Stalin Is Dead by Rachel Shihor translated by Ornan Rotem (Sylph Editions, December 2013) Reviewed by Deborah Smith  

Stalin Is Dead
by Rachel Shihor
translated by Ornan Rotem
(Sylph Editions, December 2013)

Reviewed by Deborah Smith
 

There's a deceptive simplicity to many of the pieces contained in Stalin Is Dead, this slim volume from the Israeli writer Rachel Shihor. Beneath this veneer, however, a subversive sensibility and nearly obsessive attention to detail complicate Shihor’s prose. The book’s eponymous story exemplifies Shihor's particular brand of short fiction, recovering a real, self-contradictory, and idiosyncratic person from the smooth-contoured, generalized persona the popular imagination has made of Stalin. Shihor deftly establishes this latter part of the dynamic in her opening paragraph:

Stalin thought that he knew death intimately. Death granted him many pleasures and ample joys. Stalin made him his friend and also his servant. Death knew Stalin, but not thoroughly. Death knew that in time he would know him thoroughly, but wasn't overly curious. Anyway, they are all alike in the end, and for now he employs me, Death thought.

Here, there is something faintly Biblical about the short sentences, simple cadence, and repetition. The cumulative effect of these techniques focuses the reader's attention on the bigger picture, the meaning (though not the moral) of the story as opposed to the minutiae of its unfolding. Such a smoothing-out might seem necessitated by the brevity of Shihor's pieces—she is, after all, a writer of fablesbut here, and throughout Stalin Is Dead, we find this method complicated and qualified by the repeated intrusion of the fascinatingly complex specificities of individual existence. Death may dismiss human beings as “all alike in the end,” but he's also aware that such a perspective prevents him from knowing the man “thoroughly,” as a man—that the devil is in the detail.

Stalin heard Death drawing closer in shrouded steps, but at the same time, he couldn't hear these steps, and so he failed to admit that they were real.

There is an inherent contradiction in hearing and at the same time being unable to hear, the sensory confusion produced by the slightly odd choice of “shrouded” when we would expect “muffled” (for which we also, of course, have translator Ornan Rotem to thank). Even the briefest pieces in Stalin Is Dead are enlivened with what I'm tempted to call these Shihorian touches. These specificities, these digressions, these apparently superfluous bits of information encrust these stories like barnacles and further distance Shihor's fables from those of Aesop, complicating them much as the negations, contradictions, and qualifications peppering the texts do. They push us to actively participate in Shihor's meaning-making rather than passively receive a moral or didactic lesson. This technique recalls Shihor's European forebears and contemporaries such as Beckett and Bernhard. Yet it assimilates some of the historical, religious, and geographic idiosyncrasies of her country, threatening irresolvable entanglement yet at the same time providing the lifeblood of identity.

Many of the pieces contained in Stalin Is Dead (subtitled “stories and aphorisms on animals, poets, and other earthly creatures”) are not fables in the sense of providing a neat moral or having didactic intent. They are more significantly identifiable as such due to their formal differences from other modes such as the more common short story—which derives its thrust from characters and narrative progression. Shihor's use of animals is one of the devices which most obviously links her work with the older form. Almost all of her stories are to some extent depersonalized, many through featuring non-human characters, and yet they are all absolutely and powerfully humane. For the most part, Shihor's animal characters function in much the same way as her human ones: they demonstrate that the foibles, failings, and feelings exposed by her fictions, rather than delineating or standing in for a particular character, are symptomatic of the much more general human condition. In a sense, Shihor's characters, whether animal or human, are subordinate to the narratives which they inhabit, the specifics of personality and situation that might otherwise have impelled a certain progression smoothed off. Fables, unlike novels and longer short stories, function through a process of generalization and essentialization, whence the preference for brevity of form, the writer's deft scalpel excising all superfluity. In terms of sensibility, Shihor's fables more closely echo those of Kafka than Aesop. By employing such a wide range of narrators (the full gauntlet of voices drives the book; singular, plural, first-person, third-person, and even, on occasion, given names) Shihor seems to efface or at least obscure the kind of implied author from whom the reader could take their cue in deciding how these stories are to be viewed, what level of critical distance should be maintained. The overriding sense of epistemological and existential uncertainty will seem familiar to anyone who has read Kafka.

Shihor's animal characters, in particular, also function in another way. On the one hand, the very precision of her writing forces us to acknowledge the delineation of helplessness through describing, as Shihor does, a fish brought home from the fishmonger's and dumped into a tub of water, there to await its inevitable fate, “never stopping to ponder over the fact that it had arrived at the last station of its life”. How unsettling, how blackly appropriate this seems as a stand-in for the human race at large (not, of course, a comparison Shihor needs to make explicit). At the same time, however, there is a sheer troubling effrontery in reducing the variety and grandeur which we presume characteristic of human experience to a fish flopping helplessly in the pot. The gross simplification impels us to challenge the appropriateness of the comparison, to question it, maybe even to get angry—all responses which Shihor might welcome; their vehemence is itself the best testimony to the compelling, troubling relevance of her work. In a novel, or, to a lesser extent, a short story, a certain amount of agency is usually vested in one or more (human) characters, thus enabling them to become protagonists, to push the narrative forward, even if they are enmeshed in a web of social responsibilities, or crippled by a character flaw. By denying this agency to her characters, Shihor reduces our focus on what is told in favor of the manner of its telling, and ensures that our experience of reading her is quite different from that afforded by more common literary fare.

Shihor's apparent reluctance to provide a biography—she even labels such an exercise “forced”—suggests that a biographical reading of her work would be reductive at best. Her writing is clearly relevant to our present moment, even urgently so, yet the contextual detail which readers are often so fond of hearing (or perhaps simply which critics are so fond of providing) frequently proves more of a hindrance than a help in appreciating the work, privileging socio-political and biographical reality over and above the literary reality. By and large, the pieces which comprise Stalin Is Dead defy and even actively deflect this kind of contextualization. This proves a striking contrast to those collected in Days Bygone, her sole previous publication in English. The latter's stories were all taken from her novella Yankinton, which has yet to appear in a full English translation. Days Bygone, which centers on a child's coming to consciousness in 1940s Tel Aviv, bears closer parallels with the work of her Israeli contemporaries Orly Castel-Bloom and Gabriela Avigur-Rotem, whose books are steeped in the recent history of their nation. One can still discern in Stalin Is Dead certain tropes and references which seem to relate to the Jewish historical experience—refugee camps, the speaker in “Sky” who hides in an attic and hears the soldiers march by, round-ups and decrees in “Rumour Had It.” However, Shihor's (extremely rare) mentions of specific places, e.g. Yehuda HaLevy Street, function in much the same way as the parenthetical aside in “The Royal Prince”:

It was only when it became apparent that the end was indeed drawing near, and gunshots were heard in the streets adjacent to the palace, that the prince requested to see his wife and his three children (one of whom was a girl)

This brought me up short the first time I read it. What is that aside doing there? The fact that it's bracketed allows us to assume that it's merely a throwaway aside, but as the sole use of parentheses in the piece, it stands out on the page. Even if it really is just a throwaway aside, there to provide additional (if irrelevant) information, it's still phrased in a slightly odd way—surely “two boys and a girl” would have been more natural. “One of whom was a girl” makes it sound as though the fact of this child's being female is somehow significant in itself, setting up an expectation for the reader which is never fulfilled. This stylistic idiosyncrasy replicated in all but the very shortest of Shihor's fictions in Stalin Is Dead—time and again, information is provided which is seemingly, surely, entirely irrelevant, and yet which constantly arrests the reader's attention because it seems so at odds with the stories' pared-down essentialization. If this were one of those protagonist-centered novels or stories, this kind of information would still be irrelevant, but could function as what Zadie Smith calls, in “Two Paths for the Novel,” the “random detail [that] confers the authenticity of the Real.” In the title story, Shihor's use of detail exemplified the dynamic between general and specific which animates and modernizes her work, yet the real-life subject of “Stalin Is Dead” sets the story somewhat apart, its specifics largely historical e.g. the 3,000 rubles which, we are told, a Gdansk factory spent on importing black shoes from England. The vast majority of pieces collected here are centered not on an individual plucked from history but on an archetype, one of the “other earthly creatures” of the subtitle, springing from Shihor's own creative imagination: “The Retired Judge”; “The Royal Prince”; “The Piano Tuner.” Shihor's specificity is not one of historical contextualization but of description. Instead of entailing a narrowing of perspective, this specificity manages at the same time to be a kind of opening up, both in terms of the opportunity it offers the reader for active, imaginative collusion, and in terms of the wider resonance which the pieces are thus enabled to possess. Shihor's privileging of creative agency, of the necessity for the writer (and reader) to create their own narratives, makes even more sense when we consider them as another aspect of the seemingly relentless production of similar narratives (historical, religious, socio-political) taking place in contemporary Israel. Crucially, these narratives constitute the idea of “Israel” itself even while being situated in the state accorded this name—a state whose simultaneous existence as geographical, political, and historical entity is almost fated to produce the kind of inconsistencies and ambiguities that characterize Stalin Is Dead. What Shihor does, though, is present such inconsistencies not as irreconcilable opposites, enemies to coherent identity, but as necessitating a kind of positive doublethink to comprehend the multiplicity of experience.

Ornan Rotem's translation, which eschews the usual translator's holy grail of fluency and fluidity, seems to me pitch-perfect. My ignorance of Hebrew prevents me from making a more detailed appraisal, but Shihor's use of language should be as subtly off-kilter as the scenes and worlds being described, a task Rotem succeeds in performing throughout the book. The use of language in the translation also enables the English reader to appreciate the significance of the fact that these scenes are indeed described rather than depicted, linguistic constructs which continually emphasize the creative agency employed in their production rather than seeking to efface the implied author. Snippets like “the wind patted our face” or “and unhurriedly the evenings descend” are so perfect in their strange loveliness as to be worth the price of admission alone.

Stalin Is Dead is a marvelous showcase for Shihor, who packs more prescience and incisiveness into her tiny pages than most writers would be lucky to conjure up in a doorstop-sized novel. I can't think of many other contemporary authors writing the kind of fiction which comprises Stalin Is Dead, let alone with such evident virtuosity—Lydia Davis and Ludmila Petrushevskaya are comparable purely in terms of form, but both quite different writers from Shihor in terms of style and sensibility. And it's not only this style itself but the privileged position which Shihor affords it that, in a sea of deft character studies and neat turns of phrase, makes our immersion in her writing feel so worthwhile. Though she's yet to receive the recognition in the Anglophone sphere commensurate with her achievements, this, with any luck, will be the publication which finally signals Shihor's arrival.

 

Deborah Smith is a Korean-English translator. Her translation of The Vegetarian by Han Kang is forthcoming from Portobello Books. She is currently studying for a PhD in contemporary Korean literature at SOAS.