“Katania,” by Lara Vapnyar

Originally published in The New Yorker, October 14, 2013; D

I hate to be reductive, but then again, the very act of writing about a short story of thousands of words in a blog that spends only a handful of hundreds on it can’t help it. And so some of the rich textures, the build-up of the pacing (which covers nearly eleven years), and the the characters get shortchanged in order to better discuss the theme, and whether it works or not. And so: the title “Katania” refers to the imaginary country created by the protagonists–two poor Russian girls, Tania and Katya–and inhabited by dolls. Because the two girls have so little–at one point, Tania judges freedom not by the number of rooms you have, but by the ownership of a key that lets you enter and exit those rooms at will–they compete over the smallest of things: the “correct” color of teacup, or, in the crux of this story, a male doll. The significance is immediately clear: fathers were in short supply, we’re told, and Russia covered this up, as they did most shortages, by refusing to acknowledge them (hence the father doll coming from an uncle who’d recently visited Bulgaria). And so when Katya shows Tania the doll, she lashes out with a jealous anger, belittling the doll’s lone imperfect, a bad hip. Why should her best friend get to have a father figure, no matter how shabby, when her own father has defected to the United States and been absent the last several years? In case it wasn’t clear, Vapnyar specifies this by cutting ahead ten years, with both girls having immigrated to the U.S. and catching up over Facebook: as Tania brags about her home and husband, Katya can only observe that “Tania had built herself an exact replica of my old doll house, down to the chicken coop” and that her husband “walked as if his left leg didn’t work. He walked as if it were detached at the hip.” Continue reading

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