Review: The Snow Leopard and other stories by Matthew G Rees
Subtitled as ‘Tales from a City’s Shadow Side,’ this compelling collection of superbly wrought short stories revolve around a block of flats in the Russian capital. Characters’ lives therefore continuously overlap: a neighbour can hear the ‘horrible grunting’ of a bout of lovemaking in the apartment next door or a pigeon trapped in the lift shaft becomes a subject of communal concern. Shadows there most certainly are, with some stories taking us to very dark places.
The title story is a prime example, in which a surgeon develops a weird habit of collecting sightings of beggars around the city, as if he is constructing a taxonomy of the bums with their beseeching words, the fierce women who hold up cards on the metro ‘bearing typed and photographic accounts of sick children they said were their own’ and clusters of vagrants queueing for soup.
He draws the defrocked priest who ‘picked pockets for show’ and the old and toothless fellow who tap dances very badly, enters sightings of ‘beseechers’ and ‘browbeaters’ into his diaries, baptising them with his own often childish names.
But there is one who stands out in this derelict crowd, a double amputee who moves around with the help of heavy blocks with which he clumps dramatically forward. The story darkens considerably after an ‘atrocity’ sends the surgeon into his own private hell as he attends to the terrible needs of victims brought to his hospital operating theatre where he works until he drops.
Like many of the other stories gathered here ‘The Snow Leopard of Moscow’ has elements of hallucination, shimmering uncertainties which dance into play, blurring the lines between reality and unreality as does downing a lot of vodka.
Matthew G. Rees lived in Moscow where he taught English and lived in a block of flats not unlike, one imagines, the decay of the one described in this volume.
Russian writers also influence this book, from the darknesses of Dostoyevsky through Chekhov, Bulgakov, Nabokov and the less well-known satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko but yet the author’s voice is strongly and commandingly his own.
Evocative and arresting
He manages to pull off certain stories like skilled bank robbers pull off heists. One such is ‘Glasshouse’ in which a man called Tokarev obsesses over ornamental carp to the extent that he breaks into the glass conservatory where they are housed to sleep there some nights.
He then goes one step beyond, liberating some of them to the confined safety of his bathtub at home. When he decides to finally show them to his wife, and admit at the same time all of his foolishness she is long gone, one who got away.
The writing is accomplished, evocative and arresting throughout. Here’s a description of a father:
“If ever he removed his sheepskin mittens in winter, he revealed fingers and thumbs that had the startling purple-pinkness of new-born babies – so different from the cadaverous rest of him that I’d wonder if they weren’t actually someone else’s: a fare-dodger’s, buttoned-up, secretly, under his long, dark coat.
“His teeth were horse-like and mustardy. Sometimes, his big, grey tongue lolled over them, like an eel on ice on a stall at our market. Enormous ears drooped from his head like the sails of a ship becalmed on Baikal, while his watery, pale-blue eyes wandered in distant worlds of their own.”
There is one story that takes explicitly us into Dostoyevsky’s world of Crime and Punishment most, being the unsettling ‘Memoir of a Moscow Dog Killer’ in which a trio of teenage delinquents hire themselves out to despatch various pets, from cats to budgies, which they do with gusto if with little subtlety.
Then one day they receive a request to murder a despicable sounding taxi driver (quite a few stories feature different kinds of taxi driver, perhaps harking back to the days when Matthew G. Rees drove just such a vehicle himself) which leads to their ultimate arrest and appearance before the magistrates.
A bustling, pulsing portrait
Taken together the tales in The Snow Leopard of Moscow & Other Stories add up to a bustling, pulsing portrait of not just the denizens of a block of flats dating from the Soviet-era but also to the city and its hinterland.
One of the stories is set in part on the metro station at Park Pobedy, on the western side of Moscow, with its downward escalator that goes so far down that it can lay claim to being the longest stairway of its kind in Europe.
We have the plunging temperatures, changeable weather and frozen waterways and days when pools of snowmelt gather beneath a hung-up coat after being taken off indoors, the water gathering on the ‘herringbone patterned birchwood of the heavily varnished floor.’
There are excursions to farms in the countryside and to the markets where old women sell golden jars of honey, not to mention the more familiar city many tourists get to see, such as Red Square and the Resurrection Gate, where you might hear choral singing emanating from the small Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan or visit the pyramid at the mausoleum where Lenin is entombed.
But it is also a portrait of a stranger city, where things are out of kilter somewhat.
In one of the stand-out stories, ‘Compass,’ a man rides a fabulous horse to all parts of the city including a canter across the ground floor of the palatial shopping mall at Kievskaya, where they naturally startle the shoppers and an adventure which takes them around the old Olympic pool at Luzhniki where they ride ‘between the oiled bodies of reclining bathers’ before vaulting over a wall and making good their escape at a gallop.
At a time when the news out of Moscow is often chilling – not least the edicts issuing out of the dark heart of the Kremlin – this collection is a reminder of different times in the city, even if murder was far from unknown and darkness seemingly always keen to settle.
It’s a place of hard drinkers and dutiful priests, of firebirds ascending and Stalin lookalikes, of nesting storks in a place where Lenin’s ghostly Rolls Royce car might still fly through.
Here, too is a writer possessed of many gifts, not least of which is captivating the reader even as he brings a whole new world, or, rather an old and venerable city entirely to life, with its yearning, damaged, lovelorn and deeply, deeply human cast of characters who walk its streets in all weathers, pausing a while to dream a little before walking steadfastly on.
The Snow Leopard of Moscow & Other Stories is published by Red Steppe Press and can be purchased here
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