Crown of Sonnets
An anthology of stories from the new Russia shows the continuity between contemporary writers and their canonical predecessors
I wonder sometimes if, when the Futurists proclaimed in their first manifesto, “Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity,” they weren’t, as Russian writers, just expressing their vexation for being constantly compared to these old masters. Of course, on the surface, the point is well taken. But it’s easy to define what is new and what is old on the eve of a revolution. And there are always those, particularly in the West, who will portray Russia’s cultural development as a series of fits and starts, or disjointed episodes—the Golden Age, the Revolution, the Thaw, Perestroika—each struggling against the last to be the progenitor of the next Pushkin, Dostoevsky, or Tolstoy.
With each inevitable episodic “failure” to live up to expectations, there is a tearing down and recasting of Russian literature—another “huge, clumsy, screeching turn of the wheel,” in the words of Osip Mandelshtam, another manifesto writer, this time from the Silver Age. Few countries have undergone more radical transformations than Russia has, so it’s easy to assume that with each geopolitical quake the country’s cultural continuity gets split along the resulting fault lines. But if one looks closer at contemporary Russian literature, there are more convergences than divergences with the country’s heritage. The stories in Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia offer twenty-three depictions of the new Russia from some of its most talented young writers, who aptly illustrate this unbroken continuum of Russian literature dating back as far as Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, etc. etc.
It’s safe to say the Soviets learned that culture is never altogether replaced. Art doesn’t occur in isolation, it responds to what has come before and then, however reluctantly, closes ranks: “Time is turned over. The rose was once dirt.” Again, Mandelshtam. And Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker, the editors of Rasskazy (which means “stories”), understand this. The authors they’ve included may all have spent their entire adult lives in the post-Soviet era, but their work demonstrates the full breadth of aesthetics and topical concerns of this young generation. Many of the writers, like Arkady Babchenko and German Sadulaev, who portray opposing perspectives on the wars with Chechnya, explicitly address recent historical events à la Isaac Babel. “History,” by Roman Senchin, is set against the April, 2007, government opposition rally at which former chess champion Garry Kasparov was arrested. And Ilya Kochergin’s protagonist in “A Potential Customer” spends his days playing Civilization on the computer, “quietly building cities and waging wars with neighboring states.”
Most of the authors in Rasskazy are working journalists, and so a number of the stories deal overtly with politics and history. But not all are explicitly political. Several are simple coming-of-age pieces, some are sentimental, and some are ridiculous or absurdist, bringing to mind writers like Mikhail Zoshchenko and Daniil Kharms. Olga Zondberg writes about bloggers, and in “They Talk,” Linor Goralik piles overheard and imagined voices one atop of the other like a busy Twitter feed.
According to Parker and Iossel, Russia’s greatest contribution to the world has been a continuum of writers “capable of examining life’s emotional and intellectual restlessness, its complexity and intensity.” In “Why the Sky Doesn’t Fall,” one of the anthology’s strongest stories, the narrator describes the horrors of the Chechen wars by transforming humans into dragons and werewolves. Author German Sadulaev refers to the poetic form known as a crown of sonnets, in which a sequence of connected sonnets usually addresses one person or a single theme, and each sonnet is linked to the previous one by repetition of its final line. In some ways, Rasskazy is a variation on this complex form—stories linked to explore a theme.
But what theme? The New Russian Writers? Contemporary Russian literature in opposition to what’s come before? How about a continuum of Russian literature dating back from “Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc. etc.”? Complicated, yet plain as overturned dirt.