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Book Review October 31, 2002
More Dwarves and Black Cats
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
Alas, the everyday Russian landscape in these stories has been wrapped round and round with lengths of gauze, fake spiderwebs, and rubber bats until no details can be made out at all. The title story, "Living A Life," introduces a typical late-Soviet absurdist hero, who writes portentuous cliches in a journal while ignoring the girl downstairs who flirts with him. His disinterest is universal: he sleeps at work, and fails to notice that the "toy factory" is actually a nuclear-weapons plant which kills all his neighbors. The girl remains desperate, the protagonist remains stupid, the tone and details of the story are annoyingly familiar -- something like Voinovich with more death, or Mamleev without the rigor. It's not really terrible writing, but it just seems so superfluous.

And, like most uninspired surrealistic or magical-realistic writing, it's so damned sentimental at bottom. Inna, the gentle girl who is dying for love in "Living A Life," seems to represent the longing of youth for warmth in the cold Soviet world...but she seems like an idiot, Ophelia without the prosody. Writers of Satanist leanings are always at risk of converting to greeting-card sentimentality, and Ronshin falls into the trap far too often. The worst example of this is his story "Zaborov the Dreamer," which is positively Chagallian in its middlebrow sentimentality. The title character flies happily around ("Zaborov liked to fly arouind in the clouds and dream his dreams...he would shout down in a burst of delight, 'People, I love you all!'") until told by the authorities to cut it out. (One cannot help but see their point of view.) His dreams destroyed, he wanders around until he encounters his dreamgirl Nadenka, who has become a valyutka. This is actually one of the few details of 90's Russian life to make it into Ronshin's stories. And Ronshin handles it, as one would suspect, with a stunningly moralistic and unimaginative conclusion: Zaborov, shocked into action by Nadenka's fate-worse-than-death, takes to the skies again and is shot down by a missile.

In short: it's drivel. A particular sort of drivel, an updated one, in which bits of the scariest writers are reassembled so as to be totally unscary and in fact heartwarming. In the regrettable tale, "How I Became A Fly," in which the venerable Kafka metamorphosis theme is warmed up and dumbed down for popular consumption. Even the "How I..." title-form is borrowed from a far, far better writer, Igor Yarkevich, who, because he has real integrity and a fierce eye for truthful detail, will never be nearly as popular as Ronshin. In Ronshin's version of Metamorphosis, a customer enters a shop and attempts -- ugh! -- to buy a heart: "I wish to buy a real, live heart." So now we've moved from Kafka to The Wizard of Oz. It's quite a steep downhill, and it's typical of Ronshin's stories: grand theme, black-crepe decorations, heart of pure schmaltz, all glitzed up with a few high-literature trappings to please the fools (who, as Twain pointed out, are the majority in any town.)

The second half of the book bears the title "We're All Long Dead." This edition does not explain exactly how this new title halfway through the volume is supposed to be taken by the reader. Does it imply that these stories are taken from another volume of Ronshin's? I really don't know. I can only say that these stories are generally longer and "darker" than those of the first half. There are lots of corpses wandering around, lots of graves dug up, lots of reincarnations and wild jumps from one period of Russian history to another. On a few occasions, this part of the book really works, particularly in the last story, "Eternal Return."

The noisy, obtrusive and finally inapplicable dragging-in of the Nietzschean phrase is regrettable. (It's something one sees in Pelevin as well: using Nietzsche's phrases with no understanding of his ideas whatever. If all you know of Nietzsche is what you heard in high school, don't mention him at all; it just makes you sound like Courtney Love in that Beat movie, solemnly telling Allen Ginsberg, "Ya know Allen when ya look inta the abyss, like the abyss is also lookin' into fuckin' you....")

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