Hauntingly real glimpses of life

Monday Book Review

August 23, 1993|By Eleanor L. Cunning

SLEEPWALKER IN A FOG. By Tatyana Tolstaya. Vintage International. 192 pages. $10.00.

WITH stunning jackets and graphics, and a huge line of fascinating titles by international authors, Vintage International is proving that readers can judge a book by its cover.

Tatyana Tolstaya's collection of short stories, "Sleepwalker in a Fog," is no exception. Originally written in Russian, these stories, although sometimes fantastic in subject, portray hauntingly real glimpses of life. Both humorous and disturbing, this collection of stories is composed of little worlds full of people watching life pass by, recalling bittersweet memories, or desperately plotting to change course.

In "Most Beloved," the narrator describes the heartbreaking story of Zhenechka, the live-in teacher who has little else but the family she works for and the memory of yearning for love that never came. As the children grow up, they have little need of Zhenechka and her stories. When she telephones her old charges, they lay the receiver on the table and go about their business as "Zhenechka's voice lies cozily on the table cloth, unhurriedly telling the telephone book, ashtray and apple core about its joys and worries." Just as Zhenechka appears to be rewarded for her loyalty and virtue, a letter destroys her hopes.

In "Heavenly Flame," a lie changes the Mikhailovnas' attitude toward Korobeinikov, a man from the neighboring sanitarium who believes in aliens and has attached himself to the family. Dmitry Ilich, who hopes to seduce Olga Mikhailovna, tells her that Korobeinikov stole his poetry and published it under his name. Korobeinikov's once-enjoyable visits become confusing and tension-filled. Even after Ilich laughingly takes back his story, Olga Mikhailovna, full of guilt about her affair and her mistreatment of Korobeinikov, wishes for his death.

Nina, a doctor who tries to fashion her happiness at the expense of others in "The Poet and the Muse," nurses the poet Grishunya back to health, slowly taking over his life and his writing until he takes measures to prevent her from having the last word.

The title story, "Sleepwalker in a Fog," is a strange tale of Denisov, a man thinking "about the fleetingness of his half-spent existence" and "about distant countries, in whose existence, truth be told, he found it hard to believe."

He has an eccentric fiance, Lora, who dreams of having a tail and whose father is a somnambulist. Denisov doubts Australia's existence, going so far as to begin a treatise on the subject. Full of despair that his life is meaningless, he listens to Lora's stories, tries to start an uprising in a meat shop when he notices the shop assistant cheating, contemplates writing a story about his upstairs neighbor who constantly overflows the bathtub and hunts for a china cabinet.

Accompanying the seven short stories is "Limpopo," a novella the narrator begins by reminiscing after the death of a friend and draws the reader into a complex, absurdist tale that is hard to follow.

The reader can almost hear these stories being told. Ms. Tolstaya has a strong voice and command of language, incorporating original imagery with an understanding of the senses. All this she combines into tales that drive into the heart a sense of the human condition, of life passing, and characters, like ourselves, trying desperately to grasp understanding before is too late.

Ms. Tolstaya, a distant relative of Leo Tolstoy and a granddaughter of the writer Alexei Tolstoy, is a brilliant writer who stands on her own abilities. She has crafted characters, settings and stories both entertaining and moving. Such original prose will no doubt have readers looking for her previous collection of short stories, "On the Golden Porch," and hoping future books will be translated quickly into English.

Eleanor L. Cunningham writes from Catonsville.

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