Little Whale, Varnisher of Reality

by Vassily Aksyonov

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Little Ivan cheerfully greets his father, Tolya, coming home from work. Father’s new leather cap intrigues him, and he asks whether one can fly with it. The father immediately catches on and stokes the boy’s imagination by telling him that they can fly to the White Sea to see the polar bears and walruses. The boy adds whales and “limpeduzas”—a furry animal he has invented. When the father adds sharks, the boy rejects them as evil beasts.

The cheerful boy, nicknamed Little Whale by his father because he resembles a little whale in the bathtub, is not the only one greeting Tolya. His wife offers a contrasting welcome by asking him repeatedly whether he has called “him”—an influential person on whom their future depends. Tolya is bombarded by the insatiable curiosity of the boy and the persistent nagging of his wife, with the boy taking his father’s side. When the wife tells them to leave the house for a walk, they happily oblige.

On the way to an amusement park, Ivan continues to ask all kinds of questions. The father answers them not only out of duty but also because he is amused by his son’s alertness and curiosity. He realizes that his son lives in a wonderful, strange world unlike that of the grown-ups, and he wishes to enrich it by going along with it rather than destroying it. He also senses that the boy gropes to find an answer to everything and to create order whenever things seem to be out of the ordinary. For example, when his father shows him the moon and the Great and Little Bear constellations (which are feminine nouns in the Russian language), the boy wonders aloud where the papa bear is and concludes that he must have gone out to hunt and provide for his family.

In the Dream World amusement park, they see figures from famous fairy tales, such as the Tom Cat, the Prince, the Swan, and the Little Humpbacked Horse. Ivan wants to take them all home. When his father explains that his wish is impossible to carry out, he touches every figure and tells them and himself that he is taking them home; that is enough to satisfy his wish.

Back at home, when the father reads Ivan a story in which a crocodile grabs a little elephant by its trunk, the boy throws the book away, complaining that it is a bad book that does not tell the truth. When he hears the story in which a wolf eats seven kids, he refuses to believe it is a wolf, firmly convinced that instead the papa goat will take care of his seven kids.

When the day finally comes to a close and Ivan falls asleep, the father calls the person his wife has been urging him to call, only to hear a litany of half-truths, empty promises, and false assurances of sincerity and goodwill. Afterward, he stands over his sleeping son, who is sleeping like a little valiant knight of Russian folklore, smiling in his dream. The picture of his son fills him with joy, and he wants to drink to the health and happy life of the seven kids.

Style and Technique

Stylistically, “Little Whale, Varnisher of Reality” shows an interesting mixture of approaches. On one hand, it is straightforward and realistic; on the other hand, there are enough elements of psychological nuances, dramatic features, and fast-paced action to brand the style neorealistic, even neoromantic. The crisp dialogue and the abundant use of modern and slang expressions render the story into a pulsating piece of fiction, resembling a film scenario. The building of characters is sketchy but convincing; the story comes out as a gemlike miniportrait. Aksyonov has succeeded in writing a story about his time and for his contemporaries, with abundant artistic qualities to make it a lasting work of art.

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