Saturday, January 24, 2009

Selected Short Stories

I had a unusual and strange urge to read short stories last week… I probably needed to work something out of my system before reading War and Peace.

I began with some political stories by Iulii Daniel (a.k.a. Nikolai Arzhak), a dissident writer who, in 1966, was sentenced to five years of hard labor for publishing stories in the West. Daniel was tried together with Andrei Siniavskii (a.k.a. Abram Tertz). Few editions of Daniel’s writing seem to have been published in Russia since perestroika; I was lucky to find one when I lived in Mosow. Daniel’s work is available in English translation.

I began with a reread: Человек из МИНАПа” (“The Man from MINAP”). The story concerns a man who claims he can determine the gender of his children by thinking special thoughts (I won’t say what) whilst having sex. I have funny memories of reading the story 20 years ago because our teacher censored certain words. When I confronted her with that fact – and the expurgated words, which I found in a library book – in class, she told me I was too curious, “настоящая дочка Евы” (“a true daughter of Eve”). This time around, the story felt most interesting for its picture of how Soviet institutions handled the man’s talents.

Next up was the title story of Daniel/Arzhak’s collection, Говорит Москва” (“This Is Moscow Speaking”). The story is named for a line used by radio announcers. In this case, the announcer tells listeners about an upcoming “day of open murders,” a special day that the narrator says fits right along with Artillery Day and Day of Soviet Press. As the narrator says: “Транспорт работает, милицию трогать не велено – значит порядок будет.” (“Public transportation works, the police are ordered not to touch – that means there will be order.”) There are lots of funny lines in the story (“provincial Hamletism” sticks with me, too), though I thought Daniel was most effective in showing characters’ reactions to the “holiday” and the larger meaning of the fear it engendered.

Искупление” (“Atonement”) felt even more dangerous: a rakish narrator, Viktor, is accused of informing on an old acquaintance, resulting in his arrest and a sentence in prison camp. The acquaintance wants Viktor to suffer, too, so orders him to leave town and never marry. This story about guilt – both collective and individual – blends Soviet-era sociopolitical themes with love. The content makes “Atonement” politically treacherous but it also feels artistically risky, thanks to Daniel’s energetic writing style and a harsh ending. I think it succeeds.

For a change of era, I reread the first story in a collection of Anton Chekhov’s works: Ионыч” (“Ionych”). Though Chekhov’s simple, clear style feels as comfortable as old slippers, his characters made me even more uncomfortable and sad than Daniel’s. We know these people, particularly the title character, a porcine, money-hungry provincial doctor who becomes a “pagan god” whose only joy is a lost love.

Sigh. I love Chekhov’s clarity and clean writing but I’m ready for the happy chaos of War and Peace

Yuly Daniel on Amazon


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