Pavel Pepperstein

The first novel designed by SecMoCo – for Artwords Press (the publishing arm of Artwords Bookshop)- is a strange, poetic and philosophical thriller written by Pavel Pepperstein, one of the most influential artists of Russia’s new generation (here translated by Andrew Bromfield). The post-communist critique, along with the comprehensive and yet quirky comic book-like illustrations seemed to suggest an (almost oxymoronic) ‘upmarket samizdat’ style and dynamic tension was required.

First edition published by Artwords Press in an edition of 1500 copies, London, UK, 2014; 178mm x 111mm; 208 pages, 114 B&W illustrations; casebound with dust jacket

A Prague Night, Pavel Pepperstein’s metaphysical novel, takes place on Walpurgis Night, the ancient Central European spring festival when winter is ceremoniously brought to its end through the celebration and re-enactment of myth. Ilya Korolenko, a hired assassin, a top-flight killer who shoots from any distance and never misses, is in Prague to hunt down and kill the disgraced oligarch Orlov. Korolenko is a romantic, nostalgic for an idealised Russia of the past, who despises the corruption, greed, and idolisation of wealth that western capitalism has brought to his country. Having made his kill in the cathedral of St Vitus, Korolenko heads to a conference on Prague Spring and 1968. There he meets the seductive and radical Ellie Warbis, daughter of Americans whose lifestyle she hates, who proposes sex as brotherhood and sisterhood in the struggle for freedom. Together they attend a party thrown by her wealthy tycoon father, which proves to be a gateway to the wild festivities and transformations of the night of the witches…

Sample translation by Andrew Bromfield
On May 1, 200.., a certain individual arrived in Prague. I was that individual: Ilya Korolenko, attractively clean-featured and inconspicuous, with a dreamy look in my eyes and hair spiralling into a passionate, babyish twist over my forehead. In terms of intimate predilection, in terms of my mission, I am a poet, sometimes I put a few words together and revel in their magic, their incongruous voodoo, I am one of the few who still tend this once-sacred flame, which only recently was a raging conflagration of forest fires, but has now been reduced to the glowing dot on the last cigarette of a dying giant. But that, of course, is not how I make my living. For many years now I have been a hit man, a top-flight killer. The weary killer drinks his Miller. I always work alone. How did I happen to get into this line of work? It’s all a matter of eyesight. Fate gifted me with exceptionally keen, virtually telescopic vision. Which means I naturally possess phenomenal accuracy: I shoot from any distance and never miss. In my very young days I used to win places and prizes in shooting competitions, and I enjoyed buggering about in rifle ranges. You might say I ought to have put this gift to a worthier use. Perhaps, but this was what fate decreed.
I must admit, however, that I love my work. My services are expensive, and the individuals I am contracted to kill are characters stained with the filth of multiple heinous crimes. I’m the kind of boy who likes to take an interest: before I press the trigger I find out everything there is to find out about my mark. And I only accept a contract if I get a sour kind of feeling in my heart – yes, this is one life I want to cut short, yes, I want to be the author (or the co-author, if you happen to be religious) of the full stop that will mark the end of this particular individual’s biography. I have inserted quite a number of these precise little dots, and I don’t regret a single one.
I’m not in the least bit cruel or malicious; on the contrary, I’m jovial and benign. Which is what the angel of death should be like, surely? And I have another, entirely intimate reason for doing this work. I have already told you that I am a poet, but before I embarked on the Way of the Hit Man, I hadn’t written any poetry for a long time, far too long. At that point something had stopped, come to a complete standstill inside me: I felt that all my brain’s mellifluous murmurings, everything that set my heart weeping and laughing, was wrong. Not right somehow. Although I’m quite capable of playing the narcissist, I had enough wits to realise that all my feelings and all my pleasures were of no significance whatsoever. In general, though, it wasn’t a matter of anything being wrong with me. Not with me.
Anyway, I hadn’t written any poetry for a long time. I must confess, though, that I wasn’t suffering in the slightest, I didn’t try to summon up my muse or my demon, I lived for my own delight, soaking up the bitterness and sweetness of existence, but there was something standing idle inside me, some poetic mechanism that remained unused; it was as if I were nothing but a small carved-wood table, supporting this iced-up, non-functional device. I lived merrily and modestly. I drank. Delightful damsels occasionally bestowed on me pleasures beyond all comprehension. I liked reading and sleeping. The circulation of money bypassed my pocket, which was almost always blithely empty. Youth. Almost, eternal. But capitalism was waxing ever stronger all around me, constricting space, gnashing its fangs, squeezing my throat. I realised I couldn’t carry on living that way, like the grass of heaven, in that happy-go-lucky, roly-poly-bubbly, poetically nonchalant style.
My handsome, absolutely unmemorable face – yes, that is yet another strange aspect of my being, my face is quite impossible to remember (which, naturally, is helpful to me in my work). Even I can never remember my own face, and every glance in the mirror is an encounter with a stranger.
I am the great-grandson of the great writer Korolenko, who wrote Children of the Underground. I am also one of them, a child of the underground, I am a son of the deep-earth Soviet world, a child of its final tremors of farewell. That great world, the cradle of my childhood, no longer exists, it has been extracted at the surface, its overlying strata have been stripped away, its subterranean oceans have been drained and the great damp shadows that filled them have been burned off by the pitiless sun of Capital. That diseased sun is expanding, swelling catastrophically, as everyone knows, and at its heart, clearly visible, is a black hole – the anti-future, the cosmic burrow of non-existence, into which our little golden apple is trundling quite cheerfully.
My father, a child psychiatrist, was killed by one of his patients, an insane little girl. I was four years old at the time. My mother, an officer in the KGB, is now past seventy but, strangely enough, she still works in the special services – I don’t know what the old woman does for them. I grew up with my grandmother and grandfather, surrounded by books. I was keen on poetry, mathematics and the social sciences. No one, apart from myself, ever took any care for my upbringing. I trod a free road, following wherever my free mind led me. It led me along the lanes of jolly, dirty parks and the corridors of museums, over the dry clay paths of southern mountain slopes and through the black rooms of friends.
Quite often, when drinking in congenial company, if a decent rod happened to come to hand, I would amuse myself by firing at the empty bottles and glasses. I fired at playing cards too, and maps – a satiny map of the world taken from an atlas is hung on a tree, it writhes and rustles like a flag in the wind, I stand at a distance, looking off to one side, someone shouts out: “Moscow” – and I fire immediately, on the turn, without taking aim, and you can be sure the bullet has pierced the heart of our homeland.
The nineteen-nineties decreed that several of my friends turn to a life of crime, and some of them rose to significant heights in those wicked worlds – it was they who offered me a job, having been impressed by my phenomenal accuracy.
They offered me very good money to shoot a certain individual. This individual stopped at absolutely nothing in his business affairs, he bore the ignominious stains of every possible kind of filth, and he was comprehensively protected, the kind of bird that could only be brought down from a great distance, during the few seconds between getting out of his car and immediately concealing himself behind the backs of his bodyguards on the steps of his own bank.

At first I refused. They tried to persuade me, they even showed me a secret film about him, taken with a concealed camera, but the sight of tortured cooperative entrepreneurs made no impression on me. It was clear enough anyway that the client deserved to die. I refused again. I couldn’t be bothered somehow.
But then one day, as I was wandering round the old Moscow courtyards I had loved since I was a child, I approached a certain little house that I adored passionately. I had looked at that house for as long as I could remember, on summer evenings and winter evenings, and it had always been uninhabited, with its windows solidly boarded up. Dilapidated and mysterious, the tiny mansion was hidden away in the dense blackness of impossibly beautiful trees, and the gaze of its stucco fauns and nymphs, whether covered in poplar fluff, petals or snow, was imbued with a delicate, enigmatic humour; eternal youth shone in their faces, and ironical dust accumulated in the dimples on their cheeks. Yes, they were young and happy, those ancient dryads and bacchuses, those little nereid girls hurtling along on dolphins above the deep, indifferent windows. I had never seen anyone go inside or come out; left to its own devices, everything here had frozen in its own freedom and mystery. Oh, how I love places like that! They are the reason why I have stayed on this planet.
But now I saw that the house was surrounded by a new fence of corrugated steel, and an expression of fright had appeared on the faces of the nymphs; the little house itself, in fact, was gazing out from behind the fence like a prisoner. Yes, it had been condemned. And the beautiful trees making up its magical retinue had been condemned too: a huge billboard towering over the steel fence depicted the new building that would soon rise up here: a ghastly-blue wedge shape with spectacular square windows and a pseudo-classical portico. A bank. I read the name of the bank and immediately recalled who owned it. The next day I called my acquaintances and accepted their offer.

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