“When Questions are Asked” (short story) by Anatoly Dnieprov
English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970), When Questions are Asked (Raguda, 1989)
Original: Russian (Когда задают вопросы…), 1963
Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1963
Synopsis: At Moscow State University, a group of alumni gather every year to discuss all things related to science. In this auspicious year, however, science only comes second to the philosophy of science and how no one captures the creativity of scientific experimentation like Faraday. When discussing trains of thought, they recall their odd classmate of old—Alyoshka Monin—and his observation of powder on the surface tension of sink water. After some wine, two of them visit Monin to witness another odd experiment: the source of memory.
Analysis: Stupidity is a common trait of the young—and of everyone in general, but let’s keep it simple. So, yes, stupidity runs rampant amongst the youth, but so does adventure and curiosity. To the wizened and sometimes wise, stupidity often equates to reckless adventure and curiosity. Little do they remember that they, too, were once young and took risks in life and for science. Where did they lose this passion for life, the same spark that caused them to be curious also urged them into the unknown realms of science. When did their innocence die and complacency blossom in place?
Monin was a foolish boy, always errant with his inquires in science, always a subject of mirth among his classmates. That was true until a phenomenon in the bathroom involving powders, suds, and a sink drew them all together to investigate the properties of the physical science. Most—actually, all—aside from Monin eventually found a rut with their scientific inquires; Monin, however, continued his whimsical research wherever his interests took him.
The alumni at the university may gather their noble minds to discuss greater matters together, but their sense of intrigue had long left them. Monin is a man who, even after all these years of complacency, stirs their interest. The old men see themselves as complacent and need to reaffirm their whim in visiting their capricious old friend. Fortified with a bit of wine, they venture to Monin steeled against whatever odd investigations he may be partaking in. The wine, however, doesn’t prepare them for that they find—should they take the old ding-bat seriously or brush him off like they used to?
Drunk with wine and disbelief, the well-rutted minds of the old men shrug away the coincidence their mutual friend levied upon them. Complacent with their own scientific inquiries, the fatal blow of close-mindedness comes when they can’t even face the truth of a curious mind’s experiment. Truly, stupidity comes full circle for them.
Review: It’s neither too serious nor too comic, but teeters upon the fulcrum awkwardly. The story feels like it’s missing an essential element—in presentation and in the plot. I mentioned that the analogy came full circle, but the story doesn’t come around at all: Monin, even in his advanced age, still pursues odd tangents of science at his odd job while the most distinguished alumni sit and talk. Monin’s background and experience isn’t explored, leaving only the analogy standing on its own: discover and live, or stagnate and die.