Bessarabian Stamps by Oleg Woolf
translated by Boris Dralyuk
Publisher: Phoneme Media
Reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
Perhaps this book is about trains, or perhaps it is about rain. It might equally be about a man named Feodasi, a village clairvoyant sitting on a stool beneath a plum tree reading about the role of birds in Odessan seafaring.
Or perhaps it is exactly what it purports to be: a series of very short stories set (mostly) in the village of Sănduleni, in the heart of a region of Eastern Europe known as Bessarabia. Most of historical Bessarabia is part of today’s country of Moldova, though the region extends into Ukraine and includes a self-declared splinter republic or two as well. During the Soviet era it was part of the USSR. Oleg Woolf, the late author of these sixteen stamp-sized stories, was himself Moldovan, writing in Russian.
These stories are snapshots – stamps, as Woolf has called them – driven neither by plot nor logic. They are quick glimpses into village life, full of wit, melancholy and a heavy dose of the absurd. The first story begins with the arrival of a train, and ends with the death of the last gypsy in Sănduleni.
One day a freight arrived from Grigoriopol with no head car, but no one noticed. No one even noticed that no one noticed. People often pay no heed, at times, to things they later don’t notice. No one, in fact, knows where this head car is – whether it arrived from Grigoriopol, whether it will arrive, whether there’s even a railroad in those parts.
Most of the stories are titled with a pair of people from Sănduleni: Ileana and Sandu, Mircea and Marica, Ionesco and the Hostess. The people in the titles usually appear in the story, though in the case of Aurica and Van Gogh, the painter’s appearance is only metaphorical. Cantonist, an admirer of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, appears in the story Valia and Cantonist. His name also refers to young boys, many of them Jews, who were conscripted into the Russian army in the eighteenth century. As he leaves home for his compulsory military service his mother cries out, “Let them make a trombone out of you!”
As in a village, the character at the center of one story can often show up at the edges of another. By a simple count, Feodasi is the most prominent, appearing in no less than seven stories, very often with his book on Odessan seafaring. Ileana and her husband Ion Sandu each appear in four. Rain appears in nearly every story, once or twice in the character of snow. Trains appear in a range of guises, from passenger cars to freights to station platforms.
The saddest story in the collection is about Măriuță and Iulian. Their names have virtually destined them to be together; her last name means “forest glade” and his means “flower.” But he must leave to serve his time in the Architectural Detachment. By the time he is released he is 52 years old but looks 64. He returns to Sănduleni only to discover that his beloved is dead.
My favorite story by far is The Dancer of Malagura, where a man named Ivan Markov is on trial for having hijacked a train (aha! another train!). The judge in his case – the Archangel Gabriel, of course – becomes increasingly frustrated with Markov’s nonsensical defense. It soon becomes clear it is Woolf’s own writing that is on trial:
The quality of the object is the level of thought about it, replied the lawyer, making eyes at me. I object. The defendant is a drifter, a hobo king, a creative personality; he uses terminology that doesn’t necessarily conform to the practice of jurisprudence. Like all of us, he deserves the right to fail.
Woolf’s stories are a delight, the kind of work that only deepens with the second and third read (easily done, as the entire book is only 85 pages). It is their nonconformist charm that makes these stories both absurd and true to village life.
Bronwyn Mauldin is the author of the novel Love Songs of the Revolution. She won The Coffin Factory magazine’s 2012 very short story award, and her Mauldin’s work has appeared in the Akashic Books web series, Mondays Are Murder, and at Necessary Fiction, CellStories, The Battered Suitcase, Blithe House Quarterly, Clamor magazine and From ACT-UP to the WTO. She is a researcher with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and she is creator of GuerrillaReads, the online video literary magazine.