Do you ever read a book and find yourself thinking, “How on earth did the author ever come up with this stuff”? That was my reaction to Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva. It’s a satirical commentary on life in Ukraine during perestroika in the late seventies—and I absolutely loved it. Who would have ever thought communism could be treated with humour? She could also have titled the book “Ivansk Street, Number 1933” because that’s the address of the gray, concrete apartment building that becomes the common denominator and central character in the book. It cleverly pokes fun at the inefficiencies and shortcomings of the communist system. The chapters read like a series of bizarre short stories until each one reveals a character from the previous story and a pattern emerges. The author was born in Ukraine, grew up in Canada, and has an MFA from the University of Texas.
We are first introduced to Daniil who lives on the tenth floor of an apartment building at 1933 Ivansk Street. When he goes to the building council to report that they have no heat and limited gas service, he’s informed his address does not exist in municipal records, therefore the building does not exist. “Next, please”. His building is part of a three-building complex. Apparently, when the apartment blocks were being constructed, only two were planned but they managed to scavenge enough leftover building materials to build a third, which consequently does not exist in state records.
I always enjoy stories about Russia and surprisingly, I’m even a big fan of the depressing classics like Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. Good Citizens Need Not Fear is more contemporary but clearly describes the living conditions endured by citizens of the U.S.S.R., which never fails to fascinate me. The people have been forced to adapt to unbelievable levels of deprivation and government control. Consequently, they’ve devised a variety of nefarious ways of beating the system and staying alive. Two-room apartments are crowded with as many as fourteen people who are not related.
One of the characters runs a side hustle in her little flat converting old medical x-rays into long-playing records. She has a special machine for duplicating illegal American LPs by such popular groups as The Beach Boys and Led Zeplin. She cuts the x-ray into a circle, burns a hole in the middle, and copies the music onto the medical film to sell on the black market. Now, I call that resourceful. Her little business has an entire network of suppliers and buyers that generates enough extra income for everyone in the supply chain to buy a few extra luxuries like butter.
In a country where perceived unpatriotic actions or even thoughts are not tolerated, one of the main characters, Konstantyn copes with a series of professional and personal challenges. Government “enforcers” pay him a visit. His wife leaves him. He loses his job. His neighbours interfere with his life. He ‘borrows’ Zaya, a sixteen-year-old girl from a nearby orphanage to further his beauty contest business. The girl arrives with a mummified partial torso of a dead saint from when the orphanage was a monastery.
Each chapter has the flow and rhythm of a fairy tale as the author expertly draws us into her web of weird characters. She even includes a few hand-drawn diagrams to explain the layout of her settings. I absolutely loved this book but it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s total escapism and when I found myself getting caught up in the plot development, the author drops in brilliant lines of humour that made me smile and shake my head in disbelief. If you like reading something that’s completely different, you’ll adore this book. Margaret Atwood and I both did.
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