Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rasskazy: Five Favorites

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but here’s the best aspect of Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia: I love that I didn’t like all the stories. In fact, when I marked the table of contents, I only wrote “loved” next to 5/22 titles. Sure, many more rated “liked,” but others got “indifferent” or “shrug.” Why is this such a good thing? Because it means editors Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker compiled a risky, unpredictable anthology of stories that challenge readers’ preferences for style and topics.

It also means that the collection forms a wonderful pastiche of Russian voices, all age 40 or under, expressing worries, hopes, and concerns. A reader doesn’t need to love or feel a personal connection to each story to grasp converging and diverging views of similar subjects, like the war in Chechnya or coming of age in a reforming country. Finding common threads in these diverse stories is part of the book’s appeal.

I’m sure some stories that didn’t thrill me the first time will grab me when I pull them off the shelf later: short stories, I think, are in-the-moment reading that either hit or miss our moods, biases, and expectations. They’re also great material for discussion with friends: Tin House, Rasskazy’s publisher, mistakenly sent me a second copy of the book, which I sent to my friend M., who recently completed her MA in Russian literature.

M. and I both love Joseph Brodsky’s poems but so far the Venn diagram of our Rasskazy tastes barely overlaps. To wit: M. particularly liked Nikolai Epikhin’s “Рычева” (“Richeva”), translated by Mariya Gusev, for the characters’ discussion of “People who love money and a life of luxury and who are ready to deceive anyone for this personal happiness, to insult, to kill, and so on…” One character calls that approach to life “weightlifting.” That was fine, and I liked many other spots in the story, like a character telling a cat “I am not a maximalist.” Still, “Richeva” didn’t quite catch me. At least not this time.

Here are the five stories I enjoyed most this time around:

I began Rasskazy by reading Zakhar Prilepin’s Убийца и его маленький друг (“The Killer and His Little Friend”), translated by Svetlana Ilinskaya and Douglas Robinson. The story is about two special forces military policemen known as Primate and Gnome, and inevitable tragedy. The balance between brutality and sweetness is as delicate here as it was in Prilepin’s collection Грех (Sin), and the ending felt very, very Russian to me with its views of forgiveness and friendship.

Vladimir Kozlov’s Праздник строя и песни” (“Drill and Song Day”), translated by Andrea Gregovich and Mikhail Iossel, also features tragedy, though it focuses on schoolchildren preparing (or not!) for an annual celebration of the army. It felt particularly true-to-life to me because I spent a couple perestroika-era months in northern Russian schools. I have tremendous respect for the concision and precision Prilepin and Kozlov achieve in their stories. Also: Gregovich noted in a comment (here) that she’s translating a collection of Kozlov’s stories.

I mentioned Anna Starobinets’s “Правила (“Rules”), translated by Ellen Litman, a couple weeks ago: it’s a slightly haunting story about a child with, well, scary compulsions. Starobinets is sometimes called a Russian Stephen King. I hope she writes another novel.

Oleg Zobern’s “Шестая дорожка Бреговича” (“Bregovich’s Sixth Journey” scroll down), translated by Keith Gessen, concerns a chained-up dog nicknamed Ivan Denisovich, a pot of pel’meni, and freedom. (My friend M., by the way, didn’t like this story.) This story concerns literature, too. Here is our narrator discussing twentieth-century Russian literature: “The further back you go in the century, the simpler it is, everything’s in its place, whereas here—here you’re drinking a beer with some poet who became known at the end of the twentieth century, and it’s hard to tell: Is this a genuinely canonical writer, or is it a pathetic asshole who last week took a swing at his young wife and broke her nose? But with the dead—it’s all good.”

I read the last story in the book last: Natalya Klyuchareva’s Один год в Раю (“One Year in Paradise”), translated by Mariya Gusev, which involves Russia’s World War 2 heritage, a move to the country, interactions between generations, and a decrepit old map.

I read Rasskazy in a mix of Russian and English. I generally compare translations word-for-word only when I wonder about translators’ choices so I can’t speak about accuracy... but I will say that the Rasskazy translations seem to match the originals’ styles and feels fairly closely. I even found it easy to get lost in some translations. This is so rare and welcome that I feel a little petty mentioning that occasional words in translation – homie, wassup, “the runner only made it to second base,” &tc. – feel over-Anglicized. This is where I checked originals. To be fair, some of the Russian terms presented odd challenges, such as conversion from Olbansky, a slangy variation of Russian that uses phonetic spellings.

Even if Olbansky’s nuances (!) don’t quite translate, Rasskazy conveys so much, in English, that I recommend it highly to anyone interested in Russian contemporary culture and/or fiction. I’d love to hear other readers’ comments on specific stories.

Disclosure: Tin House, publisher of Rasskazy, provided me with not one but two copies of the book. I will continue to solicit opinions from M., recipient of the second book, to add to this post.

Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia on Amazon


  1. Since you brought up the translation, I'm dying to know: What Russian phrase inspired the translation "it's all good" in the Zoburn story? I love your blog, by the way.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Shelley! I'm glad you enjoy the blog.

    It's funny that you asked about that phrase: I hadn't even thought about how "it's all good" has become such a catchphrase! Maybe that's because there are standard phrases in Russian that are quite similar. What's interesting here is that the Russian original isn't something like "всё хорошо/прекрасно/чудесно." The original uses "ясность и благодать," which isn't easy to translate. It's literally "clarity and grace" or "clarity and abundance"... neither of which sounds very good in English! Somehow, "it's all good" works quite nicely.

    In case you didn't already see it, here's an interview with Zobern from the Tin House blog: link.

  3. Lisa -- You really nailed it on the quality of this anthology. I haven't managed to read them all yet, but I too am intrigued by some, not others. I agree with you that this is what makes it a valuable collection.

    I also appreciate your comments on translating slang and new phrases, and the risk of over-Anglicizing. As I continue to translate Kozlov's writing, I find I have to walk a tightrope as I choose and craft slang phrases. Because I find his writing about Soviet school in the eighties to be so much like my own American experience, I want it to sound similar as well. And yet I don't want the characters sounding like valley girls or Bill and Ted. I hem and haw over it all day long. Also, it's amazing, some of his Russian slang translates almost directly to an American slang equivalent. There are some stunning examples that are escaping me right now, but one I recently dealt with was a woman insulting a cop -- she called him, among other things, "осел." I couldn't resist translating this as "jackass" even though it has such a contemporary American sound.

  4. Andrea, I like your example of осел and jackass! The number of these (more or less) direct equivalents never ceases to amaze me. Of course I can't think of any off-hand, either!