The Yellow Chinese Jeep
by Serhiy Zhadan
Translated from the Ukrainian by Hanna Leliv and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler
The story I’m about to tell could’ve only happened at Christmas time. It has all the traditional elements of a Christmas story: the Magi, the messengers, the angels singing in a pomegranate-red December sky, and a sense of mystery living inside every one of us. If you listen carefully, this story will, if anything, seem to imply that mystery in its pristine form always exists somewhere around us. All you have to do is stop acting like you’re above it all and try to feel its presence.
This story happened to my friend Giesha a couple years ago. He was a young party functionary in the municipal government, responsible for the investment climate in the region, so he welcomed delegations from Western Europe, took them to bars in Kharkiv, got them settled in at the hotels, and arranged for discounts from the local prostitutes–to put it bluntly, Giesha took his responsibilities seriously. He struck up a good friendship with the German Christian Democrats. For some reason, they took a strong interest in our region’s investment climate. They often flew in for roundtables and conferences, hanging out in Kharkiv’s saunas for days on end. Giesha always stuck around, explaining the finer points of building democracy in our country to his Western counterparts and berating the potential investors for drinking on an empty stomach. One of those Christian Democrats was Herr Kleis, an MP, a vegetarian, and an expert on post-totalitarian self-government, who had taken a sincere liking to Ukraine’s young democracy. Giesha met him at the sauna—the German delegation came straight from the airport—and once they were naked and relaxed, they all started exchanging business cards. Giesha didn’t catch his new friend’s last name, so he just called him Klaus. His friend didn’t really protest, partly because he was shy, and partly because he was always moderately intoxicated, so he saw the surrounding investment climate through a light, shimmery fog.
At some point, the relationship between the two partners developed into complete trust, and Giesha kept trying to get the Christian Democrat to put his dough into something, anything. How about an ice cream factory? Klaus leaned back on the sauna bench, visibly bored, licked his ice cream, said that the food industry didn’t seem like a priority area for investment under the conditions of post-totalitarian development and fledgling self-government, and asked for more champagne. It eventually became clear–on the third day of negotiations in that very sauna–that Klaus wasn’t going to put his dough into the factory and was more inclined to go for the tourism business, so he asked Giesha to find some old post-totalitarian hotel in the Carpathians so he could buy it out, renovate it, build a sauna, and hang out there with his fellow MPs. That wasn’t really what Giesha was expected to do, but he figured this was no time to be picky, so he saw his friend off to the airport and got down to researching the market. He found a good fit by fall, contacted Klaus and quickly arranged for a trip to the mountains around Orthodox Christmas–to look over the property and praise the Lord.
Klaus flew to Kharkiv via Vienna in late December. Giesha drove to the airport in a yellow Chinese jeep. The partners loaded all their stuff into the trunk, picked up Masha-Natasha (a pair of interpreters), and set off for the Carpathians.
They made their first stopover not far from Poltava. Shining blue lights by the roadside spelled out Tsentralny Supermarket; Klaus was entranced and insisted that they stop. The foursome breakfasted on dumplings and Georgian wine and started singing karaoke. Giesha drank more than everyone else, even though he was the driver–but he reassured them that there was an air freshener in the jeep, so there was nothing to worry about. They sang for a long time. In the afternoon, Masha-Natasha started whining that they didn’t want to stay there any longer, that it was time to go. Klaus pushed back, declared that he didn’t feel like going anywhere, suggested celebrating the New Year right there at the supermarket, searched for Elton John songs on the karaoke machine, and generally behaved as expected. He did give up at last, saying he would leave, but not without the machine. Feeling that the investor might slip off the hook any minute, Giesha paid the manager of the supermarket for the whole system, loaded it (and Klaus) into the jeep, and drove on.
They took a wrong turn in Poltava and wound up heading for Kremenchuk, where they finally burned out and had to stay overnight at the Hotel Zatyshok, which only had four-person rooms available—the rest were still being renovated. The people at the front desk refused to put them all up in one room, accusing Masha-Natasha of prostitution and insisting that they “weren’t dressed like interpreters.” Giesha had to show them his credentials to prove he was a parliamentary assistant. They retired for the night: Masha-Natasha slept in one bed without taking off their sheepskin coats, Giesha lay in the second one, clothes off but woolen socks on, and the wasted Klaus slept like a baby in the third, the karaoke mic in his arms. The karaoke system itself sat on the fourth bed— “and don’t dare touch it,” Giesha warned Masha-Natasha.
The next morning, the travelers went down to the breakfast room. They ate cold cheese, drank instant coffee, and watched TV, the stars of Bethlehem sparkling more and more mysteriously and kids’ voices singing sweeter and sweeter, brimming with anticipation of the holiday. They piled into the car, said a prayer, and headed north. When they were approaching Cherkasy, Klaus got sick. He roamed around the banks of the Dnieper for a while, trying to call his shrink in Hannover, but there was no signal until they got to Zhytomyr.
Feeling bad about the previous night, Klaus bought some weird red mushrooms just outside Zhytomyr and spent a long time trying it pick out some stuffed animals for Masha-Natasha at the roadside market. He finally went for two orange zebras and dozed off happily, their stripes glowing and sparkling in the twilight.
Not far from Khmelnytskyi, the mushrooms made Klaus violently ill. He threw up and wandered around in the woods by the road for a while, refusing to go any further. They stayed overnight in some town. While Giesha got his ailing partner into bed, Masha-Natasha put on their best dresses and went dancing. They got wasted on champagne mixed with cognac and started to fight. The waitress who mixed their drinks kept her wits about her and ran for Giesha. He came right away, sized up the situation skillfully, and rushed to drag Masha away from Natasha. The security guards decided they’d had enough and threw him out. Giesha got on his feet, sized up the situation skillfully once again, and went back to bed. Masha-Natasha returned in the morning, their sheepskin coats stained with vomit, holding hands like two besties.
In the afternoon, once they’d caught up on their sleep, had a drink, and fallen asleep again, our travelers set off towards the unknown. The unknown was getting closer and closer.
They got lost again in Ternopil, went in circles, and turned back again. In the late afternoon, they reached the familiar town where they’d spent the previous night. Giesha roundly cursed the whole situation and went to bed. Masha-Natasha swapped dresses and went dancing. Klaus called his shrink and had a long talk about his childhood. The shrink was not quite sober, though, and he went on a diatribe against the social security system, so Klaus wound up having to comfort him. By the afternoon, the four friends had finally gotten enough sleep, so they continued on their way—they didn’t feel like celebrating the New Year in a Chinese jeep. They reached Ternopil and drove in circles around the center of a town for a while. They finally made a break for the ring road, dashing through gray valleys decked out for Christmas. Giesha put the pedal to the metal, Masha-Natasha squealed with weary despair, and Klaus called his shrink and comforted him for a long time, saying that life is a pleasant thing in general, you just have to get your priorities straight. The hazy Carpathians loomed into view on the horizon. The friends turned on the radio and broke into melancholy Ukrainian songs. Yaremche lay ahead of them, with its warm lights and famous golden bell.
They made a turn just shy of the town and drove around in the hamlets until they found the bed-and-breakfast, where they were welcomed by Ivan Ivanovych, the loyal friend of wanderers, courageous travelers, and the other dummies who came in swarms to celebrate Christmas in the Carpathians. Ivan Ivanovych said there was a time for business and a time for pleasure, and took his guests to the sauna. Masha-Natasha went in, but kept their sheepskin coats on. Giesha dragged in the karaoke system and taught Ivan Ivanovych to sing Elton John songs. Klaus was thrilled with this genuine Ukrainian hospitality and buddied up with the loggers who came to see Ivan Ivanovych. They all celebrated the New Year together in the pool to the wailing of karaoke and the cheerful chatter of Masha-Natasha, who were providing loud commentary on the president’s holiday address.
The next day, Ivan Ivanovych began the lengthy process of treating everyone’s hangovers with highland herbs soaked in moonshine. He told them all it wasn’t time for business yet, and took them to a Zynoviy Huchok concert. The has-been star performed his cheesy, synth-driven pop on a snow-covered stage in the middle of the street, dressed in a black suit with blue sweats visible under his pants. He sang over a backing track, gave his holiday greetings to everyone who’d come to town for the holiday, and shook hands with the cops. The cops saluted him and threw envious looks at his sweats. After the concert, Ivan Ivanovych took his guests to a shepherd’s cottage up in the mountains. He drove the Chinese jeep himself, since Giesha wouldn’t stop at the lights and almost ran over Zynoviy Huchok’s synth player.
They stayed overnight in the cottage. Masha-Natasha drank champagne straight from the bottle, arms intertwined, Ivan Ivanovych discussed the theory of bicameral parliaments with Klaus in perfect German (which he could never muster when he was sober), and Giesha slept on the stuffed animals, their luminescent glow playing on a week’s worth of stubble.
On January the third, the companions came back to life and went to have a look at the property. Ivan Ivanovych showed them out of the cottage, through the vegetable gardens, and into the forest. They walked through the forest for a long time, reaching a large clearing at dusk. There was a pit dug in the middle of it, and concrete slabs sticking out of the snow here and there. Ivan Ivanovych stopped.
“This is where our hotel should be,” he said. “The foundation was laid back in the Soviet days, but there’s not actually that much work left to do. The key point is to buy up the forest.” Klaus stared bitterly at the snow-filled pit and asked them to take him back to the cottage.
An argument broke out when they got there. Klaus said that he didn’t give a damn about the forest, and the ice cream factory was sounding better by the minute.
“Look, give it a rest!” Ivan Ivanovych cut him short. “I’m tellin’ ya, this forest is the real deal.”
“Yeah, yeah! This forest is the real deal,” the loggers who came to support Ivan Ivanovych chimed in. Masha-Natasha did their best to interpret that for Klaus, but he wouldn’t give in and even asked them not to fill his glass again. Giesha knew his partner was right, but he was desperate to sell that goddamn foundation, so he kept quiet. Klaus called his shrink, who encouraged him to follow his heart. They started fighting again. Then singing. Masha-Natasha, who didn’t feel like interpreting anymore, sang the loudest. Then they started to sign contracts and exchange addresses. They spent the night buddying up and drinking, arms intertwined, with Masha-Natasha.
“Listen, pal, I’ve got a problem,” Ivan Ivanovych confided in Klaus. “Me and my buddies have a band. We play the old patriotic songs. We’d like to play in Berlin—you know, show them our Ukrainian spirit.”
“Oh yes,” Klaus said. “Sounds perfect, that’s just what we need.”
“We’ve got visas,” Ivan Ivanovych kept blabbing. “And an army jeep to get there, too. But we need a fixer.” Klaus thought it over, but not for too long, then gave Ivan Ivanovych his shrink’s phone number, insisting that he could fix anything. They embraced, just like real business partners oughta when they’re selling each other their souls.
Klaus went outside the next morning, red-faced from sleeping by the woodstove. Snow covered the hills, tumbled from the branches, and dazzled him. The door of the cottage creaked and Ivan Ivanovych joined Klaus outside. They stood like that for a long time, smoking Camels and looking at the dull silver of the clouds vanishing behind the mountain pass. The snow made the mountains seem higher and more pristine.
They decided to leave before noon. Giesha loaded the gifts into the jeep and put the two Taiga-brand chainsaws he’d bought from the loggers in the back. They all kissed each other, long and loud, then the four friends got into the jeep and set off eastward. Ivan Ivanovych and the loggers loaded violins, trembitas, and sopilkas into their army jeep and left for Rakhiv. They climbed up the mountain pass, went down into the valley on the Slovak side, and melted into the boundless Schengen zone like sand in the sea.
As they made their way down the last ridge, the mountains slowly withdrew, disappearing into the snowy mist, and Klaus started seeing things. Masha-Natasha were sleeping head to toe under their sheepskin coats, and Giesha was scanning a map of Ukraine. Klaus stepped out of the jeep into a snow-covered field. A strange caravan came over the horizon and crawled past him: camels laden with spices and weapons, Arab men riding donkeys, cheerful dancers behind them, their bare feet sinking into the dazzling snow, dark-skinned women following them, carrying jars of wine, olive oil, and honey on their heads.
“Praised be Jesus Christ,” one of the Moors said to Klaus.
“Now and forever,” answered the Christian Democrat, and the caravan dragged on, melting in the blinding sun blizzard. Giesha came up behind him.
“Who are they? The Magi?” Klaus asked.
“Who’s ‘they’?” Giesha followed the caravan with his eyes. “Oh, they’re Azerbaijani. We’ve got a deal with them, so they don’t have to pay anything to cross the border. They must be heading to Rakhiv—they’ve got a lot of pull with the customs guys there,” he said, taking out his pack of Camels.
“Glorious is Christ and glorious are His deeds,” Klaus said.
“Amen,” Giesha answered and offered his last cigarette to his friend.
“What else can we do in a situation like this? It’s a real mess, what with the cultural legacy of totalitarianism and all, and god knows what else.” The journalist wiped his glasses and sat back in his chair. Soft light was reflected in the mirrors and silence was wafting down onto the cozy Berlin bar, sweet January snow falling outside.
“Well, my dear colleague,” Ivan Ivanovych lit up a cigar, took a long drag, and blew fragrant smoke rings, “you need patience, rather than knowledge, to preserve your cultural heritage in a post-information society. Spiritual unification as an element of the neoliberal project deprives us of some very important things, such as the ability to renounce the common for the sake of keeping the different.”
“Do we have that much in common to renounce?” the journalist asked skeptically, winding up the conversation and asking the waiter for the bill.
“Who gets to determine what is great?” Ivan Ivanovych countered, snatching the bill from the waiter before the journalist could offer to split it. “Totalitarianism left our footing, our foundation, as its legacy. Our love and our sorrow take root in it; our mourning and our songs are grounded in it. All the factors intended to unite us only emphasize our differences. And no one is able to overcome those differences. Because we all have one Lord, but he’s born at different times so as not to mess with our heads. That’s what our band’s new album is about.”