«Who'd ever thought that Hell would be so cold?»
Tom Waits. “Lucinda.”
A new novel by well-known author and screenwriter Andrei Gelasimov about cold: physical cold--forty degrees below zero, sufficient to burst radiators and dooming all living things to a swift death--and the metaphysical, existential cold that lives in the hearts of people who have forgotten what conscience, shame, friendship, and love are.
Very badly hung over, forty-two-year-old film director Filippov (the protagonist and narrator) flies from Moscow to the distant northern city in Yakutia where he was born and raised. Two years before, he couldn’t get past the back door to the capital’s theaters. Now, thanks to his friend and fellow Siberian, a scenic artist, he is not only a Russian celebrity but has conquered Europe as well. Recently, in Paris, Filippov signed a contract for a show conceived of by his friend. But the French only wanted Filippov. So Filippov, who has not been home in more than ten years, is flying to see his friend to explain that he had no other choice and to ask for his drawings for the show. For the first time in many years he experiences shame, which actually “braced him, excited him, drove out his usual depression and boredom.”
In his time away, Filippov forgot or simply cast out of his mind, like trash, the city of his childhood, his first and only love, a city circled by ugly aboveground heating mains, a city where, in the winter’s gloom, people roam mutely, like fur cocoons, the river freezes three meters deep, and the main fruit, even in summer, is the potato. His only friend, his alter ego, is an unknown someone who invariably shows up at prestigious parties and premieres. Filippov takes pleasure in recounting to him the filthiest gossip about his colleagues, partners, and former lovers. The stranger enchants him with his doctrine of people’s thirst to possess in order to fill the void of their souls. One day Filippov wakes up to find the stranger in his apartment. The demon of the void has moved in with him and soon after explains to Filippov who he in fact is.
Having lapped up a bottle of grappa and lapsed into a state somewhere between fainting and amnesia, Filippov wakes up as his plane lands. He hears the rustling of woolen scarves, kerchiefs, and shawls, which erase people’s faces in the blink of an eye. “Filippov himself probably had nothing more than his shoelaces to wind around himself. Inside this woolen bacchanalia, he suddenly felt like an orphan wearing his silly Dirk Bikkemsbergs coat. Fortunately, his pink tracksuit-clad seatmate Zina, who snorts so delightfully when she laughs, has a husband who transports the great director’s body to his hotel.
Here the protagonist descends into a whirlpool of swift and terrible events. An accident at the heating plant is transforming the cold, dark city into an arena where people are fighting for survival. Colonies of ice crystals cling to everything and grow lightning-quick, like tropical plants. This cold thinks, it contemplates its own expansion, while the doomed people loot vacant apartments, break into stores, and beat each other up. In these extreme conditions, long-forgotten human emotions like compassion and the desire to help and fix everything return to Filippov, for whom being drunk had become the sole form of sincerity. He searches for a lost child, gives away his last cash, attempts to reconcile “snorting” Zina and her daughter-in-law, who for some reason believes Filippov is her father, and the girl’s mother, his former lover, and tries to keep Zina’s son from suicide and to patch things up with his friend. A memory returns to him—the memory of a dog whose death he was responsible for. After that incident in Las Vegas, Filippov caught a stray mutt and dragged it to a priest, demanding that he marry them immediately, and having failed at that, he drank himself blind with an Indian street fakir, who after the fifth glass turned out to be a Moldovan.
In the “intermissions” to this phantasmagoria, Filippov is visited by the demon of the void, who continues his scoffing, sharing the most salacious details from the lives of the people our protagonist has met in these three nonstop days in his hometown. He makes fun of Filippov’s tireless efforts to save a stray mutt; meanwhile, Filippov never notices that they are three different dogs. But the cold has killed the cynic in Filippov’s soul. “Everything that happened was exactly what was supposed to. The fashionable restaurants, fashionable friends, fashionable scandals, showings, receptions, and trends—everything he'd been obliged to like because other fancy, elite people liked them—all that was whisked off into the dark sky,” into the winter’s night, which was as endless as everything else in these parts.
So the demon of the void withdraws, giving Filippov a chance to correct the biggest mistake of his life—to save from death and forgive his former wife Nina, even though, after she left, life had lost all meaning for him.
In Cold, Gelasimov uses impressionistic masks to combine tragedy and the comedy of the absurd, philosophical reflections and human passions, precise observations and flights of fantasy. A specialist in American literature who loves Faulkner and Salinger, Gelasimov is probably closest of all to Nick Hornby. Both allow their heroes to crawl out of their despair and become better and happier. Both conceal their morality the way smugglers conceal their contraband at the border. Both are beloved by their readers for the way they combine melancholy, tenderness for their heroes, and hope.
Many critics have praised Gelasimov’s books highly for his remarkable use of laconic language, his abundant, rapid-fire dialog, and his ability to convey his heroes’ psychology without resorting to lengthy descriptions. Scarcely any reader can stifle a laugh or smile while reading Gelasimov’s books.