Little Foxes Took Up Matches (Tin House, April 2022)
“It’s 1999, everything is covered in asphalt, and while it may seem too late for any folklore myth to be unfolding, in Russia fairy tales predetermine reality.” Rolling with this deadpan premise, Katya Kazbek’s raucous, magical debut stitches the surreality of Russian folklore into the sometimes-hilarious, often-brutal world of Mitya, a gender-queer child growing up in Moscow in the nineties. Funny and full of heart, Kazbek’s narrative deceives you, pattering along gleefully beside a sweet, naive child whose spirit cannot be broken. Until, of course, it can be.
A graduate of the Columbia MFA program and based out of NYC, Katya Kazbek is a writer and English/Russian translator. She is also editor-in-chief and co-founder of Supamodu, an online magazine where she curates and writes widely about global art, film, music, and literature. Her immersion in globally diverse story-telling and her self-professed interest for “anything liminal, queer, indigenous, [and] related to class or migration” are evident in this startlingly inventive novel, which takes readers into two worlds.
The intriguing title of Kazbek’s novel comes from lyrics within: “Little foxes took up matches / And set the azure sea ablaze.” The year is 1997, Moscow has recently celebrated its 850th anniversary, and ten-year-old Mitya has made some teenage friends who bring him along to the underground arts scene. They are at a house party of sorts, one of many concerts in apartments or abandoned construction projects, in which unlikely musicians rage eloquently against the State, and which Mitya sometimes attends, passing for a girl, as his own imaginary twin sister. Through the eyes of a fifth grader, the whole milieu invokes the Moscow art-collective and subversive music scene from which a group like Pussy Riot might have emerged. Mitya hears these lyrics and recognizes them from a children’s poem about animals who begin “rebelling against their ordinary behavior.”
The story of Mitya, our little fox, is a story of rebellion. As a child whose particularly sheltered and socially isolated early years facilitate his unfamiliarity with gendered behaviors, Mitya is a noncompliant person, inadvertently or otherwise. He has some special sense of possibility. Lipstick, dresses, long hair and softness enthrall him. When a schoolmate demonstrates to him the difference between boys and girls by pulling down her underwear, his beautifully naive perspective allows him to ask the most straightforward question: what else, besides the crotch, determines gender? And later, when Mitya suspects foul play in the death of a homeless man, he endears himself to a teenage girl with his simple insistence that there must be something he can do, that something can be done. “That’s what you think because you are sweet and delicate,” she says. Despite suffering his own harrowing abuses, Mitya is not jaded; he remains full of sincerity and vulnerability.
That sense of possibility in the novel is orchestrated through the interweaving of the fairy tale narrative. Mitya’s life flows alongside that of Koschei the Deathless, a figure who can live forever unless someone breaks the needle that is his death. “In the fairy tale, the needle is concealed within an egg. The egg is within a duck, the duck is within a hare, and the hare is inside a chest suspended on a branch on a tree growing on a cliff that overlooks the stormy sea.”
So while Mitya’s protected, middle-class worldview expands and he navigates such difficult realities as murder, corrupt police, rape, and a landscape of drunken and glue-high children living on the streets, Koschei navigates such absurd unrealities as hacking off slices of his own flesh to feed chickens on their long flight to his rescue, being captured by the Princess Snake and Prince Toad of hell, and reverse climbing up the digestive tract of a massive bird from one realm of the world to another. It’s a wild ride! It challenges the reader to an allegorical reading of Mitya’s life as a fairy tale, but doesn’t quite play along. And it’s funny.
Admittedly, within the realist narrative, the magic began to flag a bit as I neared the halfway mark, where the writing simplifies, and I found myself submerged in what felt like a YA quest novel. Full disclosure, I have never read a YA quest novel. But our protagonist’s otherwise charming naïveté seems to overwhelm the writing style. Where previously in the novel Kazbek had rendered Mitya’s gradual realizations and social foibles comical, as if writing from the distance of adulthood, after about the midway point Mitya’s situations are often narrated with a flatness of scope, as if the writing can gain no further purchase on Mitya’s story than the ten-year-old boy himself. The result is that the plot occasionally feels spoonfed.
For me, the novel is redeemed by those looming threats and stark realities of survival, abuse, and the national inanity of corrupt, defunct government. One particularly harrowing ongoing situation in Mitya’s life still stopped my heart every time it re-entered the narrative. To Kazbek’s great credit, the alternating fairytale story woven through the novel sustains its comedic quirkiness and its deeply engaging ambiguities throughout. It provides a kind of expansive, alternate-reality framework that Kazbek’s realistic characters are getting at through more subtle subversions.
In deceptively simple terms, Little Foxes Took Up Matches asks complex questions about what constitutes gender, how people survive extremely difficult lives, and whether change is possible. The book does not answer those questions, but it always kindles hope. Navigating the hard-edged landscape of post-Soviet Russia, Kazbek’s writing manages to keep its head up and its heart light, mesmerizing readers with its richness, its comedy, and its loving portrayal of queer youth. Kazbek is a powerfully imaginative, funny, and energetic yarnspinner, and I will happily surrender to every book she writes.