Andrei Gelasimov - The Evil Eye
Make of magic what you will, it certainly possesses a hold on people. Much like weather forecasting, when it's right, it's wondrous, and when it's wrong, well - that's to be expected, isn't it? It's a virtually foolproof career, as long as your customers are poorly educated and ignorant, and that you can at least sometimes be accurate in your predictions and effects.
In Andrei Gelasimov's The Evil Eye, "Old" Potapikha is the small Russian village's evil old crone. She assists with childbirth, healing, darker spells, but also punishment and advice. The story opens with Potapikha attempting to cure Valerka, a young man suffering from an unnamed illness. We are introduced to her through the eyes of Petka, a younger boy who believes in magic though he doesn't want to, but who considers the old woman something of a fraud.
Old Potapikha's methods seemed a little strange to many people in Atamanovka. As for Petka, he didn't understand them at all. She treated red spots with sparrows' droppings, angina with kerosene, herpes with a mixture of tar, copper vitriol, hot sulfur, and unsalted pork fat. That sort of fat was the hardest to find, so Potapikha wasn't always successful with herpes.
She is, in fact, losing business to the magician Kuzmich, but this is touched on only lightly. Instead, the focus centres around Petka's "evil eye", which sees him banished under the table, where he will be unable to cast a hex on the proceedings. The meat of the story revolves around the process of Potapikha's magic, which largely involves squashing bugs and baking pies made with lice, and other sundry disgusting matters. Petka isn't buying this sort of business, because he knows two things -
One, that Potapikha, whilst trying to cure him of numb legs brought about by a sudden cold, had, as a witch, put him under a haystack with explicit instructions. As a person, she had fed him buttered pancakes, which no doubt served to fill his starved stomach and provide him with the energy required to beat back the illness.
And two, that he has himself used magic to indirectly cause the deaths of tens of thousands of German soldiers. This is real magic, confusing magic, magic that makes no sense to him, but, it works:
Sometime around a year ago, in old lady Darya's hayloft, he had begun scratching out dirty words about Hitler. At first just to amuse himself, but soon he discovered with astonishment that for each word he scratched our troops took big cities....
...He scratched and scratched dirty words about Hitler with a nail, all along the wooden walls, and by the next morning Comrade Levitan announced on the radio at the village council office that the troops of the Second and Third Ukranian Fronts, under the command of Marshals Malinovsky and Tolbukhin, had - after sustained fighting - completely wiped out a 190,000 man segment of the Germany Army Group South and liberated the city of Budapest.
What power! Though, he doesn't use it, much. By affect his powers are strong - cities captured, armies vanquished - but he uses this power rarely, and after a while seems to forget about it. For him, the theatrics of Potapikha make her magic seem more real than his. It's the tangible compared with the ephemeral at play - Potapikha's lice-pie is vastly more real and practical than Petka's scratching massacres.
The efficacy of both magics remains in question throughout the story, and is never adequately resolved. After all, Petka's scratchings are as likely to cause the death of thousands as a butterfly's flapping wing will cause a hurricane half a world away. Similarly, much of Potapikha's pomp and ceremony revolves around the placebo effect of medicine, which is vastly more effective than perhaps it should be. The importance is that the villagers think something useful is occurring when Potapikha performs her magic, and thus good results really do occur.
Gelasimov goes to great lengths to provide backstory to Valerka and his family, but these asides never really add up to much, and don't add anything to the main question of the story, which is the tangible benefits of belief. If Valerka dies, so be it. If he lives, so be it. The story doesn't make much of his prospects, and nor do we. What's curious, though, is how much space Gelasimov devotes to sharing stories of the boy's mother's fondness for a certain pair of shoes, and the way in which these back stories fail to interact with the main thrust of the piece. These memories, tempered by time and hardened by the harsh reality that Valerka may, in fact, die, become less meaningful and less important than the magic of Potapikha, and the magic of the young boy - both of which may not be true at all. And yet, Valerka lies dying.
The Evil Eye by Andrei Gelasimov is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
---United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen - The Professionals
---United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary - The Heart Fails Without Warning
---Turkish: Üldes, Ersan - Professional Behaviour
---Swiss: Stefan, Verena - Doe a Deer
---Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé - Nela and the Virgins
---Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique - Far From Here
---Slovenian: Jančar, Drago - The Prophecy
---Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir - One Minute: Dumbo's Death
---Russian: Gelasimov, Andre - The Evil Eye
---Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Goose Chase
---Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. - Six Tales
---Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga - The Ugliest Woman in the World
---Norwegian: Grytten, Frode - Hotel by a Railroad
---Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon - Desire
---Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen - Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
---Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian - Auntie Frosea
---Macedonian: Minevski, Blaže - Academician Sisoye's Inaugural Speech
---Lithuanian: Kalinauskaitė, Danutė - Just Things
---Lichtensteiner: Sprenger, Stefan - Dust
---Latvian: Ikstena, Nora - Elza Kuga's Old-Age Dementia
---Italian: Candida, Marco - Dream Diary
---Irish: Barry, Kevin - Doctor Sot
---Irish: Dhuibhne, Éilís Ní - Trespasses
---Icelandic: Eiríksdóttir, Kristín - Holes in People
---Hungarian: Krasznahorkai, László - The Bill
---German: Schulze, Ingo - Oranges and Angel
Index of Best European Fiction 2010 under review
Index of Best European Fiction 2012 under review
Index of short stories under review
David J Single