When author and translator Irina Mashinski contacted me to see if I would be interested in reading her book, “The Naked World” I didn’t hesitate for a moment; in fact, I probably bit off her hand! I’d been aware of her work since reading “The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry”, which she co-edited with Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk. She also works on the Cardinal Points Journal, and has published many books of poetry and essays in Russian. I hadn’t appreciated, though, how widely she’d written and “The Naked World” (her first work in English) sounded as if it would be the perfect read for me – which it was!

Mashinski was born and raised in Moscow (in the spring of 1958, “5 years, 4 months and 10 days” after Stalin’s death); she emigrated to the USA in 1991. “Naked” explores her life straddling two continents, but does so by utilising two written forms; the book blends prose and poetry, and the results are stunning.

Each time when you raise your eyes to the stars, you see the past, and each time when you raise your eyes to the moon, you see the reflected the present. Past and present blend within you like the stars and the moon and those sparks of tiny flowers on the dark Soviet apron. And if there is a rhythm, it’s muted.

The book is divided into four sections: “Patterns”, “The Myth”, “In the Right-of-Way” and “Borders”, and each examines different aspects of Mashinski’s life, from her years living under Soviet rule to her time in the West as an emigre. Her memories stretch back to Stalin’s Great Terror, which affected her grandparents who were sent into exile, and these sections were particularly moving. In fact, the book opens with Stalin’s death and the effect that had on many Russians; of Jewish heritage, her family were particularly vulnerable in the Russia of the 20th Century, and it’s clear that what happened to them has left emotional scars.

So the first two parts of the book deals mainly with the past, with Mashinski exploring her family history, reliving her memories of her forebears and their sufferings, and reflecting on her own life. Even though Stalin had died, it was still not easy to live in the USSR, and Mashinski’s family were still at risk. However, going into voluntary exile and becoming an emigre is not so easy either, and when the family flee to the West, the sense of feeling stateless, not belonging, runs through many of the writings too. Although Mashinski comes to terms with her new world, it’s clear her homeland will never leave her.

It’s the time when
dreams fill
with my dead, mountains
block what’s left of the sun

They darken toward evening,
first one, then the second, the third,
they linger, turning mauve, and move off to the west,
like leaves to the ravine.

Irina Mashinski’s story is moving, inspiring and often heartbreaking; however, what makes this book stand out particularly is the wonderful writing. An intriguing hybrid of prose, original poetry, adapated poetry and translated poetry, it captures so many moments from her past and life in lyrical and memorable writing. This is a singularly original way to tell a story and it works quite brilliantly! Her poetry in particular cuts through to the heart. Poignantly, the book ends with a section setting out “Notes on the Great Terror”; even if you know something about this (which I do), it hits hard to see the awful facts set out here in black and white.

“The Naked World” is not an easy book to categorise, encompassing as it does so much; memory, family myths, cultural history, exile and the emigre experience. It’s a work which gets under the skin, leaving images lodged in the brain of forests and patterned wallpaper and wastelands and sunsets and a new world seen through the eyes of someone leaving a complex past behind. Her memories are vivid and moving, her verse beautiful and reading the book was such an immersive experience. It’s a work with disparate elements which are woven together beautifully to create a powerful and moving whole, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read it.

You remember me leaving, right? One takes off filled up to the brim – and lands in a new place empty. I wanted to tell you how it feels to cross the ocean and see your own flat giant shadow on the water, and peel yourself off and recognise that you’re real… emigration is like evacuation: sacks, trunks, random acquaintances, other people’s things that try to latch on to you, and wide unknown rivers covered with ice. And then several years pass, and it turns out that you’re full again, full to the brim.

In bringing her work to English, Mashinski has had the input of a stellar collection of collaborators to aid with the translation, including Boris Dralyuk, Robert Chandler and Maria Bloshteyn; and poet Ilya Kaminsky provides a heartfelt preface. Mashinski dedicates her book to the memory of her parents and grandparents, and it’s certainly a moving memorial of their life and sufferings.

As I hoped and expected, “The Naked World” turned out to be an unforgettable read; lyrical, moving, laced with beautiful prose, poetry and imagery, it’s a work which will stay with you, and it’s definitely going to be in my end of year best-of! Irina Mashinski’s marvellous book is published by MadHat Press, and I highly recommend you track down a copy.

If you want to explore further, there’s a wonderful recording of a pre-launch discussion which includes contributions from Mashinski, Chandler, Dralyuk, Bloshteysn and others available here.