And it’s a strange, little-known one outside the borders of its own country. It’s a novel described as sci-fi or fantasy or surrealist, as the very title indicates. Yet it’s none of those things and all of those things. It’s nearly impossible to describe and must have been a real pain to translate. The book is Monday Starts on Saturday by the Strugatsky brothers (Arkady and Boris), translated by Andrew Bromfield.
I only just managed to sneak it in this week, since it arrived only on Thursday. A Russian friend of mine mentioned it last weekend, saying she was laughing out loud when she was reading it on the Moscow metro, so I conducted a bit of an online search to locate it, discovered it was published in the correct year and… the rest is history and rather rapid postal services.
Incidentally, if you have heard at all of the Strugatsky brothers previously (I confess I hadn’t), it might have been as the authors of the sci-fi tale Roadside Picnic, which Tarkovsky turned into his trademark surrealist and heavily allegorical film Stalker. However, their style is considerably more upbeat and satirical, simply pulsating with fun and energy, but not shying away from serious messages. They were hugely popular and prolific in Soviet Russia, managing to skirt official censorship most of the time (by being deliberately absurd and having their novels set in alternative universes or other worlds). As the surviving brother Boris put it in 1991, they told themselves: ‘Let’s make it similar to Kafka, so that reality will imperceptibly cross over into delirium.’ Perhaps it’s not accidental that they were Jewish, and so always a bit marginalised in Soviet society. You can read more about them in the Paris Review.
Reality certainly crosses over into crazy delirium in this delightfully zany novel, which reminded me of The Master and Margarita with its apparent non sequitur anecdotes or remarks. But then, the Russians have quite a tradition of using grotesque humour as weapon to criticise society (think Gogol).
Monday Starts on Saturday tells the story of Alexander (Sasha) Privalov, a computer scientist from Leningrad (back in the days when this was a much rarer and more prestigious job than now) is travelling north to meet some friends for a tour of Karelia (the region bordering Finland and Sweden). He picks up two hitchhikers, who manage to recruit him to work at the scientific institute in the town of Solovets, the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy (aka NITWIT). Needless to say, he encounters many strange creatures (as well as instantly recognisable academic and bureaucratic types, as well as party officials).
The very thought of magic and superstition ever being accepted as ‘real’ in a Communist society is of course laughable, but that is the premise of the novel. But this is far removed from J.K. Rowling. Listen to this description of the Department of Defensive Magic, which is like a mini-Ministry of War.
Throughout many centuries of history various magicians have suggested the use in battle of vampires (for night reconaissance raids), basilisks (to terrify the enemy into a state of total petrification), flying carptes (for dropping sewage on enemy towns), magic swords of various denominations (to compensate for lack of numbers) and many other things. However, after the First World War, after Big Bertha, tanks, mustard gas and chlorine gas, defensive magic had gone into decline. Staff began abandoning the department in droves.
Meanwhile, the Department of Absolute Knowledge will sound familiar to office workers everywhere, filled as it is with people who have decided it is best not to work, so as not to add to the amount of entropy in the Universe.
Therefore some members of the department were always occupied with dividing zero by zero on their desktop calculators, and others kept requesting study assigments to eternity. They returned from their trips cheerful and overfed and immediately took time off on health grounds. In the gaps between assignments they wandered round from department to department, sat on other people’s desks smoking cigarettes and told jokes about the solution of indeterminacies by the Lopital method. They were easy to recognise from the empty look in their eyes and the cuts on their ears from constant shaving.
Russian folk tales jostle with time travel, Merlin from Arthurian legend and allusions to Frankenstein. The absurdity of Soviet rules and regulations are mocked. There are inventory numbers for magical objects… and sticklers for checking the inventory. There are lists of living creatures who have permission to enter the laboratory at night, but they are not allowed in on New Year’s Eve – although other souls and spirits are free to come and go as they please. The Tunguska meteorite of 1918 becomes the source of a conspiracy theory.
So it all looks like fun and playfulness, but there is of course a more serious layer to it all. In the end, they realise that their missing (and dual-natured) director of the institute is travelling backwards in time. This is where the authors’ sarcasm becomes evident:
… he had no bright future to look forward to. We were moving toward a world of reason and brotherhood, but with every day that passed he moved back towards the bloody Nicholas II, serfdom, the shooting on Senate Square and – who could tell? – perhaps even Arakcheev, Biron and the oprichnina.
The Oprichnina was Ivan the Terrible’s secret police who carried out systematic persecution and execution of the nobility/boyars and merchants. Arakcheev was the advisor of Tsar Alexander I, one of the most feared and hated men in Russia. Biron was the favourite and special advisor to the Regent Anna in the 1730s, also notorious for his corruption and cruelty. The brothers elegantly demonstrate that the history of Russia is littered with examples of autocratic rulers and terror-filled regimes, just as they had only recently emerged from one of the most extreme examples of one under Stalin. Yet they are equally unrelenting about the ‘bright future’ and the Department of Linear Happiness, where they do everything possible to enhance the spiritual vigour of every individual and entire collectives of individuals. So they poke holes in the pretentiousness of the slogans and posters that hung everywhere in public institutions in Communist countries, promising a glorious future filled with New Humans.