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Written In Secret Behind The Iron Curtain, 'Corpse' Is Revived


The fiction work of Soviet-era writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky never saw the light of day in his own time. He was known mostly as a theater, music and literary critic, but he also wrote fables and fiction for more than 20 years, none of which appeared in print until 1989. Well, a new volume of that work called "Autobiography of a Corpse" has just come out here in the U.S. It's translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull, and Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: You've probably never heard of this Ukrainian-born writer with a difficult-to-pronounce name who wrote fiction in secret during some of the darkest times of Soviet life. I hadn't heard of him until a few years ago a small New York reprint house began to issue his work in translation. But if you think of Gogol's most fantastic tales like, say, "The Nose" or a Malamud story like "The Jewbird" or Kafka's best work, you'll have some idea of what to expect of the best of Krzhizhanovsky. He's that good.

Read "The Runaway Fingers," in which a concert pianist's right hand takes off on a keyboard and then absconds to the street to spend the night outdoors, or "In the Pupil," about a tiny figure who lives in the eye of a woman and causes all sorts of alarm for her lover, or in the title story, "Autobiography of a Corpse," which gives us the dilemmas of a new Moscow resident whose tiny room comes along with a manuscript from the late tenant that changes the man's life.

Many of the other pieces read less like stories and more like finely composed studies for the isolated human mind in an era when the only freedom a writer could know was to invent in private. They resonate with the fine-tuning of a comic mind in exile from itself, recording every tiny shift, twist and turn of consciousness of a soul in a world without redemption. Does that sound like Samuel Beckett at work, also?

So hey, let me along with Gogol and Malamud, invoke Beckett, too. If you love any of these writers, you'll love the work of Krzhizhanovsky.

SIEGEL: The book is "Autobiography of a Corpse." It was reviewed by Alan Cheuse, who teaches writing at George Mason University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.