Book Review: Postcards from Neo-Soviet Russia

The Seattle Times reports:

‘Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia’
edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker
Tin House Books, 374 pp., $18.95

“Do you know how I knew spring was here? I found a skull in the garden. I immediately looked for a bullet hole in it.” With a beginning like this, you know you have picked up no bland, overly processed work of fiction, but something raw, intense and sure to leave an impression.

And that is just what “Rasskazy” (the word means “stories”) offers with its collection of 22 short pieces by some of Russia’s finest young writers.

Few of these contributors have ever been published in English before and so are understandably unknown to American readers. As young writers (all but one were born in the 1970s and ’80s) it shouldn’t be too surprising that their subjects tend to reflect the preoccupations of their generation.

There is plenty of sex and drugs and general mischief that will be familiar to anyone in the West. These characters worry about their Google hits, whether to “friend” someone online, blog, eat in stale chain restaurants and speak in quotes from Hollywood films like “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”

But unlike their peers in America, the authors grew up amid the ruins of a shattered society, and a sense of loss, despair and death pervades these stories.

The characters in “Rasskazy” drift about, unsure where they are heading or why, still trapped by the shadows of the Soviet past.

In “More Elderly Person,” Dmitry Danilov writes: “Many of the workers at the Hammer and Sickle factory became alcoholics and died of alcoholism or other circumstances. Others did not become alcoholics and did not die. Still others did not become alcoholics, but died. And there are those who became alcoholics but have not yet died. They still live in these buildings that were built in the sixties for the workers at the Hammer and Sickle factory, those who drank heavily, those who died, and those who kept on living.”

Like much of Russian life itself, these stories come with large doses of vodka, as well as other expected stock elements, from Siberia to snow, from purges to communal apartments.

Some of the stories, Kirill Ryabov’s “Spit,” for example, about a young man sentenced to an asylum for murder who attempts to return home, make for painful reading. Yet amid the bleakness of this post-Soviet landscape, green shoots of humor can be glimpsed.

In Ilya Kochergin’s “A Potential Customer,” despite Ilyusha’s best efforts at the computer game “Civilization,” everything he builds comes out “underdeveloped.” And Vadim Kalinin offers a burlesque romp à la Gary Shteyngart in “The Unbelievable and Tragic History of Misha Shtrikov and his Cruel Wife.”

My own favorite was “One Year in Paradise” by Natalya Klyuchareva, set in the muddy countryside outside Smolensk. While to most of us this place surely looks like hell, as described by Klyuchareva we cannot help but see the beauty in the saddest of places.

One response to “Book Review: Postcards from Neo-Soviet Russia

  1. Wow, looks powerful and realistic.

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