Maxim Osipov

Polish Friend

the story doesn’t start with a joke; the joke butchers it, crushes it. The past, present, and future walk into a bar. It was tense! And that’s all, folks. Laughter. No, a story demands expansion, movement.

Here: a girl has just landed in a major Western European city. She holds a suitcase in one hand, a violin case in the other. The young border guard asks her the purpose of her trip. It’s a long story: she has to play for a few people, test out a new violin…Her knowledge of the language is poor, so she keeps her answer short: “My friend, he lives here.”

The border guard looks long and hard at her passport: whoa, they’re almost the same age—he’d taken her for about fifteen. So why is she traveling on a Polish visa? He has to let her through—the EU, Schengen Area and all—but she ought to explain.

Polish visas are the easiest ones to get. After a brief pause, she says: “I have a friend in Poland, too.”

The border guard gives her a sleazy grin. But that’s okay. The main thing is that he lets her through.

And that is where the story starts.

Like all of her peers, this girl has studied music since she was about six—late kindergarten. She is now in her fourth and penultimate year at the conservatory. Her professor, well into her ninth decade, has devoted her entire life to ensuring the violin is played clearly and expressively. In the whole world there’s not a pedagogue more renowned.

“Listen to yourself,” the professor says. In essence that’s all she says. “What am I to do with you, eh? You love music? So what—go listen to a CD. Well, what are you just standing there for? Play.”

Not everyone can stick it out, but most of them do. They’ll be made to repeat a particular move, year after year, until suddenly she’ll say, “If only you weren’t so dim . . .” which means they’ve finally got it, and now they’ll never lose it.

The girl and the professor have finished for the day. The girl is packing up her violin.

“Say,” the professor catches her off guard, “what instrument did you want to play as a child?”

What an odd question. The violin, of course.

The professor looks surprised.

“And how did that come about?”

And so the girl explains: in an old apartment she had found a violin, a one-eighth size, without any strings, but she had held it, twirled around with it in front of the mirror, and…

The professor mutters pensively: “So your dream’s come true?”

Was that a question or a statement? And in that very moment, who is it that the professor sees—perhaps this student of hers, but sixty years down the line? Or is it just a memory?

We examine photographs from 1934, when the professor was ten years old. Those same regular features, that same detachment, that same calm. And here, a short concert program, a children’s concert: Leva, Yasha, her. If the photos were of a higher quality, you’d be able to make out the little mark on the left side of each child’s neck, the mark that gives away a violinist.

There’s more—from the years of evacuation: Leva and Yasha again, by now with grown-up concert programs. And another: Katya and Dodik, or that’s what it says on the back. So your dream’s come true…There’s a story there too, of course, but that one can’t be unwrapped without losing something important, something that can’t be put in words.

“To love alone does music yield,” wrote Pushkin. But does it?

Let’s get back to that Polish friend: once again, he’s about to come in handy.

The girl returns from Europe with a beaded necklace of singular beauty. When questioned by one of her classmates (yes, a classmate—she has no real friends) she replies, not quite knowing why: “My Polish friend gave it to me.”

This classmate is a violinist too. She’s gabby, impetuous—excessively so—although, it must be said, she does have an occasional flair for striking imagery: “It’s like opening a window, and whoosh—a soldier!” was how she described the feelings evoked by a particularly joyful modulation.

She was already engaged by this point—much to the professor’s dismay: “Married? But she hasn’t even played the Sibelius! There are those who are my students,” she had continued, “and those who are just instructees.”

In the end, the classmate had to study under another professor.

“Oh, friend, I’m so happy for you!” she says of the girl’s necklace. “And there I was, thinking you’d end up like one of those arctic aardvarks.”

And just like that, the Polish friend takes on some sort of existence. But it won’t be long before he comes through for her big time.

Finding a violin, one that speaks in your voice, is always an event. And this violin—which, despite its sudden arrival in her life, she already knows will never leave her side—has a rich and noble sound. There isn’t a hint of screechiness, not even on the highest of notes. An Italian model—half-Italian, at least: violins, too, can be crossbreeds; the body of one, the scroll of another. It’s fairly young—a hundred and some years. A good man, himself rather long in the tooth, has given it to her. Certain peculiarities in the circumstances linger in the air, but neither the girl, nor indeed we, will ever learn the details. He is a good man, comfortably off, and troubled by his conscience yet which good people aren’t troubled by their conscience? He gave her the violin with a single condition: that she wouldn’t tell a soul.

Her classmate also takes a liking to the violin.

“How much did it set you back? Go on, say—just for a laugh.”

The girl shrugs: Why is that something to laugh about?

“That Polish friend of yours again? If you ask me, I’d be terrified carrying a thing like that around.”

“But not your child?” her classmate is already a mother by this point.

“Never much liked Poles, myself…But maybe I’m missing something?”

Apparently so.

“I mean, they’re so proud, so arrogant…”

The girl isn’t about to let her friend be insulted like this: “That’s not arrogance—it’s integrity.”

“Is he even coming to visit?”

“What’s it to you?”

Her classmate shares absolutely everything—whether about her now ex-husband, or the man or men she’s currently seeing. What secrets could they possibly have? Come on, it’s no big deal!

“Can I at least ask what his name is?” her classmate asks. Clearly she’s hurt. “Seriously—not even that? Fine, have it your way.”

Soon enough, everyone at the conservatory knows all about her Polish friend. He’s generous, has good taste—that’s enough to stir up some jealousy. “Still waters run deep,” that’s what the more experienced of her contemporaries say about her. But they’re wrong: her placid surface concealed no roiling depths.

Graduating from the conservatory is no piece of cake. For the ensemble exams, the girl wants to take on something more obscure. She listens to music for different ensemble types. A horn trio—maybe that could work? She finds the horn player who’s considered the best in her year: “Do you know the piece?”


“Well, would you like to play it?” The horn player goes with his gut. “No.”

For the state exams she has to do without a horn.

Now, with the conservatory behind us, it is time for the girl—and us—to move on into the future. To do more than listen, watch, and take note; to conjecture, imagine. For example, could we have foreseen the futures of the children in that photograph from 1934? Probably, yes. First, there is no such thing as chance, and second, fate is but an aspect of personality—or so it appears to us.

Of course, certain external circumstances are impossible to predict. And, where there is no such thing as chance, there is such a thing as uncertainty, and a rather broad one at that. For instance: Will our country last? Its predecessor, with all its might, was more short-lived than your average violin, for which seventy years is nothing, a piffling age: seventy-year-old violins look virtually brand-new; they have no cracks to speak of; sometimes luthiers have to imitate wear and tear. As it currently stands, it doesn’t appear that this country, successor to the one in which Leva and Yasha and Katya and Dodik grew up, has a long life in store: it’ll fall apart, disintegrate, too many cracks to count. But then again, that may not come to pass. We shouldn’t look to contrive an outcome—let that story run its own course.

Another example: the latest technology. Why fixate on objects that evolve so rapidly? Leva and Yasha lived their entire lives without knowing a thing about computers, and, quite frankly, wouldn’t have cared in the slightest. All of these gadgets are so far from perfection—is there any point in going into the nitty-gritty of how they work? How will people get around thirty-odd years from now, when our story reaches its end? What devices will they use to speak to one another, to listen to music? We are disinclined to fantasize—after all, does that really make any difference?

However, there is one thing of which we are certain. Bows will still be wound in silver wire or whalebone; ebony frogs will still be inlaid with mother-of-pearl eyes; and children’s violins—one-quarter size, one-eighth size—will still bear delicate trails of salt, the salt of tears from children, who cry as they play, not stopping, not ending their music.

As for serious matters such as politics or economics—music isn’t about to develop an influence on these overnight; if it does, it will be tangential, by implication. It was recently discovered that, while our Yashas and Levas were under evacuation, the Steinway & Sons piano company came to an understanding with American HQ, whose forces bombed Bechstein, Steinway’s rivals, down to the ground, to the very last keyboard. It would be naive to imagine world history as a contest between two rival piano factions, especially as neither Yamaha nor Red October was involved in anything of the sort. And yet, it is also around those times that a certain pockmarked, mustachioed creature would quip facetiously of his former German ally: “He has his Goebbels, but I have my Gilels.” The disgust that this little witticism evokes in us convinces us of its authenticity—of the fact that the man himself truly did say it.

However, all of this politics has distracted us from our main subject—the girl’s relationship with her Polish friend. With jerks, with roundabouts, our story progresses.

Travels, travels, more travels—festivals, competitions, less a life, more the continuous howl of a turbine, the nonstop clatter of wheels (it’s highly doubtful any new forms of transport will emerge in the next ten to fifteen years). Once you’re over thirty-two, playing in competitions is all but ruled out, so that’s when your first students start arriving. Naturally, as in any business, there are the usual human elements to navigate—intrigues, scandals, backstage agreements—but these determine little. What is the difference between the violinist who, standing, plays Sibelius’s violin concerto, and those who, seated, accompany her? They too could play the solo. So does the difference lie in their level of ambition, their personality? People will say the difference is fate, but that’s as good as saying nothing at all.

Although in age our heroine is no longer a girl, there is still a certain preserved, fixed childishness to her persona. Every artist needs an affectation—a term the profession finds unflattering, but an apt one nonetheless. Just as surgeons, teachers, and even soldiers need particular attributes—a certain swagger, an individualistic approach, perhaps—an artist can’t do without an affectation. And it’s a great boon if your figure—slight, somewhat angular—and your childish facial expression reflect the music you make, when within you playing inspires joy, freshness, and wonder.

And so, she is a musician, with a first-class training and one small secret: the existence of her Polish friend, it seems, is common knowledge. And even should a husband and children appear on her horizon (what would her life be without them? And yet, with such an intense focus on music, on bowing and intonation, it would be entirely possible for her to remain alone), not even to them would she reveal her secret. She would smile, keep mum. To be fair, no one would be likely to ask.

A dacha, a house on the Oka River. For about one month a year the river is big. In the mornings our heroine walks out to look at the floodwaters: that yellowy flow, those protruding sticks. It’s surprising how persistently this pitiful beauty repeats itself each year.

“How was your walk?” her former classmate asks, herself just out of bed. She’s recently had a bit of a setback: they’re making her reaudition for her seat in the orchestra, so she’s come out here to practice. Shall we have a go at the Sibelius, just for a laugh?

Her form has dipped considerably since graduation. She puts down her instrument, turns to our heroine: “Hey, how about we message Roma and Vitalik? We could go for some shashlik, shoot the breeze…You can put me with Roma, and you can have Vitalik—which one do you like more?”

Sadly, tempting as that is…she’s expecting someone else.

“Your Polish friend? Things are getting serious, I see.”

To be sure. Never more so.

“Well, then, I guess I’d best be off. I wouldn’t want to get in the way of your happiness.”

“You’ve got a good heart,” our heroine says to the classmate as she leaves.

“Sadly, no brains to match,” the latter laughs in reply.

After her old classmate has left, our heroine will spend the evening taking in the spring sky and the trees. She’ll play—not much, but well: skills learned young are never unlearned. Nor is the ability to listen to oneself.

Similar invitations, with other shashlik, other Romas and Vitaliks, often crop up on her travels, where ties are easily made, less easily untangled. But it isn’t for practical matters alone that her Polish friend comes into use. And it isn’t that she forgets he’s just an imaginary figure, a cover story for classmates and border guards, or, say, that she develops any particular interest in Polish culture or takes up the language: the Poles she has met do actually seem rather proud. Besides, her Polish visa has long since expired—and who knows what will have become of the EU, the Schengen Agreement, by then?

No rational person believes in fantasies, but anything that has been said for decades—especially when said in whispers—acquires a most important quality: substance. It is the same way that myths familial and national alike—can come, if not to heal, then at least to console. After forty, our heroine’s Polish friend will make the occasional appearance in her dreams, dreams that stay with her in her waking hours. He has neither name, nor voice, nor face; he’s just an undefined pleasantness. He’ll appear in the morning, just before she wakes up. If he makes an appearance the night before an important concert, it’s a sign that it will go well.

As the years go by, these important concerts shrink in number, but her number of students grows. Her pedagogical power isn’t what her professor’s was; she prefers praising children to anything else. And while there is a significant level of nuance to her praise, in her classroom the tears flow less freely than in Katya and Dodik’s times. But some degree of waterworks is inescapable—essential, even.

It is highly unlikely that the world of music will have widened by the point at which our story ends. With the adult world, that world of productive forces and of relations of production, music will still hold but a parallel existence. Now middle-aged, our heroine will once again fly to a Western European city—the same city where it all began. A chamber-music festival, a very attractive form of music making—for performers and audiences alike. The auditorium is comfortable and always full; their program is excellent: it’s a joy to be invited to such venues.

Will sheet music still exist thirty years from now? Even if not, there will still be plenty to carry: a violin, bow, rosin, strings, concert attire. It has now been a long time since her Polish friend last made an appearance; she hasn’t had time to think of him—she is onstage every day. Everything is performed after just one rehearsal, two at most, but this comes at no detriment to the quality, such is the musicians’ level. They rehearse in the morning, rest in the afternoon, and in the evening look at their fellow player or players, nod—here goes—wipe their hands on a hankie, walk out onto the stage…and play.

Our story is reaching its denouement, the final day. The horn trio yes, that very same one—finally she has the chance to play it, and as the closing number, to boot. The horn player is wonderful, or so they all say—she herself has never heard him play.

However, he is running rather late to the rehearsal. She and the pianist, an aging, red-haired man-child whom she has known for many years, dip in and out of the piece as they wait. Eventually the door opens and a violist steps in: Hasn’t anyone told them? The times have all had to be changed. And the horn player? Yesterday he ate something iffy, but he’ll be right as rain by the concert. Horn players love food; they need it for inspiration.

The violist smiles. He was only called in this morning, but he knows the music, has always dreamed of playing alongside them, and hopes not to disappoint. Besides, he’ll only be there for the rehearsal. He’s a tall man, with salt-and-pepper hair—but no, this isn’t the time to study him, they’re already an hour behind.

They begin to play. It very soon becomes clear that the music is exactly how she had imagined it. And from the end of the first movement she feels a burgeoning sense of joy, extraordinary, from some unknown part of her being, a joy she has never felt before. She must heed the music, not her joy; listen to herself, to the others. But that joy is there, and it’s swelling.

Music deals in barely discernible note values. The rhythm, no, not the rhythm—the meter, the pulse: the biggest challenge here is ensuring that everyone maintains the same pulse. The rest—crescendos, diminuendos, bowing—can all be easily fixed, but as it happens, nothing here needs to be fixed: it all comes together well—frighteningly well, for that matter.

The viola’s sound has a passion and warmth to it, a desire to impart something important, something crucial; to find out about her; to reveal itself. The violin responds: “Look at the trees and the sky, and think less about the important things,” or something along those lines.

And then it’s over. Breathe. The pianist breaks the silence, reminding the others of his presence: “In that section with the trills, I didn’t come in too strong, did I?”

No, not in the slightest.

“Oh. Well, that is my solo, after all. Shall we run through it again?”

They exchange looks. She and the violist: you can, but we won’t that run couldn’t be bettered.

The violist is a German of Polish descent. He has lived in this city his whole life, and he saw her all those years ago, when she was a girl auditioning at the conservatory—back then, he too was a violinist. He didn’t dare approach her then. He never really found his way until he switched to the viola. Now he plays in the local orchestra, a respectable orchestra. But she had played wonderfully, clearly and expressively; he can still remember those pieces.

His hands are large, beautiful and round, and, like hers, the skin around the nails is picked to the point of bleeding—even their neuroses are the same. He accompanies her back to her hotel, talking all the way. He’ll come to watch her that evening, and after the concert…after the concert, perhaps he might have the honor of…

And now, for the first time in her life, she realizes where the heart is. The throat. It’s in the throat.

He escorts her, pays his respects, and goes. And so…so that’s the sort of fellow he is. Ineffectual, rambling thoughts run through her mind. That evening, and after the concert…Where’s that joy now? It’s gone.

She sits on her bed, aimlessly flipping the lock on her case. Polish friend, Polish friend. So her dream’s come true? For some reason her heart won’t settle down.

And then: Where’s her bow? It’s a disaster—her bow’s gone! Flushed and sweating, she races back to the auditorium where they had rehearsed, desperately hoping not to bump into you-know-who. At first she can’t find the right door. Everything is scattering around her, somehow.

She has lost minor things in her time—keys, jewelry, that very passport—and even certain larger things—suitcases, for example, had gone missing more than once. But her bow? That had never happened. Oh, thank God, there it is—it’s on the piano.

It appears that everything is as it should be. Without knowing why, she calls the organizers. What has gotten into her? It’s fear—she is afraid.

“Well, hello!” The organizers are pleased she has called. “We were just about to touch base. The horn player has rallied—could you spare him an hour to look at the music?”

“No!” she can barely hold back her tears, “That’s not possible, I can’t!”

Yes, she is aware that she herself selected this piece, but for some reason now it’s the last thing she wants to play. She reels out a few contradictory excuses: something’s happened at home, her shoulder is hurting. Why are they going on about contractual obligations? It’s not like they’ve ever had to cancel a performance because of her before, is it? She asks them to call her a car, let her go quietly—they can come up with something.

It’s only when she’s on the way to the airport that her heart begins to settle down. To love alone does music yield—the words circle around in her head. But who has yielded what here, and to whom?

On the plane she sits by the window: the trees aren’t visible, of course, but there’s more than enough sky. She lands back in her home country—God knows what name it will go by, by then. But we’ve already mentioned that.

A day or two later she will walk into the classroom, look at the girl—her student—and say: “Well, what are you just standing there for? Play.”