In Maria Reva’s Kafkaesque satire, puzzled occupants discover their Soviet tower block doesn’t exist

In Maria Reva’s Kafkaesque satire, puzzled occupants discover their Soviet tower block doesn’t exist

Set in one apartment block, the short stories in Good Citizens Need Not Fear draw on the absurd to show the ways that state power governs life in Soviet and post-Soviet society.

12 May 2020

“We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us,” goes the old Soviet joke. Mutual collusion in the workplace is one thing, but what happens when things become more existential; when the truth is closer to, “we exist, and they pretend we don’t”? This is the farcical situation Daniil faces in the opening of Maria Reva’s accomplished debut short story collection, Good Citizens Need Not Fear. When Daniil enquires about the lack of heat in his apartment block, Ivansk 1933, a municipal clerk replies, “The building does not exist, Citizen.” “What do you mean?” says Daniil. “I live there.”

Daniil’s Kafkaesque encounter — based on Reva’s father’s own experiences — acts as a kind of overture for a series of equally absurd, darkly comical, and tender vignettes of life in Soviet Ukraine. Reva, a writer and opera librettist, was born in Ukraine but grew up in Canada. As a Soviet-born writer working in English, she is in good company, joining Sana Krasikov (The Patriots), Keith Gessen (A Terrible Country), Lara Vapnyar (Divide Me by Zero) — contemporary authors who reflect on the region’s recent past.

Each of Reva’s nine stories — split into those occurring before and after the fall of communism — relate to the inhabitants of Ivansk 1933, the building which does and does not seem to exist. Characters appear, fall from view, and reappear throughout the stories, lending the collection a satisfying and mildly claustrophobic air, as we are invited into the uniform hallways, and are greeted with the aroma of boiled vegetables and alienation. The building’s perceived non-existence is heightened by the dearth of information about the outside world that penetrates its walls, as if the major political movements of the late 1980s and early 1990s are taking place in a different dimension: “an invisible hand was loosening the screws,” writes Reva, “but it was impossible to tell which screws, and for how long the loosening would last.”

The truth is, Ivansk 1933 didn’t fall off the grid. Rather, it never made it on. We later learn the tower block was built with leftover materials from a different construction project. In other words, it stood surplus to requirement, an extra cog in the state’s vast machine of hyper-efficiency. A similar obsolescence seems to shadow the block’s inhabitants. Reva’s characters also find themselves unaccounted for by the state, considered defective, unuseful. In “Little Rabbit”, the orphaned Zaya winds up in a psychoneurological internat (an orphanage for disabled children), where she is told by the director: “To build a rocket you need parts, and sometimes you get a crooked bolt, a leaky valve. These have to be thrown away. If they aren’t, the rocket won’t launch.” Reva writes movingly about the horrific conditions of Zaya’s care, the bluntness of her prose reflecting a clinical indifference: “According to the director’s classification of infants, the Threes have a minor defect. Twos are blind and/or deaf. Skin disorders and ambiguous genitalia fit the criteria, too.” In the story that follows, “Letter of Apology”, we are told “the party was magnanimous and forgiving”. Reva’s satire is never overdone but, rather, hums in the background like the muffled sounds of a neighbour’s television.

“Mother says we’re living in an age of freedom. Aunt Milena says we’re living in an age of fifteen brands of sausage, which is not the same as freedom.”

In “Bone Music”, we are introduced to Smena, who makes money illegally, copying vinyl records onto X-rays: “She had begun copying bootlegged albums in the postwar years, when she and her husband were desperate for money, and radiographic film was the cheapest, most readily accessible form of plastic,” we are told. Smena embodies the Russia sociologist Yuri Levada’s idea of the “wily man” (or woman), a term coined in 2000, that sought to express the attitude of the post-Soviet citizen towards the state as a kind of doublethink, involving both submission to, and deception of, political authority. In Reva’s stories, the cast of Ivansk 1933 are wily not as a means to pursue economic or social capital, but rather insofar as it creates pockets of space in which they can feel free, protected, alive. “As long as [Smena] stayed in her space, twelve by twelve steps, she would be safe,” writes Reva.

The fall of communism and the influx of tourists also allowed for the “wily man” to engage in a bit of capitalist fun. In “Roach Brooch”, where Smena’s X-ray records reappear, Reva exquisitely captures the dawn of Soviet trauma tourism in one scene that wouldn’t look out of place in an Armando Iannucci script. As tourists trawl through the scans of broken bones and tumours in a market stall, she describes their perverse desire for these prints to be the markings of Chernobyl victims. “The tourists don’t want to say the dirty word themselves,” writes Reva, “but are itching to hear it, pronounced authentically by this kerchiefed babushka.” And later: “At the word ‘Chernobyl’, the tourists have their wallets out.”

The condition we call exile: American-Ukrainian novelist Yelena Moskovich on losing her mother tongue
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Caught up in this chaotic new marketplace, Zaya too, now older and freed from the horrors of the internat, works for a company that provides Gulag-like experiences for paying clients, one of which is a recreation of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The thoughtful, hard-nosed Zaya finds it “as demeaning for her to play the villain as it is for the clients to play the victim”. Meanwhile, her colleague Almaza takes a different, more capitalist, approach: “Ivan Denisovich had one bad day, and got a whole memoir out of it … Imagine the creative possibilities.” This new post-Soviet freedom all feels rather disappointing. While some express Almaza’s sanguine entrepreneurialism, most of Reva’s characters seem to be bewildered, asking, “is this it?” In ‘Miss USSR’, at the inaugural pageant, “no one seemed to know what they were doing or where they should go”. In ‘The Ermine Coat’, one character grapples with the meaning (and meaninglessness) of choice: “Mother says we’re living in an age of freedom. Aunt Milena says we’re living in an age of fifteen brands of sausage, which is not the same as freedom.” Others want to wind the clock back altogether, such as a group of campers who grew up in the internat, and now choose to re-enter its grounds. If each of Reva’s characters have different visions of a post-communist world, they all seem to be bought from the same black market of hope.

Images of construction and deconstruction jostle for space throughout Reva’s collection, not only in relation to Ivansk 1933. Unmissable from the changing topography is the toppling of the statue of Lenin that stood imperiously in Reva’s opening story, “Novostroika”. When Zaya returns to Kirovka in the book’s closing story “Homecoming”, she “spots a concrete pedestal, from the old Lenin statue. Only his feet remain now, big as bathtubs, rusty rebar curving from them like veins.” Lenin’s thundering absence recalls the demolition of statues of Lenin across Ukraine that began in the early 1990s, a phenomenon that later came to be known as Leninopad (or the Fall of Lenin in English). The story brings Reva’s fiction into conversation with an immediate political present, as Ukraine continues to chart its path beyond communism and, more recently, Maidan.

Political time and human time don’t always align, however. What Reva delicately shows is that even seismic changes such as the Soviet Union’s collapse, can leave much of life’s everyday flotsam unchanged. Residents still complain about cracks in the buildings. The potatoes still need to be boiled. There is a surplus of nostalgia and a constant shortage of money. Will the newly powerful bring more prosperity than their predecessors? Will they see the Zayas of this earth as more than broken parts? Zaya herself leaves us with a characteristically poetic and foreboding remark: “The forest is full of beasts,” she says. “We’ve got to keep them out.”

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