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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Somber Look at Literature's Latest

What direction will Russian literature take in the post-Soviet era? Can writers find a new voice in the heady atmosphere of total freedom after decades of socialist-realist strictures? "Booker Winners and Others," Volume Seven of the Glas literary journal, tackles this question. The cream of contemporary Russian writing is represented here: Most of the works included were nominated for the prestigious Russian Booker prize for the best novel in the Russian language, first awarded in 1992. Glas, a digest of new Russian writing, has set itself the task of acquainting the West with developments in Russian literature. In this it has succeeded admirably: In the two years of its existence it has brought many previously unknown writers to the attention of readers and publishers outside Russia. "Russian literature has a long, rich history of stylistic development to draw on. The continuity was never broken and, with all the historical experience of Russia herself, it has all it needs to create a truly original 'not officially approved' new writing," comments Vyacheslav Ivanov, writer, professor, literary critic and chairman of the 1993 Booker prize committee, in his essay "The Russian Novel 1992/3," which is included in the journal. The latest volume of Glas is a worthy successor to the first six. Read in its entirety, it provides a fascinating picture of Russian letters today, and an absorbing, if somewhat disturbing psychological portrait of a society in disarray. "The new writers are trying to describe what they see," says editor Natalya Perova. "Life seems to them a string of absurdities. It is a world where human emotions do not mean anything. These 'New Absurdists' are just expressing the spirit of the times." If this is so, then the spirit of the times is one of overwhelming loss and alienation. Suicide, madness, cruelty, and fear are the themes that repeat themselves throughout these pages. Two selections by a young writer from St. Petersburg, Valery Ronshin, illustrate these points. In "Living a Life," Ronshin creates a world without a single positive character. The hero, Trostnikov, is a philosopher, which means that "he did not, on principle, want to do anything." The entire short story is devoted to Trostnikov trying to escape any kind of action at all, while the unsavory characters around him live out their own demented existences. Ronshin's other offering, with the cheery title "We All Died a Long Time Ago," is the tale of a town where many of the residents have "returned" from beyond the grave. Characters are beheaded, burned, and buried alive, with these trials and trepidations having no apparent effect on their physical or emotional well-being. Excerpts from "This Isn't Me," a novel by Alexei Slapovsky, provide some much-needed comic relief. Its hero, Nedelin, has the ability to transmigrate into another person's body. The tale of how he changes places with the General Secretary of the Communist Party combines social satire with good-natured fun: The real General Secretary ends up contented, in an insane asylum, reading children's books like "Winnie the Pooh" and "The Prince and the Pauper." Nedelin becomes a workaholic and suffers a heart attack. Some selections, such as Alexander Sharypov's "The Bedbugs," are highly original in structure and language. The story of a human suicide told from the bedbug's point of view, this tale can be admired for its novel approach to its theme, while the subject matter and the rawness of the language produce an overall impression of gloom. Viktor Pelevin's brilliant novel, "Omon Ra," is featured in excerpt here. It a biting satire that, as editor Perova puts it, "can be compared to Zamyatin's 'We,' Orwell's '1984 'and Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.'" Pelevin received the 1993 Little Booker for his collection of short stories, "The Blue Lantern." There are more traditional works included in the digest as well, such as Vladimir Makanin's "Baize-covered Table with Decanter," the winner of the 1993 Booker prize, which shows us the little man caught in the monstrous machinery of a totalitarian society. Viktor Astafiev, one of the older generation of writers known as the "village prose" group, contributes a beautifully written piece about the cruelty and alienation of young recruits preparing for the front during World War II. Oleg Yermakov's "The Sign of the Beast," which has attracted much attention here and abroad, is the haunting story of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, one of the first attempts to come to terms with this painful theme. The volume as a whole suffers from constraints of form: Excerpts from novels can make for unsatisfying reading, and do not always represent the work as a whole. There are, however, short stories in the volume, which are printed in their entirety. "Booker Winners and Others" is indispensible for anyone interested in contemporary Russian fiction. If it is sometimes distressing reading, we should bear in mind the times it is reflecting, and not blame the mirror for the image it produces. Glas is distributed in Moscow by Natalya Perova. Tel. 441-9157. The books are $10 each.