Sunday, July 7, 2019

Big Book 2: Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina

I seem to be reading a lot of authors who create out-of-kilter worlds that demand extra attention: deciphering Alexander Pelevin’s The Four requires a reread and Alexei Salnikov’s Petrovs and Indirect left me feeling the need to repeat, too. And then there’s Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina, which I read happily until, all of a sudden, the young heroine, Katya, met a kikimora in her kitchen in the middle of the book. Although the change felt abrupt – I’d been used to Katya’s dreary life with her parents, wretched classmates, and teacher who smokes in the classroom (whoa, shades of grad school!) and was expecting an entirely different sort of change – after reading some of Nekrasova’s short fiction, I realized she was taking it easy on her readers with the kikimora. I now feel ready for just about anything, though I’m still glad I read the book in two large chunks, before-kikimora and after-kikimora. Reading Salnikov’s Petrovs chapter-by-chapter worked best for me, too, to let the oddities and details settle. Sometimes that’s the best way to absorb them.

And so. Kalechina-Malechina is, as I’ve summarized in previous posts, a shortish novel about a schoolgirl who lives outside a large “Gulliverish” city. I jotted in my book that she’s a girl after my own heart: she owns a dumbphone, sleeps late, loves night, and is an independent latchkey kid. She’s also a lousy at needlecrafts and her teacher threatens to send her to a school for slow learners if she can’t crochet some mittens. I called the novel “edgy” earlier, too, because Nekrasova doesn’t hold back on details of daily horrors and offenses, some of which recall chernukha: beyond the inane mittens we find, among other things, a bullying boy (he even swears at school); there’s abuse (and disgusting latrines) at summer camp and with an adult who, theoretically, should be trusted; and, though I can’t find the spot, I seem to recall that a boy (the bully?) drops his pants at school. Oh and Katya breaks her prissy friend’s nice smartphone, causing a rift. After these problems, the kikimora’s appearance has an almost light(e)ning effect: there are some wonderfully comic scenes where the two of them take a train to visit a relative so Katya can play loan shark for the afternoon to collect on a debt to her father, passing off the kikimora as a visiting relative during the trip.

All sorts of other things happen in Kalechina-Malechina, which takes its title, by the way, from this poem by Alexei Remizov, though I’m less interested in the plot – and its resolutions – than the novel’s stylistics and motifs. Returning to the title, this master’s thesis (PDF here!) by Magdelena Mot notes childhood and rituals in the cycle Посолонь (Sunward or Sunwise) in which “Kalechina-Malechina” appears: Mot’s abstract notes “Posolon’ calls for the regaining of a lost cyclicity and looks back in time at the common folk’s way of life.” And “… in Posolon’ Russia is all about folklore, joyful games, tales and rituals.” This fits nicely with Katya’s experiences, where life is anything but simple but she creates her own rituals to lend normalcy where perversion – of rules, hierarchies, behaviors, and kindnesses – has taken over.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s a Platonovian (or Platonovesque?) feel to Nekrasova’s writing. There are neologisms: she constantly plays on the word “выросший,” an adjective used as a noun for “grown-up” by adding a “не-” for someone who’s not grown-up, meaning a kid, plus, as another example, Katya’s father “даладничал” (“wellfined”) in one spot after smiling. Even more important, there’s also what Dmitry Bykov calls a “платоновская тоска” (“Platonovian melancholy/anguish/yearning/pining/despair” – “тоска” is, after all, a flexible word) to what I’ll call Nekrasova’s worldview. As in Platonov, at least as I read him, there’s a sense of feeling crushed but there’s also a strange exuberance, partly, I think, because of his stylistic unusualness. That feeling, that sense, fits neatly with Nekrasova’s writing about twisted aspects of seemingly contemporary, gray (the color of poor Katya’s hair!) life outside a Gulliver-sized city.

Olesya Gonserovskaya’s illustrations 
add a lot to the book.
(Left to right: Katya and the kikimora.)

I admire those and other aspects of K-M but I think what strikes me most is a gratitude that is more social: I’ve used the word “edgy” to describe the novel and appreciate the way Nekrasova’s angle on Katya’s world, combined with folklore motifs (the kikimora), the references to Remizov, and even some humor, serve to update and enliven the chernukha genre by depicting crushingly (that word again!) awful circumstances – for a child, no less – alongside mystical and mythical elements. This occurs in Nekrasova’s short fiction, too: in “Несчастливая Москва” (“Unhappy Moscow,” where the title clearly echoes Platonov) strange daily changes in Moscow (like people suddenly speaking English instead of Russian) affect Nina, a cheerful, positive go-getter who refuses to leave the city, and in the beautifully composed “Лакшми” (“Lakshmi”) in which, hmm, a woman handles spousal abuse in a unique way. Nekrasova’s main characters’ – note that they’re all female – blend inner strength and outer, even supernatural, forces that combine to lend them abilities that empower. Although Kalechina-Malechina worked very nicely for me once I accepted the kikimora’s presence, I think the several works of short fiction that I’ve read thus far are even better because short-form fiction meshes so perfectly with Nekrasova’s direct, concise style and ability to describe social ills and various types of (that word again, too!) perversions with colorful, biting vignettes and details that feel both real and otherwordly. I’m looking forward to reading more.

This is the second 2019 Big Book Award finalist that I’ve read in its entirety. The first was Grigory Sluzhitel’s Savely’s Days (previous post), which also contains excellent illustrations.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I received a copy of Kalechina-Malechina from the publisher after Elena Shubina recommended it to me last fall. Nekrasova sent me a care package of her stories, including a collection that won a Litsei award in 2018. Thank you to all involved!

Up Next: More fun with genres and fears – a perfect combo for summer – thanks to Valeria Verbinina’s retro detective novel Московское время (Moscow Time).


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