the terrible news, a collection of short (sometimes very short) stories of the years of and just after the Russian Revolution, edited and translated by Grigori Gerenstein - and published in 1991, fifty years after most of the stories were written. I didn't pick up this volume with any great expectations, just interest, but it turned out to be well worth while. To start with, there is an introduction by John Bayley, and one by the translator - they are both well worth a read in their own right, explaining that that ,any of the stories are by authors who were suppressed or ignored by the Soviet authorities, and that many of the works have been rescued from near oblivion - certainly none of these have been translated into English before.
Grigori Gerenstein's introduction ends with these words:
We're not in the theatre, comrades! The blood is real, and the pain is real, and the madness is real.
And John Bayley's final paragraph ends thus:
...there [may be] no special point in life except living itself, so you had better just get on with it. We are back with ... the simple truth of the Russian proverb, Harder to live a life than cross a field ... In their stimulating and unpredictable way all these stories are witnesses to that truth, and to the folly of a new system and a new God which tried to make it seem so simple.
From those brief extracts, you will quickly have gathered that these stories show a dark and frightening side of life, and as their main subject is the awfulness of the world and the impossibility of living a rational, loving, productive life, neither the gloom nor the collection's title is unreasonable. But there are also fine comic moments, sometimes dark, sometimes just absurd. And the stories vary enough that, reading them straight through, you are continually stimulated and challenged in unexpected ways, something which is sharpened by the brevity of these pieces - in a slim volume of 170 pages, there are 33 stories, each with a title page and a biography of the writer - so many of the offerings are only two or three pages long.
The authors include well known names like Mikhail Bulgakov and Andrey Platonov, but there are many names which are completely new to me and some are apparently almost unknown to specialists, so there's real interest in reading this collection. There are stories of bureaucratic bungling, of infestations of rats, of life in a lunatic asylum, of a village finding then losing a dead body, of families abandoned by men who reject the institution of marriage, and so on.
But there is also Lev Lunts' The Outgoing Letter N37, a comic masterpiece about a bureaucrat who has the idea of turning recalcitrant peasants, under hypnosis, into useful farm animals. After some thought, he decides that good men should not be punished, but could be turned into paper - so a General in the army, for example, would have cartloads of paper which would require no feeding, could be easily transported, and could then be turned back into people for a battle. He experiments on himself, and becomes "outgoing letter N37", complaining about the inedibility of a potato ration. He becomes the file copy, is worried about being in the wrong place, dare not turn back into a man as this would leave the office short of a copy of this letter, and is them maltreated and finally meets a fate which all schoolboys will think of!
This is a lively and vigorous collection of stories; I commend them to any one interested in early twentieth century Russia, and in the genesis of the great Soviet protest literature.