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Child of Cold War peeks behind torn Iron Curtain PDF Print E-mail
Written by DAVID DUPONT Arts & Entertainment Editor   
Tuesday, 15 October 2013 10:19
Writer Wendell Mayo describes himself as a child of the Cold War.
His father was a nuclear physicist so he was steeped in it.
Not surprising then that the Cold War has seeped into his fiction.
The American experience, though, has not been his focus. "Living the Cold War every day, I just wanted to know what was on the other side," he said.
In his last two books "In Lithuanian Wood," a novel-in-stories, and his just released short story collection "The Cucumber King of Kedainiai" he ventures behind what was an Iron Curtain after it had been lifted. His writing was inspired by his visits to Lithuania, where he first traveled in 1993, and returned regularly to teach through 2004.
"Communism is dead," Mayo, who teaches in the creative writing program at Bowling Green State University, said in a recent interview, but that's left a social and political vacuum.
As cruel and bleak as the Soviet Era was, Eastern Europeans continue to try to fill the void left in its wake. "I found it oppressive," he said. The roads and buildings were in ruins. The landscape was filled with buildings built in the Soviet Era in the architectural style aptly called "brutalism."
That sense of loneliness is captured in "Spider Story" about an American teacher who lives in an abandoned spa for Russian Army officers. Mayo said it reflects his own time there.
Lithuania was ripe for misunderstandings. Many people had never encountered an American. When he stood in front of a class he always rolled up his sleeves. Students asked him why.
This showed, Mayo told them, that he was getting ready to work. The students told him: "It looks like you're ready to fight."
"They see Americans aggressive," Mayo said.
"Spider Story" captures the interactions with students, and the teacher's  frustrated attempts to engage his students. They revolve around family. But so many of the students' relatives are dead. Killed by the KGB.
The details are evocative. The blue of spiders is blue, the streaks of blood in the bathtub look like writing. "My personal Rosetta Stone," the narrator says.
"My imagination needs reality," Mayo said. But his work is also informed by the literature he favors as a reader. "I like to read fiction that exaggerate things to make a point."
That comes across in the title story about a Mafioso-type character who has a corner on the cucumber market. The story unfolds as two visitors travel through the countryside to the former Soviet collective that he has built into a castle. Yet the castle is empty. His wife is gone. He has no child of his own, though he has a room for one. He is pickling his father like a cucumber.
The story is based on a story he was told, minus the paternal pickle angle, and he did know a woman like his heroine who would burst into opera at inopportune times and places.
Still for all the oddities, Mayo said, "what fascinated me was the loneliness."
Loneliness pervades "Brezhnev's Eyebrows" about a painter Grigor, an ethnic Russian, who loses his girlfriend and wants only to get her back. She leaves, fed up with the dismal living conditions, with pigeons invading their space.
The homes, Mayo explained, have no screens. He said for a time he had a pigeon who kept coming in and snatching the pens from his desk.
The story revolves around not one of Grigor's paintings but a paint-by-numbers portrait of the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev by his girlfriend.
When he sells it to an American tourist he spends all the money on a load of exotic fruit he delivers to impress his lost lover. The ploy does not succeed as he hoped.
Diverging perceptions are common as Mayo shows in "Cold Fried Pike," where an American visitor shares a meal with three women of different generations of a family. They poke and prod each other about the shifting details of the family's history and about the harsh realities of contemporary life.
With the book coming out, Mayo said he's ready to move on. "I've been making a concerted effort to change," he said. He's turning his focus now to the American experience of the Cold War.
 

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