A man accompanies me and Arkady Grigorievich on my last day in Tobolsk. He follows in a separate vehicle. We are not introduced. He does not speak. He bears himself with the coiled restraint of a lion, an elite athlete at rest, or a sniper. He can leap and kill at a moment’s provocation, though he has no desire to do so; he is above all that. He is not concerned with people, places, and events around him. He is an artist. He observes calmly and waits. At one point Arkady Grigorievich asks the man a question, addressing him by name, and I learn he is Andrei.
Finally it is time to set off for Tiumen. Arkady moves to the passenger seat, and Andrei settles in behind the wheel.
Fyodor Pavlovich unharnesses the side horses and entrusts them to me. I cling to the cold, filthy reins and try to hold the horses, but they’re spooked; they keep backing up, the wind is trying to tear my clothes off, rain beats painfully into my face. Maybe we should turn back?
We made it over one bridge, another, then a third. … At one place we got stuck in the mud and nearly capsized; at another the horses balked, and ducks and seagulls soared overhead and seemed to be laughing at us. From Fyodor Pavovich’s face and unhurried movements, from his silence, I can see that this is not his first time he’s had to struggle like this, that he’s seen worse, that long, long ago he got used to impassable mud, water, and freezing rain. Life does not come cheap to him!
–Chekhov, From Siberia, 12 May 1890
In the USA, where every schmo can drive a car, and where you can’t carry out the most basic functions without an automobile, driving is a mundane matter requiring a limited set of rudimentary skills. We take 15-year old hormone-addled children and hand them car keys. Mostly our automobiles do the brain work, communicating with us through little screens, lights, and beeps. Your car beeps when you approach and unlocks your door. It might even turn on the engine for you. It tells you to fasten your seat belt, to buckle up your kids. It warms your seat, calibrates the air, listens to voice commands, dials your phone, plays music for you. To back up, you don’t need to actually have to look in the rear mirror. You push a button and your car maintains a consistent speed, allowing you to rest your gas-pedal foot. It warns you if the highway patrol is near, if someone is passing you, if someone gets too close, if there is a pedestrian nearby. Shout an address to your dashboard, and a voice tells you how to get where you’re going, instructs you where to turn, calculates how long it will take to get there, and lets you know if there are any issues with traffic. You can carry on just about every imaginable human activity while behind the wheel. You can eat an entire meal, have your coffee, communicate with friends and family, preen, rehearse your speech. Some cars operate with no driver at all.
Which provokes the question: why do we need human beings at all?
In Russia driving is a proud profession. Athlete, manager, mechanic, your driver is a master of his art. Like his predecessors, the great Russian coachmen of previous centuries, he knows his vehicle inside and out, its precise limits and capabilities, what it takes to elicit its finest performance. He knows its growls and hums, and if it breaks down, he can make it purr into action using nothing more than a paper clip and rubber band.
Feel free to skip this part, or flip to Chapter 3 of Dead Souls.
«Хитри, хитри! вот я тебя перехитрю! — говорил Селифан, приподнявшись и хлыснув кнутом ленивца. — Ты знай свое дело, панталонник ты немецкий! Гнедой — почтенный конь, он сполняет свой долг, я ему с охотою дам лишнюю меру, потому что он почтенный конь, и Заседатель тож хороший конь… Ну, ну! что потряхиваешь ушами? Ты, дурак, слушай, коли говорят! я тебя, невежа, не стану дурному учить. Ишь куда ползет!» Здесь он опять хлыснул его кнутом, примолвив: «У, варвар! Бонапарт ты проклятый!» Потом прикрикнул на всех: «Эй вы, любезные!» — и стегнул по всем по трем уже не в виде наказания, но чтобы показать, что был ими доволен…..»
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, Vol. I, Chapter III
You must trust your driver. You must not talk to him; he is concentrating. Do not look out the window. This particular highway has two lanes, the right one, where ordinary mortals creep along, and the left one, which belongs to Andrei. There may be a speed limit in Russia but this is a matter of no concern. For Andrei to practice his art to its fullest, his only need is the open road, clear pavement ahead. He finds this freedom in his lane. Occasionally he must drive on the right, with the ordinary mortals. When Andrei encounters an obstacle here (another vehicle going at the speed limit) he will to move back into his rightful lane, the one on the left. This is when you must close your eyes.
Close your eyes and remember your mantra; remember that life comes to an end for everyone, that we do not determine the time or place. You learned this mostly from Russian literature, so reenter that world in your memory. Remember that you have had a good life, full of rich experiences and joys. What will happen will happen. Live in the moment.
For Andrei this is not a game, not a chance to play chicken, to show off, to display his art. It is simply his job. Do not whimper; Andrei is in the zone. He is calibrating the distance between the front of our vehicle and the rear bumper of the truck six inches ahead, the speed at which we are traveling
(90 miles per hour, say, though it’s not about the numbers, and how would I know? My eyes are closed)
the velocity and weight of the eighteen-wheeler careening toward us in the left lane, the air pressure, humidity level, and particulate content in the atmosphere, the wind speed and direction, our vehicle’s capacities, tire condition, oil pressure, and many other things a layperson cannot identify, much less understand.
All this data feeds Andrei’s complex computational matrix, mixing there with intuition and skill honed from years of experience. At the precise moment he flips the jib and we veer smoothly into the left lane. The rear of the truck that was our initial obstacle is no longer visible in the windshield.
(what we now see ahead of us in the windshield is infinitely more terrifying)
Its great cargo wall momentarily blocks the view out our right-side window as it rushes backwards. With urgent intensity, Andrei’s right foot hit hits the floor; the engine emits an ecstatic roar–this is what it, and he, were born for–we free-fall into that brief moment between life and death. Then Andrei gently leans himself and the universe to the right. We reenter the right lane–the one for ordinary mortals–and the other eighteen-wheeler, the homicidal one, whooshes tamely past our left window.
There is a lunch break along the way. We do not speak.
We are grateful to be alive.