The fabric of history
You dream of a house. Everytime you find yourself drifting off to sleep, you know it will be so. You dream of the same house, each time, a different aspect of it appearing to you. You move through each room carefully, the room sharing its story with you, the one who walks within its walls. You are not simply an observer, and this, a strange sight; your visitations are not as an outsider, you are part of the house, and you know this. However, you have never visited this house in actuality. You don’t know whether this house really exists, but you come to recognise it like the back of your own hand. It seems as familiar, as a close friend’s laughter. But each time you wake, you know you will never be able to find this house, you are sure of its non-existence. Till one day while walking in a city you have never visited before, you find yourself outside this very house. How can this be, you ask yourself. How can a house you have only ever dreamt of, exist, have any basis in reality whatsoever, be as palpable as the one infront of you?
This is where the story ends, and begins in Zinovy Zinik’s autobioraphical narrative, simply titled History Thieves, a story revolving around a person, in this case the author himself, trying to deal with his own complex identity: an emigre three generations strong in the USSR, looking for a way out of the the very country, his own grandfather helped set up, searching for his “jewishness”, a condition he suggests was not that rare growing up in Stalin controlled USSR, refusing to use his full name, for the fear of it sounding too German. This story, however, exists in that constant inconstant state that the idea of migration always permeates within. In a world where we are now, debating the conditions of forced eviction from one’s own nation, Zinik opens up a space where the nomad exists, a space between here, and over there. What he traces out for the reader is the idea of belonging, or rather of the constant effort to belong that one suffers from.
The dream, and the story of the young boy turned into a dwarf by a witch, and shunned by his own parents, are forever linked together in Zinik’s tale, becoming markers where not only the readers, but the story itself could keep turning back to, in order to slowly unfurl the problem at hand. The problem being that of ‘history’ itself. The history of the former USSR and Zinik’s life seem to be circles within circles, closing in on itself time and time again, making it impossible for him to disentangle his personal history from that of his nation’s, and his various identities of being a writer, of being Jewish, and eventually of being an emigre.
“An encounter, preceded by the dream, revealed a link, a bridge between my awkward emigre present and my family past that I was not aware of. This discovery has changed me - not beyond recognition, I hope, but irreversibly.”
The whole narrative moves through time itself, with photographs placed alongside the text lending it an almost dreamlike quality. But it is also through the photographs, that the sense of time, and history, that Zinik tries to unpack for us, becomes palpable. It is almost as if we sit with Zinik, near him, with an old photo album placed infront of us, with him pointing out certain anecdotes about each, but alternatively, one also gets the sense of the photographs being used in order to supplement his narrative in return. While looking, with us, at a photograph of himself as a young boy in c.1950 looking at his grandfather shaving at the dining table, Zinik reflects on his former appearance: “How could I recognize in this blonde boy with a turned-up nose myself as I am now - with my grizzly grey hair, my flabby wrinkled face and protruding Jewish proboscis? Was it really me?” This constant question of identity, the need to identify, but the fear of what that identification would result in, permeates throughout the book.
But there is also a sense of urgency, and of continuation, with each paragraph beginning with an “And” building the tempo as one goes along one’s reading, asking the reader to dig further with the author deeper into the psyche that he wants to dissect, in this case, his own. This is of course further complicated by the split nature of the written words within the narrative itself: “...here, the commentaries appear alongside the main body of the text. You can read these commentaries as a separate text or ignore them altogether...” he suggests in a footnote towards the beginning of the book.
One must at this point, more than ever, be thankful to Seagull Books for continuing to push the boundaries of what a book can be assumed to appear as, and let the author take their own sense of spatiality to the medium of the page (and not to mention the beautiful book designs). The photographs, and the two texts flow into each other, and people on the metro, were intrigued I’m sure by my constant going up and down the length of the book, moving forward five pages, and then moving back three, almost immediately after. An old lady sitting next to me on the metro, while I read the final few pages of this book, actually asked me if I was reading someone’s diary, because she felt the page betray a sense of the personal, and perhaps assumed I had stolen it from the person it belonged to. In a way, I suppose, she is not entirely wrong.
We all, for Zinik, belong to histories, some we know of, some we remain blissfully unaware of for the majority of our lives, and seem to steal from whatever history suits our purposes at the moment. History, afterall, is a function. Something we do, and not something that is given to us, in our quest for self-understanding. There is a close relationship between the need to belong, and the refusal to belong, and it is in this space, perhaps, that the home exists. Find yours?