August 24, 2009
Review of Sana Krasikov's One More Year: Stories (New York: Random House, 2009)
The short story collection One More Year delivers what its title hints at: a reading experience of floating for one more year as an immigrant between cultures. In short, it's depressing yet poignant enough that you feel you've learned something when you're done reading and don't completely want to kill yourself. If you've wondered what it's like to spend a year in limbo between the former Soviet Union and the United States, as well as two mentalities, you've hit the Borscht BINGO.
Having been in the same situation, that is, leaving Russia with my parents when I was 5, I can attest to first-time author Sana Krasikov's descriptions of life in the ether between the Soviet Union and America. In the book, there are eight short stories, each coming at immigrant life from a slightly different perspective. Each story is introspective, somber and melancholy. That is, each story is very Russian. Even having grown up in a household constantly obsessed with the vicissitudes of switching societies, this book sent me to the reflective doldrums. From the first story of Ilona Siegel from Tbilisi, Georgia, divorced and living with an elderly roommate in New York state, the deep, even sonorous, atmosphere descends on you as if you are descending in a bathysphere into the ocean and the pressure quietly closes in. (Did I mention this book is extremely melancholy? )
For me, each character borders on the vaguely familiar, from people I know directly or those my family gossips about, which, I suspect, was also Krasikov's research method. There is the young student, Anya, who left provincial Dolsk (near Nizhniy Novogord, coincidentally my birth place), seeking a chance in America, but instead finding herself in a miserable marriage of convenience. There is Maia, forced to scrape by in Yonkers as she struggles to provide for her son, Gogi, in Tbilisi. When he comes to visit, he is filled with an inexplicable attitude of dissent. There is Lev, living comfortably with his wife, Dina, in the New York suburbs when his niece comes to visit, asking for money and breaking up their suburban routine. Somber and realistic, Krasikov paints a picture of life in Russia, America and in the fog of lost souls in between.
One of my favorite stories in the book is "The Alternate," which details how a Russian Jew, Victor, lives with a Russian woman, Vera, and thinks back to his past as a student in St. Petersburg after he meets the daughter of his former girlfriend from his hometown of Zhitomir, Ukraine. What I most enjoyed in this story is that I can relate to it the most. I am also the byproduct of a mixed marriage; my father is Russian and my mom is Russian Jewish, resulting in some interesting situations around the house. We have both icons and menorahs in our house, and guilting my dad into going to services on Friday is as regular of an occurrence as my dad guilting my mom into letting him wear his cross around the house. In the beginning of the story, they are at a Jewish wedding, and the talk turns to kippot:
"Back when we lived in Queens," Vera interrupted, "we knew one Modern Orthodox couple." She glanced over at Victor, then carried on. "They had a little girl and two boys. Sometimes the boys wore their kippahs, sometimes they didn't. Maybe they thought God performed spot inspections." "Wait until it's our turn for a spot inspection," [Victor] said morbidly. His wife stared at him in bewilderment, a small crease of spite forming in between her thin brows. He knew what that look meant: when exactly had he become such a big Jew? And all he'd done was start reading those Telushkin books before bed.
In that brief paragraph, Krasikov captures the epitome of so much of Russian-Jewish marriage, a situation that I've noticed before countless times (in my own family, jokingly, and in others, with the same level of tension as the author depicts). Krasikov nails it perfectly, down to the crease in the brow and the Telushkin books. I actually was just skimming our collection when I was home a couple weeks ago. That Telushkin guy really has a lot to say about Jewish joy.
The other thing I've wondered about and laud as I was rereading parts of the book is how she manages to pin down adult immigrant emotions so accurately. Krasikov herself was only 8 when she came to the United States. I've noticed with children of immigration, such as myself, that our understanding of immigration is shaped as much by what our parents tell us as by our own memories. Her extrapolation to adulthood only highlights her skill in these tightly crafted stories.
In addition to creating a whole world for those who might have never been exposed to post-Soviet nationals and Russian Jews (lucky you,) her similes and metaphors are sometimes the best part of the work. She writes about a character's trip to Moscow:
In the metro, I was met by the usual ocean of dour faces. My God, I thought, these people have chandeliers in their subway. They have sculpted arches and mosaics. Their stations look better than the halls of some universities! Couldn't they at least be delighted about that? It was as if everyone in Moscow was suffering from exactly the same toothache. And soon enough, I'd be suffering from it, too.
So if you are looking to get insight into immigration or a perspective on your own, give One More Year a try. Prepare to be a little depressed, but a lot enlightened.