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The living box

The living box
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First Published: Sat, Jul 17 2010. 12 30 AM IST

Memories of the Future: New York Review Books Classics,228 pages, $15.95 (around Rs745).
Memories of the Future: New York Review Books Classics,228 pages, $15.95 (around Rs745).
Updated: Wed, Jul 21 2010. 12 14 PM IST
Every person who has felt suffocated inside cramped living quarters—such as practically every resident of Mumbai— would be delighted to receive a visitor like the one who appears at Sutulin’s house, at the beginning of the Russian writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s story Quadraturin. Sutulin lives in Moscow in a matchbox apartment, only 8x6 sq. ft in size. When the door is knocked, he need not get up; he only has to stretch out a leg to hook it open. The mysterious visitor offers Sutulin a small tube, which contains a promotional sample of a wonderful new product: “an agent for biggerizing rooms”. Then he is gone.
Intrigued, Sutulin opens the tube, enjoys “the bitterish gingery smell” of its contents and, moved by curiosity, begins to apply the biggerizer to the floor and walls of his room with a piece of cotton wool as instructed. But just as he is about to get to the ceiling, he slips and falls, and spills the remaining liquid. Exhausted, he falls off to sleep. When he wakes up, and reaches sleepily for his alarm clock, his hand closes on nothing but air. Rising, he sees that the table by his bedside has moved several feet away during the course of the night, and all the walls are further away—he has a much bigger room! Unfortunately, the ceiling remains the size that it was, giving his room an intensely distorted shape. “His living box,” Sutulin realizes, “was spreading only sideways, without rising even an inch upward.”
Memories of the Future: New York Review Books Classics,228 pages, $15.95 (around Rs745).
Sutulin’s grossly misshapen room, relentlessly expanding as if with a mind of its own, might serve as a metaphor for the storytelling methods of Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950). His stories almost always begin with something quite normal and expand, under the pressure of a writer who wants to biggerize reality, into something surreal and fantastic. In one story, the Eiffel Tower is seduced by the call of communism, uproots itself, and runs across Paris towards the east. In another, a corpse surreptitiously leaves his coffin for one last glimpse of life, and ends up missing his own funeral.
Yet Krzhizhanovsky suffered the worst of all fates possible: that of being denied a readership during his lifetime. The Soviet regime under which he lived had a state policy not just for agriculture and industrial production, but also for literature. Krzhizhanovsky’s stories were thought too trivial and frivolous, with no concern for contemporary problems or ideological support to the Soviet experiment in politics. It was not until 1989, when the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse, that these stories found readers in the language they were written. Two decades later, Joanne Turnbull’s English translations have extended Krzhizhanovsky’s posthumous audience.
In The Branch Line, the protagonist, Quantin, gets on to a mysterious train in the middle of the night, and is dropped off at an unknown station. Among the first things he sees is a mass of people bringing down clouds from the sky with nets. He realizes he has somehow entered “the kingdom of dreams”, where people sleep by day and wake by night.
Wandering around, Quantin discovers that a sinister conspiracy is brewing. The dream kingdom, which all through history has been subservient to man’s waking life, is now planning an assault that will once and for all vanquish reality. Among the beautiful things imagined by Krzhizhanovsky in this story are “dreamed-out pillows”, which must be replenished after years of transferring dreams into the brains of people sleeping on them. A robust assertion of literature’s freedom to imagine, Memories of the Future enshrines the work of a writer whose pillow was never dreamed out.
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First Published: Sat, Jul 17 2010. 12 30 AM IST