Russian Pastorale

Going to Town and Other Stories

by Yuri Kazakov, compiled and translated by Gabriella Azrael
Houghton Mifflin, 325 pp., $4.95

The title story of this collection is a rather grim sketch of a carpenter who leaves the country to take his sick wife to Moscow. He is sure she will die there and hopes she will, for he has long since stopped caring for her and she has prevented his settling in the city. They drive off in their cart, she, tears streaming down her “hollow cheeks,” gazing on the countryside she loves, where she has spent her life; he, up front, gay and spruce, a ram’s carcass beside him—he has just slaughtered the animal in a brutally efficient way thinking of how after dropping her off at the hospital and selling the ram in the market, he will go to the station restaurant and, over a light beer, will watch the trains go by, while “a waitress in a white apron and cap will wait on him, the orchestra will play, and there will be the smell of food and the smoke of good cigarettes.” This is what he loves about the city. This is what he means when, getting permission to go, he tells the chairman of his collective farm that he “wants to live.” As for his wife, all that she “really wanted was to die at home and be buried in her own graveyard.”

The other stories are not so sardonic, but all of them, like this one, are centered on episodes in the lives of ordinary men and women. Some of them are happy, some gently sad, some very poignant; all are brief and self-enclosed, without implications beyond themselves. They do not lead one to philosophic, social, or psychological speculations, nor do they suggest a world of fantasy. They are stories of heartbreak or of unexpected joy, moments of happiness achieved despite premonitions of disaster, or moments of disillusionment when expected happiness is not realized. Kazakov knows how to convey the pathos of loss or the grateful, but uneasy, excitement of sudden bliss. A youth loses to another the one girl he has been old enough and bold enough to love but, since she wants him to, comes to the station to see her off with her bridegroom, and learns to live with his disappointment. On the other hand, there is the man on a northern island, hoping, but hardly daring to believe, that the woman he loves will come to him. Just in case she is not on the appointed steamer, he brings along a pail to fill at the spring, so as to persuade himself, if need be, that his trip through the woods to the pier has not been made in vain. But she does come.

Happiness is always precarious and greatly desired, and nothing is more certain than its evanescence. What was really important, thinks the happy man, was “not whether you lived thirty or fifty or eighty years, because whatever the number it wouldn’t be much, and dying would still be horrible. The most important thing was how many nights…

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