Excerpts from Issue 2, Vol. 1, Spring 2015
IN TRANSLATION: ILYA ILF’S "FISHERMAN OF THE GLASS BATTALION"
by Steven Volynets
Ilya Ilf, born Iehiel-Leyb Arnoldovich Faynzilberg, was a Soviet literary icon famous for two satirical novels, The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf, all co-authored with Yevgeniy Petrov (Yevgeniy Kataev). They are among the most widely read and quoted books in the Russian language. Before teaming up with Petrov, Ilf wrote hundreds of his own short stories, essays, editorials, and war dispatches. Most remain obscure and untranslated. Ilf was born in Odessa in 1897 and died in 1937.
When thinking about the onset of literary modernism, the name Ilya Ilf is unlikely to come up. In fact, "Fisherman of the Glass Battalion" and his countless other stories remain mostly obscure even to his Russian-language readers. That's because most of Ilf's work would eventually be eclipsed by the success of those two satirical novels. Another reason is that Ilf, a believer in Leninist vision, also explored themes of Jewish mysticism, which made some of his work too ideologically subjective once Stalin took the reigns of the USSR.
Still, the story's narrative depth, rich allusions, and unorthodox style place it squarely among the best in the Russian symbolist tradition. Swan (Лебедь), the name of the Red Army soldier at the heart of the story, represents beauty, loyalty, and grace. But World War I, which introduced the machine gun into modern warfare, inverted these ideals. In the years to come, automatic weapons would unleash violence on a scale never before seen in human history. The Russian Civil War would also skew the notion of loyalty. And grace and beauty were suddenly illusive and strange, not unlike Swan himself, who constantly wanders off to fish in a local swamp. Other soldiers ridicule him because there have never been any fish in that “half-dried puddle.” But Swan's obsessive delusion—likely caused by combat-related shock—ultimately saves the battalion from a surprise attack. The fish, not surprisingly, is an ancient symbol of salvation.
The disassociation and futility of life in wartime is also reflected in the language itself. Swan seems to meander, as if in a daze. His head "floats" in the wheat field; trains "appear" and “disappear;” even the wind “wobbles” (шатаясь)—a phrase Ilf, a painstaking stylist, chose to evoke the confusion and randomness of intermittent combat. Like the wind, life itself seems to wobble between sporadic battles, but also between political ideologies of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that split the country and plunged it into civil war. The only thing that's fixed is the Granite Station, a pushpin on a field map.
Words and sentences are at times illogical; Ilf uses them to rationalize the irrational, namely the impact of war on human perception…
STEVEN VOLYNETS was born in Soviet Ukraine and raised in South Brooklyn. His fiction, essays, reviews, and translations appear in J Journal, Writing Tomorrow Magazine, Per Contra Journal, Works & Days Quarterly, Read Russia!, Asymptote, HTMLGIANT, Construction Literary Magazine, Moment Magazine, and New York Observer, among others. He spent several years as a writer at PC Magazine, where his reporting earned nominations for a number of awards, including the Annual Jesse H. Neal Award. His translations have appeared in various literary journals and received mention in the Paris Review’s online “Staff Picks: No Conscience, No Hope, No October” (March 6, 2015). Steven graduated from Brooklyn College and attended the MFA program in fiction at the City College of New York.
by Susan Agar
I approach one of the mothers outside the classroom to ask if her daughter can come to our house for a play date. My flat, American accent clangs in the narrow cloakroom, with its miniature coats on hooks and Wellington boots in cubbies.
“What day were you thinking of?” She sounds like Ingrid Bergman.
I say I was thinking of Thursday.
“Sofia has a piano lesson on Thursdays.”
I suggest Tuesday.
“I’m afraid she studies ballet after school on Tuesdays.” On Mondays the girl has tea with her grandmother. On Wednesdays the French tutor comes. Weekends are impossible, of course, because when they don’t go to the country, her father takes her to a museum or the playground in the park. The only possible day would be Friday. The nanny has off, but the mother supposes she could accompany her daughter.
I blurt out that I’ll need to know as soon as possible, as I
will have to invite someone else. As soon as I say this I regret it. It makes Jesse and me sound socially bereft. The woman says she will have to ring me tomorrow and sweeps her tidily buttoned daughter out of the school’s heavy Victorian front door.
Jesse, who is never in a hurry to leave anywhere, tugs on the sleeve of my zippered fleece. “What were you talking to her about, Momma?” Disordered strands of pale hair stick out of the hood of her gray toggle coat—a recommended school purchase I’d recently bought in a store in the northern reaches of London, at the end of a bus line. I now regret the purchase, certain that the polyester-wool blend isn’t warm enough for the foggy autumn chill that has descended on the hills of Hampstead.
I say that I invited Sofia to come to play.
“I don’t like her. She’s stuffed-up.”
I tell Jesse that I think she means stuck-up, and she explains that Emmy, the other American in the class and Jesse’s best friend, says Sofia brings her nanny to play dates. “And her nanny talks to her in a funny language, so you can’t understand them.”
“I think they’re Swedish.”
“I don’t want her to come to play.”
I say that she’s the only girl left in the class whom we haven’t invited to come over. I don’t say that I don’t really want to entertain her mother either.
“When’s Daddy coming home?”
SUSAN AGAR was recently a Top-25 Finalist in Glimmer Train’s June 2014 Fiction Open. Currently working on a collection of short fiction, Agar has published her stories in several journals, including Solstice and Santa Fe Writers Project. Her nonfiction has appeared in the KGB Bar Lit Magazine. She has an M.A. in English Literature from London University, and an A.B. from Sarah Lawrence College.
by Jerry Holt
For the first week after Jessica departs, Roark stays home. He has some sick days at the company, and he just takes them. In a way, after all, he is sick: he feels rudderless, floating—perpetually on the edge of a queasy nausea that is more than palpable. He lacks direction. He is hungry sometimes, but it is difficult to summon the energy the preparation of food requires and he doesn’t want to go out. He certainly doesn’t want that.
Roark and Jessica moved in together two years ago, while she was still in school at Ohio State. A year younger than Roark and much more motivated, Jessica was in the process of completing a master’s degree in theatre, one that landed her an immediate job with a repertory company there in Columbus.
Roark has already wandered his way through the twisting thicket of an undergraduate curriculum, which somehow led him to credentials as an actuary. It suits him: at the office he has his own small space. Nobody makes him meet the public. He spends his time calculating the dice roll of death.
Jessica was going to be Roark’s human link, his plunge into the kind of commitment adults are supposed to make. And initially she was, too: both of them agreed from the start to try monogamy without marriage and see, for a reasonable interval, what might develop. In fact, that was exactly what Jessica had told Roark the Friday afternoon he came home to find her loading up her Mazda with pretty much everything she’d come with. “What’s going on?” he had demanded. And she had replied: “Nothing developed...”
JERRY HOLT is the author of the novel The Killing of Strangers (Lucky Press 2006), a thriller dealing with long-buried mysteries surrounding the Kent State shootings of 1970. The book was a finalist for the St. Martin's First Mystery Award, and was chosen for inclusion in the National May 4 Archive. He also wrote the play Rickey, the story of baseball guru Branch Rickey and his friendship with Jackie Robinson. The play has been performed across the United States, most memorably at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. By day, he is the Chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Purdue University North Central.
EL AGUA QUE MECE EL SILENCIO
por Rose Mary Salum
Hoy me despertaron los truenos aunque no estaba lloviendo. Lo sé porque no escuché el sonsonete de la lluvia, ese sonido que limpia los cristales cuando el sol se desprende del mar. Los gritos de mamá se escuchan hasta mi cuarto y oigo a mi padre hablar por teléfono. Su voz suena alterada, se cuela por el ojillo del cerrojo y se mete como un remolino en mi estómago. Algo no me gusta porque brotan burbujas de adrenalina a lo largo de mis venas. Siento como si me hubiera tragado una mesa entera y la madera se hubiera metido por el hueco de mis huesos. Mamá grita que me aleje de la ventana pero la madera no me deja doblar las rodillas.
¿Se habrían enterado ya? Quizá la madre de Ismael es quien está hablando con mi papá, tal vez por ello se le oye tan descompuesto. Seguramente está furioso, por eso su voz se prende y se quiebra como la colilla de su cigarro.
En el piso de arriba también resuenan carreras indecisas que tropiezan con los muebles. Afuera, la gente lleva la misma prisa. Algunos se arremolinan. Otros se dispersan en todas direcciones. Siento que estoy soñando, tengo los ojos pegadizos, como dos chicles adheridos a la ventana. Mi mamá nos llama a Simón y a mí, no nos quiere en la recámara. Su voz es tan aguda que me pincha los pulmones y el aire se me escapa por sus orificios...
ROSE MARY SALUM is a Mexican writer who lives in Houston, Texas. She is founding editor of the bilingual magazine, Literal: Latin American Voices and the editor of the anthology Delta de las arenas, cuentos árabes, cuentos judíos, a collection of Arab and Jewish stories from Latin America. Her books include Entre los espacios and Vitrales, and her essays and stories have been published in various anthologies including Beyond Borders, Cruce de fronteras: Antología de escritores en Estados Unidos and Raíces latinas. For her literary and editorial work she was named Author of the Year by the Hispanic Book Festival in 2008.
THE WATER THAT STIRS THE SILENCE
Translation by C.M. Mayo
Today thunderclaps woke me, although it wasn’t raining. I know this because I did not hear the patter of rain, that sound that cleans the glass when the sun comes off the sea. From my room I can hear Mother’s cries; I hear my father talking on the phone. His voice sounds strange. It slips through the keyhole and hits my stomach like a whirlpool. There is something I don’t like; a bubbling of adrenaline rushes through my veins. I feel as if I’ve swallowed a whole table and the wood is in the hollows of my bones. Mother shouts at me to get away from the window but the wood won’t let me bend my knees.
Have they found out already? Perhaps Ismael’s mother is the one who is talking with my papa, perhaps that’s why he sounds so upset. Surely he is furious, that’s why his voice lights and crackles like the end of his cigarette.
On the floor upstairs, sounds of confused footsteps and bumping into furniture. Outside, people make similar haste. Some are crowded around. Others scatter in all directions. I feel that I am dreaming, my eyes glued like chewing gum to the window. My mother calls me and Simon; she doesn’t want us in the bedroom. Her voice is so sharp it pierces my lungs, and it escapes from my ears and nose and mouth...
C.M. MAYO is the author of several works on Mexico, most recently, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual. A noted literary translator, she is editor of a collection of 24 Mexican writers in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion.
A HEDGEHOG IN BLOOM
by Jackson A. Helms
Linguists kill only people they know.
We know our enemies’ names, their families, where they work and what towns they visit. We know they stay in on cold mornings and sleep on the roof with their children on hot nights. We know their voices, their favorite phrases, their inside jokes. We know their laughs, and we even know their orgasms.
My enemy was out of town for a couple of days.
His cousin Abu Karim—father of the generous one—got him a construction job. It pays little and it takes him away from home but it is work. He needs the money and he is grateful. Plus it is easy enough. Just one or two jobs a week, mostly digging ditches, moving rubble and building sheds.
True, every now and then he must also bury a bomb or two, but he can stomach that. As long as he does not have to pull the trigger.
Tonight he is in the desert south of town. His wife misses him.
“Where are you?” she asks.
“Well, I’m with Abu Karim.”
“Where was the work today?”
“I don’t know, a little south of the railroad tracks.”
“How’s ‘Ali?” he asks. My enemy loves all his children but favors his son. ‘Ali—the high one—is young and rambunctious.
“I had to beat him today,” the wife says. “He got into some trouble with the neighbor’s son.”
My enemy laughs. “By God, of course he did.”
As for his daughters, he is happy to know they are healthy.
“I miss you,” his wife says. “When are you coming home?”
“I don’t know. Soon, God willing.”
She starts to cry. She does not like this work. Neither does he. He whispers to her and comforts her, their usual evening talk.
Their voices get quiet and intimate. His voice deepens. I know my enemy, and I know what is coming.
“You are my heart, my soul, my blood,” he tells her. “I want to kiss you.”
Her breath quickens. She moans, softly at first but then louder.
“I love you,” she pleads. “Oh, I miss you. I want your kiss.”
“I will kiss you. Then I will kiss your pussy. I want to taste you.”
She gasps and speeds up. “I want you inside me,” she whispers.
Seconds later he joins in. His breathing becomes raspy and he spits out rough, loving curses.
She moans louder.
“I come, I come. Oh…” She finishes with a repressed squeal. She gasps in silence for a few seconds and then, in gentle tones, soothes him on to the finish.
“Yes, oh, yes. By God, yes,” she caresses him with her voice.
He holds his breath for a few strokes and then expels a surrendering groan.
They recover their wits and talk for another twenty minutes. She wishes he would come home...
JACKSON A. HELMS is an ecologist in Norman, Oklahoma. Before pursuing a career in science he spent five years in the Marine Corps as an Arabic linguist, including two tours in Iraq from 2005 to 2007. Today he travels for different reasons—to study ants and conserve landscapes. His work has taken him as far afield as Madagascar, East Africa and the Amazon, as well as to places in the USA. He has written research articles and maintains a science blog, Marine to Myrmecologist. “A Hedgehog in Bloom” is his first published fiction.