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Thursday, September 08, 2011

Review: New Fiction for Russophiles

by Paul E. Richardson
Review: New Fiction for Russophiles

The New Moscow Philosophy Vyacheslav Pyetsukh (Twisted Spoon, $16)
The Sky is Falling Caroline Adderson (Thomas Allen, $32.95)
Separate Kingdoms Valerie Laken (Harper, $14.99)

“It should come as no surprise,” writes Vyacheslav Pyetsukh at the beginning of The New Moscow Philosophy, “that where literature goes life follows, that Russians not only write what they live but in part live what they write…”

The infusion of Russian literature into life is a theme central to all three of these new fiction offerings – from a Russian, a Canadian and an American. Pyetsukh’s absurd novel (published in Russian in 1989 and only now translated – very fluidly – by Krystyna Anna Steiger) ruminates on this aspect self-consciously, spinning a murder mystery out of a riff on Raskolnikov’s killing of the old woman in Crime and Punishment, while at the same time considering why Russians’ sense of self (National Idea, anyone?) is so bound up with their internal discourse. Not unlike, perhaps, a Raskolnikovian internal monologue. 

Pyetsukh’s Dostoyevskian drama unfolds in a Moscow communal apartment at Petroverigsky Lane 12, in the mid- to late-1980s. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, in Caroline Adderson’s stunningly visual novel The Sky is Falling, the story centers on a Canadian communal apartment of sorts during the same era. The main character Jane, is at university studying Russian literature, and has just moved into a home she will share with three other students, each trying to be more radical than the next. Jane soon finds the lines blurring between life and Russian literature. Indeed, the novel begins with a Chekhovian off-stage shot: the downing of KAL 007 by a Soviet MiG. Galvanized by their fear of nuclear war, the housemates become involved in the anti-nuclear movement and launch on trajectories that, 20 years on, none of them could have anticipated.

But then, who of us living through the 1980s foresaw the changes on the horizon? That in 2011 Russia and the U.S. would lock horns not over nuclear launch vehicles but over the rules for transnational adoption? Valerie Laken (herself a student of Russian and one who lived and worked in Russia in the 1990s, after having grown up in Rockford, IL, sensing very palpably the global nuclear threat), in her powerful story collection Separate Kingdoms, evokes this brave new world and all the unexpected effects it has had on Russians, on foreigners trying to live in Russia, on Americans trying to live as Americans. Not all the stories in this collection have a Russian tinge, but enough do to make this a noteworthy aspect that should give ample reason for Russophiles to take an interest in Laken’s moving stories.