Thursday, 4 December 2014

Review: 'Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories' by David Shrayer-Petrov, in translation

Dinner with Stalin and Other StoriesThe point of me starting this blog, a few years ago now, was to help me explore more of world-literature. A few weeks ago now I attended an event at the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies and it really showed me how many books and literary traditions are out there that Western readers are unaware of because they haven't been translated yet. Thankfully some of Shrayer-Petrov's best short stories have now been collected and translated by a wide variety of translators.

These fourteen stories by the acclaimed master of Jewish-Russian fiction are set in the former USSR, Western Europe, and America. Dinner with Stalin features Soviet Jews grappling with issues of identity, acculturation, and assimilation. Shrayer-Petrov explores aspects of antisemitism and persecution, problems of mixed marriages, dilemmas of conversion, and the survival of Jewish memory. Both an author and a physician, Shrayer-Petrov examines his subjects through the double lenses of medicine and literature. He writes about Russian Jews who, having suffered in the former Soviet Union, continue to cultivate their sense of cultural Russianness, even as they—and especially their children—assimilate and increasingly resemble American Jews. Shrayer-Petrov’s stories also bear witness to the ways Jewish immigrants from the former USSR interact with Americans of other identities and creeds, notably with Catholics and Muslims. Not only lovers of Jewish and Russian writing but all discriminating readers will delight in Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories.
Translators: Arna B. Bronstein, Aleksandra Fleszar, Margaret Goodwin-Jones, Leon Kogan, Margarit Tadevosyan Ordukhanyan, Emilia Shrayer and Maxim D. Shrayer.
I really loved reading these short stories. Shrayer-Petrov comes across as incredibly observative and perceptive writer, which may partly be due to Shrayer-Petrov also being a physician. It is his job to investigate people and he does so with a lot of feeling. He addresses a lot of potentially very intense themes from religion to race and how these interact with family life. Below I'm going through the stories one by one, trying to give you a look at the different themes and ideas present in the collection. There are twelve stories in this collection and although I enjoyed all of the stories I definitely had some favourites. 'The Russian Liar in Paris' was an incredibly meta story about influences, writers and publishers which I largely enjoyed. Shrayer-Petrov has a really abrupt way of story-telling and of ending the stories which makes you reconsider the whole story. 'White Sheep on a Green Mountain' was the first story from this collection which confronts the reader with political and social tensions for the Russian-Jewish community in a brilliant way. 'Round-the-Globe Happiness' was completely different in setting and tone from the other stories, but at times I felt like it lacked a goal. 'A Storefront Window of Miracles' was a story which developed beautifully in my head. There was some great imagery in the story which was strangely recognizable. The story itself had some great little twists, which I really enjoyed.

'Mimicry', besides the eponymous 'Dinner with Stalin' was my favourite story of the whole collection. There was something brilliant in how it slowly developed into much more than you expected from the first two pages. The clash between immigrated intellectuals who are all trying to avoid their countries problems while desperately wanting to discuss them really came to light in this story. 'Where Are You, Zoya?' is an absolutely heart-breaking story which was beautiful nonetheless. It is a story that very much deals with family and the personal consequences of war and politics. 'Alfredick' is interesting but somehow didn't grab me as much as the others, despite its form being really interesting. 'Dinner with Stalin' is one hell of a story and the collection is rightfully named after it. I won't reveal too much of the story but the way Shrayer-Petrov captures the changing, oppressive mood and the abrupt, shocking, ending truly makes this one of the best short stories I have read in a long while.

'The Valley of Hinnom' is the story that taught me a new word, 'refusenik', a Russian (often Jew) whose request to immigrate out of the Soviet Union was denied. Set after the Second World War, a lot of racial tension run through most of the stories, but don't come together as sharply as they do here. 'Mimosa Flowers for Grandmother's Grave' is a very sad story and also one defined by the theme of immigration. It also, I gathered from the notes, seems to be a deeply personal story and this is something I appreciated throughout the whole collection. Each of these stories seems infused with Shrayer-Petrov's figure. Not in an intrusive way, but in a sense that he, as the author, is right there in the experience with the reader rather than looking down from his high and narrated throne. 'The House of Edgar Allan Poe' felt very different from all the other short stories but was a nice break from the collection as a whole. I loved the connection between Russian and American literature upon which this story was built. 'Trubetskoy, Raevsky, Masha Malevich, and the Death of Mayakovsky' is, perhaps, one of the most honest stories in the whole collection about the problems faced by people within the Soviet Republic, especially those Jewish. 'The Bicycle Race' was a great end to the collection because it seemed very personal to the author while also covering a long period of time.

I give this collection...

4 Universes.

I really enjoyed Shrayer-Petrov's style of writing and how natural his stories seem. There are Russian writers who are amazingly abstract and who show you the truth by completely twisting it. Shrayer-Petrov rather gives you small, episodic glances into characters' lives without pressing the reader into seeing the moral meaning behind the writing. There is also a very personal feeling to the writing which means you easily connect to his characters. I would definitely recommend this to fans of Russian and Jewish writing, because there are a lot of references to history and culture in these stories.


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  2. You read so many books that I would never even have considered! I think it's amazing that you read so broadly. I'm really glad you enjoyed this one even though I'd probably never pick it up :)

    Tracy @ Cornerfolds