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Few countries have undergone more radical transformations than Russia has since the fall of the Soviet Union. The stories in Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia present twenty-two depictions of the new Russia from its most talented young writers. Selected from the pages of the top Russian literary magazines and written by winners of the most prestigious literary awards, most of these stories appear here in English for the first time.
Mikhail Iossel was born in Leningrad, USSR, where he belonged to a circle of underground (“samizdat”) writers. He immigrated to the United States in 1986 and is currently the coordinator of the creative writing program of Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. The author of Every Hunter Wants to Know (W.W. Norton), a collection of stories, and coeditor of Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States (Dalkey Archive), his fiction has been translated into several languages and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from the NEA, the Guggenheim Foundation, and Stanford University. In 1998 he founded Summer Literary Seminars, Inc.—one of the world’s largest international literary conferences: www.sumlitsem.org.
Jeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman and the collection The Back of the Line and the coeditor of Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States. He served as the program director of Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is currently the acting director of the Master’s Program in the Field of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.
Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker
A POTENTIAL CUSTOMER
BREGOVICH’S SIXTH JOURNEY
HAVE MERCY, YOUR MAJESTY FISH
DRILL AND SONG DAY
THE DIESEL STOP
WHY THE SKY DOESN’T FALL
MORE ELDERLY PERSON
THE PLESHCHEYEV LAKE MONSTER
THE UNBELIEVABLE AND TRAGIC
HISTORY OF MISHA SHTRIKOV
AND HIS CRUEL WIFE
BETWEEN SUMMER AND FALL
IT ALL DEPENDS ON WHO YOU BELIEVE
THE SEVENTH TOAST TO SNAILS
THE KILLER AND HIS LITTLE FRIEND
ONE YEAR IN PARADISE
Drill and Song Day
Translated by Andrea Gregovich with Mikhail Iossel
Each year around the twenty-third of February, to celebrate the anniversary of the Red Army, we had Drill and Song Day at school. Classes from the first through seventh grades made their own “military” uniforms and performed drills in the gym, with rhymed slogans and songs. At two tables in the corner of the gym sat our patrons: our headmistress, school director, military instructor, and the deputy trade-union head from the tire factory. They assigned places.
Classes from the first, second, and third grades competed separately. The previous year, our class, then 2-B, had taken second place, and this time we hoped to be first: last year’s winners, 3-C, were now 4-C and had to participate in the older-grades’ competition. Not only had they taken first place in our school, but at the district level as well, and second in the whole city, and the director always brought them up as an example to other classes.
Our homeroom teacher, Valentina Petrovna—unattractive, prematurely aged (she was no older than thirty at the time, but her face was all wrinkled)—was very worried: what if it didn't come together and we failed to take first place in the school? Even worse, what if we did, but then completely humiliated ourselves at the district level?
We began to prepare for the competition at the end of January. Vera Saprykina's parents, through their theater-club connections, got us red cavalry budyonovka cloth helmets and red stripes to sew on our shirts. We learned by heart the song:
White army, black baron
Are readying for us again the tsarist throne
But from the taiga to Britain's far seas . . . etc.
Every day after our lessons, Valentina Petrovna went to find out if there was a class in the gym, and if there wasn't, our whole class went there to sing the song and practice our march with rhymed slogans. Sometimes Valentina Petrovna invited our phys ed teacher, Ksenia Filimonovna, to take a look at how we marched.
Some ten days before the competition, Valentina Petrovna staged a purge, eliminating those who might spoil the class's performance.
"Tsygankov, it'd be dangerous to bring you to the competition: you could show up in a dirty shirt, for crying out loud, or forget to sew your stripes on it. And you, Zhuravin. Same goes for you."
Tsygankov was a small, skinny little guy. He was the youngest of many children in a family that lived in a private house behind the tire factory. His nickname was Piss Boy, because in the morning Tsygankov often reeked of urine, and everyone knew that at night he pissed the bed. Besides that, he often came to school in a dirty shirt. One didn't usually notice this, but when we undressed before phys ed in the cramped, stinky booth and he hung his shirt on a hook, one could see the ring around his collar. I didn't call Tsygankov "Piss Boy" myself, because I had only stopped pissing the bed as recently as second grade.
The other outcast, Zhuravin, spent two years in the first grade and two in the second, and was now on his second year in the third. He was already twelve or thirteen. Zhura was cross-eyed and his mouth was always hanging open, but he was considered the premier hooligan around. He smoked and had a juvenile-offender's record at a local militia precinct.
On Ksenia Filimonovna's prompting, Valentina Petrovna also excluded Korkunova—a fat girl and unremarkable C student, who just couldn't march in lockstep with others—and me. I was tall and clumsy and marched unhandsomely. Valentina Petrovna consulted for a long while with Ksenia Filimonovna—I heard them say my last name a few times. Valentina Petrovna was probably hesitant because of my good grades, but in the end, she must have decided that the interests of the whole class—and potentially the entire school, were we to go on to district level—were more important than mine.
I was upset and came home sad. When I told everything to my parents that evening, my mother said, "Maybe I should go to the school and speak to that twit." But Dad convinced her not to go.
"You'll only turn her against Seryozha," he said. "There's no grade given for the competition, after all, and all the grades are in her hands."
Soon I realized I'd lost nothing, while actually gaining something. After class I didn't have to trundle to the gym anymore and march like a moron. Instead I went home, changed clothes, turned on the television or the Radiola, ate, then sat down to do lessons, and tried to do them as fast as possible so I could play with my construction set or draw in my notebooks.
When the big day was just a week off, even lessons themselves were sacrificed for the sake of preparation. If the gym happened to be free as early as first period, Valentina Petrovna assigned homework and the class went to rehearse. We, the four "rejects," went along, and while the rest marched, we sat on the long, bare, wooden benches by the wall and watched. Valentina Petrovna was always freaking out.
"What is this nonsense?" she would yell. "What kind of marching is this? What kind of singing? A shame and a sin! You want to humiliate me, your own teacher? In front of the whole school? I'd be ashamed to look other teachers in the eye if we didn't take first place."
“Today we will rehearse for two periods, the second and third. The gym will be free,” Valentina Petrovna said right after the bell rang.
The class shouted, "Hooray!"
Almost everyone was happy that instead of doing lessons we were preparing for the competition. To me it made no difference and was even a little upsetting: I did my lessons, fair and square, and now nobody was checking them.
"Let's cut out during second period," Zhura said to Tsygankov and me. "Let them keep hoofing it till they shit themselves."
The three of us sat on a bench. Korkunova was absent—she was sick.
"What if Valentina notices we're not here?" I asked.
"Don't piss yourself, she won't notice."
Tsygankov didn't say anything, but he came with us. Nobody was friends with him or invited him anywhere, so he was probably glad that Zhura had included him.
"First let's see if maybe they brought rolls for the buffet. Then we could fucking cop some," Zhura said.
The buffet was next to the dining room, on the third floor. I hated the dining room because there we were made to eat the gooey, unappetizing mess of semolina gruel or watery potato puree with a flaccid dill pickle. And one time Ivankov from the C class found a cockroach in his beef patty, and all the students came running to see it, and Lenka Vykhina from our class threw up, right on the table.
At the buffet, on the other hand, apart from the withered cheese sandwiches spread out in the glass case, they did sell a few tasty things—pirozhki with jam for five kopecks, for example. True, these pirozhki were delivered rarely, and when they were delivered, an enormous line formed, and there were never enough pirozhki for everyone. But there were also poppy-seed rolls, shortbread, and sugared pretzels. All of it was carried to the third floor from the back entrance, where trucks from the bread factory drove up. Right up the stairs, because there wasn't a freight elevator in the school. The buffet lady, Olga Borisovna—a crusty, sinewy old woman—usually enlisted the help of one of the dishwashers, and together they lugged a basket with pirozhki and shortbreads up the stairs, during a class period if possible, so that nobody would try to steal anything.
We were lucky. Down below they had just unloaded the truck, and Borisovna and the dishwasher in her dirty apron were carrying up a basket of rolls.
"Now listen," Zhura commanded. "We run up, snatch two each, then run down."
"Ah, you motherfuckers, I'll kill you!" screamed the dishwasher, but she didn't chase us. We ran down the stairs into the first-floor bathroom and stuffed ourselves with our rolls.
"Wanna smoke?" Zhura asked when we were finished eating.
"Okay," I said.
"And you, Piss Boy?"
Zhura slipped a crumpled pack of Primas from his pocket and gave us each a cigarette, then took out a lighter and lit them all himself. I held the cigarette in my mouth, not knowing what to do with it.
"You, like, drag on it or something, what the fuck's it burning by itself for?" Zhura laughed.
I dragged and began to cough. I looked at Tsygankov—he was smoking like Zhura, inhaling and letting smoke out. I couldn't do it like that.
"Now let's go to the store and cop a fucking loaf," said Zhura.
"You're not full from the rolls?" I asked.
"Maybe we should go get dressed first in the cloakroom."
"Well, you do that if you want, but me, I'm plenty warm."
We skipped the cloakroom. We all three walked down the hall and out into the cold in our uniforms and slippers.
In the store Zhura whispered to us:
"Fucking watch and learn, children."
He inconspicuously shoved a loaf of white bread under his jacket and calmly walked past the cashier and out onto the street. We darted out behind him.
"How often do you do this?" I asked.
"Always," Zhura guffawed. "This ain't pissing the bed for you."
I thought Tsygankov would get offended, but he didn't say anything.
Zhura broke off a piece of bread and passed the rest to us. "Well then, now—let's go ride the elevator."
Tsygankov and I broke off pieces. I noticed that he had dirty hands—not just blue with ink, but also covered in some kind of brown crud.
We headed toward the nine-story apartment building, the only building in the whole neighborhood with an elevator. Zhura walked ahead a little, Tsygankov and I following.
"I'll only ride with you," said Tsygankov. "Not with Zhura."
Zhura pushed the red elevator button, and the doors slid apart.
"You go first. We'll come after you," I said.
"All right. I'll wait at the top."
Zhura went into the cabin and pressed the highest button. The doors closed, and the elevator went up with a noise. We heard it stop somewhere high above and the doors open.
The button light went off, and I pressed it.
When the elevator came back down, Tsygankov and I stepped into the cabin. The plastic walls were covered in ink doodlings, and the lamp on the ceiling was smeared with soot. I pressed the highest button.
"You're an all right guy," said Tsygankov. "How about you be my friend."
The elevator arrived on the ninth floor, and we got out of the cabin. Zhura was waiting for us by the iron stairs to the elevator room, from which there was a passage leading to the roof.
"The pad's open. Shove on in," he said.
We climbed up behind him on the raggedy iron stairs, went into the elevator room, and from there, to the roof, which was covered with snow. Our entire neighborhood was visible: several five-story buildings, the school, whole blocks of wooden houses. The streets were busy with cars, and the tire factory billowed smoke in the distance. Along the edge of the roof ran a banister—it was not very tall, about a meter high or maybe a little less.
Zhura went to the edge, leaned over, and looked down. Then he climbed up the banister, sat down, his feet flung over the edge as if it wasn't high up there at all. My legs ached with fear; I was scared of heights.
Zhura turned to us.
"Come on over. Don't be piss-pants. It's awesome up here."
He took out the cigarettes and lit one up. Tsygankov went over to him, and Zhura passed him the pack and lighter. Tsygankov took a cigarette and lit up too. I couldn't make myself move.
"Well, what say, you too yellow to sit like me?" Zhura said to Tsygankov. "I understand—you're the Piss Boy."
Tsygankov silently returned the cigarettes and lighter. My legs ached still more, and I thought I might be the one to piss myself.
Tsygankov put his hand on the banister. It was too high for him, and he couldn't just sit on it like Zhura. Tsygankov threw one leg over the banister, pushed off with the other, slipped, and fell.
Zhura looked at me.
"That's fucking it for Piss Boy. But he proved he was no Piss Boy. And you didn't."
Zhura got off the banister and came up to me.
"You're the Piss Boy, Nikonov. A mama's boy."
I was afraid he'd hit me, but he didn't.
"Let's go downstairs. The cops'll come in a minute. They'll ask questions," said Zhura.
"What if we just leave? As if we were never here?"
"What are you, nuts?"
We went back downstairs. A crowd of people surrounded the spot where Tsygankov lay. An ambulance and a militia car showed up. It seemed like I had been dreaming and was just about to wake up.
The cops put us in the car and drove over to the precinct. They interrogated us separately in juvenile-detention rooms.
"Admit it, did you push him off the roof?" the cop asked, grabbing me by the shirt collar and under my throat. "Fess up quick, you little maggot."
I cried quietly. Then my parents arrived, and the cop let me go. The three of us went home. The whole way home we were silent.
Drill and Song Day was postponed a day because of Tsygankov's funeral. Our whole class went. Tsygankov lay in a coffin, and his mother was keening over him. She was already drunk and from time to time began to swear. Valentina Petrovna cried a lot. Everybody said she was going to jail, because Tsygankov was killed when we were supposed to be in class.
On Drill and Song Day our class took first place. At the district level, we placed only fifth. Valentina Petrovna didn't go to jail, but she left to work at a different school, and Anna Sergeyevna, a teacher trainee, took over for the fourth quarter.
This is the question that the anthology itself answers. Just a few of the tropes one finds here are a trend toward either very short (five or six pages) or sprawling (over thirty pages) stories and a tendency toward experimentation on the language level, particularly in the work of the female writers. I’m not sure why Russian women seem to be blowing the linguistic doors off, I’ll leave that to those more knowledgeable than I to speculate about. The trend of shorter stories is probably attributable to media saturation. We see a similar thing in North American fiction, but that may be more the result of genre creation (the short-short, the prose poem, etc.). This style of brevity does have precedents in Russian literature, though. Daniil Kharms specialized in short whimsical tales like that. Mikhail Zoshchenko too. In fact, to me, the interesting thing about the anthology is that while it depicts a Russian literature very different from that which most people think of, you can pick almost any story and point immediately to its predecessor among the greats. As Mikhail and I write in the foreword, from a literary point of view, the fact that so many of the stories address the political issues of the day in a kind of Realism is what sets them apart from, say, the literature of the nineties.
Well, of course, Russia has a great tradition of the short story. Chekhov is the master and some would say inventor of the modern short story. Gogol and Babel and Turgenev also come to mind as world-class authors of the short story. The Russian literary journals are packed with new stories and poems. The only problem, like in our part of the world, is that the number of people reading them is probably fewer than the number writing them. Entrants for the Debut prize, the most prestigious award for young writers in Russia, number over 40,000. There are not MFA programs there. There are only a couple universities at which creative writing in anything remotely resembling our workshop model are taught. The result is easily discernible from browsing the contributor notes in Rasskazy. Most writers nowadays work as journalists. This is perhaps better than a decade or two ago when all unofficial writers worked in boiler rooms or as security guards. Of course, working in boiler rooms and as security guards probably allows more time to write.
I think most people would agree that the tradition continues in an evolved form via the Internet. To be clear, Samizdat, which means self-publishing (the word sam meaning “self,” and izda fromizdatel meaning “publisher”), was a way of circumventing official publishing structures, which were controlled by the State. Now the market takes the place of the gatekeepers of the Soviet Writers Unions. The vast majority of Russians, like the vast majority of Americans and Canadians, read total crap. So the possibilities for publishing important literary work are slim. But unlike in the West, where self-publishing is looked down upon and occupies a third-, fourth-, or fifth-class position, the Russian literati has embraced it. In the ’90s Dmitry Kuzmin’s literary organization Babylon flourished online. Numerous writers have first published their novels on their own LiveJournal blogs and subsequently had them picked up by major publishers. Natalya Klyuchareva’s excellent generation-defining novel, Common Wagon ‘Russia,’ in fact, was first published in this way.
Most of the challenges were basically the usual challenges in translating Russian. In Russian, subjects are more easily omitted in colloquial speech than in English. Numerous diminutives are used. And there are some articulations that just sound . . . strange in English. A good example is the light Russian curse “blin vobshi.” This translates literally as “a pancake in general” but is probably best captured with “darn” or “crap.” I am a fan of preserving the strangeness that’s created by keeping as much of this in translation as possible, but many translators, editors, and readers prefer it smoothed out. Sometimes it just can’t happen though. One story that presented lots of problems was Nikolai Epikhin’s “Richeva.” A boy in the story has a convoluted and immature theory about the world, which he seems to divide into decent, real people such as himself and those he calls “power lifters.” When we read it in Russian, it worked and was funny. You laughed at the kid and his naive half-baked view of the world. But Mariya Gusev worked very hard at the translation and we found it difficult to capture in English. Something about the concept just didn’t carry over. In Maria Kamenetskaya’s story, the narrator speaks in proverbs, which, while proverbial in Russian, didn’t have the same effect in English. So we had to take some liberties with the translation and render the language in ways that suggest the language of proverbs. That is, in order to “get” the story, we had to depart from some of the Russian proverbs and remake the language with English that suggested the proverbial. It took us further away from the original than we wanted to go in some places, but ultimately, I think, served to better capture it.
I’ve been reading other work by contributors from the anthology. Klyuchareva has a new book out called S.O.S., and I’ve been working through Zakhar Prilepin’s stuff, which is funny and would, I think, do very well in English. His story collection Boots Full with Hot Vodka is hilarious. Keith Gessen, who translated Oleg Zobern’s piece in the anthology, recently translated a collection of stories by Lyudmilla Petrushevskaya called There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Fairy Tales. I have yet to read it but have heard very good things. It should really speak to those who like the work of Kelly Link and Aimee Bender. Petrushevsksya is huge in Russia but has not been translated much into English. Victor Pelevin—the prototypical post-Soviet writer of the nineties—however is, and his work is everywhere. I recommend the story collectionA Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories.