The Present, Tense: reviewing Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov4 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Russia

Literary reviews of Rock, Paper, Scissors, a newly-translated collection of short stories by the Russian writer Maxim Osipov, tend to open with the fact that Osipov, like Anton Chekhov some hundred-plus years before him, is both a writer and a doctor. Medicine, short stories, Russia – biographically, the comparison makes sense. And in terms of their writing, sure, there are some tempting parallels: Osipov, like Chekhov, is a keen noticer, a generous dispatcher of details and inventor of idiosyncrasies. (“Semyon Isaakovich has stuffed one of his feet into a boot, but not the other”). 

But where it matters, Osipov is something of an anti-Chekhov. Chekhov wrote almost exclusively in the past tense; his stories were contained within narrative tenses, kept distant from the reader by time and the promise, embedded within his grammar, that at least someone makes it through the danger. Osipov, however, writes primarily in the present – his fiction has an intensity, an immediacy, like a POV film. Here’s Osipov at his most present:

When learning to shoot, Betty was always taught to exhale fully, inhale slightly – maybe 25 percent – hold her breath, take aim, listen to her heartbeat, and then, in the interval between two beats, pull the trigger. Betty puts her hand on the door handle, pauses for a moment, then opens the door.

Violence is everywhere in Rock, Paper, Scissors; everywhere, that is, but here. The most gruesome acts happen just off the page – we arrive to find blood on the floor, we stand too far away to see the victim’s face. This is as much a reflection of the author’s pessimistic view of his homeland as it is a product of his skill at shifting perspectives. From murderer to witness, Osipov never settles on a character long enough for the reader to forget that every story can be told two, three, four ways. 

The title story, “Rock, Paper, Scissors”, is a perfect example of that. A grieving mother, a befuddled high school teacher, and a long-suffering migrant worker find their lives interconnected in ways none of them could have expected. The story has no clear hero or villain; indeed, not only does it resist narrative conventions, it challenges the relevance of the entire Russian literary canon. If Pushkin taught us to admire nature, why do we tear through meadows and forests to build chapels and shopping centres? If Tolstoy taught us to embrace piousness, why are we so uncomfortable around religious Muslims? If Dostoevsky showed us the moral scourge of poverty, why do we still scoff at the poor? As Ruhshona, one of the voices in “Rock, Paper, Scissors” tells us, “The truth can’t be found in poetry.”

So what does literature offer? Compassion. Despite the violence and the lies and the cancers, Osipov commands his reader to respect every one of his characters, or at least to understand them through the lens of their experiences. This is one of the reasons, surely, behind the author’s preference for shifting perspectives. It must also be why he fills his stories with detail. Watch, listen, understand before you condemn. 

In “Rock, Paper, Scissors”, the teacher crosses paths with a boy, can’t be older than six, begging on the street. He gives the kid a bath, buys him new clothes and all sorts of presents and then, instead of dropping him off at home, decides to go in to see how the boy lives. 

When I went inside it was just a room – and some room it was: empty, save for a light bulb hanging from the ceiling and an iron bed covered in rags, and on top of that lay a naked man, dirty, drunk, reeking.

(An aside: did Chekhov ever write a story about a reeking naked man? As a doctor, he must have encountered his fair share).

Osipov repeats almost the exact same encounter in another story, this time from the perspective a business mogul who, like the high school teacher, runs into a child on the street and can’t resist helping him. He, too, takes the boy home, and:

A single-story dump – half a house, actually. The stench of rot, soot, and urine hits him in the nose. On the bed, in the semidarkness, sits a man covered in rags.

Beyond the powerful imagery, itself well-worth repeating, it’s clear Osipov has a point worth making twice. Compassion isn’t about buying someone gifts, but understanding where they come from. Osipov’s fiction has the effect of leaving your eyes open wider, your attention greater to the characters and calamities in your own life. Rock, Paper, Scissors is a master-class in noticing.

I would be remiss if I concluded this review without praising the work of the stories’ three translators, Alex Fleming, Anne Marie Jackson, and Boris Dalyuk, and without offering special praise to Fleming, whose prose is nothing short of exceptional. Her sentences are rhythmic, her descriptions are rich and evocative. Contemporary Russian writing enjoys so little popularity in the West precisely because few translators are as capable as Fleming in transposing the music of Russian prose to the English key. I am as eager to read her next translation as I am to read any new fiction from Maxim Osipov. 

Rock, Paper, Scissors was published by New York Review Books in 2019.

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