Philosophy vendors and conscious cadavers: a review of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s ‘Memories of the Future’

memories-of-the-future-sigizmund-krzhizhanovskyRussian writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (try saying that out loud) is one of those artists who find recognition post-mortem—after death. He literally did not live long enough to see his collection of short fiction Memories of the Future (Editions Verdier, 2006) see print and get appreciated by readers of speculative fiction.

Speculative fiction encompasses written works that highlight the fantastic such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, and historical fiction. And nowadays, there are lots of writers and readers who delve into those genres. During his time, though, mainstream gatekeepers of Soviet Union literature shunned Krzhizhanovsky’s works, calling them “untimely” and “not contemporary.” The trend back then during the 1920s and ’30s focused on socialist realism, a style of realistic art in the Soviet Union whose purpose was to glorify communist ideals by praising the meekness of the working class and the economic transition from capitalism to communism.

But Krzhizhanovsky’s stories went against the grain by portraying individual struggles and philosophical ruminations using elements that are anything but realistic. In his story “Quadraturin,” a man who loses satisfaction with his tiny apartment gets a visit from a salesman of a chemical. This chemical, Quadraturin, has the power to enlarge a room without changing the dimensions of the whole building. Only a few drops would do the job but the whole vial slips from the man’s hands by accident, and one can only imagine what happens next.

In “Someone Else’s Theme,” a famished constructor of philosophical systems and aphorisms roam the streets, looking to sell a philosophy or two for a warm meal. Someone takes pity and humors him. In return, the philosophy constructor gives the Good Samaritan “everything you need for a suicide.”

“The Thirteenth Category of Reason” finds a conscious corpse who has missed his own funeral. He must find his coffin before he reaches rigor mortis, otherwise the stiffness of his body would prevent him from doing anything.

Krzhizhanovsky’s imagination surely displays a wide range, topics-wise and imagery-wise. But not all modern readers may agree with his language and style. The author has the tendency to interrupt himself by posing philosophical questions to the reader or going on an internal monologue spiral. This technique makes the narrative flow of his stories stutter, sometimes making them a difficult read.

One could argue that since the work has been translated from Russian to English, the nuances of Krzhizhanovsky’s use of language might have been lost in the process. While there is truth in that, a reader with a copy of the translation could still follow the flow of thoughts coming from the writer’s voice instead of just focusing on his language. And here in his collection, the moments of thought interruptions definitely exist.

However, Memories of the Future still shows potential as an addition to anyone’s collection of speculative fiction. And if you’re into philosophical dialogue set within a fictional narrative, this book may be for you.

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