“Vladivostok Circus” by Elisa Shua Dusapin & Aneesa Abbas Higgins [Excerpt]
What you’ll find below is an excerpt from the very start of Vladivostok Circus by Elisa Shua Dusapin & Aneesa Abbas Higgins. You might remember Dusapin & Higgins as the winners of the 2021 National Book Award for Literature in Translation for Winter in Sokcho, and as the stellar team behind the English-language follow-up, Pachinko Parlor.
Vladivostok Circus is coming out from Daunt Books in the UK in February 2024 (preorder directly from Daunt) and ours drops in May 2024 . . . which is quite some time from now! (Kind of.) Anyway, since it is #WITMonth, since this one of our lead titles, and since I’m feeling generous (?), you can order this now for 40% off. (Only available in the U.S.) That discount is only good until midnight Pacific Time, August 31st. So, time is of the essence!
Here’s the jacket copy:
Tonight is the opening night. There are birds perched everywhere, on the power lines, the guy ropes, the strings of light that festoon the tent . . . when I think of all those little bodies suspended between earth and sky, it makes me smile to remind myself that for some of them, their first flight begins with a fall.
Nathalie arrives at the circus in Vladivostok, Russia, fresh out of fashion school in Geneva. She is there to design the costumes for a trio of artists who are due to perform one of the most dangerous acts of all: the Russian Bar.
As winter approaches, the season at Vladivostok is winding down, leaving the windy port city empty as the performers rush off to catch trains, boats and buses home; all except the Russian bar trio and their manager. They are scheduled to perform at a festival in Ulan Ude, just before Christmas.
What ensues is an intimate and beguiling account of four people learning to work with and trust one another. This is a book about the delicate balance that must be achieved when flirting with death in such spectacular fashion, set against the backdrop of a cloudy ocean and immersing the reader into Dusapin’s trademark dreamlike prose.
Enjoy! And order now! As soon as the finished copies arrive—well in advance of the pub date—I’ll personally ship these out to everyone who preorders.
They don’t seem to be expecting me. The man in the ticket booth checks the list of names for the hundredth time. He’s just ushered out a group of women, all with the same muscular build, their hair scraped back. I can see the glass dome of the building on the other side of the barrier, the marbled stone of the walls beneath this season’s posters. I’m here for the costumes, I tell him again. In the end he turns away, stares at a television screen. He probably doesn’t understand English, I think to myself. I sit down on my suitcase, try calling Leon, the director, the one I’ve been corresponding with. My phone battery flashes low, only 3 per cent left. I hear myself laugh nervously as I look around for somewhere to charge it. I’m about to walk away when I hear someone calling out to me from inside the circus building. A man comes running towards me, steadying his glasses on his nose. Tall and lanky, not at all like the girls I saw a moment ago. I’d say he was in his thirties.
“Sorry,” he says in English. “I wasn’t expecting you until next week! I’m Leon.”
“Beginning of November. Isn’t that what we said?”
“You’re right, I’m all over the place.”
He leads me round the outside of the building to a small courtyard, fenced on one side. Beyond the fence, the ocean, the shoreline visible through the gaps. Paper lanterns dangle from the branches of a tree. A beige-colored caravan looms large over the metal furniture set out beside it. Tables littered with plates, some doubling as ashtrays, others streaked with tomato sauce. Scrunched-up sportswear and lace-trimmed undergarments strewn on chairs.
I follow him inside the building, down a dark, curving hallway. He translates the signs pinned to the doors for me: offices, backstage access, arena floor. Bedrooms and dressing rooms upstairs. We come to a staircase. He excuses himself for a moment saying he needs to catch the circus director at dinner and runs up the stairs.
A cat gazes at me from the top of the staircase, its coat is white, almost pink. I stretch out my hand and the cat pads down the stairs towards me. The peculiar pinkish hue is its skin color. A cat with almost no fur. It rubs up against my legs. I pull myself upright, feeling vaguely repulsed.
Leon comes back, another man at his side, fiftyish, platinum-colored hair, firm handshake. He starts talking to me in Russian; Leon translates for me as he speaks. He’s sorry about the misunderstanding, I’m a bit early. A short laugh. He’s certainly not going to turn me away, I’ve come such a great distance. He’s honored to be hosting a talented young designer from the European fashion world. Vladivostok Circus’s major autumn show is still running. It’ll be closing for the winter at the end of the week. Until then, I’m welcome to come to as many shows as I like. The only problem is accommodation: the rooms are all taken by the artists. I can move in after they’ve left.
I force a smile, say I’ll manage just fine. The director claps his hands, perfect! I mustn’t hesitate to ask him if there’s anything I need.
He disappears into his office before I have a chance to respond. I thank Leon for translating. He shrugs. He used to teach English, he’s Canadian. He’s happy to help me. I tell him what’s on my mind: I’ve only just finished college, my training’s been in theatre and film, I’ve never worked for a circus, he did know that, didn’t he? And I’m not sure I understand how this is all going to work if the artists are all leaving at the end of the season. Leon nods. Yes, it wasn’t really made clear. Usually, everyone leaves, the performers all go and work for Christmas circuses. But our group, the Russian bar trio, have arranged with the director to stay on here at the circus rent-free while they work on their new number. They’ll perform it at the Vladivostok spring show in exchange.
“Anton and Nino are big stars,” Leon explains. “It’s a good deal for the circus. Not sure if it’s so good for Anton and Nino, but that’s the way it is.”
I try and look convinced, sizing up the gulf that separates me from this world. All I know about the three I’m working with is that they’re famous for their Black Bird number, in which Igor, the flyer, performs five perilous triple jumps on the Russian bar. I’ve looked it up and gleaned some information about this piece of equipment: it’s a flexible bar, three meters in length with a diameter of twenty centimeters. The two bases carry the bar on their shoulders while the third member of the group executes moves on it, leaping high in the air and flying free, without a wire. It’s one of the most dangerous of all circus acts.
“Were you the one who created the number with Igor?” I ask.
“No, not me. I didn’t even know him before his accident.”
“Didn’t you know? He hasn’t jumped for five years. They have a new flyer. Anna.”
He says she’s gone into town with Nino, but Anton’s here, in his room. He can introduce me if I like, or else tomorrow after the show. I tell him tomorrow will be fine.
“Yes, that’s probably best. Anton can get by in quite a few languages but he doesn’t speak much English.”
The show has finished for today. He has to tidy up. Would I like to come with him? I’m very tired, I say, I have to find a hotel, and what about my luggage? Oh, he’ll help me with all that, he says, with a sweeping gesture of the hand.
Backstage, a pungent animal smell hits me. Straw scattered on the ground. Streaks of dirt on the walls. Like a stable but with velvet lining—hoops instead of horses, waist-high wooden balls, metal poles, tangles of cables, drones in the shape of planes, straw hats hanging on hooks. Leon tugs a cord and the curtains part.
I walk out into the ring. Carpeting on the ground, rumpled here and there, talcum powder and splashes of water, traces of the show that finished earlier. The space seems smaller than I’d expected, less imposing than when seen from the outside. Four hundred seats at the most. Red risers, velvet-covered seating. A platform overhangs the public entrance, with six chairs, music stands, a drum set, and a double bass.
“Do you need a hand?” I ask, watching Leon climb up one of the towers located at intervals around the edge of the ring.
He doesn’t respond and I breathe a sigh of relief. I can’t see myself going up there to join him. He unhooks a trapeze, disturbing one of the spotlight projectors as he moves around. The spotlight begins to wobble, its beam falling on a torn curtain over a window. I can see a section of the sky through the tear in the fabric. It’s dark outside, and still only six o’clock. The sky is studded with stars.
Leon starts rolling up a carpet.
“Can I do anything to help?” I say again.
He shakes his head, straining from the effort. With the dirt floor freed from its covering, the odor intensifies, as if the smell emanated from here, from unseen animals trampled beneath our feet.
“It smells pretty strong.”
“It stinks, you mean!” Leon exclaims.
He says the circus doesn’t use animals now. He hasn’t seen any in the seven years he’s been working here. The smell hasn’t gone away though. No one seems to know why.
“It’s not so bad right now, but in the summer, with the heat, the lights, the people. It really stinks.”
He glances around the ring and adds in a hushed voice: “I don’t think any of this has ever been properly cleaned.”
He goes backstage again. The lights go down. I turn back to look at the ring again before joining him. A gleam of light from a lamppost filters in through a gap in the curtains, casting a yellow glow on the risers. It makes everything look much more old-fashioned, a scene from another century. The beam of light hits the double bass. Lying on its side, the bow across its hips, the bass looks as if it’s resting, weary of carving out its tune, waiting for tomorrow’s performance.