“Embodying Language”: Fani Avramopoulou on Desire and Damnation in Yelena Moskovich’s A Door Behind a Door

Composed of hundreds of loosely arranged narrative fragments, Yelena Moskovich’s A Door Behind a Door tells the story of Soviet immigrants haunted by a turbulent past. Moskovich takes traditions of Russian literature—namely crime fiction and a journey to hell—and spins them into a surreal world filled with violence, sex, and cryptic symbolism. The result is a dizzying, seasick narrative that drifts through space and time as though driven by impulse rather than narrative sense. Despite its own lack of a center, the book reminds us that the body is the only place we can trust to tell us the truth.

The book is divided into sections, each with a different narrator. In the first section, we learn from Olga that when they were children, her older brother Nicky murdered their neighbor after he witnessed the drowning death of her son. Olga reflects on the ways in which she carries this memory with her:

I Hate How Memory Feels on Me

There’s Time and there’s Death and there’s a succession of lies trying to braid my hair …

Now I’m Grown and He’s Grown

And it’s the body that’s difficult.

Olga’s body is marked by violent memories, but it is also her sole source of pleasure and respite. The narrative slows down and breathes in scenes of Olga with her girlfriend, Angelina, to whom she frequently refers as an angel. These rare moments of calm within the book act as a lifeboat for Olga, whose story takes place mostly in a surreal underworld where she grapples with the violence in her family’s past.

The sex scenes take on a different tone in the section of the book narrated by Tanya. Tanya is in prison, has a ravenous sex drive, and is most likely dead. Her narrative explores her relationship to her queerness, which never feels quite settled. She struggles against the indistinct boundaries between anger and desire, pleasure and pain. Her body is the site of physical violence—she is stabbed to death by Olga’s younger brother, Moshe—but also of psychic pain that is “airborne and obvious,” which is how Olga describes her own relationship to her family’s secrets.

Moskovich has a background in theater and attended the Jacques Lecoq school of Physical Theater in Paris. The school has a heavy emphasis on clowning, mime, and the relationship between physical gesture and emotion. In an interview with Grace Lavery for BOMB, Moskovich credits her training there with giving her a foundation for storytelling: “I want words to go beyond themselves. Isn’t that what we are all desiring with our own bodies? At least those aware of our bodies as conditional, as carrying meaning that we never agreed to, as limited storytellers.” This fraught relationship between language and the body appears throughout A Door Behind a Door, and Moskovich gives space for language that is lost in communication or doesn’t know how to express itself. The secret, unsayable parts of the characters’ lives find expression outside of language. When reflecting on her decision to keep her past secret from Angelina, Olga describes it as “A Lapse in Language / An air bubble between two continents.” Olga’s secret stays suspended there, above the ocean that she crossed to reach the United States. Tanya’s secret pain is expressed in her unrelenting sex drive and rage. Moshe’s and Nicky’s swell inside them until the pain is expressed through reckless acts of violence.

The characters in the book are outsiders in numerous ways: they are immigrants, Slavs, queers, criminals, victims of violence, people with traumatic and shameful pasts. These circumstances produce a central psychic pain that acts as the book’s driving source of momentum. In an article published for Literary Hub’s CrimeReads, Moskovich describes the Slavic experience as “damned”: “… Slavs, we are melancholic fireflies in your summertime. We know we are bad, bad, bad.” Moskovich’s characters embody this feeling of damnation, and the book frequently returns to the idea of fate. After Olga enters the underworld through the diner where she works, she asks a police officer when she will be able to leave. “It depends,” the officer responds, “On … Mercy. Faith. Justice. Blood Type. Star sign. Caste system. Poetry.” Despite the feeling of instability and unease that runs through A Door Behind a Door, there is also a sense that the book itself is damned, its fate entirely pre-determined. Although lacking clear symbolism, the motifs that haunt its pages—images appearing in threes, water imagery, and frequent references to Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “Sail” and the Old Testament—contribute to the sense that the book cannot escape its origins, that it will drown in its own language.

Reading A Door Behind a Door is as much a bodily experience as it is an intellectual one. The profusion of unexplained motifs and the narrative movement in and out of hellish surreality leave us disoriented and scrambling to assemble some kind of sense. The book promises no answers; it simply drags you along for the ride. One of the book’s only grounding elements is Moskovich’s frequent return to the body as a site of pleasure, pain, and wisdom for both the characters and us. A Door Behind a Door is best absorbed in a single sitting, and the process is a bit like sweating through a fever dream, or getting pummeled by waves with your eyes closed, heart pounding in your ears.

A Door Behind a Door, by Yelena Moskovich. Columbus, Ohio: Two Dollar Radio, May 2021. 173 pages. $16.99, paper.

Fani Avramopoulou is a writer and educator in Baltimore. See what she’s reading on Instagram at @floatingflowerfreeway.

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