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.

“Spiders”

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.


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

Stalin is Dead
By Rachel Shihor
Translated by Ornan Rotem
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols
96 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9780956992086
$18.00
I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >

The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

Read More >

Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

Read More >

Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

Read More >

Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

Read More >

The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

Read More >