Laura is expecting a baby. A twenty-four-year-old literature instructor, she lives with her partner Karl Peter in the heart of Bergen, a city in the westernmost part of Norway. She’s suffering from a strange sort of anxiety, which she suspects has something to do with the pregnancy: everything around her seems double, not quite like what it is.
Laura has more common anxieties as well, including a problem with her apartment. The buildings in her part of town are constructed of brick on the outside and wood inside, which makes them so flammable that they’re called “chimney houses.” If their chimney house were to catch on fire, there would be little chance of escape. Then, there are the noisy students living above and below, a drug dealer across the street, hypodermic needles littering the neighborhood. She decides that she and Karl Peter have to move before the baby comes, but this decision, too, seems to bring her nothing but anxiety.
A brave writer begins her novel with the deathbed. Instead of hooking a reader the way the proverbial gun on the wall might, opening with a death scene threatens her with the inevitable backstory.
Luckily, Narine Abgaryan is both a brave and an experienced writer. ThreeApples Fell from the Sky is her fifth full-length novel, which won Russia’s prestigious Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award in 2016. Maine-based Lisa C. Hayden translated this novel for Oneworld, and after a COVID19-based delay, the book was released in the UK in August 2020. The novel opens with Anatolia Sevoyants, the protagonist, as she lies down “to breathe her last.” Soon, though, we learn that while Anatolia fully intends to die, life is far from finished with her.
The year is 1950 in Kiev. A twenty-year-old college student, Maya Klotsvog, falls in love with her professor, Viktor Pavlovich. He’s eight years older and married. One day, the professor’s wife, Darina Dmitrievna, catches up with Maya at the tram stop and reveals that her husband loves Maya and has asked for a divorce. He wants to marry Maya and have children with her. But Darina Dmitrievna adds something else: “You’re Jewish and your children would be half Jewish. And you yourself know what the situation is now. You read the papers, listen to the radio. And then that shadow would fall on Viktor Pavlovich himself, too. Anything can happen. Don’t you agree? Babi Yar over there is full of half-bloods.”
When I was nineteen and trying my hand at novel-writing for the first time, I found myself struggling with a story that alternated between two protagonists, a mother and a daughter. After reading my newest batch of pages, a beloved mentor observed that only the daughter was coming to life on the page. “There has to be more to this other woman than her role as a mother,” she said. I realize now that she was speaking from her own recent, still-raw experiences. “Try going back in time with the mother character,” she said. “Write a scene where she’s twenty, before she has a child, and see what she does. When you become a mother, your old self doesn’t disappear. All the parts of you that were there before are still there.”
Contemporary books emerging from post-Soviet countries often deal with the dehumanizing effect of the region’s systems of government on its victims, seeking to trace and partially redeem the psychological and physical harm many have suffered. For understandable reasons, few authors care to look at the perpetrators, at the people who committed murders and mass murders, informed on and denounced their neighbors. Yet, in the post-Soviet reality, often it’s these people and their descendants who have risen to the top, taken charge of the new nation states, and written their laws.
Review: Farewell, Aylis: A Non-Traditional Novel in Three Works
Outstanding books often have a way of catching the reader by surprise, one insight, one unexpected narrative shift at a time. Niña Weijers, a debut novelist from the Netherlands, begins her book as a character study of her protagonist, Minnie Panis. Minnie is a conceptual artist of growing international reputation, whose career has been built on acts of public self-abnegation. With each turn of the page, Weijers extends her subject and thematic reach, keeping her protagonist in focus while exploring contemporary art, mysticism, Mayan beliefs, and early childhood development (among other themes) to enrich our understanding of Minnie’s character and the forces that govern her life.
It felt foreordained to open this short story collection by the Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug and find IKEA on the first page, as in: “…park the car outside IKEA.” IKEA, now based in the Netherlands, originated in Sweden, but to many foreigners, it personifies Scandinavia—pleasant and unthreatening. “Blah, how boring,” was my first thought. Then, trying to stave off disappointment at being welcomed by the all-too-familiar global brand, I told myself, “Well, I guess IKEA did start somewhere nearby. Perhaps, Scandinavians have a particular attachment to clean lines.” (Nervous laughter.) I know that stereotyping is a form of blindness; in practice, my desire for novelty trips me up and leads to overly broad generalizations. Like a tourist, I had to remind myself to check my expectations at the airport.
Nikolai Sheremetev, the protagonist of British novelist’s Michael Honig’s second book, is a Moscow nurse. For six years, he’s been looking after a private patient suffering from dementia. The patient’s condition is deteriorating. Prior to his illness, Vladimir P. had been a president of Russia. After his confusion grew and he could no longer hold his own in public, he was quietly replaced by a member of his team and sent into retirement to a private estate near Moscow. As Vladimir’s mental acuity deteriorated, Sheremetev became the single point of contact between him and the outside world. Sheremetev manages his daily schedule, his medications, his rare outings.
Book by TEFFI (Translated from Russian by ROBERT and ELIZABETH CHANDLER, ANNE MARIE JACKSON, and IRINA STEINBERG) Reviewed by OLGA ZILBERBOURG
Teffi, nom de plume of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was born in 1872 into a prominent Russian family. Following in the footsteps of her older sister Maria—poet Mirra Lokhvitskaya—Teffi published poetry and prose from the age of 29. She soon rose to fame by practicing a unique brand of self-deprecating humor and topical social satire. In her 1907 hit one-act play The Woman Question, subtitled A Fantasy, Teffi imagined a world in which a women’s revolution against men achieves a full role reversal. Women come to occupy the prominent political, military, academic, professional, and bureaucratic roles, while men are subjugated to the childcare and household management tasks. Though the play’s ending largely dismisses this scenario and trivializes the feminist cause, through humor, the piece makes the point that bad behavior—infidelity, sexual harassment, excessive drinking, pettiness—is a function of social status rather than of biological sex.
Book by RICARDO PIGLIA Translated from Spanish by SERGIO WAISMAN Reviewed by OLGA ZILBERBOURG
The year is 1972. Tony Durán, a Puerto Rican-born adventurer and professional gambler from New Jersey, is found dead in his hotel room soon after arriving in a small town in Buenos Aires Province with a leather bag full of dollars. Dark-skinned, he spoke Spanish with a Caribbean accent. Rumors of his ménage à trois with Ada and Sofía Belladona, twin daughters of a prominent local landowner, have scandalized the town. Inspector Croce investigates.
So begins Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia’s fourth novel, Target in the Night, as detective fiction. Who killed Tony Durán and why? A gambling plot, the love triangle? Could one of the Belladona sisters have soured on the tripartite arrangement? My next guess: Racism? Durán is “a mulatto who shows up in a place where the last black people had disappeared—or dispersed until they blended completely into the landscape—fifty years earlier.”