Monday 1 June 2009

Mikhail Zoshchenko

The Galosh and Other Stories, by the Russian author Mikhail Zoshchenko, is one of the new acquisitions now on sale at the Calder bookshop. It is published by Angel Classics, a publishing house committed, since 1982, to introducing fine translations of foreign literature to the British public.

Zoshchenko was born in St Petersburg in 1894 and he became a widely celebrated writer in Russia during the Revolution and Civil War. He was known for his satirical short stories and feuilletons. But it’s about his writing, not about his life, that I would like to write, as there is already a very interesting biographical introduction by his English translator Jeremy Hicks in the Angel edition.

Zoshchenko’s writing has come as a bit of a surprise to me. When I read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita I was pleasantly shocked, because my only exposure to Russian literature had been, so far, through Dostoevsky or Chekhov. These canonical writers are still among my favourite ones, but the notion of the devil talking to a black cat surrounded by a strongly atheistic society was not exactly what I was expecting from a Russian author. That was, as I said, a surprise, but reading Zoshchenko’s short stories I realized that there is still much more to explore and discover about twentieth-century Russian literature. If The Master and Margarita satirized the bureaucratic government in a sort of fantastic and apocalyptic way that even put into question the roots of good and evil, The Galosh and Other Stories, although still a satire of the same order, approaches it in a completely different and original fashion.

Zoshchenko abandons all pomposity and complexity – not because he was ignorant but because he wanted to find a way of communicating with the proletarian classes. His tone is simple, dry and clear: it is like a conversation, like listening to someone telling a story in a bar. At first the short stories, which are very short, might come across as simplistic and lacking profundity, but they are far from it, and despite the fact that they are written in an unpretentious language, there is a lesson – or two – to be learned in each one. The reader’s challenge lies in reading between the lines. It is not what Zoshchenko says, but what he omits that counts. These stories are little satires containing a sharp and rich criticism of the absurdity of Russian politics and its highly bureaucratic government – ranging from a bourgeois man who does not dare to leave his house for fear of being burgled and is unexpectedly trapped – and burgled – by a crafty robber who takes advantage of his greed, to a man who loses his old and ragged galosh in a tram and is very proud of living in a country in which the bureaucratic system enables him to recover it – even after endless hours of paperwork.

The Galosh and Other Stories is a literary treat. The brevity of the stories, their humour and wit, turn it into a pleasant and entertaining read that I strongly recommend to everyone.

Jessica Pujol

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