On The Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya, 1983
The magic trick:
Propulsive narration always racing ahead of the reader
Tolstaya gives us a rare glimpse – well, at least in my reading experience – into post-war Soviet Union. The narrator takes us back in time to her childhood, where the garden is “enchanted” and everything is refracted through a “magic lantern.”
It’s not saccharine sweet, though. That would be too simple. This is a strange kind of nostalgia. We meet heroes and villains. Mysteries emerge. Time passes. Lessons are learned. Time moves slow enough at different points in the story that we can appreciate very fine details. At other points, decades sweep by in a blink.
The key to making it all work is the narrator’s expert use of the remembered present tense. This is very clearly someone older looking back on times long ago. But it’s told in the present tense, so there is an immediacy to it. The narration is propulsive, always asking the reader to keep up.
And that’s quite a trick on Tolstaya’s part.
The night moved on, and the house loomed black behind her. Somewhere in the dark warmth, deep in the house, lost in the bowels of their connubial bed, little Uncle Pasha lay still as a mouse. High above his head swam the oak ceiling, and even higher swam the garrets, trunks of expensive black coats sleeping in mothballs, even higher the attic with pitchforks, clumps of hay, and old magazines, and even higher the roof, the chimney, the weather vane, the moon – across the garden, through dreams, they swam, swaying, carrying Uncle Pasha into the land of lost youth, the land of hopes come true, and the chilled Veronika Vikentievna, white and heavy, would return, stepping on his small warm feet.
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