Books: Gagarin's mum

WITCH'S TEARS AND OTHER STORIES by Nina Sadur trs Cathy Porter, Harbord Publishing pounds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
WE CHANGE a thousand times," says one of the women in Nina Sadur's tales. She could be speaking for any of her co-habitants of a fictional world that is surreal and yet distinctly Russian. These changes occur with disjunctive shock and often with violence - not the street-language violence for its own sake that is so prevalent in Russian writing today, but a frightening loss of psychic and physical control over oneself and one's surroundings. The shifts in her prose between first and third person signal the simultaneous existence of these slippery internal and external worlds.

Nina Sadur accomplishes magic tricks with all the skill of the trained writer she is. Born (1950) and raised in Novosibirsk, she studied at the famed Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. But unlike many of its graduates, she is still not quite the elite writer. Her childhood proximity to ordinary people and her years in a Moscow communal flat have no doubt enabled her to imbue her works with the harshly threatening and often strangely innocent voices of the undereducated, underhoused faces on the streets of today's Russia. Her ear for their voices is matched by that of her better-known contemporary Liudmila Petrushevskaia, but she has not been as widely published and translated.

Cathy Porter has done a real service in bringing the English reader these 10 stories (really nine and a novella, "The South", which made the Russian Booker shortlist two years ago). These tales of the supernatural and the peculiarly religious are not easy to translate coherently. The imagined life of, for example, the mother of the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin translates here into plausible dialogue (Sadur is also a playwright.). Threatened with chaos in the new Russia, the lives she documents, often those of the marginally young or the very old, create a countervailing chaos of their own to exorcise the pain of change.

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