Storeys of Stories
Finding the sublime in the ridiculous
Maria Reva’s Good Citizens Need Not Fear is a superb debut: wry, unexpected, beautifully crafted, and mordantly funny. Nine interconnected stories follow the fates of several hapless Ukrainians who live at 1933 Ivansk Street, a ten-storey apartment block built atop a marsh in Kirovka. The narrative is divided into two parts —“Before the Fall” and “After the Fall”— which extend from the 1980s through the collapse of the Soviet Union. Characters disappear and reappear, a technique that makes the book read like a suite of stories that wants to be a novel.
According to municipal directories, the building at 1933 Ivansk Street does not exist. Nonetheless, residents carry on with their lives. They sew fur coats, make illegal phonograph records, and keep a neighbourly eye on each other’s business. On the fifth floor, fourteen members of Daniil Petrovich Blinov’s family squeeze into his tiny apartment. Konstantyn, a poet who lives with his wife, Milena, on the tenth, loses his job as director of the Kirovka Cultural Club, then sets up a shrine with half a saint’s body — its legs are missing — on the ground floor. After Milena leaves him, she works temporarily in the country, then moves back to the building to live with Larissa, a fashionable young woman who makes her own outfits.
Whenever anything starts to go right, disaster strikes. No sooner has Daniil managed to buy a small heater to warm his enormous family than a knock at the door brings their idyll to an abrupt halt: two men carrying a corpse in a coffin ask to enter because the landing is too narrow to let them pivot their cargo. Bumbling into the apartment, the men gouge the wallpaper, alarm the illegal chickens roosting on the balcony, and smash the heater, then settle in to share some jerky until the nightly blackout ends. The logic of comic catastrophe forbids Daniil or anyone else from pointing out that the men could have carried the corpse to the coffin instead of lugging the cumbersome box down flight after flight.
Reva’s plot lines are arrestingly improbable. In “Roach Brooch,” Pyotr and Lila’s ungrateful children and grandchildren never call or visit, nor do they offer financial help. Pyotr refuses to have a tumour removed because it entitles him to monthly X‑rays, which he can turn into bootleg albums. In the upside-down reasoning of this world, “the tumour is what feeds the grandparents.”
Jokes — dire, nightmarish jokes — thread throughout the stories. Some are smart-alecky zingers. “Maybe it’s a law of physics,” the narrator muses about Pyotr and Lila’s grandson. “Once a baby is expelled, it will keep moving away at a constant speed unless acted upon.” (Expelled! Acted upon!) Others are circumstantial. In “Letter of Apology,” Konstantyn is anonymously denounced for disseminating a political joke. In the past, that would have “meant ten years,” but nowadays a letter of apology satisfies the authorities. Mikhail Ivanovich, who works for the secret police and tries to extort such a letter from Konstantyn, explains the twisted logic of Soviet ideology: “Prisons could no longer accommodate every citizen who uttered a joke.” (No longer!) Best of all are jokes within jokes. If the canning plant in Kirovka packages so many tasty morsels, Daniil asks his boss, Sergei, why do the stores sell only tins of sea cabbage? “It’s like that joke about the American, the Frenchman, and the Soviet guy,” Sergei explains. “When I have time to paint my nails and twiddle my thumbs, I’ll tell you the joke.” He never does. Even an untold joke is still a joke — the sort a tyrannical boss would pull on a hapless employee.
Beginning with the title of Good Citizens Need Not Fear, the jokes are ironic, unsettling, and laugh-out-loud satisfying, like those in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Milan Kundera’s The Joke, or Bruce Chatwin’s Utz. In Reva’s book, the comedy darkens from story to story, until you are aghast at your own laughter. Should you laugh quite so hard at others’ misfortunes? How can you not when they are presented with such deadpan humour? In “Miss USSR,” Konstantyn pulls Zaya out of an orphanage to enter her in a beauty pageant despite her badly sewn cleft lip, buzzed hair, and bluish skin caused by a terrible diet. He asks her if she is up to the challenge of being a contestant. Zaya’s response is a masterpiece of comic panache: “The orphan gave Konstantyn a searing smile. Her teeth were nightmarishly crooked, as though she had stuck them in herself as a toddler. ‘I’m your girl.’ ”
Catastrophes, great and small, lurk everywhere. Looking for Konstantyn’s dacha in a flood, Mikhail is instructed by two girls to row “to the third house after the one crushed by a poplar.” (Crushed by a poplar!) Disasters, it might be said, leave landmarks by which characters navigate. After the fall of the Soviet regime, Mikhail scours the newspapers in case his previous work with “the agency,” as he euphemistically calls it, is made public. At Konstantyn’s shrine, he guards the saint, displayed like a ham in a delicatessen. While changing a light bulb in the display, Mikhail knocks the saint to the floor. He claims that it must have shimmied to the edge of the ledge and leaped. Whether he jumped or was pushed, the saint’s nine teeth scatter everywhere. Mikhail puts them in his trousers for safekeeping until he can glue them back, but they dribble through a hole in his pocket. “I entertained the possibility that the teeth had chewed their way out,” Mikhail thinks. “But no, I told myself, this was simply a case of bad luck, even if I did not believe in luck, bad or good.” He really ought to believe in it: after he finds all the teeth and wraps them in a handkerchief inside his breast pocket, they gnaw their way to freedom a second time.
Immense changes occur throughout the book. Regimes collapse; characters run away or reinvent themselves. In the opening story, a statue of Lenin stares down the citizens of Kirovka; in the last, nothing of it remains except the pedestal and Lenin’s feet, “big as bathtubs.” Details echo between stories. In “Miss USSR,” Zaya frantically digs a pit to bury the saint; in “Homecoming,” she nearly buries alive a group of Russian thrill-seekers. Almost everything that returns brings along calamity with it. In “Roach Brooch,” a giant hissing cockroach gives birth to dozens of squiggly babies; in “The Ermine Coat,” Milena is trapped in the elevator with a roach the size of a rat, presumably one of the babies grown to an indecent size.
Beneath the humour of Good Citizens Need Not Fear runs pointed commentary about the suppression of Ukrainian culture, noticeable in the number of characters who speak Russian or bear Russian names. The name Ivansk Street is Russified: a village called Ivankiv used to stand there. The villagers spoke Ukrainian and picked cranberries for a living, before they were pried from their houses and “stacked on top of each other.” Jokes are one way to deal with imperialism. The dark comedy in Reva’s finely imagined and perfectly crafted work points to paradoxes within human behaviour as well as state interference in personal liberty. You will laugh through the catastrophes without always knowing why — or what the full cost of that laughter might be.