Maybe you’ve heard of the Arkady and Boris Strugatsky — the Brothers Strugatsky — as the science-fiction authors of the novels behind Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God. Or maybe you haven’t. In case of the latter, you can find an introduction, of sorts, here. But to enjoy the below excerpt, from the great sci-fi mystery novel The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, you needn’t know that the Strugatsky Bros. are Russia’s answer to Theodore Sturgeon or Philip K. Dick. Nor do you need to know that their novels are enjoyed by contemporary novelists like Jeff VanderMeer and Jonathan Lethem. There isn’t much, in fact, that you need to know at all, except maybe how to read and laugh.
I stopped the car, got out and took off my sunglasses. Everything
was exactly as Zgut had said it would be. The inn was two stories high, a yellowish-green color, with a mournfullooking sign hanging over the front porch that read, “THE DEAD MOUNTAINEER’S INN.” Deep spongy snowdrifts on either side of the porch bristled with different-colored skis— I counted seven of them, one with a boot still on it. Knobby dull icicles thick as your arm dangled off the roof. A pale face peered out of the rightmost window on the first floor, and now the front door opened and a bald, stocky man wearing a red fur vest over a dazzling nylon shirt appeared on the porch. He approached with slow, heavy steps and then stopped in front of me. He had a coarse, ruddy face and the neck of a heavyweight champion. He did not look at me. His melancholy gaze was focused somewhere to the side, expressing a sad dignity. No doubt this was Alek Snevar himself, owner of the inn, the valley surrounding it, and Bottleneck Pass.
“There . . .” he said in an unnaturally low and muffled voice. “It happened over there.” He pointed with his hand. There was a corkscrew in it. “On that peak . . .”
I turned, squinting towards the terrifying-looking blue-grey cliff that enclosed the valley to the west: at the pale tongues of snow and the serrated ridge, which looked so distinct against the sky’s deep blue background that it might have been painted there.
“The carabiner broke,” the owner continued in the same muffled voice. “He fell two hundred meters straight down, to his death. There was nothing for him to catch hold of on the smooth rock. Perhaps he cried out. Nobody heard him. Perhaps he prayed. Only God was listening. When he hit the cliffs we heard the avalanche here, like the roar of an animal being woken up: a hungry, greedy roar. The ground shook as he crashed into it, along with forty-two thousand tons of powder . . .”
“What was he doing up there?” I asked, staring at the evillooking cliff.
“Allow me to immerse myself in the past,” the owner said, bowing his head and laying his fist with the corkscrew in it against his bald temple.
It was all completely how Zgut had told me it would be, only I couldn’t see a dog anywhere. Still, I noticed a large number of his calling cards lying in the snow near the porch and around the skis. I climbed back in the car and pulled out the basket full of bottles.
“Inspector Zgut sends his greetings,” I said. The owner immediately emerged from his reverie.
“A wonderful man!” he said in a lively and quite normal sounding voice. “How is he?”
“Not bad,” I said, handing him the basket.
“I see he hasn’t forgotten the evenings he spent here in front of my fireplace.”
“He can’t talk about anything else,” I said and turned towards the car again—but the owner grabbed my hand.
“Not another step!” he said sternly. “I’ll call Kaisa. Kaisa!” he bellowed.
A dog jumped out onto the porch: a magnificent Saint Bernard, white with yellow spots, powerful and big as a calf. As I already knew, he was the last remnant of the dead mountaineer, if you didn’t count a few scraps on display at the inn’s museum. I wouldn’t have minded watching this dog with a woman’s name unload my bags, but the owner was already steering me towards the house with a strong hand.
As we walked down a dimly lit hall, I caught a whiff of the warm smell of an extinguished fireplace and saw the dull varnished gleam of fashionably low tables; we turned left and the owner shoved his shoulder against a door with the word “Office” on it. Once the jingling, bubbling basket had been installed in a corner, and myself in the comfortable armchair, the owner flung open the huge ledger on his desk.
“Before we begin, allow me to introduce myself,” he said, picking at the tip of his fountain pen intently with a fingernail. “Alek Snevar, inn owner and mechanic. Naturally you noticed the wind turbines on your way through Bottleneck?”
“So those were turbines?”
“Yes. Wind-powered engines. I designed and built them with my own two hands.”
“Really?” I murmured.
“Yes. By myself. And not just them.”
“And where is it going?” asked a shrill female voice behind my back.
I turned around. In the door was a chubby little number holding my suitcase. She was about twenty-five years old, all rouged up and with wide-open, wide-set blue eyes.
“This is Kaisa,” the owner explained. “Kaisa! This man brings us greetings from Mr. Zgut. You remember Mr. Zgut, Kaisa? Of course you remember him.”
Kaisa blushed instantly and, shrugging her shoulders, covered her face with a hand.
“She remembers,” the owner explained to me. “Now she’s getting it . . . Hmmm . . . How about I put you in number four. It’s the best room in the inn. Kaisa, take Mr. . . . er . . .”
“Glebsky,” I said.
“Take Mr. Glebsky’s suitcase to room number four . . . Phenomenally stupid,” he explained with a touch of pride, when the little dumpling had stashed herself away. “Remarkable, in her own way . . . So then, Mr. Glebsky?” He stared at me expectantly.
“Peter Glebsky,” I recited. “Police Inspector. On leave. For two weeks. Alone.”
The owner diligently wrote each of these facts into the ledger in huge gnarled letters; as he wrote the Saint Bernard came in, claws tapping on the linoleum. He looked at me, gave me a wink, and then suddenly, with a roar that sounded like a bundle of firewood collapsing, slumped down near the safe and lay his head on his paw.
“That’s Lel,” the owner said, screwing the cap of his pen back on. “Sapient. Understands three European languages. No fleas—but he does shed.”
Lel sighed and shifted his snout to the other paw.
“Come,” said the owner, as he stood up. “I’ll show you to your room.”
We crossed the hall again and climbed the stairs.
“Dinner is at six,” the owner said. “Though you can get a snack anytime, or a refreshing drink for that matter. At ten there’s a light supper. Dancing, billiards, cards, conversation around the fireplace.”
We went down the corridor on the second floor and turned left. At the very first door the owner stopped.
“Here it is,” he said, in that same muffled voice. “After you.”
He flung the door open, and I went in.
“Ever since that unforgettable, terrible day . . .” he began, and suddenly grew quiet.
The room didn’t look bad, though it was a little gloomy. The curtains were half-drawn; an alpenstock lay on the bed for some reason. There was a smell of freshly smoked tobacco. Someone’s waterproof jacket was draped over the back of an armchair; a newspaper was on the floor next to it.
“Hmm . . .” I said, puzzled. “It looks like someone’s already staying here.”
The owner didn’t respond. His eyes were glued to the table. There was nothing out of the ordinary on it, except a large bronze ashtray, in which a straight-handled pipe lay. A Dunhill, I guessed. Smoke rose from the pipe.
“Staying . . .” the owner said eventually. “Well, why not?”
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I waited for him to go on. I couldn’t see my suitcase anywhere, but there was a checkered rucksack with a bunch of hotel-stickers on it in the corner. It wasn’t my rucksack.
“Everything has remained as he left it before his climb,” the owner went on, his voice growing stronger. “On that terrible, unforgettable day six years ago.”
I looked dubiously at the smoking pipe.
“Yes!” the owner cried. “There’s HIS pipe. That’s HIS jacket. And that over there is HIS alpenstock. ‘Don’t forget your alpenstock,’ I said to him that very morning. He just smiled and shook his head. ‘You don’t want to be stuck up there forever!’ I shouted, a cold premonition passing over me. ‘Porquwapa,’ he said—in French. I still don’t know what it means.”
“It means ‘Why not?’” I said.
The owner nodded sadly.
“That’s what I thought,” the owner said. “And there’s HIS rucksack. I refused to let the police rummage through his things . . .”
“That’s HIS newspaper, then,” I said. It was clearly yesterday’s
edition of the Mur Gazette.
“No. Of course the newspaper isn’t his,” the owner said.
“I got that impression too,” I agreed.
“The newspaper isn’t his, of course,” the owner repeated. “And someone else, naturally, has been smoking the pipe.”
I muttered something about a lack of respect for the dead.
“Not at all,” the owner retorted thoughtfully. “It’s much more complicated than that. It’s much more complicated, Mr. Glebsky. But we’ll talk about that later. Let’s get you to your room.”
But before we left he peeked into the bathroom, opened the closet door and then closed it again, and walked over to the window. He swatted the curtains a few times. It seemed to me like he wanted to look under the bed too, but restrained himself.
We went out into the hallway.
“I remember Inspector Zgut telling me that he specialized in so-called ‘safecrackers,’” the owner said after a short silence. “And may I ask what your specialty is—if it’s not a secret?”
He opened the door to room number four for me.
“A boring one,” I said. “Bureaucratic crimes, embezzlement, forgery, fraudulent papers . . .”
I liked my room immediately. Everything in it was squeaky clean, the air smelled fresh, the desk was absolutely dust-free, outside the clear window lay a view of the snow-covered valley and purple mountains.
“A pity,” the owner said.
“What do you mean?” I asked absently, as I glanced in at the bedroom. Kaisa was still there. She’d opened my suitcase and put away my things, and was busy fluffing the pillows.
“Then again, it’s really not a pity at all,” the owner remarked. “Haven’t you ever noticed, Mr. Glebsky, how much more interesting the unknown is than the known? The unknown makes us think—it makes our blood run a little quicker and gives rise to various delightful trains of thought. It beckons, it promises. It’s like a fire flickering in the depths of the night. But as soon as the unknown becomes known, it’s just as flat, gray and uninteresting as everything else.”
“You’re a poet, Mr. Snevar,” I remarked, growing more and more distracted. Watching Kaisa, I understood what Zgut had meant. Stretched out against the bed like she was, this dumpling looked pretty tempting. There was something about her, something strange and as yet unknown . . .
“Well, here you are,” the owner said. “Settle in, relax, do as you like. Skis, wax, equipment—everything you want can be found downstairs, and if you need anything feel free to contact me directly. Dinner is at six, but if you decide you’d like something to snack on or refresh yourself with right away—I mean drinks, of course—just ask Kaisa. Welcome.”
And he left.
As Kaisa continued to work the bed to a level of unimaginable perfection, I took out a cigarette, lit it, and went over to the window. I was alone. At last, thank God in heaven and all his angels, I was alone! I know, I know: you’re not supposed to say this kind of thing, or even think it—but how difficult it is in this day and age to get a week, or a day, or even just an hour alone! I mean, I love my children, my wife, I get along well with my family, and the majority of my friends and acquaintances are quite polite and pleasant. But to have them coming around one after the other, and there’s no possibility—not even the smallest one—of getting out of it, detaching myself, disconnecting, locking myself away . . . I’ve never read this myself, but my son maintains that the greatest struggle man faces in the modern world is with solitude and alienation. I don’t know. I’m not so sure. Maybe all of this is just a romantic myth, or maybe I’m just unlucky. Either way, for me two weeks of solitude and alienation sounds like exactly what I need. So long as the only things I have to do here are things I want to do, not things I have to do. A cigarette, for example, which I smoke because I want to, not because someone shoved a pack under my nose. And which I don’t smoke when I don’t want to smoke it—but only because I don’t want to, not because Madame Zelts doesn’t like the smell of tobacco smoke . . . A glass of brandy by a roaring fire: now that’s all right in my book. That would definitely not be a disaster. Apparently things here won’t be that bad. Which is just wonderful. I’m doing all right, alone with myself, with my body, which isn’t too old yet, it’s still strong, I can still put on some skis and dash off, all the way across the valley, towards those purple spikes, over the whistling snow, and then everything will be absolutely perfect . . .
“Can I bring you anything?” Kaisa asked. “Anything you
I looked at her, and once again she shrugged and covered her face with her hand. She was dressed in a closefitting, multicolored frock, which puffed out in the front and back, and a tiny lace apron. A necklace of large wooden beads hung around her neck. She tilted her feet slightly inward; she didn’t look like any of the women I knew. This was also good.
“Who’s here right now?” I asked.
“Here. At the inn.”
“The inn? Who’s staying with us right now? Plenty of
people . . .
“Well, let’s see. There’s Mr. Moses and his wife. They’re in one and two. And three—except they’re not staying there. Or maybe it’s his daughter. It’s hard to figure out. She’s a beauty, giving them all the look . . .”
“Is that so?” I said, egging her on.
“Then there’s Mr. Simone. He’s in the room across from yours—a scientist. He’s always playing billiards and crawling up the walls. A troublemaker, but dull. Mentally speaking, I mean.” She blushed and shrugged her shoulders again.
“Who else?” I asked.
“Mr. Du Barnstoker, the hypnotist who performs in circuses . . .”
“Barnstoker? The Barnstoker?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. He’s a hypnotist . . . And then there’s Brun . . .”
“Who’s that — Brun?”
“The one who rides the motorcycle in those pants. Another troublemaker, but young.”
“Is that all?”
“No, there’s someone else. He came not long ago. Only it’s just . . . He’s just here. He doesn’t sleep, he doesn’t eat. All we know is that he’s here . . .”
“I don’t understand,” I confessed.
“Nobody understands. He exists—that’s all I know. He reads newspapers. The other day he stole Mr. Du Barnstoker’s shoes. We looked everywhere, but we couldn’t find them. He’d taken them to the museum and left them there. And he leaves footprints everywhere . . .”
“What kind of footprints?” I wanted to understand her.
“Wet ones. Up and down the hallway. And he always calls me. First I get a call from one room, then it’s from another. I go, and there’s no one there.”
“All right,” I said with a sigh. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Kaisa. But that’s all right. I think I’d better take a shower.”
I put out my cigarette in the virginally clean ashtray and went into the bedroom to get underwear. Once there, I put a stack of books on the side-table at the head of the bed, thought briefly that maybe I’d brought them along with me in vain, kicked off my shoes, stuffed my feet into a pair of bathroom slippers, grabbed a bath towel and went to the shower. Kaisa had already left, and the ashtray on the table once again shone with cleanliness and purity. The sound of billiard balls clicking reached me from somewhere down the deserted hallway—that must be the “dull troublemaker.” Mentally speaking. What had she said his name was? Simone.
The door to the shower was at the top of the stairs. It appeared to be locked. I stood there indecisively for a few minutes, carefully twisting the plastic doorknob back and forth. Heavy, unhurried steps were coming towards me down the hallway. You could always use the one downstairs, I thought. Or, come to think of it, you could do something else. You could try a few runs on those skis. I stared absentmindedly at
the wooden staircase, which appeared to lead all the way up to the roof. Or you could go up on the roof and take a look at the view. They say that the sunsets and sunrises here are indescribably beautiful. And then again, what the hell was with the shower door being locked? Or is someone sitting in there? It’s quiet . . . I tried the handle again. All right. Never mind the shower. There’s no need to hurry. I turned around and went back.
I could tell immediately that something was different in my room. After a second I understood: there was a smell of pipe smoke, the same one I’d smelled in the inn’s museum. I glanced quickly at the ashtray. There was no burning pipe — just a tiny mound of ash with particles of tobacco in it. He’s just here, I remembered. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t eat — he just leaves footprints.
And then someone nearby yawned loudly. The sound of clicking claws came lazily from the bedroom, as Lel the St. Bernard gave me a look and then stretched with a grin.
“So you’re the one who’s been smoking?” I said.
Lel blinked and wagged his head. Like he was shaking a fly off.