Not a lot of summer holidays for me this year, so my reading hasn’t been copious this month. [This may change over the next 3 weeks, when the boys are with their father in Greece.] Only 9 books completed, but most of them have been quite outstanding – and that is all thanks to the Russians. Their political leaders may be problematic, but boy, can their authors write!
I started off with a short, sharp satire Envyby Yuri (Yury?) Olesha. Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories were a rambunctious delight, but with a disquieting undercurrent running throughout. The Strugatskys were in top form with Roadside Picnic, while Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov captured a moment of tremendous change in recent history with great poignancy and lyricism. I haven’t yet reviewed Light-Headed by Olga Slavnikova (which I read in the French translation), but it’s another great piece of satire, although perhaps it could have been a bit shorter without losing any of its punch.
The Russians were excellent company. I will miss them and, yes, there were some communalities to all these authors (or perhaps I sub-consciously chose works that were of similar nature). Their humour is always rather dark and biting, their stories a mix of laugh-out-loud absurdity and profound sadness. The big questions of life are addressed, even though mostly in a roundabout way that decades if not centuries of censorship have cultivated to perfection. And I find their dash of surrealism not just tolerable but necessary and fun, unlike some works in the magical realism tradition.
In-between these hard-hitting books, I found my brain craved less demanding fare. I was either rereading either old favourites like the second book in the Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith (the one with the art forgeries) or else Adrian Mole (however, the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged Mole made me shudder rather than laugh). I also read two contemporary books focused on friendships, marriages, gender expectations and growing older.
I will probably compare and contrast Anna Hope’s Expectation with William Nicholson’s Adventures in Modern Marriage at some point, but although they were fun and easy to read (I deliberately avoided making too many comparisons with my own marriage or ageing), they were rather underwhelming. In any other month of reading, they might have scored higher, but when I put them up against the Russians, they seemed rather anemic.
5 women authors, 4 books in translation (Olga Grushin wrote her book directly in English). Next month will be all about women in translation and I am heading off to Brazil. My selection includes: Clarice Lispector’s short stories, Patricia Melo’s tale of revenge Lost World, Fernanda Torres’ account of old macho beach bums The End and, to balance things out, The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli.
If I get a chance to read any other women in translation, it will be Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (set in my beloved Japan but written in German) and History. A Mess. by Sigrun Palsdottir (the latest Asymptote Book Club title, from Iceland). I might also read some Brazilian men, for balance. And, of course, I should read the books I borrowed from the library: Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage and Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, as well as dip in and out of Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Diaries.
Beyond the reading, this month has been quite tiring: a lot of deadlines at work, both boys doing their Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, plus a lot of visiting of universities (which has its fun moments but involves a lot of driving and organising). I’ve done three things that go beyond the routine: went to the opera, attended an immersive theatre experience of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Oxford and sat in the public gallery at a criminal trial at the Old Bailey.
How has your month been? Do tell me about your holiday plans! I’m not going anywhere on holiday just yet, but this song always puts me in a holiday mood. Thank you, Caroline, for sharing your flash fiction based on this song with me. Do check it out here.
You will find it hard to believe that Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov is not a translated Russian novel. It has all the vicious satire mixed with wistful yearning, surreal dreamscapes mixed with realistic vignettes of life in the Soviet Union on the brink of change (in 1985) that you might expect from a Russian writer. That is because Grushin is a Russian writer, who grew up mostly in Moscow (with a short stint in Prague in her childhood). However, she now lives in the US and writes in English, so we have here an interesting hybrid: a Russian sensibility which can express itself directly in English, thereby avoiding that awkward ‘approximation’ that can sometimes occur in translation. (Not a slur on translators at all, but something we all know and struggle with.)
I may be the target audience for this kind of novel: interested in Eastern Europe and post-Communist states, passionate about political satire, remembering 1985 quite clearly. But let me try to be objective. After devouring this novel in less than three days, and covering it with little sticky bookmarks (always a good sign when it comes to my reading), I can sit back and say: ‘Darn, these Russians are such good writers!’
This is the story of the personal breakdown of a man, Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, mirroring (or anticipating) the breakdown of the Soviet Empire. Ostensibly successful and well-respected, Sukhanov has reached the top of the tree in his profession as an art critic: he is editor-in-chief of the leading Soviet art magazine, Art of the World, he has written the definitive books decrying the decadence of Western art, he is married to the daughter of one of the most recognised painters of the school of social realism, he has a chauffeured limo to take him where he wants and a luxurious apartment. The author captures his self-congratulatory moment of contentment and dream life very well:
… At this instant… on a chilly August night in the year 1985, just after the rain had washed over the roofs of the city, the familiar and delightful world of Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov existed quite independently of the world outside. The éclair melted deliciously on his tongue, his tea was strong, just as he liked it. Row upon row of little jars containing concentrated tastes of the waning summer glittered evenly in cupboards all around him, and the air whispered of apples and cinammon… A seemingly endless expanse of rooms unfolded behind his back, their comfortable dusk scintillating with the honeyed lustre of the parquet floors, damask wall upholstering, golden-flecked book bindings, crystal chandeliers opening like flowers in the high ceilings… Somewhere in the recesses of his home, his two children were falling asleep, one a future diplomat, the other a future journalist, both equally gifted, and next to him, enclosed in the glowing circle of light, sat Nina, pale, dishevelled and so beautiful… This was his world , and it was safe.
But of course, it is not safe. A small change to his schedule and a chance meeting as he walks home alone after the opening of his father-in-law’s retrospective exhibition sets a series of events in motion which make, him call into question his entire life and the choices he made. He abandoned his own artistic aspirations for the safety and comfort of his current lifestyle but within just a couple of days, all that neatness and comfort is shown to be a sham built on false premises and lies which he told himself and others. His children despise him, his wife is disappointed by his cowardice and lack of artistic integrity, and professionally he is floundering, as political certainties and propaganda turn into shifting sands. He can no longer keep pace with the change but, above all, he is disturbed to find himself assaulted by memories from his childhood and youth.
Anatoly Pavlovich had always made a habit of gluing shut the pages of passing years, leaving at hand only some brief paragraphs for basic reference and a few heavily edited sunny patches for sentimental indulgence. Yet of late, memories were welling up in his soul, unbidden and relentless… bringing him closer and closer to the forbidden edge of a personal darkness he had not leaned over in decades.
The author achieves a rare feat. With her main protagonist, she creates a smug, self-satisfied party apparatchnik who demonstrates zero self-awareness and empathy with others, and gradually manages to make us feel sorry for him and understand the choices he made, even if we don’t agree with them. We see him as a man who has had to conceal his real self from his colleagues and friends for too long, who had believed in change before and been disappointed by false dawns and barely survived subsequent clamp-downs. His inner turmoil and his decision to compromise with the regime very much echoes the (fictionalised, speculative) portrait of Shostakovich that Julian Barnes presented recently in The Noise of Time. Unlike Shostakovich, Anatoly is less confident about his personal genius and whether that excuses anything:
Was I really so sure of my talent to risk everything for it – to turn my back defiantly on this chance, this last chance, of giving Nina the happiness she deserved, all in the vague hope that one day I would create, amidst the misery and disappointmment, something so unique, so beautiful, so great that it would fully justify our wasted lives?
Any book which refers to Tarkovsky’s wonderful film Andrei Rublev is a winner for me. And this book certainly delves quite deeply into the role of the artist in society, their responsibility towards art and the future generations. Anatoly’s long-lost cousin comes to visit and they have one of those deeply Russian (i.e. profound, late-night, over several glasses of vodka) conversations about an artist’s mission. At first, as readers we are firmly on the cousin’s side: he loves Chagall and is seeking to rehabilitate him, while Sukhanov seems wedded to the Communist opprobium of surrealism and abstract art. But then Sukhanov surprises us:
[Cousin talking]…’your socialist realism and my religious painting have much in common… both have deep communal roots, and both serve a noble purpose – the good of the people, or the salvation of all mankind… In both too, the painter is an anonymous teacher of sorts, a compassionate man with a holy mission to educate, to enlighten, to show the way – a very Russian idea of the artist in general… so unlike the Western type of a solitary dreamer engaged in a private game of self-glorification. And, of course, both socialist realism and icon painting are concerned with an ideal, visionary future…’
‘What in the devil’s name does socialist realism have to do with it?’ interrupted Sukhanov. ‘I’m talking about art. Art is not about some common purpose or noble mission. It’s an expression of an artist’s soul, his individual, titanic struggle to rise above the ordinary, to speak a word unheard before, to extract an unexpected, mysterious, radiant nugget of beauty from the many obscure layers of our existence, to glimpse a bit of the infinite in everyday life – and truly great art comes to us like an ecstatic revelation, it sets our whole being on fire!’
If this makes the book sound very serious, full of philosophical discussions, then I am not doing a good job of conveying its compassionate humour and the lightness of touch of its satire. It’s a book that does not take itself too seriously, although it has serious messages to convey. Everybody struggles with the shifting sands of the collapse of an empire and its ideology. Yet there is also optimism in the air – could the promise of dawn be for real this time, could Sukhanov (and the younger generation) be about to be allowed to use their rainbow palette after all?
Well, we all know how that worked out… Better than in 1962 but still…
One final note: Moscow is described with almost an elegiac lyricism: the city whose street names had undergone several transformations is about to undergo more change – change that will alter its structure, streets and buildings forever, far beyond a mere change of name. For more on the city on the cusp of change, see Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for a great review of We Are Building Capitalism! Moscow in Transition 1992-1997by Robert Stephenson.
Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk (Pushkin Press)
Odessa was a lawless, cosmopolitan port town on the fringes of the Russian Empire, on the Black Sea coast, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. I say ‘was’, because, although it remained an important trading port during the Soviet period, it was also savagely attacked during the Second World War (it was one of the four Soviet cities to be given the title of Hero City, together with Leningrad, Stalingrad and Sevastopol) and 80% of its Jewish community was exterminated during the first 6 months of the occupation.
Its great variety of ethnicites remain tangled even nowadays: it is part of Ukraine, with a majority Ukrainean population, but the main language spoken is Russian, albeit an idiosyncratic Russian with a lot of local slang. It is this rich Odessan argot that the translator Dralyuk tries to capture, and he makes the completely logical choice to use the language of American pulp fiction and films for that purpose.
Babel published these stories in the early 1920s, and they consolidated the myths about the city and its gang culture. Legendary gang leaders such as Sonya the Golden Hand and Mishka the Jap (from the turn of the 20th century) were admired as well as vilified, perceived as rebels and Robin Hood type of characters (when in actual fact they were probably ruthless monsters). They are still a popular source of stories not just locally, but throughout the Russian (and then Soviet) empire. Babel creates his own gang leader, the charismatic yet cruel Benya Krik, known as The King.
The first part of the book narrates (not in linear fashion, these are all distinct stories) the rise of Krik – how he intimidated the new head of police in Odessa by setting fire to the police station, how he first acquired the nickname The King, how he took revenge on those who messed up his deals. It also introduces many other colourful local characters: old gangster boss Froim the Rook, avaricious landlady and smuggler Lyubka the Cossack, Aryyeh Leib the elder of the almshouse, the hapless broker Tsudechkis who seems to misread every situation. Although it can be tricky keeping track of who’s who, these are stories in the best oral tradition, fun, full of sly humour, exaggerated, larger than life, designed to make the listener laugh or cry out in shock.
If the first part of the book is a celebration of diversity and virility, the second part shows what happens when virility becomes aggressive and when innocent bystanders get caught up in events. This is not about quarrels between gangs anymore and the style is much more serious and lyrical, showing the broad range that Babel was capable of.
The narrator here is Babel’s alter ego, a slightly idealistic young Odessan who recalls his childhood and youth in the city. While many of the incidents he recalls are quirky and funny, full of Jewish humour and family foibles, some of the texts, such as The Story of My Dovecote, are heartbreaking, showing the many inequities and dangers to which the Jews living in the city were subjected. A ten-year-old boy who has been saving up assidously to buy a pair of beautiful dovers gets caught up in a vicious pogrom on his way home.
I lay on the ground, the crushed bird bird’s innards sliding from my temple. They ran down my cheek, winding, dribbling, and blinding me. The dove’s tender gut slipped down my forehead, and I shut my only unplastered eye, so that I wouldn’t have to see the world laid bare before me. This world was smal and terrible. There was a pebble lying in front of me, a jagged pebble, like the face of an old woman with a large jaw; and a piece of string; and a clump of feathers, still breathing.
I’ll finish on a more cheerful note, a brilliant quote from the slippery trickster Benya the King himself, who tries to excuse himself for having killed someone ‘accidentally’.
Aunt Pesya, if you want my life, you can have it, but everyone makes mistakes, even God. That’s what it was, aunt Pesya – a huge mistake. But wasn’t it a mistake on God’s part to put the Jews in Russia, where they suffer as if they’re in hell? I ask you, why not have the Jews live in Switzerland, with nothing but top-quality lakes, mountain air and Frenchmen as far as the eye can see? Everyone makes mistakes, even God.
Let’s pretend we don’t know about Babel’s untimely death and his subsequent erasure from Soviet literature. Luckily, he has been rehabilitated now and we can enjoy this earthy, lively, somewhat madcap collection of stories, bringing a new streak of – well, I wouldn’t exactly call it realism, perhaps ‘heightened realism’, but certainly a lot less gloom and pessimism than some of the great Russian writers.
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.
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…
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).
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.
Yuri Olesha seems to have liked living and writing dangerously. This slim satirical novel Envy was published in 1927, just as the Stalinist purges were starting in earnest. Yet he was also born lucky: the satire was interpreted as being at the expense of the bourgeoisie or the parasitic influences in the ideal Soviet society, so he mostly escaped persecution, unlike many of his contemporaries (Zamyatin, Bulgakov, fellow Odessan Isaac Babel).
Andrei appears to be the model Soviet citizen: a party member and trade director of the Food Industry Trust, who seems to have dedicated his life to feeding the Soviet people (35 kopek sausages and communal dining halls, so no one needs to cook at home). He is rather rotund, naive, easy-going, essentially good-natured. He rescues the narrator (of the first part of the novel), Nikolai Kavalerov, who was lying drunk and homeless on the streets, and gives him shelter in exchange for some light editing chores. But Kavalerov is not grateful: instead, he spitefully observes and reports back to us the reader all of the gross personal habits of his benefactor, and mocks his idealism and ability to get excited over the silliest, most trivial of things.
He the ruler, the Communist, was building a new world. And in this new world, glory was sparked because a new kind of sausage had come from the sausage-maker’s hands. I didn’t understand this glory. What did it mean? Biographies, monumnets, history had never told me of glory like this… Did this mean the nature of glory had changed?
Kavalerov is filled with even more hatred for Andrei when he discovers that he is not the first ‘rescue project’. Before he came along, Andrei had for many years been harbouring Volodya Makarov, a young football player, in his home. And should Volodya ever return, then Andrei cheerfully admits that Kavalerov would have to free up the space for him. Suddenly, the younger man realises that he is the perpetual outsider. His thoughts could be interpreted as dripping in self-pity, but they show a man who cannot adapt (or perhaps doesn’t want to) to a society that feels alien to him. The author uses to great effect the ‘wooden language’ of Communist propaganda.
… it suddenly became very clear to me how much I didn’t belong with these people who had been called together on this great and important occasion, the utter irrelevance of my presence amongst them… I have neither hard labour nor a revolutionary past behind me…
Many of the angriest, most over-the-top scenes don’t actually occur in real life, they all take place in Kavalerov’s twisted imagination. He is the nihilist who cannot bear the optimism that is being forced on people in the Soviet system. Then he meets the counterpoint to Andrei: Ivan, the poet and dreamer, who lacks any sense of reality or pragmatism, and who happens to be Andrei’s brother, jealous of his success but not really wanting to adapt to the new world. Ivan too lives with one foot in the past, ‘the dwindling era’. And the author clearly notices and makes fun of the flaws of both the capitalist and communist system.
The story appears to be simple, but is embroidered with flights of fantasy, slapstick farce, unreliable narrators and characters who are prone to sudden rants. First person POV becomes a dubious sort of third person (albeit with long monologues which turn it into first person). The casual (and often hilarious) juxtaposition of sordid realism and flights of fancy, of real and imagined conversations, the tangential connections between episodes reminded me of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
It’s short, sharp, completely barmy. The best description of the effect the book had on me is in the book itself, when Kavalerov talks about the optical illusions created by street mirrors (are they really a thing?).
You don’t know which way is up, as the saying goes. So suddenly have the rules been broken, so incredibly have the proportions changed. But you rejoice in your dizziness…
I read the NYRB edition of this book, in a new translation by Marian Schwartz and introduced by Ken Kalfus.
I have always failed miserably at initiatives such as the Twenty Books of Summer, but this year I’m going to try something different. I really enjoyed focusing on French history and on the Paris Commune in May, so I think I will attempt more of this country focus. A different country every month (while still allowing some breathing room with other reads in-between). I am tentatively selecting some books for each country, but will allow myself the freedom to suddenly swerve in a different direction (although still of the same country).
Honestly, it’s not Trump’s visit this month that inspired me, but I suddenly realised that I so seldom read any American authors (other than perhaps crime fiction). So I will make a more concerted effort to look at some of them in June: I have my eye on Ron Rash, David Vann, Sam Shepard, Laura Kasischke and Meg Wolitzer.
After so much Americana, I have no doubt I will be tempted to swing the other way and get a sudden craving for all things Russian, so July will be my month of Russian authors. Two Olgas, a Yuri and the diaries and letters of Bulgakov are on my list. I also really want to catch up with the TV series Chernobyl, as I still remember the events of that year (we were pretty close to the Ukraine and panicked at the time).
August is Women in Translation Month and I have already decided I want to dedicate it to Brazilian women this year. Clarice Lispector (a re-read of Agua Viva and a more detailed read of her complete short stories), Patricia Melo’s Lost World and Socorro Acioli’s The Head of the Saint. By the by, I might also dip that month into some Brazilian male writers, such as Chico Buarque and Milton Hatoum, or some of my new acquisitions in May.
If this initiative goes well, I might keep it up beyond the summer and venture further afield, to countries I have hitherto left unexplored. Of course, I still have a few countries to contend with on my #EU27Project…
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.