Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no one really experiences in their day-to-day life. After reading Stalin is Dead, I was troubled by this descriptor. Yes, Stalin is Dead contains numerous surreal situations, but they are not surreal within the familiar systems, such as a governmental system, of Kafka’s works. Stalin is Dead is more along the lines of the surreal absurdities of Clarice Lispector. I only mention this because while there is overlap between those who love Lispector and those who love Kafka, these individuals will be equally bothered and distracted from the text of Stalin is Dead due to the preconditions invoked by the kafkaesque descriptor.
Coming to this conclusion, it was not so surprising to realize that the subtitle—“Stories and aphorisms on animals, poets, and other earthly creatures“—is a better means of setting the context in which Stalin is Dead was likely intended to be consumed. The stories and aphorisms can be organized by daily observations in life, smug views of payback, and shock flash fiction—not the familiar backdrops of Kafka.
To add to the disorienting nature of the work, Rachel Shihor has placed Hebrew characters throughout the work to intentionally distract from the text. In these vignettes, she forms pictures and depicts word play with Hebrew characters that is both delightful and baffling at the same time. In some instances the characters are overlapped to the point of being illegible, they are also arranged to mimic the subject of a piece within the work, and they are also used to describe various word and character play only possible with Hebrew characters. However, these playful tricks would not be understood without the “Notes of Typograms” at the end of the text.
As you probably guessed, there were portions of this work that I did not understand and I will likely die trying to understand. Isn’t that what most authors want from a reader? An unabashed and perverse desire to attempt to understand their work? An example of this dichotomy between the delightfully thought-provoking and the frustratingly confusing can be seen in the two following excerpts from the work:
“I Left a Bad Impression”
I left a bad impression, definitely a bad impression, on the patrons of the Munich Opera House when they were listening to Judith Triumphant. And I didn’t even have to make an effort. The severed head was enough.
When I looked the spider in the face I realized that despite his bone-chilling cruelty and despite him dedicating his life to capturing smaller helpless animals, his traps provoke wonder in the eyes of all who behold them.
I looked in his face again and saw a tiny moustache.
From reading the Conversational Reading interview (http://conversationalreading.com/the-rachel-shihor-interview/[conversationalreading.com]) with Rachel Shihor, I know that she sees animals as a reflection of society, but I am left scratching my head about the tiny “moustache” faces. A google search of “spider faces” was wholly unhelpful.
In closing, the genius of Rachel Shihor is fully realized in what was understandable and will be realized in the years to come in what I am still trying to grasp. The ability to induce epiphanies through revisits to a work is what literature is about. The only other author whom I am aware of who is greatly loved for her repeated deliberate inducement of confusion during an entire lifetime is Lispector herself.
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