The Prussian bride
by Steve Penn
[ bookreviews ]
Once upon a time there was a different form of storytelling, a form that seemed to feed off itself. It was the form of the old religions and the old ways, a way of building myths. It was a form where everyone knew the characters somehow, and actual time did not really matter at all. It would seem that this form is dead now. Except nobody told Yuri Buida.
Buida does not make stories in the normal way, a talent first shown in his critically acclaimed first novel, 'The Zero Train'. Rather Buida builds a world of semi-mythic characters and just lets stories inhabit them. In the same way that many feel Tolkein made Middle Earth long before he envisaged the Baggins', Buida makes lumps of Russia. But unlike the great fantasist, there is little adventure in the world of Buida's Russia/Prussia. What there is could be listed in broad, emotive tones: there is love, in all its many and strange forms, there are people, strange and twisted, and there is death. There is a lot of death. The forced repatriation of the German inhabitants of East Prussia hangs like a cyclorama behind the freaks and superheroes of Buida's world. Cold, dark and muddy, fatal and inescapable. People come to Buida's little world and tend to die when they leave. They die if they stay, too, sung to their rest by Half-Pint and his battered trumpet.
Buida's myth-cycle is at once domestic and remarkable. Reading through his little tales (there are thirty-two of them) the reader gains a deep understanding of, even love for, the eccentric but hardy Russian townspeople. Never have I read a book with so many characters so well realised that was not written before the 17th Century. They live and have odd little mannerisms - Gramp Mukhanov with his cigarettes stuffed with Georgian tea not tobacco, Name of Lev the barber and football referee. You will care for them, and that is why they die. It is very powerful, like inheriting someone else's memories.
Yet this is not all the potency of this deceptively simple-seeming book. If you are looking for allegory, here you shall find it. Religious commentary abounds throughout the book. Hope and fear run alongside the religion. Layer after layer build and twist, through the childish lunacy of some of the "memories" ("he was three metres tall with a bronze chest") up to the biting nakedness of the death of Volostnov, the paper-mill worker.
And then there are the miracles. They punctuate the myth cycle of the once-Prussian town like the vodka shots punctuate its people's daily lives. You soon get used to them highlighting the power and significance of life and death. They are the book's crowning glory, and they will get to you. I won't give examples, as they would never be as good out of context.
This is a great book. It is a significant, dignified and intelligent blow against the orthodoxy of the novel, and it is one of the best books I have read this year. All credit to Dedalus for daring to publish it: here is a book that cries "classic" with the voices of wonderful, characterful, idiotic, strange, beautifully ordinary people. Not that there is nothing special about each one - they are all unique and remarkable, and that is what makes them ordinary. Grab a tenner, buy this book, and you will understand.