Thursday, August 30, 2007

St. Petersburg Review

The inaugural issue of St. Petersburg Review bridges the gap between contemporary English and Russian literature. The word “gap” here might make some raise their eyebrows. “What gap?” you might say. Contemporary English literature certainly makes its way over to Russia. The works of Bret Easton Ellis, Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, etc can be found in most large bookstores in Russia. Abroad Victor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, and Ludmila Ulitskaya are discussed on university campuses, and I don’t just mean in the classroom. No really, last spring I was sitting in a student union and overheard a boy and a girl discussing the plot of Hermit and Six Toes (a short story from Pelevin’s first book The Blue Lantern). Also, publishers like Northwestern University, Ugly Duckling, and Zephyr are translating new and important work. So, gap? No, there is a bridge. Maybe it is a very small bridge, but it’s still a bridge. But small does not mean insignificant. If we for instance consider the Panamanian Land Bridge, we see that this small bit of land (namely Panama) greatly altered the ecosystems of the Americas. The huge "terror birds" that were the top predators in South America were suddenly out competed by North American lions, tigers, and bears. From the south, North America inherited such critters as the opossum, armadillo, and porcupine.

But this is supposed to be a review of the inaugural issue of St. Petersburg Review –a review of a review. The reason I mention the Panamanian Land Bridge and the tigers, bears, and armadillos is because I see an analogy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, or just prior to the official fall, the Berlin Wall fell. When the Berlin Wall fell a bridge was made –two cultural islands were suddenly no longer islands. And so now, 16 years after the official crumbling of the Soviet Union the two former islands have begun swapping porcupines and lions. Now, if we consider New York City (where the St. Petersburg Review is published) and St. Petersburg (the city after which the review is named) we can make the unabashed analogy: North America: New York City :: South America: St. Petersburg. By this I mean most of the top predators (Steven King, Tom Clancy, etc.) are coming from the west side of the Atlantic. But this should not either surprise or perturb us.

The world of literary magazines, and especially the world of poetry, is not composed of lions and bears, but of armadillos and the opossums, and the St. Petersburg Review has found some of the best working in Russia today. From the more traditional poetry Sergei Gandlevsky to the conceptualist poetry of Dmitry Prigov (to whose memory the issue is dedicated) the material represents a vast array of approaches to the page. The inaugural issue also has a bilingual section entitled: “Poetry and Fiction by Women of the Gulag”. The translations in this section are a bit choppy, but they manage to resonate the most important aspect of the prisoner experience: suffering and hope. When this combination carries through, when it isn’t imbued with Spielberg violins, sheer beauty is the result. This section is not just literature it is an important historical testament –a part of our global cultural memory.

The issue also includes work by prominent American opossums such as Eugene Ostashevsky, Padgett Powell (who has a great story entitled “Yeltsin”), Liz Rosenberg, George Saunders, and Matvei Yankelevich.

It’s been 16 years since the fall. American culture has swept through the former Soviet Union like rats off a ship. Now it is time for Russia to return the favor. There are some great rats coming off this ship! As Dan Wickett writes: “If this is the type of product they'll continue to publish, you should subscribe now!”