Freedom is Space for the Spirit by Glen Hirshberg. Tor.com, 2016. Read it here.
Freedom is Space for the Spirit – where do I begin?
It is a 32-page novelette written by Glen Hirshberg. It is best classified as Urban Magic Realism, though its author is more at home in science fiction and horror. Despite its brevity, it ranks among the most memorable books I’ve read this year.
It is a story-challenge, a story-riddle; and even after two readings I am not sure I understand it completely.
Freedom is Space for the Spirit follows Thomas, a fortysomething-year-old German who receives a strange telegram from Vasily, his Russian friend from the heady days of his youth following the breakup of the USSR. The telegram, enigmatic and oddly insistent, invites Thomas to visit Russia and see what’s “happening now”. He leaves his pregnant wife Jutta and heads to St. Petersburg. Upon arrival, Thomas discovers Vasily is nowhere to be found, but he does find a couple dozen great, silent, shaggy bears wandering the streets of Piter. They lie in the open, board buses, and shamble around as if lost, ignored by most of the city’s inhabitants. Most unnerving of all are the bears’ snouts – they have no mouths at all, merely patchy fur where a mouth should be. Thomas slowly reacquaints himself with the city where he spent an exciting year as a student, trying to find Vasily and solve the mystery of the mouthless bears.
Undeniably, theme and atmosphere are king in Freedom is Space for the Spirit. The novelette’s slow pace causes one’s mind to wander, yet it also allows Hirshberg to immerse the reader in the sights and sounds of St. Petersburg.
For a long moment – Thomas would remember it as barely a breath – the whole city froze, as though posing for a portrait: snow in streetlight, the Neva and the palaces and the Peter and Paul Fortress and the long blue muzzles of the guns glittering in the blue-black dark, and the faces, dark and light and European and Mongolian and old and even older and, very occasionally, young, all massed together, as individual snowflakes and also as fractal. One face. (p.30)
That’s not to say the story is devoid of introspection – using evocative prose, Hirshberg riffs on old and new, tradition versus modernity, the nature of art, and the sense of loneliness in a rapidly changing world.
For a Russia story written by a Westerner, Freedom contains relatively little klyukva (Russian stereotypes). According to the native Russian source who shared this ebook with me, there are few ‘russophobic’ moments and Hirshberg is familiar with Russian reality of both the ’90s and the present. Being neither Russian nor a visitor to Russia, I cannot confirm that statement. However, I noticed none of the egregious cliches one might find in less well-researched novels set in Russia. Here one will find no sexy Russian love interest, horrible surnames, spies, or mafia plot. Only two moments in the entire story could be considered ‘russophobic’ (in one, the protagonist fears that police might open fire on a crowd, for no apparent reason), and they can be explained away as the thoughts of the protagonist rather than Hirshberg himself. Even the wandering bears are more a deconstruction than propagation of the stereotype.
And speaking of bears – the main motif and symbol in Freedom – I’m still unsure of what they signify. The bears’ origin is only vaguely defined, and why they are ignored by the rest of St. Petersburg is never explained. My guess is that they are a metaphor for the current plight of Russia; the hopes and aspirations of Russians from the days preceding the fall, co-opted and silenced by the very people they trusted to lead the way to the promised future. If this is correct, then the story’s somber conclusion becomes even more haunting. Yet something tells me this is too easy an answer…
Melancholy, wistful, and complex, Freedom is Space for the Spirit is, in my opinion, a Russia story done right. It is able to deliver both a stirring story and a thought-provoking examination of contemporary Russian society without descending into cliche. The book won’t be for everyone, no doubt, especially those who prefer realism and abstraction to be mutually exclusive in their stories. But for those even mildly intrigued, I advise you in the highest terms to read Freedom and solve the riddle for yourself.
★ ★ ★ ★