The Monogram (Монограмма) by Alexander Ivanchenko

Lenin in 1918: “They, the kulaks and freeloaders, are no less formidable enemies than the capitalists and landowners. If the kulak remains untouched, if we do not defeat the freeloaders, the czar and the capitalist will inevitably return.”

Stalin in 1929: “Now our material base is sufficient to strike the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and to replace their production with the production of kolkhozes and sovkhozes.”

Dekulakisation was the 1929-1933 repressive campaign against prosperous peasants, known colloquially as kulaks. In its course, more than 1.8 million peasants were robbed of their property and deported to distant regions of the Soviet Union, mostly to Siberia, the Urals and Central Asia. The family of my maternal grandfather, whom I never knew, was among those transported in cattle cars to Orenburg Oblast and dropped off in the open steppe to fend for themselves. They survived. Their fate is similar to that of the family of Marina Vasilievna, who is the mother of Lida Chernovol, the main character of Alexander Ivanchenko’s 1988 Buddhist novel The Monogram. Early on in the book, we read a heart-rending narrative of dekulakisation enforced in the Ukrainian village where the family of Lida’s mother live. The Bolsheviks repeatedly come to their farmstead and gradually strip them of everything they possess. They begin by confiscating the cattle and grain; after that, they come to carry away all the furniture, household utensils, and extra clothes. The last thing they grab is the earthenware pot with the dough meant for the Sunday cake, which is the only substantial foodstuff left in the house, and that is when Galina, the mother of the little Marina, makes a desperate attempt to save her children from starvation:


“Let’s kick out kulaks from kolkhozes”. Soviet propaganda poster, 1930

And how shall I feed the little ones?!” Shouted Galina and pounced on the offenders. The cheerful lad Vanka Dudnik with a ginger forelock above one ear and a scarlet bow on the chest pushed her boisterously back with his knee, but she managed to wrest away a lump of the dough that was spilling over the rim together with a handful of curly hair from Vanka’s noggin. The pot fell down and smashed. Vanyka began stomping the dough, swearing, and calling it a kulak property, and then left, his accordion-like boots smeared with the Sunday cake. Yesterday they were sobbing and eating that raw dough, which smelled of foreign tar; they were picking clay shards out of the dough and grating the radish with a wedge of the broken ikon glass (they had also carried away the grater and knives) into the weak, slightly sour kvass. Galina chewed the toasted breadcrumbs which she had stashed away for her little daughter Grunya, wrapped the pap into a rag and put it in the girl’s mouth to calm her down when she was crying.

The next day the kulak family are evicted from their home. They find a temporary shelter in the house of a poor peasant, and later, when Galina’s husband is released, they move to their new home, a dugout on the outskirts of the village. But that is not good enough for the communist authorities, and soon they find themselves crammed together with the other kulak families in the cattle cars of a train heading for the Urals. The journey is hell on earth. During the outbreak of typhus, the people who succumb to the disease remain standing because there is hardly an inch of free space in the cars with the humans packed in like sardines. Some of them have to spend a day or two with the corpses leaning on them as the deaths are not promptly reported so that the food rations of the dead can be shared among the living. Some fifteen pages before this horrific episode, we read an instruction on how to meditate on a rotting corpse written in the dry style of a religious manual:

ASUBHA-BHAVANA. The word “asubha” (Pali) means “foul”, “unpleasant”, “disgusting”, “terrible”. Thus, asubha-bhavana denotes a contemplation of the terrible and foul. This meditation is prescribed for people of sensual temperament. The object of the meditation is a human corpse at ten different stages of decomposition. The Buddha recommended this object of contemplation to his son Rahula: “Apply thyself, Rahula, to the meditation on the foul, for those practising it are freed from desire.”

Had the haggard and half-suffocated members of the kulak families been versed in Buddhism, perhaps they could have found some consolation in practising asubha-bhavana. But of course, they contemplated the dead the only way they could: with horror. This meditation is reserved for Lida, one of their descendants, who remembers and relives their suffering as part of her aspiration to reach enlightenment and escape the ever-revolving wheel of Samsara.

The Monogram is a non-linear, fragmentary novel that is presented to us as a collage of different texts. The story of Lida and her family, which begins with the persecution of her maternal grandfather, is organised in accordance with the numbered photographs in Marina Vasilievna’s album. There are 104 pictures in total. The old ones feature the parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and other relatives of Lida’s mother. Those are followed by the photos of Marina Vasilievna as an adult woman and her various friends and colleagues. The pictures related to Lida and the most important people in her life are at the end of this chronological procession. The final photograph is a portrait of her daughter Nastya, who is five years old at the time when the present-day narrative is set, which, although it is never specifically mentioned, must take place either in the late 1970s or the early 1980s. Each episode from the family history is tagged with the numbers of the corresponding photographs. The events unfolding in the late Soviet period remain unmarked until the episode titled THE FIRST JUG OF MILK. These narratives are often interrupted by the text that, for lack of a better word, can be dubbed the Buddhist treatise. Written in the respective style, this text can be viewed as a succinct summary of the main principles and guidelines that a yogi needs on his or her way to enlightenment. The first part of this treatise is made up of detailed instructions on how to perform the eleven meditations which Lida practises during a week; the second part is dedicated to the Bhavachakra (the Wheel of Life) and its interpretation; the third part contains a variety of guidelines for a more advanced student of Dharma—these teachings emerge as telepathic messages of the mute Chinese elderly man by the name of Yunmen to whom Lida comes every week to buy milk for her daughter. Lida’s own philosophical musings inspired by what she has read appear as snippets of italicised text invariably titled From Lida’s Notes. We keep jumping from one type of text to another throughout the whole book, tracing both Lida’s development as a practitioner of Buddhism and the history of her family.


Lenin and Stalin in Gorky, 1922

What strikes one the most at the outset is photograph No 1 in Marina Vasilievna’s album. It does not depict anyone from her kith and kin but features instead the two men responsible for all the suffering that she and her loved ones have had to endure. The chronology of the Chernovol family is preceded by the well-known 1922 photo of Lenin and Stalin in Gorky. All the episodes related to the persecution and deportation are marked as “No 1-4”, that is, as corresponding to the first four pictures in the album and thus including the prime movers of the huge wave of repressions that has engulfed Marina’s family along with the thousands of others. What is more, photograph No 1 is not limited to the history of these repressions; it keeps cropping up on its own in fragments unrelated to the plight of the deported kulaks. It functions as some kind of Joker card, taking on different meanings depending on the circumstances, but, of course, each new meaning is invariably connected with evil and misery. For example, her contemplation of Lenin and Stalin induces Lida to think about the complex relationship between the executioner and the victim. She believes that things are not as simple and clear-cut as it may initially seem, comparing the two to Siamese twins sharing the same blood circulation. The victim may have been the executioner in the previous life and the other way round. In keeping with the law of eternal retribution set down in the Mahabharata, with which Lida is already familiar, King Herod will be reborn as each of the infants massacred by his order, whereas the infants themselves used to be Herods in their former lives. The photograph of the communist leaders also serves as the inspiration for an excursus into the Indian materialist philosophical school of Charvaka, which held that direct perception was the only possible source of knowledge about the world and rejected the ideas of karma and the afterworld. The fact that the short summary of that rather unpopular ancient Indian teaching is paired with photograph No 1 implies that Lida regards Charvaka as a kind of distant precursor of dialectical and historical materialism enshrined in the Soviet Union as the official dogma. At one point Lenin and Stalin in the photograph are referred to as the two most humane wise men, and in another are compared to the wrathful and envious demigods Asuras, who have embraced falsehood and wage war against the Devas or gods. We cannot expect a blunt, on-the-nose condemnation of the two great villains of the 20th century from a woman whose outlook has been radically transformed by her study and practice of Buddhism.

It is Lida’s self-appointed task to break the cycle of suffering in which she has been caught not only as a single mother eking out an existence as a librarian in a small Ural town but also as a metaphysical partaker of her mother’s tribulations. At the very beginning of the novel, it is mentioned that Lida considers her mother’s memories to be also hers. In the early 1930s, after her parents die and she is placed into an orphanage (from which she soon escapes) Marina embarks on an odyssey of struggle and survival punctuated by human and animal deaths around her. She works as a dishwasher, country servant, cleaning lady, ore transporter, odd hand at a steel works, and as a guard at a prison camp, where she soon ends up a prisoner herself to be later rescued by Emelyan Lvovich, her future common-law husband. She has two daughters with him: the elder Alya and the younger Lida. Shortly after Lida’s birth, Emelyan plummets to his death from the greased pole at the Sabantuy festival leaving Marina Vasilievna to take care of their children on her own. Lida’s life is far less harsh, but diluted misery is still misery. She is not particularly lucky in her personal life, nor does she have any success in terms of career. She finds a possibility of distraction from her drab vegetation when she comes across a Russian translation of the Dhammapada. Not satisfied with that version, she orders microfilms with different English translations, which she reads using a children’s slide projector, and, having studied those, she becomes even more possessed by the desire to fully comprehend the Buddhist scripture, so she orders from Moscow textbooks of Pali and Sanskrit and tries to read the original with their help. As her studies progress, she becomes more detached from the vain and fussy life led by her colleagues and acquaintances. She protects her working space at the library with nine artefacts which she calls the nine lines of defence; their purpose is to stave off an unwanted intruder. This symbolic fortification is made up of reproductions of paintings, sheet music, a representation of the Wheel of Life, posters with Zen aphorisms or quotations from Buddhist texts. No one has ever managed to get as far as the eighth line of defence represented by a piece of graph paper with a handwritten excerpt from the Maitri Upanishad. When her colleagues compliment her on wearing a beautiful dress, she ruins it by emptying an inkwell over it; when someone admires her gorgeous braided hair, she immediately cuts off her plait with a pair of office scissors. Gradually, her actions begin to resemble those of a character from a Buddhist parable.


Bhavachakra, Image Source

Undoubtedly, the most spectacular element in Lida’s system of defence is the oil painting of the Bhavachakra, which she has executed herself. The ekphrasis of this monumental canvas runs on for pages and is followed by an equally extensive commentary of its author. Especially vivid and detailed is the description of the six realms of Samsara making up the third layer of the wheel clutched in the paws of the monster of impermanence. In Lida’s version of the wheel, in the centre of Devaloka (the region of the gods) there is the wish-fulfilling tree Kalpavriksha, which grows both in the realms of the Devas and the Asuras (Asuraloka); however, only the gods can enjoy the sweetness of its fruit, for in the land of the jealous demigods the fruit of this tree is worm-eaten. When the Asuras, who are constantly making inroads into Devaloka, manage to pluck some fruit from the Devas’ part of the tree, their loot immediately turns to dust. Many of the Asuras do not even make it to the border with the realm of the gods, struck by a shining diamond disc studded with poisoned barbs. The inhabitants of Pretaloka have it much worse than the Asuras. The Pretas or hungry ghosts used to be either greedy, miserly, or gluttonous in their previous life and now they are condemned to the lamentable existence of unquenched thirst and unrelieved hunger. They have huge bellies but tiny mouths and their gullets are hair-thin. They cannot grab anything with their slippery fingerless hands. They writhe on the ground like reptiles and even if they manage to swallow something edible, the food in their stomachs turns to liquid fire, causing them indescribable torment. But, of course, the worst is to be expected in Narakaloka or the hell region at the bottom of the wheel. No one escapes protracted and sophisticated torture, not even Yama, the wrathful god of death and justice presiding there. The master of the realm tortures himself by eating every week a block of granite and drinking a pot of boiling copper. Each sinner, before being condemned, sees all his or her wicked deeds reflected in the Mirror of Karma held by the fierce and just Yama, and then, the hellish creatures, who assume the appearance of the people that suffered at the hands of the sinner in the previous life, drag their victim to the place of torture to be continuously burnt, frozen, poisoned, racked, mutilated, famished, you name it. In Tiryakloka, the animal realm which makes up together with Narakaloka and Pretaloka the nether regions of the wheel, we see a world of perpetual fear, ignorance, and struggle. The wild animals depicted by Lida are caught in a vicious circle of mutual extermination. The bigger animals devour the small ones unless the smaller animals, like hyenas or wolves, gather in a pack to attack a larger beast. Domestic animals are shown as constantly exploited and maltreated by man before being slaughtered and served for dinner. Finally, to the left of the realm of the gods, there is Naraloka, the human world. In this section of the wheel, Lida has depicted a series of scenes representing different stages in the life of a human being: birth, childhood, maturity, hard work, accident, crime, power, disease, old age, death, funeral. Besides those, there are also depictions of battles, executions, imprisonments and other activities in which humans cause suffering to one another. Naraloka is the region of frantic activity and high aspirations; suspended between heaven and hell, its inhabitants have the free will and determination not only to ensure their departure to either but also to break the cycle and take place outside the wheel, together with the Buddha pointing at the full moon. In her commentary, Lida interprets the six realms of the Bhavachakra as the constituent elements of the human world, regarding each loka as the equivalent of a certain psychological state or a character trait. Although human beings tend to reside in one particular realm, they keep migrating to the other five in the course of their lives, depending on their current state of mind.

Out of all the Buddhist texts that Lida manages to obtain, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch proves to be the most important. Reading this sutra and listening to the mental instructions of Yunmen, synergistically serve as the catalyst of her enlightenment. It is not entirely clear what happens when Lida is reading an English translation of The Platform Sutra on a microfilm with the aid of a magnifying glass (she might have fallen asleep or entered a trance), but the text undergoes some significant changes. In Chapter 1, which relates the biography of Huineng, who begins his spiritual journey as a poor boy selling firewood, the identity of the protagonist is suddenly transformed: the name of the boy changes to Li Du, and the brief account of his first encounter with The Diamond Sutra at the house of a customer and the subsequent awakening gets extended by the interpellation of the Ten Bulls allegory. Li Du keeps returning to the customer’s house for ten days and each day there is a new picture on the straw mat hanging in the doorway. Those are the illustrations of a Buddhist practitioner’s progress towards enlightenment, in which he is depicted as a boy searching for a bull. “Li Du” is obviously the slightly changed first name of the protagonist (whose last name “Chernovol”, incidentally, means “black ox”), so the modified version of The Platform Sutra becomes a virtual space in which the identities of the Chan patriarch Huineng and the modest Soviet librarian begin to merge. This transformation interrelates with the other one, attained by Lida in the course of her last nine visits to Yunmen. The house of the Chinese, built on the site of a triple murder and self-decapitation, becomes for Lida an ersatz of a Chan Buddhist temple, in which she is destined to find what she has been looking for since she first read the Dhammapada.

The uncompromising conceptual nature of Ivanchenko’s novel will not be to everyone’s taste. It is not a new-age fabrication in the vein of Jonathan Livingston Seagull or The Alchemist. Nor does it indulge in the amusement park playfulness of Buddha’s Little Finger by Victor Pelevin, another contemporary Russian novel drawing heavily on the Buddhist tradition. The contrast between the emotional rollercoaster of the family history, a melodrama based on the real iniquities and injustices committed by the communist authorities, and the impassiveness of the Buddhist treatise is what makes The Monogram special: the collision of these two disparate styles evokes a form of being which would be difficult to represent convincingly by any other means.

This entry was posted in Fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Monogram (Монограмма) by Alexander Ivanchenko

  1. languagehat says:

    Very interesting! What is the titular monogram?

    • Not totally sure. In one of her notes, Lida writes that if a dying person could say one word before death, then a woman would say “love”, a peasant “bread” and a wiseman “God”. And then she wonders which word would include all these notions. Perhaps the monogram is the placeholder for this mysterious word. That’s my interpretation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.