Blue Has No South, Alex Epstein’s first book to be translated into English, is a book of 114 surreal, absurd, and/or paradoxical very short stories or flash fiction. To this reviewer’s eyes and ears many of these very short texts are also prose poems, though they are not referred to as such by the author or the publisher. The omission is understandable from a marketing perspective: verse poetry is harder to market than prose fiction, and prose poetry is even harder to market than verse poetry.
How does Epstein distinguish between different writing genres? In “On the Time Difference Between Poetry and Prose” a prose writer complains that his muse has abandoned him and a poet retorts, “So write about it.” Maybe Epstein considers poetry autobiographical and fiction, well, fictional.
In “I’ll Be Right Back,” which he dedicates to the American poet Charles Simic, writer’s block again appears: “Two years of writer’s block. The empty room is filled with stacks of books. On the window glass, in dust, is written ‘untitled.doc.’” In the title story a poet “wondered if it wasn’t time he turned to writing prose.” Whatever its genre, the imagery and symmetry of “Walter Benjamin Arranges His Library Again” is quite poetic:
“A night in Berlin. The year is 1933. In a few days he will leave for the last city of his life, Paris. A light gust of wind imprints the curtains with the shape of a fan, or the hint of the shape of a fan. Suddenly the idea pops into Walter Benjamin’s head that in his library he must discover a book he has never read. A light gust of wind imprints the curtains with the shape of a fan, or the hint of the shape of a fan. The year is 1933. A night in Berlin.”
So too is the dense imagery of “A Miniature Novel (of a Story That Is Again Unwritten):”
“And only after the intimacy of the imagination blurs the opening line that will never be written, and all the streetlights detach themselves, one after the other, from the sky at dawn, only then will the knight of the empty page abandon his post protecting this miniature novel from the invasion of the end.”
A few of the texts in Blue Has No South contain several paragraphs comprising three or more pages, but most are a single paragraph and less than a page, often less than half a page. But their brevity does not mean they are light or slight; as in poetry, meaning is conveyed economically.
Epstein has a dark, dry wit, and his narratives are the product of serious play (again, like poetry). “More Proof of Existence” comprises in its entirety the following sentence: “In the inside pocket of the dead angel’s raincoat was found a document stating that his organs should be donated to art.” In “The Crippled Angel,” another angel narrative,
“The crippled angel sat in a wheelchair especially designed for winged creatures of his kind and chain-smoked. From his usual spot in the plaza in front of the museum, he observed with concern those coming in. He tried to guess which of them intended to hang himself in one of the exhibition halls.”
Like Epstein’s fictional angel this reader reads Epstein’s references to suicide with concern. In “Logic,”
“The British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott once wrote a brief prayer: ‘Oh Lord, at the hour of my death let me live.’ He died in 1971. Might it be impossible to compose a story about this? The neighbor in the apartment upstairs, on the other hand, wrote no prayer, but did once order a taxi. When it arrived and had already honked for him from downstairs, he killed himself.”
“The Nightlife of the Short Story” shows the same preoccupation: “Seven years passed. In the morning, the last man in the world discovered that his belt and shoelaces were missing.” Maybe this reader’s concern reveals a failure to distinguish between fiction and reality. In “The Bookmark as Murder Weapon” Epstein offers the following disclaimer: “Except for the title, any connection between this story and reality is the product of the imagination of the author and the reader.”
Epstein was born in Leningrad in 1971 and at age eight immigrated to Israel with his parents. He writes in Hebrew, but there are very few Israeli signposts or landmarks. Reading them in Becka Mara McKay’s excellent translation, one senses that had Epstein’s parents decided to settle in another country or stay in Russia he would have written the same narratives—only in a different language.
“A Short Report on Old Age and the Music of Celestial Bodies” is an exception that proves the rule; the text mentions a specific location “. . . the building on the corner of Modigliani Street in Tel Aviv . . .” but the narrative could as well be set in any apartment building in any metropolis. “A Miniature Mythology of Winter Bombings,” however, reminds us that Epstein writes in a country blighted by suicide bombings:
“And winter began. The waiters at the café would later say that t the best of their recollection, until that moment, the regular customer never ordered a cappuccino with just a little foam. And here, a few minutes before the explosion, while he sat at his regular table beside the window, it occurred to him to try a new drink. Only the rain never asks for a menu.”
That most of the stories are not specifically Israeli does not mean they aren’t specifically Jewish, especially the longer ones, “Intersections,” “The Mystery of Jewish and Aryan Chess,” and “The Weather in Theresienstadt.”
As befits a Russian ex-patriot many of the narratives are preoccupied with chess (“Lullaby for an Old Chess Player,” “En Passant,” “Another Way Out,” and others) as well as with the roles of temporality and geographic displacement in doomed or frustrated romantic relationships (“Continuity,” for example, in which “Once again the time traveler discovers that his wife has changed the locks;” or “The Almost Complete Guide to Writing and Reading the Very Shortest Love Stories” where “. . . again the future separates them more than distance does;”also “What There Was Between Us;” and “The Last Hour of Falling in Love”—among others).
The latter themes also find expression in Epstein’s numerous references to mythology, the most frequent of which are to Odysseus and Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey (“The Memory of the Sail, or the Later Voyages of Penelope,” “More on the Return of Odysseus,” “Penelope’s Last Glance”).
Epstein has been compared to Kafka and Borges (both of whom figure in stories in this collection). His style and tone are post-modern, but his voice is his own. This reviewer would not hesitate to recommend Blue Has No South to cerebral and off-center readers, and the excerpts above should give you should a pretty good idea of whether that describes you—or not.