Paper’s More Real

The bankrupt Daniel Skye has come to Shanghai in search of money for his dream project, a multimedia game set in the White Russian community in the early 1920s. Here, in Chapter Five, his friend Pierre takes him to the home of Olga Derieva, who fled the city in 1949 but has just returned.

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VALERY CONSTANTIN GERGIEV had two bullet holes in his head, one going in, one coming out. He’d been put in front of a Bolshevik firing squad in 1919 and by some miracle he survived. Not just being shot, but the night in an open grave, the journey to the Pacific and the siege of Vladivostok, and the headlong flight to Harbin and then south to Shanghai. Unable to speak, he opened a borscht restaurant off the Avenue Joffre, in the heart of the area known as Little Moscow.

“Here. North side of Avenue Edouard.” Olga Derieva tapped Daniel’s map with the bejeweled talon of her forefinger. “Every Friday Papa gave mother money and she’d take us to Gergiev’s. Best borscht in Shanghai. Two kinds, hot borscht and cold borscht.”

Daniel had read about Gergiev. Now, the day after his arrival in Shanghai, he was listening to somebody who had actually met him and seen his dumbshow and eaten his cooking. It was a heady omen. He would use the restaurant as one of the locations for The Riding Instructor, a shadow on the ghost map that became real when the user followed a clue.

“What happened to him?” he asked.

“Red Army.” She narrowed her eyes and raised a fist and tilted her head to one side. A hanged man.

Derieva herself, sixteen years old when Mao’s forces swept in, escaped with her mother and father on a German freighter. She ended up in New York, where she acquired the nasal vowels of Brooklyn and, over the years, three husbands. After the last one died she felt a sudden urge to visit the city of her childhood. When she saw it she decided to stay.

“Because after all these years the old spirit is still there,” she’d said to Pierre that first day on the Bund. Around them horns blared as the flood of evening traffic slowed to a bad-tempered crawl. “You can feel it. That wild energy. Goddamn reds didn’t tame Shanghai. They just screwed it up for a while. Most exciting city in the whole goddamn world. Again.”

On a long-ago afternoon she had visited a Jewish friend of her mother’s, bicycling over the Garden bridge and following Suzhou Creek past the Persian silk shops on Broadway until they turned into a maze of alleys. Her mother said Hongkou meant “mouth of the rainbow.” Olga repeated the name and said one day she was going to live there.

Now she did, on a lane with purple wisteria hanging from poles. Bicycles rusted against the walls, next to a lilac-colored scooter with a yellow smiley-face on the mudguard. Inside Olga’s iron-framed door a short tiled passage led to her living room. If her childhood had been marked by privation she was making up for it now. The room was crammed with heavy black furniture and every surface covered by a magpie collection of treasures: gilded vases, chunks of crystal, dolls, bowls, jars, an old radio, two ornate brass birdcages, both empty.

On a table against the wall was Daniel’s map, which she was scrutinizing with feverish intensity. He’d shown her the version on his iPad as a way of introducing The Riding Instructor, but she was more interested in the original. “Paper’s more goddamn real,“ she’d growled.

He could see why. The map was a relic from a world that would soon disappear from memory. He’d found it in a used bookstore on the edge of Seattle’s University District, just as the project was starting to form in his mind. This, too, he took as an omen. He realized immediately that the map could be the key element in the navigational structure. Produced by the Oriental Publishing House of Shanghai, it had been made before the communist takeover and used the old street names, which were written in a very small, careful script.

Olga ran her finger along Avenue Joffre and tapped on a corner.

“Rue Marcel Tillot. Mama’s shop was here. Hat shop. Made hats out of felt, cotton, feathers, furs. Somebody brought her a tiger skin once and she made hats out of that. Strung the teeth on silk thread and used them as decoration. She was very imaginative. Never made much money, though.”

“But you survived,” Daniel said.

“Yeah, we survived. Mama said it was because of this.“ She went over to one of the cartons and took out a large envelope. Inside, folded in tissue paper, was a delicate lace collar, yellowed with age. ”My grandmother’s jabot. The only thing Mama managed to bring from the old house. All the way across Lake Baikal on a sled. That and six gold roubles sewn in her underwear.” She laid the jabot on the table and smoothed it out. “I guess it worked. By the time I was born things weren’t too bad. Not as bad as they had been, anyway. At least we had a house.”

She picked up the map and peered closer, tilting it to read the minuscule script.

“Here.” The talon tapped again. “Rue Wagner. This is where we lived. Tiny little house. Papa let out the attic to a couple of girls from the French Club. There was something wrong with the chimney and whenever we lit a fire the place filled with smoke.”

“Near the racecourse,” Daniel said. “Did you ever go there?”

“Every autumn. All Shanghai went to the races in autumn. Offices closed for a three-day break.“

She fell silent, as if listening to the sound of ghostly hoofbeats.

“Foreign businessmen collected horses. One of the Jews had a thousand.” Olga gazed at the map, seeing in it the shape of her childhood. “Bogosian, that was his name. Very wealthy. From Baghdad. Came on a camel, left in a Rolls Royce. He liked Mongolian ponies. Paid Russians to race them. Papa said the only thing Russians were good at was riding. A Russian rode all the way from Shanghai to Nanking and back in sixteen days. On the same pony. Seven hundred miles.”

“Subarov,” Daniel said.

Olga looked at him sharply, and Daniel understood why Pierre had frozen.

“Yes. Subarov. He did it for a bet.”

“And won.”

“Didn’t do him any good,” Olga said. “Next day he was dead.”

“Robbery?”

She shook her head.

“He won a thousand dollars and went to the Great World to play fan-tan. Fan-tan pays four times the stake if you win. At first he was lucky. Four thousand dollars. He’d told his mistress if he had four thousand dollars he’d get them passports. He’d take her to Paris. But he couldn’t stop. No Russian walks away from a winning streak. In fan-tan you put your stake on a slip of red paper. The Chinese call it the dog’s tongue. Subarov put four thousand dollars on the dog’s tongue.

“When he lost he asked one of the guards for his gun. Then he went up to the top of the building and stood by the railing.” Olga raised two fingers to her temple. “Goodbye, Subarov.”

“The Great World’s still there,” Pierre said. “Looks like a tall, skinny wedding cake.” It was his turn to peer at the map. But Olga beat him to it.

“Here.” She pointed. “Between Avenue Edouard VII and Tibet Road.”

“Anything left of the inside?” Daniel asked.

“Probably not,” Pierre said. “Heard they’d turned it into a kids’ playground.”

Olga was staring at the map.

“Rue Kraetzer. That’s where Papa’s office was.”

“What did he do?” Daniel asked.

Olga pointed to the wall behind him. He turned, and saw three framed pictures propped up on a shelf.

“In St Petersburg he was an art student. I don’t know what he did when he arrived in Shanghai. He never spoke about that. First thing I remember he was an illustrator for a magazine.”

The images had been made from woodblock prints, Japanese-style. One, in blue and orange, showed the face of a man, a Westerner, with his chin in one hand and a fountain pen held aloft in the other. Behind him, and fainter, three smiling women looked on; a writer and his muses. The second picture was of a disheveled woman sprawled en deshabille in an art nouveau armchair, slip hiked up to mid-thigh to show a gartered stocking-top. On the floor was a discarded polka-dot blouse, one shoe and an open powder compact. She held a cigarette in a long holder and her pouting lips blew smoke rings.

The third picture showed a yellow-haired Westerner, a burly figure in what looked like baggy blue pajamas slumped against the wall of an alley. His head was bandaged and blood dripped from his ashen face and hands. Another Westerner, a fat man in black uniform and a black cap, stood over him and pointed a warning finger.

“You could kick a Russian until you were blue in the face,” Olga said. “They had no country, no status. Nobody gave a damn.”

“Any of them live around here?” Pierre asked.

“A few. Women from the brothels on Broadway lived on the premises. But most people preferred Little Moscow.” She bent over the map again. “Rue Corneille. That’s where they built the Russian church, the church of St Nicholas. It didn’t have an organ. But at Easter the singing was unforgettable. And the cakes. Every year Mama baked pashka cakes, all saffron and cream and candied fruit.”

Daniel was still looking at the pictures.

“I can use these,” he said.

Olga stiffened. “What for?”

“I’m making a kind of movie you can see on a computer. It’s set in 1923, in the White Russian community.”

“You from Hollywood?” She fingered an amethyst pendant that dangled from a heavy gilded chain.

“Not exactly.” He smiled.

“People from Hollywood used Eva Popov’s place for a movie. Paid ten grand a day.”

“I’m not from Hollywood.”

“How much you going to pay?” She fixed him with a violet stare.

“We’re still working on the budget. I can’t name a figure. But I am interested. Your father was a talented man.”

“He sure was. And talent comes at a price, right?”

Daniel knew exactly what he wanted to do with the picture of the Russian. One of the people Nikolai talks to as he looks for his brother is Dorodov, a broken-down newspaperman and opium addict. The bleary-eyed Russian in the illustration had exactly the right look of despair. The user would come to the picture as Dorodov spoke, looking for the source of the slurred, despairing mumble, and find him dying in an alley.

“As it happens,” Daniel said, “there are still opportunities to invest.”

“Invest?” The violet eyes held his.

“It’s a unique chance. A chance to be in on something which will revolutionize the world of entertainment. Completely.”

“Mister, I’ve had enough revolution for this lifetime. More than enough.” Her lip curled. She turned and bent over the map again. “Moulmein Road. That’s where the Casanova cabaret was. Had a negro pianist at the Casanova. Wore spats.”

As they moved to the door, Daniel said, “Are there any old tenements left around here? The kind of places the Russians would have lived in?”

“You mean the really crummy places.” Olga fingered the amethyst. “You might find some toward the railway station. But you’d better be quick. They’re knocking them down already.”

They walked back down the lane and turned toward Suzhou Creek. Daniel said, “Those pictures are perfect for The Riding Instructor. He must have carved a different block for each color, like the Japanese. An artist called Bilibin used that technique. He came from Petersburg. Maybe they knew each other.”

But Pierre wasn’t listening, at least not to Daniel. He had his phone to one ear. And when he said, “Da cuo le,” and put it back in his pocket Daniel saw his face had gone as pale as the Russian’s in the picture.

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