Conversations With Friends, in a Russian Jail Cell

THE INCREDIBLE EVENTS IN WOMEN’S CELL NUMBER 3, by Kira Yarmysh | Translated by Arch Tait

Hostility, chaos, murder and bearish gloom have been key elements of Russian prison literature. So has psychosis, in various forms. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in the opening pages of “The Gulag Archipelago,” wrote that being arrested in Russia is such a “breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you” that the shock causes some to slip sideways into insanity.

The Russian dissident Kira Yarmysh’s first novel, “The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number 3,” verges on becoming an insanity trip. It’s about Anya, a young middle-class woman who’s been thrown into a detention center in Moscow for 10 days after participating in an anticorruption rally. You never feel, reading Anya’s story, that you are seeing the world through a crazy person’s eyes, as in the German silent film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” which was itself a response to ruthless and irrational authority. But Anya begins to see visions — these involve scissors and wheels, knitting and spectral people — and she fears her mind is coming unstitched.

Yarmysh is an unusual debut novelist. She is, at 33, a longstanding critic of Vladimir Putin and his regime. She’s spent nearly a decade as press secretary to the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who was seriously poisoned with a nerve agent in 2020 and is serving a long prison term after what was more than likely a sham trial. (Navalny’s essential humanity comes through in his sense of humor. About Yarmysh, he has said, “It was important for us that the press sec had a strange surname.”) Yarmysh herself has served several short stints in detention in Russia and now lives abroad in exile. “The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number 3” was first published in Russian in 2020. It’s available now in English, in a translation from Arch Tait.

With Anya in her cell are five other women: Katya, Diana, Ira, Natasha and Maya. None are hardened criminals. Natasha, for example, is on ice for swearing at the wrong cop. Ira hasn’t paid child support. Her mother is happy to see her in prison — at least she’ll be off the booze for two weeks. The women kibbutz and get through their days, eating and playing games and cadging cigarettes. Anya is alert to social resentment. (“Oh yes, you’re our political prisoner,” Katya says. “Special, not like the rest of us.”) Anya is from a wealthier family; she’s been to better schools.

Prison life cuts away to flashbacks of Anya’s past: her unhappy childhood in the south of Russia after her flashy father cheated on and then left her mother; her rebellious hitchhiking; her sexualized friendships with a male and female roommate; the drunken, raunchy photographs that nearly get her expelled from a diplomatic training school. Anya halfheartedly attempts suicide because she wants to feel like a more serious person. Her slow drift into politics is parsed. In part, it’s a social awakening. In Moscow’s exuberant protest crowds, she feels as if she’s found her people.

“The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number 3” is an unusual prison novel. The stakes are low throughout. There are no strip searches, no beatings, no rape. The detention center is dorm-room cozy. Anya’s group cell is spacious, with wood floors and bunk beds and walls “painted a delicate peach color.” Tea and biscuits are piled high in a corner. She compares the place to “a summer camp for dysfunctional adults.” The showers are only once a week, but the women can go online for a bit on most days. Each of the women will be released in a week or two. The decent accommodations — better than most American prisons — and the soft, knuckle-headed guards and the general lack of fear have the odd effect of making you feel more sanguine about incarceration under Putin.

What is Yarmysh up to here? At moments the tone verges on the comic (Anya worries about appearing to be “a kopeck short of a ruble”), and you sense the author gently pushing the material into satire. But it’s hard to say, because her abilities as a fiction writer are, at least in this translation, rudimentary. Anya may be filled with irony and ambiguity, but Yarmysh’s writing is not. The characters are two-dimensional; the prose offers few, if any, fresh perceptions; the tone never deepens. From nearly the start, it’s as if Yarmysh is trying to light a green log. If only the most impressively brave among us were the best writers! The world seldom works that way.

Reading Yarmysh made me think about translation, and what a translator owes a novelist. I don’t read Russian, and I’m in no position to assess Tait’s adaptation. He’s highly regarded, and I’ve read his work with pleasure. He has translated Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize winner, and his translation of Anna Politkovskaya’s “Putin’s Russia” won the English PEN’s Literature in Translation prize. It must have hurt to translate something that seems as flat as Yarmysh’s novel does. As the clichés piled up (big cheese, fish out of water, bated breath, all thumbs, knight in shining armor), I began to wonder if Tait had let fidelity trample generosity and sensibility. Another translator might have reached out to Yarmysh and, assuming the clichés were in the original, asked if she really wanted to hang onto them.

THE INCREDIBLE EVENTS IN WOMEN’S CELL NUMBER 3 | By Kira Yarmysh | Translated by Arch Tait | 374 pp. | Grove Press | $27

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