Book Review: Vladimir’s Mustache
“He had been beaten when he forgot his lines, but then it was not whether or not you were beaten, he’d said, only why.”
Stephan Eirik Clark, who lived in Ukraine on a Fulbright Scholarship and with his Russian wife in her homeland, offers a collection of nine new and previously published short stories in Vladimir’s Mustache.
Clark takes the Russian short story style, with its ne’er-do-wells and antiheroes, its propensity for tragedy and fatalism, along with occasional flights of whimsy, into the historical period defined by Stalinism. Stories take place in the advent of the horrid system, during its terrifying heyday, and in the chaotic aftermath that still unfolds today.
The above quote about beatings, from the title story, captures well the mood of the collection. The natural hardships, spiritual dilemmas and personal conflicts of traditional Russian fiction are taken over by the human evil embodied by Stalin. The stories are uncomfortable, raising again and again the question and the anxiety of what the reader might do under a system where evil simply walks in and does what it will. People are “denounced” by neighbors, coworkers or even family members and sentenced to labor camps or death. The denouncers sometimes fall to the same fate, but there is no sense of just satisfaction, just more horror at an all-devouring evil that no institution or individual seems able or even inclined to resist.
A couple of stories are written with Westerners as the point-of-view characters . Without preaching any such message, they communicate well the clueless safety from which we regard a political plague and, by our vulgarization of our freedom, contribute to the social disarray that can eventually welcome a totalitarian savior.
Clark is an excellent story teller. He gives insight into nations and generations with plot and dialogue rather than opinionated narration. You read a story about some workaday character, and you come away with big questions and frightening implications.
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