I have to confess that this book has been one of my most anticipated reads of recent months. I’ve been eyeing it up for ages now, seduced by the rave reviews and the fact it’s a collection of long-lost Soviet satirical stories. I finally cracked and picked up a copy with some Christmas money, and dived in!

memories-of-the-future-sigizmund-krzhizhanovsky

Some quick facts about SK from Wikipedia:

“Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky (11 February [O.S. 30 January] 1887  – 28 December 1950) was a Russian and Soviet short-story writer who described himself as being “known for being unknown”; the bulk of his writings were published posthumously. In 1976, scholar Vadim Perelmuter discovered Krzhizhanovsky’s archive and in 1989 published one of his short stories. As the five volumes of his collected works followed, Krzhizhanovsky emerged from obscurity as a remarkable Soviet writer, who polished his prose to the verge of poetry. His short parables, written with an abundance of poetic detail and wonderful fertility of invention – though occasionally bordering on the whimsical – are sometimes compared to the ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges. Quadraturin (1926), the best known of such phantasmagoric stories, is a Kafkaesque novella in which allegory meets existentialism.”

The fact that SK’s work is only just emerging is remarkable in itself and it’s a little frightening to think that such works have been buried for years under the Soviet machine – as Robert Chandler puts it in his introduction to the excellent anthology “Russian Short Stories From Pushkin to Buida” (which features “Quadraturin”) SK was “writing for the drawer” (as were other writers like Bulgakov). I have in fact read “From Pushkin….” some years ago which means I have read “Quadraturin”! This was a surprise to me, and is, incidentally, is one of the reasons I started this blog – to try to record my feelings about what I read and fix my memories of books more firmly!

However, on to this collection. The book consists of seven short pieces, translated by Joanne Turnbull and with some excellent notes by her:

Quadraturin
The Bookmark
Someone else’s Theme
The Branch Line
Red Snow
the Thirteenth Category of Reason
Memories of the Future

of which the title story is the longest. The writing is individual, unusual and singular, and in some ways reminds me of Platonov with its dream-like, haunting quality. The first story *is* a little Kafka-like, dealing with a scientific invention to expand the inside of someone’s room (in a TARDIS-like way) to solve the housing problem (ah, the eternal Soviet housing problem!) But things go wrong, and the protagonist actually ends up lost in his own room! “The Bookmark” and “Someone Else’s Theme” are very much concerned with the telling of tales. The Soviet demand for only Socialist Realism in fiction was very much on the rise, at the expense of true tale tellers, and it was impossible to get something with a fantastic theme published. The Theme Catcher in the first story endlessly spins tales, with only the slightest stimulation needed from life around him to set him off. It is difficult to see these stories as anything else than the reaction of a spinner of romances to the authorities’ demands. “The Branch Line” and “Red Snow” both feature dream sequences and landscapes, beautifully written and entrancing. “TBL” is particularly wonderful, with a traveller apparently taking the wrong train and ending up in the world of dreams where night and day are inverted, and scary dreams are about to take over the real world (another veiled critique of the Soviet dream, perhaps?). The fantasy sequence is wonderfully written, with all the qualities of the best dreams (and nightmares!). Likewise in “Red Snow”, the protagonist encounters regularly a strange character called Saul Straight, while he is struggling to find food and work in a Russia is always cold and snowy (as in most of these stories). He ends up living through a very scary nightmare where he encounters the Russian people queueing implacably (as they do for everything) – this time, for logic! “The Thirteenth Category of Reason” features a corpse who is late for his own funeral – ’nuff said!

The title story is a masterpiece – it tells the story of Max Shterer, who is obsessed by time from childhood and spends the rest of his life trying to conquer and supersede it. His quest to build a time machine spreads over many years, the first world war, the Russian revolution and civil war, plus the early days of the Soviet bureacracy. There is obviously some influence from Wells’ “The Time Machine” here – SK drops mention of the book into the text, and when Max finally gets to set off, he appears to move through time but not space in the same way as Wells’ hero. But there is a political subtext here not present in a straight sci-fi story – and what Schterer sees in the Soviet future is deemed too dangerous to let out (we do not even hear ourselves what it is) and after he is visited by a mysterious personage (Stalin???), he and his tale vanish.

 

Sigizmund_KrzhizhanovskyRunning through these tales is a sense of suspension of real life, which presumably reflects how SK (and many others) felt during the revolution which turned a world upside down, shook it a lot, and set it down in a very different configuration. There are also comments on the effects of Soviet bureaucracy, like this one, which are beautifully written:

“Haven’t you noticed how in the last few years our life has been permeated by non-existence? Little by little on the sly. We’re still  immured in our old space, like the stumps in a felled forest. But our lives have long since been stacked in piles, and not for us but for others. This wristwatch with its pulsating minute hand is still mine, but time is not, it belongs to someone else who will not let you or me into a single one of its seconds. What is death, after all? A special case of hopelessness.” (Red Snow)

These are amazing stories from an amazing writer, and I am just so glad that he was rescued from obscurity. I can’t wait to read “The Letter Killers Club”, and I hope that more of his work will appear in English translation. I do agree with Robert Chandler when he says: “It is now clear that Krzhizhanovsky is one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century.”