He never saw that play and apparently, it received plenty of recognition. The artist called for the common man to rise up against oppression, but Igor Prostakovich never figured out what the play is about. He never knew—or believed—intellectuals were so vicious. Was it simply here, he pondered? This only made him believe his own people are, at best, actors in some play only they know the rules of, or at worst, worse than even the worst of foreigners. It was basic decency.

But the decency of Igor Prostakovich is something of a dilemma. It became a dilemma for him the more he read and the closer he got to 21st century literature. Philosophy: he liked that neutrality that spoke to all. That high and lofty tutoring where everyone can join in. Not openly, of course—God forbid—but in the comfort of your solitude and silence, there is something you can learn…

Yet the thirst—incomprehensible—was still there. It was almost becoming painful, this sense of raw, mental hunger which couldn’t be quenched. Reading books was a privilege he understood, as time passed, was not meant for him. He wasn’t meant to go into a gallery and they were always empty, wasn’t meant for the theatre which was only for decent folk, upper-class, middle-class…and he couldn’t just buy books.

Rich people have libraries of books; poor people have piles of them. They carelessly put them on any surface and pile them on, always figuring out which books to keep and which ones to discard. For Igor Prostakovich, the calculus was the same and he never read a single book twice. He felt he didn’t have the time, or needed an effort unless the book stuck with him. So, piling up his books, Prostakovich would wait until the pile grew to his knees, when he would start cramming books in drawers, placing them on his kitchen table, above the wardrobe, under the bed, on his desk in front of the monitor, starting one, then another, avoiding bulky tomes for lighter reading. There just wasn’t enough time. By the time he got into a book, the phone would ring and he would be late for work and there, he would constantly think over the stuff he read or wanted to read, with a kind of pathetic fascination over lofty names.

So, why did Igor Prostakovich never go into a library? Because, as he told me, he never wanted to owe anyone a debt!

For him, it was something of an insult: that he is borrowing a book. What if he loves the book so much he can’t return it? Well, why not buy it? Well…what if it is too expensive? So, he never went into a library. Hated it, even. Felt it was, somehow, demeaning him. Because Igor Prostakovich knew, as he felt he knew: literature is for women. Literature is only for women and the elderly. Literature: it is for people who can afford a book, and Igor Prostakovich can’t afford them anyway, so literature is for the elderly and those “men with glasses,” like the one that has just bought the last copy of Neon Blues.

And even if he walked in a library, he would have to be reminded while he reads he is not the owner of the book, and for some reason, it deeply insulted him and, perhaps, humiliated him. It was simply not for him, but the thirst he felt was also not of him; it was not merely Igor Prostakovich as he is but as he could be…

When the pile of books he owned was too much, Igor Prostakovich would take a few plastic bags and, piling those books he already read, would place them near a dumpster in front of the communist block he lived in. The whole town already knew that Igor Prostakovich, every month, like an idiot, left a pile of books in front of the dumpster and nobody could figure out why. After that, his apartment would once more be emptied out, desolate and lonely, so Prostakovich would—feeling melancholic, anxious, and solitary—go back to Lagum, passing on his way next to the theatre, the gallery, and the library, since Lagum was on another end of town. By that point, most people heard what happened to our Igor Prostakovich, but he didn’t. Nobody cared about the theatre, but he did. One time, I tried to drag him inside and he almost strangled me with his incredible strength, and ashamed, looked at me for the first time as a man weaker than him. The theatre became for him a place of complete humiliation…never to go in, never to even glimpse what is inside, he reached the lobby and not a step beyond it. The gallery was a closed-off courtyard which was somehow always empty to him, but the minute he walked in, dogs would start barking.

And Lagum, too, was not a happy place. He, too, once wanted to read Margaret Atwood, but some fellow down there in the cellar (Prostakovich wanted to buy the English version since it was cheaper) started clicking his tongue, telling him not to read that American propaganda. Instead, he gave him a book of our local author that was about our petty local affairs…but even then, Prostakovich was scared to say it. One way or another, the people that recommended books to him were above him, In fact, the very same book he was recommended by that clicker was, he was told in “The OWL” by the seller, a screed against women, so Prostakovich, fed up, swore off all modern literature entirely, which I felt was terrible.

And over the years, as the thirst was getting quenched occasionally, Igor Prostakovich understood he was a little bit lonely. Was this a good man? Probably not. But was this an evil man? Absolutely not. Igor Prostakovich was a man with near limitless faith in others. He simply had no false convictions about anything, other than his own petty opinions. Which was great: he could read any book and enjoy it. But as he was going through the classics, feeling that his own people see him as something lesser, he grew lonelier and more despondent. This was a man which foreign theories were constantly applied on everywhere he went, and true, he hated that every time he walked inside a bookstore, others, usually elderly women, would already be there buying books as easily as a bag of chips. For him, they were always a bargain. Food or books.

But, he was still lonely. Because no matter how much he loved all foreign authors, he wanted to give his own people a chance. A small chance, sure, but a chance. Thucydides was already gone, and Analytics were beyond his means. Margaret Atwood was not to be read by him, and if he did read her, he shouldn’t even say it. Didn’t even have the right to, the same way he couldn’t walk into a gallery, fearing the lights would go out. Because it was simply not meant for Igor Prostakovich. In fact, after his open humiliation in the theatre lobby, he never wore leather shoes or a jacket. He went back to tracksuits and sportswear, didn’t shave—which simply meant people looked at him strangely in Lagum! But the people in Lagum were polite, “think but don’t say it,” professionals: it was the largest chain of bookstores in the region; it published all the great local authors which, as I said, Prostakovich avoided like the plague.

But one day, Prostakovich was seduced by a book he was hearing about for almost a decade, and on a whim, bought it. This book was, he told me, his greatest disappointment. Because it was actually good.


Igor Prostakovich followed the literary and political debacles of our local artists for nearly a decade. Without even reading any of those books, he simply knew these people were hacks. Because other people—other artists or professors—told him so. They were “ideologically charged,” they were “promoting nationalistic values,” some professor would go on calling some artist names, and to an outsider like Prostakovich, this meant authority, this meant, well—objectivity. So, imagine Igor’s surprise when he took one of those books and loved it.

That book, written by some fellow called Vladan Arseniyevich, won the biggest literary prize 20 years ago, and that artist was considered a “one-hit wonder.” That book, in Igor’s mind, was terrible because he saw, online, professors and other intellectuals calling it such. And why was it terrible? Because it was liberal.

So, what disappointed Igor Prostakovich? It was that he was promised, for instance, complete slander of national history, badly-written dialogue, humiliation of the local culture, anti-Slavic thought, ideological liberalism, colonial liberalism, but he got none of it. He was disappointed over how good the book was. It was a revelation to him that a local man can write a book like that. That was the first time he ever gave a shot to a local author and, if he had listened to authority, he would, in fact, be a fool. Once more, he encountered “the clicker.”

That prize was the biggest in the land, and he decided he will read every single book on the list of winners in the last 20 years. He discovered that he is somewhat fascinated, but also that he actually loves his local authors. He would, dead serious, compare Arseniyevich to Bernhard! And claim—Arseniyevich is better. Because he wrote in his language, about things he fully understood, from a similar perspective.

He still hated, of course, that the local artists are always squabbling over political nonsense, but felt it this time as something entertaining, if a little shameful. Small nations are like that, my friend…and the more he read, the more he loved them. He completely disregarded objective opinions. Every single book he was told was liberal, too liberal, awed him and he didn’t understand just how lofty must a man be, that even such books were not good enough. Everyone, according to Prostakovich, was waiting for Hegel when he just isn’t there. So, everyone not equal to Hegel was, by definition—wrong.

He was happy; he felt, finally, the thirst was getting satiated. There were books he felt were a little too “on the nose,” a little too preachy, a little bit hysterical, or gossipy…but, these were gossips of his culture, his background. He never met a writer, an “intellectual”—he didn’t consider that drama writer an intellectual. To him, these were almost incredible people.

So, when the disappointment came, it crushed Igor Prostakovich the way you crush a mosquito that is buzzing around you.


That prize, the prize Vladan Arseniyevich won 20 years ago, was floundering. For years, he was hearing how it is handed out to “liberals,” how it is a field of ideological conflict and is awarded on a “you-know-me-i-know-you” basis, but Igor Prostakovich loved most of the books awarded. Some, sure, were misses—but they were good as books, but bad as the best book of the year. Still, good books…

Still, as time went on, those books became troublesome. Some didn’t like the jury, too many liberals, others didn’t like the jury before it, too many conservatives…to Igor Prostakovich, the girl in Lagum would recommend foreign authors and would simply ignore the prize-winners, while Prostakovich already read what he wanted from “out there,” he already, painfully, finished some kind of elementary introduction to thought. Yet, everyone was telling him, it’s done for, it’s pointless…but, what insulted Igor Prostakovich the most is the words the authors were telling about each other. Every kind of slander and accusation was mentioned. Then, the feminists, too, boycotted the award over the lack of female authors, but for Igor Prostakovich, who had to carefully pick and choose which books to buy, this was something of the most insulting vanity.

For a man that thought culture was some lofty pedestal, that petty, accusatory tone of sausage-buyers was simply incredible. It was no different then when the gravediggers would yell: “Dig the ditch, Prostakovich!” So, why, why were they burying that prize and each other over to, what appeared to him, petty differences?

And that is why Igor Prostakovich is not a man that should ever have started reading books. That is his naivety, why he is not the type of man literature in that region is for. While, yes, you could find men like him in the literature of the region, in truth—they are figments of the imagination. Real ones get told: “Are you in the right place?”

He can’t please anyone with his uncharismatic voice, his strangely handsome yet brutal face, his slovenly wear, or decent, middle-class look…so, his thirst, well, it was drying up. Everyone was talking about the boycott and about the prize-winner who, that year, won it by slandering the Nation, the Army, the Church, etc., etc., etc.,

Then, it escalated. Someone compared the author to Mussolini. It was a literary critic! The author sued the critic; the critic claimed it was a witch trial and “proof” the author is a little bit like Mussolini…the reality of the modern age showed itself to Igor Prostakovich, of peasants throwing manure across the field at each other. But what stuck with him was that the artist won the lawsuit, but lost, skulking away from the press while the critic was holding interview after interview celebrating his “moral victory over the totalitarianism of the Left.” It was getting tiresome to Igor Prostakovich, to care about things he can only look from the outside, but, feeling that the artist was humiliated over such a comparison, decided to give him a chance. So, Prostakovich—passing the gallery, the theatre, the library—went into Lagum and searched for that book.

And the book simply wasn’t there.


That book won the biggest literary prize in the country and was not in one of the four bookstores. The other two, which Igor Prostakovich hated to visit (the people there called him a hillbilly, a hipster) also didn’t have it, and—the booksellers told him—that those books are rewarded only for political affiliation anyway, so they must be garbage…but Igor Prostakovich didn’t believe any single one of them: he read those books called “engaged literature” and, not having a well-developed political consciousness, treated them as books first, political topics after. So, if he liked them as books—he liked them as books. He didn’t have the habit of searching online for what the author said as the rest of us are prone to do; he didn’t expect them to agree with him. Even when he regretted buying those books, it was out of lack of money…otherwise, if he had it, he would become like those elderly women, or that man with the glasses, buying piles and piles of literature.

To him, it was the starved man happy for morsels listening to the bickering of fat, bloated moochers who have been on a nutritious, too-nutritious diet for decades. If he told anyone else he compared Arseniyevich to Bernhard, he would be considered an idiot, but he simply loved to taste something great but local…

So, that book, this time a local one—became another enigma. The first print run was 1,000 copies and there was no second print. The biggest literature prize in the country! Just the cover, gilded with “BOOK OF THE YEAR” to him meant that people would be seduced and buy the damn book. But nobody bought the book, everyone online was yelling it was terrible or ideologically charged while he couldn’t even find it. He wouldn’t buy it online—it was embarrassing to him, plus there are cheats—and he would never again go to another town to search for books.

Other authors viciously mocked the prize-winner for not selling even 1,000 copies. Other authors, the ones boycotting, had sales in the thousands, tens of thousands. But Igor Prostakovich had already gotten fed up with foreign titles; when he saw “40,000,000 copies sold!” this number was soul-crushing to him; it gave him a sense of vertigo. It was foreign, stylish and better, just better—everyone said it was better. The people smirked at his authors, our authors. Our authors did the same, it turned out.

It did not sell even a thousand copies and was nowhere to be found…dead on arrival. So, then, maybe, those professors were right…why read native literature?

In Lagum, he ordered it, eventually, online, through the seller. There were four employees in that bookstore: three girls and a man with glasses and a beard. He left them their number to give him a call and walked out. When he arrived home, looking online, he noticed the book he sought won the year before. This year, there was another boycott—this time, the prize-winner was slandering great artists of the past. That book was there, but he had no desire to read it anymore.

And, as he was waiting for the book, listening online to the debates of authors and professors over the decline of our culture, liberal deconstruction of the nation, conservative mummifying of past greatness, something in Igor Prostakovich died and, collecting all of his books, placing them in his plastic bags, took them next to the dumpster. When the ordered book arrived, he bought it but, having no enthusiasm, stared at it like some strange, alien artifact he is not privy to, not meant to even glimpse in…some clicker, out there, knows the reason why.

He began telling me of “those intellectuals”—our intellectuals. “You know, those intellectuals are all very strange…well—their country is strange.” But it was his country. Even as we were watching them debating, he was already thousands of miles away from them, from us. When the small wheel on his computer desk broke, he took the book and, lifting his desk up effortlessly, placed it instead of the wheel to even out the surface.

And he never read a single book again. That moment, which I witnessed as we were sharing a cigarette, his last one and my first one, I remembered and always will as the latest, greatest, most shameful debacle of our culture when the world collapsed, and of the many things that occurred, the bitterest of fruits.

Literature is for women. Literature is for women and the elderly. Literature; it is for people who can afford a book and Igor Prostakovich can’t afford them anyway, so literature is only for the elderly and those “men with glasses,” like the one that bought the last copy of Neon Blues.


For all installments of “The Debasement of Igor Prostakovich,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1