Vladimir's Mustache

By Stephan Clark


Russian Life
February 2012

Reviewed by Adam Gallari


The Russian soul—that dark, deep, almost incomprehensible entity that, to a Western imagination, seems beyond grasp—has long intrigued occidental audiences who look to the country's fiction as a means by which to catch a glimpse into this recess. Often, it seems a soul at war with itself—a soul that seeks pleasure and whim but which simultaneously cannot escape the metaphysical burden that may be the result of living in a land of snow and ice and vodka and contradiction. One need look no further than Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the paragons of the Russian pantheon, to find these ideas played out over epic, engrossing and sustained narratives.

But that world is gone, replaced by a Soviet Russia that opposed, silenced or exiled anything that might appear dissident or artistic. With Vladimir's Mustache,  Stephan Eirik Clark attempts to straddle both periods in time while simultaneously offering a modern day prism through which we might view them. His is a Russia in flux, and his stories range from portraits of exploited former Soviet satellite countries to vivid imaginings of life under Stalinist rule. For Clark, it seems, that one cannot escape the past; it is omnipresent and informs even the most banal and innocuous of present day interactions where the "communist" is less a term with great weight and more a moniker used by college students and the dispossessed hoping for an identity that bucks the mainstream.

From the outset, it is clear that Clark is a student of Russian literature. His opening story, "The Lady with the Stray Dog," is an overt allusion to Chekhov and his "Humbert Humbert Does Ukraine," is an homage to Nabokov's lecher. On the whole, Clark is a laconic stylist, pithy and to the point, and his greatest strength is the dark humor present throughout the book, as though his is a world where one can only cope with the reality of everyday life by building up a sardonic chainmail that tries to out-absurd the absurd. It is an almost cruel streak, an irony and fatalism that seems to strike to the heart of the Russian experience: as bad as things are, they can only get worse. And for this, we as readers are forever grateful, for even when it is quite clear where the tale is heading, Clark manages to pull the reader along solely by dangling the possibility of what greater malady might subsequently arise.

Clark is at his strongest when he allows his imagination and the weight of history to bolster his narratives.  "Kamkov the Astronomer" and "Yagoda's Bullets" possess an immediacy and pulse ripe with narrative charm and the fatalistic absurdity that must have been life in a supposed paradise where at any moment one might be dragged off because their love of the state was not in accordance with the expected level of admiration. In "Vladimir's Mustache," Clark manages to highlight the war between longing and reasoning that occur in a place where one's desires often do not dovetail with the expectations of a politburo engages in every aspect of one's life. Clark lets his events play out in an organic and free flowing way that gives the reader the feeling that they are behind glass and watching a social experiment unfold before them, and no matter how horrible or disheartening the results may be, we are never void of hope that at any moment something might be different, that some great force might come to the rescue of the beleaguered and downtrodden even as we know this can never and will never be the case.

In "Something Red, Something Blue" an young man steeped in the ideology of Marx questions his relationship because his girlfriend doesn't seem to get on with the theories he espouses, which leads him to question if he wouldn't be better off with another young woman, a woman he meets at a record store. His confusion is puerile, and his existential musings are arrested: "He fantasized about sex on the floor and a position he never tried… sex. That's what could pull him out of this. Vigorous, healthy angry sex." It is an interesting propsition  the notion of the physical consuming the philosophical, yet it never pushes beyond a superficial understanding, and the achievement of this simple truth is quite enough to suffice, so that by the end it is a gimmick that tires quickly, whereas in "Humbert Humbert Does Ukraine" the competing issues of love, companionship and communism present themselves as impossible obstacles, since it is impossible that the three might co-exist in a place where the state is in itself a defacto companion.  Clark is a man of ideas, but sometimes his ideas get the better of him.

In the end though, it is perhaps "The Castrato of St. Petersburg" that shows Clark at his finest, for here he offers his tacit irony and humor paired wonderfully with an absurdist narrative that would give even the best of Gogol a run for its money. Sandwiched in the middle of the nine stories of the collection, "The Castrato of St Petersburg" showcases a less than brilliant castrato, who, after his father is tricked into making him a eunuch by what appears to be a passing pedophile masquerading as a court member of the Czar, manages to scrape out a life for himself by cunning and wit.  It is a bravura performance for Clark and is perhaps the soul of the collection, where both the comedy and the absurdity are at their height. It is as though Clark allows himself to speak through his narrator when he says, "They are so pleased to have experienced this. But the truth is, the Russians are not an opera loving people; they have no great history of music to draw upon… and so to impress them, as is all too common in this life, I need only be loud."

From beginning to end it is clear that Clark is an intelligent writer, perhaps only outdone at times by the tasks he takes on, but this is a minor concern, and on the whole Vladimir's Mustache is a solidly crafted book, Russia on a smaller scale and offered in a portion perfect for a brisk reminder that history is not as far removed as we sometimes may think it to be.