🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
This is a collection of short stories written by surely the most difficult to spell author of all-time, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Writing under the Soviet regime in the early part of last century, most of his work didn’t get past the censors and remained unpublished until the period of Glasnost in the late ’80s. The stories are quirky and imaginative, sometimes fantastical, usually satirical, and often witty; and there are common themes of individual and social identity, reality and abstraction, life and death, space and time. Some of the stories are quite clearly political, concerning the submergence and alienation of the individual under Soviet rule – soul seepage, as he terms it. There is a good deal of word-play in the stories, so the excellent translation by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov is essential to letting the reader grasp the author’s intention.
“By morning many-hued military flags were hanging over building entrances and gateways. Men with newspapers held up to their eyes were walking down the sidewalks; men with rifles on their shoulders were walking down the roadways. Thus from the very first day newspapers and rifles divided us all into those who would die and those for whom they would die.”
Like most collections, this one is variable – some of the stories are interesting and enjoyable, while in others Krzhizhanovsky lets his philosophising tendencies run away with him, making them overly wordy while not being quite as profound as he presumably intended them to be. However, none of them are less than thought-provoking and they give an insight into the difficulties of plain-speaking in a time of censorship and worse.
There are 11 stories in the collection, plus a short introduction by Adam Thirlwell, giving brief biographical details of the author. There are fairly extensive notes at the back, and in some of the stories these are quite important as the people and institutions the author refers to are often no longer household names – at least, not in my household.
“A philosophizing Not once said, “Being cannot not be without becoming Nothing, while Nothing cannot be without becoming Being.” This is so very reasonable it’s hard to believe that a Not, a nonexistent being, could – in little more than a dozen words – have come so close to the truth.”
The title story sets the scene for much of what is to follow – through the letters of a man written in the three consecutive nights before committing suicide, Krzhizhanovsky introduces his main subject of identity as an individual within, or more often outside, society. The next story takes us straight to the fantastical as a man becomes fascinated by his own image reflected back to him from the eye of his lover – until one day the reflection disappears. We are told the story of this ‘little man’ who finds he has fallen into a space in the lover’s head where the ‘little men’ of all her former lovers are gathered, telling each other the story of their relationship with her. Humorous and quirky, but still with the theme of identity at the fore, we begin to get a feel for how Krzhizhanovsky uses the fantastic as a vehicle for philosophising and satire. This shows through strongly in another story, The Unbitten Elbow, where the author takes a sharply ironic look at politics, celebrity, the media and most of all the tendency of philosophers to try to read meaning into the meaningless – which is in itself ironic, since I felt Krzhizhanovsky wasn’t immune from falling into that trap himself.
“It turned out that the energy of a potential fistfight, if sucked promptly into the pores of a street absorberator, could heat an entire floor for twelve hours. Even without adopting any matrimoniological measures, simply by giving porous double beds to two million “happily married” couples, you could support the work of an enormous sawmill.”
Overall I enjoyed most of the stories enough that they made up for the over-stuffed ones. I think my favourite is ‘Yellow Coal’ – a satire based on the idea that sources of energy are running out and, in response to a competition, an inventor suggests powering things with human spite – bile, known as yellow coal. This works amazingly well as supplies are inexhaustible, until gradually everyone becomes contented and well-fed… Unfortunately the last story, Postmark: Moscow, was the most incomprehensible to me, since it relied to some extent on the reader getting references to the ideas of many philosophers who were no more than names to me, if that. But even so, it rounded off the recurring theme throughout the book of ‘I’s and ‘Not’s – the alienation of the individual and the disconnect from society. A thought-provoking collection where the best of the stories are highly entertaining and the worst are still quite readable – recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYRB.