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Memories Of The Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Great writing poorly read
Having read the introduction by translator Joanne Turnbull, I was excited to begin reading Krzhizhanovsky, an author whose published output was stymied no fewer than four times by the strictures of the Communist regime and / or World War II, and is only recently available to buy (thanks in no small measure to NYRB who have at least two selections available). The introduction and the website reviews promised surrealism, dark subversive humour and avant garde satire. What I found was all of these things, but also, an obliqueness that prevented me from truly enjoying it. 

I wonder if it's just me. At the time, I was going through the dissolution of a six-year marriage, so justifiably my mind may have been elsewhere. I was reading whilst waiting in the car for other people, at my desk in my noisy office during my 'lunch hour', and at home only as a distraction given my new bolt-hole had yet to be graced with Ethernet or Wi-Fi connectivity. I was also reading the unauthorized Tom Waits biography by Barney Hoskyns which was much more directly entertaining, undemanding, and therefore alluring. In addition, alternating aural distraction was provided by both the music of Tom Waits' entire back-catalogue on repeat (minus Orphans which I have as yet insufficient capital to secure) and the meditative tone of Mr President, Barack Obama, reading his own biography. So plenty going on there.

This left me missing quite a lot of the humour, the references to the political and social upheavals of post-revolution Russia, and I only gently touched the surface of his writing like a butterfly on an anvil. At times I felt like a cell in my own body, functioning on programming only with no concept of the larger body, in this sense the writing from Russia around this period. I'd lost my context for the book, despite having read quite a lot from this period by Soviet authors and others looking into the country. In the stories' defense, their images, or themes as his fictional writer would put it, are striking and direct: an Eiffel Tower pulling up its iron feet and running amok, being lured by the siren call of Communism from Russia and being frantically hailed by the Capitalist West in an attempt to stop it defecting; a corpse missing its own funeral and shipping up at the grave-digger's house for help, being carted around the city trying to talk to someone in the bureaucracy to get the mistake registered and resolved, only for the corpse to be rejected by every office as it didn't have the correct paperwork so didn't exist; and in the longest, eponymous piece of the collection, a young boy fascinated by the workings of his father's clock grows up to create a time machine which propels him into the future for a glimpse of the inauspicious future of Communist Russia, and whose own manuscript of the experiment is rejected by his publisher for being too shocking to the establishment and therefore unpublishable.

Recollecting these things does bring back a small smile to my face, so there must have been some small, unrecognized reaction to the writing, the content, the themes, my Homo-Sovieticus radar bleeping faintly in a room where no-one was watching. In hindsight, therefore, I can only blame myself for not appearing to enjoy what is quite possibly a great selection of short stories, one I should probably re-read at a later date. Go, buy, make your own mind up.

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