New York, NY: New York Review Books, 2019. 312 pages. $17.95.
The Russian cardiologist Maxim Osipov joins Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov as doctor-writers who composed exacting diagnoses of modern Russian life. Since 2007, he has published five collections of short stories in his native language, in addition to a number of plays, essays, and novellas. He rose to fame after the publication of a memoir and social critique, “In My Native Land,” which wryly described his pleasures and frustrations as a doctor in his provincial town of Tarusa, the idiosyncrasies of his patients, and the ineptitude of local and national officials in their running of his hospital. He has only recently become something of a literary phenomenon in the English-speaking world with the arrival of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories, his first English short story collection from the New York Review of Books and translators Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson. Osipov has bristled at comparisons with Chekhov because he believes they are a form of typecasting. But one cannot help but characterize his stories as Chekhovian because they are tough, ironic, unsentimental, yet humane. His stories are typically bleak and despairing with rare moments of grace and redemption. Osipov practices an unforgiving form of realism, one his Russian publisher describes as a precise “cardiogram of Russian life.” He focuses an intense scrutiny on his characters until they reveal themselves in all their virtues, flaws, and existential uncertainties.
Osipov’s stories are usually concerned with wearied but hardy characters who have adapted to unsatisfying but tolerable lives. Their routines are violently interrupted by catastrophic events in the forms of betrayal, political upheaval, illness, and death. The characters are deeply affected by these crises and are moved to epiphanies and existential questioning of their lives. In “After Eternity: The Notes of a Literary Director,” a teacher of literature, Alexander Ivanovich, has been the literary director of a theater in the remote town of Eternity for much of his life. After decades of living in the town, he hears the Russian government has ordered the annihilation of Eternity in a test of the destructive capacity of its new long-range cruise missiles. Ivanovich is forced to abandon his home and job and resettle in a foreign town. He reflects on his years as a literary director, worries about his failing health, and wonders about how to fill the remainder of his life. In the eponymous story, Ksenia Nikolayevna Knysh is the owner of a dumpling restaurant and the head of the legislative assembly in a small town in Central Russia. One of her beloved employees, Roxana, is a Tajik, a minority in the area, and a devout Muslim. Roxana kills a local official in an alleged act of self-defense. Ksenia visits Roxana in jail, is moved by the Tajik’s faith, and experiences something of a spiritual awakening.
The structures of Osipov’s most ambitious stories are as intricate and multifaceted as those of novels. They often illuminate multiple linked perspectives, as if they were shards of mirrors, each angled differently, whose oblique reflections combine to form nuanced, panoramic portraits of provincial Russian life. In “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” Osipov shifts between Ksenia’s sober, diaristic account of her dealings with her townspeople, the writings of a local school teacher, Sergey Sergeyevich, and Roxana’s thoughts regarding her unshakeable belief in her Islamic faith. Ksenia is the most central, but all three emerge as fully rounded characters with textured histories. Osipov’s three characters describe their relationships with their respective Gods. Roxana discovered her faith after she lost her father and her love for Russian literature and kept an intense devotion to her Islamic God ever since. Sergeyevich gradually lost his faith in God after the death of a brilliant student toward whom he had romantic feelings. Ksenia believes that the town priest “can’t give a clear answer to a single question” and that God is indebted to her after the early death of her daughter. Osipov’s structure permits an inquiry of modern religious faith by creating a dialogue between the believer, the lapsed believer, and the skeptic. The story is about the possibility of religious faith in a cruel, unjust world, one that seems to have been abandoned by God. Sergeyevich articulates the essential question posed by this story when he asks himself—“Do I, finally, believe in God?”
The stories are absorbed with the ways in which we mend the broken parts of ourselves. The arcs of these stories resemble long, fitful stays in a hospital. The characters fall physically and spiritually ill and recover their health after enduring tumultuous periods of sickness. In “The Waves of the Sea,” the priest Sergey Petrovich has lost his faith in his abilities as a priest and has become estranged from his wife. He loses his dog and falls ill after what he believes to be a heart attack. In the hospital ward, he experiences a moment of epiphany when he develops a kinship with another patient, an unsuccessful, blocked writer writhing in the adjacent bed. He recognizes himself in the writer because they are both lost, literary souls, uncertain of what to do next, and straddling between life and death. Petrovich “watches this unattractive, confused person and suddenly thinks: But that’s me. Not my brother or my fellow human being, not the ‘other I’ of philosophers or writers, but simply me. Our circumstances and stories are different, but it’s still me. Me. Barefoot, almost naked, sitting on a cot and waiting for something. Staring into space with unfocused eyes.” The writer’s condition worsens, while Petrovich improves. He realizes he must treasure the rest of his days alive. As if the border between he and the writer were dissolved, he suddenly feels a compulsion to write about his life. The legislator Ksenia is given a similar opportunity at redemption when she is asked by Roxana to extend the Islamic faith to their town. In both “The Waves of the Sea” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” a sympathetic neighbor guides the spiritually sick toward recovery. Osipov still believes in the restorative power of love and compassion. In these stories, “unexpected things can strike through to the soul” when one attempts to love a fellow human being.
Osipov’s cruelly ironic but tender stories are ultimately concerned with questions of belief. Essentially, his characters are all lapsed believers—whether in love, God, or humanity itself. The stories describe their struggles to reaffirm their purpose, to recover their faith in the possibility of leading a meaningful life. They ask themselves the same question the nineteenth-century Russian novelists once asked: how should one live? The characters realize the humble answer lies in embracing the life that fate has dealt them, rather than dreaming of the lost and unobtainable. It is to learn to live “happy days, one without the hint of shadow, almost dull” and “wake up with that special feeling, like in childhood, that this is heaven, right here.”