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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | FICTION

STORIES FROM A SIBERIAN VILLAGE By Vasily Shukshin translated by Laura Michael and John Givens; Northern Illinois Univ. Press: 255 pp., $35 cloth, $16 paper

December 29, 1996|MARTIN CRUZ SMITH

In the old ironbound days of the Soviet Union, with Stalin freshly embalmed and paranoia thick as car exhaust on the Arbat, a coarsely handsome young man showed up before the entrance committee of the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, better known as the VGIK. Asked about his education, he shot back with a Siberian accent that he hadn't had the time to read "War and Peace" because it was too thick.

But he had boldness and a few protectors, and so entered Vasily Shukshin into Russian culture. In fact, he entered as an icon of the Soviet ironic culture that flourished between the toes of the state. All of which might be a misleading introduction for his "Stories From a Siberian Village" because, with so much reason to write from a well of anger, he mainly marks these 25 short stories with humor, tolerance, poignancy, love and direct, brilliant description of Western Siberia. One story, "I Believe," is nothing less than a masterpiece, bearing within itself Russian depths of depression, philosophical funk, marital misunderstanding and vodka, all coming together in a whirlwind climax equal to Nikolai Gogol's "Dead Souls."

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