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.

Why It’s Painful to Watch The Handmaid’s Tale

Watching the TV adaptation of¬†Margaret Atwood’s¬†The Handmaid’s Tale¬†is proving to be a very traumatic experience for me, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch it to the end. Let me share a little bit of the reason why, although it is far bigger than the examples I mention below.

It’s not surprising that when the book¬†was published in 1985, it was banned in Romania. This, despite the fact that it was set in America (we liked showing the corruption and failure of capitalist society) and ¬†showed the pitfalls of a society heavily influenced by religion (religion is the opium of the people and us Communists were proudly atheist).

Scene from the recent TV adaptation on Hulu.

It’s obvious, however, that the Republic of Gilead symbolises any totalitarian state which imposes a single way of thinking, is harsh with anyone who dares to be different and brutally suppresses any form of dissent. Above all, it provided a striking parallel to Romania itself, that ‘paradise’ where everybody knew their place and worked for the greater good, and enjoyed the illusory safety of law and order (never mind how it was achieved). It was also one of the few countries of the world at the time where the state controlled women’s reproduction. The reason behind it was to produce enough citizens to lead the socialist revolution and build our glorious communist future.

I was a product of the law, one of the so-called ‘decre»õei’ (children born following Decree 770 introduced in 1967), banning any form of contraception and abortion. My mother suffered from heart disease and the doctors were not sure it was wise for her to have a child. She had me, but her health deteriorated sufficiently after that, that she was allowed to get away without having any more children. Other women were not so fortunate. There were only a few cases where you might be exempt from the rule:

  • if you were over the age of 45
  • if you already had 4 children (later raised to five)
  • if you had a life-threatening disease and would be unable to bear to term
  • if your pregnancy was the result of rape or incest (but see below about pregnancy tests for 14 year olds)

Contraceptives were not available at all and any doctors or nurses found giving them out (let alone performing abortions) were imprisoned.

Families continued to attempt to obtain black market contraceptives from abroad (there would be day trips to special markets for these in Yugoslavia), but many of them had expired or had potential side-effects, since they were given without any medical supervision. Plus you were always in danger of getting caught smuggling them in. Many women died or were permanently damaged having illegal abortions.

Stadium celebrations for national day under Ceausescu.

It was worse, of course, for those who could not afford children or smuggled contraceptives, since your extra bonus from the state for being a ‘heroine mother’ (additional benefits) only kicked in once you had eight or more children. Many women tried to disguise the pregnancies for as long as possible, wearing tight corsets or drinking strange concoctions to provoke a miscarriage. As a result, there was a high proportion of children born with malformations, health problems, general failure to thrive. Most of them ended up in orphanages, as did the children of women who had illicit affairs with foreign students (any physical contact with foreigners was punishable with imprisonment), especially when it was obvious that the child was mixed race.

From the age of 14 until 45, all women were required to go twice a year to have a gynaecological test. In fact, if you went to the doctor with any other ailment, you were sent to have a check for pregnancy anyway. Of course, if you were pregnant, you were then strictly monitored to make sure that you carried to term. If you suffered a natural miscarriage, you could be taken to court and had to prove your innocence.

Head down, blinkers on, pretend not to see a thing…

So that is the general picture. We all knew someone who had suffered from this law. A family friend who was a nurse was constantly persecuted and questioned, although she had only once referred a woman who fitted the legal criteria for an abortion. The wife of another friend, who was a talented professional singer, died following an infection after an illegal abortion and left behind two young children. (The reason I mention her profession is because there was the mistaken belief that only the poor were subjected to these harsh conditions, but it affected everyone.) Two of my classmates were forced to marry in the final year of high school when she could no longer disguise her pregnancy, but their child was born with severe birth defects and died less than a year later. Their marriage only lasted two years.

So there was suffering by proxy and also the direct experience. I was 14 when I returned to Romania and had barely ever kissed a boy, let alone had sex. Yet there I was, obliged to go through the rough handling by (always male, as far as I can remember) doctors. I will never forget my first time there, which marked the end of any trusting relationship with my mother.

Pioneers and Falcons, the glorious future of the Socialist Republic of Romania, archive image from latrecut.ro

I had scoliosis, but before I could get a referral for physiotherapy, I had to undergo the obligatory gyno-examination. A whole generation of doctors had not used contraceptives for 20 years, so they were very ignorant about anything to do with birth control or even developments in female sanitary products. Sanitary pads and tampons were not available in Romania until after the fall of the Wall, so the brash middle-aged gynaecologist had no idea that I was using Tampax or what effect it might have on the female anatomy. Of course, he didn’t bother to ask any questions, although I was so young.

So, after much prodding and shaking of the head, he turned and said to my mother: ‘So… she’s been a bit of a naughty girl, hasn’t she? No longer a virgin, I can see…’

The most painful part about this is that, despite all my protests, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, my mother (who has an almost grovelling belief in the infallible god-like nature of doctors) believed him and lost faith in me that very day. Everything that followed, all the policing and monitoring, shaming and punishing, reading of diaries and interference in my private life even after I left home has come about as a direct consequence of that day.

It’s very difficult for me to talk about these things, even though I believe we should never forget the mistakes of the past if we want to build a more humane future. Alas, I don’t think I have many illusions left that personal stories give us an insight or change people’s minds. Even celebrity stories are just there for titillation and tut-tutting.

But fiction can. Especially when it is well-written. If the book and the TV series¬†The Handmaid’s Tale can alert those who have not lived through this trauma to fight against such extremism, they will have done their job. Even if I cannot watch it to the end.

I’ve just been made aware there is a documentary about abortion policy in Romania, directed by Florin Iepan.¬†

http://abortionfilms.org/en/show/3487/das-experiment-770-gebaren-auf-befehl/