The twenty linked stories in Mikhail Iossel’s Love like Water, Love like Fire are very funny. They range over time and place, although most centre on life in Soviet Russia between the 1950s and ’80s. Some tales are only a page or two long and have the pithiness and pace of a well-told joke. In “Why? Why?? Why???,” a customs official quizzes the anonymous narrator — who appears throughout the collection — as he crosses the border from Canada to the United States. Like an insistent four-year-old, the official repeatedly asks “Why?” until the narrator throws up his hands in exasperation. In “Sad,” a cab driver in Montreal explains that he has just called off his wedding (the cabbie refused to let his fiancée’s friend come to the reception, which provoked a showdown between the couple). Several stories are deliberately virtuosic, like “Sentence,” which runs continuously across four pages, or the hilarious, verbless list of wars, family news, and famous last words in “Some of the World Transactions My Father Has Missed Due to His Death on September 14, 1999.”
Death is a laughing matter in Love like Water, Love like Fire, which is Iossel’s second collection of fiction. When Yuri Andropov succumbs to illness, the Soviet authorities jam the radio signals. After all, you wouldn’t want the people to know that their leader is dead. Similarly, when his predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, passed away, television stations broadcast a dance from Swan Lake — no word of a lie — as a stalling tactic. “As long as there’s death, there’s hope,” scoffs an alcoholic security guard, whose job is to keep watch over a roller coaster at the Krestovsky Island Amusement Sector of the Leningrad Central Park of Culture and Leisure. With work like that, death might come as a relief.
In his ruminations about the events his late father has missed, the narrator quotes William Saroyan’s last words: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” Oops! Should have thought of that sooner. Death is a long stretch of blankness; in the same vein, life “is a process of gradually coming to terms with the meaning and the very concept of neverness.” When the protagonist runs into an old Russian acquaintance at the Strand bookstore in New York, they ask each other, “How was it?”— meaning life. The posthumous view may be a bit premature, but it gives the humour an existential tang.
Iossel carries on an exuberant, operatic, possibly one-sided, but certainly long-lasting love affair with language. The central character, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the author — both emigrated from Russia to the U.S. and now teach creative writing in Montreal — mentions that he has a “rare and, admittedly, useless capacity for correctly spelling every word in the Russian language.” Inside the word “Amerika,” he sees an infinity of names and nouns: Marik, Arik, Mirra, Mark, Kira, mera, Karim, Aram, Rim, mir, reka, ikra, and so on.
According to the formulas of Soviet propaganda, America is “the dying, historically doomed citadel of the pernicious International Imperialism” or a “horrible, hellacious place.” Yet the U.S. exercises an undeniable magnetism. Under its spell, the narrator writes a youthful novel, inspired by The Grapes of Wrath, about three unemployed Americans who decide to walk from state to state in alphabetical order. (The Cyrillic alphabet complicates the task, but let that pass.) There are humorous lists throughout these stories, but the funniest is perhaps the summary of odd jobs that the three men pick up from the owners of stately mansions or sprawling ranches: “trimming the hedges on the property, clearing the brush, mowing the lawn, shoveling the snow, brushing the dog, petting the cat, raising a barn.” In the grand scheme of capitalist imperialism, being paid to pet the cat may rival being paid to watch a roller coaster. A job’s a job, even in hellacious Amerika.
When it comes to hyperbole, nothing beats the Soviets. Everyone has extraordinary potential if they have not already earned worldwide fame. Yuri Vlasov, Olympic medallist in the 1960 and 1964 games, is not just a weightlifter, he’s “the greatest Soviet weight lifter of all time.” The movie star Pavel Kadochnikov is “the most attractive man in the entire Soviet Union, by nationwide consensus.” Superlatives attach themselves to people like burrs to a blanket. Lev Konstantinovich, a physicist, is “quite remarkably gifted — a brilliant mind, practically a genius, one of the brightest young stars of Soviet science back at the time.” If you believe the hyperbole, you have to conclude that everyone is an exception just waiting to burst from the chrysalis of their ordinariness. Exaggeration is contagious. Lenin is “the most perfect human being ever to walk the Earth.” Giving Vladimir Ilyich a run for his money, Stalin is described as “the wisest and most human and humane and brilliant immortal genius ever to draw breath and walk the Earth!” Let’s just ignore, shall we, Stalin’s show trials, purges, and forced-labour camps.
Behind the jingoism lurks a grim reality, where everything is second best, fake, or rundown. When booze is available, it is either “ersatz port” or “noxious ersatz wine.” A rubber-goods factory has the distinction of being “the second largest in the country.” The Frunzensky Department Store in Leningrad ranks as “the second largest in the city.” Why aim for best when second best will do? The narrator’s great-uncle may be “one of the leading Soviet experts in the cellulose industry,” but just how competitive is that industry, you might wonder, and how many leading experts are there, exactly, in cellulose?
Citizens curb their ambition to avoid attracting attention. You want to blend in with “the perfectly ordinary and insignificant Soviet people.” Despite the world-famous athletes and state-approved movie stars, natural talent might be your undoing. Lev Konstantinovich, the genius physicist, goes to work in England and marries an Englishwoman — and for such objectionable behaviour, he spends eighteen years in a gulag. If you are too prominent, you risk being rounded up by KGB agents in black cars and leather overcoats, as the wife of an up-and-coming party member fears in the title story.
We live in lugubrious times. In Love like Water, Love like Fire, jokes point to the absurdities and logical contradictions in everyday life. When the narrator’s parents try to explain Jewishness and anti-Semitism to him, they get lost in riddles (they hardly know anything about Judaism themselves, as the state is technically atheist): “Knowing is always better than not knowing, except in the cases when it isn’t. Aren’t you glad to be alive? Just joking . . . well, not really.” There is something refreshing about Iossel’s willingness to maintain his sense of irony, even about such intractable subjects as anti-Semitism, the ghastliness of Soviet bureaucracy, or the irreconcilability of death with human happiness. After all, if you have to keep going, you may as well do so with a sense of humour.
By the way, life — how was it for you?