The cover of the short story collection, Moscow but Dreaming caught my eye. I’d never heard of the author Ekaterina Sedia before, but since I have a fondness for most things Russian (Ekaterina was born and raised in Moscow but now lives in New Jersey), I decided to read the book–and this in spite of the fact that I wasn’t sure that the collection was my sort of thing at all. I admit that I didn’t care for the first story, but by the time I got to the next one, I was hooked into reading this beguiling, eclectic mix. History, fantasy, science fiction, and even the macabre, yes it’s all here from the talented and multi-track mind of this young Russian author whose work, peppered with elements of folklore and the supernatural stretches genre boundaries in a China Mieville/Neil Gaiman sort of way. Here’s her website, and just the design alone should give you a hint of this author’s work.
One of my favourite stories is Citizen Komarova Finds Love and concerns the displaced, impoverished Countess Komarova, who following the upheaval of the Russian Revolution, finds herself displaced from her family’s ruined mansion and working in a shop in the town of N.
The owner of the shop, a man as old as he was ornery, let her rent the room above the shop, where the wind howled under the roof thatched with a ragtag team of tiles and shingles. There was a small and round metal stove, known colloquially as ‘bourgeoisie,’ as indiscriminate and insatiable as its namesake: it burned books, pianos, furniture, twigs and entire palmate fir branches, crackling birch logs. It gave back cherry-red heat that spread in waves through the room over the shop, and broke over the stained walls, much like the distant Mediterranean over its rock shores.
Countess Komorova, now plain citizen Komarova, spends a great deal of time on her memories–in particular, a childhood holiday spent in the Mediterranean. The bleak winter days of the Revolution continue, and “whatever nobility survived” gravitate to the shop, and hoping to gain a few coins, they drag their bedraggled finery with them. Naturally there’s not much of a market, and the goods pile up waiting for the buyers who never come. Since the shop is run on consignment, there’s not much to lose.
The rest of January passed in the sparse slow sifting of snow from the clouds, grey and heavy like quicksilver. The stock of the consignment shop increased: every dress and fur coat and petticoat and necklace, every ring and feathered hat had made its way there, as the former nobility grew hungrier and less optimistic about the possible return of the old order of things. The corners were now filled with rustling of lace and slow undulations of peacock feathers, their unblinking green and azure eyes nodding in the drafts. Countess Komorova, who in her entire lifetime never experienced such luxury, stroked the ermine muffs and guarded them jealously from marauding moths.
But then one day, in comes a different sort of customer, a Red cavalryman who brings in four horseshoes. He returns several times and with each visit, the items he brings are stranger than the ones before….
Another favourite is Tin Cans, a story told by an elderly night watchman who considers himself lucky to get a job at the Tunisian embassy, once the house of Beria. This is a ghost story, but even so there’s a marvelous quote about Brighton Beach–a place the old man has visited:
I don’t know why anyone would voluntarily live in Brighton Beach, that sad and gray throwback to the provincial towns of the USSR in the seventies, fringed by the dirty hem of a particularly desperate ocean. The irony is of course that every time you’re running from something, it follows you around, like the tin can tied to a dog’s shaggy tail. Those Brooklyn inhabitants, they brought everything they hated with them.
The narrator, who’s one step from extreme poverty, feels lucky to get the job, but the nights in the embassy halls bring no peace, and instead the night watchman glimpses ugly scenes of Russian history.
But all the stories are not concerned with Russian history. One story Hector Meets the King presents a different version of the Hector of the Iliad. In One, Two Three, set in America a desperate childless couple adopt a “malevolent house spirit,” a Kikimora, and in There’s a Monster Under Helen’s Bed, an American couple adopt a very damaged Russian child. The latter, is, of course, rather topical thanks to Putin’s recent decision to ban the adoption of Russian children to America.
Another story I really liked was Yakov and the Crows, a story about an office worker who befriends crows that visit the workplace looking for food, and there’s also Chapaev and the Coconut Girl–a story about a young Russian woman working in America who having developed AI cockroaches in her lab, works on developing an AI Chapaev, a man she “worships.” The Bank of Burkina Faso concerns the deposed Prince of Burundi who now lives in a Moscow apartment scheming of ways to collect his millions which are in the elusive Bank of Burkina Faso. I thought this was going to morph into a con-artist story, but instead this became a story of collective dreaming. Anyway, this has to be the imaginative short story collection I’ve come across in some time, and that makes it difficult to put into any sort of neat, descriptive box. The introduction by author Jeffrey Ford mentions the description Magical Realism, at the same time noting that this is a “weak term” when applied to Sedia’s work. Magical Realism, IMO opinion, fits well with Spanish literature, but with Russian literature, we’re looking at something much more nebulous–something that sits uneasily on the fringes of evil–the dark and treacherous space between how we live and what we endure.