Review by Olga Krushenitskaya, translated by Nina Murray
Signs of Silence is a novella about lesbian love, set not somewhere in the abstract West but in Kazakhstan—and yet it does not aspire in any way to be a work of pointed social commentary intended to draw attention to the challenges of the gay community. The protagonist’s lesbian identity is just a part of her personality which underscores her uniqueness and contributes to her isolation.
“We sat down near the fountain in the square in front of the Opera and Ballet Theater.” This is the only indication to the reader that the city where Anya Krylova, the protagonist, lives is Almaty. Perhaps another clue is the fact that the assistants to the magnificent librarian Margarita Mikhailovna speak Kazakh to each other. Otherwise, the story could be set in any post-Soviet city.
Similarly, the novella is set outside the social hostility toward gay people. Only once does Anya’s boss and nemesis, Semen, say, when he wants to make sure it would hurt, “Fucking kike, I don’t know what you are thinking!”
Semen’s line reflects both that Anya must conceal her identity and that the society she lives in would rather reject her than find a way to acceptance. This is why Anya responds to her boss with aggression which only serves to emphasize the vacuum in which she must exist.Read more: What the Ellipses Elide: “Signs of Silence” by Nina Troks
“I’m like a half-blood in a society where everyone else is of royal breeding. They realize their superiority and carry themselves appropriately: with their backs straight and their dignity on their sleeves. I, on the other hand, am constantly aware of being deficient. I do my best to avoid being looked at.”
Signs of Silence is a story about its protagonist’s internal journey much more than about any exterior events. It is hard to summarize: very little actually happens. Anya runs into her former partner at an art gallery opening, and the reader is immediately plunged into the universe of emotions: “I looked at Fillip Malyavin’s “Dancing Woman” and saw a single blot of red. My heart took up the woman’s raging dance.”
“Who is she to you?” Anya’s companion asks.
“There was a time she was more than everything I needed.”
The scene between the two women that follows makes it clear that their feelings for each other are still running hot. And how could a volcano cool?
Anya’s past trauma and her acute sense of alienation makes her desire to find love only more urgent. It is not an accident, I think, that the object of her affection, Maya, is a sign-language interpreter, someone whose job, like that of a ferryman, is to bring people to each other. Anya is in desperate need of a means of crossing the divide between her and other people. But the very thing that brings the two women together also becomes the cause of their break-up. Maya, who grew up in a hearing-impaired family, needs silence, needs to be with people who do not make noise.
The novella is a jewel-box of puzzle pieces, set in a circular narrative which begins and ends with the encounter at the art gallery. The novella is composed of seven chapters which the author calls “Signs.” Only two signs are happy: the ones that tell of Anya and Maya’s several months of romantic fulfillment. Every person wants to share their life with another, it is a natural human need—yet, for the most part of the story, Anya finds herself in the unnatural state of solitude. In the first chapters of the novella, her solitude is also full of fear; in the last, it is laced with quiet sadness. This transition makes the text, perhaps, a form of therapy that allows both the author and the reader to accept that love can be a cause of great suffering.
Anya is an aesthete who goes to art openings to “experience painting.” If love, then, is the desire for beauty, here’s how the author describes her protagonist’s experience:
I loved to watch her hands dance. To watch her slender, long fingers bend, fan out, and come together in exquisite invisible patterns. I did not understand the signs she made, but they held me under a spell.
No pathos, no sentimentality, no desperation—such steady, marvelously measured descriptions are scattered throughout the novella like precious gems.
We walked around the city—my city that turned out to be completely different with her. Quiet little parks clattered and pierced with bird noise. Narrow streets seemed endlessly wide when she drifted away from me. Gray apartment blocks no longer oppressed with their mousy color. And I could not understand how one could think one had a grip on the world if a presence of another changed the world so completely?
The conflict in the novella is between sound and silence, the world outside and the one interior to each individual. The first chapter (sign) ends with this: “My body shuddered in response to the rustling of leaves underfoot, a honk of a car, a snippet of passers’-by conversation. Sounds seem to ricochet against me and make me vibrate.”
At the same time, the author does not imply that the outside world is always a source of violence or aggression. The fourth, happy chapter concludes with the description of sounds as they accompany happiness: “The chirp of the crickets, the regular tiu–tiu of a night bird perched somewhere close, the moist coolness of the night—this was my moment of happiness that would stay with me forever.”
Or elsewhere: “Without Maya, I filled with silence.”
Silence is a path to oneself, into the memories that can make love live longer. Silence has much to recommend it. Maya speaks of the appeal of silence: her parents were deaf-mute, she lived in silence until she was three, and associates silence with the cradle. In the first chapter, which contains the end of the story as well as its beginning, the narrator’s voice echoes Maya’s: “I wanted one thing—silence. Wanted to break free of the deafening noise of the city, the thoughts in my head, my memories. Wanted to run beyond the edge of sound.”
I read this urge to express a kind of hopelessness, a suicidal desire for an emotion-free peace akin to that of medieval romances whose protagonists wished to forget themselves in sleep.
All other characters are intentional; each reveals a new aspect of Anya’s world, shows the ways in which the outside world treats her, and together they make the text a comfortable space where the reader wants to stay longer.
One character stands apart in the canvas of the story: the librarian Margarita Mikhailovna. Given the very minor role she plays in the plot, her larger-than-life portrait seems excessive, albeit dynamic and memorable. I found her ironic treatment of the protagonist interesting: Margarita Mikhailovna discerns in Anya a soul in love and accepts her as any other lovelorn individual.
Semen, Anya’s boss, is an important minor character: his figure illustrates the intolerance of the wider society towards Anya.
I could not fail to mention the author handled sexual intimacy: the writing here is exactly what is necessary to satisfy the reader’s need to know without crossing the line into titillation.
Throughout the novella, Troks has many well-crafted, quote-worthy sentences:
“They snapped me off like a willow twig before Easter.”
“Random chance: sometimes that is precisely what rewrites your life’s entire plot.”
“I became an ellipsis. It was as if I had been interrupted. And nothing came after.”
The writing packs layers of meaning into many sentences which prevents the reader from slipping into automatic reading. The willow twig as a symbol of faith. The novella as a blanket draped over the narrator’s arms and opened as a pair of wings to take in her new lover—and with her, the reader. An immersion in a world of feelings and desires.
A Bertold Brecht quote comes to mind: “All artforms are in the service of the greatest of all arts: the art of living.” Nina Troks’ novella is a ministration by word, generously shared with the reader.
Oksana Trutneva is a poet, fiction writer, and literary critic. She writes under the name Nina Troks. In 2002, she graduated from the master-class sponsored by Musaget; in 2008 she studied with Tobias Hill and Pascale Petit. Oksana teaches fiction workshops at Almaty’s Open Literary School (OLSHA).
Olga Krushenitskaya is a fiction writer from Kazakhstan. She was born in Shymkent and lives in Almaty. She is a graduate of Almaty’s Open Literary School (OLSHA). Her work has been published in Daktil and Literra NOVA and translated into German.