Friday, December 21, 2018

The Bride from Odessa

Some nights I am overcome by a strange sensation that I can only define as cultural nausea.
 When Chris Marker, in one of his rare interviews, recommends a book, you can bet I'm going to read it. In response to the question "What makes you jump to your feet, react, shout?" Marker responds,
... as long as you’ve handed me the microphone, I would add one more name to my list of the little injustices of the year: no one has said enough of the most beautiful book I have read for a long time, short stories again—La Fiancée d’Odessa, by [filmmaker] Edgardo Cozarinsky.
The Bride from Odessa is a collection of eleven stories by Argentine-born Cozarinsky. An English translation by Nick Caistor was published in 2004.

In the first story, which shares its title with the collection, a man's identity unravels with some unexpected news from an aunt that puts into question the last one hundred ten years of family history all because of his great-grandfather's three-day layover in Odessa on his way from Kiev to Argentina. The narrator receives his aunt's letter while he's convalescing in a Paris hospital.

This structure spanning continents and centuries is repeated in many of the stories. As is the family secret motif. These are stories riddled with confidences barely whispered, barely noted in the margins of inherited books, translated from scrawled notes from a famous archive about less famous people in the past. There are many ghosts keeping these closeted skeletons company.

Coupled with the microhistories of the narrators is the broad sweep of history writ large: "Did she die at Babi Yar?" "At first we were kept nearby, in Dachau." "The car was advancing slowly along the Andrassy út (which had once been called Stalin Avenue and Avenue of the People's Republic, although no one had ever used those names). The façades had not been cleaned or restored, but still boasted the bullet holes from October 1956."

Well-crafted sentences abound, and the English translation reads elegantly:
In some mythologies, death is not a sudden event, the abrupt transition from one instant when there is life to another when it no longer exists. Instead, it is represented by a symbolic journey, which can be understood as a process of letting go and of learning at the same time.

It is possible to imagine that during this transition there subsist, like islands floating in a nighttime sea, fragments of awareness, memories, voices, and images, remnants of the gradually dimming existence, temporary baggage the traveler clings on to for a brief but imprecise length of time that our instruments cannot register.
If memory, mistaken—no, assumed—identities, familial secrets that barely come to light, whispered words of love spoken at water's edge and twilight's brim, notes passed from hand to hand across the hostile breadth of the twentieth century (from Kiev to Buenos Aires, from New York City to Lisbon, from Vienna to Budapest, Paris, Madrid, in ever more claustrophobic passages), loves and rumors of love transcribed in foreign tongues by strangers' hands, and emigrants and refugees ("all of them prisoner to a Europe more longed for than remembered") are your thing, then there are few better books than Cozarinsky's The Bride from Odessa.

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