A review of

OBERIU

by Various Authors

Central question: How could a poetic avant-garde be dangerous?
Format: 258 pp., paperback; Size: 5-1/8" x 7-3/4"; Price: $22.95; Publisher: Northwestern University Press; Editor: Eugene Ostashevsky; Print run: 1,500; Typeface: Ehrhartd; Year OBERIU was founded: 1928; The name OBERIU comes from: an acronym standing for The Union of Real Art; Editor of anthology is the winner of: 2003 Wytter Bynner Poetry Translation Fellowship (for his translations from the Russian); Editor of anthology teaches: Comparative Literature at NYU; Representative sentence: “This went into that, and that went into this. We say: God has puffed.”

“OBERIU” was a group of early Soviet–era avant-garde writers whose absurdist innovations made them hugely controversial in their time and landed many of them in prison. Now, OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism brings together six writers (Alexander Vvedensky, Daniil Kharms, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Nikolai Oleinikov, Leonid Lipavsky, and Yakov Druskin) frequently associated with this period, and their narrative experiments and bleakly violent comedy make them read almost like our contemporaries.

To Americans, the most familiar OBERIU member is probably Daniil Kharms. Kharms—whose real name was Daniil Yuvachev, and who died of starvation in a lunatic asylum—is the funniest and nastiest OBERIU writer. In the story “Thing,” a monk who “clambered out from under the floorboards” attacks a family, punching a father in the ear and hitting the mother, “either with his hand, or with his foot, it was hard to tell,” before disappearing back into the house. The father returns to quotidian, drunken bleakness, while the mother continues haranguing him. In “An American Story,” a guard at a slaughterhouse falls and breaks his arm when an intruder devours a cow, and decorates himself with the remains. No one in the work of Daniil Kharms is a “comrade”—his characters feel no sense of kinship at all—and the selflessness and goodwill so essential to the Socialist project is pointedly absent. Kharms’s Russia is cruelty’s utopia, which explains why the Soviets found his work to be intolerable, and why they had him institutionalized.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Adam Novy

Adam Novy teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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