Yes, this is the work of a practicing doctor with his tongue in his cheek and his home in the Russian countryside. No, as reviewers of this book have been quick to point out, this is not Chekhov. There may be a love triangle and a duel involved, but here, death is anticlimactic: the loser’s remains are accidentally destroyed in a precision missile test. Other stories forgo romance plots gone wrong for premises that seem to come straight from today’s news reels—only to turn those narratives inside-out as well. For example, a young woman kills her would-be rapist in an act of self-defense and lands in jail—where she manages to convince a regional legislator that what the country really needs is an Islamic rebirth.
Maxim Osipov’s Rock, Paper, Scissors: And Other Stories, translated deftly into English by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson, sculpts familiar staples of short fiction into stories whose structures and twists continually prove surprising. In fact, the premises that make up this collection are so unexpected as to have little in common with one another. Despite their common threads—a setting in the mid-twentieth century or later; a Russian or Soviet protagonist whose identity is built around their career and whose prospects for the future are typically bleak—each story is a world of its own. The specific locations and circumstances that drive their plots vary wildly, as do the objectives and the worldviews of their characters.
What does unify Osipov’s first collection to be published in English translation is ultimately more about narrative attitude than plot: Rock, Paper, Scissorsis an effort to watch with extraordinary care as human beings confront inhuman absurdities. This is the source of the apparent oxymoron that has resonated so consistently with Osipov’s early Anglophone readers: his irony is somehow both cutting and compassionate.
Osipov’s irony cuts deep because smirking at the system requires smirking at the people who compose it. In “The Mill,” for example, an experienced village doctor named Viktor Mikhailovich is unable to save a woman whose pregnancy ends in fatal postpartum eclampsia. He informs a younger colleague that he plans to keep the patient on life support for forty-two days. In response to the younger doctor’s incredulity, Viktor Mikhailovich explains:
Oh, young academician, is it possible that you could be ignorant of something so simple? Forty-two days is six weeks. Death in the six weeks after childbirth is considered a maternal mortality; after that, it isn’t. That’s the system. What, don’t they write about that in your Internets? Get your head out of the clouds.
Like nearly all the victims of Osipov’s wit, Viktor Mikhailovich does not recognize that his self-righteous compliance with bureaucratic cruelty has become the butt of an inside joke between a narrator and a reader.
In this case, that’s where the irony stops, but other, less casually villainous characters’ interactions with “the system” lead us towards a complicated kind of compassion. When Osipov’s narration is not first-person, it is a highly omniscient third, and his narrators can’t seem to help but listen closely. By the time most characters become ensnared in some tragic systemic prank, the reader knows them too intimately not to sympathize.
Take Alya Ovsiannikova, the young mother lying in Viktor Mikhailovich’s reanimation ward. In a town where police inaction enables thugs to terrorize her future husband, she takes a job at the police station—in part because “the uniform—a dark blue skirt and a light blue blouse—had caught [her] eye.” At times, Alya seems tragically naïve, but the narrator of “The Mill” shares details of her life that reveal her as her hometown’s unrealized hero. Many of these details involve Alya’s perseverance as she grows up in poverty, but some are much more touchingly individual. One is her response to a math problem about a caterpillar stuck in a well that seems to resonate with her own experience of life: “If the caterpillar climbs three meters during the day, but slides down two meters at night, when will it get out of the well, if the well is five meters deep?” Alya’s classmates all say five days. She says three, and dares the teacher to give her a failing grade. The teacher muses, “She doesn’t actually believe that the rest of the students are idiots and that she’s the only one with brains, does she?” In all likelihood, that is exactly what the reader believes, and Osipov’s choice to observe Alya closely in an incident unrelated to the story’s central plot turns the irony surrounding her career as a police clerk into a cause for compassion.
“After Eternity: The Notes of a Literary Director” models that same habit of careful observation in one of its secondary characters. The titular notes are introduced as a found text, and although the doctor who has uncovered them does his best to maintain a professional distance, he cannot resist going to extraordinary lengths to tell the story of a single patient. When former dramaturg Alexander Ivanovich, who has a serious heart condition, never shows up to schedule a lifesaving operation, the doctor reasons, “Calling the regional office is pointless, not to mention unpleasant,” before admitting, “I asked the nurse to do it.” The doctor’s language masks his own efforts: “No one had called him an ambulance. He hadn’t passed through our morgue.” In his attempts to appear impartial, the narrator of the frame story becomes unreliable, but not in a malicious way. Like many of Osipov’s narrators, he disguises his own generous impulses in a language that only seems objective.
Alexander Ivanovich’s “notes,” which compose the rest of the story, also offer a window onto the collection as a whole—if only as a poignant foil to the rest of the volume. Eternity is a remote Siberian mining town, but by some Soviet fluke, it has been granted a thriving theater. After taking a job there on a whim, Alexander Ivanovich discovers a measure of freedom most of Osipov’s other protagonists do not have. Unlike the collection’s other settings, which change in lockstep with the collapse of the USSR and the rise of a new Russian state, Eternity seems to remain outside time: Alexander Ivanovich treats the passage of history as something of a curiosity marked primarily by the increasingly edgy scripts his theater’s cast enacts. As the actors around him embody Don Juan, Hamlet, and Jocasta—often too literally for their own good—Eternity becomes a space where characters can come freely to their tragicomic ends, losing themselves in a way their counterparts in, say, “The Mill” do not have time for. Where life is not so constrained by the looming demands of a bureaucracy, it seems better able to imitate art.
Then, suddenly, the mines are no longer needed, and Eternity is evacuated to become the target of a cruise missile test. That state-sponsored absurdity makes for some darkly comedic wordplay—as the doctor from the frame story says, “I haven’t managed to discover any direct confirmation of the aerial attack on Eternity”—but it feels impossible not to join Alexander Ivanovich in mourning the loss of the town’s ahistoricity. With characteristic precision, Osipov molds that grief into the dramaturg’s “notes,” a series of retrospectives that could have been published as independent microfictions. They flash in and out of view like slides, shifting unreliably in time, but again, without any effort to deceive. Each glimmer of a story seems to turn down the lights as it exits the reader’s view, but each closing also packs a punch of poetic momentum. Some of those conclusions even seem to thematize their own ability to turn flash fictions into elegies: “I’d been given a glimpse of a little slice of the world. There must be some reason for that. It was a very brief glimpse of a very little slice—but I saw it. I did.” Alexander Ivanovich repeatedly insists on dignified defeatism in the face of betrayal, but “After Eternity,” like many of Osipov’s stories, sees creativity even in resignation or fear. As Alexander Ivanovich asks, “Can anyone of sound mind insist that life lacks a plot?”
Both “The Mill” and “After Eternity” take the provincial to the extreme. The latter in particular imagines Russian art tucked far away, at least temporarily, from the eyes of the state and the energies of the present. While that distance is an important component of Rock, Paper, Scissors, it is not always representative of the collection’s subject matter. Maxim Osipov may be gaining a reputation as a diagnostician of the Russian provinces, but that is not the only writer who emerges in this collection: Osipov built much of his career in Moscow and part of it in the United States. He also frequently travels abroad. It should therefore be no surprise that Rock, Paper, Scissors, while rooted stylistically in late nineteenth-century Russian fiction from the provinces, embraces the contemporary and cosmopolitan as well. Multiple stories in the collection use high-speed travel to entangle rationalist characters in the ethical messes of a globalized world. While the Soviet dramas of “After Eternity” or the post-Soviet medical disasters of “The Mill” might intrigue readers in English thanks to their apparent remoteness, the network of trains and airplanes that permeates other stories implicates Anglophone readers by crossing into places they may call home and infrastructures they, too, may depend on.
Of course, the most essential bridge carrying Osipov’s stories across borders is the language its translators have created for them: the English edition of the collection takes on the formidable task of making gains in translation and succeeds. From a babushka who doesn’t just “smoke and curse” but rather “curses like a sailor and smokes like a chimney” to tongue twisters like “Shy Sasha sashays in her sashes” that are as difficult to say ten times fast as their Russian originals, Rock, Paper, Scissors combines precision with creativity on the sentence level in a way that mirrors Osipov’s own surprising, precisely structured tales.
Hilah Kohen is the News Editor of Meduza in English and a literary translator based in New Jersey.
Banner image: “Caterpillar on the wall,” by Flickr user seventwentysk. Reproduced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.