Review by Mark Shechner
The present situation for Jewish writers and their readers bears little resemblance to the scene of just two decades ago. It has been so transformed as to be scarcely recognizable. If there is a prior state of affairs, however, in which our time can see itself in an historical mirror it would be the ferment of the early 20th century, the springtime of Jewish writing in America, when writers ambitious to speak for their culture and their moment commonly had at least two languages to choose from, Yiddish and English. We know that some even wrote in Hebrew, and who now remembers the names of those whose also wrote in Russian and Polish? Who recalls Dusk in the Catskills by Reuben Wallenrod, published in 1957? Wallenrod doesn’t appear in any of the standard histories. Nor will he any time soon. He wrote fiction in Hebrew.
The contemporary moment recycles history in this sense: much of it is fueled by émigrés from abroad who work in multiple languages: a handful still in their native tongues, but most in English, sometimes a decentered English under the tonal canopy of another language. The FSU (former Soviet Union) writers are the most remarkable cases in point. 2014 alone has seen the publication of books by Lara Vapnyar (The Scent of Pine), Anya Ulinich (Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel: A Graphic Novel), Gary Shteyngart (Little Failure: A Memoir), Boris Fishman (A Replacement Life), David Bezmozgis (The Betrayers), and David Shrayer-Petrov (Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories). And that is just a single year’s production. These writers are either themselves members of the refusenik generation that forced open the prison gates of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s or their children. Wherever they settled, they brought with them their passion for the written word, their febrile imaginations, and their stories.
David Shrayer-Petrov, born in 1936, continues to write in Russian, though he has lived in the United States since 1987 where, besides writing, he has worked as a doctor. Though he has a reputation in Russian émigré circles, his name is little known in American discussions, even though Syracuse University Press has previously published two volumes of his fiction: Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America (2003) and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories (2006). Both books were edited by his son Maxim Shrayer, a professor at Boston College and himself a fiction writer: Yom Kippur in Amsterdam (Syracuse, 2012).
Dinner with Stalin consists of fourteen short stories plus annotations by Maxim Shrayer: a literary-scholarly collaboration that is usually reserved for writers in translation. Sans the apparatus, Shrayer-Petrov’s stories still speak powerfully for themselves, but the annotations testify to their embededness; their tendrils of connection to a world outside the fiction. The notes don’t explain the stories; they ground them in history.
A handful of Shrayer-Petrov’s stories are fabulist tales. “Behind the Zoo Fence,” “The House of Edgar Allen Poe,” and “Where Are You, Zoya?” feature animals with the magical power to intercede in human affairs: a hippopotamus whose bellowing brings a dying woman back to life; a golden-eyed beetle that knows the way to treasure; and a wild turkey in Cape Cod that is believed to embody the spirit of a nurse in Siberia. But even in an animal fable like “Where Are You, Zoya?” (Zoya being the nurse who has gilguled into the turkey) the tragic history of a Russian poet – based on an actual one – is threaded into the fable. This is the role of the notes: to highlight the shadows of a real past. Not even Russian-speaking readers will know all the history that Maxim Shrayer discloses in his twenty-five pages of notes.
For all Shrayer-Petrov’s characters, history is the nightmare from which they are trying to awake: nightmares shared at dinner parties, over beer, whisky, caviar, shashlik. Many are tales of transformation: the reader may want to think of I.B. Singer or Nicolai Gogol. Azeris in Azerbaijan reveal their secret heritage as Jews (“White Sheep on a Green Mountain Slope”); marionettes embody archetypal terrors: a bloodthirsty Turk with a scimitar, (Mimicry”); the smallest details open up landscapes of horror. Stalin shows up for dinner (“Dinner with Stalin”). Actually he is an actor from Georgia whose yellow, widely–spaced teeth, classic mustache, and pipe and tobacco mannerisms are exact. In talking of the Azeris and the Armenians, he breaks out into Marxist agitational clichés, “Both groups are bourgeois nationalists undermining the friendship of brotherly nations in the Caucuses.” The impersonation ends badly; the acting has been too faithful to the original for an audience of the haunted, for whom Stalin has always been there for dinner, night after night after night.
The tension between tragic history and fictional fabling gives David Shrayer-Petrov’s stories a special traction and thrust, and Maxim Shrayer, as their editor, has done a masterful job of having this unique collection of stories translated and annotated. One hopes the book will not get lost.
NB: The stories in Dinner with Stalin were all written in Russian and translated into English by a team of seven translators under the direction of Maxim Shrayer.
Mark Shechner’s latest publication is the forthcoming anthology, The New Diaspora: The Changing Landscape of Jewish-American Fiction, of which he is a co-editor. The book will be published in late 2014 by Wayne State University Press.