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‘Does that make me Charon?’ In her fiction, Polina Barskova is determined to see through ‘the endless shimmer of untruths, half-truths, and pseudo-truths.’ Anna Razumnaya reviews her new book.

Source: Meduza

‘Does that make me Charon?’ In her fiction, Polina Barskova is determined to see through ‘the endless shimmer of untruths, half-truths, and pseudo-truths.’ Anna Razumnaya reviews her new book.

Source: Meduza

When talking about her birth city, the American scholar and Russian writer Polina Barskova prefers to speak of it as “Leningrad–Petersburg.” This is deliberate. The city’s composite identity, built up over time in layers, cannot, she intimates, be either embraced or disowned piecemeal. As a historian, she is conscious of the propaganda aims implicit in each of those names: the Soviet ambitions written into “Leningrad” and the older imperial claims etched into “St. Petersburg.” As a poet, she is sensitive to the clash between the intimate lives of real people and their monolithic representations in the so-called “historical memory.” In a recent interview, she described those narratives as an “endless shimmer of untruths, half-truths, and pseudo-truths.” Barskova’s Living Pictures is a collection of stories about learning to see through this shimmering web, which proves to stretch far beyond Russia and its peculiar problems. Set in places as diverse as San Francisco, small-town Massachusetts, Siberia, and (of course) Leningrad–Petersburg, these stories come forward as searchingly intimate and by turns tender, sensuous, macabre, absurd, ambivalent, yet always immensely and movingly vulnerable. Anna Razumnaya discusses Polina Barskova’s new book and what makes it such a superbly satisfying read.

“It’s not the urge to change places but the urge to change times that overpowers us,” writes Polina Barskova about the motives that set a traveler on the road, in spite of everything that should make modern travel intolerable: “the airport searches and disrobings,” the nightmare of “joining the herd.” Most of the stories gathered in this volume (and masterfully translated into English by Catherine Ciepiela) involve travel, the destinations ranging from Siberia to San Francisco; still, the center of the author’s world is firmly St. Petersburg. It is the place where Barskova grew up and absorbed a conviction that pervades her writing: that life everywhere is haunted by absences. Take away the memory of what has been and vanished, and life itself — the “real” life — is reduced to a mere subplot.

Even the title of this book works as a clue, alerting us to watch for double plots and to read between the lines, Living Pictures being another phrase for the old-fashioned game of “charades.” Players in the game try to hint at something by arranging themselves into scenes, challenging others to guess the meaning of their poses and gestures.

Polina Barskova is a poet and literary historian. She is also a free spirit who has found a professional use for her wanderings in research and teaching. As a scholar of the Leningrad blockade, she used archival documents and eyewitness testimonies to assemble a mosaic of the calamity that took place in her home city when it came under German siege in 1941–1944. Growing up in Leningrad decades after the event, Barskova sensed the blockade’s continued presence, even though it was “nowhere to be found.” Leningrad’s (and later Petersburg’s) public memorials have reflected almost no cognizance of the horror that visited the city in the 900 days of the siege. The blockade is “nowhere and everywhere, like a riddle in a folktale,” Barskova writes. In “The Forgiver,” a story contemplating survivors and survivorship, she reflects on what it’s like to rewrite the history of an event most people would believe well-understood and already too much written about:

The melancholy — the languor — the charm of the archive: the sensation of working a brainteaser, a mosaic, as though all these voices could make a single voice and yield a single meaning, and you could surface from this fog in which there is no past, no future, only guilty anguish. “No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten” — no one can be helped, and everyone is forgotten.

“Does that then make me Charon?” she asks herself, as if startled by this idea of transporting the souls of the dead back from the shores of non-being, like the mythic ferryman. Why, after all, should their journey across the Lethe have to be one-way only? In facing her “guilty anguish” at the archive, Barskova is no longer writing as a scholar: the license of fiction gives her a greater freedom to feel and to use reverie (or free association, if you like) to steer her way around complex subjects, going way beyond the limits of academic prose. The thought of Charon brings up other, spontaneous thoughts and flashbacks: the memory, for instance, of bringing a group of American students to Petersburg, to look for traces of the siege in the city’s material culture. Getting these young souls across the ocean, in Barskova’s writing, is also a bit like bringing someone back from the bank of oblivion:

A late-night ferry in Petersburg, a flock of rowdy foreign girls: “Can you take us?” “Can we have a ride?” “How drunk are you?” “Hey, come on”— cajoling, high-pitched chatter. We step onto the boat, and I notice near the captain’s seat a bulging magnum, more like a jug. It’s hard to do Charon’s job sober: the souls keep up their lament.

One way to describe this book would then be to say it’s a collection of stories about being haunted by the past, about pursuing its ghosts — in other words, that it’s a kind of contemporary Gothic book preoccupied with absences. The attentive, sensory descriptions don’t so much describe things as conjure them, snatching them from the edge of non-existence: “After he died,” Barskova’s alter ego tells us about her father in “Sestroretsk, Komarovo,”

I found in his drawer a large packet of my poems copied out in a perfect, fastidious hand — when he was alive not a word about them passed between us.

As a final sign of life, a cockroach crawled out of his pipe and went on its way.

The measured, hypnotic pace of this prose and its nostalgic intensity might trick us into mistaking Barskova’s style for mere atmospherics, the smoke and mirrors of conventional Gothic storytelling. In reality, there is nothing decorative or sentimental about this writing. Although, partly, the author looks closely at personal experience out of sheer love for that hidden and unspoken life, the other half of this ever-present double plot is that private experience tests the veracity of public rhetorics. At all points in her storytelling, Barskova asks us whether our private experience confirms or disproves the generalizations of history, culture, and state propaganda. She uses the carefully gathered evidence (what has been thought, what has been felt, what can be imagined as having been thought or felt) to question the ways we speak about memory in public. She probes other people’s memories with the same attention that she taps into her own, here describing an encounter with an archival testimony:

“Memoirs of life in Leningrad during the siege, paradoxical as it may seem, have an aura of enchantment,” wrote the engineer-optician, an observant disciplined person probably not inclined to self-deceiving fantasies.

“So what was this enchantment? A kind of madness?” she half-wonders, half-comments. Madness does, after all, begin where words start to fail.

How Putin’s Russia uses the Leningrad siege to glorify warfare

‘The lessons of Fascism’ Ukrainian tanks and fighting vehicles on display as part of Leningrad Siege exposition outside St. Petersburg

How Putin’s Russia uses the Leningrad siege to glorify warfare

‘The lessons of Fascism’ Ukrainian tanks and fighting vehicles on display as part of Leningrad Siege exposition outside St. Petersburg

In the two opening stories of Living Pictures, Barskova’s professorial alter ego wants her students to learn using the “material witnesses” (as scholars sometimes refer to documents and artifacts), teach them how to resist being duped, later in life, by propaganda and the truisms that lead people everywhere by their noses. In “Eaststrangement,” the history professor acts very much like an animal mother, setting her student “cubs” onto a trail strewn with historic cues. They visit Petersburg’s memorials and museum exhibits, trying to tease out their meanings. What they have to work with is strange and barely interpretable: “the great ersatz life-or-death” of shriveled and blackened blockade bread in a glass museum case; euphemistic language; “medals instead of people.”

A sniper’s empty brown bottle still inhabited by spirits, miniature icons and crosses found on the dead, casings inscribed with names and dates of birth, a flask given as a name-day gift . . . Imperishables: What couldn’t decay lay not so much in as over-across the ground of Leningrad starting in the fall of 1941, while millions [sic] of untrained and unarmed soldiers kept laying themselves down into that ground.

What of the people themselves, then? Where did they go?

It’s the emptiness surrounding blockade memorials that pains me, and you can experience that emptiness physically at Piskaryovskoe Cemetery. Not a soul was there except for us; inappropriate, optimistic Haydn was playing, and a squirrel dangled from a poppy plant. Today the blockade seems to generate — instead of compassion, pity, collective mourning — an absence of real, viable emotion: At the Holocaust memorial, the entire square in Berlin was filled with people, but where are the people who want to honor the victims of Leningrad? And how do you assist those who want to honor them?

Something had led the Soviets to disown the human experience of the blockade and to consign its horror to silence, submerging and denying everything except heroic resistance. But heroism was only a small part of that drama. As for the rest:

To speak or even think about that winter was forbidden.

That winter was their shared secret, as though they had performed an unnatural act.

Inexplicable and barely tolerable emotions like this shame are the terrain where Barskova has a great deal to show us as a guide. She knows how shame becomes ground zero of secrecy and silence, which spread beyond private life into the public sphere, across the generational divides, past state borders and even cordons established within the divided human consciousness: “A secret is what you carry inside yourself unseen, and all the while it is producing you, transforming you into something monstrous. A secret is radioactive.” Even the language itself refuses to cooperate with dispelling some secrets: “In Russian, there is no word for ‘survivor’ — someone who survived, who came back.” (Perhaps, language itself wasn’t ready for the 20th century and its wars.)

When something feels wrong and false about the generalizations reproduced within society, the only remedy for the error is to check those generalizations against particulars — that is, against actual lived experience. “Studying history, producing memory about a living city’s historical disaster — this should be a personal, intimate pursuit,” Barskova writes. She herself puts this principle to work in the story called “The Forgiver,” where she gets frank and intimate with none other than Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor turned Holocaust “celebrity.” It takes real nerve to challenge the platitudes she addresses in this story, as she probes the grotesque absurdity of institutional celebrations after Survival in Auschwitz. It also takes real compassion to be this merciless:

For his entire life the Italian Jew Primo Levi, with the zeal of a tactless noxious insect madman, wrote about the misfortune that befell him.

An embarrassed world literary establishment kept awarding him prizes and titles, which at that point, thank God, was not hard to do. Every time he got a prize, for half a year afterward he would digest it like a python and then disgorge another volume.

When Levi fell down the stairwell, she writes, “the embarrassed world literary establishment declared it an unfortunate event and accorded him yet another prize — for the speed and elegance of his fall, for liberating them all from his memories.” This is exactly the kind of an eye for the absurd that the American writer Lydia Davis says a writer should cultivate. In Essays Two (2022), Davis herself illustrated the importance of picking up on contradictions and incongruities with a note from her own travel notebooks. The note reads:

To commemorate the Saint-Cyprien victims of the flood of 1875, the city erected … a fountain.

Once again, pain is disowned in favor of glory. Public denials reflect private blind spots.

In “Dona Flor and Her Grandmother,” we see a similar incapacity to cope with pain in family life. Blindsided by the death of her beloved, Barskova’s young alter ego also experiences her parents’ inability to deal with her grief. They “exile” her to Siberia, where her grandmother lives in “anxious web-like union” with her two maiden aunts. But there too, it turns out, death must be neutralized, carefully wrapped in secrecy as in cotton-wool:

“By the way, Lyolya said, “we decided not to tell her that he, you know, died, she does have high blood pressure.”

“So what did you tell her?”

“You know, that he dumped you and you’re really upset about it.”

Predictably (though no one had foreseen it), grandma sets out to remedy the problem as she herself understands it:

On the weekends Babushka would instruct me in the art of love, meaning, she would explain how to make you come back and love me forever, right then and there.

The grandmother is at once comically and tragically relentless: “For many Sundays Babushka showed me how to cook, do the laundry, clean the house, dress properly, choose perfumes, do my hair, all so that you, God forbid, wouldn’t leave me.” Painfully, the only person to whom the whole truth can be confided is the missing, dead beloved: the one and only, absent confidant.

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In his introduction to Living Pictures, Ilya Kaminsky praises Barskova’s writing for capturing so much of the distinct atmosphere of Soviet and post-Soviet life, down to its minute details and peculiar pleasures. While he certainly isn’t wrong about this, what’s no less striking about these stories is that they could happen anywhere, and actually do happen everywhere, all the time. This is a bit like the very English “living picture” conjured by Philip Larkin: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. | They may not mean to, but they do.” English as it might be, it’s also universal, and worse: transferable to extended family and beyond. (Is there anything in this life that doesn’t “fuck you up”?) Barskova, mercifully, is able to deal with these dark questions without losing touch with their comical self-involvement. And again, she can write about these weird states of self-pity and malaise without becoming harsh or dismissive:

I sat on the pier and listened to the bream swimming — they were sick with intestinal worms and didn’t have the strength to get to the bottom. . . . Here I am, I thought, just like the infected fish, cast out from life’s sludge and murk onto a meaningless surface.

In another story, “A Gallery,” the idea of contamination is developed from a positive side, and given a political dimension. Here, Barskova’s fictional alter ego is traveling to Lowell, Massachusetts, a depressed New England town full of deserted mills. The reason for travel is that she must attend a U.S. “naturalization” ceremony.

Come morning the snow was still falling, and I walked through it along the empty canal to Memorial Auditorium. Men in cut-rate tuxedos and striking women-peacocks were trudging in the same direction. With good reason, since the instructions said we were to appear at the ceremony in clothes suitable for the occasion — year dry-cleaned, festive Sunday best. Ahead of me, across ice covered with what looked like soy sauce or brownish menstrual blood, tapped an elderly Puerto Rican beauty in a sequined emerald dress; she hesitated for a long time in front of a snowdrift, deciding whether to stick her heel in it.

The mention of menstrual blood in the same breath, figuratively speaking, with the U.S. national flag, makes this passage strange, far from comfortable, and thereby memorable. Why the juxtaposition of snow, blood, and soy sauce should produce this effect has been studied at length by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her classic book, Purity and Danger, which examines the most persistent human ideas about categories, and which ones can mix with others while others can’t. The same concerns are very much alive in contemporary American society, as evidenced by the modern rite of passage called “naturalization,” complete with an oath of allegiance:

“I, so-and-so, absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty,” I enunciated with (so-and-so’s) wooden lips.

Since for the time being, due to blissful diplomatic double-dealing, my former passport and right to visit my other country have not been taken away, the formula about rejecting my prince-sovereign was an airy figment, something like Lowell’s canals, which had lost their direct reference a century ago — the formula was empty and broad, but whether it was that I got attached to it, or it got attached to me, I couldn’t stop repeating this remarkable word:

abjure abjure

After the ceremony, the newly-initiated writer wanders into a cafe, where a waitress is eager to know: “Did you get naturalized? So do you feel different?” Her excited expectation, that the experience should have been nothing short of transformative, is not all that different from the magical beliefs of the Congolese Lele people, as described by Mary Douglas: “Creatures of the sky are different in nature from creatures of the earth.”

For the Lele people as Douglas described them, the universe is full of things that shouldn’t be allowed to mix and must be fastidiously kept apart, divided by strict boundaries. Barskova’s fiction provokes us into noticing the taboos at work in our own minds. Jarred by the thought of soy sauce on the snow, we’re led to notice the artificial divide between a “naturalized” citizen and the “alien” existence that’s actually inalienable from the identity of a person who’s traveled so far from home as to be naturalized elsewhere.

The Lele religion recognizes that artificially compartmentalized lived experience creates tensions that must be healed sooner or later. The Lele culture’s solution to this problem is the pangolin cult. Viewed by the Lele as the animal that contains all contradictions, the pangolin must be approached, held, killed, and eaten by the initiate — a primeval existentialist — to “overcome the distinctions in the universe.” “The Lele pangolin cult,” Douglas writes,

is only one example, of which many more could be cited, of cults which invite their initiates to turn around and confront the categories on which their whole surrounding culture has been built up and to recognize them for the fictive, man-made, arbitrary creations that they are.

Our modern culture is not an exception to arbitrary rules and distinctions, and what Polina Barskova attempts in her book is nothing less than “to grasp the pangolin,” to tell a story that our own “fictive, man-made, arbitrary” culture needs to hear. This is a complicated story, but it has to be told simply and accessibly, to be understood by all. And so, this is how it goes:

I imagine memory works like a soup into which you dip your spoon like an oar, and surprising things rise to the surface in a surprising sequence.

Anna Razumnaya is a literary critic and textual scholar. Her first book of criticism, Under the Sign of Contradiction: Mandelstam and the Politics of Memory, examines Osip Mandelstam’s ambivalent relationship with proletarian literature and Stalin.
The struggle over Russia’s historical memory

‘We never counted on love from the state’ Meduza talks to Memorial’s Yan Rachinsky immediately after Russia’s Supreme Court shuttered this prominent rights organization

The struggle over Russia’s historical memory

‘We never counted on love from the state’ Meduza talks to Memorial’s Yan Rachinsky immediately after Russia’s Supreme Court shuttered this prominent rights organization

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