7 Stories By Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, trans Joanne Turnbull

Travels through the looking glass and onward into a Soviet wonderland

The Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky writes stories with a surreal feel. In times when the state prescribed how large a room should be, a man acquires a potion to extend his walls. The result is a kind of miniature Soviet Alice in Wonderland. In another story, reminiscent of Gogol's "The Nose", the right-hand fingers of a pianist suddenly detach themselves and leave the building. Taking the fingers' point of view, Krzhizhanovsky gives new life to animistic Russian storytelling.

"In the Pupil" carries the idea further, when the image of the lover reflected in the loved one's eye springs to life, asking: what am I doing here? What follows is like a compressed version of Dante's Inferno, as the image encounters previous lovers' images lost behind an eyeball. If this sounds overworked, it probably is, and it's not helped by quasi-scientific speculation about the flow of blood and emotion. But the final paragraph makes the reader's speculative journey painfully meaningful.

What's this writer about, and does he live up to comparisons with Kafka, Borges and Beckett? Yes and no. He would need to have written more, but he's certainly worth taking in. As his translator, Joanne Turnbull, notes, Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950) described himself as a satirist and experimental realist. Intellectually and artistically a creature of Russia's fantastic, mystical Silver Age, he was thwarted by circumstances and chance. None of his three volumes, and only two stories, were ever published. In 1932, Gorky, the state's chief model for Socialist Realism, dismissed "In the Pupil" thus: "Most of mankind has no time for philosophy". Public neglect and lack of money, which had enhanced Krzhizhanovsky's capacity for fantasy, finally pushed this lonely Soviet outsider into alcoholism.

Gorky was wrong to ignore the peculiar Russian quality behind these stories. The principle behind the fantasy is "displaced agency". Suddenly, the non-human world becomes full of multiple moral agents, which include the room you live in and your own fingers. Like a nest of hobgoblins, the anthropomorphised spirits in things also create a hidden moral code. The pianist's fingers run away because they were being overworked; perhaps the room punished its inmate because of his desire to live in more spacious circumstances. It's a hallmark of Russian literature since Gogol that even ethics receive brilliant non-realist treatment and emerge as magical.