From Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories
Like his vaunted countrymen Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov, Russian writer Maxim Osipov is a doctor. In an online review of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Robert Chandler suggests that Osipov resembles Chekhov in that few stories by either are about the subject of medicine; Chandler thinks that a better comparison would be to Bulgakov’s early realist stories (i.e. before his turn to the fantastical in works like The Master and Margarita). In any case, as Anna Aslanyan points out in the Times Literary Supplement, “Russia is never short of new Chekhovs.”
One thing the practice of medicine does is provide a window onto human frailty and suffering, something that Osipov is attuned to in his fiction. It also allows, in the best cases, for the development of empathy, which is a signal attribute throughout the twelve stories in Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Chandler goes on to identify the specific literary qualities that he sees exemplified in Osipov’s fiction:
As a doctor who has worked for many years in a provincial hospital, he expresses a profound understanding of contemporary Russian life, including its seamiest aspects – and he imparts this knowledge without the least hint of didacticism. What makes him a great writer, though, is the subtlety with which he allows the different voices in his stories to respond to one another, sometimes amplifying, sometimes contradicting one another – as in a string quartet, which Osipov says is his favourite form of all.
This approach is evident in the structure of the 2011 story “Renaissance Man,” which focuses on an entitled Moscow oligarch. The story is broken into five sections, the first and last of which do not feature the oligarch at all. Instead, these framing sections are told from the point of view of Anatoly Maksimovich, a retired construction worker who gets hired on to act as personal assistant to the rich businessman. Because of his former occupation, the oligarch’s staff refer to Anatoly as Brick.
Those staff members include Victor, a kind of underboss; Yvgeny Lvovich, a historian and “decent fellow”; and Rafael, an Armenian music teacher. Victor calls these latter two “intels,” short for “intelligentsia,” and they collectively call their boss ”patron” or, snidely, ”Renaissance Man” due to his decision, at age forty, to learn piano. ”The rich, as they say, have their quirks,” muses Brick. “[T]he boss, for instance, plays the piano. Nothing wrong with that. In America, people take lessons at seventy, but here – well, we’re not used to it.”
The boss also shoots at crows with a rifle – in the manner, we are told, of Tsar Nicholas II – and is an inveterate womanizer. Over the course of the story, he will take up with two people who will challenge his somewhat oblivious, privileged view of the world: Kostya, an eleven-year-old boy, and an alabaster skinned, redheaded soprano named Lora Sher.
The confident, self-assured Lora is not typical of the women the boss surrounds himself with, or his attitude toward them. “Women appeared in his life like targets on a shooting range,” Osipov writes, making explicit a connection between women and the crows the oligarch occupies himself with shooting. The woman who introduces him to Lora is a brunette he encounters while trailing a crow that has stolen a lit cigarette and appears to be smoking; he will later spot Lora and the “crow of a brunette” from his seventeenth-storey window, where he views them through the scope of his rifle. “As for crows,” the oligarch thinks, “they are nasty filthy scavengers that carry infectious diseases.” The implications contained in the explicit comparison between crows and women is clear and not flattering.
But then, the oligarch does not have a particularly benevolent view of any element of humanity that does not lend itself to the capitalist notion of accumulated wealth. On a trip outside Moscow, he stops at a gas station, where a group of boys, “not even in their teens yet,” offer to wash his windshield for spare change. “Good boys, he thinks – already working.” He is disdainful of those who don’t work and of the poor in general: “If you’re poor, then you’re either lazy or no one needs your talent … if you earn well, you improve the lives of hundreds, of thousands of people around you.” It is perhaps significant to note that the boss himself never seems to work, other than talking on the phone to a representative from what his staff disparagingly – if somewhat appropriately – call “Masturbank.”
The oligarch insults those less well-off than he by calling them “parasites,” including in their ranks Kostya, whom he rescues from the clutches of a drunken father with the half-formed idea of adopting the child (Lora has previously indicated her desire for children). His class-based obsession leads him to accidentally shoot a young woman with his crow rifle, after which he turns the rifle on himself.
By framing the oligarch’s story with short sections from Brick’s perspective, Osipov allows his readers to see the man from more than one angle; indeed, we have formed an opinion about him before he actually makes an appearance in the story, some ten pages into the narrative. But in case we were liable to remain complacent about the relative trustworthiness of Brick and his companions versus the oligarch himself, Osipov undercuts this by way of a riddle about the weight of a brick that the underboss presents twice, once at the beginning of the story and again at the end. In the first instance, Brick provides an answer that is eminently logical. In the second, he provides the same answer, notwithstanding the fact that the specifics of the question have changed. His certitude in his rightness – “I work in construction” – shifts our perception of him and highlights the author’s complex handling of character in his story.
In the end, we are left with something that resembles a tragedy about class struggle, gender dynamics, loneliness, and violence. The story is devoid of clear heroes and villains; this, as much as anything, locates Osipov as a realist. Though he doesn’t get the last word in the story, the most salient comment belongs to the historian, Yvengy Lvovich, whose “go-to phrase” sums up the emotional tenor of the piece: “It’s all very sad.”