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Authors: Vanessa Manko

The Invention of Exile

BOOK: The Invention of Exile
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Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

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New Zealand
South Afric

A Penguin Random House Company

First published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Vanessa Manko

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.


Manko, Vanessa.

The invention of exile : a novel / Vanessa Manko.

pages cm

eBook ISBN 978-0-698-14644-0

1. Russian Americans—History—Fiction. 2. Immigrants—United States—History—Fiction. 3. Exile (Punishment)—Russia— History—Fiction. 4. Russian immigrants—Fiction. 5. Deportees—Fiction. 6. Domestic fiction. I. Title.

PS3613.A54565I69 2014



This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



Title Page













my father, Harold Carney Manko


my friend Aura Estrada

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Milan Kundera,

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

William Shakespeare,

King Lear
, 4.7.63

When we love, we have, at most, this:

To let each other go; for holding on

Comes easily, we don't have to learn it.

Rainer Maria Rilke,

“Requiem for a Friend”



United States in 1913 on a boat named
. His face open, the brow smooth, eyes with the at once earnest, at once insecure gaze of hopeful, wanting youth. He began work fast. First at the Remington Arms Company, making ammunition for the Russian Imperial Army, rising up the ranks to become an inspector of the Mosin-Nagant rifle, and later working for the Hitchcock Gas Engine Company. In Bridgeport, Connecticut. His early mornings spent among the others. The hordes of men shuttling to and from factories in lines and masses of gray or black through the dim light of winter mornings and in the spring when the morning sun was like a secret, coy and sparkling, the water flashing on the sound.

They found each other, though. Through all of that, they, the Russians, found each other. They learned to spot each other through mannerisms, glances. This was later. In 1919. Then, the restrictions came at work and in the boardinghouse.

“English! You must speak English! That, or go back home,” the foreman always said.

The warehouses loomed up around the men like capes. Their windowpanes caked with dirt, small rectangles of frosted, beveled glass. Sometimes, the broken panes were replaced by colored lozenges—sea green, slate blue, dark ruby red. Austin liked to connect them, making up constellations, innumerable designs and geometries.

“English!” The foreman's voice would resound off the tin walls, echoing off the glass, the workers all seated in rows solemn and silent, some standing. Once he made the mistake of speaking Russian to a worker.

“Bolshevik! Go back to Russia and bring your revolution with you!” the foreman yelled.

In those early years he sometimes spoke Russian in his sleep and woke in a sweat, the others around him, snoring or stirring as he peeled back his covers to step out of bed, springs creaking.

“The bastard is up again.”

“Hey, Polak—can't you sleep like a normal person?” The inaccuracy, or the intent, of the slander—he was not sure which had been the more injurious. Cautiously, he'd slip out of the room and, with overcoat on, make his way through the narrow hallways and down to the first floor, feeling for the latch underneath the stairs—its wrought iron handle cool and coarse. He'd made a deal with the proprietor. For one more dollar a month he agreed to keep Austin's books safe—notebooks mostly. The owner wouldn't touch them, he'd promised. And in the milky white of those winter mornings, Austin would sit at the large kitchen table working. His drafting paper spread across the table. A compass. A slide rule. Then he was obsessed with the scientist Faraday, examining his notebooks, reading his reports on electromagnetic wave theory for radio. He was fascinated with Maxwell's question: What is light? He'd read Maxwell's
Matter and Motion
Theory of Heat

 • • • 

mostly, and sometimes too along the streets leading to the Hitchcock Company, men lay in wait to descend upon the workers, thrusting flyers, notices, newspapers into reluctant hands, running alongside them, sometimes for up to two blocks. They were a nuisance, but Austin never refused. He took what was presented and stuffed these pamphlets and papers into the deep pockets of his overcoat. At the end of a week's time, his pockets had no room for his gloves. On Sunday mornings, early, he removed each piece of paper, unfolding, smoothing out the crumpled notices. He read them, some in Russian, others in broken English.
Lecture on the History of Russian Folk
Advance in Soviet Machines
Russian Choral Recital
Speak, Read, Write: English
History of Man
. Other postings and announcements filled the boardinghouse's entrance hallway. Newsprint paper tacked to the walls in a confusing jumble resembling papier-mâché. Someone had secured a row of nails for such flyers, and the papers hung off the walls folded inward as if fatigued, corners rustling when the door opened to a February, March, or June gust, causing the inevitable swirl of errant flyers. There were papers on the floor, strewn along the stairs, curled and shivering in the doorway, some escaping out to the street and away. Other flyers hung from strings draped off nails, dangling mobile-like and beckoning with more elegance than their unlucky pinioned neighbors.

It was Austin's habit that, when not in his shared boarding room, he scoured these walls, reading the advertisements and notices, choosing what he'd wanted, writing things down in his notebook. “Professor,” some chided as they passed him entering or leaving. “Bourgeois.” He didn't listen.

The flyers and notices promised a way to “pass a pleasant evening.” The Russian Social Club, the Union of Russian Workers—it was a place to go, a way to avoid the boardinghouse where there was only room to eat and sleep. The Russian Social Club met in the basement of the Orthodox church. They held music recitals. He could belong to the chorus. They put on plays and pageant shows, organized sales and celebrated Pushkin's name day. The union offered English classes, courses on the automobile, radio engineering. He paid his dues. He attended sponsored lectures. He received the union's paper.

 • • • 

building where bread used to be made. The ovens were now stacked with books and manuals, and the pupils, all union members, sat along the old assembly-line conveyors that lay in parallel, crossing the room in broad silver bands. There was no heat in the building, just cold running water, so they sat in coats and hats. In other rooms, meetings about the state of Russia took place; these were often loud, one man's voice distinct over others' murmurings or grumblings. Leaving his English class, Austin stood in the open door, watching the meeting in the adjacent room, listening, “workers,” “society,” “capitalists.”

“Don't just stand there,” a man ordered. “Come in.”

“What's this all about?”

“For workers.”

“I'm not a worker.”

“Let me see your hands.” The man looks at Austin's upturned palms. “You're a worker.”

“I'm an engineer.”

“So? That means you work, don't you?”


“Then listen.”

He walked in, stood next to the man. The room was filled, men seated, others standing three deep along the walls. They'd turned the lights out as if for a theater performance. One man stood before the gathering, candle in hand, reciting tenets from a broadsheet.

“Why are the lights off?” Austin asked.

“No one outside can see in.”

“And if they did?”

“Trouble,” the man grumbled and disappeared farther into the room, lost.

 • • • 

of women is to enter a home. He'd been in the country six years before reaching the moment when he could move from the men's rooming house to a home—a proper home, as a boarder, but still a home. Gone from those dank, stark boardinghouse hallways. Eight men to a room. Walls of cracked plaster. White chalky bits crumbling. A fine residue of white covered the splintered wood floors, gray and stripped bare, a fog of white along the windowpanes.

 • • • 

For that he'd receive meals; the girls, two sisters, would do his laundry, mend his clothes, and, if needed, buy him things during their weekly shopping—paper, pencils, tooth powder, chocolate bars. Every Monday, he'd have to write out what he needed in a green ledger book that sat on a diminutive table against the stairs. Why he couldn't ask for things outright, he never did understand except that perhaps the mother didn't want him to get too close to her daughters. That, and they kept a careful account of his purchases.

 • • • 

of white, save for the large table in the center of the room whose checkered red tablecloth provided the room's only color. Two large windows at the back of the house filled the room with a gauzy white light. Outside, a flock of sparrows alighted from the small rectangular yard, fluttered and traced an arc of black across a window frame like a stroke of calligraphy. One girl stood at the stove in profile to Austin, the other reached for plates from a cabinet—high enough so that her foot came off the ground a little in the reaching. She set one plate atop another, the rattle of them sweet and delicate. He watched her—careful and deliberate with each, a significance in the placing as if the gold rims aligning the white plates held a power within the circle. He knew her hands first, the gesture of them—quiet and sure. Hands that matched her peaceful face, her calm and contained kind of beauty. She had a line of flour across her forehead. He imagined that if someone had told her she would've wiped it off without a thought, with no concern for her tired, spent appearance, the loose tendrils and wisps of hair framing her face. A graveness within. Quietude in her gray eyes that he, without knowing why, wanted to upset, disrupt, and cause to flash. She reminded him of something silver—regal silver with a kind of inner poise as if she had—did have—a deep complicity with herself, had figured something out and was reluctant to part with the insight.

This was Julia.

Julia, setting out plates as thin as coins. January 12, 1919. Nearly a year later they were married.

 • • • 

the household, that Connecticut household of winter. There are scents a man brings: the dirt, the metallic, alkaline of tools, bleach of white undershirts. The pungency of sweat, the mildew of ponderous shoes. Smoke and shaving soap. It was never discussed, though Austin could intuit that there had been a change. The father had died five years prior, leaving his widow and the two daughters with nothing but expenses, working as a necessity and a room to let, if needed. And now the outward signs of an alteration were visible—a household of three women once again included a man. But there was also a latent shift in tone. An anxiety assuaged. His presence allowed it to dissipate like a hand reaching out to balance an unsteady table. For them, he meant security, protection, a release from worry, almost.

He was not a man of material needs. His requests were minimal. Tooth powder and shaving cream. Rolling papers and drafting paper. That is all. He stood, in profile, hunched over a small hallway table, three-legged, its half-mooned surface flush against the wall. The ledger is splayed open. A pencil within its spine.

His first list amid the commotion of morning. The constant creak of the floorboards as the sisters move from bedroom to hallways, through doorways, up and down stairs. One unrelenting flow of productivity. He'd wanted to write the list in private. He didn't want anyone to see him struggle with the words. The simplest things could bring one back to the outsider's humility—the language mostly. Had he used the right word? Was it
powder? He seemed to live his days then trying to decipher codes known only to others. And not simply words, but facial expressions, behaviors. He didn't know it then, but it would become a habit of his life, his way of being. But it was better to have to write out his list in the ledger than endure the humiliation of speech.

He'd held the pencil in his hand that first day, looked to his right, then left, and bent to write, the door's transom offering the same, and only, pale morning light. The pencil tip broke. Unusual for him, he who was so precise with any instruments for drawing, but in his nervousness he'd pressed too hard. He used his thumbnail to peel back some of the wood, a splinter wedged beneath the nail bed. An arc of red. Wincing, he brought his thumb to his mouth and then began again. The pencil, now jagged edged, tore the tissued ledger paper.

“You understand how it works?” she'd asked. From above he heard a step on the stairs. Julia leaned over the banister. A patient smile formed, shy, her gaze pulled back slightly. “I handle this. It's my responsibility—the ledger book, the shopping.” She hesitated before fully descending the stairs.

“I was writing some things down,” Austin said, his hand flipping through the ledger pages.

“I do my best to get exactly what you need, but if the store is out I get the next best thing.”

“My spelling is sometimes not so good.”

“I leave your bag right under the table here,” she said. “It's all sorted from what we buy for the household. I put it just right here.” She pressed her fingertips to the tabletop.

BOOK: The Invention of Exile
4.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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