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From ‘The Yawning Heights’

(The following passage is translated from the opening section of Aleksandr Zinoviev’s The Yawning Heights.)

The School Building

The building of the Ibanskian school for military pilots, IVASP, is universally believed to be the most beautiful and majestic in the whole Ibansk housing development. Stamps depicting it can be seen even in countries of Latin America and Black Africa. It was built from a former, half ruined manor house, from an unfinished detached house erected by a merchant, and from a synogogue. Completed not long before the war, it has since acquired a firm position among the treasures of our national architecture. More than five hundred high officials, commanding officers, and visiting writers were awarded prizes for the part they played in its construction, and Comrade Ibanov himself received two awards (one for vetoing the project, the other for authorizing it). When the bourgeois avant-garde architect Le Corbusier viewed the building in person he declared that there was nothing left for him to do in the Soviet Union, and took off for home. The leading art historian Ibanov, in his article on “Why I Am Not a Modernist,” commented that this was just where he belonged.

The unusual feature of the IVASP school building is that it has two façades, one in front, the main one, and the other in back, a spare. The façades are constructed in a number of different styles, so that foreign tourists and visitors, and even the older inhabitants of the development, still consider them different buildings. This was the reason why before the war the Development Authority assigned the building to two organizations at the same time, the Air Club and the Meat and Milk Combine. This dual assignment brought on conflicts and feuding. The officials of each organization put together a file on the other, and both groups were arrested. Soon the raw material gave out for one of the feuding organizations, and so the conflict was resolved in perfect correspondence with the dialectic. The philosopher Ibanov, in his book Unity and the Struggle of Opposites in the Ibansk Development and Its Surroundings, commented on this situation as a typical illustration of the fact that with us, unlike those abroad, contradictions do not turn into antagonisms, but are resolved simply by being surmounted.

If you stand facing the main façade of IVASP, with your back toward the main channel of Ibanyuchka Creek and the proposed hydroelectric station, you will grasp at once how right Director Ibanov was when he declared at the building’s dedication ceremony that in just such beautiful palaces the entire working class would some day dwell in the recently proclaimed coming of a brighter future. The building’s façade is adorned with nine hundred columns representing every order known to world architecture. The innumerable towers on the roof stream aloft to the heavens and seem to form a unity with them, precisely reproducing the inimitable cupolas of the Church of St. Iban the Blessed. Stirred by all this beauty the world-famous engineer of human souls Ibanov pronounced, at the editorial office of the semiannual Light of the Northeast, the following often quoted phrase: “Before such unearthly beauty you feel like standing at attention and taking off your cap.”

Another Ibanov, this one a student in the Reserve, chanced to turn his attention to the aesthetic side of the building, in his erroneous opinion a kind of barn totally unsuited for normal human habitation. He looked cautiously at the three-story-tall statue of the Leader and whispered to his old friend Ibanov, also a student, “In the number of columns per person we’ve outdone the Greeks, even. Now we’re the leading colonial power in the world.” His friend repeated this sentiment in the proper place, and the slanderer’s fate was decided before taps. As the “Ballad” puts it:

And cursing his luck
He went off to the jug.

To the garrison jug, of course, for in those times IVASP had not yet acquired a jug of its own. This event gave birth to a still somewhat muddled idea in the minds of the School Administration, and the stoolie was given leave time to attend an advanced program for special students, where he again devoted himself to the study of the Primary Sources.

The John

In the design of the IVASP school building there was a small oversight destined to play a significant role in the development of scatological realism in literature: the architects had forgotten to provide johns. Investigation showed that they had done this deliberately and with malice, since they were partisans of the deviant Ibanov theory that johns were supposed to wither away during the first stage. In this connection the writer Ibanov delivered himself of a second widely quoted aphorism, “If anyone gets caught, he’s a goner.”

The oversight was noticed only when the Air Club took over exclusive occupancy of the building. A small area, already heaped with rubbish, had to be assigned at the end of the yard, far removed from the building itself; there they set up a john of the privy type. In their scheduling they were forced to allow students two hours a day for trips there, counting three trips a day and ten minutes per trip, with fifteen reliably functioning seat locations. But in actual fact no estimates were prepared. The figure in question was determined by purely empirical methods, and only ex post facto was a theoretical justification found through the application of the efficacious multiplication table. The town philosopher, Ibanov, cited this in his book, The Dialectic of the General and the Specific in the Ibansk Development and Its Surroundings, as a brilliant instance of purely theoretical prediction of empirical facts, one comparable to the discovery of the positron in its implications for the development of science.

After dark, visits to the john carried risks for the students’ uniforms, and for that reason they avoided using it even during the daytime. A path leading to the john had to be cleared. But it came too late. The students had acquired the habit of using the cosy crannies of the garbage dump for their needs, and the john was used only by loners and intellectuals, who thus sought to assert their egos. These were put under observation.

(Translated by William E. Harkins)

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