By Barbara Baer, Ghost Road Press (2009)

[an earlier version of this review appeared in THE REDWOOD COAST REVIEW]

Grisha the Scrivener may win, or lose, your attention largely depending upon how you respond to the author’s having entrusted the storytelling to her protagonist, Gregory Gregorovich Samidze, raconteur extraordinaire. It’s a gamble indeed to have events related almost exclusively from the point of view of a man who, from his opening lines onward, comes across as one over-the-top, card-carrying, oft-defeated anti-hero. The stakes are high: many a reader may reject this seemingly sexist boozehound at first brush, abandoning him to his permanent identity crisis before ever allowing for the possibility of co-conspiring with poor Grisha in his struggle to survive.

Grisha does have an attitude, or two, or twenty. Alcoholism skews the compass of his nights and days, and his compulsive womanizing falls to one lop side of out­right sexist chauvinism. Yet hear him out and you may not begrudge him all of his all too human shortcomings; to the author’s credit, given time, you may even en­tertain the possibility that the beleaguered guy’s sins aren’t so unforgivable after all.

After all, hasn’t life in the USSR taught Gregory to believe that he is a contempti­ble outsider, another intellectual déclassé to be kept under surveillance along with Jews, bohemians, and political dissenters, all such barely tolerable burdens to Mother Russia become the Soviet State? There’s no denying that the cumulative consequences of living just inside the margins of totalitarian regimes have com­promised Grisha’s integrity. Desperately seeking carpe diem, the man does tend to overindulge in vicious cycles of misbehavior and finally even risks re-incarceration by playing a serious game with counterfeit passports and false identities. But for those readers capable of imagining themselves in poor Grisha’s situation, there is the prospect of embracing his distress and cheering for the small victories brought about by his survival tactics—victories won not in spite of his problematic perso­nality but because of it.

Poor Gregory Gregorovich Samidze, kindly world-weary cynic who would dearly love to plead the Tin Man defense at every turn:

“ ‘What do you mean, Grisha? We all have hearts. You’ve touched mine and will be here forever,’ she said, as if of­fering to show me the beating organ beneath her sweater. Tears were coming to her eyes. Mine threatened to leak salt also. I gathered my beret. ‘This man has no heart. I am tin man. Cannot hurt tin man without heart.’ I rapped my chest with my fist. My lungs cooperated and gave out a bad sound.” [pp. 51-2]

Like the tilted rooms of post-earthquake Tashkent where, in 1966, we first meet Grisha during the second (and softer) phase of political exile from his native Tbilisi in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia, all is askew in society at large and in the live of this citoyen. The numbing effects of a brutal, violent, oppressive police state are brought home in convincing quotidian details. Under Stalin as well as during perestroika, the social dis-order proves hostile to this especially sen­sitive, sensuous, free-spirited offspring of Parisian libertarianism, orphaned son of a man eliminated for having perpetrated public acts of free thinking—that is, publishing his poetry. This mismatch of individual organism and social environ­ment makes for constant conflict, internalized cross-motivation, and a general con­fusion between sensible self-use and self-abuse.

It is the psychically damaged Grisha’s savvy internal and external rap which draws us into a political reality which might otherwise remain abstract. By applying con­siderable ventriloquist skills, Baer transforms her main actor into an impassioned and credible porte-parleur for the author’s own transparently strong convictions and perspective. When moving about in the “near abroad,” Gregor needs an Internal Passport, “that little book of vital statistics that every Soviet has to carry wherever he goes….” [p.55] No wonder he is not alone in the widespread craving after emigration yet, like so many without proteksia, must disavow that dream of joining those residing in the “far abroad—that is, beyond socialism.” [p.67] Grisha the Scrivener might be useful as a survival manual for living anywhere once any Big Brother has moved into your household and become the bullying member of a dysfunctional family.

Baer’s would-be bon vivant gradually disarmed this reader of facile moral judg­ments upon the fellow’s blatantly bad behavior. Consider what strategies are avail­able to our reckless self-parodist. Exile? Been there, done that: ten years in the Siberian Gulag followed by another decade of forced relocation in Tashkent. Silence? Not an option, at least not for this guide to Soviet life, a man wordier than a drunken poet. Well, he is a drunken poet and amateur of architecture, lover of jazz and enthusiastic consumer of Western, especially American, literature. Indeed, it is as a word-man, albeit one constrained to earn his livelihood as a toe-the-Party-line reporter for “Voices of Asia”, that we can apprehend Grisha’s foremost strategy for survival, for it is his very way with words and around words—and Baer’s conjuring up a peculiar yet effective version of spoken English-as-a-Foreign-Language smacking of translatorese—which makes cunning the way to go for this tooth-wrecked big mouth with the “nothing left to lose” blues.

In five inter-related stories spanning thirty-two years, Baer cleverly handles historical time, managing her segues so deftly that even Rap Master Grisha’s extended detours only serve to shore up the forward movement of her overall narrative. The author’s choice of the novella form supports the overarching trajectory of her story well. Grisha the Scrivener displays the condensation of the stand-alone short story’s reliance on imaginative language, economical yet rich incident, and one vivid main character. At the same time, the main character’s empathetic underpinnings profit from the novel’s chronological longevity allowing for changes—in his behavior and in our response—which accompany the passage of time.

Baer employs all these tools of the fiction writer’s trade to raise a brazen, disturb­ing tone of voice challenging tough-skinned yet thoughtful readers to look into our own mirrors—objects that Grisha habitually avoids—in order to reflect upon what we ourselves might do under similar circumstances. We can well imagine how—were it not for his sense of humor, his fantasy life, and his passion for clandestine literature—poor Grisha would become the full-time homeless alcoholic which he at times resembles and is mistaken for, although he remains far too canny to spend much time in the common drunk tank. However, even if black-market vodka leaves him closer to stupor than ecstasy, even if his sex life repeat­edly leads him into tantalization without love, even if his shoot-from-the-hip sarcasm lets him lapse, by default, from pathos into bathos at the slip of the tongue—this is simply the best that, under the circumstances, our man of cunning can do. “It’s Gregory Gregorovich Samidze on my Internal Passport. Grisha if you share a drink with me. City of residence: Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the middle of nowhere but I’ve known worse….” [p.9]

Grisha the Scrivener may not satisfy those seeking a tale of full-blown redemption, but readers willing to give the guy a break may be tempted to let loose with a cele­bratory “Salud!” And congratulations to Barbara Baer for crafting a provocative work which enables us, although living in the relative freedom of American de­mocracy and “growing up in Berkeley bohemia, North beach, jazz clubs and love-ins” [p.38]—far, so far from Grisha’s daily world—to imagine that, at least for the duration of our reading, we have become genuine engagés.

Given the periodic flare-ups of ever-incendiary relations between the Russian and Georgian states, it seems timely to wish Barbara Baer’s novella a wide readership throughout these United States—and better treatment by its publisher. The printers might have followed a consistent course in their paragraphing of the text; the proofreaders might have corrected another dozen typos and called several of the author’s dubious usages into question. The editors, too, might have included a simple glos­sary of key foreign words and phrases, especially the slangiest. Still, it will reward the vigilant, diligent reader to overlook these annoying obstacles, as well as to sus­pend judgment on our protagonist, at least long enough to grasp the great imagina­tive scope of this bittersweet tale.