Valeria Krutova’s Drunken Fridays – Review by Alexander Mendybayev

When does she write? Probably on drunk Fridays, when the most hidden skeletons burst out of our closets. «Time doesn’t teach» is a collection of eight short stories by Krutova. The same mysterious Skeletons are opening the collection. It is the character’s confession of the deeds that linger behind her, rattling her knuckles through the stuffy alleys of fate. Kittens drowned by her grandfather are a rebuke to the infirmity of inaction. And the character herself is like a helpless kitten. She can only watch, tacitly acquiescing to her grandfather’s ferocious truth. She is also powerless. Her only advantage over the blind kittens is her sight. Though this advantage is rather a punishment. Being able to see, but to do nothing. “And in the morning he will pour out dead water” – how mundanely and terrifyingly Krutova writes about it. Two parallel worlds. Tragedy for one is the routine of centuries of life for the other. And the boundless chasm in two generations.

Sweetie. A confession of pure and tender sisterly love. Delayed one. Unheard one. And therefore, impossibly sincere. “A child with eyes as blue as a dream” – the author, or maybe the main character vividly describes her «Sweetie». She was a child and still is a child. Who loved the whole world, tried to understand it. In the result – two husbands; one caressing the asses of colleagues with sweaty hands. The other one is fiddling on his smartphone screen with his sweaty fingers, unable to return from his endless and meaningless virtual war. And she is looking for caps for his finger and talcum powder to make it easier to play. And even in the hospital, Sweetie convinces everyone that doctors are not beasts, not fools. They get tired, they make mistakes, and sometimes they do stupid things. And Sweetie’s life is just another mistake, or maybe a stupid thing. No big deal. She would have been justified and forgiven if she had lived.

Cracks is the story of the first, genuine first love. With drunken kisses with lips smeared in salted fish. And with eyes of broken caramel’s color. Why broken? Probably because for one this love is something to remember, and for the other – a fractured fate, where everything that is behind is clear, but what is ahead is scary.

Maybility. And again, about love. Unrequited one. More precisely, unripe one. Yura and Sonya are ordinary people, even just boring names. And their endless friendship is boring to black in the face, to anger. Their sitting on the pipes, splashing in the dacha pool, casually rubbing bodies. And even when Yura kisses Sonya on the stomach, a noisy crowd of friends that are so hated in these moments, surrounds them with a tight ring. And in general – Sonya remembers some Vanya, and Yura allows her to talk about this Vanya and the study when it is high time to kiss. Sonia would better be quiet, and Yura would better drag his Sonia away from the drunken crowd, and Sonia would sit on Yura, not the pipes … But “someone said something”, “someone added details”, and “someone finished the rest”. And that was it. Even the damned, so annoying to both, their friendzone is ruined. They will meet when Sonya is in the hospital. And the standard, mediocre and guaranteedly unloved husband – so gray that Krutova could not even find a nickname for him – would take her home. And Yura will go to Israel. Probably, because it is warm there. And because it is irrevocably late.

AU. Another drama of closest people who are strangers to each other. The father is an alcoholic intellectual. The mother is a manicurist.  What could these people have in common? Only Tenia, the daughter with the strange name and gray eyes. No one needs Tenia. Only her father’s friend, surprisingly a professor, needs her. It happens that way. It is common for alcoholic intellectuals to have outlandish friends. And the professor needs the same thing as the locksmith. Human things are not alien to him at all. He grabs Tenia by the ass, while her father does not oppose, only scolds his daughter for spilling the tea in fright. As a gray mouse the girl yurts into the workshop, where the white-bearded master teaches her jewelry craft. There Tenia will find peace. And it’s unlikely she’ll make it to the surface. Valeria Krutova’s work is an endless series of social experiments on destinies, souls, passions and vices. She has no random characters. Extraordinary observation, thoroughness in details, no banality of denouements and uncompromising, sometimes ruthless frankness – that’s Krutova.

Edited by Alyona Timofeyeva

Valeria Krutova was born in 1988. Novelist, children’s writer. She is a regular contributor to the literary magazines “Druzhba Narodov”, “Yunost”. She has been published in literary magazines “Autograph”, “Literratura”, “Formaslov”, “Dactyl”. Children’s stories from the collection “FtaroiBe” were read by actors in the project “From Five to No End”, prepared by the MDT-theatre Europe. FIKSHN35 Literary Award Long List (2020). Finalist for the Danko Literary Prize (2021). Coordinator of the first writer’s residency in Central Asia “Almaty Writing Residency”.

Alexander Mendybayev was born in 1982 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Graduated from the Kazakh State Law Academy, majoring in International Law. Since 2015 he has been a student of the Open Literary School of Almaty named after Olga Markova. He has been published in Neva, Volga, Literary Alma-Ata, Esquire Kazakhstan, Za-Za, Dactyl magazines. He co-wrote the script for “The Quarters” story which was filmed by Qara Production and will be released in 2023.

Living in Alina Gatina’s prose – a review by Alexander Mendybayev

Translated by Alyona Timofeyeva

Reading Alina Gatina’s stories, I subconsciously searched for the trends of our era—darkness, pessimism, hopelessness. And they would be there—accompanying tragedy, death, illness, the death of a child, broken hearts, loneliness, a sleep disorder. However, I did not find the darkness. There was no vulgar frankness, the kind that’s only a step away from a perverse voyeurism. There was no depressive melancholy there either. Only the author’s observations of the adventures of the human soul. Alina Gatina  reveals the mechanisms of motivations of her heroes with surgical care. She invites the reader to study, draw conclusions, look into the very depths of her characters’ hearts. And that is it. No naturalism, no moralizing. Everyone will take what they need. And you can take as much as you want, as long as you are strong enough to carry the load.

Gatina’s deliberate negligence conceals her impeccable control of the text:

“All Irish wolfhounds look the same, and so do all homes inhabited by philologists. I said that my neighbor was not a philologist, but a pensioner, and he replied that it was also the same thing.”

Gatina masterfully mixes styles. Tragic and funny interweave organically:

“- Who would cry about me like that, – said Vadik and gave me a nudge. – Maybe you?

—I’ll leave earlier, – I replied. – Ask Marya Stepanovna.

— I didn’t turn in the books. I’d better not get caught by her.”

The text is rich in various literary finds: “After all, we all began from somewhere”, or “They left three hundred kilometers from home, where, according to Isaev, people ended and animals began.”

Who are the heroes of Gatina’s stories? Ordinary people familiar to each of us, dealing with everyday situations. The skill of Alina Gatina is to breathe life into them, make them attractive, pull out the human. Even in animals. Even in objects. 

I began my acquaintance with the work of Gatina by reading the story “The Soul and the Desert,” a universe of broken destinies and crippled souls. Friends who managed to escape and stay together. Hot Spot—the heroes used to call it HS in a casual, military way. The civil war is mentioned in a few oblique references, but its impact, its breath affect each character. The war left deep scars in people’s souls, and did not bypass anyone with its diabolical generosity. But before the war, there had been another, very different life. And a new one came, dividing their destinies into “before” and “after”. The war is over, the heroes are safe. They are still friends, they try to get together every year. They are fragments of something big, once whole. But they will never be the same again. The heroes are acutely aware of this upon returning to their homeland. They are together, but they are strangers. Still, they go to the town of their shared childhood, discussing a certain Zarrukh, the father of a huge family, who accidentally killed his son. Zarrukh could not forgive himself and did not find an answer among people. He was shouting into the desert, which also had no answer. Now, having left his family, having punished himself with complete detachment, he is living out his life. What for? He probably doesn’t have an answer himself. He died as a person, his soul burned out.  

I read “The Garden”—an eternal dispute between a physicist and a poet—after I met Alina Gatina in person (we are neighbors). Seva is full of life and ideas, a romantic enthusiast, a fanatic of science. And his companion is the practical down-to-earth Raisa. Ironically, Seva is a disabled person who lives with paralysis, and Raya is full of life and strength.

“But it’s beautiful,” Seva said.

“But not for long,” said Raya.” 

“Come on! He’s a hunter, he’s a dog, he’s made to bark.”

The author herself perfectly characterizes Raisa: “She gave everything material in life a second, and a third, and a fourth chance.” Without Raisa, Seva would not last long. Not only because he would run out of food and the medicines he needs so much. Without Raya, her garden, something that motivates Seva to take his medicine every day and hobble around until it’s time for the next pill, would perish. We cannot say what will become of Raya without Seva. I want to believe that Raya’s frenzied energy will pull her out of any scrape. But for some reason it seems to me that Raya without Seva will not last long either. It is for his sake that she tinkers with the garden, sells flowers at the market, collects vegetables and clears her mouse traps. So different, but so related, the antipode of the dead during the life of old-world landowners. And the neighbor girl Lilya is a bright ray that flashed for a moment in their magical garden. 

If Gatina’s stories are presented as combinations of sounds, then “The Soul and the Desert” will turn out to be the dominant chord – long, understated, ambiguous. “The Garden” is the undoubted major note, but “Hostility” is an alarming minor one. A talented physicist with the soul of a vulnerable poet, Isaev resists life. And yet he lives – he watches other people’s twins, falls in love, serves in the army, drops out of university, goes to another one. He is constantly looking for something, tasting life. But everywhere, in everything and in everyone, he feels hostility. It seems so easy to solve his problems. Hey, man, come to the mirror. Here it is, your main enemy and main fear. But Isaev can only be understood by Isaev himself. Each of us will have a couple of similar acquaintances. The guilt for the broken boy displaces Isaev from the institute, deprives him of bright love. Jealousy of the mother’s next hobby stops the desire to seek affection. Life is spent in anxiety and torment, in a hostile environment. And only after experiencing the most acute stress, Isaev finds the peace he needs so much in the circle of his unharmed wife and son. 

In Alina Gatina’s stories there are deep, multifaceted, original, often tragic fates of the most ordinary people. Finding the interesting in the mundane is one of the distinguishing features of the author’s unique style. While reading, I got too deep into her characters and worlds. Surfacing– I pondered for a long time over her main message. Perhaps Alina Gatina perfectly defined it herself: 

– “Writers deliberately compose sufferings in order to torment the hero and thereby scrape a man in him.”

Alina Gatina was born in Shymkent in 1984. She is a graduate of the Gorky Literary Institute, laureate of the literary awards “Altyn Tobylgy”, “FIKSHN35”, and the founder of the literary workshop “LITKLASS”.

Alexander Mendybayev was born in Almaty in 1982. He is a graduate of the Kazakh State Law Academy, majoring in International Law. Since 2015, he has been a student of the Open Literary School of Almaty. He was published in the magazines Neva, Volga, Literary Alma-Ata, Esquire Kazakhstan, ZaZa, and Dactyl. An excerpt from his story “Lodgers” was published in the anniversary collection of prose “The Road without End”.