SLEEPWALKER IN A FOG confirms Tatyana Tolstaya’s status as a major new Russian writer, achieved with her first collection of short stories, ON THE GOLDEN PORCH (1989). In her new work, Tolstaya again successfully mixes realistic descriptions of Russian city life with her vivid renditions of a character’s surreal vision of his or her reality. This approach gives Tolstaya’s stories a powerful, personal voice. It also bestows great dramatic tension on pieces such as “Night,” in which the mentally handicapped Alexei imagines a world far more colorful than that of his ordinary companions.
The fantastic enters Tolstaya’s worlds at the moment of a life-deciding struggle. Denisov, the middle-aged failed inventor and poet of SLEEPWALKER’s title story, needs a nightmare to be shaken out of his too conveniently arranged life: When Stalin sent his aunt Rita to a labor camp, the obedient boy promptly “forgot” her. Now, the man Denisov dreams that he fails to share his bread with his aunt during a surreal siege. Waking, he decides to undertake an absurd ordeal to atone for his long lie, and lays Rita’s ghost by getting off his couch.
Betrayal, hurt, and the suffering that results from a single wrong decision are central themes of SLEEPWALKER’s stories. There is the starkly naturalistic “Most Beloved,” in which the old teacher Zhenechka is forsaken by her former pupils and her relatives, who— embarrassed by her simplicity—forbid her contact with her grand-nephew. In “Serafim,” the protagonist loses the white plumage of his angelic wings and turns into a black snake once he betrays his purity by cruelly killing a little dog.
SLEEPWALKER IN A FOG takes its readers on a fantastic voyage. But Tolstaya’s characters are confronted with real ethical conflicts. Fortunately for a delighted reader, most come close to meeting their challenges: like Denisov, they cheerfully accept the fog through which they have to walk towards their goals.
Sources for Further Study
Belles Lettres. VII, Spring, 1992, p. 30.
Booklist. LXXXVIII, February 1, 1992, p. 1013.
London Review of Books. XIV, August 20, 1992, p. 20.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 19, 1992, p. 3.
The New Republic. CCVI, April 6, 1992, p. 36.
The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, May 14, 1992, p. 44.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, January 12, 1992, p. 7.
Time. CXXXIX, January 27, 1992, p. 60.
The Times Literary Supplement. May 1, 1992, p. 20.
The Washington Post Book World. XXII, February 9, 1992, p. 5.