Literary critic Galina Yuzefovich gives her take on three new books of Russian prose: Stories by Natalia Meshchaninova, Andrey Filimonov’s Recipes for the Creation of the World: From Paris to Siberia Through the Whole Twentieth Century, and Living On by Narine Abgaryan.
Natalya Meshchaninova’s slim debut volume, titled simply Stories and released in a thousand copies by the publisher Séance, is one of those rare treasures that provides ample recompense for the severe efforts it demands from its reader. Piercing and hardened, like a cast bullet, the book recalls Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, though in a more compact (and therefore perhaps even more searing), simple, ironic, and highly recognizable form.
Take Yanagihara’s young boy Jude and change him into a girl named Natasha, in place of the pedophilic monk Brother Luke take the rapist stepfather Sasha, and move the plot from a series of faceless American motels to a stifling, troubled town in the Russian South — and you have Natalya Meshchaninova’s stories (in fact, her autobiographical novella). You have Natasha’s burning self-hatred (“I let this be done to me, which means I, too, am guilty”) and self-harm as its only remedy; the daily, humiliating necessity of choosing which she prefers — to have dinner or to avoid being molested; and an absurd attachment to and withering fear for the mother who betrayed her (Natasha’s mother has a weak heart and cannot be upset). You have the forced absence of emotions that have become an unaffordable luxury in Natasha’s world; the constant fear of neighborhood thugs and a banal everyday cruelty that makes itself almost impossible to distinguish from love; “the willow rod” as the primary means of raising a child; the patched and repatched padding of a front door bearing the scars of multiple knife slashes; the dark patch of woods that, in the evenings, witnesses such horrible things that one would do best not even to look in its direction…
Tearing herself free with screams, taunts, and something very much like poetry, Meshchaninova has given us an obscenely private text as frightening as the novels of Stephen King and as sharply formed as the tragedies of Racine.
The comparison to the theater arts, by the way, is no accident: Natalya Meshchaninova has some experience in that genre. She rose to fame thanks to her screenplay for Boris Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia, and she directed the film The Nadezhda Combine. Now those of you who prefer books to cinema have an excellent reason to learn Meshchaninova’s name as well. After all, it’s not every year that a voice so pure and powerful emerges in Russian literature.
The most unshakeable curse haunting Russian fiction today is a total inability to tell even the simplest story without first twisting full-bodied into the past and displaying all the scars and abrasions (both individual and global) that the bloody twentieth century left on each of us. Andrey Filimonov is a typical victim of this syndrome: his Recipes for the Creation of the World seems like a protracted historical prelude to a novel that, in the end, forgets to begin.
The young, romantic Galya Orlova, a literarily minded young lady from Ivanov, gets involved with both a budding poet (a lightly disguised version of the Soviet writer Konstantin Simonov) and a strapping French pilot from the Normandy-Neman squadron. Ultimately, she marries a pilot from Russia named Dima Filimonov. Galya and Dima move to Siberia, to Tomsk, where Dima finds a new job. The couple collects a private library and builds a fragile, Soviet sort of stability. The KGB tries to recruit them not so much unsuccessfully as senselessly. They raise a son and a grandson, Andryusha, and at the novel’s end, Galya even manages to see Paris with her own eyes and buy a dirt-cheap novel by the Marquise de Sade that was banned in the USSR.
Filimonov lightens this simple and presumably authentic family history with various embellishments, like stories within stories. In one, Galya accidentally ingests a hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom and strolls around Moscow’s Neskuchny Garden with the ghost of the brutal secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria; another is the tragicomedy of Galya’s stubborn uncle, who was executed inside the famous Bolshoi Theater. These lyrical diversions, however, do not alter the essence of the book: Recipes for the Creation of the World offers just the latest (and far from the last) personal journey through Russia’s twentieth-century history. Just when the narrative reaches the present day — when the grown-up version of the boy Andryusha emerges in the foreground, and the reader takes heart and waits for the plot to develop — the novel sharply and unexpectedly folds into itself, slipping frustratingly into ghostly psychedelic depths.
If you follow Narine Abgaryan on Facebook or, more importantly, if you read her previous novel, Three Apples Fell from the Sky, then the world of her new book, Living On, will feel very familiar. Abgaryan’s reader returns to her beloved Armenian bordertown of Berd with its terse, dignified residents, its hidden valleys and mountain peaks, its lean, light-footed cows, and with the best fruits in the world, magical baklava, beauty, and views that stretch into the distance. In Three Apples, this world was veiled in romantic mist, but this time we find a dark, frightening place robbed of its magical shroud. In this serene, comfortable world, war has broken out.
During a shelling, Agnessa dashes out of a basement shelter to find warm stockings for her daughter. The girl runs after her mother but slips in the open doorway; she dies, and Agnessa loses one foot in an explosion. The local gravedigger, Tsatur, falls in love with Agnessa after her injury, and they marry. Of their three children, Agnessa names the youngest after the first-born daughter she lost to war. Tsatur’s mother, Arusyak, helps the couple with their housekeeping. Arusyak’s parents and her nieces (the daughters of her beloved sister, Anichka, who lived on the other side of the border) disappear during a pogrom. Arusyak’s husband, Tsatur’s father, responds to their loss by leaving for the war, never to return. But Anichka survives, and she ends up helping her elderly neighbor, Atanessa, whose only surviving son emerges from the pogroms with a severe disability.
Abgaryan’s book collects an abundance of short stories. They follow one after another, like links in a chain: a secondary character in one story becomes the protagonist of the next, one tragedy brings along another, and so on ad infinitum. But the book’s atrocities and murders and horrors of war tend to rest mercifully behind the framework of the novel, and its focus rests instead on tears, scars, loss, and memory. From this mass of woe, from personal and collective trauma (including that of her own family), Abgaryan weaves a funeral wreath that does not so much recall a place as mourn the dead. This unexpected tone — not that of a war hymn but that of an all-forgiving requiem — generates an astonishing therapeutic effect, as though the Angel of Death has stretched its wings over the land, the deepest injuries find themselves forgiven, knots come untied, and shoots of grass emerge anew on forgotten graves.
Living On is already the second novel written this year about the bloodbath that flooded the imperial outskirts of the Soviet Union following its collapse (the first is Vladimir Medvedev’s powerful Zakhoke, a narrative of the Tajik Civil War). Though two novels do not make a trend, I would like to think that Russian literature has finally set out to reflect on that horrifying and still plainly unmourned historical tragedy.