In 90s Moscow, where the streets are filled with kiosks “selling everything and manned by loud men who wouldn’t leave you alone,” something even stranger than capitalism is happening. Galina’s sister Masha is transformed into a jackdaw, sending Galina looking for her. She meets a cop, Yakov, who is assigned to track down rumors of disappearing people; and a street artist, Fyodor, who sees flocks of crows and owls. Together the three leap through a door that leads them to a hidden world where the old gods went when Russia was Christianized a thousand years ago.
Similar to “Spirited Away,” much of the delight in The Secret History of Moscow, by Ekaterina Sedia, comes of wandering through folk legends you barely know. I’ve heard of Baba Yaga (who doesn’t appear) and Koschey the Deathless (who does), but who is Berendey? They meet rusalki and domovoi and the holy cow Zemun. And they meet other people who have strayed into the underground.
Whenever they meet a new character, they tell how they got there. Rather than launch into an extended first person speech, the book inserts a section break and goes on to tell their story in third person. For example:
“Well,” David said, “Let me start with my version of the story.”
David was born in 1900 in Lancashire, outside of Manchester, in a place not so different from the undergound town–there was little light, and coal dust hung in the air, giving everything a dusty, black-and-gray look.
By way of reminding you that this story has an audience, sometimes the narrator addresses them:
His link to the illegal Industrial Workers of the World led to criminal charges.
“You have to understand,” he told Yakov…. “In those days, it took a lot to be considered an undesirable person in Australia. A lot. And I only wished that my political activity had done someone some good, for all the trouble it caused me.” He sighed. “Anyway.”
The socialist newpaper landed him in jail; by the time he got out, he was a persona non grata in a large segment of English-speaking world.
And sometimes the narrator is interrupted:
[O]ne day, he worked up the courage to sit next to her and ask about the pronunciation of a word in the Russian grammar text he carried with him.
“Which word was it?” Yakov interrupted. It seemed suddenly important….
“Saucepan,” David said. “I know, not terribly romantic, but it is a difficult word.”
It was spring when they first spoke…
Then the book returns to telling the story. When it’s done, there’s a section break, and a simple re-establishment of where we were when the storyteller began. Some of these characters, having been introduced, go on to be viewpoint characters. Through all the transitions, each character maintains their own concerns, giving them differing voices.
Now I want to trackdown a good source book of Russian folktales. Any suggestions?
Tomorrow: In post-Soviet Russia, kiosk sell you.