Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva

Good Citizens Need Not Fear: Stories by Maria Reva
Knopf Canada, March 2020

A collection of interconnected, darkly funny stories set in Ukraine, both before and after the fall of the USSR. The people are mostly residents in a poorly-built ten-storey apartment building. One of the ongoing characters is Zaya, an endearing orphan with a harelip growing up in a state-run institution. Simple drawings illustrate some of the stories. 

"The funniest, most politically astute book I've read in years... Bang-on brilliant." If you pick this up based on this blurb by Miriam Toews on the cover, you will have been steered in the right direction. Maria Reva balances humour and pathos like a boss and absurd Soviet bureaucracy makes perfect fodder. 

In 'Letter of Apology' a poet was overheard making a political joke and so a government underling goes to extraordinary lengths after being tasked with getting a written apology, even though his rank isn't high enough for him to know the content of the joke.

        Normally I had a letter of apology written and signed well under the thirty-day deadline. I took pride in my celerity. Even the most stubborn perpetrators succumbed when threatened with loss of employment or arrest. The latter, however, was a last resort. The goal these days was to re-educate without arrest because the Party was magnanimous and forgiving; furthermore, prisons could no longer accommodate every citizen who uttered a joke.

In 'Novostroika,' a resident is thwarted in his attempts to convince city hall to connect heat to their new building because their address is not in the records. Meanwhile, at his job in a canning factory, he is supposed to come up with a way to make green beans triangular so that they will fit more snugly together in a can.

Everyday life requires ingenuity. Wages are paid in lamps and perfume. There's a strong desire for elements of Western culture. Bootlegged music is copied onto x-ray film and sold on the black market. 

        Before the Union fell apart, the foreign films that made it into our country were dubbed by the same man. You could hear his dentures slap against his gums. No matter the character -- man, woman, toddler -- same droning voice. It flattened the characters' joy and sorrow, made us doubt their confessions. Did the heroine really love that man as much as she said? Vowing to die for him was going a bit far, wasn't it?
        Sometimes the dubbing lagged so far behind, you had to guess who said what, guess how the film ended.

Giller chances: MEDIUM HIGH - The writing style is smart and lively. The message has universal appeal: warning against what can happen if we allow our democratic rights to erode; reassurance in the changing nature of history (bad times don't last forever); and inspiration in the resilience of human beings.

This post is part of a series. I'm on the Shadow Giller jury this year, so I'm reading as many qualifying Canadian titles as possible in order to come up with my own longlist prediction before the official one that will be announced on September 8, 2020. To see my other reviews that are a part of this project, click on the Shadow Giller tag. Also, please visit our Shadowing the Best of CanLit website to see what the rest of the Shadow Giller jury are up to. Thanks for visiting my blog.

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