A few years ago I reported on my purchase of Dmitrii Bykov’s novel Orfografiya [Orthography], and exactly a year ago I promised to get around to reading it; now I’m over halfway through it and enjoying it immensely (I’d love to translate it if I had the time and a publisher had the interest). This self-contained snippet from the Second Act represents a basic divide in humanity. The protagonist, Yat, is remembering an amusing episode from a few years back:
…when was it? Oh yes, that’s right, in ’13: “Birzhevka” [Birzhevye vedomosti, the Stock-Exchange Gazette] suddenly started publishing on the last page—framed by a dotted line, so interested parties could clip it out—a list about which nobody could say anything for sure. It was simply called “List,” without any further clarification. There were thirty-nine family names, fairly neutral, some of which he knew—Mizerov, Foskin—but with different initials. What if he found his own there? Whether it was the list of members of some secret organization (doubtless for terrorists of a certain stripe it would be especially stylish to publish it under the nose of the government, on the principle of “hiding a leaf in the forest”) or an innocent register of founders of a joint-stock corporation which didn’t have enough money to publish its excessively lengthy company name in full, Yat never could figure out. Once he discussed the story with [his imaginative friend] Grem.
“That was a list of actioners [д е й с т в о в а т е л е й],” said Grem with his usual emphasis, not wasting even three seconds in coming up with a new story.
“Go on, go on,” Yat encouraged him.
“Actioners are people destined to change the world. In that configuration [в этом составе: ‘with that makeup’?] they are capable of acting with maximum results, like a bullet sent to its goal at the proper angle.”
“But who determines that maximum?”
“Not the Birzhevka, of course. Once a week a secretive man in a red-brown overcoat—definitely red-brown—shows up. He hands over the list, and an envelope with money in it. The compositor sets it in type, but each time he changes one name, thinking that that way he’s disrupting the devilish plot. One fine day they find the compositor dead. But it’s too late—everything’s gone wrong, and as a result we’re living in this very world we’re living in. That would be good, you know, to burn it at both ends [жечь с двух концов: can anybody explain how this idiom works here?]: first the secret list, then the murder of the compositor.”
“But you don’t want to help me figure out what the list is all about?”
“No, of course not!” Grem stared at Yat with horror. “Why would I want to know how it is if I know how it must be?”
That last line (Зачем мне знать, как е с т ь, если я знаю, как н а д о?) expresses perfectly the mind of the storyteller. I envy such people and their unstoppable flights of fancy, but I have an equally powerful drive to know how it is.