Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Book Review: Stamp Album by Andrei Sergeev

Politics and the perversity of Soviet life is central to Andrei Sergeev’s fascinating work Stamp Album: A Collection of People, Things, Relationships and Words. Winner of the Russian Booker Prize, it is not a novel, not a memoir, not even an autobiography, but some combination of all these and more.

It focuses largely on the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and provides a series of ‘verbal snapshots’ of everyday Soviet life – in the kommunalka; at school; in the street and in the workplace. Written from the child’s own perspective with almost no word of explanation or discussion from Sergeev the adult, its content has an immeasurable effect on the reader, particularly when read in conjunction with the perhaps slightly over-zealous endnotes. The atmosphere of fear and despair under Stalin’s despotism is made personal and real, the rules about who you could and couldn’t talk to; what you could and couldn’t say or do, all brought vividly to life. Yet Sergeev also manages to draw our attention to the farcical and the ridiculous: the much-trumpeted development of transportation contrasted with the lack of food; the confusion over who could be revered or discussed this week as opposed to last.

The essence of the book is really the personal: the family and its relations, its joy and its history; life at the dacha; but encompassing it all the author’s childhood and youth. His snapshots of family life are touching and warm; his memories of childhood antics, good and bad, ones that we can all relate to; and his desire to record it all makes the book feel incredibly personal. From his earliest years Sergeev has a collection of what he calls his ‘enviable things’, and we get the impression that this is how he sees his whole life; a collection of treasures, from personal memories to snatches of conversations and songs, all of which are to be filed away and looked at as a philatelist examines his stamps. Maybe the analogy of an amateur geologist would be more apt as the staccato nature of the writing is reminiscent of layers of rock (memory) being built up layer by layer. Joanne Turnbull tells us that Sergeev began amassing the work for Stamp Album in the 1970s, intending it then ‘for the drawer’, we should all be immensely grateful that it did not remain there.

Andrei Sergeev (1933-98) was a distinguished translator of English poetry; a writer of poetry and prose who helped pioneer samizdat; and a close friend of Joseph Brodsky, yet here he writes of the very ordinariness of his childhood and youth, and the characters that surrounded it. Like the contemporary female writers, he emphasises that it is the most ordinary aspects of our lives and their individual moments of joy which are the most significant to all of us. Perhaps standing in the ranks, leading the most ordinary existence is to our credit after all.

Reviewer's note: Unfortunately this book is no longer widely available, but it is well worth tracking down through secondhand book services.

This review was originally published in The East-West Review, the journal of The Great Britain-Russia Society.

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