Thursday, 4 February 2010

One More Year, by Sana Krasikov

This is a frustrating book. There's no question that these stories need to be told: stories of the instability of the lives of immigrants and emigrants, repatriates and natives of a vastly- and rapidly-changing world in a post-Soviet landscape. Krasikov makes sharp observations on everyday objects and gestures that reveal much about a character's history or aspirations. She understands the needs that lurk behind each desperate act, the circumstances and cynical mindset that engender such desperation and the drive for self-betterment that often overwhelms love and kindness.

And yet... Far too often a story or a section of one begins with a short piece of dialogue, which promptly gives way to a filling-in of the back story. The following is a typical example:

"No one told you about me?" Gulia said. "Half of Fergana knew, and you didn't?"
"I thought we could get along. My uncle has two wives in one house, and they live like close girlfriends."
"I'm not interested in your family or how you were raised."
"And how were you raised?" The woman started up off her chair. "To become a divorced prostitute and keep a man away from his children!"
Again, the children. Nasrin had announced her first pregnancy just weeks after Rashid and Gulia's own wedding party, when they'd gone to a mullah and then invited their friends...

(from 'Asal')

It's as if the author suddenly becomes self-conscious or loses her nerve, or doesn't quite trust the reader to read between lines, so she feels forced to explain to us, in a linear fashion, almost always in the third-person narrative from within the mind of the central character, how we got here. It's as if she is straining to make her story plausible. She begins with a sharp line-drawing and ends up with a photoshopped picture complete with neat foreground and background, coloured-in and with labels for everything.

On several occasions her stories feel like set-ups designed to take us to a pre-determined climax (which on occasion is, as in the story 'Maia in Jonkers', profoundly moving). These are cinematic tales, sometimes told from an imaginary camera's point of view (on several occasions a section would end with a description of a depleted landscape or of the view from a moving window).

I propose that most of these stories (with the notable exception of the last in the volume, the excellent 'There will be no Fourth Rome') might have been better served constructed differently: with much more specific detail, whose implications we might not quite be able to understand instantly, but which would leave us with enough hints towards interpreting the motives of the characters and the delicacy of their predicaments. This is a world that deserves to be shown on its own terms rather than forcibly made accessible to an American (or generally Western) readership.

It may seem unfair to complain about a book because of what it isn't. But there's a fascinating writer at work here with a terrific vision: Krasikov is a well of essential stories, with a profound understanding of this particuar juncture in history. It's a pity that the method of the telling leaves us (this reader, at least) unfulfilled.

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