The Chinese General
The first couple of days back on land after a voyage were always difficult for Krysanov. He had never suffered from seasickness, even when he was a student at the Marine Academy, and the instructors sent the boys out to sea in bad weather to weed out those who couldn’t take it. The old training ships flopped around in the waves like dying fish, and quite a few of his fellow-students turned green and lay on the deck moaning. But the first night out, Krysanov happily wolfed down a couple of extra portions of chicken that others couldn’t face. And since then, in nearly twenty years in the merchant marine, he had not once felt ill at sea, even in the worst weathers.
But every time he returned from a trip, the first forty-eight hours after docking were unpleasant. His ears rang and he felt dizzy. He stumbled on doorsteps. He dropped cutlery at meals and knocked over glasses. It wasn’t until the third day ashore that he felt balanced again. Even then he wasn’t really comfortable. His natural environment was the sea, not the flat, immobile surface of the earth, and whatever he did on land, he couldn’t forget that he was out of his element.
The only exception was when he was painting. He could stand in front of an easel for hours, painstakingly placing paint on canvas until he was satisfied he’d set down something worthwhile. The act of painting completely absorbed him; he would forget even to smoke or drink tea, let alone to eat. He didn’t have any stock subjects, but painted whatever engaged his imagination, although he realised after a time that the one subject he never turned to was the sea.
A stack of paintings leaned against one wall of his flat. This flat was huge by Odessa standards, nearly two hundred square metres. It provided Krysanov with a combined studio and living quarters. Ten years before a speculator had put up a block of apartments along the edge of Shevchenko Park, overlooking the beach, but the financial crisis left most of them unsold. Each flat was a single large, undivided room with rough-dressed concrete walls, floor and ceiling. Big plate glass windows along the east wall gave views out over the Black Sea. There was cold running water and a toilet, and electricity if you were prepared to twist some bare wire-ends together. The owner, desperate for some return on his investment, rented them out for two hundred dollars a month.
Krysanov had an apartment out in the Malynovsky suburb, and at first he used the seaside apartment as a studio to paint by day and went home at night. But more and more often, caught up in painting, he found himself still at the studio well after midnight. After a while he brought in a mattress so he could rest without going home; a table and chairs followed, and in the end he camped in the studio four or five days a week. He had separated from his wife three years before, so he had no obligation to go home at all.
He’d been living this way for more than two years now, punctuated every couple of months with voyages as second officer on cargo vessels sailing to Asia or America. That work paid enough – and in dollars – to support him comfortably for the rest of the time. And the longer Krysanov lived and worked in the studio, alone and undisturbed, the better his painting became, he was convinced.
He liked the expansive dimensions of the studio, but the best feature was the aspect. It was on the ninth floor, well above the trees, giving him natural light and wide views out over the water to a far horizon. The Black Sea was a calm and relatively supine sea; it had none of the power or menace of the Atlantic, which when it was in the mood, threw around, and sometimes swallowed, big tankers. Nevertheless, the Black Sea had its own moods. It washed the shores of both the old Ottoman Empire and the Slav countries that for centuries had confronted it. Perhaps for that reason it had a strangely dual character, sometimes topped with florid, decorative waves, and sometimes flat, apparently sullen and passive.
The light over the water changed too, but with the seasons. On winter mornings it was a pale lemon fading up to white, while in summer it was a rich blue as soon as the sun came up. While he had never tried to paint the Black Sea itself, he’d tried to capture that light in several paintings.
One evening – it was late October – Krysanov went to an exhibition of Anatoly Yarmolenko’s work. It was in a gallery on Bunin Street, in the old city centre. He was diffident about going because Anatoly was a part of the Odessa art establishment and, Krysanov sensed, regarded him as something of an upstart. For his part, Krysanov felt the older man simply repeated one or two ideas, and his best work was behind him. He wasn’t sure what attitude to adopt toward Anatoly. If he treated him as an equal, he was likely to offend him, which might make difficulties given Anatoly’s contacts, but he wasn’t prepared to behave with deference towards him, either. Despite all this, he went. You should be seen there, he told himself, you should take every opportunity to remind that art crowd that you too are a painter.
The usual tedious people were at the opening. Magda Adler, as she now called herself, was queening it over the place. She had been born Olga Sementsova, but changed her name to something sounding German to set herself apart, and to shock; German names were still not popular with Odessans. Without much more than that she had set herself up as an art critic, and by being pushier than anybody else had become an accepted authority on art in the city.
She was a tall woman with a horse-like jaw who cropped her hair and adopted a deliberately loud voice. Her bony fingers, always holding a cigarette, were adorned with turquoise and silver rings. She wore loose baggy dresses over trousers tucked into boots, and draped several scarves round her long yellow neck. Krysanov would have preferred to avoid Magda, but she was influential in getting painters exhibited in Odessa and in getting their paintings sold. Resigned, he went over and spoke to her. He avoided open flattery, because she was alert to that from aspiring artists, but nevertheless he alluded to her learning in a way he hoped she’d notice. Af