Greta and the space race: Winner of the Haaretz short story competition
Judges say Valeria Zabelotsky's story is nothing short of a miracle.
On October 4, 1957, the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched into the cosmos. Greta, who was 17 at the time, got home from school on the tram and in her imagination leafed through a magazine of do-it-yourself sewing patterns. She had peeked at the magazine earlier, over the knees of her classmate Dasha (despite Greta’s importuning, Dasha had refused to lend her the magazine, even for one night). In the kiosk next to the tram stop, a Komsomol member of about 50 grew obsolete. She wore a red beret and was using a sharp pencil to solve a crossword puzzle for experts.
Greta placed two coins on the counter and received in return toffee with the taste of soap, and an orange postage stamp illustrated with a satellite. The stamp, which had been distributed throughout the country, perpetuated the gap between the Soviet Union and the United States in the space race. Greta returned home following her shopping, to an apartment that had been nationalized d ue to the housing shortage. Its three flats had been divided among three families who insisted on not getting along with each other. The stairwell was inhabited by a drunk who was always about to die. Greta smiled at the drunk like a girl who has a future and gave him her toffee. She put the glossy stamp in a small envelope next to a ring from the czarist period, which she had received as an inheritance from her grandmother, and slid it under her goose-down pillow.
A month later, Sputnik 2 was launched above Russian soil with Laika, the first dog in space. The circumstances of Laika’s death during the return to Earth remained vague in order to maintain secrecy from the Americans (decades later, it was reported that Laika had been sent into space before the technological capability to enable her return had been invented). On the day after the launch, Greta entered the common kitchen and was thrust between the breasts of her opinionated neighbors.
On the agenda was an argument about the best way to pickle cucumbers and cabbage leaves. From there the way was short to personal jibes. Yulia Andreiva scolded Nadia Yaruslavna for it being inconceivable that Gennady, Nadia’s husband, did not clean the toilet bowl after he, pardon the expression, took a crap. Before Nadia could fire back at Yulia and tell everyone exactly what her husband did while she went to the market, the radio announcer declared in a faint voice the good news from Moscow: a live passenger was capable of surviving a launch into orbit and enduring weightlessness. Everyone applauded and Greta felt embarrassed for having received the national holiday in a checked yellow robe and messy hair. Afterward she paused to think and decided that the honorable thing to do would be to buy another stamp, this time with a likeness of Laika’s profile. Greta placed the new acquisition in the drawer of her desk at school and decided that it would be her amulet for getting good marks, so that when the time came she would be admitted to medical school.
Owing to a shortage of connections with members of the socialist party, Greta managed only to get admitted to evening studies in economics and commerce. Parallel to her studies, she started to work as a salary accountant in a screw factory. Married engineers, who had striped hankies in their pants pockets, invited Greta for black tea and a dry cake in the cafeteria. Greta did not want to fall in love with any of them. She preferred to remain free and not expand the pile of laundry in her tub, which she did by hand. Her only dress, a brown dress made of cheap material, and her underwear, by now gray with age, were immersed in the tub’s murky water every week. Through the thin walls in her room Greta had learned how couples make love. She herself had undergone the experience only once, when she was 12, with a stuffy-nosed urchin from a parallel street. In exchange she got a loaf of dry bread.
Time passed and no new stamp was issued. Greta, like the Russian scientists who were held in secret cities at the time, bit her lips and waited for a new peak. On April 12, 1961, Greta celebrated two events: her 21st birthday and the launching of Yuri Gagarin into space. Yuri completed one orbit around the planet and became the world’s first cosmonaut. At the conclusion of the festivities, which included a long visit to an amusement park, Greta stood on a wobbly stool by the window in her room, opened the window wide and screamed out, “Yuri Gagarin! I want to be the mother of your children!” with her pale breasts exposed to the wind.
When she grew hoarse she climbed down carefully from the stool, closed the window and covered the yellow wallpaper in her room with pictures of Gagarin in a well-ironed military uniform adorned with citations. She attached the stamp with Gagarin’s portrait to her bra with a safety pin. During the week that followed, she made a point of getting onto a creaking carousel every evening and humming the song that Gagarin had sung during his time in space: “The homeland knows / The homeland hears / Where its son is flying in the skies.”
A guy who was riding an unstable bike in the dark ran into dizzy Greta from behind and left his imprint on her ribs. Garlands of parsley and dill that were in the bicycle’s basket were spread across the muddy ground. Greta was spread, too. Get up, why are you lying there, Yuri Gagarin thought to himself. Greta, who did not have strong enough stomach muscles to lift herself, remained lying. She lowered her eyes from the clouds and felt the water from the puddle penetrating her thighs through the stockings. The wedding was held two months later. Vodka and sausages were laid out on the white tablecloth, and that was the main thing. Greta thought it would be a sin not to marry a man who bore the name of a cosmonaut, and Gagarin thought she was a virgin.
For the honeymoon the young couple traveled by bus to the Carpathians. Gagarin took a picture of Greta in the nude next to evergreen trees and then got her pregnant on a shaky, dusty wooden bed in a guest cabin belonging to a war widow who never stopped crying. When they returned from there, intoxicated from the smell of the undergrowth, they moved in with Gagarin’s parents. Fat women in floral robes sat at the entrance to the building and watched over their drying laundry. They read lies from a Communist newspaper called Truth and occasionally used it to shoo flies from their cheeks.
After Leonid’s birth, Gagarin forbade Greta from breast-feeding him. He asked his mother to embalm Greta with rigid strips of cloth in order to curb the sagging of her erect chest. Instead of challenging axioms, Greta convinced herself that breast-feeding had gone out of fashion. In the mornings she walked with Leonid through ancient sun-drenched parks and recited poetry by Pushkin or Chukovsky to him. When he learned how to talk, Leonid recited the poetry in his own versions, and Greta would bite into a green apple and laugh with a mouth full of juice. After maternity leave, which lasted more than three years, Leonid was sent to a government kindergarten and Greta was sent to complete her studies for a graduate degree. When she completed them, she went on working as a junior salary accountant at the screw factory. The married men cultivated bellies with the aid of dry cakes that they ate with female students who were fresher than Greta. In the evenings Gagarin’s mother watched over smiling Leonid and taught him how to cheat at cards, while Gagarin took Greta to operas or satirical revues. She thought, How convenient to have someone who takes you exactly where you wanted to go.
For her 26th birthday, Greta received a record player as a present from Gagarin and never had to learn how to use it, because Gagarin was in charge of all the electrical appliances in the house. He was also in charge of developing the pictures, replacing the burned-out lightbulbs and opening the jars. Greta was in charge of serving compote and poppy cookies to the guests. If she discovered black ants in the cookies she would kill them with a finger, throw them on the floor, emerge with a sweet smile and announce to everyone: I might have spilled a little cumin while baking, it’s nothing.
When Leonid was 6, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin crashed with his MiG-15 during a routine training flight. Greta went to the state requiem ceremony in Red Square holding a bouquet of red roses to her bosom. The next day she returned to the square in order to weep for a long time across from a construction worker who was drilling in the Kremlin wall so the nation’s hero could be interred there. Greta then packed yarn and knitting needles, gave her son a hug that lit a fire in her lungs and left home for a week to visit Anna, a childhood friend who had moved to a village that even God did not know in order to forsake it.
When they met next to a serrated fence, Greta shivered from cold and Anna hugged her like a mother and let her long hair drape their shoulders. After the feeling returned to Greta’s face she asked Anna whether she too sometimes felt that her husband did not really know her. Anna said yes. After citing as an example their mothers, who had never complained, the girls reached the conclusion that it was better that they did not know them, as this would make it easier for them to pull the strings. On the last day of the visit, Greta and Anna sat opposite a frozen lake and listened to the howling of the wild animals. On the way back to the city, Greta whispered to herself over and over that she was Mother Earth and vowed to take care of all Gagarin’s needs. When she got careless and did not buy new shaving cream in time, Gagarin called her a bitch in front of Leonid. She never got careless again.
After the Americans’ landing on the moon and three far-from-cheap abortions of embryos Gagarin found undesirable, Greta was transferred to anal-sex positions so she would not get pregnant. Condoms were not a commodity that could be had and, even if they were, you could just as well have used the paper bag in which they were wrapped. In the joint lunches, Gagarin would question his son about his studies and his health. No more. When Greta tried to express her opinion about one thing or another, Gagarin would tell her off, as though she were an obstacle in his path, while she winked at her son as though Gagarin were a naked emperor.
On holidays the family took a night train for a vacation out of the city. Greta sunbathed on an old sheet and cracked black seeds with her teeth while Gagarin took his son fishing in a boat and tightened on his lean body the actions of the rigid education that he was compelled to neglect during the week because of his demanding work. Gagarin worked as an engineer in the bridges and roads planning department, and the demand for paved concrete crossings only increased. Even when she was not asked, Greta would say Gagarin had gone into this field on her advice. When the metal pail was filled with edible fish, Leonid was allowed to run in the sand or splash around in the water. When he leaped onto his mother, who was sleepy from the sun, the soles of his feet sank into the sheet and mixed the pile of seeds with the pile of their shells. He removed her head covering and before her glittering eyes rubbed a heart-shaped stone. When they got back from the vacation Leonid pierced the stone with the aid of an awl and Greta wore it as a pendant.
In time, Greta and Gagarin’s entertainment as a couple was switched from cultural events to social gatherings at home. Five couples aged 30 to 40, all of them Gagarin’s friends from work, gathered around the table in the evenings. Greta announced the cleaning chores to Gagarin from the kitchen and busied herself preparing about 10 types of salads, which in the best Russian tradition were all made of the same ingredients and only mixed in different doses. Egg, mayonnaise, salted fish, pickle, beet, potato, white onion, purple onion and green onion. For the appetizer, jellied cow’s foot or chopped liver was served. For the main course, breast of chicken fried in egg and potatoes in butter and garlic. On rare occasions, when the owner of the delicatessen had had her fill of beef and decided to offer it for sale instead of taking it for herself, Greta prepared a roast as the main course.
The drinks were, of course, alcoholic. The women talked about the disappearance of female movie stars from the screens if they refused to sleep with this or that director. The men talked about soccer, even though they wanted to talk about women. Toward the end of the meal Greta would clear the table and bring out honey cookies for dessert. For Gagarin and his good drinking buddy, Boris, Greta put out a dish with sliced pork fat, in order to thin the percentage of alcohol absorbed into the blood. The pork fat that was absorbed into the blood was always thinned out with more alcohol, and one of the bottoms, not necessarily Greta’s, was nevertheless grabbed powerfully by Gagarin.
When Leonid was already 27, Greta started thinking that maybe something was wrong. He sank ever more deeply into mathematical proofs and sealed himself completely from life outside the small office he received in the academy thanks to a few works of genius he wrote. Greta took Leonid for ice cream in a noisy cafe and asked him if he had a girl. He replied that he did not have time for girls and told her about Godel’s incompleteness theorem. She nodded at him at a steady pace that did not necessarily match the pauses in his speech, and with the tips of her fingers warmed the heart of stone hanging on her chest.
When Greta reached the age of 51 she developed a severe, itchy rash on her hips. For half a year Gagarin placed cupping glasses and small bags of mustard seeds on Greta’s inflamed skin. When she started to pass out from pain, Gagarin called in a doctor and went to finish building the miniature house of matchsticks he had started working on before she got sick. Greta was sent to a convalescent home to recuperate. In the first months Gagarin received letters every day. The second part of the letter contained complex instructions for looking after the household. The first part of the letter was not complex: I got up, I exercised, I ate, I went for a walk. She did not open the letters of reply she received. She was afraid to read about a potted plant that had withered or a shirt that had been burned in ironing.
Owing to a shortage in communication channels, Greta started to exchange looks with the maintenance worker, Oleg Leonov. When Greta invited him to her room, made him tea and asked him to tell her a little about himself, she discovered that he was the half-brother of Alexei Leonov. Alexei was the cosmonaut who had carried out the first space walk in history, an event that was studded with technical hitches that endangered his life. Greta spilled the remaining tea into the sink and asked Oleg to leave. He was a true gentleman, so he returned that evening with a bouquet of chrysanthemums and a box of chocolates. Bad luck, Greta explained to him, bad luck. Oleg showed him an icon of the Virgin Mary and said there was no such thing as luck. They then made love with a passion that surprised them both favorably. Greta’s rash diminished and the maintenance work in the building was systematically postponed for more appropriate weather.
After four months of euphoria, Greta was invited for a clarification talk with management, where it was made clear to her in unpleasant words that a convalescent home is not a whorehouse. She returned home, started to watch Brazilian telenovelas, broke kitchen utensils because of a loose grip and stopped suppressing farts while preparing meals.
In 1992, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the opening of its gates to the Western world, the 57-year-old Gagarin bought two tickets to America and flew with Greta to visit friends who had left the homeland in order to die closer to the Statue of Liberty. On the subway, Greta’s eyes lingered at the sight of an Afro-American man who was wearing a space suit and holding a helmet. Gagarin got off at the right stop, and when the doors closed behind him he noticed that he was alone on the platform. Greta got off at the next stop, exchanged sentences in incorrect grammar with the information person, a woman from India, and managed to find her way back to Gagarin. When she finally held his arm, which was muscular from doing a lot of handstands, Gagarin told her, You were lucky. And Greta said, True. Even though she thought it was not luck she had had, but choice. When they returned home, Gagarin asked Greta to make him goose in pear sauce. They ate the goose and thought, without coordinating or sharing it between them, that it would have been better for them to be living in America today.
When the first computers came on the market, Gagarin too bought a computer, and Greta, who dusted it, would sometimes press the keys without telling she had pressed them. On rainy days Gagarin sat in front of the screen and wrote his biography with blind typing. When he got stuck he borrowed details from articles he found in the newspaper and ascribed them to himself. In one paragraph he wrote that he had been an external adviser on metal fatigue at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. Greta read the printed texts and corrected Gagarin’s spelling mistakes.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the space launch of the real Gagarin, Greta took a day off, and from the bottom of the closet pulled out the thin veil in which she had stepped into marriage. She affixed the veil to her head by means of pins and looked at an old picture of Gagarin. The material of the veil was transparent enough that she could make out through it cracks that had formed over the years in the ironed uniform and the citations. At the same time, the material of the veil was not transparent enough for her to be able to hide what she discerned in those cracks.
The imaginery Gagarin died at the age of 67 from a heart attack as he stood on the sidewalk and shouted at a traffic cop who was not managing the breakdown of the stoplights properly. He lay on the ground twitching for about ten minutes, and no one came over to help him. Greta cried voicelessly at the funeral, which was very wearying and was attended even by the minister of housing and construction. The next day, at breakfast, Greta felt that she had been left without a ruler who she can rule.
When the mourning period ended Greta switched on the television. The Nature Channel was showing a documentary about animals in Antarctica, and Greta watched it from start to finish. The narrator told Greta in a monotone voice about the shrimp, which lives in the South Sea and in the cold season is capable of reducing its body mass tenfold in relation to its natural size in order to conserve energy, which it would have to exploit with the advent of spring in order to multiply and find food.
The narrator also told about an earless seal that preys on penguins, which also lives in the South Sea and above which there is a thick layer of ice. For the earless seal to be able to reach the surface and breathe air, it has to perforate the layer of ice with its sharp teeth. Within a short time the teeth are worn down and destroyed, leaving the predator unable to hunt and it dies of starvation. All the earless seals in Antarctica die about 20 years earlier than the members of their species on other continents. During the screening of the credits Greta continued to sit and reflect on the shrimp. And when the broadcast moved to sponsors, Greta got up and went to the kitchen to get herself a glass of water to wash her throat, which had gone dry.
On the first anniversary of her husband’s death, Greta took off the black kerchief from her gray hair and went to the cemetery in order to sell the plot that had been purchased for her next to Gagarin. Afterward she stayed to take an unhealthy interest in the cemetery of the Kremlin wall, indulged herself with five cream puffs and left the place with her blood sugar far exceeding the permissible level.
Translated from the Hebrew by Ralph Mandel.
What the judges said
The story “Greta and the Space Race” brings good tidings. A miracle. A literary competition can only long to find a text like this among the thousands of stories. “Greta and the Space Race” is a mature, fully-rounded story that uncovers the voice of a new writer who is well aware of what the craft of writing and the art of the story demand. Every sentence and episode contain an essence bearing the potential to develop into a chapter in a long novel or hint at a broad range of writing themes and future works to come.
The story is set in the Communist era of the Soviet Union and interweaves the great events of the space race with the small events in the life of an average Russian woman named Greta. Through Greta’s eyes the story succeeds in intertwining the personal and the collective without becoming schematic, while handling the cultural cliches of the period subtly and vibrantly. The youngster who craves to touch the Russian dream makes do, as an adult, with simpler and more accessible substitutes. It is through this tension between ethos and the everyday that the experience of life under the Communist regime is conveyed: the nation’s symbols of pride and the lying propaganda of the regime, the housing crunch in the big city, the trips to the village, the violent relations between the sexes, and the other life (in America) that might have been an option.
The distinctiveness of the writing lies in its hues, which interfuse biting irony and submissive conciliatoriness, disillusioned social criticism under a patina of “regularity” that accepts things as they are. The imaginary world depicted in the story is seemingly foreign to the Israeli experience, but it shows that Hebrew literature is not subordinate to the familiar or the local alone. This is in fact a literature in which the foreign has existed from its foundation. That foreignness introduces into Hebrew writing new landscapes that enhance the language’s forms of expression and enrich it.
• Illi Rauner, literary scholar, writer and translator, Tel Aviv University
• Eran Tzelgov, poet and translator from French, and editor of the periodical Daka
• David Hadar, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's English literature department, and translator of American fiction