Thursday, January 18, 2007

Lunchtime read: Russian Short Stories

There are so many stories in the Penguin Classics Russian Short Stories that this book will have to be completed another time. But in the last couple of posts this week the flavour will come from the period where writers were just starting to live with the reality of the Soviet system and their stories reflect that.

QuadraturinSigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
One of the stipulations of life in a communist city was that communal living was introduced with kitchens and bathrooms shared and each individual was not entitled to more than nine square metres.

Sutulin opens the door one night to a salesman who offers him a free trial product – Quadraturin – that expands his room after being applied to the walls. Sutulin manages to spread it across the floor, walls but runs out before he gets to the ceiling and then tumbles into bed. When he wakes the room has grown and keeps growing making it awkward for him and eventually he comes in from the street and his light bulb has broken and he plans to leave the room but loses his way inside and screams out in the night the scream of a dying man.

There is one passage where having got what he wanted and then it goes beyond his expectations Sutulin wishes things had been how they were in the past. The wider message seems to be about the inability for people to think for themselves or become an exception to the system.

Lalla’s InterestsVera Inber
Another key feature of communism was the option it provided for people of all occupations to become organised and challenge their superiors through a process of organised Soviets and workers councils.

Lalla is a six year old who plays with the 11 year old lift boy in an apartment block. Her mother tries to keep her away from the bell hop because she looks down on him but one day a meeting of all children is announced under the stairs and the lift boy keeps Lalla’s mother trapped in the lift for an hour and a half so her daughter can attend the meting. When she gets back to the apartment she finds her daughter writing out a poster: Children, be careful when electing parents! The mother then receives a note from the bell hop apologising for keeping her trapped but assuring her he did it for the sake of her daughter’s interests.

It makes you wonder about the power that communism handed to people with children being able to elect parents and six year-olds voting for their own future. The message seems to be that by handing those without knowledge the chance to set the rules the system was fatally flawed.

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