From Aetherial Worlds
Of the Russian masters to whom she has been compared – including Leo Tolstoy, a distant relative – the one that Tatyana Tolstaya most closely resembles is Nikolai Gogol. Both authors have an affinity for the uncanny and both trade in a mode that frequently resembles fable. Tolstaya employs strategies and tactics lifted from science fiction, though she has also flirted with naturalism; Chekhov is another frequent touchstone.
“The Window,” from Tolstaya’s 2018 collection Aetherial Worlds, is of the former variety. It starts off in a realistic mode, but slips into the fantastical quickly enough. The story is centred on Shulgin, a typical office drone living in Moscow, who whiles away his spare time playing backgammon with his neighbour, Frolov. The two discuss politics and other sundry matters, but Shulgin keeps noticing the new items appearing in his neighbour’s apartment: appliances, clothes, furniture. “Beautiful but useless things.” Curious, he asks Frolov where he acquires these household goods and after a brief period of deflection, Frolov tells him: there is an old Soviet-era building with a unit demarcated by a window where the articles are handed out. “Free of charge.”
Shulgin is entranced, especially when he realizes that in addition to the physical objects in Frolov’s apartment, his neighbour’s living space appears to have grown in size, notwithstanding the fact that the new room extends beyond where the boundaries of the building seem to land. After pressing his neighbour about the window, Frolov tells Shulgin how the system operates: “First and foremost … when they yell out, let’s say, ‘Coffee grinder!’ you just have to yell back ‘Deal!’ This is of the utmost importance. Don’t forget and don’t mess up.”
The next morning, Shulgin travels to the appointed location, where he finds the proper hallway and locates the window: “nothing special, a deep casement in a wooden frame, exactly like the one where Shulgin picked up his salary.” The window is explicitly associated with faceless bureaucracy; the imperative for Shulgin to agree to the terms of the anonymous dwellers behind the window – by saying “Deal!” for anything he is offered – implies complicity on Shulgin’s part with the system of exchange, even though the precise nature of that system, and the rules governing it, remains obscure.
Shulgin begins to accumulate more valuable trinkets that start to fill up his small apartment; he is forced to keep a pair of skis in his bathtub for lack of storage space. One of the items the window provides him is a copy of a book called Russian Parody: Tolstaya’s bizarre scenario is a kind of parody of socialism on the one hand and, on the other, of an acquisitive capitalism that is focused on an obsession with amassing things regardless of their utility or necessity.
Indeed, Shulgin finds his living space beginning to fill up precariously; the window offers him additional square footage, but only as needed to house more of the stuff that continues to accrue without meaning or use. The absurdity of this situation is highlighted by the fact that Shulgin is not able to divest himself of any of the items the window has supplied for him; when he tries to get rid of something, he is punished by having parts of his living space collapse. When Shulgin’s wife attempts to give away a grill as a gift at a friend’s birthday party, he reacts with fury: his wife thinks he is simply greedy, but in reality “he was worried sick about what the window would think about this, how it would punish him.”
At the same time as Shulgin is struggling to maintain equilibrium, he is forced to question the apparent divergence in the way he is treated by the window as against the way his neighbour, Frolov, makes out. “But something was amiss, thought Shulgin – they’d started out at practically the same time, but now Frolov had an entire manufacturing plant, he was basically an oligarch. But all Shulgin had was a three-room apartment and a sausage-vendor wife. Imagine, social inequality and no free market. Take that, North Korea!”
In Tolstaya’s satire, the window represents a state or bureaucratic apparatus that doles out benefits arbitrarily, without recourse to who might be most in need or what use the various accoutrements might be. And it is not possible for a dissident to opt out of the system as it is constructed. When Shulgin tries to exert his own agency by telling the window “No deal,” the window punishes him by erasing from existence anything he verbalizes subsequently. If he doesn’t want to lose the things that are most precious to him – his wife and daughter – Shulgin is reduced to inarticulateness and silence, unable to even vocalize their names lest the window exact revenge by taking them away from him.
“There is no such thing as ‘free,’” Frolov tells Shulgin dismally. “But you said that there was,” Shulgin responds. “I didn’t,” Frolov says. “I said they were handing things out ‘free of charge.’ There’s a big difference.” The people behind the window – if such exist – are never seen; they remain anonymous figures in the shadows, the window itself a nondescript enclave down an indiscriminate hallway. In personifying the window, Tolstaya crafts an allegory about dehumanization and the dangers of acquisitiveness. It is also a mordantly funny satire of state suppression and the ways in which we voluntarily acquiesce to our own entrapment in the absurd cogs of bureaucratic machinery.