[Tin House; 2022]
In Russian folklore, Koschei the Deathless carries his soul in a needle, hiding it in nested objects until it is unreachable, rendering him immortal. He ravages kingdoms and kidnaps princesses, spurring endless variations of mischievous tales. Koschei is malevolent, gruesome, and the indubitable villain of these stories, which have endured as a staple of Russian literature. Now, the folktale takes on a new, radical role in Katya Kazbek’s debut novel, Little Foxes Took Up Matches. In fairy tale interludes twisted into the fabric of a larger story, Kazbek writes of a Koschei who feels out of place within the villainous role he was born to fill. Instead of kidnapping princesses, he escapes to a picturesque island, living within an ecosystem of hundreds of cooperative, anthropomorphic animals. Kazbek weaves the fairy tale’s threads into a larger queer narrative to complicate questions of gender and sexuality, as the protective needle slips from Koschei to a new hero.
As the novel opens, Kazbek declares, “In 1999, everything is covered in asphalt, and while it may seem too late for any folklore myth to be unfolding, in Russia fairy tales predetermine reality.” She then introduces a real life Koschei, Mitya, a child living in post-Soviet Moscow with the needle inside of him, protecting him from his hostile environment and allowing him a platform to question his identity. Mitya’s desire to fit in with his family conflicts with his gender dysphoria, while industrial post-Soviet Russia clashes against Mitya’s compassionate personality. He doesn’t represent a single story of queer adolescence but a complex alternative to a traditional tale of harmful masculinity. Kazbek gives the reader all of these conflicting feelings in her raw, straightforward prose, resulting in a coming-of-age triumph.
Mitya, who is just nine years old when the story begins, lives in the heart of Moscow with his mother and father, grandmother, and occasionally his terrible cousin Vovka. He continuously grapples with his gender identity and sexuality, a struggle which permeates every aspect of his life. Kazbek does not limit Mitya’s curiosity to transformative revelations about his identity, but also sprinkles fragments of realization throughout his daily life. Mitya wears a dress and makeup outside of his apartment for the first time in his daily meeting with his homeless friend, while they feed the crows together; he wonders aloud to his best friend, Marina, about how it feels to be seen as a woman as they wander the boulevards; he plots to find the boy he likes as he moves his family’s belongings across Moscow on the metro. Just as in reality, Mitya’s shifting sexuality and gender identity saturate his daily life and trickle into each of his interactions.
Mitya’s youth proves to be essential in his quest to find his identity, as his unwavering compassion for the people around him, even when they prove to be villainous, is best rendered through the eyes of a child. Kazbek’s narration is solidly attached to Mitya, who expresses his childlike opinions and musings through straightforward reasoning and innocent observations. Occasionally, however, Kazbek quietly removes the reader from Mitya’s point of view, narrating through the lens of his anxiety-ridden mother, his stubborn father, or his precocious Babushka (the Russian word for grandmother). Flecks of the reality and truth that come with adulthood reveal themselves in these bursts of narration like secrets. Whenever Mitya comes to the realization of a difficult truth through an adult in his life, Kazbek breaks the narrative pattern to express what it means to have grown up.
The adults in Mitya’s life are all family, whether he is related to them by blood or sentiment. His relationship with Marina—a teenage migrant from Ukraine who Mitya befriends in his investigation into his very first friend’s murder—is a poignant rendering of the blurry line between childhood and adulthood. At times, Marina is a warning to Mitya of what can happen if he leaves his family—if he grows up too fast. Most of all, she is a reflection of Mitya’s own conception of beauty. She also offers him a lesson in essential adult truths. As the two friends walk down a dark boulevard towards Mitya’s apartment, with cars rushing past, Marina tells Mitya a painful detail she has been leaving out of their friendship. Although he “felt her pain as if it cut through his wrists,” the truth, it turns out, is not something he often hears. In her characteristic childish narration, Kazbek writes that Marina “had told him the truth, and she cared enough about him to want to shield him from the truth. That was way more than any other grown-up in the world had ever thought of him.” Aphorisms like this one, scattered throughout the novel, are heartbreaking in their simplicity. They get to the root of the complexity Kazbek conveys in Mitya’s character, a deeply human complexity that the reader gets to unearth along with Mitya as he pivots out of childhood.
Kazbek is conscious of language, sometimes to a fault. Her sentences lean heavily on explanations of metaphor, developing her portrayal of childhood while feeling unnecessary to an adult reader. As Mitya contemplates telling Marina about his abusive cousin, Kazbek writes that “He wasn’t complicit, but still ought to protect his family’s honor in the opinion of everyone else. That’s what Mama and Babushka always told him: some things were only family things.” Mitya’s overthinking provides immersion in his perspective but can become tedious. Kazbek also falls to the other end of this range at times, leaving Russian idioms up to interpretation or imparting a small piece of flowery wisdom to the reader. In other characters’ speech, Kazbek leaves Russian turns of phrase behind the language barrier. While this practice can be confusing, the mention of a “pleshka” without translation or the transcription of a Russian nursery rhyme adds a velvety layer of authenticity to Kazbek’s prose.
The duality in Kazbek’s writing is not surprising: She is a bilingual author, originally from Russia and living in New York City. She has worked as a translator, and the attention given to language in the translation process comes through in her detailed prose. Kazbek’s occasional over-explanation, however off-putting, never becomes overpowering within the span of the almost four-hundred-page novel. Ultimately, her prose is redeemed by its simplistic beauty and haunting creativity.
Kazbek’s translation skill also comes through in her description of gender, as she plays with English and Russian linguistic conventions of gendered adjectives and nouns. Mitya constantly questions his perception of his own gender, referring to his female self as Devchonka, or “girl” in Russian. He never quite knows what to call himself in English, hence Kazbek’s use of he/him pronouns to refer to Mitya throughout the novel. His Russian perception of himself, however, is stable in Devchonka, which almost becomes a proper noun. Kazbek allows Mitya to reappropriate the word, which his father used originally to insult him, once again queering violent masculinity.
Despite the endless complications Mitya finds himself struggling with in his own life and the lives of the people he cares about, he is extraordinarily compassionate. While a relationship may not seem healthy or reciprocated at its onset, it grows as Mitya quietly shares his unending empathy and grace. In an emotionally biting example of this subtle transformation, Mitya’s grandmother takes him to a Greek birthday party as a “human shield” between her boyfriend’s critical family and herself, an admittedly selfish act. As the night ends, however, and Mitya reflects on his growth and new understanding of his identity, his grandmother calls him beautiful. In the women’s shirt and pants she bought Mitya for the party, he beams with the knowledge of his Babushka’s acceptance and the fiery hope that he can begin to be himself within his family.
Little Foxes Took Up Matches is not a coming-of-age story in the traditional sense—it is much more than that. In a revolutionary queer story, Mitya rejects fear and unknowing, while embracing the complicated parts of himself. As Mitya comes to terms with all of this change, Kazbek writes of his parallel to her version of Koschei one last time. As he carries his family’s belongings across town on the metro, Mitya feels “the warm glimmer of protection from within, although he wasn’t sure he even needed it anymore: he’d learned to protect himself.” In the end, Mitya finds what burns brightest inside of him, even if he doesn’t yet have everything else figured out.
Kazbek’s debut novel proves to be much more than an interwoven retelling of a Russian folktale. It is a potent exploration of the flexibility of gender and the peace in not knowing; an ode to friendship and an endorsement of compassion; and a meditation on revenge and a condemnation of post-Soviet Russia. As Kazbek continues to write and translate, her work will undoubtedly reach its fullest potential, and her readers should look forward to further poignant explorations of queer identity.
Cam Lind is a writer, runner, radio nerd, and recent college graduate from Evanston, IL. You can read more of her fiction and nonfiction work at funksgrove.video.blog.
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