Tag Archives: Ukrainian fiction

Sentimental Tales: Mikhail Zoshchenko

“No, the author simply can’t plop down in bed, gay and lighthearted, with a Russian writer’s book in his hands.  For his own peace of mind, the author prefers to plop down with a foreign book.”

Sentimental Tales from Columbia University Press contains six of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s stories. I was attracted to this selection mainly due to the period in which the stories were written: The NEP period (The New Economic Policy 1921-1928), and the introduction gives an explanation of this era “Lenin introduced with the main aim of stabilizing a war-ravaged economy” and which “brought elements of capitalism–including, inadvertently speculation and profiteering into the workers’ state.” I’m not an expert on Russian history, but I’m fascinated by it–the revolution, the civil war, and then this rather bizarre short-lived NEP period which began before the death of Lenin (1924) and Stalin’s rise to power.

sentimental tales

Again I’m quoting from the introduction:

Into the fraught sociocultural landscape stepped Zoshchenko, a satirist who hid behind so many masks that it was impossible to determine whom, exactly, he was mocking.

After reading these stories in which Ukrainian Zoshchenko (1894-1958) takes swipes at everyone, I am amazed that the author survived the Purges. Again, the introduction goes into the subject of Zoshchenko’s “gallows humor,” his “devastating indictment of Soviet life, and of life in general,” and the critical responses to his work.

Kolenkorov is our rather chatty narrator, and while no one escapes his scathing wit, still these stories, in spite of their focus on human frailties, are poignant:

Apollo and Tamara

People

A Terrible Night

What the Nightingale Sang

A Merry Adventure

Lilacs in Bloom

Apollo and Tamara is a love story. Apollo, a “pianist-for-hire, musician, and freelance artist,” is “graced with the countenance of a Lothario, romancer, and destroyer of families,” but, in reality he’s timid around women, and uses his devotion to Art to avoid any commitments. Apollo falls in love but is drafted into the army. Apollo’s life goes downhill. …

People is the story of Ivan Ivanovich Belokopytov whose father is obsessed with French culture.  Belokopytov inherits a large estate, and “always rich and secure” he gives away his most of fortune believing that “human beings should make their own way in the world.” Besieged by relatives, peasants and a revolutionary group, Ivan starts writing “his first little book of poems for publication, under the title, A Bouquet of Mignonette.” After being placed under surveillance for his political sympathies, Ivan leaves Russia in 1910 but returns, after marrying a Russian Ballerina, as the Revolution rages on.

Boris Ivanovich Kotofeyev is the main character in A Terrible Night. In many ways, Boris appears to have landed on his feet when he marries his landlady and becomes: “lord and master of the entire estate. The wheel, the shed, the rake, the stone–all these were now his inalienable property.” Boris becomes obsessed with the idea that Chance has played a huge factor in his life and so “he tried to avoid it.” Thanks to his belief that Chance can break or break a life, a series of events takes Boris to a “former teacher of Calligraphy” who has fallen on hard times. This meeting seeds unease in Boris which cannot be shaken.

In When the Nightingale Sang, a love story, the narrator imagines what people will say in a hundred years, and there’s a passage that seemed very true.

And will it really be wondrous, this future life? That’s another question. For the sake of his own peace of mind, the author chooses to believe that this future life will be just as full of nonsense and rubbish as the one we are living. 

This tale concerns a middle-aged civil servant, Bylinkin whose “stock began to rise” in middle age. His hair may be thinning, but his “figure had filled out. He had reabsorbed. so to speak, the vital juices of which he’d been drained.” Fate leads him to take a room at the home of the elderly Daria Vasilyevna Rundukova “who was afraid that, due to the housing crisis, their living space per person might be reduced with the forcible introduction of some crude and superfluous individual.” 

A Merry Adventure, which contains a long chat from the narrator to the audience, the subject of Russian literature is raised

Now let’s look at our precious Russian literature. First off, the weather’s a mess. It’s either blizzards or storms. You’ve got the wind blowing in characters’ faces all the time. And they aren’t exactly agreeable folks, these characters. Always flinging curses at each other. Badly dressed. Instead of merry, joyous adventures, you get all sorts of troubles and misfortunes, or stuff that just puts you to sleep.

No, the author doesn’t agree with this kind of literature. Sure, there might be lots of good and brilliant books in it, and who the hell knows how many profound ideas and various words–but the author just can’t find emotional balance and joy in any of it.

I mean why is it that the French can depict all these excellent, calming aspects of life and we can’t? Come on comrades–for pity’s sake! What–is there a shortage of good facts in our life? Are we lacking in light and cheerful adventures? Or are we, in your opinion, low on ravishing heroines?

In Lilacs in Bloom, after assessing her living arrangements, profession and income, Volodin marries Margarita. His material comfort increases, but after three years of married life, he falls in love with another woman. …

The connections between the stories of love, life and regret are the absurdities and meaninglessness of life. Love, success, comfort are all set against the instability and unpredictability of Russian society. One can strive for decades and it will all be for nought. Reading these reminded me of Dostoevsky’s lighter work. Wonderful.

Review copy

Translated by Boris Dralyuk

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Who is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko

“A shame to die,” he sighed, “things are only just beginning to get exciting.”

who is marthaWhen Who is Martha? from Ukrainian author, Marjana Gaponenko opens, Professor Emeritus of Zoology, Luka Levadski, at age 96, has just received “a death sentence” of carcinoma of the lung from his doctor. Living alone in Ukraine, in his tiny apartment where he talks to his books and chews over the little future he has left, Levadski decides to decline chemotherapy, “that cocktail of chemicals,” and return to Vienna to a happy time in his youth with memories of eating pastries with his great aunts. In other words Levadski decides to not go out with a whimper but with style while he indulges himself in various luxuries and whoops it up with whatever time he has left. The decision results in him no longer focusing on his disease and imminent death:

The desire to die in luxury he had never lived in spread like wildfire within him. It grew within him and swallowed up his fear of death. The sudden desire for luxury robbed Levadski of any sense of respect for the seriousness of his situation and reduced his lung nibbled by cancer to a mere trifle.

There have been no women in Levadski’s life–just a long, respectable career. Somewhere deep in his past, there’s an ignominious memory which involves a little girl and pastries in Vienna, but on the whole, Levadski, so focused on birds and their mating rituals and habits, just doesn’t understand women.

That he had a long time ago thought of winning over the opposite sex with this pathetic affected behavior, when his head had been filled with nothing but the mating dances and brooding habits of birds, was something he did not want to be reminded about. But he did think about it, he thought about it with a hint of bitterness. After a fulfilling academic life he knew: Women would have interested him more if they hadn’t constantly insisted on emphasizing that they were different from men. If they had been like female birds, a touch grayer and quieter than the males, perhaps they would have awakened his interest at the right time. Levadski would gladly have procreated with such a creature. Only he didn’t know to what purpose.

While the book describes Levadski’s often hilarious misadventures in Vienna, it also goes back into his past, his childhood and his youth. This is a life in which birds were always of paramount importance. At one point, for example, Levadski, a student at the Institute of Zoology in Lemberg, receives a letter from his widowed mother urging him to come home:

My son, something is brewing in this world. The non-migratory birds like the crested lark, wren and the common treecreeper have turned their backs on our little place, the forest and the fields. There is no sign of the house martin either. House sparrows are now nesting under the eaves. I can no longer remember the last time I saw a house martin standing before a puddle, stuffing mud into its cheeks as building material for its nest, it was such a long time ago.

All these signs, my son, as you yourself know, are alarming. Our dear father would have said : the rats are leaving the sinking ship. He would have been right.

Levadski listens to his mother’s warnings of a pending “catastrophe,” and it’s a good thing he did. I loved this section (and the character of Levadski) which illustrated how people, attuned to nature, pick up signals that others are oblivious to. The theme of Levadski’s life spent studying birds continues in his depictions of people he observes in Vienna:

Levadski’s gaze wanders to an inconsolable face. Two strings of pearls entwine the wrinkly neck they belong to. The old woman turns her head like a blue tit, looks around, before she plucks up the confidence to shakily steer the fork with the piece of cake in the direction of her mouth. She protectively holds her other hand beneath it, chews, swallows, and then, with a critical gaze, chin pressed to her chest, she checks whether any of the cake has fallen into her lap, her bosom no longer able to catch crumbs.

While the novel is amusing, and may even seem like a simple story, Who is Martha? raises some relevant questions about life, death, the humiliations and also the compensations of old age. Levadski retired at the age of seventy (twenty-six years earlier) “with the thought that he would not live much longer,” but the story opens with Levadksi at 96, just a few years short of 100. In this life affirming, optimistic, bittersweet story, the message is that we should never give up on life and the experiences offered to us. Levadski, armed with a death sentence, finally feels free to indulge in the luxury he’s always denied himself.  It’s sad that Levadski didn’t experience so many things in life until he had that death sentence hanging over his head–at one point, for example, he dares himself to touch a waitress, but we can only cheer him on as he orders a new suit, special shirts, buys a drinking cane full of 2 Star Odessa Cognac, and, with his new credit card, decides to stay in the Hotel Imperial, the “best hotel in town.” The story sags a bit when Levadski gets to Vienna, and I wish he’d crossed a few more of those self-imposed boundaries. This is the sort of story to elicit a range of opinions concerning the limitations we impose upon ourselves and whether or not Levadksi’s latter-day liberation is a cause for celebration or sadness. Perhaps both. Recommended for book clubs as the story is certain to generate discussion from readers.

Review copy. Translated by Arabella Spencer

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Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov

“You can’t trust those you pay a lot to. Especially when they show such a taste for luxury.”

Andrey Kurkov’s entertaining novel Penguin Lost is the sequel to Death and the Penguin. In the first book, unemployed Kiev writer Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov  appears to be in luck when he accepts a job writing obituaries. He doesn’t pay too much attention to the fact that he’s writing  obituaries of people who haven’t died yet, but after a while, as those he’s profiled start dying in various creative ways,  he begins to ask questions and is told: “The less you know, the longer you live.” By the end of the novel, Viktor, caught between rival gang factions, is forced to abandon his apartment, a child left in his care named Sonya, and sort-of-girlfriend Nina (employed to take care of Sonya). But more importantly, Viktor also abandons his penguin Misha just as he is about to undergo a heart transplant.

Penguin Lost picks up with Viktor in the Antarctica, on the run from gangsters who want him dead. Hoping that it’s safe enough to return, Viktor leaves the Vernadasky Base and travels to Russia after agreeing to deliver a letter and a credit card for a man who is hiding out in the Antarctica, the Moscow banker Bronikovsky, another “comrade [s] in adversity,” who claims he is being slowly poisoned. So within just a few pages, Viktor is back in Kiev:

Life hadn’t changed: foreign visitors delivering charitable aid to orphanages; two Ukrainian People’s Deputies imprisoned in Germany for fraudulent banking; businessman’s family shot dead in Kherson; opening of super garden centre  at Obolon; and on the last page but one, a couple of wretchedly written obituaries, all the more distressing for having been signed with Viktor’s own pseudonym. The Editor-in-Chief, it appeared, was no longer his quondam patron Igor Lvovich but one P.D. Weizmann.

In Viktor’s old personal life, things have changed and not for the better.  A man known as ‘Uncle’ Kolya has moved into his flat and now rules the roost, and during a telephone conversation with Sonya, Viktor ascertains that the situation is unstable:

Auntie Nina went away for two days once leaving just eggs and a roll. So I made myself an omelette.

Viktor, then, has three tasks to perform:

    1. Straighten out the situation in his flat
    2. Find Misha the penguin
    3. Deliver the letter and credit card to Bronikovsky’s wife or widow in Moscow.

Since Viktor feels that his “prime duty” is to Misha, he decides to track him down first. He goes to the vet clinic where Misha was scheduled to have the heart transplant and discovers that while the operation was successful, Misha was subsequently removed from the hospital by gangsters.

In a from-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire sort of way, Viktor becomes the protegé of yet another gangster, Andrey  Pavlovich, a colourful, affable, larger-than-life individual (my favourite character in the book) running for political office who believes in something called Snail Law:

“We don’t need much,” Andrey Pavlovich continued, “a bite to eat, a spot of cash, a roof, and we’re snug as a snail. Which brings us to Snail’s Law: small snail, small shell, like you; big snail, big shell like me. Mine, if I outgrow it, I build afresh. No shell–you’re a slug, and slugs come to a sticky end. Like me to build you one?”

Offering protection, a “shell , which you nip back into at the first whiff of danger,” Andrey employs Viktor for his political campaign, and while Viktor is given the appearance of a choice in the matter, the truth is that he’s Andrey’s ‘guest’ for the duration of the campaign and is free to leave only after Andrey wins the election:

You with your imagination and your dodgy life, are just the man I now need to write me speeches and a manifesto. You’re closer to the voters, know what they want–not that there’s any need for that, though it looks good. Once I’m in, off you go: Moscow, New York, Santiago de Chile, wherever.

What if you don’t get in?

Wrong question! My opponent, known as Boxer is damn nearly bald and looks the bruiser he is. Not an attractive proposition.

Once again Viktor falls on his feet relying on his writing talent to get him by. Some of the people Viktor encounters claim to have information about Misha’s whereabouts, but before he is given that vital information, Viktor must first perform various tasks in return. Part of the novel’s humour is rooted in the rampant political corruption and campaign antics which are taken very matter-of-factly by those involved. Since Viktor lives by his wits, is surrounded by corruption (and brutal corruption at that), and has a series of misadventures, it’s very easy to see the picaresque influence here–although it was not glaringly apparent in Death and the Penguin–as Viktor moves through Russian society, trying to meet his responsibilities and yet facing various Herculean hurdles (including an amorous widow) on the way. Absurdist elements mesh well with the picaresque, and so it seems perfectly natural and reasonable that Viktor seeks his penguin post heart-transplant.

My copy came courtesy of the publisher, Melville House Publishing, via netgalley. Read on my Kindle. Translated by George Bird.

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Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

“The less you know, the longer you live.”

Death and the Penguin by Russian author Andrey Kurkov reflects Russia’s tradition of Absurdist literature. It’s the story of a man, a would-be writer named Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov who lives with a penguin named Misha in a Kiev apartment. Viktor and his penguin live in a post-Soviet society in which gangsters rule and run amuck fairly untouched by such trivialities and vague notions such as ‘the law.’ As readers we are supposed to accept the basic premise that it’s perfectly acceptable for Viktor to have an emotional penguin waddling around his apartment, and while this may seem absurd (back to that Russian tradition of Absurdist literature again), there is some truth to the story that the Kiev zoo did give away animals to anyone would feed them. The Kiev zoo emerges in the novel as a place that’s in a sad condition, and its economic trials are indicative of the sorry state of society. It’s worth noting that Viktor leads a simple, spartan life that becomes horribly complicated and compromised once he steps out the door and accepts employment.

So when the novel begins, Viktor has written a short story which he submits to a newspaper in the hopes of getting it published. Viktor is  “trapped in a rut between journalism and meagre scraps of prose.” While the story is rejected, he’s offered a job by the editor of Capital News as the writer of obituaries. The editor explains that the paper wants obituaries for people who haven’t died yet:

“This is highly confidential,” he said. “What we’re after is a gifted obituarist, master of the succinct. Snappy, pithy, way-out stuff’s the idea.”

This seems a little odd, but the editor argues that the paper wants obituaries on hand and ready for print. Viktor swallows that story and deliberating that he’ll be creating something “new and unusual,” he takes the job. The pay isn’t overwhelming, but it’s enough for Viktor to begin being able to afford a few luxuries. The work isn’t demanding and life seems to improve a bit for Viktor and Misha. Viktor’s formerly narrow existence begins to expand—he makes friends with District Militiaman, Sergey, is saddled with the care of a small, precocious child whose father is in hiding, and he even gains a girlfriend of sorts.

Even as Viktor’s life becomes materially easier, his peace of mind is stripped away as it gradually dawns on him that the obituaries are basically a hitlist, and that he’s involved up to his neck with gangsters. Viktor doesn’t ask nearly enough questions as he finds it easier to bury his head in the sand when it comes to the true nature of his work. He notes, “it wasn’t easy to remain honest and upright.” Early on, after the first obituary death, celebrating over a glass of cognac, Viktor asks the editor:

“How did he die?” Viktor asked.

“Fell from a sixth-story window–was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn’t his. And at night.”

Obviously this is a suspicious death, but Viktor chooses to ignore the alarm bells and he continues. After all, he’s well-paid and what’s more he’s finally getting published for his flowery obituaries. The plot places Viktor in various moral dilemmas, and through this the reader sees the complexity of one man’s moral make-up. Some things he doesn’t quibble about, but then other situations cause a great deal of strain. Here’s Viktor asking the editor, Igor, about the mysterious death of a fellow journalist:

“What did happen in Kharkov, Igor?” he asked.

Sighing, the Chief poured cognac and gave Viktor an inhibited, arrested sort of look.

“Bowed his head did our brave young Red,” he crooned softly:

“cruelly shot through his Komosol heart…

As a newspaper, we’ve had our losses. This one’s our seventh. Before long we’ll be unveiling a pantheon … Still, no skin off your nose!  The less you know, the longer you live!” said the Chief. Then, in quite a different, somehow weary voice, and looking hard at him, he added “And it’s not your business any longer. Just that you know a bit more than others do … OK….”

Viktor regretted his curiosity. The whole ambience of their little tete à tete celebration had been lost.

Misha is arguably the most charming character in the book. There are moments when Viktor sinks deeper into his dangerous relationship with the warring gangsters, and this seems to trouble Misha. It takes some time for Viktor to catch on to the real purpose of the obituaries, but Misha smells a rat right away. Consequently, Viktor sleeps well at night while Misha becomes an insomniac. We might expect the relationship between man and dog to be symbiotic, and this is exactly what occurs between Viktor and Misha:

Misha had appeared chez Viktor a year before, when the zoo was giving away hungry animals to anyone able to feed them. Viktor had gone along and returned with a king penguin. Abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely. But Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity. 

The subject of moral corrosion is deadly serious, but Kurkov writes with a light, tragicomic touch. While Viktor remains ignorant of the true nature of his work (obviously a decision on his part, as he’s told on various occasions to go into hiding or to stay away from the office) the penguin injects an element of goodness into the plot. There’s a good deal of absurdity here thanks to Viktor’s obliviousness and then uncertainty when it comes to selecting a course of action, and in spite of the fact that people are blown up, disappear, and fall out of sixth story windows, the plot plays out with delightful black humour.  As the story continues The Death and the Penguin explores the moral dilemmas faced by Viktor, and how he either ignores the obvious signals, talks himself into continued involvement, or finds himself going along with morally questionable acts. In the morality department, oddly enough the penguin comes out on top. Originally published in 1996, this novella is about 150 pages, and there’s a sequel: Penguin Lost

My copy read on kindle courtesy of the publisher, Melville House Publishing via netgalley.

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