Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies
Racing through Ken Kalfus's widely acclaimed debut collection, Thirst, I couldn't avoid feeling a bit, well, parched. Sure, the stories moved fluidly, but I'd already read Italo Calvino's cerebral fantasia, Invisible Cities. Did I really need to visit "Invisible Malls"? Where was the unique personality, the singular tone of voice, the unexpected angles? Casually dropping homages to pomo masters Calvino and Borges, Thirst suggested more a ventriloquist's triumph than the trumpeting of something new.
If anything, Kalfus's excellent new collection, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, confirms that assessment. Here he does for Russian fiction what his last collection did for the postmodern canon, variously evoking Chekhov, Babel, Bulgakov, and contemporaries like Victor Pelevin and Andrei Makanin. But those stylistic borrowings compose a well-deserved testimony to what ideology has put the Soviet author through. With his new volume, Kalfus presents an account of how a national voice accommodated itself to the mandates of the "scientific socialism" that tugged as powerfully on the human heart as on politics. In Kalfus's plangent little "Anzhelika, 13," a girl facing the onset of puberty contemplates Stalin as a teen idol: "[M]en all over the world brushed back their hair and let their mustaches grow out like his, Anzhelika dreamed of marrying him....Tonight she mumbled the bedtime words repeated by millions: Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for a happy childhood, and passed unevenly into sleep."
Despite four years' residence in a Russia struggling to free itself of that Stalinist dream life (his wife headed the Philadelphia Inquirer's Moscow bureau), Kalfus avoids American-expat clichés. Instead, he inhabits a range of Soviet and post-Soviet voices, from the contemporary nuclear technician aiming to black-market his canister of weapons-grade plutonium before he dies ("Pu-239") to the idealistic Jewish believers who took at face value the offer of an autonomous homeland in remote Birobidzhan. What every character shares is a nagging sense of dislocation, an inkling that the world has been shoved out of joint. "It was as if he had traveled to the capital of a country in which he had never lived," muses the technician when he finally escapes his compound for Moscow. Seventy years before, one of the Jewish settlers thinks on arrival that her new homeland strikes her "as if [she] were going someplace entirely different, or someplace that was nowhere at all."
But these days, everywhere is nowhere: In the rush to join the market economy, memory has been put up for sale. "Lermontov's been swiped, sold for scrap," brags a thug standing where a sculpture used to stand in a ruined public park. Seen in this corrective light, the party line offered its attractions. Kalfus recognizes how hapless lovers might console themselves with it late at night (Israel, on his way to Birobidzhan, "reasoned that success with Larissa would make all the romantic failures of the past several years historically necessary"). Elsewhere, dissenters brandish Marxism's "objective truths" in self-defense. "I'm sorry...this [disorder] reflects society's loss of faith in established institutions and traditions," a Chechen rebel informs the prime minister.
All of these currents stream together most powerfully in "Peredelkino," a closing novella whose offhand distortions echo the grotesque realism that got the pseudonymous Abram Tertz (The Trial Begins, The Makepeace Experiment) officially censored in the Sixties. "Something had slightly altered the building's dimensions," notes Kalfus's narrator, just before he discovers his calamitous fall from favor. Tracing the post-Stalin thaw (and subsequent freeze) through the career of second-rate novelist and reviewer Rem Petrovich, Kalfus measures the contortions required of anyone who presumed to maintain a literary career. When Rem is handed Leonid Brezhnev's three-volume historical epic, his duty is plain:
"To find the right words of praise, to modulate my lauds into plausibly critical language...to announce, as I undoubtedly would, that Comrade Brezhnev had raised the art of historical fiction to new and commanding heights...I would need to read every page of the trilogy, perhaps even twice. The desperate shreds of my ambition would demand it."
A hair too scrupulous to play the games he must, in the end Rem stands alone in the cold, watching his wife read inside the state-allocated dacha they will soon forfeit.
That vision might not promise much, but Kalfus digs a thin vein of hope from the legacy of dashed dreams it so perfectly captures. In what by any account has been a soul-crushing century for the Russian people, is it the numbing frustrations or the continued capacity for dreaming that matters most?