Friday, November 16, 2007


One word of Cyrillic – плутоний (plutonium) – in an advertisement was enough to catch my eye last night, sending me to my basement stockpile for a book that I had (guiltily) ignored for several years. I’m glad I reacted and took a break from another nuclear-themed book, Tat’iana Tolstaya’s Кысь (The Slynx).

The advertisement: The Half Life of Timofey Berezin
The book: Pu-239, by Ken Kalfus

Half Life adapts Kalfus’s title story into a feature film produced by the SoderburghClooney&Co. movie cartel. It premieres in the U.S. tomorrow night on HBO.

What I respect most about Kalfus’s story “Pu-239” is his willingness to take risks. Writing about Russia is an inherently dangerous endeavor for an American writer, but Kalfus’s combination of a character – a nuclear plant technician sickened by radiation after an accident – with ‘90s Russia, rarely feels touristy. Kalfus instead shows Moscow through the eyes of the technician, Berezin, as he drives through the city, recognizing landmarks he’s seen on television but wondering why advertisements aren’t written in Russian.

Other than a few gratuitous sightseeing details used to plant the story in a time frame, “Pu-239” flows naturally as it shows a dying man removed from his usual environment. I won’t write more about Berezin’s actions and their consequences, but I will say that I think they fit the era perfectly. I admire Kalfus’s ability to write a story about radiation poisoning and plutonium that is both tragic and laugh-out-loud funny at the end.

Unfortunately, a review in Variety indicates that Scott Burns’s big/small screen adaptation is “an uncomfortable and unsatisfying sit.” I’m not surprised: it would have been tough to transfer the story’s atomic metaphors and psychological subtleties to commercial film. You can read the start of the story on the New York Times site.

The book Pu-239 also includes a story, “Anzhelika, 13,” that Kalfus says is related to Liudmila Ulitskaya’s “March 1953” (“Второго марта того же года...”). Pu-239 includes four other short stories plus “Peredelkino,” a novella about Soviet writers in the ‘60s that makes for a nice breather from Tolstaya’s post-nuclear world. I’ll write more on those soon…

Edit: Review of the film from the New York Times.

Books in this posting:
Kalfus Books on Amazon
Glas 6: Jews and Strangers (New Russian Writing, Vol 6, includes Ulitskaya's "March 1953")


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