Sunday, May 17, 2009

Khemlin’s Berta, Iona, Iosif, Zhenia, and Klara

The five novellas in Margarita Khemlin’s book Живая очередь (The Living Line) are spare and rather bleak but they are also thoroughly enjoyable, thanks to Khemlin’s storytelling abilities. Though the stories’ characters aren’t connected, three things meld the scenes of these novellas into a mural that feels like a small world: Jewish heritage, settings in Ukraine, and the feel that someone is sitting with you, telling tales.

Most of the stories are told in the third-person – “Zhenia,” a first-person narrative, is the exception – and Khemlin somehow builds momentum as the stories unfold. Each long story is simply called “Про X” (“About X”), where X=a character’s name. Each piece outlines events, many mundane, in the person’s life, and the timeline runs from the Russian revolution through the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It would be easy to dismiss Khemlin’s characters’ stories as depressing: Berta’s nephew and his wife, for example, push Berta out of her apartment, to live in a corridor, and Iona, a veteran tank driver, can’t seem to find a place in life for himself, either. But Khemlin’s flat, matter-of-fact tone in describing Soviet life drew me to these people so much that I didn’t find myself angry at them for inaction or poor decisions.

Khemlin’s characters do the best they can for themselves under less-than-optimal conditions, and they rarely complain. Yes, Zhenia has difficulties with her husband, who ends up meeting his fate as a liquidator in Chernobyl. And Iosif loses a collection of Jewish artifacts to a family member who’s afraid they may endanger the family. In Khemlin’s world, people don’t dwell much on their problems: they don’t have time for that because they are trying to survive, materially and emotionally, both as Jews and, often, as Soviet citizens.

The Holocaust, discrimination, and all sorts of Soviet-era problems flow through these stories but Khemlin balances the personal and the public instead of overstuffing her writing with historical or religious details. Instead, she writes about seemingly unimportant people touched by history, heritage, and politics, and she makes them feel real with skaz techniques, voices that preserve verbal tics, dialect, and slang. Though the stories, particularly Berta’s, which opens the book, initially felt unprepossessing, the conversational style makes them so vivid and easy to read that I found myself planning my time so I could get back to my reading.

I thought the stories became increasingly better, perhaps because I became increasingly drawn into Khemlin’s world. The last story, about Klara, features a funeral home worker who handles accounting and can say farewell speeches over coffins in either Russian or Ukrainian. She’s very lonely but not afraid of death because she sees it several times a day. Khemlin’s painstaking inventory of characters’ actions and reactions gave me such a feel for their emotional landscapes that they became familiar, albeit at a distance, like neighbors or co-workers who never ask for help or sympathy.

Though Khemlin’s work has not been translated into English, some of the stories from Живая очередь are available online in Russian, thanks to the literary journal Знамя and the site Журнальный зал. The Living Line was a Big Book award finalist. (previous post)

Про Берту

Про Иону

Про Иосифа

Прощание еврейки the short stories included in Живая очередь; I have not yet read them.



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