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Dreaming of Leningrad: reviewing Like Water and Other Stories by Olga Zilberbourg4 min read

 In Culture, Review, Russia
It might be a bit on the nose, but I’d say that Olga Zilberbourg is herself a bit like water: her fiction is nourishing, refreshing, and impossible to hold in your hands before it slips away. In her latest collection, Like Water, Zilberbourg tells 53 short stories – some as short as a sentence – from the perspectives of 53 different narrators. Just as soon as you’ve grabbed on to one of Zilberbourg’s bright, insightful characters (a self-proclaimed Leningrad genius, or an enigmatic American literature professor) the story is over, and a new one’s begun.

The artist statement preceding Like Water explains that the stories therein “invite the reader to consider the way becoming a parent turns one’s lived experience into a battleground for potential identities. The past, present, and future become blurred in the anxieties of moment-to-moment child care.” Because many of her stories also deal with immigration – Zilberbourg herself moved to the United States from Russia, in 1996 – the past plays double duty, as both a lost time and an abandoned place.

Fiction focused on remembering invariably tilts either to nostalgia or disappointment. Zilberbourg’s stories do both. She often takes on the voice of a child, fascinated and delighted by the natural and mechanical wonders of her small piece of the Soviet Union: wild mushrooms, canned preserves, a wall clock powered by weights. These stories combine the whimsy of childhood memory with the fondness of an imagined old country. Indeed, the Soviet Union of Like Water is imbued with rustic simplicity, wood-burning stoves and kayaking trips on the river. Hard-working grandmothers are romanticised, while in stories set in the 90s and 2000s, the post-Soviet nouveau riche are depicted as vulgar or doomed. Again, from “Rubicon”:

Some years later, he came to pick me up for dinner in a car with a driver who was also his body-guard. I asked him why he needed a bodyguard, and he beamed: “That’s what success looks like, baby!” He took me to a hair-raisingly expensive rooftop restaurant and, seated across the table from me, kept glancing left and right over his shoulders. The food, when it arrived, came out on gold-encrusted plates. He clicked the rim with his nail and turned to me a delighted face. “They don’t have restaurants like this in the US, do they?”

In the tragicomic “Bananas for Sale”, an engineering technologist-turned-produce negotiator devotes every hour of her life to the sale of bananas. Even as the fruit turns grey and black on the factory floor, Liudmila chases leads, desperate to earn money and build a good life for herself and her daughter:

What a lovely color ripe bananas were. They smelled and tasted of a life on a tropical island where one only needed to reach with her hand and be fed. In their dank climate, she needed a dream to keep the bananas from rotting.

At times it seems as though Zilberbourg is punishing through her prose the men and women who changed Russia from something she can access through memory into something new and unfamiliar. In this sense, Zilberbourg’s fiction presents a kind of xenophobia, an aversion to that which she perceives as foreign. To her, the new Russia is a foreign, ugly place, a rotting husk of the familiar Soviet Union. 

In “Doctor Sveta,” one of my favourite stories, and the longest in the collection, an aging Russian obstetrician recounts the early years of her career in the Soviet Union to a young Russian-American doctor visiting St. Petersburg for a family function. The young doctor reflects:

Listening to her talk, I have to remind myself that the Leningrad of Doctor Sveta’s youth and today’s St. Petersburg are one and the same city. Contemporary St. Petersburg feels hopelessly backwards, at least as far as medicine is concerned. I’m an anesthesiologist resident at Mass General in Boston, and after difficult shifts, I entertain myself by imagining what my life would’ve been like had I stayed in St. Petersburg. I recall the vomit-green walls and the creaky wooden windows of the hospitals and the outpatient clinics, the smell of urine in the hallways, the waiting rooms packed with small children and the elderly, and I feel privileged to be going back to work at the efficiency and safety-protocol-obsessed American hospital.

Nostalgia is human nature, and it would be wrong to fault Zilberbourg for sharing fond memories. The problem, if there is one, is that one by one, like condemned captives walking the plank, each of Zilberbourg’s narrators falls into the age-old trap of maligning the present to preserve the past. This has never worked, and it will never work: no amount of loathing for St. Petersburg will bring you back to Leningrad.

Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories was published by WTAW Press in 2019. It is available on Amazon.

Featured image: SteveInLeighton‘s photo From the Admiralty Embankment, Leningrad
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