The Morning News has decided to play Reading Roulette with six Russian authors, shooting a new one into the American blogosphere each month. And because I can't get enough of translation, I’ll be writing about this year's selections—and linking to each story so you can read it yourself. First off is Anna Starobinets's pungent phantasmagoria, "I'm Waiting."
It's no secret that Russia is a cold country, or that the name of their national drink is a diminutive of their word for water, voda. The burgeoning population, spread thinly from Kaliningrad to the farthest edge ofKamchatka Krai, has huddled in bars and in front of fires over the centuries, telling stories to while away the endless nights. Anna Starobinets is the latest in a long line of storytellers, but unlike so many of her forebears, she deliberately resists the mythic.
In "I'm Waiting," a modern-day narrator leaves some of her mother's soup in a saucepan until it becomes putrid, and then outright dangerous. How dangerous? Without giving too much away, the saucepan breeds a ghost. Then things get really weird.
We humans have a visceral response to mold and stench. We're evolutionarily conditioned to seek out perfect, unblemished food. If we eat something that makes us sick, just once, our bodies can exhibit aversion to it every single time thereafter. An attraction to spoilage isn't just strange; it's deeply abnormal. And a first-person story about this sort of attraction is even more revolting: I can almost imagine myself become this woman.
So why this obsession with her mother's soup? I grew up with Eastern European food from the countries circling Mother Russia. I love going toVeselka at two in the morning for pierogies, and insisting on stuffed cabbage with my friends. There's something deeply familiar about the food a mother makes.
But let's think about this a different way. My father was once a nuclear engineer. It wasn't until high school, when I learned about nuclear power in Chemistry class and read John Hersey's Hiroshima, that I realized the research in nuclear fusion my father had done was tangentially connected to the nuclear reactors' fission that, in Russia, had resulted in a scab of earth that humans can't go near for, give or take, twenty thousand years.
If mother's soup goes bad and ends up contaminating a pot, then a refrigerator, then an entire apartment, until outside forces have to come in with gas masks and chemicals to destroy it, it's a strangely appropriate metaphor for . . . well, lots of things.
A nuclear disaster from something homegrown? The idea turns my stomach.
Anna Starobinets has hit the nail on the head. She doesn't even have to delve into myth; the world we actually live in is terrifying enough.