Oleg Woolf, Bessarabian Stamps: Stories, Trans.
by Boris Dralyuk, Phoneme Media, 2015.
Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, Oleg Woolf’s Bessarabian Stamps — a cycle of 16 stories set mostly in the village of Sanduleni — is a vivid, surreal evocation of a liminal world. Sanduleni’s denizens are in permanent flux, forever shifting languages, cultures, and states (in every sense of the word). Woolf has relocated magical realism to Moldova. With the turmoil in current Russia and the post-Soviet world, Bessarabian Stamps emphasizes the absurdity of the mundane.
Imagine a novel, written as a series of vignettes, where thirty-three characters come to life over the course of sixteen chapters. Not so out of the ordinary? It’s only eighty-five pages long.
Bessarabian Stamps, written by the late Oleg Woolf (1954 – 2011), a Russian born in a former shtetl in Moldova, and translated by Boris Dralyuk, is a kind of tiny miracle. Set in the fictional Central European town of Sanduleni, each vignette/chapter is a vivid, postage-stamp-sized stage upon which characters appear, disappear, and reappear, escorted off finally by the author via a portal called “entry zero.” Among the cast are Feodasi, the village clairvoyant, who is “carefully reading and rereading an old book on the role of birds in Odessan seafaring;” Mariuta Dumbrava, wife of Julian Florescu, whose fatal beauty “was more akin to fate than to the random bullet which shattered the Union’s window and struck the water pitcher placed before her grandfather thirty years ago by a cloakroom attendant;” and Ivan Markov, “an unfettered Gypsy scribe who has penned two or three grandiose abandoned volumes on love.” Each character seems to come with his or her own trail of Woolf-esque language that begins in one place and ends in quite another:
A conversation between a man and a woman is a conspiracy of rich men at midnight. Day begins with a man extending his hand to another, and a woman—to another woman.
[…] they were looking at each other so intently, ad infinitum, that their heads began to spin—until they saw the vague contours of their fates emerge, like the corners of their lips in the darkness.
Despite being set in the named town of Sanduleni, this extraordinarily economical book is never tethered to any one place or time. Place, space, and time, are in fact elusive. This mutability may have been encoded in Woolf’s psyche through his experiences on geophysical expeditions: trained as a physicist, he had participated in projects led by the Institute of Earth Physics throughout the former Soviet Union. In fact, the penultimate chapter of the book, “Thirteen Billion Years Since Speed-of-Light Day,” seems to address particular landscape features:
“Entry zero’s somewhere around here, that’s already clear,” the girl Efrosina suddenly said. “There have always been limestone boulders, here. The whole place is pitted with abandoned mine shafts. Two of them lead to a monastery. The other—zero speed. Everyone knows that.”
“All in a land align along a line. That’s all we know of the world and of ourselves,” said the philosopher Gogeni.
I had a lot of ideas about this tiny book, and was especially curious about “entry zero.” So I contacted Woolf’s translator, Boris Dralyuk, and Woolf’s widow, Irina Mashinski, about how “entry zero” might relate to Woolf’s concept of time/space. I wondered whether the movements of the characters through the vignettes toward this point were a nod to (or a recapitulation of) the motion of matter through time and space.
“In the last year of his life,” Dralyuk and Mashinski said in an email, “Oleg was very interested in [Russian mathematician] Grigory Perelman’s work on the Poincaré conjecture. According to Henri Poincaré [19th century French theoretical physicist and mathematician], the theorem concerns a space that looks like ordinary three-dimensional space but is connected, finite in size, and lacks any boundary (a closed 3-manifold). These ideas are very close to the world of Bessarabian Stamps: topology and its connection to continuous deformation, convergence, continuity, and the whole concept of a manifold … In Bessarabian Stamps, the characters follow the trajectories of elementary particles, disappearing in one dimension only to reappear in another.”
Like a black hole? I wondered.
“‘Entry zero’ is one of the warped passages of the universe, and of memory. It is also the wormhole of creation, the tunnel between the creator and his characters; in the end, Oleg’s characters return into the literary “clay” of pre-creation. There are infinitely many other projections of the same memory, of the same soul’s experience. That is why there are so many stars in Bessarabian Stamps. The characters are recyclable, like star matter.”
Mashinksi extended the connection to the act of translation itself:
In one of his first letters to Boris, Oleg used a term borrowed from physics: “resetting”—[in Russian] perezagruzka: the system changes because the witness (i.e. translator) becomes a part of it.
To me, there was also a feeling of accretion/accumulation as the characters appear, reappear, and disappear again. This “action” reminded me of the tell settlements of Old Europe, specifically the Cucuteni-Tripol’ye culture (roughly fifth to third millennia BCE) that grew up where present-day Moldova is. In those tells, people lived in the same place as their ancestors and built huge mounds with the remains of torn down and rebuilt houses and old household goods—an accretion/accumulation of histories, objects, stories, and energies. I asked Mashinski and Dralyuk if Woolf had ever embedded any archeological ideas in his these characters, and the village of Sanduleni.
“As far as I know, the connection is indirect, but—in some mysterious way—it must be there! The world of Bessarabian Stamps, and of literature itself, is like the alluvium of a river that flows in the same valley for millions of years. But Oleg’s book is not anchored in the region in which it is set any more than it is in any other place on Earth. As Oleg says in one of the Stamps, “Writing is finding the general in the unique, not the other way around.”
In this fantastic little book, even the archangel Gabriel has a say about life’s minutiae, and the mystery of existence:
What need have you of desires […] ? Don’t be clever with me. This isn’t a desire, but a stamp, a mark, a scar on the heart […] Much of what can be is not, and will never be. - Sharon Mesmer
The poetic proclivity of Moldovan-born Oleg Woolf is everywhere present in his Bessarabian Stamps, a prose work written in a lyrical style, unrestrained in its use of alliteration and allegory (see WLT, Nov. 2011, 52). The book consists of sixteen darkly whimsical “stamps” (most of which are nearly short enough to fit on the back of a postcard) that feel more akin to fables than short stories, each one joined to the next through common characters and thematic concerns rather than storyline or chronology.
While the colorful residents of the Moldovan village of Sănduleni are central to these stories, each remains largely inscrutable. In lieu of standard character development, Woolf details their superficial traits—physical features, occupations, and habits. The clairvoyant Feodasi, with eyes each a different shade of blue, is consulted for advice “as a soothsayer, interpreter, and miracle worker . . . or just in case.” Day after day he sits under a plum tree rereading a treatise on the role of birds in Odessan seafaring. Like the other villagers, Feodasi’s thoughts and feelings remain intentionally obscured, which makes reading Bessarabian Stamps a bit like viewing the negative of a photograph—the negative’s inverted exposure obscures those very parts of the image that would facilitate recognition and understanding of it.
There is an uninhibited joy in Woolf’s writing, and translator Boris Dralyuk impresses with his ability to capture this quality in translation. Invented words are playfully scattered about: “morning’s morninger than evening; . . . . details were separated from the happenchaff along with the wheat”; as are sensory-laden descriptions: stars that “burst, crunched, and crackled over Sănduleni, like a barrel of fermented cucumbers”; and a tempestuous bride who is “like an apple orchard in a May thunderstorm.” Woolf cleverly pairs opposing concepts to convey ironies that are absurd and at the same time hold traces of meaning: “Ever since he grew fat, he’s lost a little weight, and when we meet him, he might tell us that the ailment’s primary symptom is death; and, [t]he firstborn had entered the world so old that knowledgeable people, shaking their heads, tried to reassure her: nothing to it, they said, he’ll fall right into childhood as he ages.” Woolf’s alchemy with words compels rereading to better appreciate his intentional nuances, and I succumbed to it by reading the book straight through a second time as soon as I finished it.
Bessarabian Stamps is not all whimsy and lightness. The cruel, arbitrary grip of fate, which takes the form of a metaphorical, northbound train that transports the villagers into the next world, casts a shadow on Sănduleni. Only Feodasi is immune: “They say a sage has no fate, but the average person receives one along with a name. . . . Feodasi had no fate. His own father couldn’t surmise the meaning of his mysterious name.” As for the fate of Feodasi’s neighbors, only these “stamps” of their lives remain, posted at Sănduleni’s single mailbox and collected in the darkest hours of the night by a guy on a bicycle. - Lori Feathers
Oleg Woolf was born in 1954 in Moldova, and passed away in 2011 in the United States. A physicist by training, he spent a number of years on geophysical expeditions throughout the former Soviet Union. Along with his wife, Irina Mashinski, he was the founder and editor of the bilingual press Stosvet and its journal Cardinal Points.