Stories Behind the Book

SEMMANT by Vadim Babenko


It all started when I lost money. A lot of money – enough to last a modest family for a couple of years.

This happened in a flash – I decided to double my bank account and began to play the currency market, having neither experience nor skill. In the first two transactions luck was on my side, then I laid down a big stake and was soon staring in shock and disbelief at the computer screen. The market, on a strange whim, had lurched in the opposite direction, and I was falling further and further into the red. Then everything was over; no money was left. It had simply evaporated in a matter of hours.

I didn't tell anybody about it. On the contrary, I pretended I was doing great. Better than before – though, in reality, I was overwhelmed by a sense of catastrophe. I had something to live on – previous investments produced income – but the issue was not the money. The specter of terrible defeat closed in on me from all corners – and I could not accept defeat. So I began to look for ways to win back what had been lost in the market.

Fortunately, I didn't start taking risks again right away – though I was very much tempted. I forced myself to observe and think, almost to meditate, as I studied price charts. Then I realized I wasn’t able to control my emotions, even on small stakes. I understood I needed a partner with a sober head and iron nerves. I set aside all my affairs, including the book I had just begun, and started making an automated trader – this concept had just become fashionable at the time. Recalling my past, the twelve years I had dedicated to AI, I set out to design an exceptionally clever computer program. It was a robot – my accomplice in fighting the market. I called him SEMMANT.

For over a year I did nothing else. I worked tirelessly, as in a fever. The robot grew smarter – I really put a great deal into him. Its artificial mind became a logically closed circuit, self-sufficient, personally complete. It even seemed to me that in its actions, its reactions to market fluctuations could be seen something human, something of mine. At a certain moment I understood I had given him all I could. He could be made no better; he resisted all changes.

Here the money I had lost came back to me – one of the stocks I had owned for a while suddenly tripled over speculative news. I felt at once that the financial markets no longer interested me. My robot remained on a computer disk, like in a dungeon, alone with a virtual account. I just couldn’t set him free to trade in real money. I probably subconsciously did not want him to experience the same fate – terrible failure, defeat, catastrophe.

I tried to tell others about him, but they laughed at me. All the same, I knew I had won a victory. I became incredibly free, casting a heavy burden from my shoulders. And I returned to the abandoned text, to the new book hidden in a desk drawer. I wrote with pleasure, many hours a day. No, this was not SEMMANT. This was a different novel: SEMMANT had yet to mature in my mind. For a year, two, three, five.



Many years ago, in Buenos Aires, I made friends with Jorge, a journalist with one of the city’s newspapers. He specialized in articles about cars and was creative – he submitted his reviews as the impressions of a made-up character, twenty-year-old Laura, a tango dancer from Almagro. To the soulless cars she imparted bright and precise characteristics, telling about her trips in the automobiles of her lovers and friends – along with stories of her life full of men, tango, and adventures.

A week prior to my departure, Jorge acquainted me with his girlfriend, Agustina, a beauty from a rich family. "She only loves me for my articles," he joked as he presented us to each other. "No," Agustina smiled. "I only love you for Laura." We laughed a bit at that joke.

A couple of days later I saw Jorge again. He spoke of Agustina and how they had met. She tracked him down herself at the office of that same newspaper, told him she adored his work, then invited him to lunch... "See, she really does love you for Laura," I jested, but it didn’t come across as a joke. Jorge didn’t even crack a smile.

I returned to Buenos Aires three months later. The city was the same, but Jorge had become a different man. He looked bad and drank heavily. He told me Agustina was exhausting him with her fits. He complained she was forcing him to write about Laura, though he had long since tired of the character and wanted to switch to something new. "I don’t have the strength to fight with Aggie," he confessed. "Of course, she’s not entirely well..."

The situation was clear, though it was quite strange. Agustina took to the image of Laura like a drug. Laura was everything Agustina was not and could not be. Reading about the girl from Almagro it was as if she lived another life.

Thus the romance was changed to drama. And then to tragedy – in a few weeks. Jorge left Buenos Aires – simply fled, finding work in Mendoza. Agustina tried to commit suicide, and wound up in a hospital for the insane... That was no soap opera, it actually happened. It was a real story that looked like fantasy. A story provoked by fantasies that appeared too real. I could not judge Jorge's articles – my Spanish was too poor. But it looked like he had genuine talent.

While working on SEMMANT I sent him greetings in my mind. Or rather, my hero sent him greetings while inventing Adele.


Spanish Jail

I met a girl – the year my life reached an impasse. I rushed about and felt only despair, a total lack of strength. The concept of SEMMANT had been elaborated to the smallest details, but I couldn't write a single line.

And here I met a girl – I saw her first in a photo. Then we skied in the Alps together. Later we became lovers, and I decided she had not come into my life by happenstance. I told myself: Now, she’s a source of inspiration, a long-awaited sign. I compelled myself to believe this – almost by force – just because it was high time.

I began to write without giving in to any indulgences. The further the book moved ahead, the closer the girl and I got – I even moved to her country, and we started living together. Her presence in the novel was not significant; it was almost imperceptible, except for some details. But her presence in my life was necessary for the novel to be born. And, in turn, the book that was created, its authenticity, its scale, were necessary for our love story to continue, for our relationship to grow stronger.

At some point it became uncomfortable for me. The book and our life together began to depend too much on each other. They fed on mutual energy, and it wasn’t clear where this energy originated. After all, no one had repealed the physical laws of preservation, and I knew their rigor well.

This was the energy of love, my girlfriend told me, and I believed her – having no other theories. And then an event occurred that again turned my life upside down. I was slandered by my former family – out of jealousy and greed, and a desire for revenge. The Spanish authorities brought a criminal case against me. Suspecting nothing, I flew to Madrid to collect my things; they arrested me as I got off the plane. The next several days I spent in a Spanish jail.

This was a new – and utterly negative – experience. I learned that the monstrous state machine could roll over you and crush you even if you were absolutely innocent. Against it you can do nothing – only grit your teeth and endure it until they give you a chance to somehow justify yourself. It took a year and a half for me to completely clear my name. The opposing party was persistent, inventive, and did not want to relent. Nevertheless, I won – after spending an unbelievable amount of money, time, and energy.

However: in that same year and a half I finished my novel! Furthermore, its plot, its whole conceit grew deeper and better structured. And, in addition, the book and the story with the girl became independent from each other right after prison. They had lost their internal link and parted on different trajectories. I no longer felt that one was pledged to the other, and vice versa.

The trajectories, incidentally, were successful. We married, and the book turned out just as it had been conceived. The robot named SEMMANT came to life.