cover image Shamara and Other Stories

Shamara and Other Stories

Svetlana Vasilenko, S. V. Vasilenko. Northwestern University Press, $55 (245pp) ISBN 978-0-8101-1721-1

Vasilenko's collection of urgent and politically suggestive short stories and two novellas covers the spiritually and geographically vast terrain of contemporary Russia. These seven tales were rendered into English by six different translators, but editor Goscilo ensures that the entirety reads smoothly (she also contributes an introductory essay). The shorter stories develop in a magical realist vein, like ""The Gopher,"" which begins as the grim tale of a group of men trying to flush gophers out of their holes and ends with the surprising and depressing revelation that these ""men"" are all elementary school students who will receive a prize for their hard work. ""Poplar, Poplar's Daughter,"" similarly, seems at first to be a tale of a girl impregnated by a drifting poplar seed but actually reveals itself to be a reflective, private recounting of a children's game. The longer, more ambitious works critique Russian culture as they passionately examine the human psyche. ""Going After Goat Antelopes"" describes a drunken evening that reaches its climax in a hunt for mysterious, rare animals, crosses between goats and antelopes living in the Russian wilderness, as a way to circumvent the doldrums of urban life. ""Shamara"" chronicles a man's love for two women and includes a supporting cast of angry, irrational working-class youth. The book concludes with the remarkable Booker-nominated short novel ""Little Fool,"" the epic tale of a girl named Ganna, commonly considered deaf and insane because of her silent and often quizzical manner. After her internment in an institution resembling both an orphanage and a prison, she glimpses the Virgin Mary and becomes a saint, progressing from being humiliated and abused to adored. Though Vasilenko sometimes makes narrative jumps that are difficult to follow, she brings intelligence and soulfulness to these telling, moving stories. (Mar.)