Olga had never been one for numbers, rarely thought in pictures, and couldn't carry a tune to save her soul - had in fact been asked many times to not sing. But as a girl she'd collected languages the same way people collected keys or buttons. At night she dreamt in other languages and she woke in the morning with spoonfuls of those foreign sounds still on her tongue. Her mother, like all mothers did in the '50s, took care to teach Olga to edit her thoughts, to rein in her curiosity so as to keep them from wavering into the dangerous territory of the speculative. But there was no help for it.
'In what language do angels speak?' Olga asked her mother when she was only six. They stood at the river's edge washing laundry. Upriver at the airbase, engineers were testing turbines and across the murky waters at the tank manufacturing plant, loud rumbles shook the ground. It all seemed safe enough to Olga. 'Yiddish,' her mother said without hesitation. But then because the wind had a way of taking voices and putting them in other people's ears, her mother added, 'Please, not another question like that one, not when we are standing in the wide open.'
In those days it was forbidden to bake matzoh, so after prayers, at the time people told stories, Olga's mother put bread out on the east-facing windowsill. The east window some people called the dog window, and so it was for the dogs that Olga thought her mother set the bread. 'No,' her mother said, 'for wisdom.' The bread was an invitation and an appeal to that old woman, who stood on the corner of busy streets, shaking the dust off her skirts. Without her any story would be heard the wrong way, as a jumble of words. 'Listen,' her mother laid her hand on Olga's forehead, the signal for Olga to climb under the covers. Then she told a story, as she did every night, her way of ferrying Olga to sleep.
'One day, in the good times when matzoh still fell from the sky and men lay about up to their elbows in cockroach milk, a few men got a big idea. “Let's build a tower with bricks. Let's build it so tall it pokes a hole in the heavens,” they said. “We'll tug on God's ear and make Him explain why - with all our great knowledge - our lives feel meaningless and we are so quickly forgotten.”
'This the men of the land said to one another in the single common language that they all knew and shared. Because everybody's sorrow wore the same clothes, knotted and threaded the same way, they all understood what they were working for. But knowing each other so well, never having occasion to misunderstand one another, men in those days were single-minded creatures. They were proud, having forgotten that humility comes with not understanding.'
'And then what?' Olga asked. 'With wind at his fingertips God toppled the tower. It fell into thousands of pieces, and each fallen brick became another heavy language to carry.'
'I don't understand,' Olga said.
'Exactly! The language of man became the language of men, and do you know how many men there are on the land?' Her mother gazed over the top of her glasses at Olga. The answer? Too many to count, and counting lives brought bad luck. At six years of age, already Olga knew this much.
But if all this were meant to discourage Olga from languages, then her mother failed. Miserably. By the time she'd entered the lower grades Olga already had a good working knowledge of written Hebrew - though she made sure to only speak it in whispers, and then only if all the doors and windows were closed. But it was clear to everyone living in their tiny town on the steppe in the way she murmured the positions of stars in Arabic and Greek that Olga was destined for a life in letters.
As a teenager she devoured languages whole the way some people consume entire rounds of cheese, wax rinds and all. 'It'll be heartbreak for you, smart people always suffer at the hands of the stupid, but at least you'll develop your personality, because looks you do not have,' her mother offered by way of encouragement. And her mother was right. Olga was not a great beauty, or even a minor one. But she had a brain in her head. Because of this she was allowed entrance into university where, owing to excessive overcrowding in the dormitories, she shared a room with an Uzbek, a Buryat, a Kumyk, and a Kazakh, each one carrying the smell of wet cotton and cabbage in their hair and dark soil under their fingernails. At night their combined longing for home and the people they'd left behind filled the cramped room in hushed prayers and stinging dreams narrated and translated from one tongue to another. By the end of the first year Olga had picked up their languages and hung them out to dry over the creaking and clanging central heating pipes, which groaned when the early snows fell and sighed all winter long. But in the same way that a great ability can be a terrible curse, the more languages Olga acquired, the more trouble she had articulating her own ideas in any language.
As if knowledge were a deep wound from which she'd spend the rest of her life recovering, everything she had learned at university bit by bit she had begun to forget. Thanks to her many dissertations on linguistics, none of which were approved or published, she had become a permanent invalid, the wisest fool, Ilke - Zvi's mother - said just days before Zvi and Olga's wedding. And yet, by some incredible oversight (had the staffing chief not noticed on her internal passport her line-five classification as Jew? Had the pool of applicants really been so inferior that the local office of such an important newspaper as the Red Star found themselves so desperate?), Olga was offered a job at the Red Star.
'Oh, take it! Take this job!' Ilke said when Olga delivered the news all those years ago: she, a Jew with multiple unpublished dissertations, had been hired to translate at what was possibly at that time the most conservative, hard-line, military-propaganda-churning newspaper in the country. 'Take it and don't complain, Olya. What with all this business with Afghanistan and your failed dissertations, you'll not find another job like this one!'
And Ilke was right: nowhere in all of Russia would Olga have encountered a more absurd working arrangement than that of the translation offices of the Red Star. For purposes of maintaining mental clarity, Olga had over the years numbered the absurdities.
Absurdity no. 1
…was rumoured to be lurking about in the building - somewhere - and hard at work. But in the twenty years that Olga had laboured at the Red Star, first as an earnest young Soviet of the late seventies, then, after Zvi was called up, as a single mother with a boy to raise, and now as a middle-aged woman (forty-four already!), not once had she ever met Editor-in-Chief Mrosik, whose name appeared in the signature portion of her increasingly meager and rare pay cheques. It was also speculated that when he was either very happy or very unhappy, Editor-in-Chief Mrosik brayed like a donkey, but this, too, Olga had never actually witnessed, though strange trumpeting sometimes did float up through the non-functioning elevator, an old metal cage with a retractable guard arm. Every now and then Olga opened the metal guard and stepped inside the small casket-shaped box, just to see if it might be functioning. As her eyes slowly grew accustomed to the dark, messages scrawled across the walls began to assert themselves: 'This carriage last inspected by #49, 7-OCT-1992,' read one; 'We Can Withstand Anything But Close Scrutiny,' read another. 'Better to Overfart than Underfart Incompletely!' proclaimed another slogan scribbled in orange crayon. But by far the strangest:
Fundamental particle: A particle with no internal substructure. In the s...