Fantastic Stories by Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky)

And the tradition I’m referring to here is one I love – that of surreal, fantastic satire which runs through so many Russian books. Bulgakov is of course one of my favourite purveyors of this kind of writing, but there are so many others, stretching back to Gogol and forward to Ilf and Petrov, Kataev and modern authors like Mikhail Elizarov and Andrey Kurkov.

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Tertz has a fascinating history; his Wikipedia entry is quite involved, but the short version says: “Andrei Donatovich Sinyavsky (8 October 1925, Moscow – 25 February 1997, Paris) was a Russian writer, dissident, political prisoner, emigrant, Professor of Sorbonne University, magazine founder and publisher. He frequently wrote under the pseudonym Abram Tertz”. He wrote during the Thaw but his works had to be smuggled out of the country and published under his pseudonym. With his friend Yuli Daniel, he was subject to a show trial which caused international comment, and he eventually emigrated to Paris in 1973. His works are varied and he seems keen to reclaim Russian writing from Socialist Realism and bring  back the unusual and outlandish.

“Fantastic Stories” is certainly the right title for this collection, as each story is a gem of strangeness and wonder! The first “You and I” has a shifting, split narrative telling of an observer and his prey – or is that their true role or are one or both imaginary? Then there is” Tenants”, a slightly spooky mix of mob mentality and superstition which left me very unsettled. “At the Circus” tells the story of Konstantin, who works behind the scenes for the circus but longs for more. A chance encounter with a large sum of money sends him off on a life of crime, which is just as much of a performance as a life under the big top would have been.

The longest of the tales, “Icicle”, which really is a novella, again subverts your expectations; the narrator, in love with his Natasha, is suddenly gifted with strange powers. He sees into the past and future – where a person stands in their place in the world, he has visions of the past and future occupants of the same space, kinds of ghosts. He can predict the future with ease, but this gift is something of a curse and he finds it hard to try and change the inevitable.

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The final story in this collection, “Graphomaniacs”, is a marvellously playful piece, poking fun at the mania for writing and the number of talentless authors in the country scribbling away madly and flooding the market with worthless stuff. Bearing in mind how long ago this story was written, I wonder what Sinyavsky would make of the plethora of modern pulp writing…

The stories in the book are wonderfully ambiguous, playing with the reader’s perceptions and often subverting them. What’s striking too is how each story stands out and the fact that they’re still so clear in my mind so long after reading them is a tribute to their strength. The danger with shorter works is that they can blur together when you read a collection, but this certainly isn’t the case here. The metafictional aspects are fun, and Sinyavsky’s definitely carrying on the grand tradition of Russian fantastic literature. I came to the book not really knowing what to expect, and I was instantly absorbed and transported. Luckily, I have more of his works on the shelves and I can’t wait to pick up another.

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