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Wassermann über Odessa (Aquarius over Odessa) - World Literature Today, 22/9/1995 (in English)

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The astrological sign of change, Aquarius (in German, "Wassermann"), bodes neither peace nor goodwill for Ilya Mitrofanov's blue-collar hero Semyon Stavraki, a deep-sea diver working in the rough and bustling port of Odessa. Stavraki, an orphan raised in the ruins of postwar Odessa, claims the city as his mother and proudly credits her with having taught him honesty, respect, and tolerance for others. Nevertheless, Stavraki's story illustrates how bad things can befall good people, and his fortunes take a disastrous turn precisely when the star sign appears over the city.
The first-person narrative opens with Stavraki's homecoming from a prison camp on the White Sea, in the north of Russia. He tells his life story to a fellow passenger on die train home, a situation reminiscent of that in Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, in which the hero Pozdnyshev shocks his fellow travelers with an account of how he murdered his wife. Whereas Tolstoy's hero views his society's obsession with sensuality as the root of all evil, however, Mitrofanov's diver sees greed and the thirst for social status as poisoning human relations in his day. As the train draws nearer to the hero's beloved Odessa, the tale picks up intensity, and the idyllic portrayal of Stavraki's love and marriage to a waitress suddenly gives way to a tragic chain of events culminating in his trial and prison sentence for murder.
Stavraki's tale is in many ways an extended metaphor -- life is a plunge into the depths. As the narrative unfolds and the reader descends deeper into Stavraki's vicissitudes, there is a tangible sense of "increasing pressure" and impending misfortune. Indeed, the hero's frequent asides about the changing pressure both under water and above run as a leitmotiv throughout the narration and function as a barometer gauging the social pressure Stavraki experiences on the "surface." Likewise, he compares the confusion he experiences when dealing with the people in his life to a sudden and dangerous loss of ballast. Precisely such a loss of ballast occurs when the hero's insane father-in-law suddenly appears after Stavraki has settled down to married life. The father-in-law, a former merchant-marine captain, had fallen ill with a dangerous psychosis several years earlier after being accused of corruption. Unconcerned about the potential dangers for the community, the personnel of the local asylum periodically release the paranoid captain from the institute in order to exact bribes from the family to keep him safely incarcerated. On one of those nocturnal sojourns -- which mysteriously occurs under the sign of Aquarius -- the captain accuses the diver of having caused his demise by stealing his ship's records and selling them to the CIA. When the captain suddenly attacks him with a kitchen knife, Stavraki fatally wounds the deranged man in the struggle.
Although Stavraki only acts in self-defense, his mother-in-law, the epitome of the gaudy, present-day Russian nouveau riche, claims otherwise, using the tragedy to elicit sympathy for the deceased in the hopes of restoring his good name at Stavraki's trial. Yet Semyon is unable to understand the self-seeking motives of the woman and feels like a diver who has lost his lead ballast boots. After Stavraki's conviction, she remains unrelenting, driving her own daughter, now pregnant with Stavraki's child, from her home. The couple successfully endure the years of separation, however, and Stavraki serves his term and is released. As his tale draws to a conclusion, he is a free man on the way home to see his beloved wife and the son she bore him during his imprisonment. The novel ends as it began -- en route to an unpredictable future. Ironically, the reader learns that Stavraki's fellow passenger has long since fallen asleep during the narrative, and thus his tragic story falls on deaf ears.
Mitrofanov demonstrates a superb command of the first-person narrative point of view. As the novel progresses, his blue-collar hero becomes more and more convincing and real, as do the circumstances in which he lives in the post-Soviet era. This achievement is all the more significant in view of Soviet literature's decade-long quest to create a believable blue-collar "worker hero," righteously dedicated to the socialist cause. Mitrofanov's hero is dedicated solely to preserving his human dignity in the "shark-infested, waters in which he lives. The way he overcomes his anger and hatred for his persecutors is die real story in Wassermann uber Odessa and reveals Mitrofanov's hope that post-Soviet society might eventually achieve some semblance of domestic tranquillity. Unfortunately, Wassermann uber Odessa will remain the author's final work; the tragic automobile accident that took his life in 1994 has deprived Russian literature of one of its more promising talents.

Author: Mozur, Joseph P. Jr.
COPYRIGHT 1995 University of Oklahoma