The stories in New Yorker rarely disappoint me, and given a chance I try to read them. It doesn’t happen often, unless a flu confines me to bed at the right moment and in the right time. This was the case last week when a Jan 25, 2016 issue of the magazine found its way into my hands. The name of the author grabbed my attention – Tatyana Tolstaya. Slavic writers are not frequent guest on its pages, and I was curious to read it.
It is a short story by the standards of New Yorker – a single page, about thousand words. It follows a woman as she prepares a traditional Russian dish – aspic. The first half takes place at the market where dead animals are chopped, the second – in her home where she prepares the dish. This is not a real spoiler – the story line hardly matters here. In fact, Aspic is as much a story as it is a mood pastiche of hopelessness. The death motive dominates the first half, despair and frustration dominate the second. It is beautifully written and I dare to say it is very well translated, but it pours on the reader so much sorrow, that we are fortunate it is such a short piece. Perhaps, because it is so easy to relate to the character, and it is easy to translate her feeling to any environment – it doesn’t matter if we are talking about a house wife burdened by everyday chores or a successful and ruthless corporate lower (just like the lead character from the Korean movie Wonderful Nightmare that I saw a couple of days ago on the flight from Europe). The Aspic translates with great power the feeling of being caught in a hamster wheel, in a run that will never end.
Clearly, Tolstaya touches the audiences, but this is not a peasant and uplifting experience. Her story is part of the sad dystopian trend, that is becoming increasingly common across the modern mainstream and various genres. Coming from a modern Slavic writer, it reinforces further the popular perception that the Eastern European literature is dark and gloomy. Still, I recommend it – I may not agree with the character or may not accept the idea, but the story has a point and makes it convincingly.