Polden, XXI Vek, April 2011


In his editorial to the April issue, Samuel Lurie suggests to save this copy in a safe place. Why? Because this issue contains the first part of Plyvoon (Quicksand) by Alexander Zhitinsky, a sequel to his Lestnitza (Staircase). Having appeared forty years ago as samizdat (literally, an abbreviation for “self-published” in Russian), Staircase had gone viral among students and dissidents, becoming a cult classic of Russian science fiction literature. It has since been translated into a number of languages (German, Italian, Bulgarian, and others; however, I wasn’t able to locate an English translation) and become the basis for a Russian movie of the same name.

In Staircase, a young man named Vladimir Piroshnikov wakes up in an unfamiliar apartment. Trying to leave the house, he discovers that the staircase doesn’t have an end; moreover, like the ouroboros, the staircase consumed its own tail, leaving no exit out of the building. When he tries to ask neighbors for help, he enters the exact same room in which he woke up. His ultimately successful attempts to break this circle, laden with metaphors, spoke to a large segment of the Soviet population that grew increasingly frustrated with the absurd yet dull, dead-end society they lived in. Now, in Quicksand, Piroshnikov returns to live in the same building. And the story once again is full of metaphors.

Strange things had been happening to the building ever since the staircase incident. At first, the building began to slowly push itself up from the ground, until even the basement was exposed. Then, it reversed direction, sinking into a quicksand-ridden area, discovered too late by local geologists. When it would go down by an entire level, a new one was built on its top, and so on. Some occupants left, but several businesses and the people living at the -3rd (“minus third”) floor tenaciously held on. But there is more to this. As Piroshnikov discovers, some unknown paranormal forces are involved. Attuned to them, he can influence the building’s movements—and he does, by reciting poetry. But he cannot control where the building will go next, making it lean first to one side, then to another one. The businesses and tenants alike are split, some rallying in support of Piroshnikov (not without trying to make money), others trying to evict him—or worse.

One can’t avoid thinking that the building’s movements must match the author’s perception of modern Russian history. Although there may be people who can influence it, they must be having a hard time controlling its direction (at least, in the first half of the story; there are signs that things may change). The different reactions of the other occupants, both people and companies, appear to reflect the state of the society as well.

Does the fact that poetry affects the building suggest the high degree of influence that Russian literature has traditionally wielded over the Russia’s collective unconscious? Perhaps. The image of a six-winged Seraphim from a Pushkin’s poem is woven into the fabric of the story. The young woman who becomes Piroshnikov’s lover in the story is named Seraphima. The absent (until the very end of the first part) owner of the building is a mysterious man named Gebrail, possibly an allusion to the archangel Gabriel. The significance of this is probably revealed in the second half of the story.

The story proceeds at a brisk pace and, even though heavily laden with metaphors, is easy to read. The only potentially confusing place is when one of the characters from the Staircase, Larisa Pavlovna, is introduced too abruptly. The break between the two installments of the story isn’t arbitrary, the first half ending with a mini-climax, a transfer of power event that may allude to revolution (the author even uses that word). So far, the story is effective. But we must wait for the second half to see if the story works overall.

In the same issue, Once Upon a Time in Odessa, by Tatiana Aniskova and Mike Ghelprin, stands out from the rest. In this alternate reality, the Russian Civil War is won by neither the Whites nor the Reds but ends in an anarchist victory. Superimposed on the Odessa’s unique criminal subculture, this makes for an explosive combination. A smuggler on the run from the anarchists and his motley crew are tasked with transporting a beautiful opera singer-turned-spy across the border. Having failed, they are forced to retreat into a certain part of the Odessa’s catacombs that has a very bad rep, for those who venture there don’t return. Besides the intriguing plot, the story shines with local color. The language is exquisite, although not in a refined sort of way. It goes beyond merely using Odessa’s criminal slang, which would have been hard to translate without losing a certain ambiance. Unique Odessan humor isn’t confined to specific passages; rather, it permeates the narrator’s voice: a little cocky, shrewd, and with a touch of irony.

Heavy use of local color continues with Wagon, by Valery Vorobyev. This time, however, this is Russian army slang, for which the author even gives a glossary (another challenge for a translator). This story transplants the partly absurd and partly cruel realities of army life into the future, in which each soldier is controlled by an implanted chip, with the government and the insurgents both trying to hijack the soldiers via their chips. The author chooses not to investigate the full ramifications of this technology—perhaps, the right decision, for otherwise the story would have turned too serious, losing its quirky humor.

In Sailor, by Sergei Fomichev, an old sailor tells a story of his adventure in which his ship was hired by a foreigner to reach the so-called Archipelago, rich in a unique variety of amber but populated by fire-breathing, human-killing dragons, but the foreigner’s purpose turns out to be quite different from getting rich. Although the plot may contain some cliché elements, the story stands out for the voice in which it’s told and its worldbuilding. The author succeeds in creating local color (imaginary, this time, but heavily based on the Russian north), showing the peculiar culture from which the sailor hails from, with its code of honor. The subtle folk wisdom of a pragmatic sailor thinking mainly of his crew is contrasted with the adventurous zeal of the foreigner, who also has a heavy ethical dilemma to resolve. The story’s ending marks the return of a spiral of change that these events precipitated in the local culture in the main character’s life, although much remains the same.

By the Rocks of Azure, by Yana Dubinyanskaya, takes place in a fashionable resort by the sea. A young musician possesses the ability to instill specific emotion in his targets. A scientist, concerned for the local wildlife environment, asks the musician to give the visitors such depression that they would not wish to come back, and a bad fame would spread about the resort. But will he do that? This atmospheric, lyrical short story presents several interesting ethical dilemmas.

Dan Shorin’s Stars for My Little Daughter gives the first and second discoverers of an apparently alien artifact a choice: use it and gain some unknown powers, or stay human. The interplay between what both parties receive for their different decisions is interesting, but the second unexpected twist-on-a-twist toward the end of the story isn’t fully realized.


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