Diaspora is a phenomenon that has a deep resonance with people all across the world. Political, cultural and economic upheavals have forced migration of individuals from all races and walks of life. There is also a general human association with themes of exile, estrangement, abandonment, and alienation. The emotive impact of diaspora is something that all of us have felt, even if we have never personally been immigrants or exiles.
Zinovy Zinik’s Mind the Doors is a moving, intimately personal, yet for all the reasons listed above universally human account of diaspora’s effects. Zinik’s fictions leap back and forth between the imaginary and the autobiographical nimbly, and for good reason. It is the basic premise of Creative Writing 101 that the best stories, be they gritty realism or fantastical, are written from what the author knows, but as anyone who has ever set pen to paper knows, doing this well is not as simple as recalling one’s own past.
Zinik is well-acquainted with life as an immigrant/exile. As an expatriate Russian Jew, Zinik’s “characters” actually recount the author’s life of leaving the familiar and moving into the unknown. The London of Zinik’s new home is a place of oddity and difference that only the eyes of a stranger in a strange land can reveal, yet his relationship to his Russian origins is that of a child estranged from his motherland. In each of these stories Zinik conveys the absence of place that results from lost origins in a world to which one can never return and the simultaneous inability to ever completely arrive in some new home.
The course of Mind the Doors is a journey in itself. Beginning with the coolly humorous “A Pickled Nose,” Zinik tells the story of a famous lounge in London’s Soho district called The Colony Room, a home exclusive to drunks, artists, and intellectuals where the narrator, A Zinik persona, finds a strange commune in being a Russian exile in a foreign land yet belonging to a club of such notorious exclusivity that only sponsorship by an existing member will grant access. “No Cause for Alarm” tells of another (yet the same) Russian émigré to England, this time exploring the relationships of class, origin, and neighborhood. “Double Act in Soho” tells another immigrant tale of an older Russian man’s strange encounter with a young Russian immigrant woman in the same London Soho. With “The Notification,” Zinik takes his émigré persona to Jerusalem, this time more deeply concentrating on the loss and desire for home and family that colors the immigrant experience. Finally, in “Mind the Doors,” Zinik’s narratorial voice returns to Russia, and while this is the briefest of stories in the collection, it sums up the experience of the traveler through these stories as an exile’s return to the homeland proves more disconcerting and illuminating than the experiences abroad.
Although this émigré outlook is the central unifying theme of this collection, and all of the facets of Zinik’s self here represented share this trait, there is plenty of craft and distinction with language that makes these stories shine. As a collection, these stories represent something extremely contemporary in that they seem to fall on the line where surrealism and magical realism collide, where the waking world is still the dream. There is humor, pathos, symbolism, and mysticism in each piece. “A Pickled Nose” seamlessly incorporates a discussion of Francis Bacon, the degeneracy of artists, and a barkeep’s gin blossom into one tale. “No Cause for Alarm”‘s central problem revolves around the main character’s gastric eruptions setting of all the sensitive alarms of a “nice” neighborhood and signaling his displacement. “Double Act in Soho” manages to reflect the ingrained character of a individual’s past with the aid of an odd collection of sex shops. Letters become an issue of the relationships of individuals being mitigated by distance and time in “The Notification,” while the doors of a subway and a raincoat help to bring about a sense of unity and reconciliation in “Mind the Doors.”
All in all, the most appealing and engaging aspect of Zinik’s stories is the way in which they seem to tell at once a personal and transcendental history and meld the notions of author, character, and reader into a union. They do what great stories should do and stop being fictions, no matter how implausible the history may be. Zinik is a well-respected and honored writer in both England and Russia, having earned two Russian Booker Awards for previous efforts, and this collection of stories will help unfamiliar readers appreciate the unique voice of Zinovy Zinik, a voice that belongs to all of us as homesteaders and immigrants in our own rights.
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