The Book of Other People by Zadie Smith


  Adam Thirlwell

  These were the names of the men who would have slept with Nigora (thought Nigora), if only she had encouraged them:



  Then there were the names of men whom Nigora had successfully pursued, but who would not sleep with her again, for various reasons (loyalty to their wives; loyalty to her husband):



  Next there was the list of men whom Nigora had successfully pursued and who, she thought, would still sleep with her if she wanted to: this list, therefore, could be further and more precisely divided into those whom Nigora would also sleep with, for various reasons (pride; vanity; love) -



  - and those whom Nigora would not sleep with, for various other reasons (boredom; fidelity; love) -




  And yet this list was complicated by the fact that all these men were absent. They were all in another city, in another country, to which Nigora would never return.

  In a cake-shop - in this city which was not her city, this city in the west - Nigora was compiling imaginary lists of her life, while watching the sullen assistant stroke sky-blue ribbon into curlicues with the back of a pair of scissors.

  And finally (thought Nigora) there were the men with whom Nigora, in this city, had a chance:Yaha



  This was the list which mattered to Nigora. Or no. To be more precise: Nigora’s imagination dwelt on those she had not pursued, and those she could still pursue - whether conquered already or not. She only left alone the list of those whom she had conquered and to whom she would no longer return. She was haunted by the spectre of non-fulfilment.

  But one name was more present than the rest.


  It would also be possible to describe Nigora’s life in a list of all the films which she had seen with her father, on Kultura or the more commercial Russian channels, from the age of six to sixteen. Each Saturday afternoon, they would settle down in the living room, thus avoiding the tantrums and depression of her mother, his wife.

  On their satellite television, they watched varieties of romantic comedy, both ancient and modern:The Lady Eve

  The Philadelphia Story

  Sullivan’s Travels

  When Harry Met Sally

  Roman Holiday.

  They watched teen movies:Pretty in Pink

  The Breakfast Club.

  They watched weepies (An Affair to Remember) and screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby). They admired the œuvre of Preston Sturges - the unacknowledged genius of the American 1940s. They watched the Russian mini-series of Sherlock Holmes, with the great Vasily Livanov (Holmes) and Vitaly Solomin (Watson). They made forays into the artistic and silver world of Max Ophuls(Le Plaisir

  La Ronde

  Madame de)

  and the artistic and silver world of Jean Renoir(La Règle du jeu

  La Grande illusion

  Toni ).

  They treasured André Hunebelle’s films of Fantômas, the sadistic master criminal of Paris - who owned a Citroën DS with retractable wings. Nigora’s favourite, disputed by her father, was Fantômas contre Scotland Yard. Her father preferred the simplicity of Fantômas. They watched Truffaut (Le Dernier métro) and Godard (Le Mépris). But most of all they watched the American 1970s:Coppola






  Like the list of Nigora’s love affairs, perhaps this list is also overly comprehensive. For what predominated, from the weekends of her childhood, was not the films. The films were exorbitant; what remained was a sense of sadness and of loss.

  Her mother would stop talking to her and her father for two weeks. She would refuse to address her daughter in front of the mothers at her school. She worked two jobs - one as a lecturer in the university, in classical archaeology, the other as a reader for a specialist ancient history publisher. And these jobs, she would remind her daughter, made her tired. They exhausted her, she said.

  Nigora, as a girl, always identified with the minor characters. She always sympathised with the rejected, the marginalised, the small.

  In the cake-shop, balancing a cake-box on the tripod of her fingers - like a waiter - Nigora made lists of her life. She remembered the sledge on nails above the front door; the dovecote of slippers beside it. She remembered doing piano practice on a Saturday morning, a metronome becoming hysterical beside her.

  In the Maison Thomas pizzeria (Le Caire, fondée en 1922, Open 24 hours), Yaha began to write a letter to an older woman. It was the fourth of a collection that would eventually comprise seventeen letters. In this letter - which bore an unnoticed tear of chilli sauce - he would write the sentence: ‘Whenever I imagine a future I imagine it with you.’ And Nigora, reading this, would be touched, and would not believe him.

  Simultaneously, Nigora’s husband - Laziz - arranged his elbow in a scalene triangle, pleasantly uncomfortable, on the rim of the perpetually open driver’s window. His car was imported from the Communist past of Eastern Europe: it was yellow and outdated. Its window-frames contained no glass whatsoever.

  Its meter was printed in Cyrillic, with TAKC .

  Laziz sat in the traffic and looked at the smog on the river. Like Nigora, his thoughts were nostalgic. Unlike Nigora’s, they were also romantic. Lazizjon, he was thinking. Lazizjon.

  Oh my Laziz.

  A dubbed and imported video of The Philadelphia Story - a present for their anniversary - lay clipped inside a clouded plastic box, on the passenger seat beside him. The passenger seat and its headrest were shrouded in the costume of a panda.

  Laziz believed in two things. He believed in tribulation. The history of the world was a history of pain. But Laziz did not worry about this world. Its pain did not distress him. Neither loss nor death distressed him. For he also believed in God, and His inscrutable gifts.

  He picked a cassette, titled in red felt-tip, from a pile beside the gear-stick, and blew into each spoked wheel before slotting it happily into its slit. After several uncertain and anxious seconds, the voice of Natacha Atlas began to be husky in his car.

  Laziz (thought Laziz) was happy. He was a married man. Nothing, therefore, could harm him. He was protected by the love of God, and its earthly counterpart, the love of his wife.

  He knew that when he died he would hear a voice, and that voice would greet him by his name.

  In Namangan, the city where he was born, and where he had assumed that he would die (but he would not), Laziz had begun a bakery business. He started a chain of shops selling cake, flowers - gladioli in translucent plastic, like a wedding dress - and boxes of outdated chocolate. He had started it in 1989, when everyone believed in perestroika, for the West and for the East.

  In Namangan, Laziz’s sexual encounters had been limited to occasional kisses, occasional fumblings. He would listen with careful unconcern to the stories of his colleagues, his employees - about their wives and their affairs. None of Laziz’s affairs were affairs of the heart.

  As he sat each night in his only armchair, with its pornographic rents and tears, as he read business textbooks in Russian, Laziz used to console himself with the theory that this prolonged virginity was not, as some might argue, due to weakness, or fear. It was instead due to a care for the female; it was a superhuman tenderness. He was a superhero of tenderness.

  In this way, Laziz accepted the burden of his inexperience. He developed a way of not caring about girls, by saying that he cared about girls.

  And so when he was first and finally in bed with a girl, whose name was Nigora, on a business trip to Samarqand, Laziz was unprepared. He was also thirty-two.

  Although both of them acknowledged that intercourse itself would not take place, there was still a tacit understanding that, since their
clothes had been removed, other actions might be performed. There was an air of expectation. In Nigora’s mind, there was an idea of hopes to be fulfilled. But when Laziz’s fingers first felt the deep wetness of Nigora, its fur and unexpected sensations, he was not able to control himself. He spurted, a little to the left of Nigora, who was lying on her front.

  At this point, Laziz felt his sex life running away from him.

  How far is a person the same as their sex life? This was what Laziz began to think, naked, beside a naked girl. He became ontological, epistemological. Laziz wanted to believe that his sex life could be separate from his life. Like many people who have caused their own distress, he wanted to believe that events were not a sure guide to character - somewhere, inviolate, and far away from this scene, existed a Laziz who was powerful and perfect.

  And yet events are a sure guide to character. Nigora, in the cake-shop queue, considering if she could leave Laziz, would have been able to tell him that. Our characters - she would have argued, sadly - are nothing but events. Everything else is only romance.

  One proof of her improvised theory is what Laziz did next, in Namangan, many years ago, on that fateful night with Nigora.

  He did not talk to Nigora; he did not tell the truth, and trust his charm. Instead, Laziz lay on his left side, with one hand propping up his head. A dying gladiator. He gazed at Nigora. He neglected to mention that he was lying on his own emission.

  Nigora looked at him. And in this look began the subsequent relationship of Laziz and Nigora. For Laziz was trying to look cool and unconcerned; while Nigora was looking anxious. Laziz was hoping not to be found out; Nigora was fretting - why had her body, now naked, rendered Laziz so nonchalant, so lolling? Where was his fire? His inner spirit? Where was the lust?

  The lust, thought Laziz, was simply premature. It was not on time. The lust would therefore return eventually. He was young and healthy, after all. And so he thought that the crisis would pass. He trusted to a timetable.

  But the crisis did not pass. Leaning on his hand, Laziz continued to observe his new girlfriend in distress. His pose was classical. It was picturesque.

  Oh, the picturesque is no substitute for lust! And yet the picturesque was all Laziz could perform; everything else was beyond him.

  This image - in which Laziz was picturesque, leaning on his elbow, and Nigora was distressed, lying naked beside him - is the image of their subsequent marriage.

  Two years later, succumbing to the pressure of events, they left their country (a country to which they would never return).

  Some Night-time Dialogue between Nigora and Laziz

  L It’s a dodgy haircut, isn’t it? It’s dodgy.

  N Well, yes, you could say that. It’s dodgy.

  L You think so?

  N Well.

  L Oh, no.

  N I’m only teasing you; I’m only tormenting you.

  L Tell me you love me.

  N Lazizjon.

  L Tell me you love me. Am I handsome? Tell me I’m handsome.

  N You’re handsome. You’re more than handsome. You’re a looker.

  L But you don’t mean that.

  N Yes, I mean that.

  L Well, you shouldn’t mean that.

  N Lazizjon.

  Each night, these facts recurred to her: Nigora was thirty-four; Yaha was twenty-three. These numbers were suddenly becoming fraught for Nigora. She remembered them every morning; at her rising up, and at her going to bed. She remembered them when she went out, and on her coming in.

  She was a married woman. She did not know if she still loved her husband. She did not know if she, a married woman, whose hands and breasts - whose every opening - had since her marriage known only one man, was now in love with someone else.

  Sometimes, Nigora believed that if she only kissed Yaha, then she would be cured. Her pain would be relieved. Cupid’s arrow would be removed from her breast. But she was not sure.

  Nigora was a housewife and a part-time secretary. Yaha was a reserve footballer for AHLY.

  As she spoke to her immortal and all-powerful God - a God she had disconsolately adopted from Laziz - she reasoned in this way. That she was not to blame. That so long as no sexual acts occurred she was not guilty of any sin. That the definition of a sexual act was problematic. That it necessarily included introduction of the penis into her body; and necessarily included ejaculation of semen, whether inside or outside a female body; and also, necessarily, any touch of a man’s hand or mouth on the bareness between her legs. But at this point Nigora grew perplexed. She felt the need for guidance, and could not find it.

  Her problem was the kiss. She could not define the moral status of the kiss. If she kissed him, thought Nigora, then maybe she would not want to venture into the unambiguously immoral; she would no longer be tempted by the temptations of his flesh.

  Since she thought that the kiss might be her cure, she tended to believe that a kiss was innocent. It was just on the right side of morality.

  Nigora was not convinced of the soul’s immortality. Laziz was convinced; but she was not. And since she was not convinced, she was also unsure of his belief in crime and punishment. Without the threat of punishment or the promise of reward, her actions were oddly depleted. They existed only for her.

  In this way, Nigora was a libertine.

  All Nigora’s temptations were now refracted through the immortal. Her body’s immortal longings were her anxiety, her worry. They seemed more important than the possibility of her soul’s immortal life.

  And yet, and yet. How much pleasure could her body procure, she wondered? If they slept together, she would not give Yaha pleasure; when he remembered her, she worried, he would remember her only with amusement, with pity. Her memory of passion would be his memory of the laughable.

  At what point, she wondered, could she act out of character? When would she have the courage?

  Her life was all Laziz: they could not contemplate themselves without each other. It was Laziz / Nigora; Nigora / Laziz; and Laziz bored her.

  Laziz wore a baseball cap stitched with a Big Apple badge pinned to its peak. He wore khaki chinos with ironed-in pleating, like a curtain, around the crotch. Below the raised hem of these trousers, which did not reach his shoes, two sports socks were visible. These socks came in trios - three identical roll-mops - tightly in a plastic wrapper. He bought them from a kiosk in Downtown, which arranged its wares neatly outside on an ironing board. He wore a taupe and tucked-in polo neck, which in the language of the fashion magazines unread by Nigora would have been called unforgiving. On the fuzzy back-ledge of Laziz’s taxi were three miniature rubber dogs, with dislocated and nodding heads. There was a bulldog, a Scotch terrier and a (miniature) miniature Schnauzer.

  Nigora had a theory of romantic comedy. It might, perhaps, have helped Laziz to know this theory. It might have helped him in his own thoughts and theories of marriage. But he did not know her theory.

  Every plot in the movies (thought Nigora) was the same. She knew the plots. There was the life-changing moment. Then the meet-cute. Then the discovery of an obstruction to happiness. Then the decision to embark on a particular strategy. The test, or tests. The sudden reversal of the obstruction. And finally the happy ending.

  These were the plots: but there was another way of describing the plots.

  Every plot was about morality: it was the opposition of adultery and marriage; it was saying that there was always a choice to be made between sex and love. Every hero or heroine believed they could not have the two together. And yet this opposition would always be resolved in the coercive paradise of the finale, where sex and love were revealed to be identical.

  Nigora was unconvinced by this. For she was not sentimental. However much they tempted her, and moved her, she could not believe in the fantasy of the endings. She still, after all, had some pride.

  According to Nigora, romantic comedy was the most morally complex of all the filmic genres. It dramatised the essential moral problem
of everybody’s life. It represented the gap between desire and fulfilment.

  This was the theory she developed as she lay beside her husband; as he caressed the curve of her forehead; as his hands went up and down the floral print of her acrylic night-gown. The flora were daisies, they were cornflowers. Nigorajonim, he said. Nigorajonim. He told his wife that he loved her. And she told him that she loved him; and she was lying, thought Nigora. She was lying to her Lazizjon.

  And yet: Nigora was not lying, not quite.

  There was a secret to Laziz’s moustache. It was a private joke between him and Nigora. The joke was that Laziz’s moustache was not real. From time to time, Laziz applied this drooping line of glutinous plastic to his upper lip. Before he went out, Nigora would take polaroids of him: as he saluted, glaring at the camera; as he leered and pouted like a matinée idol. They loved these photographs. They showed them to their closest friends, as they drank a coffee, with jagged squares of milk chocolate. And no one else found Laziz’s moustache funny. It was not, perhaps, that they found it positively unfunny; it was just that they could not see its humour. This humour was reserved for the privacy of Laziz and his Nigora.

  The night before they left Uzbekistan, in 2002, Nigora met her friend Faizullo in the park. There was a man selling candyfloss, and a man selling bananas. They held hands and kissed as if they were in love. In this way, Nigora hoped she might not be endangering her friend. They would simply resemble an everyday, humdrum affair. It was nothing to do with alliances, or politics. They sat on a climbing-frame printed with blurred reproductions of Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny, and talked about the other singers in the opera house, maliciously. Faizullo was an opera singer. This was Nigora’s implicit way of talking about their friendship. And then they walked away and Nigora kissed him on the cheek, lightly, absent-mindedly - as though she were about to see him again in the morning.

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