BEF 2011/9 – The Evil Eye [Russia]

04/03/2011

Superstitious fears have long been an instrument of repression.  As such these fears reached an apotheosis in Middle Ages Europe when the Catholic church governed the actions and beliefs of all men (what’s more terrifying than eternal damnation?), and to stray beyond the pale, that is, to think for oneself, was not only impious but openly transgressive, heretical; to press and probe with one’s fingers God’s perfect spherical domain is to shape an egg from which nothing good can hatch.

In Atamanovka, Russia, the medicine-woman Potapikha is practising an ethic of obscurantism.  She is the village doctor, of sorts, and she has arrived at a house to cure young Valerka of an unknown illness.  Valerka’s friend, Petka, watches from beneath a table where he has been sent to hide his “evil eye,” an eye that can curse anyone and, more importantly, can vitiate Potapikha’s craft.  And this, we realise, is how she works.  Potapikha insures herself against failure by pointing out those factors that may intrude upon and counter her spells: the malevolent eye of Petka, the crowing of a rooster, a shyness of her charmed dough to rise because of Valerka’s mama’s incessant pacing back and forth.  Any excuse will suffice.  But the most telling measure she takes against failure, a flag that flies above the heads of the characters and is waved, so to speak, straight to the reader by the author, is the closing of the house’s shutters because “Light in this sort of thing gets in the way.”  “Where there’s light there’s sickness.”

This Old World fear and ritual points at a Dark Age cosmology and so it is a surprise to learn that The Evil Eye is set about a year after the Battle of Stalingrad that destroyed Hitler’s Eastern front in World War II.  How can such ignorance survive into the twentieth century?  The promises of the European Enlightenment were universal in scope; with the deification of Reason, nobody need wallow in darkness anymore.

But Potapikha’s is a folk medicine.  She comes with no equipment, she takes no temperatures and asks no questions.  Instead she makes a magical dough and kneads some cockroaches and lice into it – a crude if effective emetic.  Theirs is a world of magic ritual, a natural order whose laws are written in bird calls and cloud formations.  There are no promises.  It is a world that admits curative spells and powerful curses that can turn the tides of war (as Petka believed he has done).  It is a world steeped in ignorance.

It is the passages in which this narrowness of mind is most evident that are the best.  These passages resonate with credibility:

Once she [Valerka’s mother] came to school…to see the teacher, Anna Nikolaevna.  She asked the teacher to point out where Stalingrad was on the map.  She looked at the place, covered it with her palm, stood a while like that, and then said, “Thank you.”

Either she was thanking Anna Nikolaevna or the entire big map of the Soviet Union.

It is the ambiguity of Valerka’s mother’s actions that lend the gesture its reality.  We ask, along with the narrator, just who – or what – is she thanking, and for what?  Is she giving thanks to Valerka’s late father whom we can safely assume died in the battle of Stalingrad?  Is she thanking the teacher Anna Nikolaevna?  Is she thanking the entire Soviet Union?  Not even the narrator knows.

Another example of fine writing comes from Petka’s wandering thoughts:

From [the floor] he could see the whole bed, a rumpled pillow and Valerka’s hand hanging down, lifeless, like a regimental banner that has fallen to the enemy.  Useless.  Looking at Valerka’s hand, it somehow occurred to Petka that he’d never seen dead birds.  He’d seen plenty of birds that had been killed, but birds that died like people – slowly, from old age or illness – that he’d never come across.  Because if they’d died naturally, then they should be lying around somewhere.  After all, you wouldn’t fall from heaven anywhere but to earth.  But neither in Atamanovka itself nor around it had Petka ever seen dead birds on the earth.  Only the ones killed by cats or kids.  And so it seemed they flew to another place to die.  Or they didn’t die at all.

An ingenuousness pervades Gelasimov’s text.  It is exhibited by the characters (excepting Potapikha), spreads to the narrator and ultimately infects the reader.  In the end even Potapikha’s prognosis is ominously shady: “Now, now, this’ll be over soon, this’ll be over soon, darling”.  But what will be over?  Valerka’s sickness, or his life?  Potapikha leaves with a hen under her arm (payment for her services) and buoyant of spirit, and we remain in the dark, which is how she likes it to be – for light, after all, just gets in the way of such things.

‘The Evil Eye’ is translated from Russian by Sylvia Maizell.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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2 Responses to “BEF 2011/9 – The Evil Eye [Russia]”

  1. Harry Elliot Says:

    Sounds like Casteneda. Psilocybin.

  2. David J Single Says:

    If only. I think poor young Valerka would have preferred some magic mushrooms rather than the lice from his friend’s head.


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