Monday, June 20, 2011

Boiashov’s Stone Woman

I’ll be blunt: Il’ia Boiashov’s Каменная баба (The Stone Woman, more on the title below) just isn’t my kind of book, and not liking it was especially disappointing after Boiashov’s wonderful The Tank Driver or “White Tiger” (past post). Subject matter probably has a lot to do with my disappointment. Tank Driver is about World War Two, which interests me, but Stone Woman looks at the phenomenon of strong Russian women through the prism of showbiz and celebrity.

The Stone Woman is a roaches-to-riches tale of a singer from an undetermined province, and Boishov constructs his story by layering Russian myth upon archetypes upon more myth as the woman rises from a squalid childhood to become a Russian TV star and singer. She reminds of Alla Borisovna Pugacheva: her hit song “Миллиард тюльпанов на площади” (“A Billion Tulips on the Square”) is clearly a parodic cousin of Alla Borisovna’s Миллион алых роз (“A Million Scarlet Roses”). I’m not an avid consumer of Russian or Western celebrity news, so I’m sure I missed out on plenty of references.

I think my problem with The Stone Woman is that it’s so overloaded with references to Russian and foreign culture, popular and historical, that it feels gimmicky even if the kitschiness of contemporary culture and the power of the entertainment industry is part of Boiashov’s point. Examples: Tom Cruise gets a cameo and our antiheroine has a granddaughter named Lisa-Marie. I did occasionally laugh at Boiashov’s portrayal of an overbearing Russian woman who attracts endless men, breastfeeds her son so long I wanted to call in Dr. Freud, and lives at the top of a swanky building (see image), but the exaggerated humor was a bit over-the-top for my delicate sensibilities.

I found Boiashov’s schematicness and use of italics annoying, too, especially when he refers to his title character as stone woman. Her real name is Maria Ugarova, which gives you Maria/Mary/oh-you-know-Madonna +ugar, which can be carbon monoxide fumes/poisoning, ecstasy and intoxication, or even industrial wastes of various types, according to my trusty Oxford Russian-English dictionary. Take that, Alla Borisovna: the pug- root of your name promises only fright and intimidation, and a pugach is just a toy gun or an owl. The term каменная баба, kamennaia baba, refers to a stone image of a warrior (or woman) that’s placed on a burial mound, giving Ugarova one heck of an ancient lineage.

But I shrug. That accomplished, I’ll say that The Stone Woman may be a love-it-or-hate-it book: I finished because it’s 158 small pages plus Boiashov’s Q&A session with himself about Russian women. (I won’t even begin to remark on that!) Comments on when I wrote were positive (five stars) but I wondered as I read the novel – as did reviewer mashona on – who’d want to read the book, given that (I’ll summarize some of mashona’s points) Boiashov doesn’t say anything new, most readers aren’t very interested in Alla Borisovna, and Alla Borisovna herself isn’t going to read that she’s being portrayed as (essentially) a prostitute. I suspect The Stone Woman would be most interesting and fun for casual readers and scholars who enjoy dissecting popular culture, excavating myths, fairytale themes, truths, and fantastical elements. There’s plenty there.

If you’re in the market for a novel about an overbearing Russian woman, I’m more likely to recommend Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, translated by Tim Mohr from the German original Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche. The Hottest Dishes leans toward character study and peters out in the last third or so, but I thought Bronsky did an admirable job portraying Rosa Achmetowna, a beautiful (or so she says) battleaxe who claims to mean well. I thought the book was much funnier than Boiashov’s Stone Woman, perhaps because Bronsky’s first-person narrative (from Rosa herself) juxtaposes humor with references to Soviet woes. As I wrote on my other blog, I’ve known plenty of women like Rosa. As bossy women, Rosa and Masha Ugarova certainly share plenty of characteristics, but Rosa, who’s larger than life but still feels real, is far more compelling to me than Boiashov’s grotesque and italicized stone woman.

Up Next: Andrei Platonov’s Ювенильное море (The Juvenile Sea), which reminds me of The Foundation Pit with its combination of difficulty and reward, and Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, which I’m just starting.

Disclosures: I received a copy of The Stone Woman at the Russian booth at BookExpo America. Thank you to Limbus Press for sending it over! I received a review copy of The Hottest Dishes from Regal Literary and have enjoyed speaking with Regal representatives in person and by e-mail.

Image credit: Sergei Kozhin via Wikipedia. The “vysotka,” tall building, at Kotel’nicheskaya Embankment in Moscow, is Ugarova’s home.


  1. Roaches-to-riches! I love it. What a great line!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Russian Dinosaur! Your comment feels especially topical right now because I recently started reading Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude, which features a character known as Miss Roach.

  3. An appropriate choice for someone with a Russian bookshelf - did you know that Hamilton had a strong interest in the Russian classics, was a lifelong Marxist (even a Stalinist), and once had the strange job of play-reader to the Russian Embassy in London? His brother even moved to Russia briefly in the 30s (not a good time) and struggled to learn the language. Frustratingly (for me), all of Patrick Hamilton's personal papers are held at the University of Texas in Austin. I'll be interested to hear how you get on with The Slaves of Solitude and whether you pick up any Russianesque themes!

  4. Thank you very much for this background, Russian Dinosaur! I haven't yet read much about Patrick Hamilton or his brother so wasn't aware of the Russian interest. The most obvious Russia references are mentions of the Soviet army (the book takes place during World War 2); I'll have to page through what I've already read to see if there's anything more subtle that I missed!