The first time I visited the Vatican, I saw a very tall, very frail old man in a wheelchair toss himself to the floor at the entrance to St. Peter’s and drag himself all the way to the altar on his elbows. He was wearing a fine pin-striped grey wool suit that must have been tailored for him years earlier, when he had been more muscular and more mobile. It was the most powerful act of religious devotion I’ve ever seen. Zosia, the Polish-American narrator of Karolina Waclawiak’s novel How to Get Into the Twin Palms, once visited the Black Madonna in Częstochowa, and can remember crawling around the icon in the church, the pebbles on the floor bruising her knees. Now Zosia lives in Los Angeles, collects unemployment, crashes motel swimming pools, plays with fire, and obsesses about getting into a nightclub near her home that’s populated by small-time Russian gangsters. Every so often she remembers the Black Madonna and the person she used to be.
The Black Madonna of Częstochowa isn’t black. She’s dark-skinned because the pigments used to paint her flesh were darkened, legend has it, during a church fire the painting miraculously survived. She has a profoundly sad, inward expression, and two disfiguring scars across her right cheek. The wounds give the portrait a tinge of violence and sadism, which might be one reason Zosia recalls it. It’s said that the scars were made by thieves during a robbery, and that they dropped the picture when it began to bleed. Twin Palms, in its setting and incantory tone, reminded me of Joan Didion’s California novels, which are narrated by women preternaturally sensitive, physically and psychologically, to their surroundings. The world rushes in and wounds them. Zosia wounds herself. She rubs her hands raw in the sand, nicks herself shaving, gets sunburn on the back of her neck, and then a rash on her arms. Everything that she experiences registers on her skin. Like the Black Madonna, she wears the scars heavily.
After taking in the Kremlin’s immense, impersonal government buildings, arriving at Assumption Cathedral, which is tucked deeper inside, is like falling back in time. Its exterior is a battered, undressed stone that evokes a pre-Christian desert landscape. And its interior — every square inch — is covered in jewel-hued frescoes that tell the story of the church. These aren’t like the frescoes in Renaissance churches, that open windows into fictive space. These are paintings stacked one upon the other, wrapping the walls and crawling up onto the ceiling vaults. Populated with flattened figures in airless gold backgrounds, they’re like very sacred cartoons, rich with knowledge from another age.
The way the embellishment overwhelms the architecture made me think, as I had many, many times during my trip, that Russia not part of Europe but part of Asia. In many ways the country reminds me of India. It’s huge, deeply diverse in culture, and moving boldly into the new century while also remaining stubbornly the same. In Moscow there’s a barely-concealed sense of chaos coursing below the streets that once senses could, at any moment, simply erupt. This latent (and sometimes not) disorder seems like an essential part of the culture.