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From Russia With Mixed Feelings : THE WILD BEACH: And Other Stories, Edited by Helena Goscilo and Byron Lindsey , (Ardis: $39.95; 352 pp.)

August 09, 1992|Michael Heim | Heim is professor of Slavic languages and literatures at UCLA and a translator of East European literature

Everyone can see that in the Former Soviet Union the transition from command economy to market economy, from communism to consumerism, will take a good deal longer than originally expected. Less obvious is how the country is faring in terms of culture. Is the transition to liberal values as rocky for Russian literature as for Russian industry or agriculture? "The Wild Beach" supplies a baker's dozen stories translated from Russian "thick journals" during the Gorbachev years, primary sources for an informed opinion on the matter.

In addition to newly published authors, the editors rightly include established writers, some of whose works needed the impetus of glasnost to see print. The vagaries of censorship have made any number of works written in the past 75 years "contemporary." In fact, one of the extra-literary pleasures the anthology provides is the chance to second-guess the censors.

Why couldn't a perfectly conventional war story by the perfectly conventional Vladimir Tendryakov be published until 1988? Presumably because its hero explicitly questions the sacred wartime slogan--"Our cause is just; the enemy will be crushed"--and thus, implicitly, questions the entire communist cause and disastrous effects, the very basis for the Soviet Union's existence.

What about the story that opens the collection, Yury Trifonov's "A Short Stay in the Torture Chamber"? On the surface, Trifonov is merely rehearsing--even rehashing--the issue that obsessed him for decades: how the past, especially the Stalinist past, informs and at times even forms the present. But the story's portrayal of putative victim and putative victimizer is so subtle as to pose new problems rather than solve old ones. "Torture Chamber" is that rare story that leaves you with a vague hunger for something more, the kind of story that Chekhov perfected but that otherwise belongs more to the Anglo-American tradition of understatement.

Understatement is noticeably absent elsewhere in the collection. The longest work, Leonid Shorokhov's novella "The Lifeguard," recounts the rise and fall of a small-time Siberian operator. While fishing an entire species out of existence, he "saves" his relatives and friends many times over, making a fortune out of the fish and a front out of the lifeguard station.

To a large extent "The Lifeguard" is typical of the selections by the new writers. (Because politics and culture were so intertwined in the Soviet Union, the political gerontocracy generated a literary gerontocracy, and all but one of the "young" writers represented here are over 40.) Like many of the stories, it deals with violence, corruption and a callous indifference to the environment; it has a provincial setting, and it adheres strictly to the tenets of Realism. Not Socialist Realism, to be sure; Socialist Realism, the ideological mainstay of Soviet culture for half a century, has given way--if "The Wild Beach" is any indication--to a kind of Sociological Realism.

In "The Fur Coat Incident," sociology takes over and we plod through the dull life of a dull engineer (true, its author, Nikolai Shmelyov, is better known as the author of the major economic tracts of perestroika ); in Daniil Granin's dry, almost journalistic "The Forbidden Chapter," we have nothing more than the evocation of an interview with former Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin.

There are, however, finely wrought stories that evoke much more: a feeling of impending catastrophe, a tension that grows inexorably, though it may not in the end explode. In the volume's title work, Vitaly Moskaenko puts his characters through a number of close scrapes with death, and although they escape unscathed they are totally unaware--the graduate student as much as the town idiot--of the degree to which their lives have been in danger.

In "Delos," Natalya Sukhanova gives a powerful account (using the point of view of a sympathetic male gynecologist) of a full-term ectopic pregnancy, raising along the way a number of ethical issues that go far beyond the hospital bed. In "The Chelyadins' Son-in-Law," Boris Ekimov gives an uncharacteristically idyllic picture of the Russian countryside, only to undermine it in an uncharacteristically understated manner.

Only two of the authors spurn Realism. Perhaps it is their apostasy that earns them their place at the rear of the book. Vyacheslav Pyetsukh contributes a short, utopian, did-it-really-happen piece, "Novy Zavod," and Alexander Ivanchenko a long, minimalist-cum-Kafka piece, "Safety Procedure I," the latter peppered with bits of kinky eroticism, lamentations over the helplessness of language, and excerpts from a possibly genuine, possibly invented manual of "Safety Procedures for Electric Locomotive Engineers."

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