Every once in a while I get an e-mail from a publisher asking if I’m interested in a copy of a book (obviously hoping I’ll write about it); I usually say “thanks, but no thanks,” because the books are often not that interesting to me and I have plenty to read already. But when a marketing person from Spiegel & Grau asked me if I’d like a copy of One More Year, a collection of short stories by Sana Krasikov, and I read that her protagonists were “largely Russian and Georgian immigrants who have settled on the East Coast,” I knew the book was right down my alley and said “sure.”
I’m happy to report that the book is everything I hoped for. Krasikov (she was born in Ukraine and grew up in Georgia) has the essential gift of her calling: she tells compelling stories about people who seem as real as the ones you see on the street. Her prose is efficient and graceful, and—what is much rarer—she sees people with a moral clarity that makes no excuses and passes no judgments. In that she reminds me of Chekhov, and in many ways she fits into the Russian tradition, with its emphasis on the elements in life beyond the daily grind. There’s plenty of daily grind here—her characters inhabit unfashionable neighborhoods and have shaky living arrangements, often made shakier by their own bad decisions—but the overriding question they keep implicitly asking, and making us ask, is “What is important in life?” Specifically, how can our need for love be woven into the fabric of the rest of our life without tearing it apart? Whether the stories are set in New York, Moscow, or Tashkent (each vividly realized), these questions create a pressure that impels the narrative and lend a grandeur to even the most regrettable folly.
On a lower level, but still impressive in these slapdash days, the book is impeccably produced (the only error I noticed was “Boystovskaya” Street for Boytsovaya on p. 181, and I don’t know if that’s a misprint or a mistake that got into the manuscript somehow), and the fact that the author’s English is not native is rarely apparent (from the same page: “those absconding the homeland”). Also impressive, in terms of pure synchronicity, is the fact that Krasikov managed to touch on two issues that have recently hit the headlines. From “Maya in Yonkers,” in a passage describing a smuggling route from Russia to Georgia: “Another $200 for a driver to take the crate across the mountains to South Ossetia, where Luisa’s husband would pick it up and bring it to Dusheti.” And from “The Repatriates” (which appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year), this passage on the activities of one of the titular characters gave me a chill:
He was staying in Moscow to look for financiers for a business idea that would do for the Russian market what mortgage traders had done on Wall Street since the eighties: pool and repackage loans for investors in one massive turbine of debt and capital. He would build not only wealth for himself but a better life for the doctors and schoolteachers in distant provinces, still living in run-down, vermin-infested apartments and dreaming of raising their kids in solid houses, if only Russia could grow a robust mortgage industry.
That’s what I call having your finger on the Zeitgeist.