This is a recurring dream, the kind that lingers, and lately it has become more frequent. And it takes a while to realize that you are not, in fact, standing in front of the brick apartment building, its doorway cavernous and warm, your hands in your pockets, cigarette smoke leaking slowly between your lips and into the frozen air. It takes you a while to even remember that you’ve quit smoking year ago. And yet, here it is, clinging to the collar of your winter coat in a persistent, suffocating cloud, and you can taste it still.
It takes you even longer to remember why you dream about this building on the outskirts of Moscow – that you used to live there, but this is not why; you’re there because of the boy who used to live in the same building but the other entrance. You cannot remember his name or whether you were really friends or just nodded to each other, passing like boats in the lonely concrete sea of the yard, a fringe of consumptive poplars looking nothing like the palms of the tropical isles neither of you were ever likely to see. You know, that there was never any unpleasant physicality between the two of you, even after you learned to throw your body between yourself and whoever was trying to get too close. (You Dream, page 64)
I do not do zombies, werewolves, or vampires – in movies or in books. And I tend to stay away from horror books in general. They all give me bad dreams, something I strive to avoid. So I was somewhat leery about reading Ekaterina Sadia’s collection of short stories Moscow But Dreaming because I had heard they contained some ghost stories (borderline for me) and looking at the table of contents did not make my uneasy go away as one of the stories is titled Zombie Lenin and another called There is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed.
But I decided to take a chance which is one of the great things about short story collections – you can read at your leisure in small bursts of time, jump around as the spirit moves you, even stop. So I thought if things got too hairy for me I would skip the story or just stop reading. And then I read the first story and her prose sucked me in and I was completely lost in the world she was building. The story, A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas, is exactly what title says it is with a short description of each lunar sea. But this is Sedia’s world, not the world of reality, and each description becomes a little vignette or mini-story. I was hard pressed to pick a favorite entry as the first entry blew me away but I settled for this one to show you what this author is capable of:
2. The Sea of Rains (Mare Imbrium)
The inhabitants of this sea are used to rain It is a sea in name only, any empty basin long ago abandoned by water. But it rains every day. Sometimes, instead of water, flower petals fall from the sky; sometimes, it rains wooden horses and rubber duckies.
One rain everyone still remembers occurred a few years ago, when words fell from the sky. It did not stem for weeks, and the words filled the empty basin to overflowing. The inhabitants groaned and suffocated under the weight of accumulated regrets, promises, lies, report cards, great literature, pop songs, and shopping lists. They would surely perish unless something was done soon.
The council of the elders decided that they should drain the accumulated words, and in the course of their deliberations they realized that the words falling from the sky slowed down. So they decreed that it was the civic duty of every citizen to use up as many words as possible.
They bought telephones, and started telemarketing campaigns: they complained about their health and spun long tales for their children; they took to poetry.
Within days, the rain stopped; in the next month, the sea ran dry. Today, the inhabitants of this sea are mute, and the basin is empty – unless it rains nightingale songs or tiny blue iridescent fish. (A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas, pages 15-16)
Yes there are ghosts, and a zombie, and sadness, and darkness but the prose kept me reading each and every story and there were no nightmares that followed. Not all the stories are unhappy but there is a feeling of melancholy that pervades the collection. Ekaterina Sedia is a Russian-born fantasy author who has written several novels as well as short-stories. She mixes the realism of Russia with the folklore of that country (as well as others), history with magical realism, building worlds within worlds with exquisite language. She is very interested in the role of heroes both in the stream of real events as well as in fiction itself:
I think most of us are reactive though, ” I tell Veronica. “It take a hero to be able to shape the circumstance rather than follow them. You know how only main characters in books manage to shape their own destiny and the rest just follow? I think it’s the same in human history. (Chapaev and the Coconut Girl, page 133)
Shaping of circumstances in the face of starvation, war, rape, child abuse, etc. is a reoccurring theme throughout the book with many stories serving as a social commentary on both the Russia of the 1980’s and 90’s as well as the world itself. The stories are not filled with light happy moments – instead they picture both despair and desperation, loss of voice and loss of identity but they also ring so true and are written so well that I felt compelled to continue on. And I felt her use of mythology and folklore add the right touch of seasoning – added a layer of depth to the tales so they linger in your head in a good way. Sedia has excellent control over her lyrical prose and I look forward to reading more of her work.
It was very hard to choose a favorite story. I liked The Bank of Burkina Faso because of its twist on those soliciting emails asking for help in accessing funds, emails that we receive in our in-boxes. In the story dogs serve as a central plot device in a very clever way. The previously mentioned There is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed highlights the difficulty of foreign adoption, the difficult circumstances in orphanages combined with the iconic image of the monster we fear lives under the bed. It reminded me of Carlos Santana’s wonderful song, Put the Lights On. But I think my favorite story was A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets. The story starts with a sock puppet sitting in a drawer waiting:
I stare at the ceiling from my drawer, feeling empty and happy. If I squint, the crystals of the popcorn relief above me catch moonlight and sparkle, transformed into tiny stars right before my eyes. I have hours until the morning comes and steals my solitude.” (page 201)
The puppet works with severely autistic children and forms a bond with one of the boys. I liked the story because it highlighted a concern I saw in many of Sedia’s stories – the importance of having your own voice and speaking your own truth. Powerful just like Sedia’s work in this book. Now I have to find a copy of The Secret History of Moscow.
Read Full Post »