Russians in July: Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers

I cannot thank my Russian friend enough for casually mentioning the Strugatsky brothers in conversation and how much she enjoyed reading them when she was younger. Following this conversation, I read their hilarious Monday Starts on Saturday and was hooked, while my friend started rereading her collection of their works (in Russian, so I can’t borrow them off her).

Roadside Picnic is very different to the previously mentioned book, much more serious and sinister, although it is also quite different from the famous film based on it, Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It was a forbidden film during Communist times in Romania, so a bunch of friends watched it as a bootlegged video in the original Russian with no subtitles, so one of the friends (who was studying Russian at university) had to do simultaneous interpretation. Not the most auspicious circumstances to watch the film, but I can imagine it must be amazing on the big screen, full of brilliant photography and heavy symbolism, saturated in a sickly out-of-this-world colour. Apparently, the sickness was real, filmed as it was in a swampy location in Estonia which may have cost the lives of several of the people involved in the production, including Tarkovsky himself.

The book, however, is funnier, more exciting, faster-paced than the film. The film is all about inducing a sense of world-weariness and despair in the viewer, while the book introduces mystery, character development, several points of view and a longer time frame.

First English language edition of the book, in 1977.

The premise of the book is both interesting and heartbreaking. This is a contact tale with a difference. Aliens have landed on earth, found it utterly boring and unworthy of their interest, so left in a hurry, leaving behind something resembling the litter discarded after a roadside picnic. The places where they stopped are called Zones, and they are contaminated areas with mysterious properties, cluttered with artefacts that humans retrieve and examine and do not fully understand. The people who venture into this dangerous territory and often risk their lives in the process are known as Stalkers. Most of them are motivated by money, but our main protagonist, Red Schuhart, seems to be driven by something else. Curiosity? A need to help or protect others? Perhaps, in the final instance, since his own daughter (affectionately known as Monkey but displaing increasingly mutant traits that dehumanise her) has suffered the consequences of the Zone, it is hope that he can find a way to cure her…

… an idea, which had previously seemed like nonsense, like the insane ravings of a senile old man, turned out to be his sole hope and his sole meaning of life. It was only now that he’d understood – the one thing he still had left, the one thing that had kept him afloat in recent months, was the hope for a miracle. He, the idiot, the dummy, had been spurning this hope, trampling on it, mocking it, drinking it away – because that’s what he was used to and because his whole life… he had never relied on anyone but himself. And ever snce his childhood, this self-reliance had always been measured by the amount of money he managed to wrench, wrestle and wring out of the surrounding indifferent chaos… and that’s how it would ahve continued, if he hadn’t found himself in a hole from which no amount of money could rescue him, in which self-reliance was utterly pointless.

Because, among the artefacts in the zone, there is a Golden Sphere that is said to have the power to grant your dearest wish. In the final part of the book, Red and a young lad, the son of a former Stalker who claims to have a map to lead them to the Sphere, do indeed find it. And it looks underwhelming.

There was nothing about it to disappoint or raise doubts, but htere was also nothing in it to inspire hope. Somehow, it immediately gave the impression that it was hollow and must be very hot to the touch – the sun had heated it up. It clearly wasn’t radiating light, and it clearly wasn’t capable of floating in the air and dancing around, the way it often happened in the legends abou tit. It lay where it had fallen. It might have tumbled out of some huge pocket or gotten lost, rolling away, during a game between some giants…

Still from the film Stalker by Tarkovsky.

This fine dance between cynicism and hope, between indifference and empathy, lies at the heart of this remarkable work. It is impossible not to see the story as a political metaphor (although it is also remarkably prescient about Chernobyl, which took place just a few years later). The Zone can be interpreted as some sort of gulag, where everything is random and you suddenly get punished for the slightest lack of attention. It changes everyone who comes into contact with it. The people living around the Zone are first encouraged to settle elsewhere (like the Russians were encouraged to settle in various of the Soviet Republics, while a good proportion of the local population were exiled to Siberia). Later, they are no longer allowed to leave the local area, becoming prisoners in their own country. The final wish and promise of happiness for everyone is, of course, a direct satirical arrow aimed at the heart of Communist utopia.

Yet there are many more layers to the story here worth exploring: the ultimate unknowability of the human heart, the limits of science, the dangers of the quest for knowledge. What is goodness, what is evil, what does individual integrity mean in a society which is utterly compromised? All the big questions, in other words, but never in a dry, dull sequence of endless philosophizing. There are plenty of characters with rather dubious motivation, lots of interesting interaction between the characters, and a storytelling style full of black humour which might remind you of Kurt Vonnegut (whom the authors reference) or Raymond Chandler (the prose might be hard-boiled, but not quite as spare and minimalist).

Another still from the film.

Here is one more lengthy quote that I really enjoyed and made me think. It comes from one of the key dialogues in the book, between the Nobel laureate Valentine Pillman, and the rather shady businessman Richard Noonan. Yet in the end, the pragmatic and sly businessman is the one who cannot stare unflinchingly at the likely truth about alien contact and subsequent. He is the one who needs to believe that humanity is capable of more, that perhaps they are being tested.

‘How about the idea that humans, unlike animals, have an overpowering need for knowledge? I’ve read that somewhere.’

‘So have I,’ said Valentine. ‘But the issue is that man, at least the average man, can easily overcome this need. In my opinion, the need doesn’t exist at all. There’s a need to understand, but that doesn’t require knoledge. The God hypothesis, for example, allows you have an unparalleled understanding of absolutely everything while knowing absolutely nothing… Give a man a highly simplified model of the world and interpret every event on the basis of this simple model. This approach requires no knowledge. A few rote formulas, plus some so-called intuition, some so-called practical acumen, and some co-called common sense.’

My Gollancz SF Masterworks 2012 edition of the book, in a new translation by Olena Bormashenko, also contains a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin, and an unmissable afterword by Boris Strugatsky, written in 2012. It evokes all the relief yet bewilderment of someone who has watched the whole world that they knew change beyond recognition in their own lifetime. Perhaps feeling superfluous?

At first I was looking forward to using this afterword to tell the story of publishing the Picnic: naming once-hated names; jeering to my heart’s content at the cowards, idiots, informers and scoundrels… being ironic and instructive, deliberately objective and ruthless, benevolent and caustic all at once. And now I’m sitting here, looking at these folders, and realizing that I am hopelessly late, and that no one needs me – not my irony, not my generosity, and not my burnt-out hatred. They have ceased to exist, those once all-powerful organisations with almost unlimited right to allow and to hinder; they have ceased to exist and are forgotten to such an extent that it would be tedious and dull to explain to the present-day reader who is who…

Except of course, what goes round comes round, and history is more cyclical than linear. Defunct organisations become powerful once more, or new ones are created. And ‘happiness for all’ is once more promised, and once more impossible to deliver.

#NationalPoetryDay Let’s Celebrate!

This is shaping up to be a lovely week full of my favourite things: World Ballet Day, World Teachers’ Day and now National Poetry Day here in the UK. Here are a few favourite fragments of poems to celebrate.

About dancing:

I cannot dance upon my Toes—
No Man instructed me—
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,

That had I Ballet knowledge—
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe— (Emily Dickinson)

About teaching:

…such things are said to be
Good for you, and you will have to learn them
In order to become one of the grown-ups
Who sees invisible things neither steadily nor whole,
But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world
Under his hat, which is where it belongs,
And teaches small children to do this in their turn. (Howard Nemerov)

Nevertheless, I am extremely grateful to those teachers who shaped me into what I am today (caveat: all mistakes my own, etc. etc.)

From LifeintheItalianHills.com
From LifeintheItalianHills.com

About poetry – well, I can’t stop thinking about this poem today, by Robert Bly:
Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live forever!
I am wrapped in my joyful flesh,
As the grass is wrapped in its clouds of green.

Rising from a bed, where I dreamt
Of long rides past castles and hot coals,
The sun lies happily on my knees;
I have suffered and survived the night,
Bathed in dark water, like any blade of grass.

The strong leaves of the box-elder tree,
Plunging in the wind, call us to disappear
Into the wilds of the universe,
Where we shall sit at the foot of a plant,
And live forever, like dust.

Finally, I leave you with this amazing line from Mahmoud Darwish:

You are reluctant to emerge from the metaphor in case you fall into the well of loneliness.

Open Link Night: Fragmented Poetry

I’ve not been feeling very inspired to write poetry lately, so it’s been just the odd line or fragment which I’ve jotted down. So, with apologies for the very rough nature of this poetry, here is my contribution to Open Link Night over at dVerse Poets Pub. For far better poetry than this, please check out the other contributions there.

There’s a reason to this rhyming

and a pattern to my longing

if only I could uncover it.

* * *

I don’t want you to be as you were at the start.

I want you to be like you never were

the spark I thought I caught in you.

* * *

20140824_114824In the midst of this scorched landscape

infected pools simmer.

There are rare pockets of days that have not

had sunlight drained out,

days when I can sit on a terrace

with a coffee made by someone else

and think of ceramic exhibitions

without using cracked glaze as a metaphor.

* * *

Can this be the end

if it’s of something which never was?

You never promised me a rose garden but

I thought all that scrabbling around in dirt

would lead to some flowerful weeds along the way.

 

A Fire Is Like a Ship

Pin-straight it preens,

jutting its prow forward.

Its sails frolic on high,

light dancing up and up in the wind.

At first it seemed a comfort, but now I know

it’s a sick man

grunting and heaving

with the rattle of rusty anchors.

He flaps and heaves,

his mouth a spitting blackness of half-chewed tobacco.

Barefoot we scurry in panic downstairs,

slip on lime-scrubbed floorboards.

Narrow and long, it chases us, seeking

to seal us into its coffin shape.

Over at dVerse Poets Pub, the utterly charming and always inspiring Anna is encouraging us to use unusual metaphors and create a poetic conceit.

Skipping

When they told you to stop skipping

noisily down corridors and dangerously up the stairs,

did you question your skipping abilities?

Did you wonder if said skip was high enough

impressive enough,

in time, lively, energetic, contained?

Did you ponder in the dark, dawn-questioned hours

in grim solitude, just you and your mind?

Did you compare your skips with those of others?

Did you worry your skip may not find an audience,

interpret each passing smile or twitched eyebrow as snigger

and twitch at every word heading your way?

 

Did you stop skipping?

 

I thought not.