Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Unwitting Street

My August reading was dominated by two writers who were overlooked in their own lifetimes, and who have recently been resurrected to great acclaim in the English-speaking world. The first of these is Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet whose verses and recent biography kept me entertained through summer’s final month; the second is Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a Ukrainian-born Russian writer, who was, in his own words, “known for being unknown.” His career was snuffed out, almost in its infancy, by the forces of the Soviet Union and their perniciously-named “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs” (the NKVD), apparently charged with making certain that writers of originality and insight were unable to make a living from their pens. Precious few of Krzhizhanovsky’s works were published in his lifetime, but a quarter-century after his death, an intrepid scholar came across copies of his banned writings in the NKVD archives, and a decade later published one of his short stories. Pause to appreciate the historical irony: the assiduousness of the NKVD in collecting damning evidence on supposed enemies of the state has led to the resurrection of the very writer they once suppressed. When Russian literary critics realized the worth of this forgotten writer, they sought out more manuscripts, finding them in his old writing desk and linen chest (precisely where Pessoa kept his most precious work). Today, thanks to their efforts and the wonder-working NYRB publishing house, no fewer than five volumes of his works are in print, and his stature of a writer of genius and originality, treading the same terrain as Gogol, Kafka and Borges, is secure. Unwitting Street was my first foray into his writings, and apparently it is an atypical entry, for whereas his other writings provoke gloom or disturb, this collection was largely whimsical, a tribute to the possibilities of fiction.

Unwitting Street collects a sampling of 18 short stories composed between 1920 and 1940, each one a brush with the absurd. In the opening story, “Comrade Punt,” Krzhizhanovsky tips his hat to Gogol: a Comrade Punt has died, but his pants, accustomed to his daily routine, carry on without him, gradually ascending the employee hierarchy. “In essence, the pants had every qualification, not counting experience: a soft, stealthy step; a sedulous seat; a grayish dusk-coloured appearance; wordlessness.” The pants, hereafter known as Comrade Pant, blend seamlessly into the corporatized existence of their former owner, for “busy people have no time, of course, to doubt the existence of their colleagues.” His undoing comes when his peers, jealous of his recent success, accuse him of benefiting from favouritism: “It’s time to get rid of cronyism and nepotism. Is management aware (and if not, why?) that relatives work in our establishment, the Comrades Pant? That is not right! The Pants must be separated.” The sly humour of the piece conceals a biting critique of the dreariness and uniformity of office work. In the next story, “My Match With the King of Giants,” billed as “An unpublished fragment from Gulliver’s Travels,” Gulliver plays a chess match against an over-sized opponent on an over-sized chessboard, only to make the near-fatal mistake of winning their first game. These two opening stories owe the clearest debts to literary predecessors, but as we delve deeper into the collection, strangeness and whimsicality become their own lodestars. The clearest literary comparison is to Borges, but Krzhizhanovsky could not have read the Argentinian; both men, it seems, charted their own unique courses to arrive at a similar destination.

We get a hint at Krzhizhanovsky’s darker depths in “The Gray Fedora,” about a thought so unwelcome in the mind it resides in that it fleas to the safety of a hat, after which it plagues everyone luckless enough to don it. That thought is “why live?” personified as Whylive, the embodiment of the dilemma articulated most famously by Hamlet. After fleeing from the “thought-gang” threatening to “disthink him altogether,” Whylive takes up residence in a gray fedora, whereafter his corrosive message undermines the will to live of every wearer. Some people, it seems, are more vulnerable to existential questioning than others, but all begin with the same basic mind setup:

With the dawn, light also dawns in the mind. Thoughts rise from their neurobeds, fitting this subject to that predicate. Logic does its morning exercises: minor premises leap over major ones, major ones over conclusions. The awakened world outlook looks out for all it’s worth.

That last sentence states something extremely important: that a world outlook “looks out for all it’s worth,” that how you perceive the world might be fatally determining of how you exist in it. Who would want to contemplate questions of purpose, if they come at the price of performance? In “The Smoke-Colored Goblet,” Krzhizhanovsky gives us a twist on a folk legend: a man visits a curiosities shop where the mysterious patron sells him a wine goblet that will never run dry. “The man took the silent goblet in the fingers of his right hand and brought it to his lips. The tart wine burned his lips. He set the goblet down – and again it was brimful, its ruby liquor lapping the gold rim of the glass.” He wakes up one morning, having knocked it over in his sleep, only to discover his room flooding with wine. On another night, exasperated by this limitless offering, he tosses it into a river, only to discover the next day that “that smoke-colored thing had the power to stain the waters of the Danube, the entire Danube – how ’bout that? – a bloody-reddish color.” There are, of course, no such goblets in real life, but as a lifelong alcoholic, Krzhizhanovsky could be said to have experienced the maddening effects of a limitless supply of wine.

Each of the stories in Unwitting Street contains a world, the seeds of larger and untold stories, and while some dazzle more than others, not one falls flat or fails to astonish with its inventiveness. Krzhizhanovsky captures our imaginations with his own, and sustains us in a dream-like trance in prose that never falters. For this, immense thanks is owed to the translator, Joanne Turnbull, whose English renditions of the original Russian have given Krzhizhanovsky his long-overdue audience at last.