In 1656, at the behest of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, the building of a life-size replica of Jerusalem began on the bank of the river Istra. The trees were cut down and tonnes of additional earth brought in to fashion the typical landscape of Central Russia into the geographical semblance of the Holy Land. The imposing monastic ensemble that grew there in the course of the years of intense work, in which Nikon himself took part, became known as The New Jerusalem Monastery. The cathedral of the complex was built to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the river Istra was rechristened as the Jordan, and the surrounding terrain features received Biblical names: Mount Sinai, Mount Tabor, the Garden of Gethsemane.
Although this may sound like something that sprang from the fertile mind of Russian writer Vladmir Sharov, this unbelievable event did happen, and you can actually visit the restored monastery in all its splendour if you ever come to the town of Istra, about 40 kilometres away from Moscow. For Sharov, this colossal construction project is just the point of departure for the construction of his own: one of the most striking novels you are going to read in the coming year. In The Rehearsals, the building of New Jerusalem is concurrent with the preparations for a mystery play faithfully recreating the events of the Gospels that Patriarch Nikon commissions a Breton theatre director to stage on the monastery grounds. The director uses the local peasants for the roles of the Jews, the Christians, and the Romans, as he is forbidden to employ professional actors. Since nobody is allowed to play Jesus Christ himself, that part is conferred to the empty space which the crowd of amateur thespians have to address year after year as they rehearse for the great premiere scheduled for the year 1666. Perhaps then, during the performance, Jesus Christ will descend in New Jerusalem on the bank of the Istra River, and the world will come to an end? When the time comes, we realise that the premiere will have to be postponed and that the rehearsals will continue for many more years, overshadowing by the scale of the attendant cruelty and brutality both the Biblical sources and the humble beginnings of the 17th-century.
Sharov’s dense and skillfully manipulative narrative will require all your attention. Bear with him, and you will be rewarded. Ridden with all sorts of rabbit holes, that’s a Wonderland no Alice would visit on her own accord, for the journey would take her to the terrifying metaphysical depths of Russian and Soviet history. Translated into English by Oliver Ready (one of the five virtuosi I posted about earlier), Sharov’s staggering novel is slated to come out from Dedalus Books at the end of January. Don’t miss it.