Having already read several books for WIT, I hadn’t necessarily intended to pick up another one. However, the best laid plans… Earlier in the year, I took part in a Twitter readalong of Olga Zilberbourg’s “Like Water and Other Stories” which was co-ordinated by the lovely Reem (Paper Pills) @ReemK10. She’s indefatigable when it comes to organising these events and when she announced one for this book at the start of September I had to join in. The work is questions is “Klotsvog” by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, and it turned out to be a powerful read.

“Klotsvog” was issued in 2019 by the Russian Library imprint of Columbia University Press, and I was lucky enough to win it in a Twitter giveaway by the lovely @Rustransdark group at the University of Exeter. It arrived just as the first lockdown took hold, and somehow, I hadn’t got round to picking it up; however this was the perfect time to do so, and as always, having reading buddies really enhanced the experience. I confess, however, that I got to a point when I couldn’t stick to the ten or so pages a day and made my way to the end of the book – and was left a bit stunned and breathless. Let me try to explain why…

As a direct person, I myself never drop any hints and don’t welcome it when others drop them in my direction.

The book is narrated by Maya Abramovna Klotsvog, who introduces herself in the first paragraph with the statement that her name is not important: “what’s important is how somebody made life’s journey…”. Born of a Jewish family in 1930, her memories of her early life are given fairly briefly; having been evacuated during the ‘Great Patriotic War’ with her mother, they survived the conflict (although her father did not) and Maya manages some schooling and then finds a job in bank. This does not go so well, so she enrolls in evening classes – which is where things go wrong and Maya starts on her winding path through life. An affair with a married teacher leads to pregnancy; searching for a way to deal with this, she marries an older man, convincing him of his paternity. Her son Mishenka is born; she moves on to another husband, palming her son off on relatives; then there is a daughter, and another man. All of Maya’s life seems to consist of scheming, manipulating other people and constantly trying to improve her lot, find a nicer home and control what happens around her. However, none of this brings her happiness – in fact, in the end all she will find is heartache, and also that it’s impossible to deny what you are.

…my child will never speak Jewish. That’s for his own benefit. And don’t pretend you don’t understand. Jewish words cost you nothing. But oh, they could cost him so much. They could bring him death.

On first look, Maya Klotsvog is a shocking and awful person. Her narrative is focused entirely on her own needs, her own feelings and what she’s had to do to survive – she in fact seems proud of it. There are constant self-justifications, regular betrayals, twisting of facts and what seems like a total misreading of the reality around her. She describes herself as a teacher, even though she’s never really taught a class; however, her constant interference in the education of her children, where she describes herself as talking to the teachers ‘pedagogue to pedagogue’, make you cringe at her insensitivity and lack of self-awareness. She is, perhaps, the ultimate unreliable narrator because she has no idea how other people perceive her.

What she also fails to recognise is the effect she has on other people. Everyone close to her is eventually pushed away, and even those who love her can’t stay near her. Her hardness and lack of warmth are quite stunning, and although I felt sympathy for most of the adults who encountered her, it was the children who I felt suffered most at first. Manipulated, abandoned, shuffled from pillar to post, lied to – what a life.

And yet… “Klotsvog” is a subtle and nuanced piece of writing, and as I read I recognised that Maya is someone who desperately needs to control the people and surroundings she encounters on a daily basis, as the wider picture is out of her control. She’s almost OCD in her need to have things exactly as she wants them, and I suspect that her whole life is entirely driven by fear; having made it through the war and with knowledge of the Holocaust, Klotsvog is aware that she is vulnerable as a Jew in the Soviet Union, and her ghastly behaviour throughout the book comes from a need to survive. The book never spells out the horrors of the Nazi ‘final solution’, but it’s there under the surface and in little references which slip into the narrative. As Lara Vapnyar points out in her introduction, Stalin had his own plan for something similar; Jewish people were not safe in the Soviet Union, and as time moves on and Klotsvog grows older, anti-semitism seems to be becoming more prevalent. It’s hard to like Maya as a character initially, and her behaviour is reprehensible, but I came to understand her and in the end pity her.

…she’s scared. She’s scared because she ended up Jewish. All children are afraid of the dark. And Jewishness is akin to the dark for children if they don’t engage with it.

Because, as a character, she certainly makes the bed in which she ends up lying. Her behaviour not only alienates all those around her, it also enables the creation of one of the most disturbing child characters I’ve ever come across. I don’t want to reveal too much about this plot strand for those who might read the book, but let’s just say that considering the kind of children in Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” might give you the idea. I found this whole element absolutely chilling and I still haven’t recovered from the horror of it. Maya’s reaction to this child is not always rational, and definitely exacerbates things – but still, nobody really deserves that.

I started reading Klotsvog close on the heels of Petrushevskaya’s “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel” and there were a surprising amount of resonances between the two stories, as both narrators were outcasts and outsiders, whether because of their political history or Jewish heritage. However, although both stories are told in mostly measured prose, the Sovietspeak and repeated phrases which creep into Maya’s language perhaps reflects the constraints under which she lived all those years. What could be seen as a book length exercise in self-justification certainly goes much deeper than that.

“Klotsvog” is translated by the always excellent Lisa C. Hayden, who brings her expertise and knowledge of the Soviet world to the book with marvellous results. Her friendship with the late author also adds a poignant edge, and Vapnyar’s introduction is also a emotional one. This really is a work which brings forth all kinds of feelings.

Well, I could go on and on about this book, and there is so much more which could be said, but I’ll stop here. Suffice to say, “Klotsvog” is a powerful and unforgettable book, Maya is a monstrous yet ultimately tragic creation; this was a wonderful book with which to round off #WITMonth and thanks so much to Reem for organising the readalong which nudged me into picking up the book!