September 01, 2020

Fear and Fandango

Fear and Fandango

Good Citizens Need Not Fear

Maria Reva (Doubleday, 224 pages) $25.95

Good citizens need not fear: All the rest of us, though, had better. The setting of the interlaced stories that eventually cohere into a novel is a boondocks town, more precisely an apartment building that isn’t officially there: “Nineteen thirty-three Ivansk Street, Kirovka, Ukraine, USSR. Mother Earth.” The time is the late-Soviet era and then early post-Soviet era. The four main characters are Mikhail Ivanovich, a slow, dutiful government official who, post-Soviet, becomes the security guard of a mummified saint; Konstantyn Ilych, a poet who, for refusing to apologize for telling a “political joke” that can’t even be quoted back at him, loses his standing and his wife, and in post-Soviet times becomes the proprietor of that mummified saint; Zaya, an orphan with a cleft lip who, between escapes from foster homes and an institution, becomes a beauty pageant contestant and then, in anything goes post-Soviet times, the proprietor of the orphanage where she spent several years of her youth; and number four, Milena Markivna, the poet’s calculating wife, then ex-wife, then wily shakedown artist. Some of the episodes have been published as short stories, and the longest one, “Miss USSR,” would make a comical movie.

The best parts of the debut novel by Reva, a Ukrainian-born Canadian, seem dream-inspired, eerie from the outside, but unblinking to the characters. Mikhail Ivanovich, my favorite character, may have been hatched from that great Ukrainian odd-bird Gogol’s nest. In “Lucky Toss,” having, to his relief and amazement, recovered the missing teeth of the mummified saint (they had been knocked out while Mikhail Ivanovich was cleaning her case and then lost, from his pocket, on a wild goose chase):

“I uncapped the tube of glue. Its cloying smell spiked my headache, brought on a wave of nausea. I reached into my breast pocket, unwrapped the kerchief. Inside, I found only a hole. With increasing horror, I discovered that the pocket, too, had a new hole. This time I could not chalk up the loss to bad luck: the teeth had gnawed through both layers of lining. And yet again they were at large, free to wreak havoc upon me.”

The orphan Zaya, a destructive innocent, is Reva’s ambitious reach, but she seems the least original and least successful character, giving me the feeling she was inspired by the startling but more believable Ukrainian “sestra” in the Orphan Black TV series.

Still, an impressive novel, on the whole: Reva’s English feels as if it has been steeped in a delightful and heady Russian (or Ukrainian) tea:

 “Before he could begin training her for the speech, the interview, the gown round, the bathing suit round… the girl had to be caught up on the basics of civilized living. She never closed the bathroom door and he’d caught her squatting atop the toilet, feet on the seat. She balked at the idea of leg and armpit hair removal, saying that a buzzed head was enough to keep the lice away. She ate with agonizing slowness, inspecting each ingredient on her spoon with suspicion, yet she swallowed prune pits without a second thought. She feared the height of the balcony, and kept away from the windows. She slept with her dusty bundle at her side, refused to have it washed. She could recite the days of the week, but paid no heed to their order. If he thought he knew a subject, she probed him, out of curiosity or cruelty, until he reached the limits of his understanding. He could tell her about planets, how they were made of dirt or gas and moved in circles, but could not explain why they did so, only that gravity was involved. He couldn’t tell her if time had a shape, or if the present and future could exist at once. She wanted to learn how a plane flies; he wanted her to learn how to wash herself.”

Fandango & Other Stories

Alexander Grin
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk
Introduction by Barry P. Scherr
(Columbia Univ. Press, 330 pages) $16.95

Grin’s tales are by turns odd, fantastical, inspired and imitative. He seems a writer determined to fly away on magic carpets or sail away to distant literary lands. “The influences on Grin, whether cited by himself or others … were almost exclusively foreign and often authors who wrote in English,” writes Barry P. Scherr, who engagingly introduces the volume. Scherr might have wondered at the selection of these eight stories of various lengths and qualities, but he doesn’t, so I will. Reading the four “fantastical” tales of Grin’s literary fantasy-world (which has come to be referred to as “Grinlandia”) is like watching someone bicycling out of gear: the legs are going way too fast or are painfully turning. It’s in the first two, earliest stories, “Quarantine” and “She,” and the last two, “The Rat-Catcher” and “Fandango,” that we see the worthy Grin, which is somewhere, I’d judge, on the third tier of twentieth-century Russian fiction. (First tier: the usual suspects. Second tier: Bunin, Nabokov, Pasternak, Zoshchenko.)

Born Alexander Stepanovich Grinevsky, Grin (1880-1932) was, like his father, a revolutionary at heart and joined the Socialist Revolutionaries, but had no taste for violence. Pre-Revolution he spent about ten years in jail or exile or on the lam. His characters are sensitive, perceptive independent sorts. The women in these stories are airy, superficial and unknowable. Grin is to be read, it seems to me, for those passages and moments where he catches dreamlike visions that his characters walk into and inhabit. In fact, any serious reader, teacher or editor may have had the experience — in waking life or in a nightmare — of the narrator of “The Rat-Catcher”:

“Paper lay scattered around on the parquet like the grimy snow of spring roads. Its abundance recalled a scene of snowdrifts being cleared away. In several rooms, from the very threshold, I was forced to wade knee-deep through this clutter. Paper of every kind, of every calling and color, spread out here as a ubiquitous jumble on a truly prodigious scale. It washed up in screes against the walls and hung from the window ledges, its white deluge flowing from one parquet floor to the next, streaming from open cupboards, filling corners, in places forming hedgerows and ploughed fields. Notebooks, letterheads, ledgers, binder labels, numbered pages, ruled pages, typescripts, and manuscripts—the contents of thousands of cupboards had been turned out before my very eyes…”

I occasionally caught myself thinking of Jorge Luis Borges, the great and superior Argentine author, but it’s unlikely either man ever read the other. But does a thread connect them?

Grin’s narrator of “Fandango” muses on the cultural thread that makes a people a people:

“They were always at odds with any mood and cut right through it. These encounters bore a resemblance to a strong-colored thread that can be seen invariably on the border of a certain fabric… Fashion alters the design of the fabric, its splendor, thickness, and breadth; the market sets an arbitrary price, and it is worn now in spring, now in autumn, in a variety of cuts, yet in  every instance the border retains that same many-colored thread. So, too, the gypsies—in and of themselves—remain the same, just as yesterday: throaty raven-haired creatures who inspire vague envy and an impression of wild flowers.”

If one wants Poe or Stevenson or Verne, more sensible and more pleasurable would be to read them than Grin’s “Grinlandia” stories. But for an introduction to a Russian wildflower doing his own thing, the other four stories are well worth a look.

The End. Or just the beginning?

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