The Russian Flask
"The Russian Flask" is the confession of an ex-CIA operative who tries to justify himself to his daughter long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union: "It was war, no?" So the end justified the means. But he knows that he can never really justify what she, an innocent of another era, considers immoral acts; he can't even justify them to himself. This deeply probing book is an examination of conscience rather than a spy thriller. Here's what the author has to say about it:
"One might be tempted to say that it is a story of just another man's search for himself. If that were all, it would be a repetition of all the stories told since Adam. There are many factors at play here - duty, responsibility, loyalty and purposelessness, parasitism, betrayal. It is a story of birds migrating. A story of mysterious rivers and magic bridges. Above all this is a story of time and place".
The flask? Why it was given to me by a strange Russian couple. In the beginning. They were living in former German army barracks on the edge of Ingolstadt on the Danube where that great river is still young narrow and insignificant. I still feel it. It’s winter. Low wattage light bulbs here and there. A coal stove. Heavy felt curtains separate their living area from others like theirs in the long first floor bay. I see him before me now—long thin blond hair, deep set pale eyes, astonished eyes – as if expressing his surprise at being here - set in an angular somewhat tubercular face – that’s what impressed me most – with high Slavic cheekbones, over a deceptively powerful body. And she with the chubby body of a potato-eater. We’re sitting on the bed and orange crates, wearing scarves over our greatcoats – I always like to use that descriptive old word—as if we were soldiers in the trenches at the Battle on the Marne, drinking beer and, yes, vodka and eating pelmeni, when he extracts from a box under the bed this wonderful present. We were all a little drunk I think, I’m sure, but I don’t believe that’s why he gave it to me. In those dark days the Soviet émigrés left behind in the great post-war migrations were in desperate straits. My job was to meet them and perhaps uncover some forgotten exceptional talent for the Radio. …That was my official employer.
No, my dear, no! I still insist. I was not, I was never a Ghost as you like to think.
Listen sweetheart, no wait! … I must stand up to say what I have to say now. Once and for all, I hope. This is to be my true statement. A statement of my true life, as far as it’s possible to tell the truth of oneself. You’ve doubtless read books about the Ghosts and revelations of disgruntled former agents about how things were. I, Daniel, am not one of them. Nope! Never was. In fact, at the risk of overkill in my attempt to make a clean breast of my life, I could even claim – and I would be justified—that I was if anything a dupe. I was close to them, yes, but yes I was also a dupe as I will explain later. Moreover and however that might be I have no state secrets, nothing – or I should say, very little – to reveal. Nor would I even want to reveal any secrets about them. There’s nothing left anyway. Today as you can see if you have eyes to see I am light years distant from them. This—these things that we will discuss today - is all about myself. And my relations with the world I’ve lived in—an arc of a time up to the end of the millennium. Revelations explanations confessions apologies and expiation, yes – but about and for myself. Myself and my reactions to some events of my times. My choices, some of which I’m proud of and many of which I’m ashamed of today.
And, I ask you in all sincerity, is that not much more difficult more pertinent than revelations about how nefarious they were? Much more difficult. Nearly impossible. Is that after all not what you want from me? Is that not what we’re here for?
On the other hand, I was, how can I say? I was most gratified those days along the Danube for the chance to meet those underdogs—as you will see again and again underdogs have always occupied a special place in my heart—those persons passed up by events and abandoned there of all places where German troops were once quartered. It was another of my many schools—that’s where I relearned my school Russian then forgotten also. Like most émigrés then they thought I was a direct representative of the President in Washington and could open all the doors to Amerika. Yet the flask was the spontaneous gift of Russian generosity. I often wish I had that quality. That’s why I’ve always held this flask close. As a symbol. You see all the miniature designs on the leather … they were once brilliant red and black. Now after all the decades of travel with me, the colors are faded the leather worn but its value is immeasurable. You don’t remember seeing it in Rome? Why it was always with me. Right on my desk or perhaps in a futile briefcase or a fussy suitcase. Or resting reassuringly between my legs under the steering wheel as I raced along the Autobahnen that winter—and later on the autostrade and autoroutes of Europe. It traveled with me to Teheran on all those trips, and around the Caspian Sea. Often it returned to its home in Moscow. Amarcord my trips? Disasters, you rightly point out. It was also my companion in those dark days in old Rotterdam although alas it often stood empty in those terrible troubled times. In the later glorious days, the heroic days, it accompanied me on journalistic assignments from Morocco to Turkey, from East Europe to New York, from the Tirol to the black island of Pantelleria.
About the author
Gaither Stewart left journalism three years ago in order to write fiction full-time. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, he has lived most of his life in Europe, chiefly in Germany and Italy. For many years he was the Italian correspondent of the Rotterdam daily newspaper, ALGEMEEN DAGBLAD. His has been a varied life: from university studies in political science and Slavistics in the United States and Germany, to intelligence officer in Europe, to field correspondent for European and American radios, to public relations for Italian corporations, to full correspondent for a major European newspaper. His journalistic stories have appeared in the press Of West and East Europe. Now during the last year his fiction has appeared In a number of English language literary publications, including the SouthernCross Review. The Russian Flask, which he hesitates to define as a novel, is his first book. He is working on others. Gaither Stewart lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Rome.
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