November 7th, 2009



Was awakened at 2 and cannot get back to sleep. Everything is very silent in our room, and my stomach is empty. How I wish the streetside blini stands were 24 hours. Oh my god, streetside blini.

One of the thoughts I kept turning around in my head today was about fantasy literature and the war. WWII is a favorite garden patch for anchoring Western fantasy in historical and moral authority, from Narnia all the way down to Hellboy. It's irritated me in the past, because it seems like a way to infantilize fantasy, to say: look! It's connected to the American idea of the easiest moral choice ever, to go to war against the skull and crossbones brigade! That means it's real, complex literature! And inevitably, those stories that do choose WWII as their adoptive parent show a monochromatic worldview of depressing simplicity. (I'm sure there are exceptions. It's 4 am, this is not a critical piece.)

Now, one of the big set pieces for American and especially British fantasy is the children's evacuation from London. That flight from the horrors of the real world into the pastoral countryside is pretty much the street map for portal fantasy. And yet.

The children of Leningrad were evacuated, too, at least a large number of them (the London evacuation wasn't complete either. Kids are hard to keep track of and for some reason parents are sort of attached.) They were sent out of a urban horror story far worse than the Blitz--and yes, the Blitz sucked, and rationing was hard, but it doesn't even compare to Leningrad and their daily 125 grams of sawdust and turpentine bread, or total lack of power in -38F winter winds, or 60% of the city population dying. No jolly Doctor Who episodes about plucky Leningraders and Captain Jack, you know?

Anyway, they were sent out into...well, it's not pastoral England. But I listened all afternoon to a woman talk about where she went, and it was like a fairy tale. A Russian fairy tale. You know, the kind where you still starve. How the orphans climbed behind the stove and giggled and shared secrets and tried to guess what was cooking by the smell. How they allotted her size 33 boots, and she cried trying to put them on because they were so big, she would never grow big enough to fill them. How she was obsessed with her teacher, who she thought might be a witch, because whenever she woke up in the morning, the teacher already had her clothes on. Whenever she went to bed at night, the teacher still had her clothes on. When did she sleep? Could she take off her clothes? And then how all the children of Leningrad were so determined to stay together, to never loose each other, but now she never talks to the others anymore. (Oddly enough, her orphanage was in Komarova, where Ahkmatova is buried, and which used to be a writers' dacha.)

For me, part of what fantasy does, part of what makes it valuable, is how it can tell a story about the real world in such a way that it jars you out of the endlessly repeated sadnesses of human life and makes you consider it all in another way. How it, mythology and folklore and fantasy, provides a set of narratives through which to see one's own experience, and understand it as part of a much bigger story of the world. Because the world likes to tell stories, the same ones, over and over. The world has fetishes. The world has kinks.

And now, in my heart of hearts, I want to write the book that starts with this other evacuation of children, this shadow-sister to the famous London one. It's a different story, a different starting point that goes to places Narnia doesn't begin to imagine. Again, I struggle with whether I am the person to write it, if it would not be better if my surname were Valentinova. If I maybe don't have the right to put that to paper. But then, I listened to Galina Sergeyevna today, I heard her story and I came to this city and I married into this family with so many war stories. Do I have any more right to write Italian war stories, because I am Italian, though I know no stories of my family during the war? I don't know. All I know is that this someone is sitting at the bottom of me right now, being very quiet and still, little Galina in her size 33 boots, and I look around this city and know I cannot be done writing about it, it is not even possible that I am ready to walk away from it.
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