Elegy for a Fabulous World
 by Alta Ifland

Ninebark Press 2009, Paperback
First collection

 Awards: Nominated, Northern California Book Award in Fiction

Alta Ifland grew up in Romania under Communism, immigrating to the United States in 1991. After writing in French for many years – Voice of Ice, her bilingual (French-English) book of prose poems won the 2008 Louis Guillaume Prize for Prose Poems – Elegy is her first work written directly into English.

Read an interview with Alta Ifland

"The next year I would go back…and attempt to collect time from all the nooks and crannies of the house, but I would always fail, for time is never present; only we are. We are time wearing space as a mask, and with each breath we become smaller and smaller until finally nothing is left of us. "

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

Alta Ifland’s stories are preoccupied with the past, the collision between personal memories and Eastern Europe under Communism, with its history variously distorted, ignored, rewritten or invented. These themes knot together in densely layered patterns of meaning, yet rather than resulting in heavy, weighted pieces, Ifland’s shorts are magical, often comic, the language delicate, precise and devastating.

The collection is divided into two. “There” deals with the mythical relatives, holidays that shimmer in the heat haze of memory and the mad history of Communist Europe, where people “read always the same paper with the same content… in which yesterday’s news is also tomorrow’s, the same news of an eternal gray unreality” and “the stores were so empty that the only things one could find on the shelves were mice and champagne”. The second part of the collection, “Here and There” focuses on the immigrant in America, presented in piracresque takes such as American China and Milk, or How I Became an American Citizen as a country far stranger and more puzzling and strange even than Communist Ukraine.

Language is not a stable medium for Ifland, who describes English as her third language and whose childhood memories are made up of a patchwork of different languages: “...we played for hours in a spectral world of our own, she in her broken Ukrainian, I in my minimal Hungarian, switching form one to the other and gluing them together like the wings of a fragile, fabulous bird.” But this alienation makes the most innocent sentence seethe with possibilities: there is always a sense of other words, other languages lurking beneath every lexical choice. Sawdust Power structures itself around this linguistic interrogation to powerful effect: “its cream fašade in the melting sunlight. Or rather the melting fašade in the cream sunlight. Or rather the melting sun in the cream light of the building’s fading lines.”

The Wedding combines Ifland’s preoccupations with personal and political history like a melting slab of wedding cake after too much wine – the flavours bleed and blend and nothing tastes as it should and it is somehow absolutely, perfectly right. This is the immigrant’s story of return – the Daughter returns with her American husband to a post-Communist city where marriages take place in US-style malls and the hotel is one of the former dictator’s mansions. Yet as well as the comic energy of a Kafkaesque parade of non-stop nuptials, there was something deeply personal and moving about this vignette of family life left behind. This is the old country but it is still the Daughter’s country – she stays up late for the cutting of the cake even though she can no longer stomach it: it still matters. History – both a person’s and a country – cannot be papered over as quickly as malls can be erected; the Communists found that and there is no suggestion that it is any different under Capitalism. This is an immigrant’s tale of not belonging – never completely at home in the new country, never able to get away from the past, caught in a limbo between, a liminal space which is perhaps the only possible vantage point for seeing clearly, “to freeze forever the never-ending flow of the always present past”.

Read a story from this collection in Agni

Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson 's short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and pulp.net, among others. She has, finally, completed her novel, The Examined Life, and is wondering what to do next.

Elaizabeth's other Short Reviews: Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

"Best American Short Stories 2007"

Tom Bissell "God Lives in St Petersburg"

Nora Nadjarian "Ledra Street"

Andrew McNabb "The Body of This"

Willa Cather "The Bohemian Girl"

Deborah Sheldon "All the Little Things That We Lose
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The Publisher's Website: Ninebark press


Author's Recommended Bookseller: Bookshop Santa Cruz


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Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"

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