1351 Fifteen brands of sausage
Good Citizens Need Not Fear
by Maria Reva
Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (Vintage Canada), 2020
$19.95 / 9780735281967
Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy
Set in Kirovka, a Ukrainian industrial town 900 km from Moscow, immediately before and after the fall of the Soviet Union, Good Citizens Need Not Fear has a sweep that transcends even those years. Characters recall earlier times, a statue of “Grandfather Lenin” dominates the town square and introduces the book, and the reader is repeatedly reminded of the year 1933 — when the Stalin-engineered famine killed millions of Ukrainians. Reva’s characters are multiply marginalized — colonization has stripped them of their language, land, and livelihood — under the thumb of a totalitarian regime. Two edifices — a slap-dash apartment building on the edge of town and an out-of-sight orphanage — connect the characters and emblematize both the decrepit state and the occupants’ oppression.
The first section, “Before the Fall” begins in a comic realist/absurdist mode with “Novostroika.” At 1933 Ivansk, Daniil, a minor government functionary in charge of food canning supervision, occupies — along with 13 others — a cramped apartment (where the simplest movements require impressive choreography) that is without heat. Authorities insist the building does not exist: there is no documentation of its construction (apparently, it was made from the leftovers of nearby buildings). Although his threats to leave the stove on day and night come to naught, when he is not preoccupied at work calculating how to stuff ever-more food into cans due to a tin shortage, he persists. Taking matters into one’s own hands seems the only recourse, so the apartment dwellers pool their savings and invest in a heater, which, thanks again to bureaucracy, meets an end that is fitting, tragic, and comic. “Novostroika” ends with Daniil carefully chiselling the address from the building (ensuring the numbers are intact) — an action that resonates throughout the narrative. While he is literally performing the extraction to prove the existence of the inhabitants, he is symbolically reinforcing the usurpation of their identity.
The second story, horrifying, and with spiritual and supernatural overtones, introduces the second edifice: a former monastery and now an orphanage. Unwanted children are ranked according to the director’s assessment of the degree of their “abnormalities,” with those gauged most severe relegated to the internat. Because her speech is unintelligible — and despite her very high functioning brain — young Zaya is sent there. In crowded sleeping conditions, Zaya is among the many who develops pneumonia. Bedridden, she witnesses the older children outside digging graves. Her conditioned deteriorates until she is fevered and unable to walk. Zaya crawls to a loose floorboard and, under it, discovers a set of stairs leading underground. Zaya summons the strength to walk and descends to a chamber where she uncovers the top half of a mummified body topped with a red hat. With these remains in tow, she proceeds beyond the spiked fence – a surreal escape that sets up a pattern of recurring flight for this character.
In the blackly comic “Bone Music,” the entrepreneurial spirit that was part and parcel of the Soviet era — and its aftermath — makes for fascinating reading. In a testimony to the magnetism of art and the boundlessness of ingenuity, this story fictionalizes the actual practice of bootlegging recordings of forbidden Western popular music by pressing them on to used X-rays. Two 1933 Ivansk residents strike up an uneasy friendship of convenience: the dying Nika provides bootlegger sexagenarian Smena with her x-rays. But the two women fear state reprisal — all the more chilling because, in a changing regime, it is ambiguous — and each other. Nika’s fear manifests itself in refusing hospitalization; Smena’s anxiety manifests in agoraphobia. “Bone Music” is hilarious and chilling, its culmination catching the reader’s breath with its tenderness.
The remaining pieces in the first section — ranging from blackly absurdist to tender and touching — often within a single story — introduce a host of other characters connected to the building and, tangentially or significantly, each other. Primary among them is a poet who becomes at various times Daniil’s undoing at work, his boss, and his victim. The poet, Konstantyn, also becomes Zaya’s captor, exploiter, and surrogate father. Milena, the poet’s wife, becomes Daniil’s torturer, Smena’s accomplice, a successful black marketer, a loving surrogate mother in a lesbian relationship, and a factory cleaner. Extraordinary circumstances call for pivotal role changes.
Reva is masterful at unraveling the inner workings of the human mind as it rationalizes morally questionable actions when there is little choice. The fight for survival in a marginalized society — particularly when one is geographically and economically marginalized within that society — is seldom pretty. However, the effects of these moral decisions do not vanish from the perpetrators’ consciences; rather, they learn to live with them. And the reader is quickly disabused of any sense of moral superiority.
Part Two, “After the Fall” depicts a time that is different, but the same. As Milena observes in “The Ermine Coat,” “Fifteen brands of sausage … is not the same things as freedom” (p. 176). In “Roach Brooch,” an elderly couple, virtually abandoned by their children and grandchildren, is forced out of retirement because of inflation and into the bone music business.
Bookending Part Two are stories that reunite main characters after the fall and spotlight the edifices.
In “Lucky Toss,” Daniil narrates an update. Konstantyn, long after Zaya escapes from him during a beauty pageant in Moscow, has set up a tourist attraction in a ground floor suite at 1933 Ivansk. The saint Zaya took from the internat is the highlight of a display attracting pilgrims, and Daniil’s sorry job is to guard the tomb and cater to the poet’s whims. Daniil, haunted by the memory of the unsavoury nature of his previous employment as a state guard, flees, rationalizing taking the mummified body with him.
Through Zaya, in “Homecoming” the two buildings converge. Now 19 and living in Moscow, she is employed by an heiress, Almaza, whose travel agency specializes in experiential dark tourism: affluent clients not only tour sites of former disasters, but “re-enact” the horrors. Zaya finds herself back at the internat, acting the role of guard. She provides each tourist with one garment, confiscates most of their belongings for their ten-day stay, and, apart from providing them with meager meals, leaves them on their own as she holes up in what was likely the room of the actual guard. There, she researches 1933 Ivansk, learning of the poet’s tomb business.
A few days into the dark tour, she encounters other former orphanage inmates, who, tired of living on the streets, have become pilgrims and want back in — and their numbers increase daily. Zaya keeps them at bay. Learning that Almaza has bought the building in Zaya’s name to minimize the tax her family — as foreigners — would have to pay, Zaya leaves Almaza and the tourists buried in a grave and encourages the orphans to escape with her in Almaza’s van. However, the orphans elect to return inside the gates of their tortured youth. Once again in flight, Zaya makes her way to the apartment block, now so decrepit that only the poet remains in it. Konstantyn greets her as if no time has elapsed since their last meeting, updates her on the saint, and the two narrowly escape 1933 Ivansk as it crumbles to the ground.
A postscript reveals Konstantyn and Zaya inhabiting parts of the orphanage, having leased most of it to the Church. Zaya, assuming the orphans rescued the tourists, watches the busy monks restore the building and attempt to cover over all of the graves.
This debut collection by 30-something Maria Reva was a worthy 2020 finalist for the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — in the company of fellow British Columbian Michelle Good, as well as more established writers Thomas King, Zsuzsi Gartner, and (winner) Gil Adamson.
In the context of the early pandemic (May 2020) Ukrainian-born Vancouverite Reva asserts, “In bending and expanding our minds, surrealist books can help us accept our own rapidly changing reality.” Good Citizens Need Not Fear — surreal, heart warming, brutal, hilarious, meditative, and decidedly mind-altering — substantiates its author’s claim.
Ginny Ratsoy is Professor Emerita at Thompson Rivers University. Her scholarly publications (co-authored and edited and co-edited books and numerous peer-reviewed articles) have focused on Canadian fiction, theatre, small cities, third-age learning, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Her recent focus has been on maintaining a growth mindset and promoting third-age learning as a corrective to societal ageism. In the winter of 2022, she will be teaching a course on Alice Munro for the Kamloops Adult Learners Society, as well as coordinating and taking a host of other courses in disciplines such as philosophy, art history, and anthropology. Ratsoy was attracted to Good Citizens Need not Fear not only because of its satire, but also because her grandparents emigrated to Canada from Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th Century. Editor’s note: Ginny Ratsoy has recently reviewed books by Elizabeth Haynes, Alice Munro, R.M. Greenaway, Barbara Black, J.G. Toews, Iona Whishaw, Wayne Grady, and Angie Abdou.
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