Sunday, May 9, 2010

War Stories for Victory Day: Another Grekova Novella & a Sorokin Short Story

With so many news articles about this year’s Victory Day parade in Moscow, I’ve been thinking a lot about World War 2 and Russian fiction related to the war. I hadn’t realized until this week how many novels with war themes I’ve read in the last several years. I wrote a Victory Day post two years ago (here) and will add to my list of favorites at the end of this entry.

I just finished reading two pieces about the war: Irina Grekova’s 1969 novella Маленький Гарусов (Little Garusov) and Vladimir Sorokin’s short story “Кисет” (“The Tobacco Pouch”), from a collection dated 1979-1984. Little Garusov tells the story of a boy orphaned during the war who never quite grows, physically or emotionally. Garusov has a similar feel to the two other Grekova novellas (here and here) that I’ve read: clear, simple language, straightforward narrative, and a combination of light and heavy details that make the piece feel like life.

Though I agree with Helena Goscilo’s criticism (in this detailed introduction to Cathy Porter’s translation of Grekova’s Вдовий пароход (The Ship of Widows)) that Garusov meanders, I still found it an interesting portrait of the short- and long-term effects of the war on children. As a small child in wartime, Garusov often acts like an adult: he catches a crow and brings it to his mother for soup then, later, after she disappears and he’s sent to an orphanage that’s evacuated for the duration, he articulately convinces authorities to send him and his orphanage mates back to Leningrad. He wants to find his mother.

As an adult, Garusov marries and divorces, falls for “other” women, often feeling pity for them and lending money he doesn’t have. He can’t find happiness. He doesn’t know when he was born. His life is pretty empty. And sad. Garusov reminded me a lot of Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Искренне ваш Шурик (Sincerely Yours, Shurik), also about a youngish man who can’t quite seem to find his own life. Shurik was my favorite Ulitskaya novel until I read her Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) (previous post), another book with World War 2 themes.

Today I read Vladimir Sorokin’s “Tobacco Pouch” thanks to a recommendation from readers Languagehat and Alexander/Sashura; Sashura mentioned the story in a comment to this Languagehat post about Elif Batuman’s The Possessed. “The Tobacco Pouch” begins with a narrator, who loves the Russian forest, going to wait for sunrise in the woods. I’ve only read a bit of Sorokin – Лёд (Ice) (previous post) and a few stories, including “Чёрная лошадь с белым глазом” (“Black Horse with a White Eye”) (mentioned here) – but the idyllic, even kitschy, start of “Tobacco Pouch” made me wonder what sinister twist awaited in the woods.

I didn’t have to wait long: several pages in, a veteran with a chest full of medals appears. He’s out collecting plants and he carries a tobacco pouch given to him by a woman when he was a soldier. Then comes the twist: the sunrise lover asks the veteran to tell about the tobacco pouch, and the veteran’s speech eventually self-destructs (I borrowed that word from a small chunk of this interesting Russian essay about Sorokin) as he tells about his life after Victory Day in Berlin. “The Tobacco Pouch” reminded me a little of Gogol’s “Записки сумашедшего” (“Diary of a Madman”), where the narrator loses more and more of his mind as the story progresses.

One especially interesting aspect of the story: Sashura mentioned “Кисет” in a comment on an earlier Languagehat post, calling lily of the valley (ландыш), which the veteran gathers, a clue to the story’s meaning. Lily of the valley is the plant in the online version of the story but in my book, the veteran collects подснежники, snowdrops. The discrepancy got me Googling, and I found that both plants contain compounds used to improve memory: galantamine, in snowdrops, is used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, and lily of the valley, according to Wikipedia, contains of compounds for memory and the heart. [Edit: Both plants are also considered poisonous.] I’m glad Sashura mentioned the plants. Though I was suspicious enough to circle the word подснежники as I read, I didn’t link it to the linguistic breakdown and fragmented memories. “The Tobacco Pouch” didn’t become an instant favorite and I’m still mulling it over but it’s an interesting take on memory and, I think, the odd things that happen when we wander into literal, metaphorical, historical, and folkloric forests.

As for recommendations… Beyond the pieces I mentioned in my 2008 Victory Day post, I particularly recommend these books with World War 2-related themes:

Books about the war on my “to read” shelf include:

I’d love to hear recommendations for other war-related books or stories.


  1. Lisa, thanks for mentioning my comments.
    The ultimate Russian war writer is of course Konstantin Simonov. His trilogy The Living and the Dead is long, but easy to read. The Stalingrad diary 'Days and Nights' is superb. My favourite is one of his last works 'Lopatin's Notes' (Записки Лопатина).
    I also liked very much Grigory Baklanov's 'His Batallion' ("Его батальон") and Victor Astafyev's 'The Shepherd and the Shepherdess' ("Пастух и пастушка"). I think both are available online.

  2. oh, and just a warning in case anyone decides to take the results of your research literally: don't try to eat snowdrops or lily of the valley, they are poisonous, as far as I know.

  3. Thank you for the suggestions, Alexander! I have the second book in the Simonov trilogy, and the reading does look easy -- I've looked several times for the first book but have never found it for sale. I'll have to see if I can get it through interlibrary loan.

    For those who read English translations: The Living and the Dead, the first novel in Simonov's trilogy, plus his Days and Nights, are both available.

  4. Alexander, yes, I think you are right about the toxicity of the flowers.

  5. Don't miss this wonderful photo gallery of Russian WWII veterans.

  6. Thank you for adding the link, Languagehat: I hadn't seen the online gallery, and the photos are, indeed, wonderful.

  7. I've never heard of lily-of-the-valley used in folk medicine, although I haven't had much chance to find out. Most ordinary people are well aware of its toxicity, and will even caution you from keeping the fresh-cut flowers indoors, especially around sleepers.

    Curiously, it's the toxic compounds in lily-of-the-valley that have also found pharmacological use. Actually eating parts of the plant leads to heart arrest. The isolated compound -- in appropriate doses -- is used to treat heart fibrillations and arrhythmias.

    This is kind of similar to warfarin, which started out as a rat poison and found new use as an anticoagulant in human heart patients (for the same reason it's effective as rat poison).

  8. Alex, I also hadn't heard of using lily-of-the-valley for medicinal purposes... though I grew up knowing about the toxicity.

    I meant to add a link earlier to the song "Ландыши" (here), which seems relevant, and which has been going through my head ever since I read the word in the online version of the story.

  9. Lisa, it's really strange about подснежники-snowdrops. I've just checked the e-book version that I have and the link Languagehat provided when the story first came up, they both say "ландыши собираю" and then "плоды ландышей" (fruit of lily of the alley). You are saying it's in a collection of stories from 70-80-s? What is it?

    Russian wiki is fuller than the English and has a photo of the berries, which are deadly poisonous, the most poisonous part of the plant.

    But, more importantly, I have a horrible feeling my suggestion that lily is the key to the story may have been misunderstood. The man in the story starts by telling his love story in a perfectly reasonable, soppy sort of way, like many other war stories are. Before that he opens his sack to show off his harvest, leaves and berries, fumbles with them. Then the normal narrative starts to disintegrate, first looks strange, then bizarre, then completely absurd and broken.

    The way I understood it is that the poison of the lilies starts affecting the man and possibly the narrator. He loses his thread, then his mind fails him completely. So it's like an LSD 'trip' story.

    And the link to HG Wells' The Purple Pileus is in the similar technique of using a toxic plant to create dramatic effect. Wells' character wants to kill himself when his wife betrays him, eats some red mushrooms, but instead of dying develops a rage, comes back home, frightens the wife and throws out her lover - and regains control of his life.

    I've never heard of ландыш being used as a drug, but the its use in medicine suggests such possibility.

  10. oh, thanks, for mentioning "Ландыши". I remember it from when I was four or five. It was a shlagger then. My parents got a 45 rpm single-size disc 'Russian hit parade' (we were in Australia then) and the song was played again and again.

  11. Alexander, thank you for your comments! I'm traveling right now so don't have the book in front of me but the collection is Первый субботник probably the same one as your e-book, and the stories, according to Sorokin's site, are dated 1979-1984. This page shows the book's publication date as 2001.

    I think I read the meaning of the flowers very much like you do. My interest in the flowers as medicine draws on things we have all mentioned that look at the flowers from various angles: they have compounds that can help treat memory and the heart but can have other effects (e.g. that distortion) when misused.

    Lily of the valley seems to fit better than snowdrops because of the song (here on Youtube), which was so popular that even I know it and associate it with the word ландыши... the song feels like a subtext to me, with mentions of first love and undying feelings. Rather like the "soppy" (a good word for it) start of the veteran's story. But even the soppiest romance (or idealization of such) can go bad, which could make the memories have all sorts of negative or toxic effects... just like nice little flowers that can poison you. Sorokin ties the language, flowers, and memories together beautifully.

    Oddly, when I went to tutor a student the other day, there were dried lilies of the valley on the table in our meeting room!

  12. I've read two books of Ulitskaya's and loved them both, so I'm going to look out for Daniel Stein. THanks for mentioning it!

  13. Marie, I'm looking forward to meeting you next week and am glad to hear of your interest in Ulitskaya and Daniel Stein! D.S. is one of my favorite post-Soviet novels.

    I get a fair number of questions about the English-language translation so I'm hoping to learn more from Overlook at BEA about when it will come out.