Intertwined stories and inside-out novels Galina Yuzefovich recommends new Russian books for international readers
The three reviews below describe books that Meduza’s resident literary critic, Galina Yuzefovich, has recommended to translators as examples of contemporary Russian fiction that merit international attention. All finalists for major awards, all written by women, and all published by the same highly respected imprint, these books represent some of the best-received fiction written in Russian within the past year.
Anna Nemzer. Round: An Optical Novel. AST, Redaktsia Yeleny Shubinoi, 2018.
Anna Nemzer is a journalist and editor at the independent television station Dozhd. Her novel, Round, is like a breath of fresh air for the Russian reader who has nearly drowned in our writers’ endless efforts to dig up the stony terrain of Soviet history. Nemzer uses a fashionable “verbatim” style (the text reads like fragments of direct speech), and her characters could not be more contemporary, from a transgender teen to a popular rapper with a Ph.D. in literature (raise your hand if you recognize Oxxxymiron). Her plot could have come straight from the news, and the book features a complex, nonlinear composition — all packed into a dynamic text that is emphatically non-Russian both in style and in tempo.
Rapper Dima Grozovsky loves a young physicist named Sasha Luchnikova who comes out as transgender. Sasha and Dima break up, but love, it turns out, has no gender, and the two find themselves attracted to each other as before. By a stroke of chance, Sasha (now short for Alexander, not Alexandra) comes to know a dark, sizzling secret about the internal politics of a certain North Caucasian republic — a secret that is both impossible to keep and too dangerous to reveal openly. Sasha shares his secret with Dima, who then shares it with his journalist girlfriend, Nina (yes, Dima has a complicated private life). Nina tells her Israeli best friend, Arik, and Arik tells his girlfriend, Tami. Then, Dima and Nina decide to make the secret public, and from that moment onward, a sequence of events unfolds whose conclusion none of the characters can predict.
Here, an entirely current, recognizable, and veracious present spills over into an imagined future. Beyond the horizon of the book’s events, in the past, bizarre genealogical connections tie the characters together only to be revealed when the time is ripe. In this book, a single story plays out twice: both times as a tragedy, but with different outcomes, different characters, and different scenery.
It would be excessively daring to call Round a flawless novel: it contains fragments of truly brilliant writing, but other passages feel like sketches that could be developed and extended. Not one plotline is left hanging (which is to the author’s credit), but some of those lines come out thin and brittle by the time Nemzer is finished with them. Round is not the kind of text that is likely to provoke widespread public excitement (though I would like to be proven wrong on that count). Its pointed rejection of the hermetically sealed historical fiction that rules our literature today makes the novel irrelevant in some ways and almost obscenely relevant in others, and it is difficult to tell which might be worse for the novel’s reception.
Of all that has been written in the last few years, Round is most similar to Sergey Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope and is quite likely to share that novel’s fate: it will become an important (perhaps extremely important) event for several hundred readers, or several thousand at best. However, it is the publication of books like Anna Nemzer’s that give meaning to the work of a literary critic and give Russian literature as a whole a chance at overcoming its Soviet trauma.
Ksenia Buksha. Opens Inward. AST, Redaktsia Yeleny Shubinoi, 2018.
The publication of Ksenia Buksha’s small collection of short stories provides a fitting occasion for reviving an old cliché: this is “a whole world packed under a single cover.” Dozens of stories, all true to life, weave together, intersect, and fall apart around the trajectory of Route 306. Characters drive along it, wait beside it, or watch it from their windows. Those who star as protagonists in one story make a brief cameos in others, flash in and out of the reader’s peripheral vision, and simply pop up in conversation, creating the illusion of a space that is both very dense and thoroughly inhabited. That space also feels practically infinite — it stretches far beyond the horizon.
The book is divided into three parts. The first, titled “The Orphanage,” displays all the possible species and subspecies of parentlessness from all possible angles. Thirteen-year-old Asya suspects that the woman who raised her is not her birth mother and takes great pains to construct the questions that might enable her to learn the truth about herself. On the way, she adopts three children from an orphanage: a tame young girl named Dasha who is still grieving her own recently deceased mother and two orphaned boys — the mischievous Roma and his brother, little Seryozha. In another story, terrible teen Angelica battles her adoptive mother “Aunt Lena,” a chess coach, without realizing what terrible cost Lena paid to save her from slavery in a children’s home. (The reader does realize this at the very end of the story, but only thanks to a brief aside tossed out by one of the characters.) Zhenya, a grown-up orphan who seems to have been entirely well-socialized, makes occasional trips to the city to meet her doppleganger, the person she could have been if her life had been just slightly different. Alisa, who takes drugs that have expanded her waistline to the point that she passes for pregnant, sits in the foyer of a swimming pool watching a strange, lonely boy in a ragged jacket.
The book’s second part, “The Asylum,” unites stories of insanity, some of which are autonomous and some of which are connected to the orphans. It is here, for example, that we discover exactly what pills Alisa has been taking. The last part, “Finale,” features stories of death in which many of the book’s plots find their end or acquire a new beginning. This is where we learn how Dasha’s mother died and just what happened to the parents of the boy wearing rags.
All that said, the borders between the parts of Opens Inward feel provisional, just like any attempt to dismember the variegated, fluid, morally ambiguous fabric of being. And it is that wholeness, that highly tragic amorality, that incredible ability to convey existential horror without falling into either sentimentality or despair, that is the greatest achievement of this brilliant — and I’m not exaggerating — collection by Ksenia Buksha. In a word, if anyone alive today can lay claim to the title of the Russian Alice Munro, it is undoubtedly she — and that is excellent news for Russian literature.
Interested? Buy Anne Fisher’s translation of another book by Ksenia Buksha here.
Yevgenia Nekrasova. Kalechina-Malechina. AST, Redaktsia Yeleny Shubinoi, 2018.
Eleven-year-old Katya is the kind of child who makes respectable parents with good, rosy-cheeked children want to turn their heads away from her in awkwardness and indignation. Neglected and disheveled, badly dressed, slow, and clumsy, Katya is unable to solve a single math problem and seems not to know the simplest things — for example, the fact that poems are written in columns. Katya lives in the suburbs of Moscow with half-impoverished, broken-spirited losers for parents, and their shabby apartment has cracks in the ceiling. Katya’s teacher treats her like a dog, and her only friend watches condescendingly as she is bullied by her classmates.
Then, her dreary but still barely livable life devolves into catastrophe: after an epic failure in shop class, Katya’s teacher tells her that she will have to transfer to a school for children with special needs. At the same time, her parents’ last hope at recovering their family’s financial situation collapses: the mysterious convict who agreed to buy Katya’s grandmother’s dacha refuses to hand over the money he promised. And then, in Katya’s darkest hour, a strange creature that lives behind the kitchen stove comes to the child’s aid. This extremely creepy yellow-eyed monster with a hooked nose and chicken feet incarnates a dark and potentially fatal power that lurks within Katya as she is driven to despair. One day, that power bursts out into her life, leaving her totally unrecognizable. Katya’s meager little world is split by a crack that momentarily reveals a magical core, and after that revelation, nothing in that world will ever be the same.
What sounds in summary like a children’s fairy tale comes out in practice somewhere in the spacious gap between Roman Senchin’s mundane gore and Dmitry Gorchev’s or Yury Mamleyev’s mystical horror books. That said, Yevgenia Nekrasova’s novel (or novella, perhaps), which was a finalist last year for the Lyceum Prize, possesses an extremely important property of which neither Mamleyev nor Senchin nor even Gorchev can boast. That property is a provocative capacity for finding light where others can only see darkness; it is an irrational (and therefore especially contagious) optimism. That is what puts Nekrasova’s prose on the same shelf, if not directly in line, with highly successful novels by Alexey Salnikov (The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu) and Fredrik Backman (A Man Called Ove).