Sasha Filipenko’s novel, Red Crosses, explores 100 years of Russian history in under 200 pages. It’s an experimental novel with three different narrators, one of whom peculiarly behaves as a Goskomizdat, censoring one of the book’s narrators. Another narrator uses an epistolary approach to tell his story, but no one answers the letters. Indeed, Filipenko does this with an absurdist twist, focusing on the cruelty of the gulags and the failure of a bureaucratic system that was doomed from the start.
Filipenko, born in Belarus in 1984, was a child at the end of the Soviet empire. This fact makes the intense imagination surrounding the events that transpire throughout the novel more of a metahistory. A 90-year-old woman who suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, Tatyana Alexeyevna experienced the entirety of Soviet Russian history from cradle to grave. As a correspondent typist for The People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs during the nascent stages of the U.S.S.R. to a political prisoner after her husband’s supposed defection to the West after World War II, Tatyana witnesses the bureaucratic cruelty of maintaining the clean appearances of political idealism.
Before she is doomed to a gulag, she suffers a violent attack from her interrogators, stripped of her child, who is subsequently sent to an orphanage. Sentenced to 15 years of hard labor at the age of 35, she becomes a part of the Soviet’s “anatomical theater”, paraded before the guards and prisoners in a sort of “beauty pageant” and “golden shoe award”, the latter a dysphemism for used and deceased prisoners’ shoes.
The way that Filipenko weaves Tatyana’s story in fragments of poems, telegrams, government memos, medical exams, and oral revisionism – all of which stem from a woman slowly losing her memory – deepens the suspicion of the story’s accuracy. Eagerly inquisitive of the person to whom she tells her life’s story, Tatyana fishes and pries into Sasha’s life. “What do you do for a living?” Tatyana asks. “I’m a soccer referee,” he replies.
Inbetween invasive, interrogative questioning, Sasha, one of the presumptive narrators, tries to fill in the holes with every available document. This feat, unfortunately, leads to more questions than answers. Is Sasha attempting to referee the accuracy of her story? Beneath the underlying irritation with Tatyana’s digressions, Sasha becomes impatient and scolds the old woman. Their tension creates an unsettling bond.
Filipenko reveals Sasha’s mood and humor, and why he is a good-looking man without a spouse. But even this fails to generate much sympathy from the reader about Sasha. The details of the woman’s life take away from our focus on Tatyana’s history. In a novel where each detail matters, Sasha’s story places it unnecessarily on him.
Because of disjointed narrative shifts, Filipenko creates an unsustainable rhythm, purposely jarring the reader forward and backward. The confusion in Red Crosses underscores how peeling off the red tape in life reveals the less appealing details of permanent scars. Most disturbing is the impartiality of the medical exam following the interrogator’s acts of violence toward Tatyana. Stripping the scene of its humanity, the incident is layered with a medical-grade antiseptic. Nothing can remove the stain of this event.
Is this a story of memory, or is it a memory of a story? Memory gets in the way of the reader as much as the reader can get in the way of a story. Filipenko layers pieces of information to simulate Tatyana’s frustration. Fierce is Sasha’s need to know her past; delicate is Tatyana’s remaining days. Red Crosses’ high point answers the question as to why those who suffer endure to the end. Like the red crosses strewn across the novel, memory is more a symbol than a set of facts.