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The Physics of Bearing Witness

Oleg Woolf
Bessarabian Stamps
(Phoneme Media, 2015)

Imagine a novel, written as a series of vignettes, where thirty-three characters come to life over the course of sixteen chapters. Not so out of the ordinary? It’s only eighty-five pages long.

Bessarabian Stamps, written by the late Oleg Woolf (1954 – 2011), a Russian born in a former shtetl in Moldova, and translated by Boris Dralyuk, is a kind of tiny miracle. Set in the fictional Central European town of Sanduleni, each vignette/chapter is a vivid, postage-stamp-sized stage upon which characters appear, disappear, and reappear, escorted off finally by the author via a portal called “entry zero.” Among the cast are Feodasi, the village clairvoyant, who is “carefully reading and rereading an old book on the role of birds in Odessan seafaring;” Mariuta Dumbrava, wife of Julian Florescu, whose fatal beauty “was more akin to fate than to the random bullet which shattered the Union’s window and struck the water pitcher placed before her grandfather thirty years ago by a cloakroom attendant;” and Ivan Markov, “an unfettered Gypsy scribe who has penned two or three grandiose abandoned volumes on love.” Each character seems to come with his or her own trail of Woolf-esque language that begins in one place and ends in quite another:

A conversation between a man and a woman is a conspiracy of rich men at midnight. Day begins with a man extending his hand to another, and a woman—to another woman.

[…] they were looking at each other so intently, ad infinitum, that their heads began to spin—until they saw the vague contours of their fates emerge, like the corners of their lips in the darkness.

Despite being set in the named town of Sanduleni, this extraordinarily economical book is never tethered to any one place or time. Place, space, and time, are in fact elusive. This mutability may have been encoded in Woolf’s psyche through his experiences on geophysical expeditions: trained as a physicist, he had participated in projects led by the Institute of Earth Physics throughout the former Soviet Union. In fact, the penultimate chapter of the book, “Thirteen Billion Years Since Speed-of-Light Day,” seems to address particular landscape features:

“Entry zero’s somewhere around here, that’s already clear,” the girl Efrosina suddenly said. “There have always been limestone boulders, here. The whole place is pitted with abandoned mine shafts. Two of them lead to a monastery. The other—zero speed. Everyone knows that.”

“All in a land align along a line. That’s all we know of the world and of ourselves,” said the philosopher Gogeni.

I had a lot of ideas about this tiny book, and was especially curious about “entry zero.” So I contacted Woolf’s translator, Boris Dralyuk, and Woolf’s widow, Irina Mashinski, about how “entry zero” might relate to Woolf’s concept of time/space. I wondered whether the movements of the characters through the vignettes toward this point were a nod to (or a recapitulation of) the motion of matter through time and space.

“In the last year of his life,” Dralyuk and Mashinski said in an email, “Oleg was very interested in [Russian mathematician] Grigory Perelman’s work on the Poincaré conjecture. According to Henri Poincaré [19th century French theoretical physicist and mathematician], the theorem concerns a space that looks like ordinary three-dimensional space but is connected, finite in size, and lacks any boundary (a closed 3-manifold). These ideas are very close to the world of Bessarabian Stamps: topology and its connection to continuous deformation, convergence, continuity, and the whole concept of a manifold … In Bessarabian Stamps, the characters follow the trajectories of elementary particles, disappearing in one dimension only to reappear in another.”

Like a black hole? I wondered.

“‘Entry zero’ is one of the warped passages of the universe, and of memory. It is also the wormhole of creation, the tunnel between the creator and his characters; in the end, Oleg’s characters return into the literary “clay” of pre-creation. There are infinitely many other projections of the same memory, of the same soul’s experience. That is why there are so many stars in Bessarabian Stamps. The characters are recyclable, like star matter.”

Mashinksi extended the connection to the act of translation itself:

In one of his first letters to Boris, Oleg used a term borrowed from physics: “resetting”—[in Russian] perezagruzka: the system changes because the witness (i.e. translator) becomes a part of it.

To me, there was also a feeling of accretion/accumulation as the characters appear, reappear, and disappear again. This “action” reminded me of the tell settlements of Old Europe, specifically the Cucuteni-Tripol’ye culture (roughly fifth to third millennia BCE) that grew up where present-day Moldova is. In those tells, people lived in the same place as their ancestors and built huge mounds with the remains of torn down and rebuilt houses and old household goods—an accretion/accumulation of histories, objects, stories, and energies. I asked Mashinski and Dralyuk if Woolf had ever embedded any archeological ideas in his these characters, and the village of Sanduleni.

“As far as I know, the connection is indirect, but—in some mysterious way—it must be there! The world of Bessarabian Stamps, and of literature itself, is like the alluvium of a river that flows in the same valley for millions of years. But Oleg’s book is not anchored in the region in which it is set any more than it is in any other place on Earth. As Oleg says in one of the Stamps, “Writing is finding the general in the unique, not the other way around.”

In this fantastic little book, even the archangel Gabriel has a say about life’s minutiae, and the mystery of existence:

What need have you of desires […] ? Don’t be clever with me. This isn’t a desire, but a stamp, a mark, a scar on the heart […] Much of what can be is not, and will never be.


Sharon Mesmer

Sharon Mesmer's most recent poetry collection is Greetings From My Girlie Leisure Place (Bloof Books, 2015).


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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