One last #1965Club read…

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.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

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.

#EU27Project: Estonia’s Rein Raud

Rein Raud: The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde

With such an attractive author name and an intriguing title, I just couldn’t resist getting this book for my #EU27Project. Admittedly, there aren’t many Estonian books in translation to choose from. Given the age of the author (born in 1961), I suspect quite a bit of the ‘before and after’ narrative of Estonia’s recent history are things he has personally experienced.

The story follows a group of young dissidents during the dying days of the Soviet rule over Estonia. Through rapid shifts of viewpoints, we get to know each of them and their reasons for getting involved in clandestine activity and trying to smuggle secret Soviet files out of the country. There is idealistic, artistic Raim with his pragmatic parents who value comfort over nationalist ideals; Ervin, who has been offered a lighter sentence in exchange for denouncing his friends; immaculately turned out Karl, who is older than the others; Indrek, who is rebelling both against his family and the social order; and the youngest of them all, Anton, whose mother is Russian and whose father is a notoriously tough investigator and interrogator known only by his surname, Särg (which means ‘roach’ in Estonian, as in the fish rather than a cockroach). We follow their actions, their fears, their friendships and love stories, and their disappointments.

The author is also a cultural philosopher, literary theorist and translator from Japanese.

That is not the only plot line, however. We get to hear about the rather romantic love story between an Estonian girl and a Russian man, as full of misunderstandings as Romeo and Juliet, although slightly less tragic. We get to to know Anton’s father far better as he interrogates various members of the group, little knowing that his own son is part of it. And, interspersed through all these third person narratives, we have the first person account (I assume this could be the author himself, although it is never quite explicit), with wry asides and anecdotes that are tangential to the main story, remembering what life was like in Estonia and trying to understand the motivation behind all of the actions of both dissidents and collaborators.

Perhaps they were proud of their own professionalism and thought that even if the system which they were helping to keep afloat was not ideal, it was at least preferable to the chaos which would inevitably ensue if it were not for them? Or maybe it was all a kind of rought sport for them, a chess game against invisible opponents, with human fates at stake instead of chess pieces. Or were they really of the view that the rulers of this world were incorrigible brutes and pigs, much the same wherever you went, and that it was a mistake to believe that some leaders could be better than others… Or maybe they didn’t give it much throught so long as they could keep their cosy jobs and put bread on the table. I don’t know.

The issue of guilt, both individual and collective, has been insufficiently addressed in the former Soviet Republics (and in much of Eastern Europe). Perhaps that was necessary to move these societies forward, to focus on reconciliation and progress rather than punishment. However, this does mean that many things have been swept under the carpet, and you bump into people in surprising places, like the KGB operative who after independence ends up working as a doorman at one of the embassies in Tallinn.

In some ways, this description of a divided society (the ‘normal people’ and the ‘informers’ reminded me of Anna Burns’ Northern Ireland). And of course, it reminded me of my childhood, when my parents warned me to be very careful whom I talked to about the things we discussed at home.

There was however another important currency in circulation – trust. Some may use simpler terms such as acquaintances, contacts, but nothing would have counted without trust. Because in the end it was impossible to trust anyone if you hadn’t gone to school together, shared the same sauna, gone scrumping with them, studied together, worked in the same office, done military service together, stolen something, eaten and drunk with them, slept with them… You didn’t use a dentist whom you didn’t trust, you didn’t ask someone to pass a letter to your Swedish relatives if you didn’t trust them. If you could help it you had nothing to do with people you did not trust – they might every well be working for the other side.

Trust was the only valid currency.

It was just so exhausting.

Gratuitous image of Tallinn, because it is so pretty. From Lonely Planet.

Above all, this book is an examination of how individuals get caught up in major historical changes, some of them for misguided reasons, some of them expecting quite different outcomes, and many of them not even aware what they are letting themselves in for. Has independence lived up to its promise? Was the new Estonia worth all the sacrifices, the older and more cynical author appears to ask. And the answer is:

Only a fool would throw away a beautiful apple from his own garden just because it has a few maggot holes in it. Only a fool prefers things which are shiny and never rot. After all, it’s always the tastiest of apples that the maggots go for. And you can bet your life on it, the maggots’ll know these things.

You can read a review of this book and other books by Rein Raud on Melissa Beck’s blog. She was the one who drew my attention to this book, and even has an interview with the author. From his Wikipedia entry, I also discovered that he was President of the European Association of Japanese Studies from 2011 to 2014, so unfortunately well after my time in that organisation.

#WITMonth: Svetlana Alexievich and Women’s War

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky)

This oral history of Soviet women’s experience of WW2 was compiled with sensitivity, patience and emotion by Svetlana Alexievich in the 1980s, updated in 2000 and has finally been translated into English by that indefatigable duo that is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

And what a surprising, moving and often shocking story it is! It provides an alternative view of war, from the point of view of women on the front line, as well as the lesser known point of view (in the Western world) of the terrible human cost of war amongst the Soviet army. It is an unforgettable virtuoso piece of storytelling and it left me in goosebumps, although I’d heard a few (much milder) stories from my own grandmothers.

Author picture from The Independent.

Alexievich explains her mission in the foreword (and it was revolutionary back then, in the days before perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet empire): history is ‘in the street, in the crowd, in each of us there is a small piece of history’. She wants to give voice to those who have been ignored, forgotten, whitewashed out of history, who have been silenced or simply never been listened to. Not all of the women wanted to speak to her at first: for some, the memories were too painful, for others it was like opening up a dam. On the whole, she is received with warmth, made up of equal parts eagerness to share the untold stories, and reluctance to dwell too much on the details. They explain in simple terms, in language so stark and unadorned, yet with such vivid detail, what it means to survive such darkness.

Although few women veterans suffered the fate of the men who returned to war only to be sent to gulags by Stalin, it is quite shocking to read of the less than triumphant reception many of them experienced. There was no counselling, no treatment for post-traumatic stress after the war. Many of them received nothing except for a few medals – not even adequate housing which they should have been entitled to as war veterans. The state ignored or downplayed their contribution (perhaps out of a sense of shame that they had to resort to using women in their war effort), there was little support for these heroines and little effort to reintegrate them into society. In contrast to the protective and gallant way they had been treated by their male comrades at the front, many women had to pretend afterwards that they had never been in battle, because the men feared these women and longed to marry someone more feminine and untarnished by violence.

Unsurprisingly, women felt that the Great Victory came at a terrible human cost and sacrifice, and they are more aware of this and more willing to acknowledge it, while men were disposed to wax more nostalgic about heroic deeds and former Soviet greatness. And yet, one of the women says:

Life is hard… not because our pensions are small and humiliating. What wounds us most of all is that we have been driven from a great past into an unbearably small present.

In other words, they are beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. Yet, at the time, no one questioned the ideology. It was not just that their country was attacked, nor that they unquestioningly followed Stalin. They just felt they had to do something to help, they did not stop to think of themselves (or of their families or even their children) – they felt they were cornered and had no choice other than fighting the enemy as best they could. These women were not just nurses, doctors, bakers, laundrywomen, but also engineers, telecommunication experts, tank commanders, snipers, artillery and cavalry soldiers etc. They were everywhere and each one of them saw things that are almost unbelievable and unbearable. And, unlike men, they struggled far more with killing the enemy or watching their comrades die. One married couple reminisce about the war together and the husband says at one point that the grandchildren don’t want to hear his tales about historical detail, generals, facts, figures. They want to listen to her stories, which are all about feelings and momentary impressions.

War is first of all murder, and then hard work. And then simply ordinary life… how unbearable and unthinkable it is to die and to kill…

It’s the small details which make all the difference: the shoes which were several sizes too big and caused blisters; how they all had to chop off their braids; how uncomfortable it was to pee when they were in the tank with all the men; how they would kiss dying soldiers to soothe their pain; how there was no material to stop the flow of menstrual blood; how they could never bear the colour red after the war or buy meat from the shops.

There is a section on the mixed feelings the army had when they reached Germany. How tidy and wealthy the country seemed to them, to the extent where they couldn’t understand why these Germans had wanted to attack other countries. How they felt they would never be able to forgive them, yet they fed the frightened German children. The women whisper (in fear) about how their male colleagues did in many cases kill in revenge, rape and pillage, things which had been left out of the official history books – ‘are we allowed to mention that now?’.

There is bittersweet recognition that human nature did not learn from the past:

We dreamed: ‘If only we survive… People will be so happy after the war. People who’ve been through so much will feel sorry for each other. They’ll be changed people… We never doubted it. Not a bit.

Some of the girls were as young as 16 when they joined up and only 18-19 by the time the war ended.

Yet there were also instances of compassion and I want to finish on one of those, with the simple, unfiltered words of someone who has witnessed it herself. The last interviewee in the book tells the story of when she was carrying two wounded soldiers on her back, in turns, from the battlefield around Stalingrad. At some point, she realises that one of them was a German and starts getting angry with herself for making a mistake.

Should I go back for the German or not? I knew that if I left him he would die soon… And I crawled back for him… There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one…

Pictures are from Sputnik International and Global Research websites.

Andrei Makine: Music of a Life

Makine1Alexei Berg is a promising young pianist whose parents are imprisoned by the Soviets in 1941, on the eve of his debut concert. He runs away to find family in the west of the Soviet Union, assumes the identity of a dead soldier, becomes the driver and protégé of a Russian general and is taught how to play piano by the general’s daughter once he returns to Russia. He never reveals his real identity or his musical abilities until one day…. And yes, I did find the end of the book too rushed and the love story not entirely convincing. But this is not an epic story, nor a work of suspense. Nor is the story told in quite such a simple manner. Instead, it is told as a story within a story. Our unnamed narrator is trapped by a snowstorm in a remote railway station somewhere in Siberia when he comes across Alexei, now an old man, who tells him the story of his life. And perhaps forever changes his own.

This is not only a beautifully written elegy to a wasted talent, but also a far too familiar account of life, death, survival of human emotions and beauty under the twin evils of dictatorship and war. But it is about more than that: it is about art as the triumph of human spirit, and its suppression robbing us a little of our humanity. It is about music as life and life as music. Or the concert of a lifetime. Or how we only have a limited time on life’s stage. Or how the concert we have planned to play won’t necessarily be the music we end up playing, but there is music there nevertheless if we know how to listen. Or, or, or…

You can see how this short book, gives rise to all sorts of philosophical musings. Let me come back down to earth for an instant. [It’s that Russian soul of profound melancholy speaking to me.] Makine is Russian born and bred, but fled to France at the age of 30. He started writing novels in French, living the poverty-stricken life of ‘La Bohème’ for real, even had to pretend they were translated from Russian in an effort find any publisher. He achieved recognition with Le Testament Français, which won the two highest French literature prizes in 1995. He is one of the most respected writers in France today, has been translated into many languages, but is not all that popular back in Russia. Not surprising, given his frank, sometimes distressing portrayal of Soviet times in many of his novels. And, although he claims in interviews to have no nostalgia for ‘Motherland Russia’, Makine is forever trying to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western Europe. 

Makine2Russia does permeate his works: the sensibility and descriptions are so reminiscent of Russian masterpieces. The door of the waiting-room blasting open and letting the chill air and snow in at the railway station where the characters are waiting for their delayed train. Alexei’s search amongst corpses, both Russian and German, for a plausible fake identity.  It is the individual experience and these single moments of sharp insight that Makine tries to convey, rather than a sweeping panorama of society or a historical period. In a period when we rush to label nations and cultures (he takes exception to the term ‘Homo sovieticus’), the author gives us the example of a single person, not a particularly likeable or heroic person, perhaps not even a musical genius. And somehow this story becomes exemplary, reverberating in the Siberia of your soul long after you finish reading.