Monday, April 4, 2011

Living on the Edge: Margarita Khemlin’s Krainii

I have a horrible case of чемоданное настроение – “suitcase mood,” being antsy to travel – but want to write about Margarita Khemlin’s novel Крайний before I forget everything I want to say about the book… I apologize for this slapdash post, particularly since I don’t mean to give Krainii short shrift: it’s a good book. Though it’s not my favorite piece of Khemlin’s work that’s largely because I loved her Klotsvog (previous post) so very much. Krainii is a grittily powerful first-person narrative, a life story told by a Jewish man, Nisl Moiseevich Zaidenband, who grew up in Oster, in central Ukraine, and was a partisan as a teenager during World War 2.

Nisl is a loner, and the book is a confession of sorts. He tells us on the first page that he has no “collective” to hear his story, meaning we, his readers, all of humanity who will listen, become his people. The word in the book’s title, Krainii, has multiple meanings that relate to Nisl: the Oxford Russian-English dictionary’s suggestions include words like extreme, last, uttermost, and, for sports, outside. The root word край (krai) is often used for edges and brinks; it’s also used for regions. Krainii can refer to the last person in line, and one of you who read the book suggested “fall guy,” also very fitting for this context.

Khemlin inserts lots of treacherous edges and brinks into Krainii. Oster is near the USSR’s western border and people speak a mix of languages; that occasionally put me on the linguistic brink. Nisl’s life history reads like a series of close scrapes with wartime death, the law, and the difficulties of being Jewish. His teenagedom includes hearing Nazi troops kill the Jewish population of Oster, and his escape involves help from an unexpected source and using an assumed name that hides his identity. He learns the useful craft of haircutting from older partisans. After the war Nisl commits a crime, making himself a wanted man; a partisan friend helps, hiding him the woods, essentially making him a partisan again, living away from society. Nisl survives again.

Khemlin works plenty more into Krainii: Nisl is reunited with his parents after the war, tries to establish relationships with women, and lives with an elderly Jewish couple. The Holocaust subject of soap made from human fat comes up when Nisl takes possession of bars of soap, leading to some emotional scenes. Some of the book’s most striking passages – particularly about the elderly couple and their house, and an eerie double death – made me realize, yet again, that I’m probably missing allusions to Jewish storytelling, traditions, and mysticism. Or maybe not? I don’t know. I have a few books on my shelves to broaden my knowledge – Sholom Aleichem stories and I.B. Singer novels among them – and am planning to mine the Yiddish literature posts on Wuthering Expectations, too. I’m open to suggestions, particularly if you have a favorite novel to recommend!

Level for Non-Native readers of Russian: 4/5. Some passages are very easy to read, others are difficult because of mixed language.

Up Next: I hope to queue up a quick post about Vladimir Sorokin’s Путь Бро (Bro), which I found silly but painfully absorbing, before I leave. After that, I’m not sure: I’ll try to post from London about the book fair but may not have much time. My next book post will likely be about Aleksandr Snegirev’s Тщеславие (Vanity): I’m enjoying Vanity’s very humorous account of finalists for a young writers’ book award. They’re at a rest house outside Moscow for literary seminars, which brings back lots of memories of workshops at rest houses with lousy food and after-hours parties… it’s just the thing for my suitcase mood.

Disclosure: I’ve translated one of Margarita Khemlin’s stories.


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