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Sunday, June 26, 2022

In a New Story Collection, an Insider’s View of the Soviet Union

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By Mikhail Iossel

In a memorable moment from Mikhail Iossel’s new collection of linked stories, “Love Like Water, Love Like Fire,” the narration skips from the 1984 death of Yuri Andropov, leader of the Soviet Union, to a drunken guard at the Kretovsky Island Amusement sector, who philosophizes: “As long as there’s death, there’s hope. That’s something always to look forward to. Don’t lose heart — there’s tunnel at the end of the light.” To an American reader, this might seem like straight irony, but Iossel excels in finding the metaphysics of the tunnel.

The narrator of the book, the same in each story, was educated as an engineer but now works as a night guard, spending long winter hours listening to the forbidden BBC. He is alone, and yet, as a Jew in the anti-Semitic U.S.S.R., he feels the world rush in from every direction, beginning even when the narrator is still a child listening to his parents as they educate him in the ways of the Soviet world.

As the narrator learns about Soviet life, so, too, does the reader. In one story, “A Soviet Twelve Days of Christmas,” Iossel spends five pages logging examples of what could be purchased for 120 rubles per month, a typical salary in the Soviet Union. (6,000 pay-phone calls or 1,333 paper cups of ice cream or 73 bottles of sunflower oil, etc.) The list would be exhausting if it weren’t hilarious and sad by turns, and Iossel uses this granular accounting to build a riveting image of the absurdity of the Soviet economy, and the many awkward tendernesses that are nevertheless found there, as humans try to live together in a world that prizes distrust.

From this collection, you will learn how to make little codes from telephone rings to avoid the K.G.B., how to speak in the presence of public officials, how to be a Jew in the Soviet Union. For this reviewer, another Jew who grew up in the U.S.S.R., Iossel’s descriptions ring very true. He is a master of atmosphere. But my favorite moments in the book have little to do with the Soviet reality it depicts, and everything to do with individual human experiences like the ironic and tender portrait in the story “Blue,” where a blind man recalls how he lost his sight years ago, straining to see in his cell at night while writing poems to an imaginary love. The man recalls being in a gulag, but it’s the type of tale that could have also come from a refugee camp on the United States-Mexico border or from Lukashenko’s Belarus — it’s a nearly universal fable of yearning that exists outside of time and place. Another story, “First Death,” is equally stunning, describing in 10 pages of beautiful symphonic prose the tale of a young narrator traveling across Leningrad to visit a dying relative. It is the best story of a child’s first encounter with death that I have read in many a year.

By the end of the collection, Iossel succeeds in giving an insider’s view of the Soviet Union, but shared through the outsider perspective of a slightly bemused man now living far away. What distinguishes Iossel as a writer, aside from his obvious talent for atmospheric dramedy, is his lucid, musical prose style. Despite his dark humor, metaphysical asides and absurdist turns — or maybe because of them — his stories are delightfully easy to read; Iossel’s marvelous sense of rhythm dazzles the reader. We can’t stop turning the pages of this book, no matter what kind of tunnel might await us at the end of the light.

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