Three Improvisations on Murakami (1)

For R.


Hanalei Bay, curved like a horseshoe on the northwestern coast of Kauai, is the place where Sachi’s nineteen-year-old-son, Takashi, died. He was there on vacation, and one day, as he was surfing the waves in the bay, a shark bit off his right leg below the knee and snapped his surfboard in two. The young man panicked, passed out, and died in the water. Judging from the message sent by the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu to Sachi in Tokyo, the official cause of Takashi’s death was drowning.

Sachi was a self-taught jazz pianist, who played every night in the bar she owned. She managed to catch a United flight to Honolulu the very same day, then took a puddle jumper to Lihue, Kauai’s main city, and arrived at the local police station to identify the victim at the morgue.

Sachi decided to cremate her only son, then rented a cheap cottage in Hanalei, the small resort town at the end of the bay. Before that, however, she stopped by the motel where Takashi had been staying to settle any unpaid bills. She bought a vinyl chair, a hat, dark glasses and sunscreen, and every day she would sit on the beach and stare at the ocean, at the place where the shark had attacked her son. “The weighty past had simply vanished,” Murakami writes of her state, “and the future lay somewhere in the distant gloom. Neither tense had any connection with her now. She sat in the continually shifting present, her eyes mechanically tracing the monotonously repeating scene of waves and surfers. At one point the thought dawned on her: What I now need most of all is time.”

It often rained in the autumn in Kauai, and when the rain poured down, Sachi would move from the beach to her car. She couldn’t fathom how those boys didn’t get tired of lying on their stomachs on surfboards far from the shore, waiting for a powerful wave, and when the wave approached, they would jump up on their boards and ride towards the shore; once they reached the shallows, left without waves beneath them, they would lose their balance and fall into the water. And then, they would paddle back out to the open sea to wait for the next one. Weren’t they afraid of sharks?

Once, on the road from Lihue to Princeville, somewhere around Kapaa, Sachi picked up two Japanese hitchhikers. The young men were hardcore surfers, but didn’t speak English and had arrived there with very little money. Just like her late son. She found them the cheapest room in Hanalei and advised them not to spend their own money, but to pay for the hotel with the credit card that one of the young men’s fathers had given him to use in emergencies only.

Every year since then, over the course of a decade, Sachi would come to Kauai several days before the anniversary of her son’s death and spend three weeks by Hanalei Bay without changing anything: she would stay in the same cottage, sit on the beach in the same vinyl chair and watch the surfers going through their cycle, waiting for a big wave out in the open sea, she would eat at the same restaurant and read books. The locals came to know her as “the Japanese mother whose son was killed by a shark nearby.” Sachi always flew United, business class. During the rest of the year, she spent her time at her bar in Tokyo, playing without a break. When she was gone, another pianist would sit in for her.

In Hanalei, she sometimes sat down at the restaurant’s baby grand to play a bit. The owner didn’t pay her, but would give her a free plate of pasta and wine for dinner. She played for her own enjoyment alone, it distracted her from her thoughts. It wasn’t a question of whether she had any talent or whether she needed money. Sachi imagined that her son had felt the same way as he slid over the waves on his surfboard. In her youth, Sachi had lived illegally in America, trying to study piano – unsuccessfully, because even though she had perfect pitch, she had never learned to read music – then she studied cooking in Chicago. Finally, she started playing in a bar, fell in love with a second-rate black actor and improved her English. But her public appearances attracted the immigration authorities’ attention and one fine day she was arrested and put on a plane to Japan.

One evening, in the presence of the two Japanese surfers, yet another tipsy US veteran who had been stationed in Japan asked Sachi to play him an old American chestnut. She refused, which caused the ex-marine to spew out an insulting tirade against the Japanese, who don’t know how to defend their homeland and instead just rely on the Americans. Sachi gave as good as she got and only the intervention of the restaurant owner prevented the argument from turning into a physical fight.

When things calmed down, one of the young men asked her out of the blue whether she had seen the one-legged Japanese surfer. A one-legged Japanese surfer? Oh yes, the two of them had already seen him twice. He was standing on the beach, staring at them as they got into the water. He wasn’t there when they got out, however. His leg was cut off a little below the knee. Which leg, the right or left one? The right one. He was a young guy, their age. Are you sure he’s Japanese, and not Japanese-American? Definitely! No doubt about it. The young, one-legged man was a Japanese guy who had come from Japan to surf, just like they had. How strange! In this small town, everyone knew everyone else, any foreigner would stick out immediately, especially a one-legged surfer from Japan, but Sachi hadn’t seen him. Yet the young men were sure they had. He was standing on one leg, a little ways from the place where Sachi sat every day, looking towards them, as if leaning against a tree.  How could he surf on one leg – it was hard enough on two!

From then until the end of her stay, Sachi walked the long beach of Hanalei Bay from morning until night, but there was no trace of the one-legged surfer. She asked the local surfers if they had seen him, but they just looked at her with pity and shook their heads. A one-legged surfer? There’s no way we’d miss that. But how could he surf on one leg?

The night before her departure, Sachi packed her suitcase and went to bed, but couldn’t fall asleep. Her pillow was wet with tears. She couldn’t figure out why the one-legged Japanese surfer would appear to the two young men, but not to her. Finally, she resigned herself to the thought that she most likely didn’t deserve it, and in the morning put her suitcase in her old Dodge and left Hanalei.

Eight months later, Sachi accidentally ran into one of the two surfers in a Starbucks in Tokyo.  It was raining, she had gone in to dry off and drink a coffee. And then suddenly the young man was coming towards her in a well-ironed Ralph Lauren shirt and new khakis, with a petite girl with a pleasant face walking beside him. They chatted a bit, but not about meaningless things – Sachi didn’t like small talk – instead they spoke of the young man’s girlfriend. Sachi gave him three pieces of advice about how to win her over for good. The young man promised to follow her advice – to do his best – and kept thanking her profusely. As they were parting, Sachi interrupted him as they shook hands, saying: “I’m so glad you weren’t eaten by a shark in Hanalei Bay!” What, you mean there are sharks there? Seriously? I’m dead serious.  

What did Sachi have left in this life? Sitting at the piano in her bar every night, moving her fingers over the keys like a robot, not thinking of anything. “When she is not playing, she thinks about the three weeks she spends in Hanalei at the end of autumn. She thinks about the sound of the incoming waves and the sighing of the iron trees. The clouds carried along by the trade winds, the albatrosses sailing across the sky, their huge wings spread wide. And she thinks about what surely must await her there. That is all there is for her to think about now. Hanalei Bay.”


First Improvisation: Unforetold Death

Hanalei Bay was waking up when Velizar Vazov received word of his son’s death in an e-mail sent by the translator of his novels into English. They had found Valentin dead in his penthouse at 71 Vladayska Street in Sofia. He had just turned thirty. Julia didn’t give any details. The short email ended with: “Come back immediately. I’ll take care of the funeral. Love you, Julia.”

Velizar opened the message around seven o’clock in the morning, just as the golden sun was illuminating the green slopes of the volcanic Mount Nunu. Julia had sent it shortly before five p.m. from Sofia. It must be eight o’clock there already, he calculated.

In the morning, before sitting down at his desk, Velizar was in the habit of drinking a large mug of black Chinese tea while standing in front of the French doors of his two-storey house at 3934 Namakeha Loop in Princeville, Kauai. From there, a view opened up onto the magnificent ridge of Pali Ke Kua, which jutted into the ocean. Only around Hanalei Bay did the mountain seem to have retreated inland to create a valley fed by dozens of waterfalls whose white streams sliced through its almost horizontal slopes. Hanalei Bay struck him as an emerald, gently cradled in the palm of the extinct volcano; an emerald whose green flesh flowed into the blue of the ocean like a river that never ran dry.

That morning, Velizar opened up his laptop immediately and went to a website for cheap plane tickets. It took him a half-hour of searching to find a decent flight: that same night, Tuesday, he flew United from Honolulu to Los Angeles, and from there, after a five-hour layover, he took Lufthansa to Munich; finally, after nearly three hours of waiting at the airport, he arrived in Sofia, again on Lufthansa. There were no business-class seats available for the first and third legs, but he hoped to upgrade at the airport using his frequent-flyer miles. Then, he emailed his itinerary to Julia: he would be with her in two days, in the early afternoon of June 17, so could they arrange the burial – or cremation, he didn’t care either way – for noon on the 18th? His return flight was on Monday, the 21st. His gaze fell on his desk calendar: it was the year 2010. Valentin had died during the night on Sunday, he could stay in the morgue until Friday afternoon, no problem. Julia would take care of everything, she would even make a list of who should attend the funeral. The thought of Julia’s organized efficiency soothed Velizar. Good thing she lived in Sofia.

Around mid-day, Velizar packed his suitcase, called a cab, locked the two front doors of the house, and told the driver to take him to the airport in Lihue. From there, the Hawaiian airline Aloha had flights to Honolulu every half-hour. In Honolulu, he managed to upgrade to business class to L.A. The flight was delayed and while he was waiting at the gate, it suddenly occurred to Velizar that Valentin could have killed himself. His mother had died at his birth – could that have predisposed the child to a strong drive towards death? Valyo had grown up with him, a half-orphan, but Velizar had paid little attention to the boy, his grandmother had brought him up. Busy with his novels, Velizar had never managed to forge a close relationship with his son, even though somewhere in the depths of his subconscious that sometimes gave rise to a sense of guilt, but one so vague that it never led to any decision to take action.

Valentin had gotten his degree in literature at Sofia University. And that was a sure sign that the boy had no feelers for what was going on around him. Or else he was too weak-willed to want to struggle against the rising tide of greed and lawlessness. Or perhaps he was too sensitive? Velizar wanted to think well of his son, but he couldn’t understand the lack of stoicism in young people since 1989, the absence of any energy to endure and to defend that, which they felt was important, even at the cost of moral concessions. Just as he had done during his whole sixty-one years of life. Now he knew what was important, but did they know? He had reached his beliefs about the individual and the role of the intelligentsia after long years of compromises and capitulations, which turned out to be a high price to pay for such knowledge. But once he had paid it, he had earned himself a patent on his life experience and now he wanted to use it in the books he wrote.

As he drank the cheap merlot and chewed the baked chicken which had the flavor of wet board – the meal provided gratis to business-class passengers on United – Velizar tried to imagine his son dead. He had never been to the penthouse and didn’t know where the bed was in the bedroom or what colors the walls had been painted. Upon his graduation eight years ago, Valyo hadn’t been able to find a job, but he also had no desire to continue his education in Western Europe. At first, he had made ends meet with honoraria from small pieces published in literary journals that were barely scraping by; he had tried to become a broker on the Sofia Stock Market, but besides pathetic commissions on the small sums traded, there was no real money to be made there; finally, one of his classmates, who had started up a publishing house with money from his grandparents’ restituted real estate, hired him out of kindness. Some time before he left for America – in the late summer of 2001, Valyo was in his senior year in college – Velizar had moved to his villa, sold his house on the former Dimo Hadzhidimov Street (they had already changed it back to its nice, pre-communist name, Vladayska) in exchange for a penthouse in a modern building of luxury condos that some developer wanted to build on the lot, and signed it over to his son. Construction was already completed when Velizar boarded the plane for San Francisco, so he left the task of furnishing it to the young man, who at that point still did not have his own income. He left him three thousand leva to buy the bare necessities and forbid him from seeing him off at the airport. Velizar had not returned to Bulgaria since. Father and son had not seen each other since, except on Skype.

America turned Velizar’s luck around. Precisely when – disgusted by his life in Bulgaria and by what was happening in the country after the so-called democratic changes – he had been wondering whether to leave for good, he won a green card in the lottery. On his first try. He had sent in his name as a joke, without any expectations and without taking this move seriously. But when fate dropped an American visa in his lap, he couldn’t resist the temptation. An old friend of his from Sofia had been living quite high on the hog in San Francisco since the mid-1980s and Velizar – with much anxiety and many reservations – decided to accept his offer to take him in and help him get settled. He sold the paintings he had collected during communism and which had hung on the walls of the two-story villa inherited from his father in Knyazhevo – most of them were passive-aggressive or simply sad abstractions created by Bulgarian artists who had reluctantly adjusted themselves to the regime, as well as a few canvases by the great masters from the early twentieth century; he also sold the villa, which had been emptied of its paintings, but which still retained the indelible patina of bygone luxury, for an outrageously high price, exchanged this money for dollars, and hopped on the long, one-way flight to California.

That was August 2001. Two years later, in the winter of 2003, Velizar sent Valyo an invitation to visit him: so he could decide for himself whether he might want to move there, too. He did it despite the tension he felt during their short telephone conversations, as if to shake off the feeling of guilt that besides an empty penthouse, he hadn’t left his son anything spiritual. Valyo hadn’t read his father’s books. How ungrateful, Velizar thought to himself as the stewardess collected the remains of his dinner. Not because he didn’t like them, but on principle: they were a capitulation to the regime! Not that Valentin would have found spiritual sustenance in America. But at least he would have escaped from the soulless mysticism that had replaced the intelligentsia’s traditional values, which had existed even under the lid of communism. Yes, these values had been replaced by the mysticism and conspiracy-paranoia which gripped Bulgarians and turned them against each other, like children with their noses bent out of shape at the villainy of democracy.

The plan was for the young man to spend the month of August in California, during which time they would rent a car and travel through the western states. Valyo was given an appointment for a visa interview at the American Embassy. The only thing left to do was to buy him a ticket once he had gotten a tourist visa. And then – Velizar would never forget that moment, because on exactly the same day, in early June, he had started writing his next novel and the Golden Gate Bridge had remained sunk in fog even until evening – his son had called during the middle of the night, actually it was already morning in Sofia, to tell him that he wasn’t coming to visit. Because of love! He had fallen in love with an American girl who had come to Bulgaria to get to know her mother’s home country, but after she had met him and the two of them had spent two weeks crazy in love – yes, that classic, blind love-at-first-sight – she was prepared to stay in Bulgaria because of him. On the plane, Velizar shuddered from the same chill that had gripped him at another moment, when his son had yet again and definitively preferred other things – a woman, Bulgaria, life with its illusory infiniteness – to the prospect of endlessly rehashing his father’s guilt and moral scruples for his merciless past, which framed him as if in an oil painting, and forgiving him. Valyo was a weak person and hadn’t formulated his reason for not coming in precisely that way. On the contrary! The young man was extremely flustered, stumbling over his words. But the writer in Velizar immediately sought sweeping conclusions. His spontaneous reaction, however, was to wish his son happiness and to tell him that he was there for him: Valyo could call him whenever he needed him.

Deep inside, Velizar was not so forgiving. He felt hurt. He was left with the sense that something was unfinished in his life. His writing was going well – what’s more, he had come up with a novel whose main characters were a father and son. Two years passed before Valyo sought him out. By that time, Skype already existed and they promised to talk online whenever the spirit moved them.  But Valyo appeared only rarely, perhaps once a month, and said almost nothing about himself. He looked depressed and deeply unhappy. He never once answered Velizar’s questions about the reasons for his depression. Velizar was worried, yet he still felt no pangs of conscience for not doing more for his son. Plus, he had also sworn never to return to Bulgaria for any reason, at any price. What’s more, a woman had come into his life…

The image of Julia swam up in Velizar’s consciousness. Incidentally, she was rarely far from it, and when he wasn’t thinking about her, she would be lurking right beneath the surface, such that even the slightest external impetus would return her to where he wanted her to be: in the purest, most beautiful part of his brain, there where it was transformed, purified of all compromises and capitulations, at once in love with her and the object of her love. Julia was a much greater gift from fate than the green card.

When, after a long silence between 1989 and 1999, Velizar Vazov finally published his ninth novel, it never even crossed his mind that it might be translated and published outside Bulgaria. He had grown accustomed to the provincial glory of being a published and read author in an unknown Balkan country incomprehensible to the world, a country that had almost voluptuously submitted to its crude violator, Soviet communism, and which functioned in a rare language other peoples found difficult to grasp – a language no one had any interest in learning. But a beautiful language nonetheless! He was intoxicated by his talent for writing expressive Bulgarian, and with typical Balkan hardheadedness he hadn’t even tried to learn a single foreign language. The novel, with the metaphorical title Out from under the Ruins, stirred up a modest and brief buzz in Sofia and some of the larger cities, serving for some time as fast food for the Sofia literary intelligentsia, something like a homegrown Macdonald’s for their flagging spirits, and… was forgotten. Yes, forgotten!

That only hardened his resolve to forget them as well. To leave behind once and for all the godforsaken place where he had been born and which was so inhospitable to people like him. A place inhabited by talented individuals who could not – and who seemingly would never manage to – come to an agreement about what the collective goal that would unite them should be. Thus, the talented left with the feeling that they were being driven away.

During that final year, when, within his soul, he was saying farewell to his homeland, which hadn’t given a rip about him and his books – he had financed the publication of Out from under the Ruins himself – Velizar finished one other useful task. He hired a private tutor and made a supreme effort to learn English. When he landed at the San Francisco airport blinded by the sun and exhilarated at the prospect of beginning a new life at age 52, he instantly realized that he was a foreigner due solely to his inability to utter a single grammatically correct English sentence. He was horrified by his harsh, ugly pronunciation. He, who had used Bulgarian syntax with absolute ease, was beside himself with anger and indignation that nobody here cared about that talent of his. People wanted to be spoken to in clear, accessible English, they wanted to hear their primitive, nuanced vowels and difficult-to-pronounce diphthongs, and frequently made him repeat himself, unable to understand him the first time around. He was faced with the dilemma that weighs heavily on every immigrant determined to survive: to adapt and Americanize himself by integrating or to withdraw into his Bulgarian skull as if he were there to work temporarily. It turned out that in America, you could survive both ways. Velizar chose the first, you could say almost without the second even crossing his mind. Thus, for him this meant mastering English as well… of course, not with the same ease with which he wielded Bulgarian (although in his wildest dreams this is exactly what he wished for), but at least so he could feel comfortable in it; in the end, it was the only tool he had to work with.

With this stoic decision, Velizar laid the foundations for his internal transformation. He lived humbly, depending on the money he had brought with him and which he had invested in a moderately risky portfolio following the advice of an American broker he had met by chance. He threw himself into observing life on the streets, in bars, in stores as enormous as whole soccer fields, in yoga classes and self-help groups, in university libraries, on ten-lane highways, down which he drove his used Toyota slower than everyone else, on beaches; he watched the people, typical Americans from various classes, pretending to be equal, whom he met at parties at acquaintances’ homes – acquaintances he met when he enrolled in a master’s degree program in anthropology at San Francisco State, but he couldn’t find any real friends – he tasted delicious dishes at exotic restaurants, airports and domestic airlines, Vegas, Hollywood and Malibu, followed the powerful American media outlets and everything else imaginable, with one exception, which was perhaps the most important thing: he had no access to American families in their homes. And he wanted to see them from the inside.

Velizar nevertheless continued writing his novel about the difficult relationship between a father and son. His writing wasn’t going well, yet the topic haunted him. During that time, he came across The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, and, while reading it in the English translation, Velizar wished he had been the first to come up with the metaphor driving its plot. Michael, a fifteen-year-old virgin from a good German family, starts sleeping with Hannah, an enigmatic woman old enough to be his mother. Michael falls in love with Hannah and tries to get to the bottom of her secret. One day, she mysteriously disappears; only years later does he recognize her as the primary defendant in a trial against Nazi war criminals. She turns out to have been a guard at a women’s concentration camp, who had been in hiding to avoid prosecution. Over the course of the trial, Michael realizes that Hannah is illiterate – this explains why she had made him read the classics out loud to her after every time they made love. Sentenced to many years in prison, the woman has no one, and the boy, who is now a lawyer with his own private practice, turns, against her will, into some sort of connection with the world – a connection she does not seek out, but through which he nurses the hope of living with her some day, when she is released from prison. Hannah, however, rejects her own emancipation by killing herself the night before she is to be released. At the end of the novel, Michael is in his fifties and tragically realizes that, obsessed with his feelings and guilt towards her, he never managed to find happiness in his personal life.

Velizar thought to himself: this story, which is at first glance absurd, but which is, in fact, a deeply tragic story, is a metaphor for the fact that the young generation of Germans is ready – out of love? – to forgive their parents’ sins, while the older generation has no desire nor the spiritual strength to accept this forgiveness.  At once a mother and a mistress, Hitler’s Germany violated the young in a forcible, incestuous act, which left them spiritual invalids forever. Velizar wanted to apply the same metaphor to Bulgaria – but he always imagined the generation of communists who had defiled Bulgaria as male, for some reason.  Moreover, the idea that Germany had participated in the Holocaust out of ignorance, an idea represented by the illiterate Hannah, would never fly in Bulgaria. Bulgarians took part in communism fully conscious of what they were doing. The best analogy would be with the older generation which did not repent, did not seek forgiveness and did not even recognize its guilt for having dragged its children into that historical crime and in so doing, turned them into spineless egoists. For him, the metaphor was a father and son, without the sexual overtones. He had even come up with a title: Innocent Victimizers.

Thousands of miles removed from Bulgaria’s present, Velizar could see its past, which he carried in his memory, more clearly and objectively. It was his past. But the plot had to be convincing! And since in his mixed-up relationship with Valyo, geographical distance had not brought any clarity, the main difficulty Velizar faced was managing to set aside his intense, raw feelings that his son was a loser. And that this was his fault. He himself was not an innocent victimizer. Yet he wanted to preserve the metaphor, because he intuitively grasped that it was morally unjustifiable to blame all participants in a totalitarian regime. Or at least that was how he wanted it to be. What moral system could expect human nature to overcome its biological egoism? The enlightened ones’ moral system – perhaps? But the communist regime had been the only means offered by history through which the unenlightened, the unenlightenable, and the intellectual zeroes could secure power and wealth scot-free. They didn’t care if they were causing pain. They were only interested in repressing the enlightened ones – because enlightenment is free-thinking – so they wouldn’t get in their way. They wanted to flatten their noses, to crush and subjugate them, to force them to capitulate. And in doing so, with the invincibility of fear, to draw them into their crime.

In America, they most often told him: “There was no other way to survive except by making compromises and joining the system.” This simultaneously comforted and disgusted him, but it wasn’t the complicated truth about the life he had led under communism. Yet he wanted the whole complicated truth to be shown honestly, objectively, without excuses and with the necessary dose of contrition. He wanted to take responsibility. He didn’t feel like trying to outshout the others in Bulgaria who continued to see only their own small tree, without climbing a hill to see the whole forest. His metaphor had to be absolute.

But life in enormous America passed by in its everyday petty cares, his savings dwindled, while he had no real source of income. If he got a fulltime job, he would have to abandon his writing – if he wanted to write, he would have to quit working to have free time. He needed concentration. And freedom in the wider sense of the word.

And then, suddenly and startlingly, like the ring of long-since disconnected telephone, fully metaphorically, “out from under his personal ruins,” Velizar was surprised by a letter from New York in the mail. It was the spring of 2006. In the short, handwritten letter, some woman by the name of Julia Stevens offered to translate Out from under the Ruins into English, promising that her father’s literary agency would shop it around to US publishers. She had found the book at one of the bookstalls in Slaveykov Square on her first visit to Bulgaria in 2005. She had already started reading it on the trans-Atlantic flight home and it had dawned on her that she was the most fitting translator for a Bulgarian novel whose subject matter was of universal significance. Julia mentioned matter-of-factly, as if forced to do so against her will, that her father was an American Jew and the owner of a literary agency in New York, while her mother was a Bulgarian who had emigrated to the US in 1970. She was twenty-six years old and had a PhD in comparative literature from Bard College.

That letter brought Velizar money and love, in that order. The two most sincere wishes of every unsuccessful middle-aged man were fulfilled in his case through an unforeseen, unexpected, yet secretly desired twist of fate.  And now he was flying business class towards the woman who was the reason for his change in fortune. He was flying on autopilot, a speck of dust in a world that was ordered and controlled by silicon technologies, reclining in a comfortable seat in the lazy twilight of the cabin, not only undisturbed, but even lulled to sleep by the steady roar of the jet engines.

The truth was that Velizar Vazov had much greater need of money than love. With the clear awareness inherent to his age, he had given up dreaming of love. He thought he was incapable of falling in love. Or of being the object of passionate love. After his wife’s death, he had had sporadic sexual experiences with various women, but not a single deep emotional relationship. When he moved to America and was nearing sixty, he had thought it unrealistic to expect that some young American woman would take an interest in him. With his subtle powers of observation, he had sensed that the women here, especially from the younger generation, had completely different ideas about sex and men from those he had grown up with. It could almost be said, however, that the pleasure of his writerly imagination, through which he experienced his female characters’ love, was enough for him. His hermit-like state did not worry him; he soothed himself with the fact that most writers lived that way.

Velizar took her up on the offer, especially since Julia did not want to be paid in advance. They signed a three-way contract – between Julia Stevens, her father, and Vazov – stating that, after a publisher had been found, she would receive  an unusually high one-time payment of five thousand dollars from the author, while her father would take a twenty percent cut of the author’s royalties.  They hoped the author would be able to negotiate with the publisher—whoever it might be in the end—a small advance, something along the lines of two or three thousand dollars—It was, after all, the first novel in translation by an unknown writer from a country no one cared about—and to fight for a sixteen percent cut of the sales. All of this happened over the Internet, such that when Julia started working on the translation, they still hadn’t met face to face.

Only when Julia sent him the first few chapters and he sensed that she was allowing herself to interpret his work far too freely did he decide to visit her in New York so they could talk. He decided not to criticize her over the phone or by email. Their meeting was a bombshell. Even now, in the hushed cabin of the plane, the memory of it aroused him. Julia was exceptionally sexy, without being strikingly pretty. For the first time, Velizar found himself face to face with a woman whom he had never imagined. Her eyes were pure, even bashful, green and smiling, they gazed at him mockingly and as if fully unaware of their power and the erotic effect of the body they belonged to. When she spoke, she lowered her eyes and avoided his, but while waiting for his answer, she would raise her gaze to him, as if splashing him with water from a deep well. He had to breathe deeply to calm his racing heart. And immediately, in those first few minutes, he experienced something unbelievably erotic, so erotic that he had to close his eyes so as not to miss it. He imagined her spreading her legs and letting him kiss her in the place where everything starts: happiness and tragedies, hope and despair, birth and death, anything, everything. The entrance to her womb was as pure as her eyes, as soft as her lips, as fragrant as spring water, which has no scent, but which lets you catch a whiff of the leaves it springs from beneath, unvisited by anyone, kept for him alone, for his cock which was rising like a long-since rusted sword that wanted to be cleaned and again put to use, the entrance was cleanliness itself – impossible in reality, but existing in the consciousness as an ideal – provocative, yet at the same time demanding adoration. The vision lasted only a few seconds, but was so striking that he managed to recreate it in his memory immediately upon his return to his hotel as he sat down in the lotus pose for meditation, which was how he ended each of his days. From that day on, in every moment of his existence, he could call forth that vision and it always brought him tranquility and some kind of radiant joy, which had nothing to do with sex or with the organ stiffening in his pants. But the most magical part of all was when she got undressed with him for the first time, Julia did exactly what his imagination had envisioned: as she was kissing him on the lips, she took his head between her palms and gently, slowly directed it towards her open legs. No, she wasn’t a virgin when that happened, but despite this, the true purity of the entrance to her womb struck him so strongly that he had to stop and look around – inwardly, did he really deserve such purity after life had dragged him through so much filth, and outwardly, towards that delicate opening that he would soon penetrate – before pressing his lips to the soft pink skin and taking into his mouth the small organ that signaled her arousal and in so doing suddenly and immeasurably increasing his own as well.

That first time, his sexual performance was flawless. This revived his self-confidence in his virility, which he had thought was slowly and irreversibly starting to wane with the years. The translation of the novel had ended with romantic triumph and no one could shake his belief – indeed, who could really be sure whether that was exactly the case  — that its quality was due to the love, which, imperceptibly to both of them, had relentlessly seeped into the work. The small press Dalkey Archive had agreed to publish the novel, giving him a twenty-percent cut of the sales. And then another miracle occurred – but whether it was a major or minor one depends on your point of view. The book hit the market in the fall of 2007 and started selling, reviews appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly and a series of other print and online publications. The hard cover edition sold out in three months and a soft-cover edition was printed. Sales on Amazon were unbelievable, but the book even sold in bookstores, too, proof that good literature is profitable despite the most skeptical reading market. Random House began hounding him with letters and emails, wanting his next book. Velizar Vazov was a read author. And he had money.

And now Velizar was flying back to the chaotic, hungry world that had created and raised him, where institutional democracy was not in control. Once attained, love and money raised the cost at which he had to insure himself against their eventual loss, given the elevated risk. Velizar was simultaneously growing older and more costly. And because of man’s natural tendency to want good things to last forever, he could never shake the fear that Julia’s love might dry up at any moment – stolen away from him by some young man or by the jealousy that was inevitable at his age – and that the royalty checks from his publisher might stop arriving one fine day, drained by the sudden fickleness of the reading public, whose whims no one can foresee.

In a world of unforeseeable people and unheralded reversals, Velizar considered himself the only predictable – reliable and trustworthy – thing. Valyo’s unforetold death had dealt him the most unimaginable blow. Whether he would come to after such a blow was not up to himself alone, but also depended on hundreds of other unpredictable factors, some of which Velizar could imagine, while others he could only guess at. One thing was painfully clear to him: now he would have to finish the novel. And there had to be an unexpected plot twist. It was one thing for the victim’s mere existence to remind you of how immoral you are, but quite another to find an effective literary way to rub out the victim and with that to cleanse your conscience as well. However, in that case the conclusion would be that Bulgaria was purging itself of its young generation – what was left to it then? Starting over from square one by importing some new people from somewhere or disappearing when the older generation died out? No, no, in the novel the son must not die. Isn’t that why he was writing a novel: to create a territory in which moral judgments are abolished and which teaches those reading it to make their own choices between good and evil, between morality and immorality. And the most convincing way to create such a territory was the believability of the plot.

Velizar knew very well that believability did not mean whether something could happen in real life or not. Believability meant the reader accepting the logic of the described events, even if they were fantastical or unimaginable – like the unceasing rain in Marques or Hannah and Michael’s meeting in the Schlink novel. However, the death of Valentin, his flesh-and-blood son, seemed unbelievable to him, even though it had happened in the real world. It contradicted the logic of life. Velizar did not want to believe that it had happened. He did not want to interpret his son’s death, especially if it was a case of suicide, as deliberate revenge for his absence as a father. It destroyed his idea of order, or more precisely, the dream of a just order in his own life that had almost come true.

Children are egoists. He fell asleep with this thought on the plane, and awoke with this thought twenty minutes before landing in Munich. It did not cease to haunt him even when he boarded the plane for Sofia, like a crack in a CD that prevents the laser beam from moving ahead in the melody. On the plane, he was sitting next to a chatty girl, who radiated the unostentatious beauty typical of Bulgarian women. This filled him with nostalgia. However, the girl did not let him sink into the melancholy that had been seizing him ever more often lately, due to several combined causes: the inescapable fact that he was aging, the forced fact that he was living far from the place that could be called the cradle of his sensitivity, and the accidental fact that a woman who could easily be his daughter had fallen in love with him. And now another “potential” daughter was showing interest in him. Maybe there’s something about me that attracts young women, Velizar thought to himself, without the irony the situation called for. Perhaps Julia’s love was not accidental, but the consequence of some system of laws, that is, it had arisen as a result of his charm as an intelligent, aging man, who knew immeasurably more about life than young people, but who still had not completely lost his virile strength?

The girl, whose name was Svetla, diverted him from his musings on his favorite topic by cheerfully telling him about her trip to Germany. She had stayed with a friend, a German girl whom she had met two years before on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Svetla had gone there without any money, simply to get away from the nightmare that was Bulgaria, which was “in crisis” – she pronounced the word crisis like something holy, as the ultimate explanation of why life in Bulgaria was so impoverished, terrible and at the same time carefree – i.e. irresponsible, Velizar thought to himself, realizing at the same moment how many different dimensions freedom from care had, depending on the language designating it.  In Hawaii, people were monstrously carefree: there, life passed by warm and sandy, as light as a human body in the water – and bodies there really did spend a lot of time in the warm water – even the memory of the cannibalism that took the life of Captain James Cook in the eighteenth century was something ephemeral, as if it had never happened, while the nights, the palms, the daily rain showers, the constant ripening of the mango and the papaya, the waterfalls, the waves…. everything flowed smoothly, subordinate to the lunar cycles, and human life flowed along with them as well and it had never crossed anyone’s mind to use the word “crisis.” There, freedom from care was absolute and genuine. In France, freedom from care lay in the ability to philosophize, even when people had taken to the streets to demonstrate or when the harvest from the Burgundy vineyards isn’t that great. In Germany…

“In Germany everything is so orderly! And everyone is watching you to make sure you don’t disturb their fucking order.” Svetla’s voice, which continued its report on one Bulgarian woman’s short journey, brought him back to the business-class seats on the Lufthansa Airbus. “Good thing the girl at the check-in was Bulgarian; I had gotten it into my head to fly business class, but I could hardly scrape together the money for a cheap ticket from some agency, so I asked her whether they could bump me up. And she immediately found me this seat. If she’d been a German, she wouldn’t have agreed to help me for anything in the world. She would’ve given me a cold stare. They told me that in France, they look down at you, like you’re some savage who hasn’t realized that she’s landed in civilization. So that’s how you ended up with this hella good luck, too – you’re sitting next to a young girl, instead of being alone or with some old fart pushing seventy. Only because human kindness is stronger than order. So where do you live?”

“On the island of Kauai.”

“An island? And where in bumblefuck is that?”

“It’s one of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s very beautiful. And always warm.”

“Hawaii? Elvis Presley, Hawaiian guitars… That’s from my mom and dad’s day, if not my grandma’s. I’ve heard of them. How did you end up there?”

“It’s a long story.”

“So now what? Taking a vacation to the homeland?”

“Only briefly. My son died unexpectedly.”

“Oh no, the poor kid! How old was he?”

“He had just turned thirty.”

“So young! How could that be!”

Svetla looked completely sincere and engaged. Velizar was pleasantly surprised by this and felt like telling her more. But he had no place to start. His whole life was so tangled up that even he himself found it hard to get his bearings within it. When he wrote, the lines sprang from his characters’ mouths spontaneously and always sounded good, but when he himself had to utter them in real life, he didn’t know what to say.

“He celebrated his birthday last month with friends.”

“What, so he didn’t live with you?” Svetla was startled.

“He lived in Sofia. His mother died a long time ago, when he was born.”

“He surely got money from you. Which is an enviable thing – in this crisis! Was he your only child?”

“Yes, my only one. Now I’m left completely alone.”

“How did he die, did they tell you?”

“Not yet. I’m hoping to find out when we reach Sofia. They wrote me that he was found dead in his bedroom. There’s surely been an investigation.”

“Oooof, an investigation!” The girl rolled her eyes. “You know those investigators of ours… God, everything in Bulgaria is so lame. I think I better take off and study somewhere, too. Did your son go to college?”

“I’m afraid he might have killed himself.”

“Why would he have killed himself? Was he depressed?”

“Yes!… To tell you the truth, I have no idea… We rarely spoke. He was down, unhappy. Defenseless. He never asked me for money. I wonder how he found the strength to support himself.”

The girl fell silent. An announcement said they were beginning their descent towards Sofia Airport. Velizar looked through the window to the south. They were flying above barren peaks, up ahead the Sofia Plain was coming into view. They passed over Pernik, Mount Vitosha was to the right of the plane.

“So what do you do on that island?” Svetla suddenly interrupted him, clearly meaning “so how do you make money?”

“I’m a writer. I write books.”

“Wow, a writer!” The girl gasped with a hint of admiration. “Have you been published in America?”

“One novel.”

“So how many novels have you written?”

“Nine, now I’m writing the tenth.”

“Do they sell in Bulgaria?”

“They used to sell once upon a time.”

“What about now?”

“I don’t know about now. What do you mean by now?”

“What do you mean, what do I mean?! In the new era, after the fall of that guy, what was his name, Uncle Gosho, or no, Uncle Tosho?”

“Todor Zhivkov?”

“Yep. My dad says that under his rule, life was a lot better than it is now. You must have felt right at home, too. Nine novels is no small thing! You must have been a friend of the regime.”

“I had written eight back then.” Velizar didn’t like her conclusions, but decided to keep quiet. “The ninth one came out ten years ago. Haven’t you read it? It’s called Out from under the Ruins.”

“Oh, I never read thick books.” Sensing the writer’s disapproving gaze, Svetla instinctively changed the subject: “Since I sat down next to you here, I’ve been trying to figure out where I know you from. I must have seen your son, and, if he looks like you, my memory has mixed you up.”

Velizar tried to remember his son’s face, but the separate features wouldn’t fuse into a focused image. Julia’s features, which stood out much more clearly in his mind, kept throwing him off. What if she had slept with him? Velizar was afraid to admit that his son was better-looking than he was. But was he manly enough? He suddenly thought of the woman who was the reason Valyo hadn’t come to America. What had happened to her? His son hadn’t mentioned her at all since they had gotten back in touch and Velizar had almost forgotten about her. Yes, indeed, how could I have been so careless as not to ask even once? Velizar reproached himself, forgetting about Svetla entirely at that moment.

Valyo hadn’t told him either that he had gotten married or that they had broken up. But wasn’t that the likeliest explanation for his depression? During one of their rare conversations, he had said that he wasn’t interested in women. But Velizar hadn’t wanted to rummage around in his son’s soul, since he knew how eager the young man was for his approval, so he had swallowed his next question. A phrase vaguely swam up out of Velizar’s memory, like a theme heard from his son: “You’re the one who left, right? Why should you care what happens to me?” This was followed by variations on this obdurate thought, which revealed, instead of strength, a philosophy based on a resistance to life which the father found unfathomable. As if Valyo had wanted to tell him: “You left, but I’m staying here to spite you, to punish you in my own way.” Velizar shuddered: how could he have been so insensitive to the young man’s condition? At the same time, his heart felt reassured: Julia could not have anything to do with such an unstable person. But did he really know Julia well enough?

When the English translation of Out from under the Ruins went to press, Julia declined her payment of five-thousand dollars. She told him to add it to the money he would use to buy a house in Hawaii. Yet when he took out the loan and made the purchase, she didn’t come to live with him, but settled down in Sofia. Two years had passed since then. Julia had translated two novels a year – including two of his into English and two American books into Bulgarian – and after finishing each translation, she would come to the island for a month. The rest of the time, they talked literally every day on Skype, and for the past year the video connection with Bulgaria had gotten so good that they could even see each other without the image becoming pixelated. Now, for the first time in nine years, Velizar had been forced to return to Bulgaria.

The airplane landed. Before disembarking, Velizar told the girl he hoped she would remember where she had seen him and give him a call; he gave her a card with his email address on it. Julia was waiting for him at the exit from customs, wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt despite the heat. At every meeting, the first impression she gave off was of perfect purity. Everywhere and at all times after that, and even – especially sadly – when they parted, her purity remained. Nothing she did seemed obsessive; she didn’t get angry when he hadn’t cleaned the house in time, or when he carelessly got his clothes dirty. Her freshness was actually more psychological than physical.

The cool silence of her apartment at 32 Latinka Street felt like a refreshing shower after the prolonged sitting on airplanes and at airports and saved him from the mixed feeling of intense resentment that he was once again getting in touch with Bulgarian reality and of eager anticipation that the womb which he had returned to would cover the coldness of his heart with the warmest of blankets, woven of childhood surety, euphoric happiness, sweet memories, an understandable language, and adolescent erotica. The apartment’s stillness allowed him to focus on Julia and to banish the hazy image of his dead son from his consciousness.

The pure Julia knew that it wasn’t fitting to behave provocatively when the reason for their unplanned meeting was a completely unforetold death. No other person – living or dead – should intrude on their sex life, because for her, sex was not a desired physical experience if it wasn’t an expression of erotic love. That’s how Velizar saw her. Or at least that’s how he saw her except in those moments when his mind was paralyzed by jealousy. In the days before the funeral, her pure image helped him land softly in his birthplace, which stalked him with thousands of dangers – both real and imagined. He was filled with gratitude towards her. The double shock of his son’s death – which Velizar still had not grasped in all its dimensions – and of his unwanted, painful contact with Bulgaria was at least slightly softened and reduced to a tolerable irritation, without forcing him to play the hypocrite in front of his old acquaintances.

He didn’t lash out when she told him that the funeral was scheduled for Saturday afternoon, rather than Friday, as he had wished; he went to the morgue and established the deceased’s identity, answered the investigators’ question almost without uneasiness and guilt; and slept soundly the night before the funeral. “Soundly” for him meant falling back to sleep immediately after the pressure in his bladder sent him to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and he, relieved of the tension in the lower part of his belly and of a fully unnecessary erection, lay his head down on the pillow. Yes, Julia was behaving wonderfully.

A handful of young people, but almost none of Velizar’s old acquaintances came to the funeral at the Central Sofia Cemetery – Velizar had a family plot there, which Julia had paid for in perpetuity. Amidst the birdsongs and scent of flowers – both growing nearby and piled up in bouquets on the fresh grave – Velizar caught sight of Svetla out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t manage to pay much attention to her presence. He was watching Julia and marveling at her self-control, especially at the gentle attention she lavished on Valyo’s maternal grandfather and grandmother. Velizar did not have any close relatives, and he had explicitly told Julia not to invite any of his distant ones.

On Sunday evening, his last night in Sofia before his return flight, he and Julia had dinner at home, he made his favorite eggplant moussaka that had become her favorite as well, they opened a bottle of Californian Zinfandel, which he had brought from the LA airport, then they made love slowly and at length, almost mournfully, yet nevertheless beautifully and effusively, and afterwards, since they both wanted dessert, she suggested they go to “The Barn,” a piano bar for an exclusive clientele, where a well-known jazz pianist from the past was playing. His Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt would take off at eight the next morning, around noon he had to catch a United flight to Philadelphia, from there, after a five-hour layover, he would take a U.S. Airways Boeing to San Francisco, where he would have to sprint to catch his United plane to Honolulu – he only had forty-five minutes between flights —and finally, Aloha Air would carry him the half hour to his beautiful island, which the locals aptly called “the Garden Isle.” And after nearly twenty-four hours in the air, he would be home on the same day he had left. He didn’t have a business-class ticket for any of the legs of his journey and he knew how exhausted he would be when he landed at the small airport in Lihue, but at the moment, he wasn’t thinking about that. He was sad that he had to part from Julia again. This time, however, his sorrow was accompanied by the crushing thought that he had been robbed of his fatherly role for a second time. More precisely, Valyo’s death had taken away once and for all the possibility of him reestablishing his fatherhood some day.  Unceremoniously, some insurmountable and unfathomable law of nature, which, despite everything, acted on the human consciousness’ will or lack thereof, had forever severed his link to immortality.   Yet at the same time, it was clear to him that he wasn’t thinking about what had happened as “I lost my son,” which would be natural for any normal father who did not analyze himself. But strangely, he did not reproach himself for this.

Entering the bar, which was in downtown Sofia, somewhere off Slavyanska Street, was like getting into an American speakeasy from the days of Prohibition – they had to knock on a wooden door at the end of an empty courtyard and give a password to the “doorman” (Velizar had no idea what these people were now called in Bulgaria, but it wasn’t “bouncer,” while given the hulking man’s intelligent face, he decided he wasn’t a mobster either.) The man clearly judged Velizar and Julia as trustworthy and nodded them in. They sat at the bar and ordered scotch on the rocks. Velizar preferred bourbon, but on the shelves behind the bartender he saw only Jack Daniels, which passed here for bourbon, but which was, in fact, corn whiskey from Tennessee. Well then, he would make do with the Bulgarian boozers’ perennial favorite: Johnnie Walker Black Label. They relaxed into the folds of the piano, upon whose keys Vasko Paramaka was improvising on the well-known tune “All the Things You Are.” The jazz was also not authentic, it reminded him above all of Keith Jarrett, but it was unobtrusively virtuosic, somehow intoxicating with its interwoven Balkan motives. It was nice. Julia was sad. They clinked glasses and took sips. The bartender was mixing drinks and didn’t bother them. Someone touched him on the shoulder and Velizar turned around. It was Varimezov, a critic from communist times who didn’t like him. Fairly boozed up, with flabby bags under his eyes, he lifted his glass in greeting.

“Welcome back to the homeland,” he said with a half-smile. “Back for good?”

“It’s good to be back.” Velizar instinctively adopted a conciliatory tone. “But no, only for a short visit.”

“I heard they published your book in America. Those Americans have to be really stupid not to have checked that you were a communist writer. And how is it that those of you in thickest with the regime managed to move to the West?”

“When we’re not recognized here,” Velizar replied calmly, “we seek recognition where people have standards of quality.” He wanted to add “because we’re smart,” but decided not to stir up yet more unpleasant emotions.

“Quality?! You’re telling me about quality! We all know that your novels were published here thanks to your father. Unlike Nedelchev and Tomov, who kissed his ass and wrote positive reviews about you, I’ve always criticized you.”

“That’s true. But it doesn’t mean you were right.”

“I was right!” The critic spat, glancing at Julia with his glassy eyes. “And look at the chick you’ve brought with you from America, just to piss us off. Aren’t you going to introduce me?”

“Oh, Julia, pardon me, this is Mr. Varimezov, a well-known literary critic from the past. Kuncho, this is Ms. Julia Stevens, translator.”

Varimezov extended his puffy hand to Julia over the bar in front of Velizar, bringing their faces closer together than the writer would have liked.

“At this age, aren’t you ashamed at trying to fool this young lady into thinking you’re a big stud?” Varimezov whispered in his ear. The critic raised his voice: “I’m sure your fucking is as good as your writing!”

“Try to keep it civil,” Velizar said firmly.

Julia tugged at his arm and whispered that she wanted them to get rid of this nuisance. The bartender looked at them expectantly. Velizar got off the stool and stood in front of Varimezov, he was almost a whole head taller than the other man, which made him uncomfortable. Then he sat back down without saying a word. But the man had already forsaken the high ground and was wallowing in his verbal diarrhea, weighed down by his pent-up envy towards the successful ones, by his patriotic hatred of emigrants, and by his pathetic, base self-pity, which had gathered within itself that exculpatory mercy towards the fate of the rest – who were at once in despair over the crisis and grateful that it gave them an opportunity to make excuses for their mediocrity and innate laziness, blaming instead some higher force, which was designed to cause massive, all-encompassing human suffering. As if coming across a wad of hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk, Varimezov had suddenly found his scapegoat – or at least he, in his holy righteousness, imagined that Velizar Vazov could be the victim of his just fury. The writer restrained Julia by placing his left hand on her thigh and listened, having decided to let the man spew out everything that had been weighing on him. But after a few sentences, the critic’s voice hung shrilly over the piano, presaging a tumult, and the bartender leapt over the bar and put his hand over the critic’s mouth from behind. The latter tried to break free, but the bartender lifted him from his chair, carrying him in front of himself like a plastic Oscar statuette after the awards ceremony.

The bar had fallen silent, Parmaka had stopped playing, people were glancing around awkwardly, clearly such scenes were the exception here, if they had ever taken place before. Velizar turned to Julia to reassure her that he was fine and that it would have been right to let the man have his say. At that moment, Svetla’s face swam out of the dark side of the bar. She went over to them and said to Velizar very quietly, almost whispering, so that the others in the bar wouldn’t hear her: “I was here last night and I saw Valentin, he was sitting right over there in the corner, drinking a martini.”

“What are you saying, young lady? You know we just buried him yesterday afternoon!”

“Yes, I was at the cemetery. But last night I was feeling pretty rotten so I decided to come here for a drink. I’m the bartender’s daughter and I like to watch my dad mix drinks. And right there, at that little two-person table, my friend Valyo was sitting with a martini, no ice, in front of him.”

“Did you go over and talk to him?” Velizar opened his eyes wide.

“No. I didn’t have time. I turned around to grab my drink from the bar, my dad waved at me from the other end, I looked around for a straw, and when I got up to head over to his table, I saw that it was empty.”

“It must have been some kind of apparition,” Velizar said uncertainly.

“I realized where I know you from,” Svetla said, as if continuing some other line of thought. “Valyo looked a lot like you and seeing you on the plane reminded me of his face, but at that point I didn’t realize you were talking about him.”

Velizar instinctively looked around, as if wanting to see his son, just as he had appeared to Svetla the previous night. The pianist started playing an instrumental arrangement of the Norah Jones song with the sad name “December.” The bottles with their amber hue of aged alcohol reflected in the mirror behind the bar suddenly seemed to him the only eternal thing in this uncertain world. Julia smiled at Svetla – conspiratorially, he thought – as if they were old friends.  He physically sensed how he would fly away tomorrow, leaving the two young women to mourn for his son. The violence, the violence of the words had gone, the darkened bar had returned to its usual lazy routine, but the violence against the soul due to ignorance, ignorance of the secret deals between people, would increase.

“Svetla,” he said, completely unexpectedly to himself and the rest of the world. “I want you to come visit me in Hawaii, to tell me what you know about Valentin. I’ll buy your ticket, just let me know when you’re ready to come.”

“Maybe,” Svetla said and melted into the darkness.

The next morning, Velizar Vazov, who was born in June, got on the plane that would take him to the “loneliest place he had known.” Julia didn’t come to the airport. The melody from “December” – I myself am that December, the aging writer suddenly realized – stuck in his mind: sung by a young girl, the song promised old December that her love for him hadn’t died, that he was the meaning of her life and that she would bring him home, far from the loneliest place he had known.

And the instant the airplane lifted off the tarmac, Velizar understood. He would come back to Sofia every year to go to the cemetery and to wait for Valentin to appear to him. Whether he would make this trip in his imagination or in the real, physical world, with layovers at international airports, was not so important, or rather, he put off the decision.

But why had Valentin appeared to Svetla and not to him? He glanced forwards and backwards in the elongated airplane cabin, as if expecting to catch a glimpse of his son’s face. What had that young girl done to deserve to see Valyo as if he weren’t dead or, if he were, to see his ghost?

Exhausted by lack of sleep and what he had been through, Velizar Vazov settled back in the airplane seat and fell into a deep, undisturbed sleep. Without dreams. Tomorrow he would see Hanalei Bay again.


“          “

            Over the next seven years, Velizar would go back to his son’s grave every year in June. During the third year, his novel Innocent Victimizers was released by the Bulgarian publishing house Ciela and also came out at the same time in New York from the famous publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The seventh year, Svetla came to visit him on Kauai. She told him what she knew about Valyo and Julia and her own role in their lives. He gave her advice as to what to do with her life after Julia’s unexpected death from lymphoma. At the end of the third week, after they had said all they had to say about the case and the two of them were in the car on the way to the airport in Lihue, where Svetla would catch a flight back home, Velizar turned to her and said, as if suddenly remembering something long-forgotten: “Did you know that Valyo didn’t kill himself? He was murdered.”

Svetla didn’t respond. She already knew that the cause of Velizar’s son’s death didn’t matter. Not to her! The only important thing was that as long as he lived, the old writer would continue returning to the place where he no longer had a home, but that he would not take her far away from the loneliest place she had known. Living with a writer wasn’t in the cards for her. What was left to Svetla was the impossible memory of Hanalei Bay.

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[1] Based on “Hanalei Bay,” a shot story by Haruki Murakami, published in the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Knopf, 2006)

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