Maya Kucherskaya. Faith and Humor: Notes from Muscovy. Trans. Alexei Bayer. Montpelier, VT: Russian Life Books, 2011. 268 pp. $16.00 (paper).
Maya Kucherskaya's collection of short stories and sketches of contemporary Russian Orthodoxy, Sovremennyi Paterik: Chtenie dlia vpavshikh v unynie [lit. Contemporary Paterikon: Reading for Those who Have Fallen into Despair], was first published in Russia in 2004. Kucherskaya, who is a practitioner of Russian Orthodoxy, a UCLA-educated Moscow University professor, and a journalist, explains that with Paterikon she wanted to introduce "the life of the spirit" into modern Russian literature and to find a fitting literary form "for discussing Church matters" (15). Currently in its third edition, the original Russian text has received an equivocal response from literary critics and the reading public, both for the volume's content and its unconventional stylistics. Some readers have accused Paterikon of being a heretical satire that tampers with enduring symbols of Russian Orthodoxy. Others have labeled Kucherskaya's collection a blatant "PR-project" of the Moscow-based ecclesiastical hierarchy. Russian literati have generally embraced the collection, and in 2006 the volume was selected as a finalist for the Ivan Bunin literary prize. Faith and Humor, Alexey Bayer's fluid and accurate translation of Kucherskaya's contentious and "unorthodox" book, is a timely and welcome addition to English language renditions of contemporary Russian prose.
Like Kucherskaya's Russian original, the translation opens with a foreword by Sergey Chuprinin (the chief editor of Znamia, one of Russia's "thick" literary journals) who defines the term "paterik" as "a book of stories about the deeds of Orthodox priests and/or a collection of their moral sayings" (9). The narrative conventions of this early Slavic literary genre might indeed serve as a point of departure and a source of inspiration for Kucherskaya's Paterik. However, with a plethora of modern-day, real and fictional protagonists, the author firmly sets her vignettes in 1990s Russia. Most of the brief stories follow the conventions of hagiographical texts, narrating lives of recognizable, real-life clerics and post-Soviet secular cultural icons such as Archimandrite Father Pavel (Gruzdev, 1910-96) or the prominent film director, Nikita Mikhalkov. The fictional characters who appear in the collection are also contemporary and range from cell-phone-packing clergy (206) to repentant casino hostesses (134). Loosely organized in fifteen "cycles," the book is structured as a series of mundane snapshots of the charac¬ters' lives and idiosyncrasies. Offering a unique vantage point for the de-mythologization of Russian Orthodox life, these stories "humanize" the clergy and present spirituality as a routine aspect of post-Soviet Russian existence.
Alongside the lightly humorous and down-to-earth depictions of Russian priests and their flock, Kucherskaya populates some of her stories with caricatures and, at times, absurd protagonists. Some of these characters are essentially parodies, which include an alcoholic, dope-smoking ecclesiastic (58), an atheist priest (58), and even a cannibalistic churchman (48). (It is worth noting that, while most stories do not present an overt moral, the image of the atheist priest allows the author to draw a sly parallel to Soviet-era Communists who also did not be¬lieve in what they preached.) Kucherskaya presents another absurdly contradictory image of Orthodox Christianity through her fable of an overly zealous Christian hedgehog. The hedge¬hog and a ladybug-convert to Christianity accidentally drown a "heathen" squirrel while trying to baptize the latter (199). This story, which mimics a Sunday school tale (and simultaneously references Russian folk animal tales), ends with a late-Soviet stëb-infused set of "Questions and Assignments": "1) Do you approve of Hedgehog and Ladybug's actions? 2) What would you have done if you were in Hedgehog's shoes? In Squirrel's? 3) Assign roles and perform the story in character" (201).
In keeping with the book's eclectic array of characters is the author's postmodern hodgepodge of narrative styles that range from spiritual seriousness and a contemplative tone to irreverent humor (nuances that Bayer has deftly preserved in his translation). Many of Kucherskaya's brief vignettes blend the style of zen koans with the snarky aesthetics of underground Soviet mit'ki prose. A few of these pieces are also reminiscent of the solemn, pious tone of religious aphorisms: "The reverend father often repeated, 'He who does not recognize the Church as his Mother, does not have the Lord as his Father'" (65). Other texts bear a resemblance to Daniil Kharms's acerbic prose, such as the short piece entitled "The Believer" (41): "There once was a man who suddenly believed in God. Thereupon he borrowed a Makarov pistol from a friend and shot himself." A few of the stories flirt with the satanic, as for example "Harry Potter Is Bad" (204). This tale, reminiscent of the strashilka or horror story from Soviet urban children's folklore, depicts a disobedient Christian student who dares to read a forbidden Harry Potter book. As a punishment for this transgression, the student develops a stutter after being traumatized by the sudden appearance of a "devilish," broomstick-riding Harry Potter.
For readers unfamiliar with the Russian Orthodox tradition, translator Bayer has provided a brief three-page glossary that clarifies a number of important references and terms (such as archimandrite, iurodivy, Theotokos, etc.). Equally useful are the translator's explanations of some intertextual allusions that appear throughout the book (for example, the reference to Alexander Pushkin's tale "Mistress into Maid" in Kucherskaya's story entitled "Baryshnia-krest'ianka"). Although the translator does an admirable job of elucidating many of the cultural and literary references, some allusions to Russian culture remain unexplained, as is perhaps in¬evitable for any annotated translation. Examples of culture lost in translation include the title of the story "Domik v derevne" (an ironic allusion to a Russian popular dairy brand); "Bratets Ivanushka" (a reference to a character from a Russian folktale); and the religious connotation in the popular Russian taxonomy for ladybug, bozh'ya korovka [lit. God's little cow]. Overall, despite a few minor inconsistencies and omissions, Bayer's volume is a proficient translation of an unusual and controversial volume that should be of interest to students and scholars of Rus¬sian literature, culture, and Orthodoxy.
Olga Mesropova, Iowa State University