Russians in America, Americans in Russia, this is a Babylonian mix of cultures in the 1990s ... mutual lack of understanding, confusion, attraction, love -- such is the emotional and historical background of this new story" (translation mine). So, in part, reads the back leaf of Irina Muravyeva's latest work, Dokumental'nye s"emki (Filming a Documentary). First published in the magazine Druzhba Narodov in the fall of 1999, this "novella" purports to be a piece in which the reader will find "deep sensitivity and responsiveness to the world of human feeling." Unfortunately, the work falls short of that which it presupposes.
The novella is peopled by characters more articulated by description of their clothing than of substance, and the reader is thrust into a confusing scene without preamble. One is switched rapidly (sometimes several times on a single page) from one circumstance/time/ place/narrator to another with only asterisks to look to for explanation. One supposes this expository style is meant to mimic the fragmentation of the (rather frail) story line: a foolish, shallow, and extremely wealthy middle-aged American woman decides, on impulse, to fund a self-gratifying documentary about a country and its people because she "loves Russians." As the book's title suggests, what follows is a compilation of disparate scenes and characters presented in sporadic and amateurish fashion.
Settings are randomly switched: from a train station (one later surmises) in Boston, to Moscow and its surrounding areas, to New Hampshire and New York -- all carrying in tow a potpourri of assorted scenes which take place in restaurants, hotel rooms, apartments, countryside estates, theaters, and taxis. The mode of narration follows this same fragmentary approach. Beginning in the first person (the speaker remains unidentified, though in the Russian can be deduced to be female), the narrative abruptly drops this mode, only to take it up once again toward the end of the story. The reader is then entrusted to an intermittent third-person narrator, whose voice mingles with precipitous interjections of stream of consciousness and with the guidance of an omniscient narrator of sorts.
One is left with meager impressions of the characters themselves. The wealthy Debbie is a thrice-married redhead who is somewhat overweight (a tendency other characters seem to share). The improbability of her experiences and her fervent emotionalism, coupled with the superficiality of her existence, begs the incredulous. Ostensibly, she can barely speak Russian, yet the linguistic inconsistencies peppering her speech are disconcerting. The author attempts orthographic manipulation of her character's words by "misspelling" Russian words and sprinkling English into her speech. Yet the reader also encounters discourse which reverts to excellent Russian and, rather astonishingly, quite natural speech patterns and idioms. That "Debbie" has a longtime intimate relationship with a Russian (who speaks no English), and that she exalts lavishly in her love of Russia only adds to the confusion generated by such linguistic misdirection.
This heroine (?) is backed by an unintelligible cast of secondary characters who, together with disconnected slices of their lives, run through the story like virtual "sound bites": a homeless man lives in cardboard boxes in the vicinity of the Russian White House; a Russian "friend's" brother-in-law is incomprehensibly kidnapped; a son is in jail for dealing drugs; a daughter becomes pregnant by her black boyfriend and has an abortion; a newly emigrated Russian couple are visited at their estate in New England. "Toporik" (Little Ax) made his money in dubious ways in Russia and now wears a Versace shirt and beats his wife, who enjoys serving pina coladas to her guests. As if riding a bumper car, the reader bounces through a variety of illicit "trysts," including one stumbled into by a member of the American film crew as he takes the elevator to his room. Married and considered a "good" husband, he meets a Russian prostitute, has sex with her, and immediately falls in love. Inevitably, we also meet the Russian taxi driver who waxes philosophical on the nature of politics and humankind. The list goes on.
Perhaps Dokumental'nye s"emki is meant to be seriocomic; perhaps it is meant to be read as satire; or perhaps it is simply a victim of its own attempt at "Babylon." There are moments (all too brief) where one can feel the potential for what the story might have been and could be: Bob ruminating on his life in the hotel room, for example, or Debbie's daughter wryly expostulating to her mother on the nature of parental love as they sit in a Japanese restaurant eating sushi before dawn. one only gets a taste, however.
Ludmila Prednewa University of Montana