The Bukowski Agency - The Measure of Darkness - Excerpt
The Measure of Darkness

a novel by Liam Durcan


MARTIN RECALLED ALL THESE YEARS LATER that he had always imagined coming upon the house slowly, having the luxury to appreciate it from a distance. But he hadn’t seen it coming. He just looked up and there they were, the professor and Martin, his assistant, in front of Konstantin Melnikov's house on Krivoarbatsky Lane. After the bustle of the early morning markets at the Arbat, in the centre of old Moscow, the atmosphere of Krivoarbatsky Lane was more suitably subdued, dour in a predictable, Soviet way that had obviously lulled him.

Melnikov House was like nothing else on the street. Like nothing else he’d ever seen. It was two interlocking cylinders—truncated towers really—with rows of small hexagonal windows honeycombing across its white facade. Professor Lanctot put down the duffel bag that held the camera equipment and together they stood, staring at the building. It was warm. Martin had been warned that Moscow’s spring weather was as unpredictable as Montreal’s; wet snow was not uncommon this late in April, the tail end of a winter snapping one last time on the city. It was a threat seemingly acknowledged on the face of every Muscovite they’d met in the last week. A grim refusal to be caught out in one’s hope. He looked over to find Professor Lanctot attaching a lens to his camera, working quickly and silently, as though he were preparing to photograph an animal about to flee. Lanctot glanced at the light meter held in his outstretched hand.

“Tripod?” he said to Lanctot, doing his best to sound collaborative, having to settle for helpful.

Lanctot did not divert his gaze. “Non. Merci.”

They were supposed to meet an interpreter at the hotel, but they chose instead to leave early in order to get out and see the Arbat without an official chaperone. Lanctot had left a message at the desk of the hotel asking whoever was sent by the embassy to meet them at the house. All this struck Martin as unnecessarily risky, but he had discovered that Lanctot was a different man since their arrival in Moscow, transformed from one of the fussier academics in the School of Architecture to a scholarly James Bond, newly unflappable and surprisingly resourceful, a man given to suddenly revising plans, which in turn caused the cultural attaches at the embassy to throw up their hands. All it took to liberate him was a repressive regime. And a house here on Krivoarbatsky Lane.

The problem with Lanctot’s change in plan, of course, was that it meant no one was there to meet them; and without the bureaucratic approval—or the translation skills—of a government official, traipsing up the front walk and banging on the door was plainly out of the question. So they waited. After ten minutes, Lanctot collected his gear and gestured to him to follow to the other side of the building.

“You have to see it from the north. You’ll see. Very impressive.”

They walked together, wading through a yard overrun by a knee-high crop of nettles. He remembered the thrill of being there with Lanctot, even if he was little more than sidekick to a rogue scholar. He was twenty-two and travelling in Moscow, walking into the backyard of a house he’d already come to know, treading around the seminal work of an architect who had become mythic to him. They had spent the last ten days exploring the city, visiting and photographing Melnikov’s other Moscow works, the Rusakov Club in the Soliniki district and what remained of the Leyland bus garage but, perhaps out of a newfound sense of showmanship, Lanctot had decided to save the house for last. Or maybe it was that he wanted to walk through the Arbat along the way, to study the setting for Melnikov’s grand reorganization of the marketplace that, like so many of the architect’s other plans, never came to fruition. Perhaps that was the lesson that needed to be learned prior to him seeing the house.

Whatever Lanctot’s motives, the anticipation of seeing the structure was heightened by the promise of an audience with the great architect in his house. Konstantin Melnikov himself. This alone was worth the travel and the visas and the embassy having to vet their plans. Martin imagined tea with the architect and his wife in the caverns of the house, along with a vague expression of kinship and some sort of tearful recognition of how far they’d travelled. It embarrassed him now, but yes, he’d expected a measure of gratitude from Melnikov, along with the tea.

They maneuvered around to the back of the property, nestled more tightly between the neighboring houses than he would have expected. He tried to look at the house, the southern elevation that Lanctot had found so worthy of special attention. But something was wrong: he could not find the house. It seemed to be there and yet it had vanished. And then he looked at Lanctot and Lanctot had no face. It was like studying the details of a dream. (He knew it was Lanctot simply because it could not have been anyone else, faceless there beside him, scrambling through the nettles).

He can summon only a remembered fragment from inside Melnikov house, a curious sensation, not related to space or light at all—just the taste of tea, black tea without sugar served to Lanctot and him as they sat in the great room for a wordless audience with the great man who eventually shepherded the them in from his front yard, an act less of Russian hospitality than Soviet pragmatism, escorting them into his house and away from whatever surveillance they might have attracted. He remembered the tea. The formal pressure of a china cup’s rim against his lower lip. He remembered the house as beautiful but this, he thought, must have been a memory, or an assumption, because he could not see it. Melnikov House had not vanished as much as dissolved in the difficulties of looking at it. Glare. Lens flare. Over-exposure.

He awoke in a different room—-in a different world, really—both with their own relentlessly rectangular windows. He heard another patient across the hall cough. These were morning sounds. It must be morning. He tried to move but his body objected in that now familiar twisting, visceral way. But none of that mattered. Until this moment Martin was unsure whether he could summon the shape of the house. Now he was certain that, in some vital way, it still existed in him.

Professor Lanctot was now dead five years, the old architect hiding inside had been dead more than thirty. But this amended memory lived. The memory announced itself to him there in the hospital bed. And thinking about all of this now he felt he understood for the first time a pilgrim’s view of the world. Imperceptible truth. Beauty that escaped his ability to describe it. Faith.



Back to top