Mar­gari­ta Khem­lin (auth.), Lisa Hay­den (trans.), Lara Vap­n­yar (fwd.)

  • Review
By – October 14, 2019

Klotsvog, by Russ­ian writer Mar­gari­ta Khem­lin, and trans­lat­ed by Lisa Hay­den, is the sto­ry of one Jew­ish woman’s life in Post-Stal­in­ist Sovi­et Union. Even after the over­whelm­ing inhu­man­i­ty of World War II, sur­vivors still retain their human­i­ty. What do sur­vivors do when they are left to live out the rest of their lives? They get by. But, as Maya, the pro­tag­o­nist, would quip, That’s not my point.”

This sto­ry is told through Maya’s voice, in breath­less para­graphs with­out chap­ters: a mun­dane life with mul­ti­ple lovers, and a frac­tured fam­i­ly over two decades. The episod­ic, con­ver­sa­tion­al, and seg­ment­ed style of her sto­ry­telling allows for her unique sense of obser­va­tion­al humor to hit the read­er hard. Her humor switch­es between bleak and blunt to seem­ing­ly lack­ing in basic empa­thy and plain expres­sions of van­i­ty. In many ways, Khem­lin has writ­ten the picaresque nov­el for the Sovi­et Era.

Maya’s trav­el­ling through the post war Sovi­et envi­ron­ment is marked by her catch­phrase, But that’s not my point.” This allows her life sto­ry to con­tin­ue in her own mind. There is a clear echo to Kurt Vonnegut’s famous phrase, So it goes.” Which is not a sim­ple sigh of fatal­ism at the unpre­dictabil­i­ty of the entrop­ic uni­verse, but rather a mark­er of the minu­ti­ae of telling a sto­ry that puts the poor pro­tag­o­nist through con­tin­u­al tri­als, even after they’ve just sur­vived the worst of human cat­a­stro­phes. Grant­ed, it is stat­ed that Maya was a refugee in Kaza­khstan dur­ing the war and Bil­ly Pil­grim (Kurt) was in that Slaugh­ter­house dur­ing the fire­bomb­ing of Dres­den, the relat­able strug­gle comes from hav­ing to reassem­ble and make sense of the burnt, bro­ken world.

Is sur­vival good enough? Is sur­vival some­thing for which to strive? In a par­tic­u­lar poignant scene, one of Maya’s old­er rel­a­tives is giv­ing a toast, I’d like to drink to those who aren’t with us today. As an elder­ly per­son, I’m calm know­ing that life is the excep­tion and death the rule. There’s no need to be sad. We need to live. L’chaim!”

Maya Klotsvog’s life recalls a Jew­ish adage men­tioned in the nov­el, The house is burn­ing but the clock still keeps time.” We see a life that moves for­ward even while it smol­ders. Her sur­vival is tri­umphant, as is this novel.

Austin Sanchez-Moran is a poet and teacher who received his MFA from George Mason Uni­ver­si­ty, and now teach­es high school Eng­lish in West­ern Maine.

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