Lenin and the Cheese Sandwich

    [Little Igor is a precocious and intense reader. His favorite children's book is his Russian edition of Selma Lagerlöf's "Nils and the Wild Geese," which he reads and rereads. His maternal grandmother starts him at an early age, back in the USSR, on what will later turn out to be a literary career.]

"Grandmother Galya used to work as a journalist and an editor at "Evening Leningrad" (Vechernii Leningrad). She knows of my love of "Nils and the Wild Geese;" she's seen the lovingly applied masking tape holding together every volume of children's literature I own. Once while babysitting me, she proposes: "Why don't you write a novel?"

And so it begins. . . . Grandmother Galya is smart. . . . She knows what every good editor knows well. You can't just command "Write!" to your charges. There must be a reward system. Grandma Galya does not have access to the cold baked pork I love so well, but she does possess another important staple: cheese.

It is thick, hard, yellowish Soviet cheese, a poor relation of the megatons of orange lactose that the United States government will drop on my grandma Polya three years hence in Rego Park, Queens. But it establishes a pattern of exchange, goods for words, that has seen me through to the present day. Grandma Galya slices the cheese into dozens of pale yellowish squares. "For every page you write," she says, "you will get a piece of cheese. And for every chapter you complete, I will make you a sandwich with bread, butter, and cheese." The resulting novel probably cost my grandmother a hundred pieces of cheese and at least a dozen cheese-and-butter sandwiches. No trace of it remains, but my childhood masterpiece likely began with these words:

"Odin den, utrom rano, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin prosnulsya." (One day, early in the morning, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin awoke.)

Lenin is awake and alive in Leningrad! He has stepped off his pedestal in Moscow Square, and now it's time for payback. At one point, before launching the October Revolution, he was hiding in a hunter's cabin made of branches and straw (a proper Russian shalash) in Finland. And to this day Finland, while officially neutral, stubbornly remains outside the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In my sprawling novel, Lenin i ego volshebnyi gus (Lenin and His Magical Goose), this will be remedied forthwith.

After getting off his granite pedestal, Lenin meets a sympathetic talking goose, enormous in size, likely flying in from Georgia or Azerbaijan or Armenia or wherever else the dark men who sell flowers in the market come from. Lenin and the goose become best friends. Together, they make a pact: We will invade Finland!

Lenin gets on top of the goose, and they fly over the border into what will one day become the European Union, and Lenin begins bombarding the hapless Finns with our thick Soviet cheese from above. When not bombing the Finns, Lenin and the goose huddle together in their shalash and talk in capital letters, the goose saying things like "Have you heard, Vladimir Ilyich, that THE BUILDING OF THE BAILKAL-AMUR RAILROAD TRUNK HAS BEEN INITIATED?" Such a homey time Lenin and his fowl friend are having in those thick green branches, spruce branches from Moscow Square, naturally. But Vladimir Ilyich can bomb only so many Finns with cheese, because, you see, he has asthma!

It's a little-known fact. He's supposed to be so athletic, that Lenin, always swimming and ice-skating and so vibrant at chess, but, no, he is a fellow sufferer! All is proceeding according to the five-year plan, the Finns are almost ready to capitulate, when the talkative goose, probably a Menshevik, betrays Lenin to the Finnish secret police. The goose knows that Lenin is at his most vulnerable when he is having a raging asthma attack....

I am regurgitating everything in my oxygen-starved brain, from the low art of "Nils and the Wild Geese" to the high shlock of Soviet iconography. But it's a crueler story than anything Selma Lagerlöf, Nils's creator, could have made up in her democratic Sweden. The lesson of "Lenin and His Magical Goose" is: Love authority but trust no one.

--- From Little Failure
Gary Shteyngart
©2014 Hamish Hamilton
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