November 01, 2020

Handwriting and Siberian Pianos

Handwriting and Siberian Pianos

A couple of months ago I had never heard of Dina Rubina, the bestselling Russian novelist who grew up in Tashkent, lived in Moscow for several years, and then moved to Israel in 1990. Born in 1953, she was precocious and began publishing her stories in 1969. She has published a couple of dozen collections of short stories since then and more than a dozen novels. Her On the Sunny Side of the Street won Russia’s Big Book award in 2007. In Russia, not having heard of Rubina would be like twenty years ago in America not having heard of, I don’t know, Philip Roth maybe. Now that I’ve read the two novels of hers that have been published in English, most recently Leonardo’s Handwriting (Почерк Леонардо, 2008) and Here Comes the Messiah!, as well as an excerpt from On Upper Maslovka and a few of her short stories, and a delightful interview with her from 2005 (in Izvestiya), I will go out on a limb to say that writing fiction is, for her, practically a game at which she amuses herself and that she is pleased has amused her millions of readers. She told one translator, rather too modestly, “It’s not a matter of talent. It’s simply that thanks to the gigantic circulation, a huge number of people came to know my name.”

In fiction’s midst, she seems to me to be happiest finding opportunities to digress, to catch a moment of life that she sees and feels vividly:

A few steps away from Masha, a small group of men and boys huddled over someone who was sitting on a wooden beer crate, his hands rapidly moving something around on a board set up on an identical crate. From a distance, they could have been taken for stamp-collectors had the entire company not given off a peculiar sense of danger and excitement. A belligerent silence reigned above them for two or three seconds to be shattered by disappointed cursing, laughter, and threats. In an instant, the company broke apart, revealing the red tufts of the seated man’s hair and his nimble, tricksy hands, [юркие озорные руки] seemingly about to flee the scene. Then it closed balefully around him again.

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