Sunday, November 22, 2009

Folk Tales and Fear: Starobinets’s 3/9

Once upon a time last weekend, I picked up Anna Starobinets’s Убежище 3/9 (Sanctuary 3/9) because I needed a long, long rest from Aleksandr Terekhov’s tedious, heavy, portentous combination of fact and fiction known as Каменный мост (The Stone Bridge)…

In Starobinets’s novel I found scary fun, a nightmarish, multigenre conglomeration of human fears. The book is packed with fairy tale themes, bits of apocalyptic thinking, and contemporary realities. I think the book’s characters, many of whom are archetypal and/or nameless, come to life thanks to two factors: Starobinets’s understanding of the psychology of fear and her matter-of-fact language.

To make a long story short: An accident in a Cave of Horrors carnival ride puts a small boy in a coma. His mother, Masha (Maria), is a photographer; his father, Joseph, is a cardshark. They split up. The boy ends up in an institution for disabled children. The parents end up in separate European countries, where hexes change them into scary forms. Like a spider. Meanwhile, doubles of some characters inhabit a parallel and rather sinister fairy tale-like world. And there’s more: A Web site recommends moving to Altai to avoid the dual disasters of a polar shift and a second sun hitting earth – these aren’t so different from the predictions of 2012 disasters that NASA tells us are a hoax. (Aside: What scares me most about these predictions is that NASA receives so many 2012 questions that it felt it had to make its “Ask an Astrobiologist” pages and video.)

3/9’s chapters contain a myriad of other themes and things related to folk stories and fears: wolves, strange dreams, forests with no escape, impossible choices, vampires, hexes and hypnotism, incest, abandonment of disabled children, edible houses, needles, scary carnival rides, someone whose name sounds like Lucifer, and dual realities. There’s even one of my worst fears: a zombified president. Starobinets draws in story book characters, too, particularly Hansel, Gretel, Ivan the Fool (this one undergoes trepanation, ouch), Sleeping Beauty, Masha who loses things, and Baba Yaga. Needless to say, Propp’s fairy tale functions are seen in full force.

I rarely have patience for such crowded, jumpy novels but Starobinets is a good enough storyteller that her frequent shifts between characters and subplots build suspense because she creates eerie ripples that move back and forth between her real and unreal worlds. My biggest problem was putting the book down at night. And slowing my reading enough to remember who’s who. 3/9 isn’t a mindless suspense novel, though: I didn’t finish and wish a time warp could return lost reading hours.

Instead I went back to the beginning and paged through the book, looking again at my margin notes and the strange borders between Starobinets’s invented worlds and her borrowings from storybooks. Rarely have I so enjoyed contemplating primal fears and the ways we convey them, over and over in books and stories, to find a strange kind of refuge.

Bonus One! The Rasskazy anthology edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker includes a short story by Starobinets, “Rules,” about a boy with some quietly creepy superstitions and compulsions. According to Rasskazy, “Rules” also appears in An Awkward Age, Hesperus Press’s book of Hugh Aplin’s translations of Starobinets’s stories. U.S. release date is December 1, 2009.

Bonus Two! Today’s New York Times Book Review included Liesl Schillinger’s very positive review of There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, Keith Gessen and Anna Summers’s translations of stories by Liudmilla Petrushevskaya. (review here) Though I respect her, Petrushevskaya has never been one of my favorite writers, so I enjoyed reading critic Lev Danilkin’s rather humorous comparison of Petrushevskaya and Starobinets in Danilkin’s review of 3/9. After writing that he sees Petrushevskaya in Starobinets’s female character with the Lucifer-like name, he adds that Starobinets is the Petrushevskaya of a new generation, a Euro-Petrushevskaya.

Danilkin concludes his comparison with this: “Петрушевскую читать жутко и муторно, Старобинец – жутко и весело.” (Roughly: “It’s terrifying and dark/heavy/unpleasant to read Petrushevskaya but terrifying and fun to read Starobinets.”) In case you’re curious, Danilkin goes on to say he thinks 3/9 isn’t an ideal debut novel because, summed up, it’s overcrowded. He’s right but I can forgive a lot in a book this interesting.

Starobinets's An Awkward Age
Rasskazy on Amazon
Petrushevskaya's Scary Fairy Tales


  1. Sounds like fun! Two pronunciation questions:

    1) Where's the stress in Старобинец -- on the о, as in Старобин, or on the и, as in Старобинский?

    2) How do you pronounce 3/9?

  2. Languagehat,

    I'm not sure about the stress on Старобинец, though I've been thinking it's on the и... And I don't have Dr. Benson's dictionary to see if the name's in there!

    As for 3/9, rather than the usual "три дробь девять" (three, slash, nine), it's pronounced "Убежище Тридевятых" in the book... after the Тридевятое царство, a far away folk tale sort of place.

  3. Thanks!

    And I don't have Dr. Benson's dictionary to see if the name's in there!

    I do, and it's not. Yeah, I guess on the и is more likely.

  4. Languagehat, I'll try to remember to ask a Russian friend about the name tomorrow... before we eat too much turkey.

  5. Languagehat -- Mikhail Iossel, one of the editors of the Rasskazy collection, confirmed that the name is, indeed, pronounced СтаробИнец.

  6. I had the pleasure of translating Ms. Starobinets' short story "В пекле"/"Burning" for Chtenia and I can attest both to her extraordinary abilities to creep one out and to keep one reading. Definitely a name to watch.

  7. Thank you for your comment, houndart! Yes, Starobinets is fun to read. I particularly liked Sanctuary 3/9 but haven't read The Living yet, though it's on the shelf!