Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull
Reviewed by Gwendolyn Dawson
This collection of seven loosely interconnected short stories, by turns whimsical and menacing, examines Soviet Moscow in the 1920s. In these stories Krzhizhanovsky primarily focuses on the lives of displaced intellectuals — those who, after World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917, are left with little to do but wander the city’s streets wondering what happened to their settled lives of respectability. One of Krzhizhanovsky’s protagonists describes Soviet Russia, and particularly Moscow, as a “country of nonexistences,” and it is these nonexistences, left without a place or function in society, that populate Krzhizhanovsky’s stories. While often representing an isolated point of view, Krzhizhanovsky’s stories contain enough dark comedy and signs of hope to mitigate their overall bleakness.
In a self-described style of “experimental realism,” Krzhizhanovsky mixes gritty details (dark rooms in concrete block buildings, frozen boulevard benches) with fantastical elements, including several extended dream sequences. In one story, the Eiffel Tower uproots itself and heads towards the revolution in the East, laying waste to everything in its path. In another, a sociable corpse manages to miss his funeral while trying to experience one more day of life. In the last story of the collection, “Memories of the Future,” Max Scherter is a man obsessed with the concept of time. He works to build a time machine only to be repeatedly interrupted by war and revolution. Despite the obstacles Max faces, his story is a hopeful one of the perseverance of a noble idea over mankind’s tragedies.
Krzhizhanovsky died in 1950 before any of his stories were published. Now, for the first time, these seven stories are available to an English audience thanks to Joanne Turnbull’s translation and the New York Review of Books. Memories of the Future, although sometimes confusing in its wild departures from reality, gives us a valuable and unique insider’s view into a closed society.
Memories of the Future is published in the United States by the New York Review of Books.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License. Her reviews appear there and here every Wednesday.