by Jeff Fearnside
I find a great deal of pleasure in reading fiction set in other cultures or countries, especially when the work demonstrates more than a superficial understanding of the place about which it is written.
That was one motivation behind the anthology series I curated, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53 2016). It was also in that context that I first became aware of Jeff Fearnside’s work when his story set in Kazakhstan, “A Husband and Wife are One Satan,” was included in the first volume of that series. I recognized then that, having been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan, Fearnside had the depth of knowledge of his chosen setting to bring the culture and his characters to life in both an informative and entertaining way.
It was a joy, then, to discover that the story we published is the title story in Fearnside’s recent chapbook, published last year by Orison Books. It is a slim book, just forty pages, comprising five stories all set in Kazakhstan. Each story is a gem, and while they share a setting, each focuses on a unique aspect of Kazakh life rooted in the singular traditions of this little-known Central Asian republic.
The first story in the collection, “Accomplices to a Tradition,” illuminates the horrific practice of bride stealing, in which a woman is, essentially, kidnapped by a man and then, if accepted by the man’s family, must marry him. Along the way, the story shows us the prevalence of police corruption, tensions between ethnic Russians, such as the narrator of the story, and ethnic Kazakhs, and the ubiquity of the vodka bottle. (I witnessed all these things myself during the year I worked in Kazakhstan and have also written about them in my own fiction.) It’s a marvelously well-made story, too, with the kind of riveting suspense that keeps the reader turning pages.
The title story, “A Husband and Wife Are One Satan,” is both poignant and funny. Here the voice is omniscient, delving into the lives and thoughts of a consistent set of customers in a village café operated by Raim and Railya, the ethnic Tatar couple who are the husband and wife of the title. The customers themselves give us a glimpse into life in the country, coming as they do from a variety of professions and ethnicities: Kolya, a Russian Christian, who, despite being married, comes to the café with his girlfriend, Larisa; Murat, a Kazakh Muslim and his Russian friend Tikhan; a pair of teenage girls, Olya and Dilya, looking for husbands; and an older, widowed alcoholic, Alikhan. Raim and Railya discover that their café business becomes more robust when they argue loudly in front of their customers, providing endless entertainment, and they each give as good as they get in their battles. (The title of the story comes from a saying that means, essentially, “It takes two to tango.”) The story takes a darker turn, however, when the arguments get out of hand, leading to the inevitable climax.
As I have been reading Fearnside’s excellent book and writing this review, much of Kazakhstan is in turmoil, possibly heading into an existential crisis. Some of the stories in this collection touch on the changes in Kazakhstan over the years, from its contributions to the Great Patriotic War to its troubling ethnic divisions and its new existence as an independent state following the collapse of the Soviet Union. One has the impression, though, that little really changes there. The traditions and the struggles persist. It is gratifying to read about them in the hands of a skillful writer like Fearnside.
Reviewed by Clifford Garstang (Korea 1976-77)