Friday, January 7, 2011

100 Books: 1-Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's MEMORIES OF THE FUTURE

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Translated by Joanne Turnbull
NYRB Classics

I had not even heard of Krzhizhanovsky before NYRB Classics announced it was publishing this volume a little over a year ago. Having just recently enjoyed Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, and also a big fan of Mikhail Bulgakov and Nikolai Gogol and Victor Peleven, I was in the mood for more Soviet-era fabulism and this looked to fit the bill precisely.

Had the book been available on Kindle, I no doubt would have devoured it immediately, but as it was, I had to wait for a physical object to be located in a warehouse and packed and shipped to me, and by the time it arrived my mood had shifted and I was haring off after something else, like I do. It hit the to-read pile, which these days takes longer to get to because I do most of my reading outside the house and my Kindle weighs less and takes up less space and I never worry about finishing and being stranded, bookless, somewhere.

I'm sad now that I took so long, though this was not a seamlessly perfect read for me.

Krzhizhanovsky seems to have been largely ignored during his lifetime and writing career, which was contemporary with the Russian Revolution of 1917. This was probably dreadfully frustrating for Krzhizhanovsky, the man, but wonderful for Krzhizhanovsky, the writer. Under the radar and little regarded, he could write what he liked, and he did. And oh, what he wrote!

A lot of reviewers I've come across seem to like to compare him to Jorge Luis Borges (whom I absolutely adore), and I get the comparison, but I don't find it really that useful or accurate. Both are fabulists of a certain very elegant type, fond of intellectual games and exploring the impossible, but Krzhizhanovsky's stories are far more accessible and, weird though it is to say, grounded in the banality and grit of the Soviet world in which he lived; there are none of Borges' dizzyingly erudite Berkeleyan speculations and narrative hoop snakes here. When Krzhizhanovsky brings the Eiffel Tower to life and sends it rampaging, Godzilla-like, across Europe to join the Moscow comrades, western powers use radio, not wordplay or metaphysical puzzles, to defeat it, and its journey's end is tragic and moving rather than leaving the reader saying "Huh!" And when a man acquires a treatment that, when painted on the walls of his tiny living space in a communal apartment, makes his space expand TARDIS-like so that its outside is bigger than the inside, Krzhizhanovsky doesn't play with the metaphor of expanding walls and labyrinths as Borges would (though he does add Lovecraftian touches as some misapplied substance results in uneven growth and distorted geometry that only gets worse as the room gets bigger), but instead explores the implications of the transformation in a real Moscow where remeasuring commisions are an omnipresent threat as demand for space increases, and what happens when a space outgrows its electrical wiring and is plunged into eternal darkness.

The expanding room is the feature of the first story in the collection, "Quadraturin," which is very likely my favorite. The whole account feels like the sort of prank that Woland and his band of devils might have played on an unsuspecting citizen in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, or like an extra lesson from W.W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw." There is a dark humor here, in other words, that again gives lie to comparisons with Borges, who is many wonderful things but rarely funny.

Less funny is "The Bookmark" for all that it contains the Eiffel Tower narrative I mentioned above. That mini-narrative is one of many shared by a "theme catcher" who intermittently shares a park bench with the narrator. Each of the catcher's stories is more poignant than the last, expanding on a delicately critical metaphor for the changes that came to Russia with the Revolution. No wonder Krzhizhanovsky had publication troubles!

It is with one of the more intriguing-seeming stories, "The Branch Line" that my trouble with the book and its translation begins. A train trip into nightmares made concrete and are set to overthrow reality -- this should be my favorite story! And indeed it contains some powerfully interesting and original ideas and images. I fear, though, that here Turnbull got carried away with the need to convey dreaminess, to be poetic. For every arresting moment or observation* there is a passage of what threatens to descend to the level of word salad, clumsy allterations for the sake, it appears, of alliteration (perhaps trying to copy a similar degree of same in the original Russian?) and awkwardly florid word choices (almost nothing is blue in this story, but rather "azure", for instance). The effect of these choices was of constantly yanking me out of the story to notice the writing, which spoilt, somewhat, my enjoyment of this story -- especially since the language is in quite stark contrast to that in all the others, which are mostly in a plain and clear voice that George Orwell would praise.

That's all right, though, because my brain is still reeling from the titular story for whole different reasons. "Memories of the Future" is famously (for descriptions of a rather obscure Soviet-era short story writer's work, anyway) described as a time travel story, but again, it really concerns itself with the viscitudes of fate suffered by ordinary Russians through one of the most profound regime changes history has to offer. Max Schterer has spent a lifetime developing a thought experiment to build a "timecutter" which, when attached to the user's head, so alters his experience of time that the past and the future are a matter of to what he desires to pay attention. He almost completes it once -- only to get drafted and sent to Germany to fight in World War I. When he returns to the inheritance he has long awaited, the Revolution has happened and his resources are now the state's; it is only through the largesse and imagination of one of his fellow inmates from the German POW camp where he spent most of his war that he gets a second chance to build his timecutter, and to use it, but like Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact, he goes on a journey he can neither prove nor describe well, and sees only the goings-on in his room and through his window. Again, a moving fantasy, but Borgesian only in its barest outlines.

Really, if I had to chose a writer to whom to compaire Krzhizhankovsky, I would choose Philip K. Dick. The paranoia, the dystopianism, the sheer inventiveness both display make them brothers, as do their publication woes. And indeed, in his mind, Dick inhabited a universe not unlike Soviet Russia, where it was impossible to be good, where bureaucracy and isms do their best to trample and reform simple humanity, and where creativity and madness might just be interchangeable. And both, both are unforgettable.

My 100 Books participation is off to a lofty and amazing start.

*A passage lauding the "heavy industry of dreams" and a discussion of a line of pillows disguised as briefcases, "just tuck this under your elbow and you -- while standing up with your eyes wide open in broad daylight -- will sink into the deepest sleep: you'll dream that you're a manager, a mover and shaker, a public servant, an inventor of new systems" will stay with me for a very long time indeed.

1 comment:

  1. You've expressed specific ideas that I could only say were but clouds in my head, in modesty, with regard to the influence of the big names. A swell article.


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