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Snow in May by Kseniya Melnik

Now living in Texas, Kseniya Melnik hails from Magadan, a place which puts the “far” in Russian Far East. In addition to being just plain remote, Magadan was also notorious as the administrative center for the Soviet system of prison camps.

Snow in May by Kseniya Melnik
Snow in May, Kseniya Melnik (HarperCollins Publishers, May 2014; Henry Holt, May 2014)

Snow in May, a collection of stories largely based in and around Magadan, is not only Melnik’s debut work of fiction, it must surely also be the first collection of English-language stories set in that outpost of European civilization (a word used advisedly) at the easternmost reaches of the Asian continent.

The stories cover an interesting time: from the final days of the Soviet Union through the heady days of post-Soviet Russia, when—who’d have thought?—Magadan was one of the first international destinations for Alaska Airlines. A New York Times article of the period wrote that

 

when Alaska Airlines’ inaugural flight landed in Magadan, there was no de-icing service at the airport, 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle. “The pilot rounded up every bottle of vodka around, and sprayed it on the wings with a garden hose,”...

 

If it seems surreal, it’s because it was. This is the world and time that Melnik describes and admirably captures. I never made it to Magadan, but I was in and out of relatively balmy Vladivostok and Nakhodka in those years.

 

These are accomplished works: the prose is polished and fluent, but one really should expect no less given Melnik’s list of publications. She however succeeds where others might not in conveying the internal workings—physical and emotional—of this exotic locale and its inhabitants in an idiom that both reads naturally to a Western audience yet doesn’t pander to it: she keeps it real, as one might say in her adopted country. This is no mean feat.

The stories are, one imagines, at least partially autobiographical in inspiration—the tip-off is the story set in Anchorage with a teenage Russian girl and her more or less mail-order bride mother; Melnik emigrated to Anchorage at about the same age and time—but the stories also link together as a loose “bracelet”. Characters re-appear in various accounts. This is a neat trick: Melnik doesn’t telegraph it, and it sneaks up on the reader unawares.

 

The lead story in the collection, “Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas” is set in 1975 and is a bittersweet tale of the international seduction of a provincial housewife colliding with Soviet home economics. There are marvelously evocative descriptions of queuing at Detsky Mir, which Melnik prosaically renders as the “giant Children’s World department store” (which it was and, as far as I know, still is). To say more—other than that the story entirely fulfills the promise of its title—would ruin it.

Some stories take place over years or even decades; others—more successful, in my view—are more tightly focused in time and place. Because many of Stalin’s political prisoners were artists of one kind or another and because a good number of them decided (voluntarily or not) to stay in Magadan once released during the Khrushchev thaw, Magadan was—it seems—a pretty civilized place: one character notes that the theatre was as good as Moscow’s. A tightly constructed story, “Uncatchable Avengers” is of a young boy day-dreaming his way through a televised piano recital. When he finally escapes, he finds to his delight that it is snowing—in May! (It really does.)

Another music-based story, one of the longer ones and one of best, I feel, revolves around tenor Vadim Makin. Makin, although famous and beloved throughout the Soviet Union, had been sent to the gulag by Beria because Makin hadn’t yet sung about Stalin. He remains in Magadan after his release. It is a complicated story told in flashback with three generations, two love triangles, fall and resurrection, hope and fatalism, Russian-Ukrainian rivalry, vodka and borscht. In effect, an entirely Russian story.

Other tales feature a Soviet soldier’s wife sent to Kamchatka (a place, if anything, even more remote than Magadan), a traditional doctor (called the “Witch”) and a dance instructor and his bewitching new pupil. The settings are mostly the Russian Far East, but Moscow, California and Alaska show up as well.

Snow in May is an affecting collection set in a place that is Asian but isn’t, about people who are European, but not always quite Western. Texas must seem a very long way from Magadan.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.