The Year in World Literature (Vol. 99)

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The Year in World Literature by William Riggan

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The year 1996 in world literature was not one of the most stellar in recent memory, but it did produce a good many points of light in the form of new works and important translations from a broad range of writers both established and just-emerging. Particularly impressive were the number and quality of new works of fiction by writers from Russia and the Far East.

Russian. With Dust and Ashes Anatoli Rybakov concluded his monumental trilogy, Children of the Arbat, this time taking us through the horrors of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and early 1940s down to the fateful battle of Stalingrad and also bringing to a close the sad tale of the ill-fated young lovers Sasha and Varya. Theirs is unfortunately a somewhat mundane story compared to the riveting historical background against which it unfolds. Stalin himself occupies nearly a third of the book, and the resulting portrait of the tyrant is blood-curdling, matched perhaps only by Solzhenitsyn's a quarter-century ago in The First Circle.

In 1992 Mark Kharitonov won the first Russian Booker Prize for his novel Lines of Fate, an Eco-like metafictional detective story about the efforts of a small-town scholar to track down all the writings of an obscure provincial philosopher who scribbled his aphorisms on the backs of candy wrappers. This powerful, important, and charmingly oddball work is now available to the West in an excellent translation by Helen Goscilo. Admirers of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's dark, pessimistic plays and fiction welcomed her new collection of stories, Immortal Love, a title typically ironic in its counterpoint to the often abortive loves and strangling intimacies depicted in the tales themselves. That the stories possess such strong interest and fascination is due in no small measure to the manner of telling, a relentlessly oral, colloquial, and largely uninflected style perfectly suited to the women whose experiences are recounted here.

Vladimir Makanin, who became an overnight sensation in 1993 (after nearly three decades of writing) when his novel Baize-Covered Table with Decanter won the second Russian Booker Prize, is continuing to receive much-belated and much-deserved attention for his subtle, haunting, often surrealistic fiction. In 1996 his two novellas "Escape Hatch" and "The Long Road Ahead" were issue together in translation, and to considerable acclaim. In the latter a young technician at a remote Soviet-style packing plant sometime in the near future exposes the factory as a glorified slaughterhouse processing and packaging real meat as meat substitute for a populace grown too squeamish for violence of any kind; that subversive narrative is later undercut, in good postmodernist style, by the revelation that it contains only the fictive outpourings of an "author" inspired by the fears and delusions of a seriously disturbed friend. In "Escape Hatch" a middle-aged intellectual living in a nightmarish, crumbling metropolis discovers a secret route to an extraordinary, well-lit, civilized underworld where writers and artists and thinkers of all kinds are free to spend whole days and nights in elegant caf├ęs discussing such universal issues as art, politics, sex, life, and death; ultimately, however, he must choose between idyllic refuge here and the responsibilities of trying to protect his family and friends from the growing dangers of the normal world above ground.

Finally, the young Irina Ratushinskaya made an impressive debut in 1996 with a first novel titled The Odessans , described by the publishers as "epic" but in fact more an intimate, personal work than might be inferred from the book's size (410 pages) and sweep (from the 1905 Revolution to the start of World War II). Despite plenteous scenes of revolutionary chaos in Petersburg and the horrors of the Western Front in...

(The entire section contains 3393 words.)

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The Year in World Literature (Vol. 91)