November 12: “Tyrants” by Marshall N. Klimasewiski

Good Saturday to you, Story366! Here’s to a gloriously beautiful fall day, the sun shining, the air crip, and the leaves rather bedazzling in yellows, oranges, and reds. The family and I are about to head out for picnic and hike in the woods, so close, in fact, I probably won’t finish this post until later. As I went camping last weekend, went to the World Series the weekend before, the Playoffs two weekends before that, on top of all of Karen’s travels for her No More Milk book tour, the family unit here hasn’t had much time together. This weekend, plus the nine days off we all have coming up for Thanksgiving, should rectify that (and possibly even make us eager to go back to our weekly work/school routines). In any case, head to the woods now. I’ll catch you up on that adventure, plus get to Marshall Klimasewiski, when I get back.

I’m back. The highlight of the trip was watching a gigantic great blue heron skulk around in the creek for a while, though that paled in comparison to the venue of turkey vultures we discovered right above our picnic bench. (Yes, a group of vultures is a venue, I just found out.) We sat down on one of the benches scattered along the trail, one we like that overlooks Lake Springfield, and realized the buzzards had formed a fairly large rookery in the trees above. As we ate our sandwiches, we watched dozens of the large birds come and go, perching on the branches of a dead tree to rest, many of them spreading their wings to warm in the sun. At all times, however, a kettle twisted above us—a kettle is what you call it, I just found out, when they circle in the air—making us feel as if they were perhaps hoping we would die so they could pick us clean. While on the turkey vulture website, I also found that turkey vultures can help find gas leaks in large pipes, as the chemical put into natural gas to make it smell bad for human detection smells exactly like carrion. So there you have it, Story366, one day’s intro dedicated to turkey vulture facts. You’re welcome.

For today’s post, I’m continuing my Bowling Green Alumni Week, focusing Marshall N. Klimasewiski and his collection Tyrants, out from Norton. Klimasewiski is somewhat of a legend around BG, especially when I was there in the mid-nineties. He had graduated just a few years before I had arrived, yet he was the guy who had one of his workshop stories accepted by The New Yorker and soon after had a story in Best American Short Stories. I think that’s rare for MFA workshop stories, even at some of the bigger programs, a story workshopped in class to make it—surely after much revision, but still—into the hallowed pages of that golden goose in such a short amount of time. I mean, was putting stories up in workshops at Bowling Green. If he could do it, couldn’t any one of us? Couldn’t I? Well, no, apparently, as I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone else from BG in The New Yorker, save my pal and former teacher Jean Thompsonso what Klimasewiski did was pretty special.

Yet, I’ve never met Klimasewiski, corresponded with him, or even seen him on social media. He’s not the FB type, it seems, and has never read or hung around at AWP, to my knowledge. Now that I’m in Springfield, he’s just up the road from me in St. Louis, where he teaches at Washington U., and just maybe, I’ll have him to MSU one day as part of our Missouri Authors Series. Until then, though, I have his writing, particularly Tyrants, which I enjoyed reading today very much. This book, Klimasewiski’s only collection, contains that famous New Yorker story, “Jun-Hee,” as well as two other related stories, “Tanner and Jun-Hee” and “Tanner,” included here as a triptych of sorts. I ventured into the other pieces and immediately fell in love with the title story, “Tyrants,” my favorite piece by Klimasewiski so far.

“Tyrants” is about Katia, a Russian woman who loses her husband and father to Stalin’s oppression at the start of World War II. Her husband, Sasha, is a professor and is shot by soldiers in their living room, while her father, who teaches with Sasha, dies in a labor camp. Katia, a beautiful young woman who can read and translate German, English, and Latin into and out of Russian, is suddenly a valuable commodity for the Russians, who are fighting the Germans and allied with the Americans and Brits (the Latins, however, remain neutral). Katia is taken under the control of a Soviet government operative named Beria, who forces her to learn the tricks of the espionage trade: lock picking, skulking, and tricks; Beria, seemingly a patriot for his homeland, is also a rapist, taking advantage of Katia under the guise of it being something she’ll have to do, for her country, to get close to the enemy. This is Katia’s new life, no longer the daughter and wife of academics, but a prostitute slave spy for her country.

Beria may be a rapist, but he was right about Katia’s future missions. Under the cover of a cleaning woman, Katia is placed in one house, where she housekeeps, before being transferred to the big job, a mole inside Stalin’s palace in Kuntsevo: Beria’s branch of the government is apparently keeping tabs on its own General Secretary. Katia is trained by a new overseer, Vlasik, to care personally for Stalin, including the difference between making his bed and making his cot, how to address him, how to serve when he entertains. It isn’t long before Stalin, at the outset of the Nazi invasion, comes to Kuntsevo. Katia is soon in his presence, though he thinks her someone else, a longtime employee. Whomever Beria and Vlasik and Katia are, what angle of the government they’re working for, their plan has worked: Katia has full access to Stalin, and it’s very possible, she is told, she will be asked to assassinate him.

Soon after Stalin’s arrival, she is eventually discovered by the Secretary himself snooping around his quarters, cleaning without her cart, in the dark. Thus begins a complicated series of interactions—which might even be described as a budding relationship—between the two. Stalin is not as forward as Beria in asking for sex, but it seems as if this is imminent at all times. Katia, knowing her ultimate mission, can’t help but be in awe of this man, horrible and great, quite the historical presence no matter who you are or what your job may be.

I won’t go any further here, as things happen after Stalin finds Katia going through the drawers in his room. The ending is worthy of the rest of the story, this historical gem that I couldn’t stop reading, all thirty-one pages of it, sad when I got to the end, that it was over. Marshall N. Klimasewiski has that power, the ability to draw us into this intricate, foreign worlds. Writers at BG who I knew who also knew Klimasewiski were astounded by this young kid writing about such complicated matters, such mature and intricate stories. The Jun-Hee and Tanner stories are about an interracial couple and the troubles they face, nothing, I was told, Klimasewiski had any personal experience with, yet he was able to write so convincingly, in his early twenties, that The New Yorker jumped right on his work. All of the pieces in Tyrants are of this level, masterful strokes, each original from the other, each set in a different place in the world, in a different time in history. What a book.

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