Sen­ti­men­tal Tales

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Mikhail Zoshchenko Boris Dra­lyuk (Trans­la­tor) Columbia Univer­sity Press (JULY) Soft­cover $14.95 (240pp) 978-0-231-18379-6

In Sen­ti­men­tal Tales, Mikhail Zoshchenko mas­ter­fully ex­hibits a play­ful se­ri­ous­ness. Hi­lar­ity flits over a bit­ing satir­i­cal in­dict­ment of the 1920s Soviet lit­er­ary scene.

As ex­plained across four com­i­cal pref­aces, the tales are com­posed by I. V. Kolenko­rov, with Zoshchenko claim­ing to act as his edi­tor. Kolenko­rov re­mains stuck in the past, de­spite the up­heaval im­pose by the Sovi­ets. Rather than fo­cus­ing on grand nar­ra­tives, he wishes to cap­ture the spirit of the com­mon in­di­vid­ual.

Striv­ing for the ut­most re­al­ism, he is a recorder of lives he has ei­ther heard of or knows first­hand. Yet the tales of these hum­ble per­sons—among them strug­gling mu­si­cians, a bal­let dancer, and an aris­to­crat with no use for his riches—ul­ti­mately point to loftier themes of love, loss, betrayal, and re­demp­tion.

Hu­mor shines through. Zoshchenko’s nar­ra­tor has a style that is pur­pose­fully medi­ocre and some­times ter­ri­ble. Liv­ing up to their sen­ti­men­tal name, the tales are pep­pered with strings of un­nec­es­sary ad­jec­tives and con­stant in­ter­jec­tions by Kolenko­rov to ex­plain him­self and his pur­poses.

Self-aware, self-dep­re­cat­ing commentary runs through­out the sto­ries and serves as the uni­fy­ing thread. One tale be­gins only af­ter Kolenko­rov has ram­bled for a few pages about his own taste for for­eign over Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture with its bad weather (“It’s ei­ther bl­iz­zards or storms”) and its dis­agree­able, melan­cholic char­ac­ters. He then ad­mits his own tales have been full of des­per­a­tion and melan­choly up to this point, but that it’s too late to change that now. Else­where, he laments that since he has never trav­eled to Europe and is un­will­ing to “bun­gle up any mi­nor de­tails of those alien ways,” he must skip over ten or eleven years of a char­ac­ter liv­ing abroad.

Jux­ta­pos­ing joy­ful wit with the bleak­ness of Soviet Rus­sia, Sen­ti­men­tal Tales is a po­tent an­ti­dote for Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture’s dour rep­u­ta­tion.

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