This first-person story reads like a memoir / short story. The story starts out describing a well-known photograph of a famous Swiss fiction writer, Robert Walser, born 1878, and Walser's story written some fifty years earlier that describes his death in much the way it actually occurred. Then it delves into some philosophy about life and death and foreknowledge of how one is gong to die. "Foreknowledge of one's death is not, however, the privilege of the writer."
Then the narrator shares some childhood experiences and dealings with his mother who was a teacher at his school and the difficulties of living in a Communist regime. "While still at school I didn't realize, of course, how hard it must have been for Mum and all our teachers: they were faced with the insoluble problem of teaching children to tell the truth whilst initiating them into a world of lies." Hmm, sounds strangely familiar. "The written law requires that truth be told, but the unwritten dictates that a if you do, you'll be facing the music later."
The ice hockey Summit Series of 1972 is used to explain the Soviet mindset, "Hockey victories prolonged the regime's life, while defeats shortened it...not only changed the outcome of the series, but became the point of no return for the entire world empire created by the moustachio'd despot. From that moment on, its disintegration became only a matter of time." As a teenager, the narrator, stopped talking to his mother and read the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
When he was just four years old and nearly fell onto the train tracks his mother caught and held him by the half-belt on his overcoat and on her death bed she could only remember that she thought, "what if it snaps?" I also like the reference to an overcoat, Nikolai Gogol's famous story about Akaky's overcoat. Shishkin plucks pieces of reality, human and political, and weaves a pattern of intricate relationships through and from which all of us are merely trying to survive and express.
The story's theme, for me, is incapsulated in one of the early paragraphs. "To see your own death in such a moment is nothing, for there arises in all its glorious patency the knowledge that I was never born, but have always been. Suddenly comes the realization that there's no need to cling on to life, because I am life. And it is not I who can sense the smell of mulch exuding from the forest's mouth, it is the universe sniffing its own scent with my nostrils." What a great viewpoint, "the universe is sniffing its own scent with my nostrils." So while all the craziness of politics and education and parenting and sports is swirling about, the universe is living as one whole. We are but the parts that make up the whole and both are reliant upon the other and indistinguishable as well.
"The Half-Belt Overcoat" was translated from the Russian by Leo Shtutin, 2012, and the story was also published in Read Russia: An Anthology of New Voices, 2012. It is the first story in the new collection of Shishkin's work, Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories, published by the new house, Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas, TX, 2015.
The American Reader
The New York Times
Deep Vellum Publishing