Archive for Sunday, August 3, 2008

Review: Russian writer yearns for home in ‘One More Year’ collection

August 3, 2008


"To make it here, you have to want to be here," Ilona explains to Thomaz in "Companion," the first story in Sana Krasikov's debut collection, "One More Year" (Spiegel & Grau, $21.95). Like most of Krasikov's characters, these two aren't making it, nor do they want to be here.

America smells bad, Americans have little self-awareness and everything in the United States boils down to money. Its landscapes are tinged in a gray irony: "half-paved, wooded roads that are part of the town's semi-rural fantasy about itself."

Most of the characters are Ukrainian or Georgian and left home in the mid-'90s, when Russia's bureaucratic stranglehold on these former provinces forced them to emigrate. The title character of "Maia in Yonkers" left after her husband was shot in Astrakhan and came here to work, leaving her son with her sister. When the boy is 12, he visits her in Yonkers and is angry with her for abandoning him. "You know why I'm here!" she tells him. "I don't know anymore," he says. "Every year, you say 'It's one more year, one more year'!"

These stories seem to scream: "Don't leave home! You need a connection to place or you're lost!" Krasikov's characters, like so many in recent fiction by young writers from the former U.S.S.R., lead dreary lives caked with nostalgia, their memories convoluted and ruined by violence and hardship. They huddle together, making harsh calculations that have more to do with survival than with happiness. Their relationships involve intricate dances around their past; their ambitions seem, especially to their children, pathetic. They have little affection for their new country, spending long hours looking out of windows: "Outside, there is still some daylight left in the sky, but the trees have turned black, blurring with the darkness that's started to encroach on the lawn. ... The women sit with cardigans draped around their shoulders."

Some of these writers - Ellen Litman, in her collection "The Last Chicken in America," or Gary Shteyngart, in "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" - use humor. Others, like Victor Pelevin, resort to magical realism or the dark, bewildered tone of Anya Ulinich's "Petropolis." All of them verge on stereotyping the immigrant life. But Krasikov seems bent on creating real people; the details of their lives, the decisions and compromises they make every day, are almost overwhelming.

Krasikov's stories make you long for the good old Russian novel, firmly rooted in place, with recognizable heroes and enemies. Pushkin would weep to see these young writers trying so hard, so far from home, to make sense of their lives.


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