The Natashas, by Yelena Moskovich,
Dzanc Books. 232 pp. $16.95.
You enter a dark, deserted warehouse on the waterfront. One that smells of cats and kerosene, and whose walls are covered with dusty calendars from bygone eras. Or perhaps you find yourself in the balmy catacombs of an arterial sanctuary. Or, fill-in-the-blank, and create a setting that corresponds with your own resonant sense of dislocation, the flickering rose-light of omen and mystery. Simply, you are there, delegate to enigma, compelled to explore, to scratch an existential itch, which began with a crumb floating in a pool of cirrus: “In the boxshaped windowless room, all the girls are named Natasha.” A simple description and declaration, what could be the textual fade-in to a Samuel Beckett cryptogram, and it is this cinematic “teaser” which has drawn your inner-Philip Marlowe into a Maya Deren filmscape where a sign warns: The dream you are dreaming may not be your own. Welcome to the lucidly baffling world of Yelena Moskovich.
The Natashas is the arresting debut novel of the Ukrainian-born, Yelena Moskovich, who, as a playwright, has had her work produced in the U.S., Vancouver, Paris and Stockholm. “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” would be the perfect subtitle for The Natashas, as Moskovich distills the honeyed bones of slow, brooding jazz into a salacious mind-fuck.
Set in contemporary Paris, it is through the mirrored introversion of the two protagonists — Béatrice, a jazz singer, and César, an actor — that the dramatic tensions between self and other, between silence and voice, are played out. Béatrice, who is not quite at home in the world, or in her body — which, as an eye-candied object of desire has led to her nickname, “Miss Monroe” — drifts through her life with a glassy and tragic somnolence. Or, as diagnosed by her younger sister, Emmanuelle, “…she seemed to be the only one in the family to see that her beautiful sister was dying in a way, dying faster than the eye could see. This is perhaps what made Béatrice such a feast for the fantasies of others.” It is this “feasting,” this panting cannibalism — beginning with her father’s glomming attentions — that has driven Béatrice to transcend the abandoned spaces within, to become greater than the sum of her missing parts, stronger, realer, and this she does through music: “Music came back to Béatrice as armor, as a revolt. She sang. In her room, down the stairs, in the kitchen, in the garden. Her father watched her graze on music throughout the house, then cork herself in her room for hours at a time, perfecting, tuning, waxing a shine onto those notes. His listless teenager evaporated like a magic trick and through the smoke a woman emerged with her blonde hair brushed up into a neat chignon, revealing two cold ears. This woman sang like the child he once knew, but no longer in a borrowed voice.”
Then there’s Mexican-born César (named after boxing legend, Julio César Chavez) whose “artist’s gene,” i.e., homosexuality, made him the target of his brothers vicious attacks and derision. His talent, and soul-burn, to escape into the masks and lives of others has led him to Paris, where his singular ambition is to make it as an actor, to prove his worth on a meaningful scale: “As he leaned back against the wheat-stone exterior of the bank, he looked up at the opera house in front of him. Against the setting sun, the building looked like a hero emerging from a low cloud of human destruction. The sight exalted César: a single man against lost civilization. The hero survives. The hero rises to the surface like an ancient continent breaking through the skin of the ocean. Glorious. Alone. There was something romantic to César about this sort of solitude, a product of external destruction and internal survival.”
Moskovich alternates between the storylines of Béatrice and César, yet both their narratives splinter into and obliquely intersect with other realms and realities, a nesting doll world of interiority that includes the predatory Woolen Man; the ghosts of Chilean folk singer, Violeta Parra, “a legend of the melancholic melody,” and Rosa, César’s childhood neighbor, a muted songbird whose husband strangled her to death with her own hands. “Rosa looked deeply at César. Her eyes seemed to be giving off steam. She took his hand and guided her fingers through her hair as if they were slipping through water. César’s fingertips wet. But then he realized it was his eyes which were wet. His tears fell through the years, and landed at the feet of a girl, standing at the window, watching a car drive away.”
And there are The Natashas, echoes and imprints resigned to a void, who function as the novel’s haunted chorus. “There are people who leave their bodies and their bodies go on living without them . . . These people are named Natasha.” Moskovich’s angular meditations on loss runs the gamut, from existential identity theft: “…A woman from Eastern Europe can be sold for 800 US Dollars to say, Amsterdam or Prague or Istanbul. Whether she’s Bulgarian or Ukrainian or Latvian, to the customers, she’s Russian. Whether she is Pavla or Olena or Salomeya, to the customers, her name is Natasha. Once the money is exchanged and her passport is taken from her, it is then that she leaves her body,” to speculative semantics, “To go missing. What a phrase. Do you realize? As if missing is a place one must get to. One day someone leaves their house, goes for a walk, and walks and walks and walks until they get missing.”
Moskovich’s questions are ones of philosophical heft — Where do the orphaned and exiled parts of our selves go? to what gods and demons are they sacrificed? what are the consequences of a collective epidemic ranging from spiritual narcolepsy to soul-amnesia? — and they are deftly subordinated to an architecture of beguiling originality, a labyrinth that offers no easy ways out or definite resolutions. It is, an experiment that closes in on itself, and in its controlled narrowing not only produces lyrically charged strains of music, but also the need for music as a source of salvation and commune.
John Biscello is Book Critic at Riot Material magazine. Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, Mr. Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of three novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale, Raking the Dust and Nocturne Variations, as well as a collection of stories. Biscello’s debut poetry collection, Arclight, will be released this February by Indie Blu(e) Press. To see more of John Biscello’s work, visit johnbiscello.com