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Author's essay on the novel

Souls of Silence is a heart-wrenching, moving, and inspiring drama book, representing the story of a strong, true, yet doomed romantic love between a professional athlete, the rising star of Spanish league soccer Pablo Velázquez and Russian doctor Andrey "Andrew" Gordov­sky. The narrative begins in Spain and holds a huge cultural link to this country as it unfolds. The plot is painted on the canvas of various social issues: corruption, vote rigging, poverty, medical malpractice, homophobia in professional sports, controversies of celebrity life, homophobic bullying, mental illness and suicide, surrogacy, and certain aspects of Christian faith.

Exploring the depth of protagonists' spiritual and emotional intimacy, the story shows that despite irresistible physical attraction, in their short reunions they renounced physical contact in an attempt to preserve the purity of their platonic feelings. In contrast to many contemporary literary works and films involving male homosexual characters, Souls of Silence suggests that the spiritual aspect may be primordial in a romantic relationship between two men, that it may be more powerful than the physical one, that it may exist independently of the physical one and keep love alive despite many barriers and adversities. True love in the novel is initially experienced by the protagonists in its romantic context of selfless care for another, as opposed to physical intimacy in pursuit for one's own pleasure, but as their relationship evolves the readers bears witness to how much their inhibited carnal desires are wrapped in the internalized homophobic shame they'd lived with for years before meeting each other. Anyway, the kind of love Andrew and Pablo happen to find becomes resistant to damage and with time grows stronger in their hearts. It becomes a transfiguring feeling of momentous power, able to withstand separation and to survive betrayal, to surmount the barriers of different age, ethnicity, culture, and social status, and eventually to even defeat illness and death. Numerous metaphors in the novel indicate at the general yet frequently dismissed truth that human souls are not material and thus do not come marked with masculine or feminine gender, hence true love in its essence cannot be heterosexual or homosexual by definition. The story renders a palpable example of the tragedy occurring when true love gets stigmatized because two people are of the same gender and it has to grow suffocated by silence, which informs the book's title.

Remarkably, Souls of Silence was not conceived as a novel targeted exclusively, or even primarily, towards gay audience. Instead, its message is addressed to straight audience in the first place. After years spent in research of many aspects of homophobia, from religious and cultural origins to economic and mental health impact, the author's creative idea was to convey a truthful story controverting LGBT stereotypes that lie at the core of LGBT discrimination and societal opposition to gay marriage, for example: 1) the stereotype that male homosexuality is a function of the self-perceived deficit of masculinity, 2) the stereotype that homosexual men are exclusively driven by lust in their relationships, inherently promiscuous, and incapable of creating functional families, 3) the stereotype that gay people are consumerists who only pursue their own pleasures, are averse to having children and unfit to be loving and caring parents, 4) the stereotype that gay people exist only among upper-middle-class Western people, 5) the stereotype that gay people do not hold spirituality and religion as values... The list of ignorant notions could continue, and unfortunately they are widespread enough even in the most liberal Western socities. As the story is rendered through the eyes and voices of characters who had perceived themselves as straight before meeting each other, it feels relatable and palpable to a straight reader. Confounding long-entrenched stereotypes is how unlearning prejudice begins and a shift in perception is stirred. It progresses as the tension escalates over the course of the narrative: both protagonists are seen struggling in their very different realities, overcoming both internal and external obstacles to accepting a future together, and their hard-fought chance for happiness turns into a little infinity when Pablo gets his grim diagnosis. Apart from the main storyline, within a few consecutive chapters written in the form of a personal diary, the author encapsulates a true story of homophobic bullying incident that he witnessed in Russia that resulted in a suicide of a young man. Exposing literally life-shattering nature of homophobia enhances the impact on straight readers sticking to the position of neutrality in the issue where neutrality is actually fatal.

While internalized and outer homophobia are central issues in the book's social mission, a variety of other themes unrelated to sexuality are also broadly addressed. The power of dreams to allow us to transcend the limits of the possible is another essential theme in the story, shaping its encouraging, motivational nature. Oftentimes our shame, fear, and insecurities, scars from past failures and disillusions, as well as other people's prejudice and criticisms, hijack our faith, our courage, and our dignity. They preclude us from showing up as our true selves and striving valiantly for what deserve, actualizing our potential, bringing our unique gifts to the world, and finding our true purpose. In a culture rife with blame and disengagement, where true belonging is traded for fitting in, where authenticity is traded for perfectionism, where empathy is becoming increasingly synonymous with weakness, we give up on our dreams and shut down in the face challenges they entails, losing unrecoverable opportunities and settling for misery and loneliness instead. We abandon our hopes because of adverse circumstances and hateful people inculcating our minds with the notion that happiness is unattainable and impossible to us because we are not worthy enough of our dreams coming true. But in many cases, the alleged limits of the possible are not real, and we realize it only after we reclaim our inherent worth and own our stories.

When the protagonists of Souls of Silence meet, the realities of their lives are very different. Pablo is 22 years old, a promising young athlete, contracted to one of the country's, and the world's, most famous soccer clubs. He sets out on the journey of large-scale sports career with enthusiasm, grit, and ambition. By contrast, at the age of 29, Andrew is totally disappointed with life. After losing his parents to a car crash in childhood and living through the poverty and psychological abuse of his foster family, he chose a doctor's profession following the call of his heart: to make a difference and serve people suffering for no fault of their own. Hoping to achieve professional success and get out of poverty, he studied diligently and worked assiduously for many years from his university through consequent residency, but his perseverance went unappreciated, just like his professional capacities remained unclaimed. Due to ubiquitous corruption, favoritism, embezzlement schemes, and other illegal practices plaguing the contemporaneity of Russian healthcare, his career quickly bumps into the glass ceiling of an attending physician's position. Like the majority of his colleagues, he has an absurdly low legal salary and struggles to make a living from under-the-table gratuity payments from patients ("tips"). Despite the hopes he cherished in the university years, he comes to realize that he hardly has any prospect of career growth and getting involved with genuine scientific work in his country. On top of them, Andrew finds himself unhappy in his marriage with Nathalie, a daughter of incredibly rich Russian mafiosi, an attractive but shallow young woman enjoying a well-paid position at the advertising department of a luxury real estate development company that her father secured for her, the woman that Andrew rushed into marrying years ago because her fleeting infatuation with his good looks misled him into believing he could finally belong with someone after an adolescence of feeling unloved and unbelonging. Over several years of marriage, however, truth sinks in: Nathalie's values and her self-indulgent lifestyle continuing into their thirties are incompatible with the pictures of healthy family life that Andrew envisioned for them. Her unwillingness to have children becomes a constant source of fights as they emotionally distance from each other. The rift between spouses is compounded by the pressure from Nathalie's father, who insults and shames Andrew for the small earnings he makes despite putting forward his best effort in his underfunded industry.

Visiting Barcelona for the first time in his life, on a seemingly chance occasion of attending a medical conference, Andrew sees that the reality of big Europe is strikingly different from what they have in Russia. He is mesmerized with the flourishing Mediterranean capital. He admires the city's time-honored architecture; he enjoys the sounds of Spanish language; he is inspired by the salty scent of the sea hanging everywhere in the air. He can't help a strange feeling: now, in a foreign country, he feels like he belongs, and every bit of its reality feels to him more native, comfortable, and natural that the reality of the country where he was born and grew up. He makes Pablo's acquaintance accidentally, when Pablo literally runs into him during a morning jog at the beach, and during a few days of his stay in Barcelona they hang out together every night as Pablo shows him around city sights, while Nathalie enjoys the luxury of shopping malls without feeling "burdened" by the presence of her husband. In this short time, Andrew goes through an emotional turmoil he cannot makes sense of: on the one hand, he feels belonging in a foreign country; on the other hand, he feels strangely emotionally intimate with this younger Spanish guy who, unlike his wife, fully shares his childish joy of discovering the better, purer, and brighter reality of life that he never saw in Russia but long imagined in his dreams. Now and here, Andrew leans into this joy with his whole heart and soul, without being clearly aware that what he starts feeling for Pablo goes beyond what he has ever felt for any other man.

After coming back to Moscow with a heavy heart, Andrew begins to seriously consider moving to Spain and starting over. From the e-mail correspondence with his former university mate, a female doctor who moved to Spain a few years ago and successfully settled there, he learns in detail how much the condition of the Spanish healthcare industry differs from the plight of the Russian one — as glaringly as the climate of Barcelona differs from that of Moscow. He finds his reckoning about working in Spain confirmed by an insider: she reports the absence of institutionalized corruption, employment and educational favoritism, neglect, and malpractice. He discovers that in the socioeconomic reality of Spain healthcare professionals have real opportunities of achieving both professional self-actualization and material security, unlike in Russia, where the majority of medical workers are doomed to a lifetime of poverty unless they are allowed into "privileged", semi-criminal minority groups of doctors usurping administrative power in the majority of public hospitals and making under-the-table money from the bribes extorted from patients for officially state-budgeted treatments. He realizes that unlike in his country, in Spain both public and private healthcare are efficiently managed, and biomedical research is burgeoning in reality, not just on paper. The hopes of self-actualization he entirely lost in Russia now are revived in his heart again. He gets down to studying Spanish on his own and is fascinated by how easily his brain soaks in this foreign language, as if he were not learning something new, but remembering something long-forgotten. He listens to Spanish music, he reads Spanish books, he watches Spanish movies and is amazed at how steadily his feeling of belonging with this country grows. Nathalie, in turn, scoffs at his dreams about emigration, calling Andrew "a traitor of his motherland". She refuses to leave Russia, because unlike Andrew's, her life here is well settled financially by her father using his connections at her company, and she doesn't account her husband's ambitions and self-actualization important enough. As hurt as Andrew feels by her reaction, now he doesn't consider leaving without her either: after years of arguing, he finally convinced her into getting pregnant a few months before their trip to Barcelona. Even though their marital relationship is far from perfect, Andrew stifles the thoughts about divorce, focusing on his long-cherished dream of fatherhood that is soon about to come true. He wants his child to have a complete family and a happy childhood. Andrew buries his resolve to leave Russia deep inside and never talks to Nathalie about it again. At the moment, he does not have the money for the emigration enterprise anyway, but he decides to secretly amass it with time from "tips", small voluntary gratuity payments he receives from the patients in the hospital. He continues to learn Spanish behind close doors. Aside from the possibility of emigration in the future, he has another reason to learn it: his acquaintance with Pablo strengthens into friendship as they continue to correspond in English via email, mutually enjoying good understanding and fluency. Pablo's cordiality and openness strikes him as another sign that he will belong among the nation two thousand miles to the south, and he hopes that one day he and Pablo can become best friends.

Seven months into their correspondence, all of a sudden Pablo phones him and says he urgently needs Andrew's help in a matter that he avoids to break to him over the phone. He asks Andrew to fly over to Barcelona the soonest possible, and even though Andrew is completely nonplussed, he agrees. The chance to come back to the city of his dreams as a timely respite from the worsening gloom of his work and family life, and he gets on the plane with the full willingness to help his distant friend who, for some strange reason, feels so special to him. When they meet and Pablo, ashamed and desperate, confesses that he is sexually and romantically attracted to him, Andrew is petrified. He does not know how to react as deep down he starts to acknowledge the nature of his own feelings, and hearing how long Pablo struggled to suppress them to no avail, he realizes that the bond they share is deeper than he would like it to be. At the moment, he doesn't know any better than to walk, more exactly run, away from Pablo after clumsily saying that he's sorry but there's no way. He believes that his hope to be friends with Pablo is now ruined, and his homophobic shame burns down that hope along with other dreams about his new life in Spain. He deludes himself into believing that this friendship along with other fancies about a better life in the European country were temptations and illusions, so he decides to uproot them from his heart in order to regain peace.

It doesn't work that way, though. During three following years, Andrew tries and fails to renounce his dreams of a better life abroad. He stubbornly strives to convince himself that he can be happy and get what he deserves in Russia, but his reality barely show any signs of improvement in the face of his perseverance. For lack of alternatives, he continues working in the corrupt and underfunded system of Russian healthcare, eking out a small living from tips and continuing to get the most of his income from the rent of the apartment he inherited from his deceased parents, realizing that his unused professional potential causes him increasing distress as the years of his life slip away. In the meantime, shortly after the birth of their daughter Ann, Nathalie drops back into her fast-lane way of living between night clubs, luxury shops, fashions shows, corporate parties, and high-life events, leaving the kid without motherly care and attention. To Andrew, the girl is the center of his universe and the only consolation in his life. He gives her as much paternal love as he can, while the last remnants of feelings for his wife wither away as she sees her total disengagement from the family. Despite his attempts to erase thoughts of Spain from his mind, in his heart of hearts he still dreams about emigration. Every now and then, memories of Pablo sneak up on him. He misses his might-have-been friend as he watches him on TV during the soccer games of his team, but still feeling paralyzed by Pablo's truth he does not have the courage to contact him again. However, the "prohibited" reciprocated feelings grow in his heart without him noticing. On the third birthday of his daughter, when his wife ignores family celebration in favor of another corporate party, Andrew is exasperated and enraged. During a sleepless night alone in his bed, he understands that his marriage is gone and his love for Nathalie has been a fraud right off the bat that he bought into because of the previous years he had spent in total loneliness. At last, the pictures of a different life he could have in Spain awake from silence and come into the foreground of his mind, while his feelings for Pablo come out burning in his heart. The next morning, he sends Pablo an email saying that he loves him back and the days they spent together in Barcelona were in truth the happiest days of his entire life.

Despite his fear and vulnerability, Pablo replies the same day, and with that the story of their relationship begins. As every day they correspond and share their thoughts, feelings, and events of their strikingly different lives with each other, their connection deepens. Months later, they happen to spend a vacation in Greece together with Andrew's daughter, as his wife turns out unavailable for vacation at the last moment because of another corporate event. During ten days of being physically present with Pablo, Andrew definitively realizes that Pablo is the person he wants to spend the rest of his life, more exactly his entirely new life, with. For now, he introduces Pablo as his brother to the little girl, and even though Pablo's doesn't speak a language she can understand, she quickly gets emotionally attached to him. Treasuring and enjoying every second with his lover, Andrew can't help the feeling he had sought for his entire life — fully belonging with another person while being his authentic self. Now, apart from professional self-actualization and material considerations, his dreams about moving to Spain clearly get a new, huge, transformative dimension — he wants to be by Pablo's side, even if they would have to keep the real nature of their relationship in silence forever.

When he comes back to Moscow, the word impossible echoing from various aspects of his life starts corroding his reverie. Impossible. He starts believing that it is impossible to move to Spain and start over because of so many reasons. Like, he cannot leave his daughter in Russia, with a mother unable to properly care for her. He realizes that due to widespread corruption in Russian courts and Nathalie father's money and court connections, there's no way he can get the child's custody in case of divorce; even if he does, it is impossible to take Ann with him to a foreign country before he settles there and gets a job that allow him to provide for her. At present, he does not even have enough money to get a prep course required to pass medical and language exams for medical residency in Spain, which is the only way he can get a physician's licence there a few years later. On top of that, he learns that the legal procedure of divorce from his wife may put him at a physical danger. Due to the absence of marriage settlement in their case, current divorce legislation in Russia will cause him to receive one half of the sum of his and his wife's assets. At the same time, Nathalie's father, who purchased the most of the family's property, including the expensive apartment they live in, and who has always done little to hide his disdain for Andrew for his poverty, makes it clear that he would rather "eliminate" Andrew than allow him to receive his half. Finally and most importantly, if even he moves to Spain, there's no way he can be in an open relationship with Pablo, because Pablo is a professional athlete and a media celerity. No one but Andrew is aware of Pablo's homosexuality, and he believes that its revelation will be a public disgrace ruining Pablo's thriving career, the career that took him tremendous effort and more than a decade to build.

All that Andrew needs in order to be happy and fulfilled seems to be beyond the limits of the possible. He is entrapped by those limits only existing in mind. It's only in the final part of the novel, when after so much pain and suffering his hard-fought dreams come true, that he understands that all he has ever needed was to be brave, to show up with his authentic self, and to own his story, encouraging his loved one to do the same. There lies the power of their dreams. There lies the greatness of their true love. That is what transcends the limits of the possible and leads both men to the kind of life they feared to acknowledge they deserved. And even though Pablo's fatal illness seemingly puts a limit on the infinity, their love transcends this limit too.

The illness and death of the young athlete, as much as it is not anticipated by the reader, has three crucial meanings.

First, it reflects the truth that there are precious things in life that we take for granted that can be taken away from us when least expected. Most of us don't imagine losing our health when we are in our teens and twenties. Carpe diem sounds like a call to indulge in whatever brings intense momentary pleasure, leaving us heedless of making a difference and meaning that will remain after us. The truthfulness of Souls of Silence shows the importance of living in the moment in a different sense: focusing on the things that matter — loving, belonging, and giving with our whole hearts — instead of wasting the gift of our limited time on the Earth on impressing, pleasing, perfecting, pretending, and performing. For we can never know how limited our presence here will actually be.

Second, Pablo's death figuratively portrays the selfless aspect of true love. The story reveals that before his first heart attack happening on the soccer field, Pablo offers to God to take his health in exchange for Andrew's being cured from his multi-drug-resistant, terminal major depression. He does so in a desperate prayer, feeling otherwise powerless to redeem his guilt: he realizes that Andrew's mental illness was triggered by his betrayal of him, although Andrew's thinking is already impaired enough to not see it and ascribe the illness to a genetically predetermined biochemical failure in his brain. Previously, full of insecurity about his sexuality and seeing the possibility of Andrew's moving to Spain as a threat to his career and his celebrity image, Pablo decides to enter into a lavender marriage with Monica, an Italian fashion model. At that point, asking Andrew to come to Barcelona and confronting him in a private conversation, Pablo insults and atrociously outrages his loved one, stabbing Andrew in the most vulnerable corners of his soul that no one else knew existed. In fact, bullying Andrew into believing that he doesn't deserve a better future in Spain, he causes him a trauma devastating enough to initiate Andrew's progressive mental decline. Pablo's fake marriage, after yielding him the heteronormative publicity he so much craved for, ends up in Monica's scheming against him with disastrous aftermath for his career, which drives him to go missing and attempt a suicide. Thanks to his parents knowledge of his and Andrew's friendship and a confluence of events that seems truly miraculous, Andrew makes it to Spain and finds Pablo minutes before the no-return point. Pablo survives, but Andrew's own engulfing mental agony is not relieved by him having saved his loved one and their ensuing reconciliation. As Pablo belatedly sees the depth of the pain he caused to Andrew and the fact that Andrew is now clinically insane, he is overwhelmed by guilt. He repents of his tragic misstep and encourages Andrew to move to Spain immediately, promising to fully sponsor his emigration and education. Aside from business, he claims willingness to give up on his extraordinary sports career in favor of their love, to come out to his parents and to begin a life from scratch with Andrew. He assures Andrew that his love and care and Andrew's career in Spain will be able to cure his depression. But after once suffered breach of trust, Andrew no longer believes him. Andrew no longer believes in himself either. With his mind disfigured by months of untreated illness, Andrew staunchly believes that happiness is impossible for him, that he is a total loser and failure and emotional cripple who will never belong anywhere and with anyone. He says that he has irreversibly lost the ability to love and to have feelings of any kind, let alone his intellectual and memory impairment. He believes the damage to be permanent, unaware that such belief is a symptom of depression itself. Instead of accepting Pablo's proposal, he comes back to Moscow where new adversities immediately strike him. After a traffic accident involving his daughter and his wife caused by his father-in-law driving under influence, Andrew learns his daughter blood type and realizes that most probably he is not her biological father. His suspicions about Nathalie sleeping with other men during her nightlife years now come back crashing upon his already agonizing mind. His condition worsens, and his symptoms barely allow him to function. Meanwhile, coming back to work in his first hospital he witnesses the aftermath of homophobic bullying — suicides of two residents. During next months, he continues to watch how deeply bribery, embezzlements, and scientific fabrications havw become institutionalized in his industry. He observes flagrant cases of medical malpractice and consequent harm to patients' health resulting from under-the-table money distribution system, as well the abuse of power by hospital administration with the aim of vote rigging in a major election. It still slips his intoxicated mind that these negative circumstances perpetuate his clinical depression, and he has no willpower to change his life. In their ongoing e-mail correspondence, Andrew does not share with Pablo his doubts regarding the paternity of his daughter, neither does he share with Pablo the atrocities he watches at the hospital. At the same time, he keeps ignoring Pablo's proposals of moving to Spain and beginning a life together. Now, Andrew believes he has no love, no dreams, and no goodness inside of him. He feels like the disease tore the fabric of his universe completely and beyond repair. He attempts to find a remedy in physical exercise and intensified religious activities, but he fails. He is reluctant to take antidepressant medications, but under Pablo's pressure and the increasing severity of his symptoms, he finally agrees. However, medical treatment proves totally ineffective for his depression, with various drugs and their combinations. He does not see any way to put an end to his unbearable suffering other than to commit a suicide, and he begins considering options to off himself. He never verbalizes it to Pablo, but Pablo feels the lethal danger approaching his beloved one, and in a desperate prayer he offers to God a sort of bargain: he asks God to give Andrew his mental health back and take away his own health instead. Remarkably, it is up to the reader to decide whether or not God accepted his sacrifice from further narrative, but as the rapid progression of Pablo's illness and his death are shown, he never regrets what he has done.

The third meaning of the unanticipated finale is this. Pablo's poor prognosis compels Andrew to risk a complicated and extremely costly enterprise in order to make his beloved one's dearest dream come true — he wants Pablo to become a father. He knows how tight Pablo held to that dream. He knows that fatherhood was one of Pablo's objections to his homosexuality. Due to various reasons, Andrew decides to keep the whole thing in secret from Pablo before the baby is born. With the aim of obtaining Pablo's semen, Andrew encourages him to physical intimacy when they find themselves alone in Pablo's house, which turns out to be the only time in their lives when they have sex. Pablo's cardiac disease, dilated cardiomyopathy, worsens rapidly as the surrogate mother's pregnancy progresses smoothly. To Andrew, it's a torture seeing the suffering of his loved one and not telling him the truth, but his reasons to keep doing so remain solid. A compatible heart transplant, which is the only chance to save Pablo's life, is unlikely be found due to Pablo's rare blood type. Pablo's baby girl is born on the day when his heart stops beating, and Pablo discovers the news of his fatherhood a few minutes before passing away. The baby becomes a consolation for Andrew and Pablo's parents, a new human being in whom part of Pablo continues to live. In the epilogue three years later, Andrew's new life is shown alongside Pablo's parents and his daughter, the family that he has become a de facto member of. Liberated from the misery he lived for years in Russia, he never once has a relapse of clinical depression. His career is growing steadily in a major hospital of Barcelona, and he finally achieves professional self-realization and material security. As he enjoys the reality of the city of his dreams every day, he finds himself longing for Pablo. All his dreams that once seemed impossible now have come true, and he understands that it is their star-crossed, silenced, yet fierce love that got him there. As he relieves the blissful months they spent roaming the city before Pablo became bedridden, he feels grateful for the little infinity God gave them. He belongs with Pablo, no matter where he is, no matter whether he is or not. Now, his way to be happy is to take care about Pablo's daughter and his aging parents.

Imbued with authentic and intense emotions, alive with metaphors and mystical elements, Souls of Silence is a love drama that can impact the hearts of readers regardless of their sexual orientation. Invoking empathy around universal human experiences — vulnerability, belonging, love, heartbreak, betrayal, faith, and courage — this story empowers us to extend our shared humanity to one another instead of building walls out of the differences we were born into, and thus contribute to creating a more just, free, equal, and compassionate world, for ourselves and those coming after us. The political and social issues addressed in the book can be discovered in detail in the extended version of its synopsis. Offering an insight into the contemporary reality of Russia, these parts of the plot can provoke a resonance among American audience and, by virtue of extrapolation, constructively contribute to the national conversation about ongoing social challenges in the United States: healthcare reforms, immigration laws, tackling poverty, reducing white-collar crime, mental health stigma, and others.

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