I have an artist friend who has worked in textiles -- small things that she can pick up and take with her. Her long-time husband traveled extensively and as she followed him, packing and unpacking her life in a series of suitcases, fabric allowed her to fold her art away and -- when possible -- to unfurl it. I remarked that fabric art was intriguing. "Yes," she said laughing, "intriguing." Later I learned that her favorite medium was thickly applied oil paint on an enormous canvas.
I teach in the University of Massachusetts at Amherst MFA Program and am proud of this job, this influence, and of the students that have shuttled through my classroom. However, I cannot count the times that I have "folded" up a manuscript that deserved undivided attention. I am writing a novel that requires utter focus. I've been writing it for years, have kilos of research, scrolls of dialogue, but the ability to unfurl the work and let it stay unfurled has evaded me. In the meantime, I have executed other work -- short stories, scripts, engaging work, but also things executed on a smaller canvas, or perhaps a square of fabric. Valiant Gentlemen, a novel that looks at the friendship of Roger Casement, humanitarian and Irish revolutionary, and Herbert Ward, adventurer and sculptor, is a wall-sized canvas that needs to be covered with thick oil paint.
The National Endowment for the Arts is providing the time and space to think through this large work, to see both the beginning and the end at once, and execute -- without needing to pack it up -- all the matter that connects the two.
The sun is rising in Sakhalin. The sun is rising here, in the east, unremarkably, and setting elsewhere, unremarkably. The sun is rising over the broad road where nothing is happening and for one moment he imagines that he is rolling under the sun, as if, here in Sakhalin, one can feel the spherical nature of the earth, this diurnal winching connected to the distant subterranean creak, which he knows is actually mine-related, but on this morning -- somehow disconnected from unspooling time -- could be ascribed to the ratcheting of ropes and pulleys angling Sakhalin to better feel the effects of that distant source of heat. He cannot remember waking to the company of his thoughts. Usually, there is some pacing outside the bedroom door -- his mother with a fresh catastrophe, his father brandishing an icon, his brother begging for work that he will not complete although the commission will be his, and the advance on the commission will be his, and the money -- soon spent on morphine and vodka and perfume to combat the reek of his aging mistress -- will disappear without the required illustrations or paintings completed. And he will wake to the pacing of the footsteps of brother Kolia's creditors, although they will not be outside his door, rather down the street. But he will still hear them.
Stop. To think of Kolia this way has become a fantasy, something he can still conjure in the early morning with his thoughts rising isolated and of their own accord. Kolia is dead. He feels it now. He follows a bird making horizontal progress across the sky and holds a deep, deep stillness.
The man sees him struggling to remember the name and offers, "Ivan Petrovich Sobolev" and an outstretched hand. "I am to take you to see some of our remarkable prisoners," Sobolev says. His collar is frayed, his jacket shiny with wear, elsewhere shiny with dirt. The man has a direct demeanor and is prickly and resigned in equal parts and simultaneously: as if one is seeing two sides of a coin at the same time.
"Thank you for escorting me."
"Nice to be thanked," the man says, "but I don't really have a choice. I'm one of them."
"You are a prisoner?" he asks.
The man shrugs. He might have asked if the man were a count and received the same response. There's a moment of silence between them. The man says, "Don't you want to know what has landed me here?"
"Not everyone here seems to know. Besides, you might be wrongly convicted."
The man raises his eyebrows and his eyes grow merry. "If that is the case, then I am wrongly convicted of forging bank notes. I thought you might like to know. If I were wrongly convicted of murder, you might be concerned that, at a future date, I might be convicted, wrongfully, of killing you."
The humor is welcome and he smiles. This is a large man with a large shadow. One of his hands could easily span the good doctor's neck and to think of those bear paws involved in the nimble, inking work of forging banknotes is incongruous. He takes his cigarettes from his pocket and thrusts one into Sobolev's right hand. Sobolev turns to him, smiles, looks around at the mist burning up in the sunshine.
"Looks like it might not be such a bad day after all," says the forger. "Although it's hard to tell one day from another." He draws thoughtfully on his cigarette and, puffing his cheeks, expels the smoke with force.
"What do people smoke here?" he asks.
"Here?" Sobolev shrugs. "Whatever can be smoked. I think it is most often Japanese, but there is little choice." The forger considers. "The choices I've made have left me with few choices."
He thinks of a few maudlin responses. He could address the pleasant weather, the man's good health. These would be things to say.
Sobolev watches as if reading his thoughts. "Should I just take you around?"
"You will ask these people questions?" asks Sobolev.
In response the doctor produces the form that he has had printed here on the island. The information is basic but has provided him a sort of passport into the houses and fetter-blocks and souls of Sakhalin.
Petrovich holds the paper. The form asks age, place of birth, when the individual arrived in Sakhalin, religion, if one can read, who taught them to read, and other simple facts.
"I'm interested in literacy," he says.
"Here?" says Sobolev.
"Yes." Perhaps it is remarkable.
"And they fill this out?"
"Who will read this?" asks Petrovich.
For one second understanding flickers in the eyes of his companion, the forger. Sobolev nods to the form and hands the form back to him.
"The house of Pishchikov is over there. Perhaps he is home. He does not talk that much, but he will fill out your form." Sobolev considers him thoughtfully. "You are not as I expected."
And what was that?
"Rumor is that you're not so much of a doctor as a scribbler of stories in the papers. Is that true?"
"Friend, it depends on what is called for. If a man is ill, I'm more of a doctor. If a man is bored, I'm more of a writer."
("On Sakhalin" from Tales Of The New World. Copyright (c) 2011 by Sabina Murray. Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.)