MAYA ABRAMOVNA KLOTSVOG IS materialistic and manipulative. She’s a kind of Soviet Becky Sharp, in a 1950s version of Vanity Fair, trying to survive in a hostile world. Becky’s mantra in Vanity Fair — “I want tomorrow to be better than today” — would suit Maya well. She lists her husband’s birthday presents in inventorial detail; she cares that her stockings stay up properly (it’s one of the first things she tells us); she seems more upset at abandoning her best dress than her best friend when her family flees her childhood home during World War II. But, as novelist Lara Vapnyar points out in her affecting foreword, Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog is a portrait of “survivor’s fear,” the “blind, inexplicable animal fear that makes you do unspeakable things.” It is fear that propels Maya’s blinkered, erratic journey, pushing her through a series of husbands and lovers down a trail of emotional destruction.

Khemlin was born in 1960 in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv and lived mostly in Moscow, where she wrote several novels and short stories. She died in 2015, and her last novel, published in 2012, was The Investigator (translated by Melanie Moore, 2015). It is set in struggling 1950s Ukraine and revolves around a rambling murder inquiry. The narrator, a policeman, is as un-self-aware and morally ambiguous as Maya. And like Klotsvog, The Investigator explores family dynamics, Jewish heritage, and the horrifying effects of war.

Klotsvog is a devastating, bleakly comic novel about life in the Soviet Union. Published in Russian in 2009, it has been skillfully rendered by Lisa Hayden, whose English versions of complex novels like Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus have established her reputation as an exceptionally thoughtful translator. Hayden perfectly reproduces the awkward, traumatized clichés with the help of which Maya narrates her own life in one long, strange, chapter-less confessional. Maya, born in 1930, lived through World War II and the late Stalin era. She tells us her generation “saw too much, things that weren’t pretty.” The choice of words — as ever — is revealing. Having lived with war, fear, repression, and the corrosive impact of antisemitism, part of Maya’s reaction is to take refuge in superficial pleasures, in things that are “pretty.”

Maya is obsessed with appearances. She is a vain and beautiful woman, often lavishing more attention on her own clothes (thin stripe, cap sleeves, deep triangular necklines) than on other concerns. In the novel’s glimpses of Maya from other people’s perspectives, we can see her accentuated femininity is not always tasteful. When she asks her uncle Lazar if he’s seen her ex-husband, he reproaches her: “So you came running, little niece! […] Didn’t you stumble on those heels? Your little skirt too tight?”

Superficiality is part of Maya’s attempt to mask her psychological scars. During a family gathering, she lays out a white embroidered tablecloth that belonged to her grandmother and carefully covers an indelible mark on the cloth with a dish of cookies. She watches to make sure no one moves it, then rebukes her son and weeps unnoticed when her husband carelessly knocks it onto the floor to play checkers. She collects the discarded checkers and uses them to hide the stain.

Khemlin’s use of tiny incidents to convey the permanence and loneliness of trauma is part of the novel’s brilliance. Maya speaks into the new telephone even though she has “nobody to call.” Khemlin rarely writes explicitly about the ghosts that haunt her characters, but shifting, shadowy horrors loom over the narrative. One of Maya’s later husbands summarizes his brutal backstory: “My father and mother were burned in a synagogue when the Germans arrived. […] I ran off into the forest.” Toward the end of Klotsvog, an old friend tells Maya: “Go home and don’t fear anything. […] [F]irst and foremost, don’t fear yourself.”

Some everyday items become leitmotifs that resurface to illustrate the protagonists’ lives. They repeatedly queue to buy Kyiv torte (a nutty meringue-based cake) that is then consumed in a deranged frenzy, crushed or cracked on a long journey. Likewise, chillingly, gold jewelery and dental crowns are melted and reformed. Clocks and watches are broken and mended, bought and sold, or poignantly tick out of sync, “[e]ach on its own.” Larger historical events are often just outside the frame or skimmed over in telling relief: “Stalin died. So many wasted nerves.”

Other writers have used domestic imagery to shed light on the Soviet past. Like Khemlin, Lyudmila Ulitskaya often grapples with questions of historical legacy, women’s lives, and Jewish identity. Her The Big Green Tent (2010, translated by Polly Gannon, 2015) is an epic tale of friendship and betrayal in 20th-century Russia. One Moscow house, in whose storeroom two of the protagonists lose their virginity, provides a physical metaphor for the city’s historical strata: “Its walls had been covered in silk, then in empire wallpaper, […] later in crude oil paint, […] then layers of newsprint.”

In Elena Chizhova’s The Time of Women (translated by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas, 2012), which unexpectedly won the Russian Booker Prize in 2009, domesticity is both backdrop and foil. Chopping onions or boiling laundry parallel historical accounts of the struggle to survive the siege of Leningrad. Chizhova’s most important narrator is a mute girl called Sofia, growing up in a 1960s communal apartment. Whispered dialogues, streams of consciousness, fairy stories are set against official versions of reality on the apartment’s new TV. Sofia’s muteness becomes a metaphor for the enforced silence of the times and an exploration of language, its limits and liberations.

Similarly, Klotsvog continually returns to the problem of communication. Maya’s repeated refrain, throughout the novel, is “[b]ut that’s not my point.” She never manages to explain exactly what her point is, and often the things she says immediately before she dismisses her own words are the most important. The catchphrase drives home the inexpressible nature of the Soviet past.

Language is also at the center of Khemlin’s heartbreaking exploration of Jewish identity in Klotsvog. Maya’s son is teased at school “because of his Ukrainian-Russian-Jewish speech.” She herself has learned to “speak differently,” to eradicate the influences of Ukrainian and childhood Yiddish with disturbing consequences; fear underlies these linguistic choices. She tells her second husband why her son must censor his own speech: “Jewish words cost you nothing. But oh, they could cost him so much. They could bring him death.”

The wife of Maya’s first lover warns her that antisemitism has not left with the “fascist occupiers.” Now, she says, “there’s a different twist […] history develops along a spiral.” This idea has become something of a Russian literary trope. In Dmitry Bykov’s 2006 novel, Living Souls (translated by Cathy Porter, 2010), which is fraught with prickly explorations of Jewishness and tortuous circular journeys, Russian history is an endless cycle of tyranny, thaw, chaos, and revolution.

Like Bykov’s books, Khemlin’s tragic narrative is tinged with bleak comedy, often rooted in linguistic incongruities. Maya describes herself, defensively, in deliberately stilted language, as if filling in an official form: “Field of work: mathematics teacher. […] Place of Birth: the city of Ostyor in the Kozeletsky region of the Chernigov region.” Bureaucratic formulas permeate the consciousness and dominate the lives of all the characters. Her ex-husband describes the death of a dear friend as the man’s departing “to his place of permanent registration.” Maya justifies one of her many infidelities with the sentence: “I understood there was a lot of womanliness in me and it required external confirmation.”

Despite spending very little of her life in paid employment, Maya constantly defines herself as “a pedagogue.” Later in the novel, she attempts to drown out her own thoughts with the noise of typing, remarking with characteristic awkwardness: “Household management isn’t the be-all and the end-all for a woman. There needs to be something to put the rest of your soul into.” Maya’s struggles as a woman are horribly familiar: competing demands, internalized beauty standards, the mundane frustrations of cooking, ironing, tidying up. “[A] family vacation is work, too,” she complains. She is undeniably a self-absorbed character, but her affairs and erratic parenting might seem less remarkable in a man.

In an apparently small-scale drama, Khemlin raises existential human questions. “Is life worth living?” Maya asks herself halfway through the book. Khemlin’s trick is to cram these questions between formulaic understatements, such as: “One can never see into another person’s soul,” or, “Coercion never leads to anything positive.” The fact that Maya’s unspoken agonies peek out from behind platitudes makes them almost funny as well as freshly painful. In giving voice to this complex, wounded character, Khemlin invites us to empathize even as we judge and to better understand our own common, terrified, irrational humanity.

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Phoebe Taplin is a freelance journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, The Moscow News, the Washington Post, The New York Times, and numerous other newspapers and magazines.