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Literary Voyeurism: From Russia with …

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Whenever anyone asks me where I plan to travel next, without skipping a beat I say Russia. I’ve long been fascinated by the country: its ruthless winters, its self-serious cultural history, and its tortured political past. I know my view of Russia is anachronistic, as if there were a switch that flips it from 1880 to 1980 and back again with very little in between or after. I often imagine stepping off the plane and sinking knee-deep into the quicksand of days gone by.

I know the country is no longer the land of revolutionaries conspiring to overthrow the czar and that the fields are no longer littered with peasants, stooped and head-covered, hacking away at wheat with their scythes; I know the political and economic landscape has changed and with it the arts as well.

It’s actually the Russia of today that keeps me from reserving a hotel room and booking a flight. Thoughts of Moscow fill my mind with visions of great wealth discrepancy—nouveau riche on the streets of Moscow, women draped in furs with diamonds hanging off their fingers, and men in Armani suits opening the doors of shiny, black Mercedes for them. Meanwhile, in the parks I can see bums sleeping on benches, surrounded by empty bottles. At least this is the reason I tell myself why I haven’t visited yet but my noble stance falls apart when you consider my daily walk to the subway includes passing numerous homeless people either passed out or crouching in doorways while me and my peers head off to office jobs or the local coffee shop for a day of freelancing. In the end, it’s laziness more than a sensitivity to human suffering that keeps me from leaving the country.

So, how does a lazy, wannabe traveler experience Russia’s present day culture without an airline ticket? Well, if you’re like me, you head to the nearest bookstore and look for a good novel. While it’s hard to argue that reading a book and visiting a country are on equal footing, one can surely soak up a sense of a culture through literary voyeurism.

When many of us think of Russian writers it’s Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov that come to mind; and if we’ve read anything at all it’s Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and for those who scratch surfaces, possibly The Master and the Margarita by Bulgakov. These selections are only encouraged when perusing the literature section of many bookshops but if you’re someone who has read all the classics they wish to encounter, or if you would rather read contemporary fiction, finding new voices can be frustrating.

Even at the best bookstore, the Russian titles range from those published in the 1800s to those from the Soviet-era. While byzantine governments often make for interesting tales, the USSR dissolved in 1991 and it’s time for our shelves to reflect the change. Much of the absence of modern day Russian writing is in large part due to lack of translations. Modern day works in English are hard to come by simply because they don’t exist.

Lucky for those interested, just this past June, New York-based publishing house Overlook Press announced it was partnering with the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication (also known as Rospechat). Together, they will publish at least 125 classic and contemporary titles in English over the next 10 years, beginning in 2013.

The goal of the project, which will include fiction, drama, and poetry, says Overlook publisher, Peter Mayer, “is to transcend the well-respected classics and broaden the awareness of Russian culture by making available for the first time in uniform editions these important works of literature, so many barely known outside Russia.” Which contemporary authors and titles they will publish is yet to be announced.

For those who want to start now, Akashic Books has two collections of contemporary Russian crime writers in their excellent noir series. In 2010 they released Moscow Noir, edited by Petersburg-based literary agents Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen. This month, the same editors return with St. Petersburg Noir, featuring a new crop of writers to discover.

However manufactured for literary effect the stories may be, both books offer a strong sense of place. Just one example is “Europe After the Rain” by Alexei Evdokimov (Moscow Noir):

Here, the river and the open space in front of Kiev station leave a large expanse open to view. Here, you can really see the sky, which is rare in this capital city that squeezes you between enormous stone slabs. The view that spreads out before you here—the Gothic silhouette of the university on a distant bluff to the left, the palisade of mighty pipes on top of the Radisson, the spire of the Hotel Ukraine perpendicular to layers of lilac clouds—is one of those typical and utterly urban landscapes that create the face of a city, which Moscow, monstrous and vague with its eroded individuality, so lacks.

While these two collections are not the strongest in the series, a difficult task if there ever was one, they succeed in bringing much-needed attention to genre writing happening in Russia today.

In their introduction to the Moscow collection, Smirnova and Goumen explain the state of crime fiction in their country: “A noir literary tradition does not yet really exist in Russia in general or Moscow in particular. Why? Possibly due to the censorship of czarist Russia, to say nothing of the Soviet era.”

However, for their St. Petersburg introduction they claim a different legacy:

Petersburg somehow nurtures ironic, satirical, and darkly humorous interpretations of reality. The darker and harsher life gets, the more humorous its interpretations tend to be. Indeed, only at a Petersburg house party could writers argue enthusiastically over the most efficient way to get rid of a corpse … The origins of this rich noir tradition come from the city’s history, its urban landscape, and even the weather, as Petersburg’s climate undoubtedly affects local character. What morbid thoughts can freezing winds from the Baltics bring along? Which emotions swirl inside a person struggling through snowdrifts in the streets? How can one remain positive when the long-awaited northern “summer” offers less than a dozen sunny days?

An annotated travel guide of sorts, these two collections—so obviously tailored to the psyche of their respective city—offer a look into the individualism that exists in this vast country today; and as I had craved, many of the stories struggle with post-Soviet Russia, its identity and inner workings, and the residue left from the previous decades. Regardless of what impact Russian masters might have had on the literary landscape, the country’s noir—and more broadly, the writing coming from this new generation—has a fresh feel, one of promise and commitment to the days ahead.

Anyone interested in bringing contemporary Russian writers to an American audience should support these new and forthcoming publications. If there’s a show of interest from the reading public, there’s a chance we’ll see more from these new voices.

Find Moscow Noir at your local indie
Find St. Petersburg Noir at your local indie
Learn more about Read Russia
Read a review of Moscow Noir at Bookslut

judging a book by its cover :: the russian dreambook

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it was irresistible: the deep blue sky, fading ever so slightly as it reached the bulbous outline of a cartoonish russian town, presumably covered in snow; the tops of the orthodox churches painted in pale orange and yellow; the whimsical cursive letters spelling out a curious title. with just one glance, gina ochsner’s debut novel, the russian dreambook of colour & flight, found its way into my hands and didn’t leave until i gave it to the cashier.

russophiles and modern day fairy tale enthusiasts rejoice! the book lives up to its packaging—and in fact, the two are nearly inseparable in tone.

the inhabitants of this story, a ragtag group of tenants living in a dilapidated apartment building in Perm, a western city in Russia, will worm their quirky way into your heart.

the russian dreambook can be read as middlebrow literary fiction: enjoyable and smart but easy on the brain after a long day of work. it can also be taken a little further and explored for its profile of russia’s multicultural makeup, tortured history, and lagging present. the decades of misrule and mistreatment are on full display.

the workers go without pay–or as olga, the jewish resident who works as a news translator, says, when speaking both of her employer, the red star, and the culture as a whole, “they pretend to pay, we pretend to work.” she, like many other wives, lost her husband in the russian war against afghanistan; but because it would mar the country’s leaders, the dead often went uncounted and the next of kin unnotified. her son, yuri, possibly the most broken down of the bunch, thought he was a fish and wore a space helmet for solace.

winter is in full force and the tenants are facing some hard times. mircha, the building’s one-armed war-veteran, has just jumped off the roof to his death and without the help of the state, and the ground being too frozen to dig a grave, he’s kept on ice in the yard until warmer weather comes. but, as the superstitious know—and there are plenty of them in this downtrodden group—the dead left unburied haunt the living, often at inopportune times.

“The problem with the dead was that they live to unfix what others had fixed, to undo what others were trying to do. The dead untied knots. They climbed staircases the wrong way and, in so doing, turned time backwards on a clock,” says azade, mircha’s widow, and a muslim from central asia whose family had been brought to Perm by way of an unfortunate relocation mishap. she’s the first to notice his ripening odor and undead presence. soon he’s walking and talking, trying to impart his newfound wisdom. mircha was an alcoholic and an abusive husband in life but in death, he’s a rehabilitated philosopher.

yuri is able to see him too and, from time to time, receives some fatherly advice. meanwhile, the dead man’s adoptive son, vitek, a mafioso-wannabe and leader of the feral children who live in a garbage heap outside the apartment complex, is oblivious to any attempt at connection.

gina ochsner

panic doesn’t set in, however, until tanya, the slightly overweight granddaughter of lukeria, a xenophobic holdover who shouts anti-semitic slurs out the window, is saddled with the task of winning grant money for the scrappy, subpar All-Russian, All-Cosmopolitan Museum where she, yuri, and yuri’s live-in girlfriend, zoya, work. if chosen for consideration by The Americans of Russian Extraction for the Causes of Beautification, the committee would stay with tanya in her home. it soon comes to pass that the americans are on their way—and mircha still has not been buried.

in an uncomfortable scene, the tour of the museum, it becomes painfully obvious that the exhibits can hardly be called art: most of the religious-themed pieces have been cobbled together by tanya using makeup, chewing gum, and candy wrappers. “They had wanted to see a museum that resembled those on postcards, a museum like the Hermitage with perhaps a miniature golden carriage and maybe even a Fabergé egg. They wanted wide rolling rivers and green fields, or maybe yellow ones of mustard or wheat, sunshine and violins. They had wanted . . . to see a Russia that existed only in dreams their grandmothers dreamed and perhaps had never existed at any time — ever,” tanya realized.

lulled by the fanciful surroundings and bizarre happenings—and charmed by the lamentable characters—it’s not until that moment, when the americans arrive with their western elitism and overstuffed luggage, that the desperation and darkness of life in the small community becomes shockingly clear.

reading ochsner’s clever folk-inspired tale is like watching a season of MTV’s Real World—done russian-style. i hope to see more from her.

::[dig deeper]::
visit gina’s website
read a great in-depth interview with gina on bookmunch

Written by Gabrielle

February 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , ,

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