. . . Let’s say the leader of a children’s book club is discussing Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” with a group of nice, smart little seven-year-olds. They’re talking crime and punishment. “Just imagine,” says the teacher, “two kids are beating up a third, whom you don’t know, right in front of you. What do you do?” “Say something! Get a grownup! Run for help!” “Good,” says the teacher. “Now picture one of your classmates, someone you really don’t like. Ready? So you’re walking along, and you see two kids beating up that unpleasant child. What do you do?” A moment of silence. The teacher’s heart begins to soar. Someone says timidly, “Well, um, shouldn’t you still, like…” Someone else notes confidently that the girl in question probably “deserves it.” And only one little girl, sitting ramrod straight, says firmly, “You have to get in there and chase them away, of course!” And, before the teacher, brimming with joy, can open his mouth, she adds, “And then you finish her off yourself!” Once he’s caught his breath, the teacher asks: “Katya, but you wouldn’t have hit that girl in the first place, right? So why now?” “Well, she’s strong, usually,” says clear-eyed Katya. “But now she’s probably tired herself out!”
. . . Let’s say X., an engineer and a fantastic Israeli father, decides to make his two-year-old kiddo some traditional Hanukkah doughnuts from scratch. Not those floppy, enormous store-bought doughnuts with all that crap inside, but cute, chubby little doughnuts with homemade jam and handcrafted powdered sugar. He works his ass off in the kitchen for like twelve hours. The kiddo looks at the dish of doughnuts and, without touching them, says firmly: “I don’t like it,” then goes off to do her own thing. In his mind, X. says some strongly-worded things about girls as a concept, eats two platefuls of chubby little doughnuts, and succumbs to several hours of moral and physical melancholy. The next day, he goes to pick up the kiddo from the Hanukkah party at her day care. He finds her sitting on the floor next to another kiddo. That kiddo is licking damp powdered sugar off some crumbly store-bought doughnuts and handing them off to our kiddo, who consumes each one with great enthusiasm. X. tries to convince himself that the issue was the powdered sugar, but his wounded soul cries out for justice. “Why is this happening to me, Mama?” he asks his mother that evening. “It’s because of the dumplings,” his mother says. Turns out that, in early childhood, X. refused to touch the homemade dumplings that his mother spent all night lovingly preparing for him. But, at other people’s houses, he was perfectly happy to eat crumbling store-bought dumplings from a cardboard box. He’d bite into them, pick out the meat and nibble at the dough, then carefully eat the grayish meat with a specially requested spoon, gazing at his dear mother with innocent eyes.
. . . Let’s say a little boy, hanging on his mother’s arm right in the middle of Moscow’s Rizhskaya Station, says in a confidential whisper: “Mama, I don’t wanna be the person you’re raising me to be anymore. I want to scream in the metrooooooooo-aaaaaaaaaaa!”
. . . Let’s say that in the home of F., a prize-winning poet, lives an aged nanny. The nanny has been with the family through thick and thin, surviving famine, terror, German occupation, evacuation, thaw, stagnation, and perestroika. She raised the poet’s grandfather, father, uncles, the poet himself, his sisters, children, and grandchildren, and is even now shouting affectionately at the poet’s small great-grandchildren from her seat of honor. This saintly woman was always exceptionally attentive to the lives of others and willing to listen to any kind of story: about famine, terror, German occupation, evacuation, thaw, stagnation, perestroika, and so on. But, at the end of every story, she had only one question: “So, did he get away?” This greatly impressed the guests of prize-winning poet F. “It’s the whole story of the Russian people in a single question!” said K., an artist. “Why just the Russian people?” objected Z., a choreographer. “It’s the whole story of the Jewish people in a single question!” “Oh, please,” answered the artist K. “The whole story of the Jewish people is contained in the question: ‘So, did anyone get away?’ ” The nanny, who had survived famine, terror, German occupation, evacuation, thaw, stagnation, and perestroika sat in her corner and was silent.
. . . Let’s say G., an anxious writer, periodically becomes convinced that he has wronged his loved ones in some terrible way, and that, as a result, they now hate him. So writer G. occasionally calls his loved ones to say something like, “Please don’t hate me because I forgot to return your pen yesterday,” or, “Please don’t hate me for eating the last apple three days ago,” and so on. Meanwhile, it’s November—seasonal affective disorder and all that—and pretty soon G.’s friends are getting several of these calls a day. On and on, until G. receives a letter from his loved ones: “Dear G.! Don’t worry, we don’t need a reason to hate you.” Sixteen signatories, two anonymous.
. . . Let’s say C., a translator, found an excellent way to solve his children’s problems. Or, rather, to get his children to solve their own problems. Anytime they started whining and trying to foist their issues on him, C. would say, pensively: “Why should I, an adult human, pick up the Legos scattered all over the floor?” “Why should I, an adult human, struggle to get a plum out from under the tub?” “Why should I, an adult human, watch ‘Up’ for the fourth time?” (Actually, this was a separate problem, because translator C. actively fears “Up,” a film about death and loneliness—but why should he, an adult human, have to explain all that to some little pissants?) And so, in the couple of months since he enacted this strategy, his children, to translator C.’s delight, have not only stopped harassing him so much, but have actually evolved (in his opinion) into much more independent people. They stuff their Legos into the bag of rice all by themselves; whatever’s rolled under the tub stays there, smelling great; they stream “Up” all by themselves and non-consensually tell Daddy all about it by themselves, too. So translator C. starts recommending his system to everyone he knows. Then, one day, he walks into the bathroom, and there’s his seven-year-old son P., lying in the empty tub with his eyes closed, mumbling: “Why should I, an adult human, have to think about any of this? Well, why should I?” And translator C. starts to feel a little sick—but it’s too late now, isn’t it.
Translated from the Russian by Maya Vinokour.