Sunday, March 25, 2012

Insects and Comrades: Two Novellas

I’ve mentioned before that I love reading long stories and novellas… and I still love how the genre gives just enough room for a writer to develop characters and a complex story but not enough space for aimless wandering. That in mind, here are two more novellas: their stories are very, very different but I think both are successful in their own ways. I’ll try to go light on details because I think short stories, long stories, and novellas are especially prone to spoilage.

I think it’s a safe bet that Anna Starobinets’s Переходный возраст (An Awkward Age, translated by Hugh Aplin), a long story about Max, a maladjusted boy with a twin sister, Vika, and some bizarre habits, will be most effective among readers with insect phobias. I was the kid who adored her multi-module Ant Farm, but An Awkward Age contained some ew-inducing moments for me, too, thanks to several squalid discoveries and Max’s mother’s rather impassive reactions to her son’s behavior.

Starobinets tells her story in simple language where repeated motifs help build suspense, and I thought she did nicely combining nature and city by setting the story amongst the trees and birds of Moscow’s Yasnevo outskirts. Another plus: she explains the reasons behind Max’s behavior by having his mother discover his diaries, handily reproduced in the story. I found some of that section particularly entertaining thanks to young Max’s phonetic spelling.

Though I didn’t think An Awkward Age was nearly as good or fun as Starobinets’s Sanctuary 3/9, a later work that’s loaded with fear and fairy tale themes, I have to give her credit for stringing me along pretty well with An Awkward Age. I read it very quickly and not just because of the large print in my book. Starobinets is often compared to Stephen King, something the Mainer in me can’t quite buy into, though I have to wonder if Starobinets’s inclusion of a prom-like senior dance is intended to remind readers of King’s Carrie.

Irina Bogatyreva’s Товарищ Анна (Comrade Anna), a finalist for this year’s Belkin Prize and nominee for the NatsBest, is a slower-paced, far more rewarding (and difficult to write about!) long story, about the relationship—it’s more than just young love because of how the story’s written—between Anna, a Muscovite who takes retro to extremes with her political activity, and Valka, an easy-going guy from Ulyanovsk who falls for Anna. I think what I appreciate most about Comrade Anna is Bogatyreva’s ability to contrast the lives of Anna and Valka: Anna, for example, lives with a politically liberal grandmother who disagrees with her granddaughter’s views and seems to be verging on dementia, and Valka lives on the eleventh floor of a dorm with a roommate, the roommate’s girlfriend, and a cat. Plus a model of the solar system for perspective.

What’s most intriguing is that Valka’s atmosphere is freer and more “collective” than Anna’s; Anna is a member of a cell-like political organization that aims to recreate the allegedly good old days of revolution. Members even dress in costume for new year’s eve. By contrast, Valka’s dormmates (re)tell his story in the first person singular, observing Valka’s behavior and sliding in and out of a close third-person narrative. Still, they speak in a unified voice that’s far more cohesive and human than what we get from Anna’s group, where members disagree on how and how much to act. Their language is tragicomically stagnant, too, because it’s filled with Soviet-era phrases.

Though I never quite grasped why Valka fell so hard for Anna—from a distance, in the Metro—that he felt compelled to follow her and introduce himself, I realized that didn’t matter much. For one thing, Bogatyreva filters Valka’s story through his dormmates, who can’t know everything. For another, the attraction fits with the novella’s appealingly appropriate combination of reality and irreality. Another example: Bogatyreva includes a tangent at the start of Comrade Anna that presents a dormmate obsessed with Mikhail Vrubel’s “Swan Princess” painting. He dies and Valka takes his place on the eleventh floor. Bogatyreva returns to the Swan Princess at the end of the story in a way that puzzled me a bit until I read Marta Antonicheva’s review in the journal Октябрь: to paraphrase, Antonicheva thinks the Swan Princess helps establish Valka’s transition back to real life after the costumes and falsity of Anna’s circle. Which makes complete sense to me, given the fairy tales they want to believe in.

Disclosures: I’ve met and chatted with Irina Bogatyreva a couple of times; she was kind enough to give me the text of Comrade Anna.

Up Next: I swear I will finish the translation list soon! Plus two more novellas/short novels: Viktor Pelevin’s Omon Ra and Igor Sakhnovskii’s Насущные нужды умерших (The Vital Needs of the Dead).

Image credit: Mikhail Vrubel’s Swan Princess painting, via Wikipedia.


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