The English-speaking audience might have heard first the name of Alexander Goldstein from one of the most important contemporary Russian writers Mikhail Shishkin. During his talk at the Harriman Institute, Columbia, he actually said the following:
For me now the top of Russian literature is Alexander Goldstein. […] I’m sure in fifty years here at Columbia University and other American universities all professors will consider our time, our epoch, the epoch of Alexander Goldstein. And we, writers, will be just contemporaries of Alexander Goldstein. We just shared with him the epoch. […] And if you asked me, “What Russian writers are important and genius nowadays?” I would say: “Read Alexander Goldstein”.
This is a very strong statement from a writer whose authority has been cemented by such impressive works as Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark (although, in my opinion, they are not a patch on his mind-bending tour-de-force The Capture of Izmail. I’m not sure that Goldstein is really the genius Shishkin would like him to be, but upon reading his first novel Remember Famagusta, I was totally sold on the idea that there had not been a better stylist writing in Russian in the past century, except maybe Andrei Bely, Vladimir Nabokov and Sasha Sokolov.
Goldstein has created his own linguistic universe, a parallel dimension of words, in which the commonly accepted laws and conventions do not apply. Although appreciated by some, the novel in question remains poorly understood. It is impossible to find a single critical article on the novel throwing substantial light on its numerous mysteries. Regretfully, I have to confess that I am no exception. I am not sure what I have just read. I had been utterly baffled during the reading so many times that I started to get surprised each time I did understand something. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to consider Remember Famagusta ” a Russian version of Finnegans Wake” because Goldstein’s alchemy rarely invades the word itself; that is to say, the reader has no problem understanding the meaning of isolated words, which is one of the challenges posed by Joyce’s text. It’s the way those words are woven into the texture of the novel, the unexpected lexical combinations and collisions, the baroque over-abundance of luscious imagery, which are liable to leave even the most sophisticated reader high and dry.
Having made the necessary disclaimer, I will share some thoughts on this extraordinary and, for the most part, impenetrable novel. I have my own explanation as to why the narrative is so chaotic and elusive, sending us on a wild chase of its various will-o’the-wisps. The novel is set both at the time of the creation and disintegration of the biggest empire on earth, the Soviet Union. Goldstein’s prose reflects and amplifies these tectonic shifts. The time and space are in a state of constant transformation, and consequently, nobody is granted even a moment of respite. The jumps from one place or period to another are abrupt and can even remain unnoticed until later. Moreover, the city playing the central role in the novel is never called by its name, although it is not difficult to guess that it is Azerbaijan’s capital Baku in which the writer used to live until his emigration to Israel in 1990. And here we can confidently draw a parallel with Joyce, for Goldstein does to Baku something similar to what the great Irish writer did to Dublin in Ulysses.
In the case of this particular book, it is much easier for me to talk about the characters than about the action. They are a motley and exotic crew. First of all, there is the narrator, most probably an alter-ego of Goldstein himself, who describes his youth in Baku and recent life in Tel-Aviv. Then there is Yashar-muallim, a wise old man who is said to have the dowsing powers. Besides that, he copies sacred texts, acts as a spiritual mentor and has taken part in an expedition whose goal was to capture dybbuks, evil spirits of Jewish mythology. Seeking to revive the Sufi doctrine of hurufism, Yashar-muallim tries to recruit one of his students as an assistant and squire. We also get to know the Orthodox priest and polymath Father Paisius who is sent “under the tusks of the Solovetsky SLON”, the latter acronym being identical to the Russian word for “elephant”: hence the pun. SLON stands for Solovetsky Lager’ Osobogo Naznachenia, i.e. “Solovki Special Purpose Camp”. Father Paisius manages to survive the hardships of the GULAG and finds solace in writing the history of onomatodoxy, a religious movement that gained currency at the beginning of the 20th century on Mount Athos. Of particular interest to me proved Jalil-the editor, a character based on the Azerbaijani writer Jalil Huseyngulu oglu Mammadguluzadeh who founded the once-famous satirical magazine Molla Nasraddin and stayed in charge of it until its closure in 1931. The passages relating his obsession with early German cinema bring to memory Siegfried Kracauer’s renowned study From Caligari to Hitler. I don’t know if it was possible in the Soviet Baku of the 1930s to watch Metropolis and Dr Mabuse in the movie theatres, but there is something fascinating in recognising the masterpieces of expressionist cinema through descriptions of Jalil’s movie-watching sprees. And, most notably, there is the Armenian gladiator Mger-Claudius Mgoyan. In the fifteenth chapter of the novel that can be regarded as a set-piece, we read an engrossing story about the construction of a modern Colosseum in Baku in the 1920s. Here I am more confident about the time because at some point the funeral of Rudolph Valentino is mentioned. Mgoyan handpicks the best fighters for the arena, and for three weeks, every day the public watches in awe retiarii, secutores, murmillones and other types of gladiators conjured up from the ancient times clash in combat. There are, of course, other memorable characters, and quite a few of them are real historical personages, such as the Ottoman military leader Enver Pasha and the French philosopher Michel Foucault, but those I have mentioned should be enough to give you at least an idea of what kind of book it is.
The Cypriot city of Famagusta lost to Turkey as a result of the 1974 invasion does not necessarily invoke Baku, which the narrator “loses” after his immigration, but rather the overall sense of loss experienced by millions of people caught between the millstones of major geopolitical transformations that shaped the 20th century. Both the formation and the dissolution of a great empire inevitably entail for some losing their homeland, language, culture and even identity. However, in such processes, there are also creative forces at work. Cultural symbiosis and cross-pollination that take place when different peoples come into contact quite often give birth to new artistic and literary forms, new ways of looking at the world; staggering achievements in arts and sciences can come about as a consequence. Goldstein’s narrative accommodates both destructive and creative aspects inherent in the very notion of the empire, and therefore it is no wonder that some passages might repel and fascinate the reader at the same time.
Now, suppose this beast gets translated someday and you will have a chance to enter Goldstein’s world. When you finish the book, some of you will instantly want to read it a second time. My advice: wait at least for a month, let what little you have grasped settle in because it would be too much to rush immediately into this maelstrom again.
If I wanted to sound glib, trite and lazy when asked what reading Remember Famagusta feels like, I would most probably come up with something painfully formulaic like “imagine Pavic writing like Joyce with a dash of classical Persian poetry, Sufi mysticism and automatic writing”. That wouldn’t do justice to the book, of course. In reality, Goldstein writes like nobody else, and that is why he is one of the greatest writers of the 21st century, still not duly recognised and not even widely-known. But it’s not news to us: remember Melville, remember Gaddis.
Update: If you can read German, you are in luck as Denk an Famagusta, translated by Regine Kühn, is forthcoming this April from Matthes & Seitz Berlin.