Thirst by Ken Kalfus

The first collection…

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Ken Kalfus has become one of my favourite authors in recent years, and I’m gradually working my way through his earlier works. This collection of short stories was his first publication, so I was prepared for it to perhaps be less polished than his more recent stuff. And, indeed, I found it very variable, with only around half of the stories rating as good or excellent, and some of the rest being really rather poor. It reads to me as if he was maybe still searching for a style, trying things out, some of which worked better than others. His trademark humour, insight and precise prose are already there, but many of the stories are too insubstantial to be satisfying.

I’ve read both of his later collections, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies and Coup de Foudre, both of which I loved, and I think the major difference is that the stories in them tend to have a more political edge or be more clearly about that nebulous thing we call the “human condition”, even when he’s being whimsical. So, on the one hand, I found this collection a little disappointing but, on the other hand, it was interesting to see this early stage in his development towards becoming a master of the short story form, as he undoubtedly now is.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed:

Suit – a teenage boy and his father are in a men’s outfitters looking for a suit for the boy. It’s for a particular occasion, although we don’t know what. We only know the father is not pleased about it. They are joined by a third man, and together the three reject every suit the poor assistant shows them – too smart, too casual, too old, too preppy, etc. It is only when the harassed assistant asks what the occasion is that we finally have confirmed what we have gradually come to suspect… This is whimsical and humorous but it’s very well done, and gives a light-hearted commentary on a specific aspect of privilege, about which I can’t be clearer without spoiling the story.

Night and Day You Are the One – a rather strange story about a man who is living two lives, inadvertently shifting between them each time he falls asleep. In each life he has a different home and a relationship with a different woman. Neither of these women knows about his other life, and indeed, it’s not clear if the two lives are real or if the man is suffering from some kind of delusion. In essence, it’s a love story, but done with a lot of originality and with a nicely satisfying ending.

Among the Bulgarians – this was my favourite story. A teenage boy has spent the summer in Bulgaria with his parents. Now he’s home, and in the narcissistic way of teenagers, he assumes the world will have stood still in his absence, his friends waiting impatiently to hear all about his adventures. But he’ll learn that they have had their adventures too – normal teenage ones, dating, and learning to drive and so on – and to them his Bulgarian experiences are only of mild interest. It’s a coming-of-age tale, beautifully done, and with the suggestion that the boy may have been inspired over the course of this summer to take a first small step towards becoming a writer. I wondered, as I often do with Kalfus, if it had an autobiographical element.

So enough in there to make the collection worth reading, but it wouldn’t be where I would suggest any newcomer to Kalfus should begin. I’m glad I’d read his later stuff first, since I may not have been tempted to investigate further if this had been my introduction to his work. But I recommend it for existing fans, since it’s always interesting to see how a favourite author started out.

Book 11 of 20

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The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

The camera lies… 

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It is 1910 and a packed train makes its way into Astapov, a little village suddenly famous because Tolstoy is there, in the process of dying. Aboard the train are two men: Professor Vladimir Vorobev, a scientist who has developed a new method of embalming that can make corpses look strangely alive; and Nikolai Gribshin, a young film-maker attached to Pathé News. In a little cottage close by, Lenin is holed up, using a pseudonym, and doing his best to manipulate events to inspire his long-awaited revolution. And there’s another man in the neighbourhood, known as the Caucasian – Stalin – who is intrigued by the new art of film-making, seeing its potential for truth-telling and, more importantly, for truth-creation…

This was Ken Kalfus’ first novel, published in 2003, although he had previously published collections of short stories. Kalfus lived in Moscow for some years in, I think, the ’90s and a lot of his work is about the USSR in one way or another. Regular visitors will know that I’ve loved everything of his that I’ve read, and so won’t be surprised to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed this. And how nice of him to write a novel that fits so neatly into my Russian Revolution challenge!*

The book is in two parts, subtitled Pre- and Post-. Gribshin emerges quickly as the main character, and the major theme of the book is about the development of propaganda techniques under Stalin, specifically using film. More widely, it’s about facts, presentation of facts, distortion of truth using facts, myth-making. Given our current obsession with “fake news”, it feels even more timely today than I suspect it would have done when originally published.

Comrade Astapov had gone soft, unsteeled by the violence and death he had witnessed. Recent events had demanded the loss of life on an imponderable scale. Whether the number of Russian dead concluded in five zeros or six was hotly debated in the domestic and foreign press, but the zeros were merely a human invention, a Babylonian bookkeeping trick. The deaths were made tangible only when you stopped counting them: Velimir Krikalev, the looter summarily executed at the outside wall of a foundry in Tsaritsyn; Sonya Khlebnikova, the red-haired girl who perished unfed in some unheated barracks in Kaluga; Anton Gribshin, who froze to death the previous winter on the Arbat while searching for bread.

The first part, Pre-, deals with the death of Tolstoy, though the great man is something of a bit player in his own demise. Instead, we see the media vultures circling, all wanting to get an angle on the story and to tell it in the way that suits their agenda. Meantime, Tolstoy’s family and literary agent are engaged in a battle to gain control of his literary legacy. Spurred on by hints from the Caucasian, Gribshin begins to recognise the power of the camera to present a story that may contain no direct lies, but which nevertheless presents a false narrative. As always with Kalfus, there’s a lot of humour – the scenes between Lenin and Stalin are particularly enjoyable, with Lenin spouting Marxist theory every time he speaks while Stalin the thug is more attracted to direct, violent action. But there’s also a lot of real insight into both the way humans behave and the history and politics of the period.

The second part, Post-, jumps forward to after the Revolution when the new USSR was in the process of being created. Gribshin is now working in the new Commissariat of Enlightenment – the State’s propaganda machine, where he is is responsible for making films showing events as the leaders want them to be interpreted. Kalfus shows us the reality of life at this period: the widespread starvation as the peasants withhold food from the cities; the ongoing civil war and its attendant atrocities; the State’s attempt to weaken the peasantry through the destruction of religion. Finally, this section takes us to another death-bed, this time Lenin’s, where all Gribshin’s learned propaganda skills are merged with Vorobev’s embalming skills to complete the creation of the cult of Lenin, a quasi-religion in its own right, complete with its own rituals and iconography.

According to secret reports from the Commissariat’s foreign agents, the movies had reached every burb and hamlet of America. This transformation of the civilized world had taken place in a single historic instant. Despite its rejection of Byzantium, the West was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering, electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate association forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible. Wireless cinema loomed. A man’s psyche would be continually massaged, pummelled and manipulated so that he would be unable to complete a thought without making reference to some image manufactured for his persuasion. Exhausted, his mind would hunger for thoughtlessness. Political power and commercial gain would follow.

Ken Kalfus

If that all makes it sound like heavyweight politics, then I’ve done it a disservice. The actual Russian stuff is secondary to the examination of the art of propaganda and myth-making, and the story is told with a great mix of light and shade – the underlying darkness leavened by occasional humour and some mild but deliciously macabre horror around the death-bed and embalming scenes. The final chapter (which I won’t detail) showcases all Kalfus’ sparkling originality in storytelling, finding a unique way to show the reader how propaganda continued to be used to re-create the foundational myths to suit the requirements of different leaders of the USSR and beyond, as the twentieth century advanced.

I recommend it to anyone who has been fascinated by the recent corruption of truth by all sides in contemporary events on both sides of the Atlantic, or by the intervention of Russian propaganda in Western affairs. But more than that, I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys an excellent story, excellently told.

*Actually, this isn’t mere coincidence. It was partly reading Kalfus’ short story collection Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies that initially sparked my interest in learning more about the period, and I’ve been saving this one as a reward to myself for all the mammoth history-reading I’ve done.

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Coup de Foudre by Ken Kalfus

A master of the short story form…

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coup de foudreKen Kalfus has become one of my favourite writers since I first read Equilateral, his brilliantly written take on the Mars sci-fi story. His collection of short stories about Soviet Russia, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, confirmed my first impression, while also letting me know that he is a true master of the short story form. So I was primed to love this new collection, which consists of a novella and 15 short stories. And I’m pleased to say that the book lived up to, perhaps exceeded, my high expectations.

The novella-length title story, Coup de Foudre, is a barely disguised imagining of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal (when the leader of the International Monetary Fund and possible candidate for the French Presidency was accused of having sexually assaulted a chamber-maid in a Manhattan hotel room). In Kalfus’ hands, it becomes a compelling examination of a man so intoxicated by power and his own superiority that he feels he is above the common morality. Landau, the Strauss-Kahn figure, narrates the story in the form of a letter to the maid. There is much here about the then political situation, with Greece teetering on the brink of financial meltdown and a real possibility of a domino effect across large parts of Europe; and, in his arrogance, Landau believes only he can save Europe and his downfall is Europe’s also. But monstrous though Kalfus paints him, we also see his concern in principle for the poor and less advantaged of the world. He recognizes the maid’s positional weakness as an immigrant who lied to get entry to the US to escape from a country where women are still treated abominably and where female genital mutilation is still routinely practised, and is sympathetic to her situation, while not allowing that sympathy to interfere with fulfilling his own desires.

strauss-kahn headlines

The story is extremely sexually explicit, but not pruriently. Rather, Kalfus is drawing parallels between economic and political power and sexual power, and the single-minded egotism that seems so often to be the driver behind both. I admit I felt uneasy, as I always do, about the morality of writing a story so obviously concerning real people still living. Not for Strauss-Kahn’s sake, I hasten to add, but I did wonder about the re-imagining of the maid’s story. Although depicted clearly as the victim, there are aspects of the story that made me feel as if it almost represented another level of assault, and I wondered whether she had been asked for and given permission to have her story told in this way. One could certainly argue that the salacious details of the story have already been so hashed over in the public domain that it can’t matter. But somehow I still feel it does. Despite that reservation, I found the story well written, psychologically persuasive and intensely readable.

Ken Kalfus
Ken Kalfus

Fortunately the rest of the collection didn’t affect me with the same kind of internal conflict. Some of the other stories are also based on real-life events but not with the same kind of personalisation and intimacy of this first one. Some have a political aspect to them, while others have a semi-autobiographical feel, and there’s a lot of humour in many of them. There are several that would be classed, I suppose, as ‘speculative fiction’ – borderline sci-fi – but with Kalfus it’s always humanity that’s at the core, even when he’s talking about parallel universes, dead languages or even cursed park benches! There are some brilliantly imaginative premises on display here, along with the more mundane, but in each story Kalfus gives us characters to care about and even the more fragmentary stories have a feeling of completeness so often missing from contemporary short story writing. Here’s a small flavour of what can be found in the collection…

The Un- – a beautifully funny tale of what it’s like to be an unpublished writer – all the insecurities and jealousies, the stratagems for getting stories into print, the need to earn a living while waiting for the never-appearing acceptance letter. Witty and warm, Kalfus gently mocks the pseud-ness of so much of the writing world, but never from a place of superiority. It’s clear that this is autobiographical, and Kalfus was a member of The Un- back in the days before there was the possibility of solving the problem by becoming part of The Self-. He speculates on whether one can call oneself a writer before one is published. The drive to be published comes above all else, until he is suddenly hit with an idea – when suddenly it takes second place to the need to write.

An entire ward at the Home for the Literary Insane was occupied by people who insisted on favorably likening their evening-and-weekend scribbling to the work of the world’s most accomplished writers. Another ward was for people who compared their work to that of inferior writers who were nevertheless published; something snapped when they tried to account for the appearance of these mediocrities in print: it required a bloodlessly cynical theory of publishing or, even more, a nihilist’s genuflection before the mechanisms of an amoral universe.

Mr Iraq – this is the story of a journalist, normally on the left politically, who found himself supporting the Iraq war. Now in 2005, his father is attending anti-war demonstrations and his son is advocating bringing back the draft. This story gives a great picture of the dilemma in which left-wing supporters of the war found themselves when everything began to wrong and of the sense of alienation from politics with which many of them were left.

Teach Yourself Tsilanti: Preface – a charming little tale of unrequited love and longing disguised as an introduction to a rediscovered, long dead language, written by a man whose own love of words shines through in the precision with which he uses them to create beautiful things. I can’t help feeling this one may have an autobiographical element too…

How did Tsilanti gallants win their sweethearts? Not with testosterone-fuelled competitive violence, nor with gaudy displays of material riches, nor with glib lines of poetry ripped off from professional bards. No, the currency of love in the era of Tsilanti greatness was manufactured by patient, passionate, intimate instruction. The Tsilanti swain approached his maiden with fresh or obscure words, phrases, and sentences. With his glamorous baubles of language, he gave her a new way of thinking about the world and the distinct items that populate it. If she accepted his tribute, the Tsilanti couple began to share a common experience, a vision, and a life. This is all any of us can hope for within the span of our brief earthly tenures.

This is a great collection which would be a perfect introduction to Kalfus. Occasionally shocking, hugely imaginative, full of warmth and humour and extremely well written, every story in the book rated at a minimum of four stars for me, with most being five. And Kalfus finishes the thing off beautifully with some Instructions for my Literary Executors, a little piece of mockery at the expense of the occasional pomposity of the literary world, but done so self-deprecatingly that any sting is removed…

4. The Collected Correspondence. I was never much of a letter writer, but in the course of a long and varied literary life, I’ve left a lot of messages for people, mostly on their answering machines. Place a query in the New York Review of Books; certainly many of these answering-machine tapes have been saved and my messages can be retrieved from them. Don’t edit the messages – please! I want posterity to “hear” me as I was…


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Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies by Ken Kalfus

PU239Personalising the political…

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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.

stalin-bioAnzhelika 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.

Ken Kalfus
Ken Kalfus

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.

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Publication Day! Equilateral by Ken Kalfus

“Mars” he said.

Since this book is such a treat, I thought I’d just highlight that today’s the day! Subtle humour, insightful, wonderful pared-back prose, poetic geometry (yes, seriously), fabulous cover art and, most of all, great sci-fi – really, what more could you want?

My full review is hiding behind this link 🙂


Equilateral by Ken Kalfus

Greater than the sum of its parts…

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Equilateral“…red like a pomegranate seed, red like a blood spot on an egg, red like a ladybug, red like a ruby or more specifically a red beryl, red like coral, red like an unripe cherry, red like a Hindu lady’s bindi, red like the eye of a nocturnal predator, red like a fire on a distant shore, the subject of his every dream and his every scientific pursuit.

“Mars,” he says.”

It’s 1894, Mars is about to come into its closest alignment to Earth and Professor Sanford Thayer intends to attract the attention of the Martians. With the support of 900,000 fellahin and financing from the entire Western world, he is excavating a massive equilateral triangle in the desert sands of Egypt and on June 17th, he will turn it into a burning signpost…

This shortish novel took me completely by surprise with its scope and deceptive simplicity, and left me breathless. Not a word is wasted or misplaced as Kalfus plays with early science fiction, empire and colonialism, and the arrogance of science. Sly and subtle humour runs through the book as Kalfus’ present tense narration makes us complicit in the attitudes of the time: the unquestioned superiority of the white man, particularly the Brits, and hence the moral and intellectual inferiority, degeneracy even, of other races; the ascendancy of scientific thought and the belief that scientific advancement equates to moral superiority; the status of women, both ‘white’ and ‘native’. There is another triangle at play here too as Thayer’s emotional entanglements with his secretary and serving maid are played out.

Ken Kalfus

There’s all of that in this book, but most of all there’s a rollicking good sci-fi story in the best tradition of Wells or Wyndham. The scientists have the unshakeable belief that the Martians’ advanced scientific skills (as evidenced by their canal-building) prove that they will be more highly evolved in every way than us and will therefore be a peaceful and civilised race. But we, dear readers, have read the books, seen the films, watched as science gets it wrong sometimes…as the climax approaches, the tension rockets…

Superbly written, the prose is pared back to the bone with every word precisely placed to create an atmospheric, sometimes poetic, and entirely absorbing narrative. Even the geometry becomes magical in this author’s gifted hands as the red planet reprises its eternal sci-fi role as a place of mystery and wonder. An unexpected delight.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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