Book review: Unforgiving diagnosis of provincial Russian life

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov.
Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov.PHOTO: NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS



By Maxim Osipov

New York Review of Books/Paperback/295 pages/$30.98/Books Kinokuniya

3.5 stars

"Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress," wrote Russian author Anton Chekhov. The same could be said of his spiritual successor, Maxim Osipov.

A cardiologist based in a small town about 145km from Moscow, Osipov's short stories capture the essence of provincial life, warts and all. Rock, Paper, Scissors And Other Stories is his first collection to be translated into English.

His protagonists often seek to free themselves from the banality of life through music and literature, although this typically proves only a temporary escape.

In Renaissance Man, a young banker falls in love with the soprano Lora. Distant and mercurial, she eventually leaves him hanging.

Meanwhile, a dissatisfied teacher in After Eternity takes over the management of a provincial theatre, only have to have everything fall apart.

Time and again, characters strive to grasp something beyond mundane reality. All are left bereft.

Footnotes help the reader contextualise quotes from Russian poets or playwrights, which make an appearance in almost every story. Even so, those without a basic grasp of Russian history and culture may find meaning passing over their heads.

These include oblique references to the tension between religion and the state, one example being when a character notes: "Then Socialism was no more... She knew what had to be done: she had herself christened."

Osipov eschews the cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, choosing instead to locate his tales in Russia's provinces, in small towns with fictional names like Liebknechtsk and Eternity.

These are "warm, grubby, ours" - but also, for those who did not choose to end up there, "sludge, the doldrums".

"That the locals are pitiful is the most flattering thing one can say about them," he writes.

The spectre of the former Soviet Union hangs heavy over his work, which is set in modern day Russia. State-sponsored violence and casual cruelty are rife in the provinces, and no one bats an eyelid.

In the opening story, the police drag two traders from a train, subjecting them to a savage beating.

"Ah, you're suffering from the intellectual's guilt complex," a fellow traveller tells the narrator, who was upset about the beating. "You should know better by now - life's not fair."

Yet, there is no sense of judgment. As Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, writes in the foreword, Osipov's work reads as "an accurate, unforgiving diagnosis of Russian life".

Like the doctor that he is, Osipov carefully peels back the layers to reveal what goes on beneath the surface, unpleasant as that may be.

If you liked this, read: The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales of China by Lu Xun (Penguin Classics, 2010, $32.05, Books Kinokuniya) a collection of classic short stories by a man who abandoned his medical studies to become a writer and was later credited as the founder of modern Chinese literature.