In which me from the past reviews an anthology of works from New Russian writers. Most anthologies are mixed bags in terms of quality, and this one was no exception.
Rasskazy was published in 2009 and contains 22 works by as many authors, the oldest of whom was just 40. The pieces are very recent, published between 2002 and 2009. 21 short stories and one excerpt from a novel.
The introduction noted that the writers in the collection were the first generation to spend their entire adult lives in the post-Soviet era. Many of these young authors had had works published in distinguished journals in Russia, and a number had won literary awards there.
As background to their writing, the introduction noted developments such as a concentration of government power, corruption and crackdowns on the media, together with rising living standards, an emergent middle class and the nation’s resurgence as a global power. In addition, there were a free market and mass culture of low-brow TV and books that — together with a government-subsidized film industry — drowned out voices of opposition, to the extent that serious writing escaped heavy censorship, it was claimed. Debate on serious issues took place in a small number of newspapers and journals that were judged irrelevant by those in power and ignored.
Most of the works in the collection were described as “new Russian realism,” which was contrasted with the more heavily surrealist/absurdist writing of older, better-known post-Soviet writers like Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin. Some of the works touched on behavior during the wars in Chechnya (Babchenko, Sadulaev, Prilepin), and one on current political developments (Senchin); Babchenko was especially critical of the wars and the way they were run: “Russia is a country of former inmates and our army lives by the same laws as a prison colony . . . The person with the authority is not the one who observes the laws, but he who breaks it.” Most of the other writers, though, were concerned not with national events but with what personal life felt like in contemporary Russia (Alyokhin, Bezzubtsev-Kondakov, Boteva, Epikhin, Goralik, Klyuchareva, Kochergin, Snegirev, Zondberg). Some of the latter tended toward the bleak or absurd (Danilov, Kalinin, Ryabov, Starobinets), one toward magical realism (Klyuchareva), and a few toward the unintelligible or fantastic (Geide, Taratuta). There was much thinking and talking about love, companionship, disappointment and spirituality, amid drinking sessions and visits to apartments and dachas.
The stories enjoyed most were the first, by Goralik, which presented a number of voices as if overheard on a street in Moscow. The one by Snegirev, in which a man tried to decide how he felt about having a baby with his girlfriend, changing his mind according to how people treated him in the course of his day. The one by Kozlov — which unlike many was short and to the point — about an event from Soviet schooldays, told with black humor. And the one by Sadulaev, where the writer looked back on the people and places of his village in Chechnya that had been destroyed. The piece by Babchenko was also interesting for its depiction of the brutality of the wars, though some of his writing published elsewhere had seemed even more striking (“Argun” in GLAS issue No. 40, War & Peace, in 2006).
Stylistically, the most interesting for this reader were one by Maria Boteva, approaching stream of consciousness, in which a narrator discussed a woman who’d been disappointed in love and entered a monastery; was she to be pitied or admired? And Goralik’s piece that captured voices on the street.
Most of the stories appeared to be set in the near present, except for Kozlov’s, which took place in Soviet times. Several of the pieces incorporated mobile phones, blogs, userpics, MP3 players, Wikipedia and Google, the computer game Civilization, the foreign custom of Halloween and a comic film by Kevin Smith. Other works mentioned the Apocalypse, John the Baptist and the disciples of Christ.
I finished the collection feeling that I’d gotten some glimpses of contemporary life in Russia and the brutality of operations in Chechnya, but that fewer of the pieces than expected had impressed with their excellence as stories – some, in fact, came across as rather pointless. Anthologies are usually a mixed bag, and this was no exception.
★ ★ ★
Rasskazy. Edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker. Pub. 2009 by Tin House Books. Paperback, 375 pages. ISBN13: 9780982053904