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Book Review October 31, 2002
More Dwarves and Black Cats
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Living A Life: Totally Absurd Tales By Valery Ronshin

"Living A Life: Totally Absurd Tales"
By Valery Ronshin
Glas New Russian Writing v.29

There is a sort of writing common among stylish Russians of the nineties, often called "surrealism" or "black humor." You could, with equal justice, call it "Bulgakov without the good eye for detail" or "Mamleev lite." Whenever the author is stumped for a plot-turn, a good helping of grotesque death or magic realism rescues the story from the loss of momentum which inevtiably plagues writing so profoundly uninterested in the world around it. It can be done well -- I must confess that Pelevin does it pretty well sometimes. But it is all too often done very badly, in that way that makes you think, "It must have been funny the first time around -- that is, in 1840."

Worse still, this sort of writing leans on foreign cliches as well as Russian ones. For example, nearly half the stories in Living a Life involve characters who may be alive or may be dead, and maunder about at great length trying to decide which it is. It kept reminding me of the dozens of other stories using the same conceit, from "Incident at Oxbow Creek" to The Third Policeman to The Sixth Sense. It might be all right for a writer to use this well-worn device in a story or two, but when it appears for the sixth time in this volume, I started to lose patience.

And as I was grumbling about the book, something occurred to me: isn't there something of a shortage of Russian literature grounded in close observation of the way Russians have coped with the huge, violent changes of the past fifteen years? Isn't this ubiquitous blathering about death and life and consciousness and reincarnation a way of avoiding the truly exciting -- maybe too exciting -- things that were happening in Russia?

In the place of close observation of the world, Ronshin's work resorts to a distressingly familiar set of characters: evil dwarves, cats, scholars of black magic, holy fools of all ages and shapes. I remember a budding filmmaker in California whose dream was to have enough money to make movies about decadence, with lots of dwarves copulating atop tables full of lace and goblets of wine. A dwarf or two may not go amiss, in an artist with a real allegiance to the grotesque (Twin Peaks comes to mind) but in general, too many dwarves and walking corpses are a bad sign.

This isn't to say that all writing which plays with black magic, black humor and Gogolian comedy must be dully unobservant of its time and place. Simply mention that set of ingredients and the novel Master and Margarita comes immediately to mind. In that novel, Bulgakov managed to assemble a huge number of characters from Russian naturalism and Central-European supernaturalism in a magnificent novel which remains one of the best observations of Russia in the first few years after a political/economic cataclysm. Master and Margarita is a precious for its details about the way Muscovites schemed for better housing and hoarded illegal foreign currency as it is for its wild retelling of the Faust story.

That's not the case with Ronshin's stories. His characters inhabit a time of massive social change -- the late-Soviet and early post-Soviet period. But none of the crazy ad-hoc ways of making a living in that wild time seem to interest Ronshin, even for comic purposes. The stupidity which is for him the classic human trait has infected the author, as well as the story. One can understand why such an aversion to the painful accomodations necessary to survive the great change would develop, even among writers; but if Bulgakov could retain his cheerful and acute perspective on daily Russian life at the beginning of the Stalin years, it doesn't seem too unreasonable to ask contemporary Russian writers to impose the same discipline on themselves.

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