Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories
Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories by David Shrayer-Petrov. Translated by Maxim D. Shrayer, Emilia Shrayer and others. (Syracuse University Press, 248 pp. $29.95)
The tantalizing title, Dinner with Stalin, by Russian-American writer David Shrayer-Petrov holds out the promise of a captivating read. This collection of 14 stories delivers on that promise, revealing Shrayer-Petrov’s mastery as a storyteller.
Shrayer-Petrov, a medical doctor and researcher as well as a highly regarded writer of poetry and fiction, was a refusenik for eight years.
From Moscow and Paris to Cape Cod and Providence, readers are transported into a literary world rich in magic, intrigue, humor and pathos, all grounded in Russian history. Above all, the stories are rooted in the experiences of Russian Jews during the refusenik years of the Soviet era and as émigrés grappling with the tension of maintaining their cultural identities in their newly adopted homes.
In “Behind the Zoo Fence,” a bellowing hippopotamus in a Moscow zoo miraculously cures a young woman whose stubborn infection has defied all treatment and threatened her life. The dedicated Dr. Garin—a name overflowing with literary and cultural references—pursues an offbeat, mysterious path to his patient’s recovery.
The story has a richly detailed landscape, from the halls of Moscow’s children’s hospital and the grounds of the Moscow zoo to the countryside dacha where Dr. Garin’s
wife and children are vacationing.
In the title story, a group of multiethnic Russian émigrés gathers for dinner at the Providence home of a couple known for their regular get-togethers. On this night, the group awaits the arrival of a special guest, a leading actor, they are told by Grisha, their host. Before his arrival, the friends eat and drink: “The zakuski were excellent: smoked salmon, caviar, salads, and various pickled vegetables!”
When at last the long-awaited guest appears, he is an all-too-convincing Stalin look-alike. Reality and memory blur for both actor and dinner guests, who recall the brutality and anti-Semitism of the Soviet dictator. The evening does not end well.
Stalin is but one of the many familiar and lesser-known literary and historical figures the author weaves so deftly into the tapestry of his narratives. Readers should not miss the enlightening 25-page section of notes and commentary at the end of the book.