Bessarabian Stamps are not postcards, but even smaller messages, from a place between so many places that you’d be forgiven for not quite remembering where it is. The author grew up in Bessarabia, on the border of what is now the Republic of Moldova but was then the Soviet Union, with Turks, Romanians, Jews and Slavs as neighbours. Phoneme, the publisher, offers “curious books for curious people” in translation – including The Black Flower.
I pounced on Oleg Woolf’s tiny book of microstories because it was compared to a fantastical Polish work, Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles for its magical, shifting sense of reality. You never quite know where you are with Bessarabian Stamps, but softly, humorously, it asks some questions: couldn’t things be different? Couldn’t we talk about things differently?
The book starts with a dedication in another book. “Dear friend, I have you this book with the secret hope that you would never read it…. A book is the worst possible gift – especially a book written in the ‘literary’ genre. Non-literary literature is a drawing at its most economical – prepared on the ant lard of drawing. Three or four lines, and you have the whole world.”
And that world comes at the reader from a very different perspective, in which economizing isn’t always such a good thing.
“Petrea Bruc walked up to the fence, peered through a crack, and saw a bird. High-quality telescopes, said the bird, are made in the following manner: the bottom of a tin can, with a multitude of little holes, is inserted into a tube, followed by a light bulb. This allows one to economize on stars.”
Oleg Woolf certainly doesn’t do that – soldiers and saints, officials and angels jostle for space with the villagers here, and it’s all over too soon. Like poems, these stories are so concentrated that they deserve re-reading.
The Stamps are translated from the Russian by Boris Drayluk, who describes his challenge brilliantly. “I don’t believe that any word, in isolation, is inherently more or less difficult to translate. The trouble is that you seldom find them in isolation. They’re always ganging up, locking horns, brawling, and then caressing each other to make up for it. Say you’ve caught a word in a fighting mood. Well, then you have to ask yourself some questions: How angry is it? How much has it had to drink? And, most importantly, what did that other word do to it?”
When a translator can write this well about what he’s up to, you want to read more. How about The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015) next?