Sleepwalker in a Fog

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The fantastic and the absurd are never far away in the worlds envisioned in Tatyana Tolstaya’s Sleepwalker in a Fog, a collection of short stories firmly rooted in the author’s experience of life in her native Russia. The presence of the supernatural and surreal gives a special edge to Tolstaya’s stories and enriches their handling of issues of Soviet society, personal guilt, lost love, the desire for evil, and the amoral pranks of practiced tricksters. In the title story of this collection, for example, the marginal poet Denisov seeks to remedy his feeling of moral failure and utter historic insignificance by embarking on a quixotic quest for a special imported china cabinet. Once obtained, the cabinet is to be given to the family of a dead mountain climber for the deceased person’s “heroic” deeds in his profession.

What may appear utterly ridiculous on the surface is also an accomplished author’s serious attempt to come to terms with the often bitter experience of many people who lived in the former Soviet Union. Denisov’s spiritual crisis, for example, begins with his denial of “the existence of Australia, nature’s mistake” as he lies on his bed, pondering a map of the world pinned to the wall. For a reader familiar with Soviet life, this apparently random, absurd behavior can be seen as a deliberate literary allusion: Denisov is caught in an act reminiscent of Joseph Stalin’s official propagation of the absurd biological hypotheses claiming, among other things, that wheatstalks could grow rye. In tune with this historical grounding of fantasy, Tolstaya centers Denisov’s bottomless feelings of guilt on his less-than-perfect reaction to the deportation of his aunt Rita in the terrible last years of Stalin’s dictatorship: “And she disappeared, and Denisov’s mother ordered him never to ask about her again. To forget. Denisov obeyed and forgot. Her perfume flacon, all that remained of her,…he traded…for a penknife.” This moral failure gives him nightmares that propel him to search for the chance “to lead some small, pure movement” as an act of contrition. Characteristically for the world of Sleepwalker in a Fog, he is to find his opportunity in his quest for the china cabinet. In the end, the piece can be obtained only if Denisov crawls under the banquet table of a corrupt, drunken Communist Party boss. As Denisov submits, however, he is suddenly set free from his nightmares. He is left with a chance to break through the fog of guilt and lies that has shrouded his life.

The title story “Sleepwalker in a Fog” confines the supernatural to Denisov’s dreams. “Serafim” goes a step further and introduces a “real” angel. The reader, however, is invited to take Serafim’s wings as nonchalantly as do his fellow bus passengers. One of them advises Serafim to take a taxi, since his wings occupy so much space.

“Serafim” derives much of its humor from exactly this ultrarationalistic acceptance of the surreal, yet at its core lies a warning against separation from the pulse of communal life and inhuman cruelty. Obsessed with his purity, Serafim rather unangelically looks down on ordinary people and rejects everybody’s attempt at communication. After he kills a little dog for coming too close to him, however, Serafim awakens to find himself transformed into an ugly serpent whom boys taunt as he rushes to his bus stop.

Stylistically, “Serafim” is a powerful indicator of how strongly contemporary Russian writers such as Tolstaya still feel the urge to fight the dictates of the old Soviet realism, under the guidelines of which such a story would have been nearly impossible to publish. This rebellious emphasis on the personal, internal, dreamlike, and surreal, employed for humorous effect in “Serafim,” is characteristic of all the stories in Sleepwalker in a Fog. Each story, however, emphasizes subjective experience (which may or may not cross into the realm of the outright fantastic) to rather different effect. In “Night,” for example, it is revealed that the mentally retarded mind of Alexei Petrovich stands behind this seemingly nonsensical sensory experience: “How the glue smells! Soft, sour, muffled, like the letter F!” Alexei’s own logic works, however, to let him survive with his mother in the mundane world of a residential complex, the drabness of which Tolstaya describes in hauntingly realistic detail.

Tolstaya’s focus on her central characters’ personal experiences works well for those of her stories that, like “The Moon Came Out” and “Most Beloved,” deal with the topic of irreversible loss. Unlike...

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