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The Oregonian
Thursday, December 24th, 2009
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Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia

by Jeff Parker and Mikhail Iossel

Russian Short Stories Capture Brutal Realities, Literary Renaissance

A review by Katie Schneider

Tolstoy. Dostoevsky. Chekhov. Pushkin. The greatest names in Russian literature cast a long shadow. Their novels, plays, short stories and poetry captured the political, social and spiritual context of the 19th century. Now in the 21st, a young crop of Russian writers is interpreting their culture and times.

Rasskazy: New Fiction From a New Russia offers translated works from authors who have come of age since the collapse of the Soviet era. These modern stories, edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker and published by Portland's Tin House Books, build on and expand the country's rich literary legacy.

In "The Diesel Stop," Arkady Babchenko writes of a soldier returning late from a 10-day leave, only to be arrested and shipped to a camp more akin to limbo than prison. "Our proud ranks were sent to Chechnya to the beat of a marching band, decked out with gold chevrons and gleaming parade boots. Within six months those who had managed to get out met up at the Diesel Stop, clad in lice-infested rags, their bodies charred, mangled and full of bullet holes, eyes empty and souls barren. And then they tried us for desertion."

Evgeni Alyokhin's narrator could care less about politics or war. In "Nuclear Spring," the word Chernobyl isn't even mentioned. Instead, the narrator's concerns are more immediate; whether to snort the radiation pills his girlfriend has crushed up and later, how to get her alone. He's resigned to the life he's been given. "I washed my hands and drank water from the tap. Of course, I know you shouldn't drink tap water, but what could I do, the urge was really strong -- and very pressing -- and so I drank."

In "A Year in Paradise," Natalya Klyuchareva's hero is even more aimless. Taken by the desire to see the woods where his grandfather perished in World War II, he gets drunk and boards a train. From there, he "got onto the first bus I saw without even asking where it was going. The back of the bus smelled like diesel, it was stuffy, and on each bump my insides jumped into my throat." Disconnected from normal life, he lives out on the edge of nowhere, while the Russian Empire begins to collapse.

Rasskazy, which means stories in Russian, is rich with detail and hard-edged beauty. It is full of brutality and the poignancy that comes of living through hard times. This collection should enable this crop of modern authors to step out of the literary shadows. It's time for their turn in the sun.

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