First Touch: Incidences of Intimacy Between Yassen Gregorovich and Alex Rider
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First Touch: Incidences of Intimacy Between Yassen Gregorovich and Alex Rider

H.J. Bender

Yassen Gregorovich’s connection to Alex Rider runs undeniably deep. As the trusted friend and partner of Alex’s deceased father, as well as the purported killer of Alex’s uncle, Yassen, of all the characters in the Alex Rider series, has directly and single-handedly affected Alex’s life more than any other. One could even say that he was responsible for Alex becoming a spy in the first place, setting off a chain of events the moment he killed Alex’s uncle, an act which eventually led to the boy’s discovery of and recruitment into MI6.

Throughout the eight books that currently comprise the Alex Rider series, Yassen has been mentioned more often than Ian Rider, and has been described in a level of detail comparable to that of Alex himself, even down to his musical preferences, how he spends his free time, and other idiosyncrasies. As a result, Yassen is more familiar to the readers than Alex’s own parents. This puts the Russian on a level that exceeds all the adult members of the Rider family, which is unusual, given the fact that Yassen Gregorovich is Alex’s arch nemesis, and a chief antagonist in the books in which he’s appeared. Yet his interaction with Alex has remained cautiously, curiously distant. That is, until the fourth book, when the boundaries of personal space were suddenly shattered by a single touch.

From Chapter 3, Matador, of Eagle Strike:

This was the test of courage that Yassen had somehow arranged. He wanted Alex to fight a bull.

Now he stood next to Alex, listening to the noise of the crowd inside the arena. [...]

“Why are you doing this?” Alex asked.

Yassen shrugged. “I’m doing you a favor, Alex.”

“I don’t see it that way.”

“Franco wanted to put a knife in you. It was hard to dissuade him. In the end I offered him a little
entertainment. As it happens, he greatly admires this sport. This way he gets amused and you get a
choice.”

“A choice?”

“You might say it is a choice between the bull and the bullet.”

“Either way I get killed.”

[...]

“Remember,” [Yassen] said, “Raoul, Franco, and I will be beside the barrera—that’s right at the side of the
ring. If you fail to perform, if you try to run, we will gun you down and disappear into the night.” He raised
his shirt to show Alex the Grach, tucked into his waistband. [...]

The trumpets sounded again, announcing the fight. Alex felt a hand press into the small of his back and
he walked forward, giddy with disbelief. (Horowitz 50-53)

Aside from the two men who opened the gate into the arena, Alex and Yassen were completely alone during this exchange. Judging by the intimacy of their conversation, and the fact that Yassen was close enough to reveal his [illegal] firearm, it would be safe to assume that the two gatekeepers were nowhere near Alex and Yassen while their conversation took place, which leads one to believe that it was Yassen who pushed Alex forward.

However, in Chapter 17, “Fasten Your Seat Belts”, after Yassen gets shot aboard Air Force One, Horowitz negated the mysterious touch from chapter three by writing:

Yassen swallowed. “They killed your father, Alex.”

“No!”

“Why would I lie to you?” Yassen reached out weakly and took hold of Alex’s arm. It was the first physical
contact the two had ever had.
(311-12)

All readers of the Alex Rider series are aware that Horowitz, being human like the rest of us, has made a few inconsistencies here and there. This is hardly worth noting—more obvious mistakes have been brought to attention (e.g., Alex’s exact birth date, or the general timeline of the series). If Yassen had first touched Alex in the arena before the bullfight, what difference does it make? Well, a rather big one, actually.

Perhaps it’s just this author’s psychological fascination with the Yassen/Alex dynamic, but it seems that Horowitz was very preoccupied with the importance of the first physical contact between Yassen and Alex, otherwise he wouldn’t have bothered to mention it. But why? It is, after all, only eleven words, one sentence, and a seemingly trivial detail. What’s so important about a first touch between two people?

In a normal context, especially when writing for a young audience, that one little line from chapter three appears rather inconsequential. But the moment one looks at this from a guarded, intimate perspective (i.e., the perspective that Horowitz was clearly implying, as he later expressed in chapter seventeen), it immediately becomes something much more profound; it has meaning and is intended to stir the reader’s emotions. But stir them in what way?

According to Body Language for Dummies by Elizabeth Kuhnke: “Consciously make physical contact with someone and you immediately establish a connection between the two of you. Parents touch their children, lovers touch their partners, and doctors touch their patients. The power of touch is binding” (134). A touch can be either reassuring or invasive. In fact, to touch another person without permission is, in most cultures, grounds for charges of battery and/or assault. But these touches, initiated by Yassen in both cases, were neither harmful nor threatening, and were received without objection (versus being fought back against, or at least slapped away). In both instances they seemed to convey a sense of care—even affection—especially in the latter example, where Yassen was almost literally dying in Alex’s arms. (It might also be worth mentioning that in most fiction and popular culture, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Cameron’s Titanic, to the final shot of any film where the stricken man holds the body of his beloved in his arms and howls out a heart-wrenching “Nooooo!” to the heavens, true love has died [and continues to die] in each other’s arms.)

The Science of Body Language

Let’s assume, for the duration of this essay and the sake of repetition, that Yassen did in fact touch Alex at the bullfight. What could it have meant? Why did Yassen place his hand on the small of Alex’s back—a place that, for many people, is an erogenous zone—instead of his shoulder, or his upper back? Could this have been Yassen’s method of expressing care, concern, reassurance? Could it even have had a sexual connotation? These questions are open to interpretation. It could be that Horowitz was merely illustrating the strengthening degree of Alex and Yassen’s relationship by the use of interpersonal space.

From Wikipedia’s article on “body language”,

Interpersonal space refers to the psychological “bubble” that we can imagine exists when someone is standing too close to us. Research has revealed that there are four different zones of interpersonal space.
    • The first zone is called intimate distance and ranges from touching to about eighteen inches (46 cm) apart. Intimate distance is the space around us that we reserve for lovers, children, as well as close family members and friends.
    • The second zone is called personal distance and begins about an arm’s length away; starting around eighteen inches (46 cm) from our person and ending about four feet (122 cm) away. We use personal distance in conversations with friends, to chat with associates, and in group discussions.
    • The third zone of interpersonal space is called social distance and is the area that ranges from four to eight feet (1.2 m - 2.4 m) away from you. Social distance is reserved for strangers, newly formed groups, and new acquaintances.
    • The fourth identified zone of space is public distance and includes anything more than eight feet (2.4 m) away from you. This zone is used for speeches, lectures, and theater; essentially, public distance is that range reserved for larger audiences. (Engleberg 140-41)
So Yassen broke through to Alex’s “intimate distance” by touching him; but the case of each touch evokes a different meaning. While not an exact science, the study of body language has revealed a few common conclusions as to the interpretation of certain touches. According to many dating websites, a man touching the small of a woman’s back signifies both a desire to guide and a desire to “stake his claim”. This could be similarly accomplished by a touch to the arm, but the back is far more intimate, putting both partners in closer proximity to one another, and clearly delivers a bold “hands off” to any other interested males.

But Alex, attractive as he is, is not a female, therefore it’s difficult to apply the same rules to his situation with Yassen. It’s more likely that the Russian’s touch indicated a sense of urgency, dominance, or a nonverbal way of saying “Survive this, and live to fight another day.” After all, Yassen had already protected Alex from death at the hands of Franco; by the time he’s bleeding to death on Air Force One, the assassin is telling Alex how much he loved John Rider, and how this love extends to include Alex as well.

In this latter occurrence, when Yassen touched Alex’s arm, or rather “took hold” of it, the message he was sending (whether intentional or not) was quite different. From a reclining or semi-recumbent position, such as how Yassen was situated on the airplane, reaching out for Alex might have expressed supplication—a metaphorical “reaching out”—or a pressing need for physical contact with the boy whom, as Yassen himself said, he loved. He could easily have been “grasping for forgiveness”, and the fact that Horowitz never mentioned Yassen releasing Alex’s arm further exemplifies the deepening of their relationship; for, as Kuhnke wrote, “The longer the touch, the more intense the message” (135).

An intimate touch. A confession of love from the lips of a dying man. It isn’t too difficult to see why so many fans of the series enjoy fantasizing about a sexual relationship between Yassen Gregorovich and Alex Rider, even despite the estimated 20-year age difference and the disquieting fact that Alex is still a minor as of the eighth book, Crocodile Tears. Some of these fans claim that this is what makes the relationship so appealing; an older man guiding a younger boy into adulthood, a guilty killer and an innocent youth, two enemies who have found love in each other, perhaps even Yassen fulfilling some sort of “father figure” role that has been absent in Alex’s life for so long.

While the true nature of Alex and Yassen’s relationship remains an unsolved mystery, thanks largely to Yassen’s tragic, unforeseen demise, rumor has it that Horowitz may be resurrecting the Russian in time for the final Alex Rider book, Scorpia Rising, due out in spring 2011. Perhaps some of these questions of intimacy will be answered—but hopefully, for the sake of perpetuating the mystery, not all of them.


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