The nature of genius

The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 21

Alison Christy 15 March 2009

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

Geniuses are allowed, even expected, to have tumultuous love affairs

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 21

A Meta-analysis of the Neural, Cognitive and Motoric Markers of Giftedness and Exceptional Ability

Anna’s heart is beginning to slow down after her talk, but it suddenly accelerates. She never thought she’d see Frank again – much less at her own talk, less than a week since she left Moscow.

She asks what brings him to Tomsk.

“I just flew in, on the spur of the moment,” he says. He shrugs; he has a small stack of books with him that he shifts from one arm to the other. “There’s a pretty big archive at the university here that I’ve always meant to come and look through. So, when you said you were coming out here, it started me thinking. I’ve always wanted to see Tomsk.”

“Oh,” Anna says. “Well, it’s good to see you again.” And it is: she gives in to a feeling of relief, almost safety; and she smiles in spite of herself.

“So, do you want to get dinner later?” Frank asks. “Or do you have plans?”


Anna follows Yelena through hallway after hallway to her office. The room is small, almost like a closet, but big old windows look out over a summery courtyard. The desk is clean, almost empty, and made of peeling particleboard.

“I think it went so good,” Yelena says. “Everyone was very happy.” She smiles at Anna. “Here is present for you.”

It lies in the middle of her desk, wrapped in a ribbon. Anna opens it to find a set of postcards.

Anna thanks her and flips through the cards: the Tomsk Pedagogical Institute, the Eternal Flame, the outdoor market, all in muted colors from the Seventies.

“Yelena,” she says slowly, “would you be willing to tell me about Michael Perch? We could go somewhere. For coffee, or a drink.”

“We can talk here,” Yelena says, pulling back, her chin clenched. “I do not have to hide.”

Anna sits down on the straight green chair. Yelena sits behind her desk and looks at her defiantly, clearly expecting some kind of interrogation.

Anna had hoped that they could just chat, that Yelena could tell her stories. She clears her throat and looks down at her postcards.

“So,” she says, “how did you meet?”

Yelena answers quickly. “He came to the university for help with his studies. We have good department in Siberian peoples: Ket, Selkup, others.” Yelena raises her eyebrows, daring Anna to ask something else, something more scandalous.

Yelena’s eyes are bluish-gray, and her dark brown eyeliner looks crudely drawn in the natural light from the window.

“Why was he so wonderful?” Anna asks suddenly. Once the words are out of her mouth, Anna realizes this is what she has wanted to know from the beginning: why, why is this man so captivating, when she knows so little about him, when she has never met him?

Yelena smiles, softly, and props her elbows on her desk, cupping her chin in her hands. There are so many reasons, she says. His grasp of languages, his quick wit, his eyes. His solemnity, despite his wit; his deep concern for the plight of others. His love of Russia, a deep, real love that made him want to fix its problems and made him so frustrated with the government. He is an amazing man – or was, Yelena amends sadly.

So Yelena knows about his disappearance? Oh yes. And does she have any idea why he might have disappeared? Well. Surely Anna has theories of her own.

Anna does, and she finds herself telling Yelena all about the articles she printed out in Moscow, and her theories that Michael Perch either: a) was killed by the Russian government because of his writing about the apartment bombings; or b) disappeared to make it look like the Russian government had killed him and draw attention to his criticisms. She had planned to hold her cards closer to her chest; she was supposed to be mysterious like a Bond girl; she was supposed to ask Yelena questions, but she is used to being a scientist and to working through her hypotheses by talking with John and her colleagues in the lab. If there were a whiteboard in Yelena’s office, she would have probably written out an outline.

Yelena snorts. “If the government kills every journalist who say they did apartment bombings, then we have no more journalists,” she says. “Michael was not unusual. Everyone said that.”

“He –” Anna says. “Really?”

Yelena laughs again. “Oh yes. And what happened, after all that bombing and all those articles saying no, the government killed civilians to make war in Chechnya and make the people elect Putin?”

Anna shakes her head.

Yelena shrugs. “Putin is elected. Clearly, these articles do very little good.” Yelena leans back in her chair. “I think you have forgotten that we are not the Soviet Union,” she says. “The government does not kill any more the political dissidents. Why would they, when nothing they say matters?”

“So you don’t think Michael was killed?” Anna asks.

“I do think that Michael was killed,” Yelena says. “But not by the government.”


The restaurant is, according to Frank’s guide book, the nicest restaurant in town, though it resembles a run-down hunting cabin, draped in red velvet and hung with dim lamps in a slapdash attempt to make it look like a bordello. The English-language menu is less than helpful, but Anna orders borscht, which seems authentically Russian but safe.

The words she has written down in the margins of Michael Perch’s articles whirl through her head quickly and meaninglessly: Gazprom. Krasnaya mafia. Transneft. Dolgoprudenskaya. She asks Frank about his research, but she keeps thinking about Michael Perch.

Frank tells her is researching the Soviet cult of personality, and the way politicians can use idolization of a person to gain and maintain power. He says that the masses love to believe that some person – Stalin, Lenin, Gagarin – was born with something extra, an extra brain cell or something that no one else has, and that person thus understands the entire world better than we do.

“People decide that someone is a genius,” Frank says, “and then that person can’t be wrong, no matter what they say. Take Einstein. Great physicist. So he said, God doesn’t play dice. And everyone quotes him like it’s fact, even though there is no way he could ever know that. He’s a physicist; he’s not a theologian. Or, let’s take another quotation: imagination was more important than knowledge. Surely Einstein wasn’t the first to ever say that, but you can’t quote some guy on the street, you can’t say ‘my waiter said that imagination is more important than knowledge.’ If Einstein said it, you can quote it, because by being what we call a ‘genius’ he becomes infallible.”

He tells her this is why people get so upset over the anti-Semitism of Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot: because they are not allowed to be geniuses in one way and not in everything else.

“Everything else cerebral, I should say,” Frank says. “Geniuses are allowed, even expected, to have tumultuous love affairs.” He shrugs and pokes at his food. “So that was basically the entire introduction to my dissertation. Now you don’t have to read it.”

“So you don’t believe in genius?” Anna asks.

“You’re the biologist,” Frank says. “Is there genius yeast? I don’t know. Let’s just say I’m agnostic.”

“Maybe you’re just bitter that you’re not a genius,” Anna says.

“Maybe I am a genius,” Frank says.

Anna laughs, almost choking on her wine, because she knows geniuses: John, for one, with his brilliant, singular theories of epigenetics; and Michael Perch: passionate, witty and perceptive, with those deep, dark eyes. Gazprom, she thinks. Krasnaya mafia.

“So what now?” Frank asks. “Are you headed back to Moscow? Back to America?”

Say yes, she thinks. It would be so simple. Frank would go with her to the Tomsk airport, she could get on a plane. She could land in Chicago and tell her mother and her friends that it was just too difficult to get to Krolosk, and they would understand. She would forget all about Michael Perch and the woman on the train and the bombs at Pushkin Square and everything. She would be safe, back in America; where she didn’t even have a place to live anymore, where she only had a small pile of boxes and her parents’ guest room and the ever-pressing need to figure out what she was doing for the rest of her life.

“No,” Anna says, pouring herself another glass of wine. “Have you ever heard of the island of Krolosk?”

{Continued next week}