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.