September 24th, 2010 / 1:37 pm
Reviews

The Fiction of New Russian Realism

Rasskazy, an anthology of “new fiction from a new Russia” presents a reviewer with an interesting challenge: how to write about these texts as though they had something in common with each other. The book is held together by the assumption that the authors share not only a common language, but that their work is representative of “new Russia” in at least two important ways: in the authors’ political and cultural engagement and in their continuation of “the great Russian literary tradition.” In their preface to the anthology, editors Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker frame the texts within the politics of the Putin-era Russia that they see as “turning back the hands of Russia’s sociopolitical clock” and implicate all authors as opposition to this political process. The editors’ ideology in approaching this collection comes across in statements such as: “Russian writing has once again found itself invested with a higher purpose. The writers in today’s Russia derive their sense of relevance from having been adjudged irrelevant by the country’s rulers (i.e., nonthreatening to the latter’s political agenda).”

These kinds of sweeping statements that present Russian writing as a monolith project within a given socio-political environment described in absolute terms do a disservice to the work of the individual authors gathered in this anthology. Francine Prose’s introduction goes a step further in both of these directions, encouraging us to read the stories as quasi-reportage, as “the chance to learn how people are living and thinking and feeling in a world that literature describes better than any other source of information.” Saying this, Prose essentially asks us to disregard two levels of construction behind this anthology: the work of the authors using language to express their aesthetics and ideology and the work of the editors selecting material to match their own worldview.

We are invited to read this anthology as a product of a national literature, continuing traditions of “the great Russian literature,” that at the same time reflects on the state of literature in the “new Russia.” Prose begins her introduction with the reference to “The Russians” and the nineteenth century Russian literary tradition and ends it with the hope that “The Russians” can include “the present and the future.” While the writers anthologized in Rasskazy vary widely in age and place of birth, in their personal and professional backgrounds, aesthetics, and literary experiences, the anthology project creates its own narrative and encourages the readers if not entirely to disregard the differences, then to experience these works, from the beginning to end, as a part of a single literary tradition.

This anthology is offered to us in a seemingly random sequence of twenty two stories, without any section breaks or introductory essays about the authors, with only brief notes about the contributors provided at the end of the book. A reader, unfamiliar with the names in the collection, is gently coaxed to start at the beginning and read to the end. A narrative emerges seamlessly, beginning with a human skull found in the garden in the first line of Linor Goralik’s “They Talk,” building to the two stories of death and destruction from the Chechen war at the centerpiece of the collection, Arkady Babchenko’s “The Diesel Stop” and German Sadulaev’s “Why the Sky Doesn’t Fall,” and ending with Natalya Kluchareva’s “One Year in Paradise,” which provides another potent image: a rotten map of Russia threatens to fall off the wall and the narrator sits supporting it with his back and reciting a barely remembered prayer. This narrative features heavy drinking in most of the stories, escalating in “The Nuclear Spring” into ingesting a chemical substance called “Toren,” not unlike “Substance D” from Philip K. Dick’s “A Scanner, Darkly” in its neurological effects. Infidelity is the rule of the day as the patriarchal values compete with the forces of the free market—Vadim Kalinin’s lovely and quirky story “The Unbelievable and Tragic History of Misha Shtrikov and His Cruel Wife” stages the breakdown of traditional family values and gender role reversal in the extreme when Misha’s wife literally forces Misha into prostitution. Characters struggle to connect with one another in any meaningful way, and in Babchenko’s “The Diesel Stop” even a simple conversation is literally painfully difficult: “That’s just the way it was, how people conversed with each other, and the blows were merely a catalyst for some further action, nothing more.” In Olga Zondberg’s story “Have Mercy, Your Majesty Fish,” a blogger finds herself unable to imagine a plausible conversation  between two women she saw in the subway—and an anonymous reader of her blog responds “Me neither.” In the ultimate irony, the impossibility of the human connection provides the only feasible grounds for a relationship. Children in this narrative are portrayed primarily within the context of violence performed to them or by them. In Vladimir Kozlov’s “Drill and Song Day,” two schoolboys goad a third over the ledge of a skyscraper, and in “Rules” by Anna Starobinets a boy comes at his mother with a knife. In the dreary economy of this narrative, animals frequently have more humanity than people—Solzhenitsin’s  famous prisoner, Ivan Denisovich, becomes a hungry dog in Oleg Zobern’s “Bregovich’s Sixth Journey,” and an occasional meal and frequent cigarette smoking provide many characters the scarce moments of joy and comfort.

Read this way, “a new Russia” emerges as a depressing and emotionally bankrupt place, and contemporary Russian literature wanes in “the shadow of a long and glorious tradition” that according to Francine Prose “hangs—mostly lightly—over some of this.”

I return to Prose’s introduction because I want to dispute this portrayal of Russian literary tradition as a single whole; in my view, it would be more accurate to speak of a porous tradition, tradition simultaneously pulled in different directions and woven together by absorbing many different trends, each governed by a set of unique historical and cultural forces that frequently come in direct conflict with one another. Contemporary Russian literature—even if we take one subset of it, literature written by authors residing at least part-time within the borders of the Russian Federation—is a deep and heterogeneous field, divided by city and regional affiliations, divided by age, class, religion and ethnicity of practitioners, divided by political views. The aesthetic differences between the stories represented in this anthology are not arbitrary or incidental, but instead come from vastly different schools of thought on what “literature” is; they come from the different ideological projects of the authors.

Let me offer a way of destabilizing this picture of unity by contextualizing the stories in this anthology within one important debate that has been staged and restaged in the world of Russian letters since the first half of the 19th Century. The debate started in 1831 among young philosophy students in Moscow University that divided in two groups: slavophiles and westernizers. Both groups consisted of liberal members of the aristocracy who wanted to reform Russian society, where serfdom was still the rule of the day and the monarchy had absolute power. Both groups believed in pursuing peaceful reform (as opposed to more radical revolutionary groups) in their quest to abolish serfdom and to establish free speech and dialog with power. The names of the two groups speak for their differences: westernizers believed that reform in Russia must follow Western models—in particular, separation of church and state and establishment of constitutional monarchy supported by elected government; slavophiles were convinced that Russia must discover its own, independent path to reform, and saw Orthodox church and traditional patriarchal values, with a strong monarch at the top and peasant self-government at the bottom, as the proper course.

This debate was reflected in the literature of the century because these men strongly believed in the power of literature to affect social change—and many other writers have subsequently aligned themselves with one or another group: Turgenev, Goncharov, Nekrasov—westernizers; Tyutchev, Dal’—slavophiles. Dostoyevsky, several decades later, expressing the idea that Russian people were empowered by God, “bearing God,” was at the center of another group that inherited many of the ideas of slavophiles. Since then, the debate has informed almost any internal discussion on Russia and Russian literature. It resurfaced before and after the October revolution, it became a part of the dissident discourse on the future of Russia sans communism—Solzhenitsin being one of the most prominent contemporary neoslavophiles, believing that the Orthodox Church and patriarchy were necessary to establish any stable Russian government. This debate is one of the necessary keys for understanding the problems authors writing in Russia face today, when the new Russian national identity is once again a hot topic.

Approached through the lens of this debate, the stories in this anthology are clearly in dialogue with one another, each of them offering (explicitly or implicitly) their own interpretation of Russia and Russianness. Linor Goralik’s story “They Talk” is one of the stories most clearly aligned with the westernizer position. Goralik, a popular blogger and novelist, the creator of one of the few original Russian-language comic strips, completed her college degree in Israel, and has traveled extensively in the US. In 2000, she moved back to Moscow, and much of her work since then has been dedicated to introducing Israeli and American culture to Russian audiences. She translated into Russian the work of Etgar Keret, a popular Israeli short story author, as well as co-translated the work of an American poet of Lithuanian descent, Vytautas Pliura.

Not surprisingly, the characters of Linor’s story—a story constructed from bits of overheard conversations about love, death, violence, infidelity—are cosmopolitan city-folk, and could be imagined on the streets of almost any modern city. In fact, at least one of the segments is much easier to imagine as set in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem than in Moscow: in it, the speaker discovers the neighborhood café destroyed, presumably by a bomb. The speaker lets us know that this is not a singular incident, that he (in the English translation the gender of the speaker is unclear, but in the Russian original it’s identified clearly as male) is used to “moments like these”—indicating a level of violence, despite the recent subway bombings, still not seen in Moscow. The speaker’s friend is identified by the proper name Tsvi, a common Jewish name rarely encountered in Russia. By combining narratives from speakers of various ages, genders, and personal systems of belief, Goralik creates them as citizens of a global community rather than of a country defined by national borders.

Roman Senchin, whose work is represented here by a short story entitled “History,” is one of the most respected young writers in Russia today, a fact humorously acknowledged in this anthology by a reference in Oleg Zobern’s story “Bregovich’s Sixth Journey”: “The living novelist Senchin has a wondering dog’s-eye view of the world. I saw him recently. He’s tired of his wife but has nowhere to go.” Senchin grew up half the globe away from Goralik, in a town called Kyzyl in the republic of Tuva in the south of Siberia, a town that claims to be the geographical center of Asia. According to his biography available online on the website of an organization called “Civil Literary Forum,” he left Kyzyl in 1993 together with his family due to the ethnic tensions between the Russian and the native Tuvan populations. Eventually, Senchin settled down in Moscow and enrolled in “Literary Institute”—one of the few existing programs in Russia that teach craft to writers.

At the center of his “History” is Nikolai Dmitrievich, a history professor of the most liberal kind—excited by the freedoms of Perestroika, but generally remaining on the sidelines of social change in the country. His life revolves around his work, his research on the conditions in Germany and Central Europe that allowed Hitler to come to power between the two World Wars. When the story opens, we see him buying a rare book that has just been translated to Russian and that will help him with his research. Immediately after acquiring the book, he gets embroiled in a civic protest, organized by the members of the political opposition, and is arrested along with the protesters by the special police. In the car, on the way to prison, one of the more experienced protesters advises Nikolai Dmitrievich to throw away the book entitled “Hitler, Inc. How Britain and the USA Created the Third Reich” before the police had a chance to claim it as “extremist literature.” While we don’t know whether the professor follows this advice, the ideological underpinning of the suggestion seems clear: the Western model of scholar as an independent thinker cannot exist in Russia and even the mere possession of a book implicates one in a political act. At the same time, the author directly likens the political process in contemporary Russia to the situation in Germany on the verge of fascism. But by contrasting the professor’s clearly “Western” knowledge with the immediate political process in Russia, Senchin once again activates the generations old slavophile-westernizer debate that questions whether Western models of thought are appropriate to describe the Russian condition.

In Arkady Babchenko’s “The Diesel Stop” the Russian condition is also at the forefront of the conflict, and the terms, for once, are very clearly defined. “Russianness” here is not a matter of ethnicity or even common language, but of a particular relationship with power and a degree of freedom. Babchenko’s first-person narrator explains: “Russia is a country of former inmates and our army lives by the same laws as a prison colony <…>. The person with the authority is not the one who observes the law, but he who breaks it.” In a very practical way, Babchenko doesn’t dwell on the history or the philosophical implications of these statements, but tells a story of one soldier, who upon returning to his unit after a bout of dysentery, gets accused of desertion and sent to prison and then labor camp awaiting sentence. Ironically, this saves his life because it keeps him away from his unit, fighting in Chechnya at the time. This powerful and straight-forward narrative documents every possible indignity that a soldier can survive in prison, from physical brutality to psychological humiliation. What emerges from all of this is a sense of Russia as a system, as a broken system because it betrays its subjects every step of the way. “It’s so typically Russian, to herd people into a meat grinder then sentence them for desertion,” writes Babchenko.

The narrator’s voice is particularly authoritative here because the narrator identifies himself as the author Arkady Arkadievich Babchenko, and because the author’s biography includes tours of duty in both Chechen wars, first when he was drafted in the 1990s, and then when he went back as a contract soldier. Since then, Babchenko has worked as a war correspondent, as a TV journalist, and as a journalist for an opposition-minded newspaper, “Novaya Gazeta.” In a 2008 interview with the Russian bureau of the British BBC, Babchenko explained that he saw Russian values as being significantly different from the West partially because of the Russian history: “Russia,” he said—and I’m translating from Russian, “had never longed for freedom, but only longed for a powerful tzar. During the 20th century, beginning with 1917, the tiny stratum of society that carried the freedom-loving gene, was being purposefully eradicated.” To paraphrase this, Babchenko claims that the difference between Russia and the West goes beyond cultural to a genetic level, it is at the same time an inherent and communicable difference.

Aleksander Bezzubtsev-Kondakov’s entry, “Russian Halloween,” provides a deeply cynical commentary on the perceived Russian identity crisis. As one of the characters of his story puts it, “We’re Russian people, yet we’re drinking to American holidays. <…> There you have it, the crisis of national identity.” At the center of the story is Igor, a young man who is used to living the fast life, but in the aftermath of a divorce is forced to move into a small Soviet-style apartment in the outskirts of the city. We see his life unravel in a matter of a few hours—it starts with drinking vodka with his buddy, then he turns to seducing and having sex with a teenager who lives in the same building, and at the end of the story we learn that his buddy never came home and may have been killed by a ruthless cab driver. In Igor, we realize, we have a character whose life is empty of ideals—or is full of empty ideals, like celebrating an “American holiday” of Halloween that has no meaning to a Russian character. The “western values,” i.e. sex and material goods, cannot sustain a Russian life, and so in the last few lines of the story we witness Igor’s complete spiritual death as “the creaking children’s swing in the yard reminded him of a gallows with a body swaying under the cross beam.” In this story, Bezzubtsev-Kondakov doesn’t offer his own version of what viable Russian identity could look like, but perhaps he does elsewhere. His biography shows that he frequently writes on spiritual matters, and his 2007 book entitled “Meeting the sacred” was blessed by Patriarch Alexy II. Currently, Bezzubtsev-Kondakov is employed by the administration of Valentina Matvienko, the governor of St. Petersburg.

Of all the pieces in the collection, Natalya Kluchareva’s “One Year in Paradise,” perhaps, comes the closest to expressing the slavophile view of Russian difference. The story begins May 9th, the day when Russia celebrates its victory in World War II, an event that is commonly labeled as “the victory of all Russian people.” On this day, the unnamed (and recently divorced) narrator drinks heavily, watches war movies and remembers his grandfather, who was declared missing during the war, when suddenly he has a premonition that he has to travel to Smolensk, to the woods where his grandfather has disappeared. Without thinking twice about it, he gets on the train and begins his journey. Once he gets to the right spot, he discovers an all but deserted village called “Paradise” and is immediately offered a house of his own there. None of these events are experienced as unlikely coincidences, because in the reading experience we are acutely aware that for this man his journey is a call of destiny. His city life has dead ended (as in “Russian Halloween” divorce is offered as the cause of his identity crisis), and so we’re not surprised to discover that he intends to stay in this village not merely for a brief vacation, but for the entire summer and for the entire winter, too. It doesn’t take him very long to learn what he needs to know about wintering in a village without running water or stable electricity—it doesn’t seem to take much: “I gathered the red berries. Chopped some wood for the winter for Auntie Montie and myself.”

Luckily, his neighbor, Auntie Montie has a basement well-stocked with grains, sugar and peas that she shares with him. One of his main concerns is that in his house there hangs a rotten map of Russia that keeps losing pieces one by one: first, the Far East, then Kamchatka and Taymir, then Yakutia—etc. At the end of the story, his life in the village threatens to fall apart as his life in the city already had: his neighbor Auntie Montie dies, and the map of Russia finally tumbles off the wall in its entirety. This is a similar end to the one that befell Igor in “Russian Halloween”—his friend died and he imagined children’s swing as a gallows, but unlike Igor, this narrator has an innate sense of what to do: he starts to pray. He is not a religious man, but somehow he remembers a Russian Orthodox prayer that begins with addressing “Our father who art in heaven.” The narrator underlines that this prayer comes to him not by an intellectual process, but at an innate, perhaps even genetic level: “How does the rest go? I stiffened. My head was empty. Then I stopped trying to remember. And immediately, without any effort, recited the whole prayer.” And when, in the next paragraph, the map falls of the wall, he also knows what to do: he sits up next to it, supporting it with his shoulders, like Atlas “holding up the motherland.” He ends with restating the obvious: “I wasn’t in a hurry to be anywhere.” With these concluding paragraphs, he seems to provide us with both: the Russian solution to the Russian condition, the condition being the complete breakdown of both city and country life, and the solution emerging in prayer and hopeless endeavor.

Natalia Kliuchareva says about herself on the website of the literary community polutona.ru that when she was ten years old, she went to France for a year, but “it was boring there”—I translate—“and I came home a year later, having learned once and for all that there’s nothing better than the Russian language.” This statement, read together with Kliuchareva’s story, points us to the conclusion that the notion of Russianness (Russian language, literature, history, culture) is continuously being defined in comparison with the West, with what is perceived as the West—or with what is being at the same time defined as the West. Altogether the collection of fiction offered in Rasskazy, read through the lens of the slavophile-westernizer debate, allows us to discover that Russian literature and culture, the great tradition of Russian literature and culture is in fact a complex matrix of relationship with the West, with the Western literature and culture, that sometimes mirrors and mimics it, at other times takes it in new directions and transforms it in innovative ways, and yet at other times reduces it to caricatur

Olga Zilberbourg is a fiction writer and editor traveling between San Francisco, CA and St. Petersburg, Russia. Her second Russian-language collection of stories was published in September 2010 by St. Petersburg-based Limbus Press. In English, her stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Alligator Juniper, J Journal, and other publications. In October 2010, she will take part in the Barely Published reading during San Francisco Litquake. She blogs about travel and writing at www.zilberbourg.com.

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