I had sworn I would not buy any carpets, and, in the end, I did keep that promise, but then one scorching hot day my friends finally came to pry me loose of the snug little corner of the hotel bar.  Before I knew it, I was in the market, buying a preternaturally heavy wrought-iron table with four matching chairs for the balcony and arranging the transport of these precious curiosities home to Venice.  It isn’t really true that I’m a compulsive lounger, by the way, an Oblomov type who has lived in the West long enough to learn how to cover his tracks by posing as a writer; at times, I’m capable of great displays of energy, as everybody realized on one particular occasion during that stay in Morocco when, in a restaurant less authentically Levantine than many a British bank, I collared a passing waiter and persuaded him to sweet-talk his mother into asking us to lunch on the following day.

The meal was served below ground inside a mud edifice that, bunched up like a grape against a cluster of identical dwellings, belonged to a Berber village 150 kilometers—three-and-a-half hours of faulty suspension and tourist suspense, relieved only intermittently in the ellipses of police checkpoints—from the king’s palace, which, as even university students and other republican scum would agree, is a charming way of referring to downtown Marrakesh.  There were flies in the room.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there was a room in the flies, because whenever one took wing, it exposed a fly-sized grayness of the whitewash beneath, like a child’s puzzle with a piece missing.  Oh, to revert to type, I whispered as in prayer.  Why couldn’t I have stayed Oblomov and never bothered to change out of my old dressing gown?

But then the food, which I had convinced myself I would not be able to countenance despite the enormity of the embarrassment that would surely engulf all concerned, began to arrive.  First came the honey, wild honey with freshly baked bread, and I can only say that, speaking objectively, it tasted the way Heaven is supposed to taste upon the lips of a devout Muslim.  Speaking subjectively, it was like nothing I had ever tasted, and by the end of the afternoon, after all the honey and the roast goat and the mint tea and the fresh almonds, I was ready to start on the flies; how delightful they were, I thought, how frisky yet not without a certain gravitas, and besides, did not our own Scripture ridicule those who would strain at a gnat?  All of which was a way of congratulating myself for my ingenuity, my daring, my energy, and for having broken for good with those lethargic ways which some people have been led to believe are second nature to a Russian writer manqué.

I then returned to Venice, having forgotten all about my spurious acquisition in the souk until months later, when a letter headlined Dogana di Venezia arrived in the post.  Now, you understand that encounters with bureaucracy, of which a customs officer anywhere in the world is a classic exponent, are fraught with consequence under the best of circumstances; that, here in Italy, bureaucracy is renowned as a gross caricature on the concept of byzantine; and that Venice, being a city on water, and, by tradition, the most byzantine in Italy, makes finding your way through the official maze as near a logistic impossibility as a native can imagine.  Nonetheless, my old friend and new landlord, Hugues L——, volunteered to come along, and, a few days thereafter, the pair of us were well and truly lost in the low underbrush of alder and willow that encircles Marco Polo Airport, crawling along the leaves of a gigantic asphalt clover connecting the airport’s innumerable offices, warehouses, and customs points.  Oh, to revert to type, I whispered.  Who needs that stupid Moroccan table and chairs anyway?  Why couldn’t I have stayed at home?  For what lay before our wide, panicking eyes was a world sui generis, as much a law unto itself as the remotest Berber village.

The door opened with a screech.  I’d heard that kind of squeaking before, in the English countryside, where it is the customary way for a sodden door frame to address a winter veranda, seasonally emptied of furniture to make room for the oversize, mahogany echo, like some tragic heroine receiving an ineffectual benediction that is at once drowned by the thunder of overpowering fate in the orchestra.  That, and the light tinkle of those old panes of glass, which time has slightly loosened in their casements.  Not the acoustic effect, at any rate, one associates with bureaucratic institutions.

And then I saw the office’s automatic coffee-dispensing machine, and here’s what the labels next to the buttons said:









A young woman, with just the kind of hair Hollywood hairdressers become rich by promising their richer clients, came out of one office cubicle and flitted toward another.  In her hand was a sheet of paper, which she held as if it were a vial of nitroglycerine, so manicured and red were her nails.  Another young woman, dressed from neck scarf to thigh boot in this season’s Roberto Cavalli animal prints, which looked so dramatic on what her envious girlfriends must have long conceded was a perfect figure, was swaying in and out of the pay phone in the corridor—“Darling, but why must we? . . .
I mean, why should I? . . . The Maldives . . . ”—in an attitude that conveyed southern langor, limitless leisure, and qualified longing, all delicately tempered by easily acquired wealth.

Come on, Hugues and I looked at each other, this is unrealWhere are we?  I walked into the first cubicle, where I saw a desk occupied by a man in a bespoke corduroy suit—even Ralph Lauren would not have dared to mass-produce so rollickingly optimistic a social statement—and dark-brown loafers by Tanino Crisci.  This I saw because his feet were on the desk, inches away from my face, as I extracted from my pocket the fateful letter headlined Dogana di Venezia.  “Ah yes,” he said breezily, “and what is in the package?”  “Well,” I began stammering, “I was in Morocco, you see, it’s a wrought-iron table and . . . ”

Once, in London, after a house of ours had been burgled, a man with an Hercule Poirot mustache, dressed in a white suit with a white panama hat, rang the doorbell and produced an engraved card, but the only question Detective Inspector Hindmarsh had come to ask was whether the stolen set of silver “would have included” fish knives.  From the indulgent disdain with which he asked it, it was clear that the right answer was no, how could you, we’re respectable people, ’twas Georgian, this is Chelsea, for God’s sake.  And here, in the eyes of a provincial bureaucrat—one who would have been quick to show his mettle as a politically discontented, privately miserable, and malevolently megalomaniacal little vi-per, at once pathetic and vicious, in every other bureaucratic environment anywhere else in the civilized world—I was reading the same indulgent disdain, writ, if anything, larger.

“ . . . And chairs,” he repeated, tongue-in-cheek.  “So the commercial value, one may surmise, is not very great?”  Tactfully, he shuffled some papers to give me time to conceal my embarrassment.  “Then why don’t you pay the tax on the transport costs, let us say”—he came up with a derisory sum, something like $30—“and we’ll forget the import duties altogether, shall we?  Would you oblige me by taking this document to the cashier, down the hall and to the left?”  He picked out a few rubber stamps, almost certainly at random, from the colorful array in front of him, and unleashed them on the bolletta importazione.

The cashiers were two, a young woman and an older man, seated in the same room behind facing desks of golden oak.  She was called Ada.  She was beautiful and exotic and wore a short Valentino skirt and the wicked title of collaboratore tributario.  Her colleague or admirer, perhaps her lover, looked like a Roman senator and asked me if I was Russian.  “Yes,” I said, “a Russian writer, living in Venice.”  “You know,” he said, withdrawing the $30 from my hand in an absent-minded arc, “of course I follow the new directions taken by literature in your country”—“le tendenze nuove” were the actual words he used—“but I still prefer the ottocento, your nineteenth century.  Even your own older contemporaries, Bitov, Iskander, people like that, they seem somehow lacking in conviction.  Don’t you agree?”  Come on, man, gimme a break, I moaned to myself—Hugues was waiting in the corridor—this is unreal.  “Will you take a coffee?” asked Ada.  “Macchiato?  Lungo?  Poco zucchero?”  And, once we were in the boat with my Marrakesh souvenirs, and I looked at Hugues, still smiling out of one side of his mouth as if struck by paralysis and shaking his head in epochal disbelief, I simply had to congratulate myself for my daring, for my energy, and for having broken at last with those lethargic ways that some people have been led to believe are second nature to me.

Reader, do you know of a new world?  Take me there.