Valery Ronshin. Living a Life: Totally Absurd Tales

Valery Ronshin. Living a Life: Totally Absurd Tales

Victor Terras

Valery Ronshin. Living a Life: Totally Absurd Tales. Jose Alaniz, Kathleen Cook, trs. Moscow. Glas (Northwestern University Press, distr.). 2002. 208 pages. $17.95. ISBN 5-7172-0060-9

IN HIS BRIEF INTRODUCTION to Living a Life, Jose Alaniz, one of several translators of Valery Ronshin’s stories, makes several valid observations concerning Ronshin’s stories. He suggests that some may consider these stories a fair representation of daily life in Russia by virtue of being both stultifyingly repetitious and dangerously unpredictable. This reviewer believes that the reason for this condition is the absence of form in Russian life today and in Ronshin’s stories. There can be such a thing as an absurd existence, but it is not a universal condition, and it is the job of those whose life is not absurd to help those whose life is meaningless. Writers are among those who may find a cure for their own sense of living and absurd life by describing their experience of an absurd world.

This is not what Ronshin does. He invents some absurd situations, then works very hard at creating still more absurdities until his imagination fails him. For instance, he introduces a Doctor Gogol, who decides to dig up the coffin of his great namesake only to discover that it is empty. This leads him to lie down in the coffin and fall asleep, which results in his being buried alive. But the story continues: the doctor is dug up unharmed. After some digressions, Ronshin decides to return to the digging up of more coffins. Pushkin’s coffin contains a drunken wench. She is the alcoholic wife of Professor Pankin, a distinguished scholar. The coffins of Tolstoy, Akhmatova, and Blok fare no better. The last, Dostoevsky’s, contains two men (one of whom is academician Vasilenko) making love to a stark-naked girl.

What’s wrong with this story is not that it is mildly pornographic, nor that it abuses the memory of Pushkin. There is not a single credible detail in the plot, but this is also true of some fine works of world literature. What is wrong with this story is that it limps along on a single concetto (digging up a grave and not finding the person buried there) and that it has no plot and no point, save the one it shares with the other stories of the collection: the notion that there is no difference between life and death.

Victor Terras

Brown University

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