What’s the point of reading fiction set in Ukraine?
What’s the point of reading fiction set in Ukraine? With her short story collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear, Maria Reva offers nine tales that remind us why we need narrative. It isn’t necessarily to help decipher facts so much as render people who exist in the world much the same way we do. How is that going to reveal what Hunter Biden was up to at Burisma Holdings? It won’t. Fiction writers can tell stories that we don’t read in the news.
In the enchanting “Bone Music,” a woman named Smena makes money copying American music for her fellow freedom-starved Ukrainians. The Berlin Wall has yet to come down, so Smena has to make do with creating copies from medical X-rays:
“She had begun copying bootlegged albums in the postwar years, when she and her husband were desperate for money and radiology film was the cheapest, most readily accessible form of plastic. Now, with the national shortage of reel cassettes—the national shortage of everything—Smena was back in business.”
Who knew X-ray film could be used as material to bootleg albums? Not me. And guess what? I still don’t. I just read a short story that presented it in a way that made me intuit it was true. Reva uses compelling elements to help accessorize her world, and her characters’ associations with these elements make us care more for their plights. Smena scrapes together whatever she can from whatever floats by while yearning for a better life. Through such techniques, the author compels us to read on. All revealed facts about the world are secondary, if not coincidental.
Her characters string together moments of mundanity with the hope that something remarkable is just around the corner. In “Roach Brooch,” an elderly couple inherits a giant cockroach from their rich, deceased grandson. The couple had their hearts set on more money and fewer insects, but this bug comes with a series of jewels dangling on a chain from its middle.
“The Madagascar hissing cockroach, the manual explains. They breed under rotting jungle logs. The embellishments on their carapaces are among the rarest gems in the world: serendibite, in its uncut form.”
It seems such adornments were the height of eastern European fashion at one point. Rich people paraded down the boulevard with their favorite gem-encrusted cockroaches on their lapels. Do I believe it? I don’t know. What I do believe is the grandparents’ struggle with receiving such a “valuable” gift from their dead grandson, and their desire to turn it into as much coin as possible without offending his memory. Through their believable reactions to provocative or surreal elements, Reva’s characters endear themselves to you. Their ways of acting become yardsticks to measure their—and our—humanity.
When a story purports to be nonfiction, the claim comes with the possibility of manipulation. You might be made to believe something that isn’t fact. Entire elections have swung on this stuff. With fiction, the whole point is to believe something that isn’t fact. Reva’s stories in Good Citizens Need Not Fear allow you to put away your skepticism, rediscover your credulity, and experience compassion for characters without the fear of being duped.
(Doubleday, March 10, 2020)