Harbin Moths

Harbin Moths
Harbin Moths
Tallin: Avenarius (2013)
ISBN 978-9985834442
312 pages
The action of the novel Harbin Moths takes place in Revel (Tallinn) from the 1920s to the 1940s. The main characters are émigrés from Soviet Russia, mainly from the intelligentsia, who by the whim of fate have been transported to the Estonia of the time of the First Republic. 

Counts become taxi drivers, officers steal and take to drink, ladies turn into housekeepers or go mad from the desire to copulate. Some are forced to drudge at factories, offices or the numerous émigré publications, others receive good incomes from smuggling (moonshine to Finland, soap, nails and matches to Russia) and turn them into cocaine, while others spend their last energy on fighting the Bolsheviks, seeing salvation in fascist ideology. They live as if they were at a train station waiting for an echelon to take them to their homeland, where they will be able to take moth-eaten frock-coats and hats out of their chests of drawers. All of them are mad in their own way, and all are doomed. The impeccably elegant aristocrat Kitaev travels from country to country, spends time in restaurants and casinos, to dull the monstrous boredom of his existence. Lying in another hotel room and looking at the rotating blades of the ceiling fan, he imagined “how the roulette wheel is spinning somewhere, and he is lying, like a token, in expectation.” The civil servant’s son Lyova fills his life with cocaine, to stop from being like his father, hunched over in his Estonian office. The editor of the émigré newspaper Stropilin runs to a doctor, because he thinks that the nails of his younger son are growing with “proletarian” plates.

“Russians can be recognized by their old hats. They sit by the “Mermaid” on benches under the willow trees – in patched-up coats or ragged fur coats. The crows perch above them in the branches. The sky is clotted like cream. The wind blows pieces of paper over the promenade. It tugs someone’s umbrella. The horn honks. The hats move, they look at a car driving past. Leaves, pieces of paper, lanterns. They just sit there. The newspapers rustle. Their suits wear out. They float along the paths of the Kadriorg Park. They stand here and there, like chess pieces.”

The central figure of this panopticon, the main character and sometimes also the narrator (the author of the diary notes) is Boris Rebrov, who lost his family during his flight from Russia, and like the majority, simply tries to survive – he works as a photographer, sells his pictures where he tries to “capture fleeing time”, writes articles in various publications and spends years creating a brilliant collage of the Tower of Babel. An artist of light and a Daguerreotypist (“the cobblestones glistened like eggplants. The puddles blossomed with maple leaves”), he tries to be like everyone else – he goes to various émigré meetings, gets drunk, and even contemplates marrying an Estonian woman. But as a true artist he feels the disharmony of the world in which he is just an untouchable wanderer, a butterfly who flies to the flame, and burns his wings, in order to strive once more towards the source of destruction tomorrow. Like Virgil, he leads the reader through the circles of émigré hell. “At the circus I saw a horseman with a monkey on his shoulders, the horseman didn’t care, he kept jumping and jumping, but the monkey was shaken around, it was thrown from side to side, the poor thing bared its teeth, as it flew around, trying to grab a hold of something, dangling in the air, not understanding which way was up and which way was down… Just like a Russian emigrant.”

Thanks to his long work in the archives in Tallinn, including with materials of memoirs, the author is able to recreate the atmosphere of the time very accurately – an Estonia which was a token in the game between the USSR and Nazi Germany, an Estonia which was a transit point, or a place of final repose for many Russian emigrants, an atmosphere of hope and despair, heated political debates, interest in the occult, of indifference and petty vindictiveness.

But Harbin Moths is not a historical novel in the literal sense. It is not a book about (or not only about) how “fascism takes root in a person, and not even about the karma that is woven in the most unexpected way, when a person tormented by circumstances does not know where they have ended up or what they have got into it, but it is rather about the ripples and the waves in which every one of us flounders, regardless of political or aesthetic predilections.” (Dmitry Bavilsky)

The novel leads the reader “into a timeless corridor” under the name of universal solitude. Boris tries to take part in external life, in political discussions, drinking bouts and orgies, and even agrees to hide propaganda literature sent from Harbin, where the center of the All-Russian Fascist Party is located, and which is intended for distribution in the USSR. But he is swamped in gloom, Revel remains alien, it “doesn’t open up to him”, and instead of praying he conjugates Latin verbs. “Have you ever seen a rat on the street? It runs along the wall of a building, constantly keeping next to the wall. Just like me – there’s always some book, some system, whether it’s Schopenhauer or Hartmann… I can’t take a step myself. And you want an idea. Where could it come from? I can’t feel myself… I live like in a dream. I want to run away, but I can’t move from the spot… How the mind is organized! The same images over and over again. Nothing unexpected. You put Rembrandt in your head and take out Picasso… Time goes by, the world turns over, but everything inside me remains unchanged. I could be famous or get rich, but inside I know what I am – fear, trembling and that green booth… What does the rock I sit on care about me? The same goes for everything else. It’s outside of me! Even love… it’s outside of me!”

Reviews

March 10, 2014
Harbin Moths is a work of historical fiction that takes place in the capital of Estonia – Revel (now Tallinn) and focuses on the fates, hopes and wanderings of émigrés, mainly intelligentsia, from Soviet Russia in the period from the 1920s to the 1940s. By the whim of fate they have ended up together in the Estonia of the time of the First Republic. They meet and develop elaborate plans of overthrowing the Bolsheviks, snort cocaine or even use morphine, visit brothels and engage in gossip. They act as if they are kings of the world, but one can sense an inexorable and imperceptible end on the horizon, a catastrophe that becomes increasingly difficult to ignore.