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BOOK REVIEW / Cowboy dreams: 'The Talisman' - Viktoria Tokareva Tr Rosamund Bartlett: Picador, 14.99 pounds

THE protagonists of Viktoria Tokareva's fiction inhabit a landscape of hospitals, schools, and white high-rise apartment blocks which float in the mist like ships. The narrator in the opening story, 'Pirates on the High Seas', compares himself to an open-air swimming pool on Kropotkin Street, leaking warmth into the passionless world. For the most part, Tokareva's characters are widows, children, divorcees - people who live inside their unhappiness like 'an empty, echoing church'. In the title story the hero gazes at a watercolour of the consumptive Chekhov at Yalta, which hangs above the couch in his sitting room. It becomes clear that for Tokareva the thin, stooping writer is emblematic of the loneliness which envelops her own characters.

Inside their boxed, dingy apartments, Tokareva's protagonists rarely engage with one another. As one character expresses it, 'conversation is a game of badminton'; an inconsequential knock-up with whizzing shuttlecocks. Instead of relating to each other directly, people speak over the telephone and dream about the possibility of intimacy, which turns out to be another form of imprisonment. 'We are all prisoners,' observes one character, 'of money, of illness, of our desires, of age, of love, of death.'

In Tokareva's fiction, however, the grey public spaces of Soviet Russia are lit up by fantasies of a cowboy Pushkin galloping through in jeans and a broad-rimmed stetson. People are obsessed by a feeling that life and happiness are elsewhere: on the other side of a TV screen, between the covers of a book, in some exotic country where citizens wear Wrangler jeans. Tokareva describes how people seize upon colourful details to escape from their mundane urban life. Even Japanese tourists light up the city 'like so many Christmas-tree baubles from a golden childhood', while American students stalk about 'like tropical birds stranded in the Antarctic'. The 'fragrant bitterness' of biting through an orange skin evokes a world of heat and fecundity far removed from Moscow's oppressive winter.

All of the stories in the collection centre on the protagonists' attempts to crash through the monotony and drabness of their daily routine. Romance can drop into people's lives unexpectedly, and then disappear like a dream. Characters are torn between a desire for security and an urge for change. If these were loaded issues in the Soviet Union of the early Eighties, where most of these stories are set, they are certainly poignant in the Russia of the Nineties. In the final analysis the question remains: is chaos better than 'boring old order'?

Tokareva's figurative language verges on the burlesque. Children roar like rhinoceroses, a woman lopes like a kangaroo, Auntie Zina's large bottom 'like a television set attached to her back'. There is also a witty and ironic engagement with other writers and works of literature. A schoolboy attempts to recite Pushkin's poem 'The Prisoner'; another character parodies Chernyshevsky's political novel What is to be Done? A queue of seedy-looking, unkempt men waiting at an off-licence are described as looking 'as if they had been knocked down by the streetcar named Desire'. It's not the New Orleans streetcar, but that familiar Russian desire which tears madly on, 'gathering momentum along the way like a snowball'.