Book Review

Some years ago, I was invited to a small private theater to watch a horror film, a genre that causes me great loathing but which, nevertheless, can hold my attention. During the most gruesome parts of the film, I decided to turn my back on the screen and instead observe the audience reaction. Studying the various expressions of wide-eyed terror, incredulity and revulsion, I suddenly had a small epiphany that this was the true show. Maria Rybakova’s collection of novellas, Quarternity: Four Novellas From The Carpathians, evokes a similar discovery in her portrayals of the effects of main events upon witnesses, secondary characters, and companion commentaries. Large media events, a famous novel, a deposed dictator, and a Nobel Prize award are reflected in ancillary characters, who in turn become purveyors of secret and poignant larger truths. The focus is on the effects of aftershocks upon characters not usually the center of interest, which of course makes Maria Rybakova’s writing all the more fascinating and relatable.

The central character in “The Beauty of Brynkoosh” appears to have been loosely based upon the story of Michelle Carter, who served a prison sentence in 2020 for involuntary manslaughter when she encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide via text messaging. Throughout the story, her character is slowly revealed to be a pathological liar, pretending first to have been a Romanian orphan in search of her birth parents. Changing her name from Barbara to Kate, she then adopts the identity of a psychologist, co-opting the language of the psychologist who had treated her as a patient in prison. Kate steals the husband of her landlady, then buries him in the back yard of the house she is renting after he unexpectedly dies of anaphylaxis. Her pathological lying, in what can only be described in the cliche “poetic justice,” is revealed through a misunderstanding of art. For after lying to the landlady about her affair with her husband and the burial in the backyard, Kate purloins the older woman’s professed love of the sculptor Brynkoosh. Not realizing that Brynkoosh is the Romanian pronunciation of Constantin Brancusi, she describes his sculptures to her new boyfriend as realistic and lively (They are in fact blocks of minimally altered stillness). Suspicions are raised, as well as the inadequately buried body revealed by rain flood waters.

Once again using Romanian historical persons as a basis for literature, “Butterfly in Paris” alternates between fantasy, reason, and memory in a journey through the mind of a character influenced by the mathematician Zoia Ceaușescu, daughter of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. In this novella, she is Butterfly. Butterfly recalls her pampered youth, beginning with her childhood belief that, evinced by the ubiquitous pictures of her father, he must be the country’s father as well. Coming of age sequestered from her father’s devastating policies, her only knowledge of him circumscribed by the relationships of a nuclear family, Butterfly appears to be complacent about Romanian life under communism.

As a mathematician in Paris, Butterfly works on a proof, as she simultaneously grapples with the literal proof that her father is, in fact, a dictator. When he is about to be executed and Butterfly pencils the words “Death to the Dictator!,” we cannot know if this means that she recognizes the dictator and the father as one and the same, or if the problem was solved by a psychic separation of the two.

In “A Secondary Character,” an elderly female tourist seeks out the haunts of the Romanian novelist and historian of religion Mircea Eliade, with whom she ostensibly had a relationship upon which some of his writing was based. As her physical search unfolds, she, as well as her young male guide, appear to undergo metaphysical changes reflecting the spiritual nature of their sojourns through Bucharest. As the tourist, Jenia, becomes miraculously younger, her rejuvenated self comes to terms with the discovery that she was not central to Mircea’s life and art, but rather secondary, unfavored, even seen as a hurdle to his spiritual aspirations.

“The Prize,” about a Nobel Prize recipient, is narrative from the perspective not of the award winner, but rather from her long-suffering and sacrificing spouse. The prestige of the award successfully contrasts with the banality of the lauded poet’s life and the choices made over the course of a forty-year marriage. The husband chooses to support an unpopular and misunderstood poet with a decidedly unhealthy lifestyle (there are multiple descriptions of an apartment devoid of wholesome smells and instead filled with the olfactory assaults of cats, coffee, and cigarette smoke) over the chance for domestic bliss with the mother of his son—essentially a choice to be a caretaker rather than to be taken care of. It is, as the author implies, a kind of treason against sensibility to support a questionable artist against the rewards of domestic comfort.

Were it not for the gender—the misunderstood artist here is female—this would at first appear to be a traditional tale of spousal sacrifice. Perhaps this subtle invitation to the reader to be more judgmental in the case of a woman who is sacrificed for, rather than one who sacrifices for others, is part of the unspoken plot. I know that I had to question my own instinctive revulsion toward this character who appears to be oblivious to bodily responsibilities and steeped in morbid obsessions. It is only with her acceptance oration, delivered first to her husband, that one can recognize some nobility in her tenacity as an artist in the face of public scorn and to understand that the art of the individual can be profoundly truthful in the larger context of a time and a country. In summation, the noble husband answers his Nobel prize-winning wife’s question about whether her poetry was “worth it” with an affirmative “yes.” So too, was it worthwhile to read this provocative book.

I was on the fence about using the word relatable. I don’t think it’s a problem in this particular context, but it can be a tricky word for its cultural assumptions.

About the Reviewer

Janet Kozachek is a visual artist, illustrator, and writer. Her education was unusually eclectic, having studied in Europe, China, and the United States. She holds a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Drawing and Painting from Parsons School of Design in New York, where she also studied poetry with J.D. McClatchy. Her poetry and illustrations have been published in Undefined Magazine, Ekphrasis, The Ekphrastic Review and ,i>The Harpy Hybrid Review. She is the author of A Rendering of Soliloquies—Figures Painted in Spots of Time, My, Women, My Monsters, and The Book of Marvelous Cats. My Women, My Monsters won the Honorable Mention Award from Concrete Wolf Press.