Love Like Water, Love Like Fire: Mikhail Iossel picks apart the great Soviet deceit

Writing in a grand Russian tradition - Mikhail Iossel. Picture: Natalie Olivares

Writing in a grand Russian tradition - Mikhail Iossel. Picture: Natalie Olivares

Mention Russian literature and most readers will be plunged into a world of drippy spiritual semiology and the search for that most artificial of Slavic constructs, the Russian soul.

But coursing beside the unfathomable mainstream of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is an entirely different current, and one that is every bit as iconic, if you will, in Russia's literary history.

Nikolai Gogol set this in motion in the first half of the 19th century with his hilarious satirical play The Government Inspector and the sardonic attack on Russian hypocrisy in his novel Dead Souls.

This current grew into a mighty flow in the 20th century in prose works by some of Russia's greatest-ever authors: Jewish short-story writer Isaac Babel; Mikhail Bulgakov (who created a stage version of Gogol's Dead Souls for director Stanislavsky); and satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, to name but three. They gave us remarkable and caustic autopsies on the massive body of Soviet deceit.

It is with this tradition in mind that I read Mikhail Iossel's brilliant short stories in this new collection titled Love Like Water, Love Like Fire.

Iossel left his native Leningrad in 1986, eventually settling in Montreal, though he has returned a number of times since. While still in the Soviet Union he was active in the samizdat (clandestine publishing) movement.

Iossel has chosen English as his primary literary medium, and he has created a style that is as intriguing and richly suggestive as that of his predecessor, Vladimir Nabokov.

In "The Night Andropov Died" he describes the unrelentingly drab routine of Soviet reality as seen in the lives of security guards at a most unamusing amusement park in Leningrad. The guards are quaffing down the old familiar juice like there is no tomorrow - and, despite all Soviet predictions, there wasn't one - while, in Moscow, General Secretary of the Communist Party Yuri Andropov's kidneys packed in from, it is whispered, his years of suffering from the dreaded gout, once called "the disease of kings".

I love the story "Klodt's Horses", where the narrator (presumably Iossel) and his buddy set out in the city to find out once and for all if the famous horse sculptures on the Anichkov Bridge really have the face of a powerful political figure etched into their scrotums. He pulls no matzo balls in this deliciously absurd tale; the encounter with a most unfriendly militiaman demonstrates that even an innocent guest in that country can lead to the spoiling of everybody's fun.

All fun turns to outright terror in the title story, the longest in this semi-autobiographical book. The year is 1939; the place, Leningrad. The by-word of the times is FEAR. A young mother is awakened in the dead of night by the sound of a black raven coming to a stop in the courtyard of her block of flats. Black raven is a euphemism for the GAZ-M1 cars beloved by the NKVD for their night-time raids on human life.

I felt the terror of the mother as she listens to the footfalls of the secret police ascending the stairs while her husband and daughter remain asleep. Will the sound cease in front of their door, or at the threshold of the lives of others? Decades earlier, her family had decided to emigrate to America. But a storm turned the road to the Gomel train station to mud and they arrived at the dock in Odessa 30 minutes after the boat had sailed. Now that 30 minutes was being prolonged into what seemed an eternity as step after step was becoming increasingly loud.

Then she recalls something a rabbi in the shtetl synagogue once said: the answer was that could be like the fire of Hell or soothing, like water. Can love save you from the most excruciating uncertainties in life, when the arbitrary whim of a dictator or his lackeys can decide who gets a bullet in the back of their skull and who is passed over?

One story is about a child's fleeting meeting with a relative who doesn't really recognise him.

"Dodik, my love, is that you?" his fading great-aunt Roza asks him.

"Dodik? Who was Dodik?" wonders the little Mikhail. "I was no Dodik! What kind of a name was that - Dodik?"

Here Iossel is as much George Burns or Woody Allen as he is his fellow-Jewish writer, Isaac Babel.

The backdrop of many of these stories is the shabby-majestic city of Leningrad and, in general, the old Soviet Union, a place for Jewish people that was at once a home for the many artists and writers who created their own version of Russian culture as it was for the hordes of menacing busybodies and executioners who made their life miserable.

Mikhail Iossel presents us with nothing less than an outlook on that misery, mixed with poignant affection and, even, a good deal of love.

Roger Pulvers' latest book is "Poems 2020".

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This story Writing inside the Soviet Union first appeared on The Canberra Times.