I would like to start a conversation about Boris Kornev’s book “Providence Bay” with the most unusual story for this collection – a story called “All at home!”; what is more, this story is unusual not just for the “Providence Bay”, but for the world of literature in general. Do you know a lot of books written on behalf of a dog, not in a genre of a fable or allegorically-Aesop story but by person (dog) of a usual domestic pet? We all (dog lovers!) know a dog’s intellect is equal to the human mind of a three, four or maybe even five year old child. Therefore, if there are stories written on behalf of small children, why not display a dog’s view of the world? A genuine novelist is always keen on getting into someone else’s skin, observe the life with someone else’s eyes. Why can’t this desire take such a drastic form?
Enough excuses, let us turn to the very story. Its nameless character, a well-mannered home-bred mutt, tells the story of an unexpected turn in his life: the owner brought home a little wayward dog. Anyone who knows animals could confirm that such an event is a serious test for your pet, you need quite a long time for the new house-mates to accept each other, build a hierarchy of relations and learn to live in a new way. It is not a fact that everything will end well!.. Actually, the story “All at home!” is exactly about that — getting used to the new situation, an attempt to fit in an unexpected twist of fate, a difficult dialogue with Providence when it is unclear who will say the last word.
… “Providence” is the word as if from the church lexicon, but somehow you do not so often hear it from the believers, and the pages of the Orthodox theological books are not full of them. The word is rather reminiscent of our favourite childhood novels of Jules Verne, Mayne Reid, etc. The words from these books ring a bell, “The captain screamed in a sonorous voice, “The ship is riding onto the rocks! There is no hope of salvation, we can surrender to Providence!” Yes. Jules Verne loved remembering Providence in season and out of season, that is why it is in our memory in the same place where monsoons and trade winds, rocks, reefs, storms, astrolabes, sextants and other adventure equipment are. So when you see the bay of Providence on the school geographical map, you are in no doubt that here the characters of the heavily used books feel right at home, here there are plenty of tornadoes, tenth waves, sharks, sperm whales, treacherous reefs and uninhabited islands.
…However, grown-ups have their own adventures, and we need a new Jules Verne to adequately tell us about them. I am afraid that many, many of us have found ourselves in a situation when we involuntarily recall the remarkable phrase, “…we can surrender to Providence!”
This phrase explicitly or implicitly sounds in each of the short stories in Boris Kornev’s collection “Providence Bay”.
With the old authors providence usually favours the character, at the last moment getting them out of the most hopeless situations. What can we see in the book of the contemporary author?
There is the first story, “One for All…”. It is Great Patriotic war. Two teenagers are being taken to Germany. On the way there, to avoid invaders’ slavery, they join the RDA. At the first opportunity the boys run through the front line to their troops. One of them is killed in a shoot-out, the second boy is captured as a traitor…
There is the story “Mistake Corrections”. Four boys at night climbed into the staff room to steal the teacher’s grade book. At the most crucial moment of the operation they heard footsteps in the corridor and the DT teacher entered the room. Taking advantage of the darkness, two boys managed to jump out of the window on the branches of a tree growing nearby, the third one hid in the closet. The first of the kidnappers successfully descended to the ground, but the second one got caught on a branch and hung at a great height, risking about to fall off. Without thinking for long, the old teacher rushed to his rescue…
“An Orange Sea”. It is the beginning of the Abkhaz war. Georgian soldiers burst into Sukhumi and refined, sadistic violence towards the civilian population begins. A Russian pregnant woman, trying to escape the murderers, climbs into a barge full of oranges in the port. The barge is leaving the dock just when the Georgian artillery opens fire on it…
“Simply Maria”. A girl travelled abroad to get a decent job but against her will she found herself in a low-grade Amsterdam brothel… After a few days of hell, she decided to try and escape…
“Documentation Management Manual”. Afghan war. The adviser from the USSR and his assistant come under fire…
As you can see, to entrust their fate to Providence would not be superfluous for each character of the stories. In each case, the narrative pauses for a moment in unstable equilibrium on the thinnest peak of fate, — Where will it swing? In what direction?
“Crisis” — that is what it is called. Boris Kornev is a crisis specialist; as it is said in the summary, he is “the author of publications in the field of economy and crisis management”. He has thoroughly studied this strange state, when fate asks someone a question, and they should (often immediately) give a plausible answer. It is an interesting state when the outside world and you meet face to face, when the life, having pretending all the time that it is completely tame and is entirely dependent on you, because you yourself created it, suddenly shows who the boss is.
Not only a mortal danger can turn into such a sudden twist of fate, but something quite the opposite of it. Suppose it is unexpected love. It also alters you and requires activity, actions, determination. Otherwise, it can also lead to the death. This is what the story “Last drops of Rain” is about. Providence gave love to its two characters. They played with this wonderful gift for a while, but then… Then they decided it was too expensive, too wasteful, it changed their normal lifestyle too much. Wouldn’t it be better to choose a straight road instead of negotiating a sharp turning? As a result of the cautious attitude towards life, He dies physically and She, put it that way, loses her destiny and becomes one of many… Providence can be overcome, providence can be surrendered, but you cannot hide or get away from it.
In many ways, we see a similar situation in the story “Chapter One”. Every writer knows that the start of work on the new thing is similar to a new turn in the biography. If we take the book seriously, it can change lives, and not only of the author. Of course only if the author is able to take on such work. The main character of “Chapter One” was not able to do it and he was gone.
Now it would be good to tell the reader that the name “Chapter One” is the last story of the book, and that such a decision was not at random for Boris Kornev… But more about that later. Let’s talk about something else – how the stories of “Providence Bay” are inter-twisting.
The first and most obvious inter-twist of the plots is a cycle of stories “Mistake Corrections” — “Providence Bay” — “Meeting” — “Cup of Tea” — “Documentation Management Manual”. As a matter of fact, this cycle with common characters can be called a small novel. The four students, hapless kidnappers of the class journal, are not forgotten by the author on completing the first of the stories, he traces their fate further into adulthood and prepares their accidental meetings — fateful, “providential” meetings. The curious thing about that is that the two characters, who managed (lucky or unlucky for them) to get out of the staff room, in the future are out of the Soviet system, they kind of jump out of it as if from a school window; one becomes a bandit, the other a dissident. They meet in a maximum security penal colony when they, like two minuses in mathematics, touch and form a plus, return each other to life and give each other hope for the future. The other two boys, who had not managed to leave the staff room, in the future do not leave the system, incorporating into its tight, seemingly unshakable, base; one becomes a polar scientists, then a party functionary, the second is a KGB officer. They also meet – in Afghanistan, together look death in the face, stay alive, but… This happy ending for some reason does not seem so reassuring, as is the case of the first two characters. We get an impression that in spite of mathematics, plus by plus given here a zero, if not a minus, the provident meeting ended in nothing. This contradistinction of the two pairs does not seem to the reader to be deliberate or conditional: Boris Kornev is as always far from the artificiality, his narrative seems (and is very often) strictly documentary, excluding any conceptual liberties. But conceptually comes by itself because of strict adherence to realism, in fact the reality around us is extremely rich in undertows meanings.
The logical centre of the cycle (and the book in general) is the story “Providence Bay”. When considered in isolation from the book, it is just a concise, coolish, expertly written essay on the work of Soviet polar scientists. In the context of the collection it seems the epicentre of all narratives, a kind of eye of the cyclone. Providence Bay out of a geographical concept becomes almost a mystical essence. As you know, the Arctic is called a “weather kitchen” for the entire planet, in the book it is a “fate kitchen”, where the providential whirlwinds diverge in all plots of the collection from. This is the chaos from which all things are born. The cold and snow are the dominant background of most stories: in “One for All” an episode in December woods comes to mind, in which the characters are trying to escape from the Vlasovites; the action of the story “Being Both a Judge and an Executioner” takes place in winter of 1942 — 43; “Cup of Tea” — also in winter; “Mistake Corrections” — on a cold March night; The winter is present in the story “All at Home!”, it is guessed in a taiga landscape of “Meeting”, in a cold top of Mont Blanc (“Last Drops of Rain”)… The heat of Abkhazia (“An Orange Sea”) and Kandahar (“Documentation Management Manual”) emphasizes the polar cold of the main space of the book. The frost of “Providence Bay”, the “fate kitchen”, breathes on each of its pages.
A modern guru advised his adherents, “The cold can also warm, you just have to be able to take the heat out of it!” Boris Kornev seems to implement this paradox in life.
As already mentioned, the last story of the collection is called «Chapter One». What is more, the words «Chapter One» are the last words of the book. The character of the story, an unfortunate writer, is unable to cope with the vagaries of inspiration and dies at his typewriter, having typed on a clean sheet of paper only these sacramental words. All his life happened to have been just a prologue and we don’t know the plot of the first chapter: we still cannot read the language, we do not know the alphabet of posthumous fate. But here, in this life, is the same story: not for nothing that we call the deliverance from impending death a second birthday, another first chapter of our life. Every new twist of fate, any gift of Providence, no matter how many of them there have been before, opens the first chapter in our destiny: everything is being written again, everything starts afresh.