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One of the best books of 2013 is Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral, an insightful, subtly humorous and wonderfully written novel in the vein of classic sci-fi. (If you haven’t read it yet, why haven’t you?) I’d never heard of Kalfus before reading it, so am now working my way backwards through his previous stuff…
Kalfus lived in Russia during the period 1994-1998, when his wife was appointed Moscow bureau chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer, allowing him to get to know the country and its people. The result is this collection of six short stories and a novella, all based in the Russia of the USSR era. Overall, he gives us a grey and grim depiction of life under the Soviet regime, but leavened with flashes of humour and a great deal of humanity. His writing has the same spare precision of Equilateral though, perhaps because of the subject matter, with less of the poeticism that was a feature of that book.
The title story, Pu-239, tells of the Soviet nuclear programme, shrouded in secrecy, with little regard for the safety of the workers. A stark tale of the dangers that lurk in an industry that is creaking and broken, Kalfus humanises his story by concentrating on one worker, his loyalty tested to breaking point when he is the victim of an accident in the plant.
Anzhelika shows the life of this 13-year-old living in the time of Stalin and dealing with the sudden return of her father who has been missing, no-one knows where, since the end of the war. We see how she has been indoctrinated to revere, almost worship, Stalin and the regime and how the most human of emotions are corrupted and denied.
Birobidzhan is the story of the setting up of the Jewish Autonomous Region as seen through the lives of Israel, an activist and enthusiast for the project, and Larissa, the woman he hopes will share his journey. This is one of the longer stories, allowing Kalfus to show us the contrast between the hopes of the settlers and the realities of this unwelcoming corner of the USSR, and always the brooding threat of a regime that tolerates no dissent.
Orbit follows Yuri Gagarin on his last evening before he is due to blast off to be the first man in space. We see a man conscious of his own heroism, sure of his destiny. But Kalfus contrasts this with the story of Sergei Korolev, Chief Director of the project – a man who has returned from the horror of the gulags and who understands the price of failure.
Budyonnovsk tells the story of the negotiations between the Chechen separatists and Chernomyrdin during the hospital hostage crisis in 1995. For me, this story didn’t work as well as the others, possibly because it must have been written fairly contemporaneously and Kalfus perhaps didn’t tell us enough about the circumstances, believing his readers would remember them – which sadly I didn’t.
Salt is based on a Russian folk-tale – a young man discovers a salt mountain and exchanges this valuable spice for its weight in gold. Light and entertaining on the surface, the story is an allegorical fable on the subject of wealth-creation and the notional value that humanity gives to otherwise worthless commodities.
The book finishes with the novella, Peredelkino. A story of love and betrayal told against the background of the literary world, Kalfus shows the constraints placed on authors forced to ensure that their work stays within the restrictions placed on all artists under the totalitarian state. Kalfus’ musings on the writing process and thoughts on critical reception occasionally felt as if an autobiographical element must be creeping into this one, and while the story over all is both dark and emotional, there are many flashes of humour here too.
In each of the stories Kalfus personalises the political, creating believable characters struggling to find a way to live under the Soviet system. He doesn’t take the easy option of concentrating on dissidents and rebels; instead, he shows us ordinary people, often supporters of the regime, but living under the constant fear of stepping out of line. Some of the stories worked better for me than others, with Peredelkino and Birobidzhan being the stand-outs. But as a collection, these are insightful and thought-provoking, and Kalfus’ precise language and compelling characterisation make them an absorbing read. Highly recommended.