, many of the Nureyevs turned to crime and the jails were filled with them. There was some confusion over the matter of sentencing them, for identifying them in a lineup proved hopeless. They were forced for a while to carry passports and papers everywhere. This seemed to fit in with the aesthetic of Pas-Grand-Chose. But once again, they were indignant, and they all flushed their papers down the toilet.
After a while, the police tried their best to simply ignore the Nureyevs and their antics. It simply wasn’t worth the hassle. So the Nureyevs basically got away with all manner of things and terrible behaviour. Sometimes they acted like children provoking their parents, trying to see how far they could go. They would walk into a store, take a bottle of vodka off the shelf, hold it up to the clerk and say something like, “Mind if I take this? No, I didn’t think so,” and then walk out the door, laughing. One got on a bus, and when the conductor asked him to pay the fare, he simply told him to bugger off.
There was graffiti all over the town, which the Nureyevs had written. They would walk their wolves off the leash, although this was clearly against the law. They all seemed to engage in all manner of inappropriate conduct and public displays of indecency.
You can still see the graffiti today: “Even the birds are free.” “Will we be charged to take a shit next?” “I am not what I could have been.” “Are you going to measure how much my shit weighs, Mister Scientist?” “BEWARE OF FREE WILL!”
The little girls in Pas-Grand-Chose proved to be terrible dance partners for the Nureyevs. The Nureyevs would insult their dance steps, yelling that, furthermore, the local girls were too fat to hold up in the air. They had no intention of lifting peasants up toward the heavens. The little girls spun awkwardly above their heads as though they were satellites that had fallen out of orbit. The boys decided that they were going to go on strike from dancing until suitable partners were found. Female dancers were brought in from Montreal to be their partners. The scientists looked for older partners because the real Nureyev’s favorite had been Margot Fonteyn, who was nineteen years his senior. A whole airplane filled with retired ballerinas arrived and settled in Little Moscow. They were underweight, self-centered and chain smokers.
They hung around drinking coffee and complaining about their arthritis. Their skin seemed as thin as rolling paper. Applying layers and layers of pancake makeup and staring into a hand mirror, they’d say, “What happened to me?” One read detective novels. One would not stop talking about her recent divorce and how if she hadn’t had such a lousy alimony check, she wouldn’t be here. They loved gossiping about one another. There wasn’t a lot of chemistry between these dancers and the young Nureyevs.
In life, Nureyev, with his mop of blond hair, his steely blue eyes and pouty lips, was considered quite magnificent-looking, but in this town he wasn’t considered beautiful at all. Beauty is supposed to be rare and unequalled. For them, looking like Nureyev was commonplace.
The Nureyevs didn’t enjoy one another’s company much either. There’s nothing worse when you’re experiencing self-loathing than looking around and literally seeing yourself sitting at the other end of the bar. They were only able to feel like individuals when they were somewhere alone with the doors closed. Whereas the original Rudolf Nureyev had an amour fou with the dancer Erik Bruhn, the clones all remained single.
The project was not abandoned because of the unhappy Nureyevs crowding the streets and bars. Oddly enough, the project was abandoned because of a little Québécois boy named Michel who lived in the town. He was the son of one of the caretakers at the zoo. He and his father had previously lived in a tiny town where virtually everyone was employed by the local underwear factory. Michel had never seen ballet before he had arrived.
Michel had dark hair and brown eyes and a welcoming, sweet face. He was an ordinary boy. He collected hockey cards, he had a German shepherd named Samuel and his mother had died of cancer.
Shortly after his arrival, Michel was walking down the street when he saw a Nureyev who was dancing Swan Lake in the middle of the road. He had on an Adidas headband that he had Krazy Glued some seagull feathers onto. He was inebriated and was dancing in a farcical manner. Some of the workers and a couple of scientists were shaking their heads sadly at the spectacle. But Michel, on the other hand, stood transfixed. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Afterwards, Michel often expressed his interest in learning dance, but he was never given any classes. Nobody bothered to encourage any of the other children in the town to dance. What would be the point? The trainers didn’t want to waste time on children with regular physiques. Michel learned all his dance moves from television. He was able to exactly re-create the audition scene in Flashdance, which he’d seen at a secret viewing. Michel went on to master routines from Star Search and Dr Pepper commercials.
Michel’s dancing began to be a common sight in the town. His neighbors found themselves dragging over milk crates to sit on in his yard and watching him dance for hours. Word would spread down the street that Michel was performing and the other children would stop their games of kickball and come to watch. Mothers would stop hanging up their laundry and old men stopped playing cards. There was something new about his dancing. Something that nobody had been able to imagine before. It opened up their minds in a way that only art can.
His father made a contraband videotape of Michel dancing and they sent it to the National Ballet School in Toronto. After Michel got accepted, his father quit his job. They piled all their things into the back of his truck, and they rattled off into a future that was completely unknown and bewildering to them. And it was as much to their surprise as it was to anyone’s that there was glory on the road ahead for them.
When Michel was interviewed later on television, he was asked the unanswerable questions people always ask artists: How does it feel to be you? When did you realize that you were you? How is it that you do what you do? What makes an artist an artist?
Only individuals, all on their own, can decide to dedicate their lives to expression. Art comes from some mysterious place that cannot be located by science. Scientists could make a human, but they could not make an artist. The scientists themselves decided to end their project.
After the project was abandoned, the town suffered a major recession. Almost every citizen had worked for the Nureyev project at some point in their lives. Many of the residents left, having to sign strict confidentiality agreements before departing. The Nureyevs, en masse, wanted to get as far away from the town as possible. Their visa applications, however, continued to be rejected.
The Nureyevs were always trying to disguise themselves as travelling salesmen and get aboard charter planes that were departing from Little Moscow. They would try and get neighboring farm girls to fall in love with them to help them escape. One Nureyev dressed up as a woman and tried to escape past customs that way. At night you could always hear voices coming out of the sewers, because they were always down there, trying to find a path out of the town. If you were leaving the town, you would have to pop the hood of your car to prove that there wasn’t a Nureyev hiding in there. One was even found crouched in a box of leaf-shaped bottles of maple syrup that was being exported to the United States. That’s something that they had in common with the original Nureyev: the desire to defect from a place that suffocated them and impeded their civil liberties.
When the Berlin Wall fell, the Nureyevs were finally permitted to leave, and leave they did, moving to all sorts of places. They never went public with their stories, however. They were actually terrified of anyone finding out that they were genetically identical to Rudolf Nureyev, as they would be subjected to relentless experiments by Western scientists this time. And quite frankly, they were exhausted of the constant scrutiny and limelight they had experienced in Pas-Grand-Chose. They led simple lives, trying not to draw any attention to themselves.
Their childhoods had been public. There were rooms filled with file cabinets detailing every aspect of their lives: how many times they had peed, their caloric intake, their nightmares, the crayon drawings they had made in elementary school. If there was anything at all that you needed to know about the Nureyevs, it was right there. But they argued that no one knew them. They wanted privacy and a sense of solitude where they could figure out who exactly they wanted to be. When the original Nureyev passed away, they watched the five-minute segment on the news, impressed by the accomplishments of that extraordinary man who thought that real life only happened when he was dancing, but then they turned off the television, knowing he was a stranger to them.
If you ever see anyone on a subway who looks incredibly like Rudolf Nureyev, you’re probably actually looking at one of his clones, but just don’t say so to his face.
As for Latska, he still lives in Pas-Grand-Chose. Lately he has been working on something on a much smaller scale: making phosphorescent snails. He can be spotted at sunset, wearing a long sort of kimono that goes down to his feet, wandering around in a melancholic trance. He will ignore you when you call out to him, as he has become a recluse, like his clones, eschewing the public gaze. As the sun goes down in Pas-Grand-Chose, the lights of all the snails begin to glow. They are like the lights on top of taxicabs stuck in traffic in Times Square. They are like the little TVs lit up at night in the hospital rooms of terminal patients. They are like the Indiglo of watches being checked in a movie theatre during a really long film. You feel as though you are standing in the Milky Way and you could scoop up the stars with a butterfly net. It is so utterly charming and wonderful that you will never feel quite the same after looking at it. Does it have any great goal? No, it is a strange miracle. It is art for art’s sake. It proves that the universe is full of surprises.
And as for the Siberian tiger, it is known to creep up fire escapes, slip into bedroom windows and crawl into the single beds of children. Snuggling up to the youngsters under their blankets, with its mouth next to their ears, it tells them not to be afraid of their revolutionary dreams. It lets the children know that it has their backs.
For more, read Electric Literature’s interview with Heather O’Neill.