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The School: Reading JD Salinger in Russia

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You loved your Mozart in vain

Ossip Mandelshtam

I remember very well that it was winter and I was in the post-office. Not the Central Telegraph Building with its marble floors and columns but one of those small ones with rotating tables and inkpots. Yes, inkpots, we had them still although there was no ink in them anymore and calligraphy pens were replaced by the makeshift fountain pens. It was my first thought when I read about Holden Caulfield, 'What pens did they use at school?' In the end of 1950s we certainly still had ink. I was 15 when I read the book. It was 1971 in Russia and it was winter. The winter of my discontent.

I read the book in English. In Russia the it was translated though and in Russian the heading sounded "Nad Propastiu Vo Rshi', that is "In The Rye Over The Ravine' The baseball association with the word "catcher' was not familiar to the Russian reader and the translator just explicitly stated Holden's purpose in life to catch the children before they fall into the ravine. It was not supposed to be a book for teenagers in Russia. It was a book for the adults. Not many teenagers knew the verse by Robert Burns.

I remember I loved the idea of the perky red hat. We had dreary uniforms; colors were not our strong suite although it was plenty of red, the color of the revolution. I wondered what Holden would have said about banners, red ties and red flowers, plenty of them during the demonstrations. Maybe he would consider those cool, groovy. We had a river, a big one and the ponds which froze and when I read about those ducks at the pond I understood. It worried me too.

One of the great miracles of the book is the connection. In that dreary hall filled with smoke, in the corner, I felt connected to the boy in the red hat wondering on his own in the cold New York. How many times did I do that? How many times after school I wondered alone or with one of my friends for hours with no desire to go back home until the night trolley would carry us right along the edge of the ravine back to warm places? How many times when I played chess and traveled with the team through the provincial towns of Russia did I lie down at night looking at the shadows in some dingy hotels and repeat, 'Nobody cares'? I would love Holden to be at my side at those places. He sounded like a good man.

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A good person is a gift from God, says the Russian saying. There was another boy, a hundred years before Holden who learned that lesson well, Huckleberry Finn. His travel was much more dangerous and tragic than Holden's. We here cannot even imagine a feeling when being a child you witness your friend shot by adults and you yourself become responsible for the life and well-being of another adult, a runaway slave. Huck Finn became a man very quickly on that trip and a man he was who would have cared for Holden if he was there. He would have cared for me too.

Nobody cares. Even Mr. Antolini, the best of all adults Holden had met did not stop a boy from leaving at night. Free will, huh? Ok, the boy was nervous and made wrong conclusions. Go with him. Do not let him go, for goodness sake. How many times we let our children go: because we are in a hurry or because we just don't see or because we don't want to bother or because we are afraid. How many times we lose them? I sat there, lost in the post-office hall, a Jewish boy of 15 who knew how to derive a formulae in the complex calculus, played pretty good chess and could read Salinger in English. At that moment an intelligent, funny, bright and kind Holden Caulfield was much closer to me than our youth leadership. We had a lot in common. Nobody cared.

Life is the game you play according to the rules. That's what they told him. Game, my ass. That's what they tell our young people now, sending them to fight dirty wars. Oh, adults, they are good at that. They can explain everything, especially the necessity for the young people to die with honor. In Russia they explained that rather lucidly. Who cared for the psychological well- being of all those boys who saw death around them every day since the early childhood? Off you go to war, young man and if not to war- to the North or South or whenever the Party sends you. Young boys must be tough, they don't cry, they don't think, they don't ask, they don't tell. Sounds familiar, right? What was there in Holden's future. Vietnam? Or Helter- Skelter? People like Stradlater, or Phil Stable would not go to Vietnam. They would sent others and eventually become Cheneys and Bushes. People like Holden would most probably emigrate. Like I did.

Life is a game you play according to the rules. Baloney, I am a professional chess player and I know that Holden was right in his suspicions. Life is not a game. Life is a way to bend the rules so that rules remember your bending. You know how such boys like Holden were called in Russia among the adults that had brains- informal leaders.

Informal leadership is a leadership by influence, by example. Holden gave an example- a person can be independent even at 15. A person can be equal even at 15. A person can be a man even at 15 and he does not need a gun to prove it. You can insult and mug such a person but his/her dignity stays intact. There was a movie 'Speak' with Christen Stewart, I think, on the similar topic. How that girl became a person through a horrific experience. How she took over. There are books in Russia about such things too: "The Wild Dog Dingo' by Fraerman and many books by Krapivin and others. And of course, there is "A Teenager' by Dostoevsky which says it all. Huck Finn, Dostoevsky's Arkady, Assole from "The Purple Sails', Jim from the 'Treasure Island', Tanya Sabaneeva, Boris Golikov, Jean-Louise Finch, Holden Caulfield-they all are the same- the informal leaders leaving their childhood. Colonel Slate in the 'Scent of a Woman' says the right thing about that boy Simms, 'It is called integrity.' Integrity is like a diamond which we value more than the huge rock. It shines the same in the darkness of New York and in the smoky hall of the Kiev post- office. Informal leadership is a valuable future. Don't squander it, Committee, as Colonel Slate said. Do not amputate the soul.

In the end of the book the childhood ends. Holden watches his sister having fun and realizes that the only way out of depression is to care for the others. To prevent them from falling into the ravine. I closed the book and went to the door. We were supposed to have a communist youth meeting that day on which we were to collectively scold some poor girl for being too self- absorbed, too preoccupied with books and music and not participating in the collective efforts. I cared. That meeting, I arranged for it to go nowhere. It was my goal from that moment not to let the stupidity to prevail and hurt people. Doing that ever since I do not allow to amputate the souls of others and through that I retain mine. RIP, JD Salinger. You were a good man. That's a gift from God. I wonder if I managed to explain it clearly here.

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The writer is 57 years old, semi- retired engineer, PhD, PE, CEM. I write fiction on a regular basis and I am also 10 years on OEN.


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Our leadersact, think and like being known as lead... by mikel paul on Saturday, Jan 30, 2010 at 12:24:49 PM
I'm three years younger than Salinger anddiscovere... by Margaret Bassett on Sunday, Jan 31, 2010 at 10:56:28 AM