They passed on, their personal suns went out, and there was no one left to speak of them, to think of them and to tell their stories, to laugh and shake one’s head while remembering.
I loved each of these stories, from tales about art, love and loss, politics and war, childhood and aspic, there wasn’t one story that didn’t captivate me. How does a man falling in love with a marble statue lead to losing his wife and children? Is a gypsy to be believed when she tells a woman every man who loves her will die? How does a life go on with the sad order of ‘vitamin drops in the eyes’ and ‘big stiff pillows in her bed’, as if love just flew out the window?
The artist Kazimir Malevich in The Square makes quite a name for himself after painting a thick black square the ‘most famous, most frightening, enigmatic painting known to man’. The author ties an experience Leo Tolstoy had years before that to the meaning behind the painting. The dissection that follows is engaging, death meets life, and expresses itself through art, a sort of terror facing us all.
Aspic reminded me of the horror facing me in the refrigerator when I was 4 years old. In Hungary they call it kocsonya, a pork broth that is jellied, cold after setting in the fridge in which is suspended pig knuckles, rinds, and ears. It’s more of an entire meal for us and nothing in the world could get me to have another bite when I was little. As an adult, my palate craves the foods my family made but that niggling fear from childhood always rises. I laughed when she wrote, “Truth be told, I’ve always been a little afraid of it, since childhood.” Because it can be intimidating. I am reminded of my childhood friends staring at some of our other dishes while at my house, curious, afraid (even if it was just chicken paprikash because so many american children hated vegetables, and who ate cooked peppers floating in gravy in the 80’s). We always ended up throwing a burger or hotdog on for said friend. That fear always came alive in me in the face of kocsonya, much to the shame of my grandparents.
In Smoke and Shadows, it feels like an affair against her desires. How can she possibly be in love with Eric, this man who is so very limited and yet she is. She sits down and eats the meal his wife prepared, imaging hatred in the woman’s heart. It could be the exoticism he projects on her Russian background that has him enraptured. But what is it about him that has made her love for him obsessive. She sinks into a fantasy about his wife, that witch Emma.
The Invisible Maiden was my favorite, with one of the best lines I’ve read in years. “Growing in it were yellow lilies that smelled like mermaids.” What a beautiful sentence, lilies that smell like mermaids, how perfect. The family arrives at the dacha, and prepares it for their stay. It’s atmospheric, I fancied myself alongside them all, inhaling the smell of fried potatoes, cozy in the warmth. Who knew kombucha could be a pet, this before kombucha became all the rage with Americans aspiring to be healthy. Each character is a creation, alive as you and me. Curly, the ‘imbecile’ who built the dacha, and how he came by the moniker tickled me. The grannies, oh the wonderful grannies Aunty Lola and Klavdia Alekseevna and their sad, beautiful habits. This chapter would make a wonderful novel, dare I hope? I wanted to get lost in this family and remain.
The stories are full of humor, wit and intelligence whether about love, death, politics or tradition each is engaging and invoked memories of my own childhood. I could be laughing about her cynical take on life or feeling gutted over a disappearing , an old woman simply left with nothing and hoping to fade quietly. Tales from the Russian perspective, wonderful! I understand why Tatyana Tolstaya is a celebrated author.
Publication Date: March 20, 2018
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group