“Two deaths you cannot have and one you cannot avoid.” So goes a Russian saying Mikhail Iossel remembers in his excellent new collection Love Like Water, Love Like Fire. Funny thing about Iossel’s stories of Soviet life, though: they are filled with men and women living second lives, drunks who avoided death (to their distress), and whole families of Soviet citizens who are not killed, not officially, but “disappeared.” Death, in these stories, punctuates life like a question mark.
In “Moscow Windows,” one of the book’s most gripping stories, fifteen-year-old Iossel meets an old relative named Lev Konstantinovich. Years ago, when Lev was a top physicist working in England, the Soviet state lured him home and then sent him to the gulag as a spy. In prison, Lev believes, scientists opened his skull and inserted a “brain infinitely more vacant than that of a newborn child, containing no past memories whatsoever.” Thus, Lev became a kind of New Soviet Man, a plastic man ready for the bright communist future, unconstrained by the past. With no memories to place him in the human world, however, Lev retreated to the Kamchatka Peninsula’s “prehistoric wilderness, hunting and fishing in total isolation.” So, a new life, thanks to the state, but not a life of human company and human stories.
Iossel’s other characters face oblivion in different ways, with mixed results. Iossel, in the book and in reality, immigrated to the USA, a country with its own existential voids. In “Life: How Was It?” (note the past tense), Iossel tells a story set in Manhattan’s Strand Bookstore (note the setting: a building full of stories, all to be had for a price). He bumps into an old friend from Russia and jokes that he is “on [his] second, wholly separate life.” They trade stories from the past and each is unsettled when the other cannot remember an important event they shared. Why so unsettling? “Memory,” Iossel writes, “either confirms or refutes the very fact of our own existence.”
Religion offers hope in the face of oblivion, but, in the officially atheist USSR, its resources are hard to find and hard to know how to use. In “Necessary Evil,” one of the funniest stories in this very funny book, the parents of nine-year-old Iossel break the news that he is a Jew. To console the boy, they try to explain Judaism’s rich traditions, but, given their thin education in Jewish history, all they can come up with is a science fiction story in which Jews are on a secret mission to protect the world by drawing to themselves, but not succumbing to, humankind’s free-floating anger. (Really, that’s not such a bad effort from harried parents at the end of a long day.)
In the book’s title story, named after a saying from the Hasidic Masters, Iossel’s future grandmother, a New Soviet Woman of the 1930s, waits in terror in the dead of night as the secret police ascend the stairs of her apartment building. Although she is an atheist “steeped fervently to the eyebrows in the unyielding, beautifully blood-soaked Communist dogma,” she “starts praying, silently, fervently. She is not fully aware of what she is doing, and no coherent, distinct words one might credibly associate with an actual prayer of any kind pass through her mind—yet still, her lips are moving silently.” And where do these prayers come from? “Her parents. They know all the prayers.” In her terror, she tries as she can to join her parents and their parents and their parents in speaking a story that goes back much farther than 1917.
Iossel’s point is nothing so simple as stories will save us. Still, he quotes Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who lost his name and earlier life in bureaucratic St. Petersburg: “And even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day.” Here, stories’ salvific powers are highly contingent—“one day” a memory “may” help save us. But if the Underground Man’s predicament is our predicament—disconnection from the lives of others and so from our own lives—salvation must involve telling and hearing the stories that make us who we are. Stories like the ones in Love Like Water, Love Like Fire.
Love Like Water, Love Like Fire
By Mikhail Iossel
Bellevue Literary Press
Published May 4, 2021
Ross Collin is an associate professor of English education at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. He writes about the political and ethical dimensions of literacy education. His writing has appeared in The Journal of Literacy Research, English Journal, Changing English, and Teachers College Record.