(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

All Valentin Rasputin’s stories take place in the area around Irkutsk and Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia. All of them are about village life or life in a small town. Most of his characters are peasants or people who have just moved into towns from villages. Almost all the events depicted are of post-World War II vintage, with sporadic flashbacks to the prewar time.

Rasputin’s creativity can be divided into two distinct periods: the first period, from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s, and the second one beginning with the 1980’s. The pause in his writing was caused by the serious injury to his head that he suffered in March of 1980. Apparently, the period of recuperation gave him time to take stock of his career up to that point; as a result, the stories that followed are somewhat different from those written before.

Rasputin’s first stories show characteristics typical of a novice: unassuming subject matter; no stand on issues; somewhat two-dimensional characters, without psychological probing; and a straightforward realistic, almost journalistic, style. As his writing ability progressed, his stories gained in significance. In the first noteworthy story, “Vasilii i Vasilisa” (“Vasily and Vasilisa”), Rasputin is already more interested in the psychological makeup of his characters, while the depiction of village life is used primarily as a frame. Vasily and Vasilisa, husband and wife, at first pass for common villagers coping with daily life and beset with postwar woes and shortages. When Vasily takes another woman for a wife because Vasilisa has refused to live with him, she displays typical signs of jealousy and resentment, and she fights the intruder. Yet when the new woman reveals to Vasilisa her own problems and heartaches, Vasilisa shows remarkable understanding and even willingness to help. Thus, a simple woman seemingly incapable of rising above the common meanness does exactly the opposite. She is the first of a number of remarkable women characters Rasputin has created.

“French Lessons”

Another early story, “Uroki francuzskogo” (“French Lessons”), shows Rasputin’s further progress as a writer. On the surface, it is a charming autobiographical story about Rasputin’s difficult childhood and school days, when he had to play games for money to buy food and avert starvation. His young French teacher attempts to help him by inviting him to eat with her, but he refuses out of dignity. She then makes him play games with her for money and pretends to lose, losing her job in the process. Instead of a simple childhood story, “French Lessons” becomes a story of coming of age and of learning—in inconspicuous fashion—the value of human kindness.

Money for Maria

Rasputin achieved great success with his first novella, Money for Maria. Not only does the plot reveal his growing preoccupation with social problems besetting the Russian peasants, but also his characters are fully credible human beings, not puppets. When Maria—another remarkable female character—faces a deficit in the shop that she manages and is forced either to repay a thousand rubles or to go to jail, the calamity gives her husband, Kuzma, a chance to show his true character. It also gives the villagers a chance to reveal what they are made of. Kuzma goes around asking for loans with varied success but eventually collects the money. What is important here is the characters’ adherence to family life and the sense of solidarity among the villagers, which make up for the state’s shortcomings or fate’s cruel indifference. As one of the helpers says, “A person’s got to have a conscience. We’ve got to help each other without thinking of ourselves. Another time you’d do as much for me....

(The entire section is 1550 words.)