I received an advanced review copy of this title from Deep Vellum Publishing. This is the first English-language collection of short stories by Russia’s greatest contemporary author, Mikhail Shishkin, the only author to win all three of Russia’s most prestigious literary awards.
The theme that pervades all of these stories is the tragic oppression and enslavement of Russia’s people by its Soviet government. Shishkin offers stories about himself and various members of his family and the devastating impact of Soviet rule had on their lives for generations.
My favorite story in the collection is the first one entitled “The Half-Belt Overcoat” in which the author describes the hardships of his mother who serves as a school headmistress. On the one hand she is expected to inculcate the students into the ideals of the Soviet, communist state. On the other hand she must teach the children to think yet not express any of their ideas that would defy the communist rulers.
When the author is a teenager he has an argument with his mother over a girl with whom he has fallen in love. He mother does not approve so he doesn’t speak to his mother for over a year. Later in life when his mother is dying of cancer, he feels deep regret for punishing her with silence. But he can never find the words to express his sorrow and his appreciation for her struggle before she dies
The story “Of Saucepans and Star Showers,” presents us with the struggles of the author’s father as they relate to living under the Soviet regime. His father was in the Russian navy and served on a submarine. He is proud of his service to his country and dons his uniform every year to show his national pride. But when the Soviet government starts doling out food rations that come from Germany, his father begins to think that his sacrifices to defeat the enemy during World War II were all in vain. He lives out the rest of his sad, pathetic days alone and drowning his sorrows in bottles of vodka.
The final story that must be mentioned is entitled “The Bell Tower of San Marco.” Lydia is a Russian who is studying in Zurich to become a doctor. While in medical school she meets, falls in love with and marries a Swiss doctor named Fritz. Lydia’s greatest ambition in life is to take a position as a doctor in the poorest parts of Russia and help the masses realize that they are being enslaved by the tsarist regime. Lydia is a fervent socialist and wants to create an uprising of the masses which, she believes, will result in a complete revolution.
Lydia moves back to Russia and leaves Fritz in Zurich to practice medicine. Their married life consists mainly of letters and when they are together they seem unhappy and dissatisfied. Lydia eventually realizes that the poor do not want a revolution and the socialist values which she represents are meaningless to them. At 40 she becomes an old, depressed, woman who feels that her entire life has been wasted on useless ideals. Perhaps when the bell tower of the famous church of San Marco collapsed during their honeymoon to Venice, she should have taken that as a sign or an omen of the tragedy that was to become her life.
I highly recommend CALLIGRAHPY LESSONS for the beautiful language, moving stories and the emotional characters. This collection of short stories has made me want to delve into Shishkin’s longer works.
About The Author:
Mikhail Shishkin was born in Moscow in 1961. He won the 2000 Booker Prize for his The Taking of Izmail and the 2005 National Bestseller Prize and the 2006 National “Big Book” Prize for his Maidenhair (Open Letter, 2012). He lives in Switzerland.