Tag Archives: Russian

Forthcoming: Between Dog and Wolf by Sasha Sokolov

DogWolfI thought it would never happen. No, there was no way Sasha Sokolov’s most impenetrable novel would be translated. Reading  Between Dog and Wolf  back in the 1990s made me reconsider the presumptuous notion that I “knew” the Russian language. Even with the assistance of the four volumes of a facsimile edition of Vladimir Dal’s Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language I was not always able to make out what was going on in this maverick masterpiece. What I was positive about, however, was the fact that for the first time in my life I saw the Russian language perform impossible tricks right before my eyes. Sasha Sokolov wasn’t just a writer –  he was a magician, an alchemist creating his text by some secret crafts like a homunculus in a retort.

In my view, since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been four great Russian wordsmiths, and Sasha Sokolov is certainly one of them. The other three are Andrei Bely, Vladimir Nabokov and Alexander Goldstein. These writers have shown that they could do with the language whatever they pleased, creating works of breathtaking stylistic complexity and sheer brilliance at the sentence level. It is worth noting that Nabokov welcomed Sokolov’s debut novel  A School for Foolscalling it “an enchanting, tragic, and touching book”. We can regard Nabokov’s warm response as the symbolic gesture of an older grand stylist passing on the baton to a younger one. A School for Fools is an unconventional novel in many respects, but it doesn’t come even close to the runaway weirdness and verbal pyrotechnics of Between Dog and Wolf. Although this novel is obviously a parody of various styles and literary traditions, like all great works, it transcends the ludic element and breaks out into the sphere of the sublime.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Hunters_in_the_Snow_(Winter)

Hunters in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The protagonist of the novel is an itinerant knife-grinder with the name as uncertain as the proverbial position of an elementary particle. It keeps changing all the time. He wanders about the fictitious lands partly based on the the Volga region, and partly on the landscape in Pieter Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow which, by the way, inspired Sokolov to write the novel in the first place. Eight years prior to the publication of Between Dog and Wolf it had also been used to a stunning effect by another Russian master: Andrei Tarkovsky in his film adaptation of Solaris. There is no shortage of Breugelian grotesques in the book, the main character Ilya being the most prominent and the most eloquent of them. The story of his love, miseries, and existential horror is related in an eclectic torrent of verbiage flaunting a wide range of mimicked styles and genres, obscure archaisms and hilarious wordplay. From time to time the main narrative is interrupted by sequences of poems from the collection A Hunter’s Sketches  (titled after Ivan Turgenev’s famous short-story collection) although “interrupt” might not be the most appropriate word here, for the poems are as carnivalesque and off-the-wall as the prose. Sokolov’s next novel Palisandria, which came out in English as Astrophobia, was a longer work with a more convoluted plot, more copious literary allusions and a bigger cast of characters, but it couldn’t rival Between Dog and Wolf in its linguistic intensity. In terms of language, this short novel still remains the zenith of Sokolov’s writing career.

Let me remind you that everything written above refers to the original Russian text. I have no conceivable idea how this philosopher’s stone may be re-transmuted in the English language. Alexander Boguslwaski, who has also translated A School for Fools, must be exceptionally brave to have undertaken this challenging task. Sasha Sokolov has created a new kind of Russian for his novel that makes a short shrift of the impatient reader and sends the patient one on an arduous journey of rediscovering his own mother tongue. In order to convey that in translation, a new kind of English has to be created. Whether the translator has succeeded in pulling off this feat we’ll see pretty soon.

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The Quiet Fields (Спокойные поля) by Alexander Goldstein

I was reluctant SpokoiniyePolya to tackle The Quiet Fields mostly because I didn’t want to be left without any Goldstein novel to look forward to reading. This may sound a bit strange as he lived to write only two novels, but the sheer literary might of the first one, Remember Famagusta, persuaded me that its author was one of the greatest Russian language stylists of his time, and therefore  his next book must be something out of this world as well. Needless to say, this turned out exactly the case.  The Quiet Fields is a work of  intoxicating linguistic virtuosity and vast erudition which make most of the recent Russian literary produce pale by comparison. Partly fictionalised memoir, partly cultural criticism, this work is Goldstein’s swansong, his final legacy, his ticket to literary immortality. The author was terminally ill with lung cancer when writing this book, and he managed to finish it just shortly before his death. Aware of the fact that the end was near, Goldstein created an intricate tapestry in which he tried to capture as much of the world he was leaving behind as he could. Even partial understanding of this literary arras might require several careful readings as the density of the writing, high as it is, on many occasions goes off-scale.

The narrator, who shares many biographical details with the author, tells the story of his childhood and student years in the Soviet Baku as well as of his later life in Tel Aviv as an Israeli immigrant. But it is not just a story of the people he has known, the places he has visited, and the experiences he has had. It is also a story of literature, art and philosophy that have shaped the narrator and given him his particular voice. Just like in Remember Famagusta, the narrative is fragmentary, with unexpected temporal and spacial leaps. The novel is populated by real and imaginary characters: some of them are the individuals Goldstein personally knew, some are the figments of his imagination, some are historical figures he read about in books. A  life spent reading is as important here as a life spent living, maybe even more. Books, booksellers and bookshops are omnipresent in The Quiet Fields. Throughout the whole novel books are read, discussed, analysed. It appears that for Goldstein literature is just another country, like The Soviet Union or Israel, but more comfortable and more familiar than either of these. He definitely knew it better than any place in the physical world. The abundance of literary allusions playfully scattered on the pages of the novel reveals an encyclopedic mind equal to that of Roberto Calasso or Umberto Eco. We are not talking here about mere references to other works of literature.  The cultural material at Goldstein’s disposal is treated with exceptional subtlety  and is further enriched by passing through the centrifuge of his prose. There seems to be nothing he cannot do with language. Rich in meaning, alliterative and allusive, Goldstein’s sprawling sentences strike by the sheer inventiveness and the originality of looking at things. Even the most mundane situations gain loftiness and solemnity once couched in the baroque luxury of Goldstein’s prose. Nothing which is written nowadays in Russian comes even close to this filigree wordsmithery.

There are fourteen chapters, and the longest one has the same title as the novel – The Quiet Fields. This chapter is the most plot-driven part of the book, although it is unlikely to provide any kind of linearity for an impatient reader. It is a story of friendship of three bookish guys (one of whom is the narrator) in  Baku during the Soviet time.The quiet fields are none other than the Elysian Fields described in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, which happens to be the favourite book of Pavel Torgovetsky, one of the three friends. The other friend is Oleg Blonsky, the narrator’s second cousin who provides him with rare books, some of them banned in the Soviet Union. The ordinary story of sharing and discussing books, of joint walks in the streets of Baku, of meals and  teas taken together is not only energised by the verbal pyrotechnics of the narrative, but also by the intrusion of mystical elements. Oleg’s mother Fira, who has some psychiatric disorder, also possesses a supernatural gift of drawing people the way they will look in the future, in ten or more years. When she was a girl, many relatives and  friends of the family came to her to pose for the prophetic portraits, and even paid money for that. The fun continued until one day she  was not able to fulfill the request of a man who wanted to see how he looked in eight years.  As Fira revealed,  there were just five years left for him. One cannot help but see the parallel between this mystical prophesy of death and a lethal medical diagnosis.

The three most important books the narrator acquires with Blonsky’s assistance are Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne.  Goldstein writes about each of these works at some length, but even without his explanations, the reader of the novel who has reached this point will be able to see their significance for the narrator given his background, ideas and aspirations. Kolyma Tales narrates one of the most horrible moments of history of the country in which he and his friends have come of age. Shalamov is the Russian Virgil offering to the reader a descent into the hell of Stalin’s labour camps. Whereas in other works on the subject, like Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, some aspects of camp labour are presented in the positive light as a source of meaning and self-actualisation for the dejected inmate, for Shalamov forced labour is a just a type of slow execution. Its only purpose is to wear out and degrade the prisoner until he succumbs to untimely death. Both Rilke’s and Jacobsen’s novels deal with the struggles, hopes and inevitable disillusionment of the aspiring poet who finds it hard to come to terms with the alienating society. It is important to remember that one of the genres mined by The Quiet Fields is the Künstlerroman, albeit the narrator’s formation as an artist, as opposed to that depicted in more conventional works of such kind, is shown  in non-linear, kaleidoscopic manner, with many gaps remaining unfilled.

The trio of intellectuals becomes just a duet after the tragic death of Oleg in a drowning accident. The two friends continue seeing each other, but  it’s not what it used to be. They slowly grow apart as Pavel becomes more and more obsessed with the Aeneid which he considers a prophetic book. He tries to predict the future by opening it at random and reading the arbitrary passage. The literary value of the poem gives way to its purported occult powers. Their walks together become rare until they cease meeting  altogether, restricting their communication to weekly phone conversations. After some time even the phone calls stop. When Pavel dies, the narrator is conveniently sick with flu, which gives him an excuse not to attend his funeral. Interaction with great writers and philosophers via books come easier to  Goldstein’s protagonist than human relationships in real life. Not that it is so uncommon among artists.

The story of three friends is just one of many recounted in The Quiet Fields. It stands out among others as it is the longest and the most fleshed-out narrative in the book. The nature of Goldstein’s novel is such that very often we get just a glimpse or hint of some event, and then it gives way to another before we become fully aware of what has just taken place. Some events and characters reappear later in the book, others disappear forever leaving to the reader a lingering taste of mystery. Besides that there are numerous set pieces of insightful commentary on various writers, artists, philosophers, and historical figures. The list of personalities discussed by Goldstein includes Bertold Brecht, Ernst Jünger, Giacomo Casanova, Iamblichus, Siyyid Ali Muhammad, Paul Scheerbart, Andy Warhol, Ferdinad II of the Two Sicilies, Garcilaso de la Vega, Witold Gombrowicz, Sergei Diaghilev, Sergei Kuriokhin, Louis Althusser and even Tupak Shakur. In the company of Goldstein’s inquisitive and critical mind, we discover a lot of fascinating facts and ideas. For instance, we learn why Andy Warhol’s photograph with a bulldog and a Roman bust counters the ancient doctrine of the great chain of being and also get to know the four important conclusions stemming from Garcilaso de la Vega’s description of the mummified Inca kings. The novel is full of little gems like these. Not less captivating are some ways in which the narrator gets hold of the books that provide him with food for thought, for sometimes the circumstances of acquiring a tome are tinged with the sense of mystery, of occult initiation. The case in point is his acquisition of a book with the writings of the Syrian Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus. The book is given to him by a mysterious barefoot man whom he meets in a forest. The narrator asks the man about the meaning of Nothing. After delivering a protracted monologue on the nature of being and reality that touches, among other things, on the philosophical teachings of Gautama Buddha, the artistic ambition of Ezra Pound, and the many-worlds interpretation of Hugh Everett III, the sage wanderer disappears in the woods  leaving the cloth-bound Iamblichus on the moss-covered stone he was sitting on just a while ago. The style of the wanderer’s speech fully conforms to the overall aesthetics of Goldstein’s novel: his ramblings are learned, convoluted and impressionistic. This is how, for example, he illustrates the impossibility of escaping the material world (please note that in no way my translation can do any justice to the original):

Where is the lie? It’s not so easy to explain, but I’ll try. As a sectarian immured in the masonry of the real, totally ignorant of anything but matter in the broad presence of its manifestations, – mettlesome cynic challenge – I was free as a bird, a flaneur on a voyeuristic walk,  everywhere finding the proof of my case. From The Capitals-talmuds, unread, leafed through out of boredom, from the orators’ speeches, radiochaos, strikes, from the newspaper columns with stock quotes and crime rates, from aviation, jazz, mustard gas, Rabelaisian devaluation and resurrection of money, from the tempo-rhythm of the city flooded by new iniquity (secret clubs, underground lupanars, Roman indecencies of the petite bourgeoisie of Weimar, night life opening the fan of sexual and racial exoticism for the first time surpassed the daytime in saturation), from the discontent of factory workers, from the political provocations, from the black weariness crying for the rabble-rousing to be fettered,  from the plebeian lies and violence there crept the red inflamed carcass of reality, live and complacently rotting meat bored by a million-headed worm, and even the cinema, lunar and theatrical, mistakenly chartered by doubles, psychosis, hypnosis, cocaine and morphine, lacerated him with hooks, thin like Chinese needles, like needles of embalmers.

On the last page of the novel there is the phrase “the morphine splits the text in two “. It is a grim reminder of the circumstances under which Goldstein was putting finishing touches to the manuscript of The Quiet Fields. Both as a linguistic tour-de-force and as a testimony of its author’s stoicism in the face of death, this book has a special place in contemporary Russian literature. I am not fazed in the least by the small print run of the edition that I have read: just 1,000 copies. It is true that Goldstein is little read in Russian-speaking countries and is almost unknown in the rest of the world. However, judging by his two novels which, when their time comes, will be keeping busy more than one generation of scholars, I personally have no doubt that his fabulous prose already belongs to the pantheon of eternity.

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The Love for Three Zuckerbrins (Любовь к трем цукербринам) by Victor Pelevin

I thoughLoveforThreeZuckerbrinst I had given up on Pelevin completely when I abandoned his novel Snuff (still not available in English), which read like clumsy Young Adult sci-fi with marginally funny political jokes and the indispensable chastisement of popular culture by ironic subversion of its memes. Mind you, I used to hold this writer in very high esteem when his first works appeared in the 1990s. That was his heyday. I still think that the best thing he has ever penned is Buddha’s Little Finger AKA The Clay Machine-GunHowever, it’s been a while since I read it, and I have no idea what I will make of this novel if I re-read it. The first review published on this blog, if you remember, was  that of Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria. My main gripe with it was the repetitiveness of the plot, the characters, the ideas, well, pretty much everything. The same could be said about most of Pelevin’s novels since Homo Zapiens. The painfully familiar patterns keep emerging in each new novel whose main character is yet another adept of secret knowledge (e.g. a ‘shroom-ingesting visionary copywriter, a werewolf, a vampire) who exposes the illusory character of what we are accustomed to call reality and leads us to some zen-like revelation, taking a dig at the most topical political and cultural issues in Russia on the way. Nothing new in this respect could be said of his latest novel. Nonetheless, since I did finish it, and even liked certain things about it, I thought I would share my impressions with you.

The title refers to Sergei Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges which is based on Carlo Gozzi’s fairy tale play of the same name. More exegesis-prone readers will correct me, but I think that here the resemblance between the two works ends. If you haven’t guessed it yet, the zuckerbrin of the title is a portmanteau word combing the last names of the Facebook creator and of one of the co-founders of Google. As usual, Pelevin tries to be at the bleeding edge of all the major trends in our society; hence a lot of attention in the novel is devoted to that integral part of our existence which we spend online.

The first deja-vu comes with the narrator. Like so many of his predecessors in Pelevin’s previous works, he also becomes an adept of secret knowledge. By following some meditative practice discovered in esoteric reading matter left to him by a deceased relative, the young man turns into a quasi-omniscient being who can penetrate the thoughts of other humans and influence their actions. The guy realizes that now he is a Kyklops (the spelling of Cyclops dating back to the Greek original), a being of a higher order whose primary task is to keep the world in balance by preventing the occurrence of certain events which can lead to serious historical cataclysms. One of the examples given early on is the fact that the outcome of the recent coup d’état in Ukraine depended on whether a certain woman would take with her an umbrella or not. Everybody who’s at least seen the movie The Butterfly Effect will roll their eyes at this. Yes, and that’s my major beef with the new novel. I don’t know how many readers will learn for the first time from The Love for Three Zuckerbrins about Ray Bradbury’s famous short story, the lepidoptera causing hurricanes, the multiple universes, and the half-dead feline named after the Nobel-winning Austrian physicist. Perhaps they will get excited at the way Pelevin weaves these  scientifically charged themes into the fabric of  his narrative. As for those who might have heard something about all of this: well, they will have to suppress a yawn or two. Considering the hyper-newness of many events mentioned in the story, this recourse to rather hackneyed tropes massively abused in tons of science fiction novels before does not look very congruent. Especially, if these ideas are presented  and “explained” by the Russian writer in a very direct way. It seemed as if Pelevin himself had just recently discovered the popular explications of the basics of chaos theory and quantum physics, and was eager to share these findings with the reader.

The said hyper-newness is in fact a staple of any Pelevin novel, and this is something I really like about his works, although, of course, you have to be aware of all the relevant recent events to get that particular aspect of his books. To achieve this effect, Pelevin apparently adds some hot information to the manuscript when the new novel is already finished. What it boils down to is that you read in his books about some event that you have just recently seen discussed on television or in newspapers.  You think to yourself: “It happened, like, several months ago, and it is already in a Pelevin book! How  come?!” Those with insider knowledge will understand what I’m talking about.  Pelevin is really good at provoking such a reaction from his reader. Of course, those reading the translations will never experience anything of the kind because of the time elapsed since the publication of the original. In case of this novel, the riots in Kiev, the subsequent overthrow of President Yanukovych and the annexation of Crimea by Russia have for the narrator the same topicality as for the readers of the book.

The cosmological premise of the novel is underpinned by the scenario of the insanely popular video game Angry Birds. The Birds in the fictional universe of Pelevin are the archenemies of the Kyklops, believing him to be an evil God, and doing their best to destroy him through other unsuspecting people. However, they cannot harm the narrator directly as they live in a different dimension. The assassination attempts of the Birds are surreally depicted in a subverted Angry Birds fashion because it is the Birds which catapult different human beings at the green pig that stands for the hateful creator who is in reality none other than our narrator Kyklops. It might look pretty madcap to a newcomer to Pelevin’s oeuvre, but, again, those acquainted with his previous works will immediately spot a resemblance with the story Prince of Central Planning in which Pelevin drew heavily on the computer game Prince of Persia. Despite its silliness, I quite liked this use and abuse of the popular smartphone game because in a way, it does reflect some of the current zeitgeist and definitely can be used as material for an alternative cosmological view.

The following passage describes the flight of one of the human projectiles launched by the Birds by means of a huge catapult:

Still from the video game Angry Birds. Image source.

Still from the video game Angry Birds. Image source

While soaring in the sky, Nikolai gradually started to notice the traces of the preceding hits against the abode of the Creator — dents left on the mysterious substance of space-time. He didn’t know what it was in reality: his consciousness deciphered what he saw into imagery familiar to humans.

He wasn’t the first live projectile launched by the Birds into the Boar. Around what appeared to Nikolai as the ruins of the circular colonnade lay a multitude of corpses covered in red dust. Earlier he had taken them for outcrops in the soil.

It was an infernal dumping ground of freaks, harpies and chimaeras. Webbing, wings, clawed tails, many-toothed jaws, spines, stings… As if somebody’s evil will experimented with different shapes, trying to pick the lock of the final gate, crossing angels with swine. … The most gruesome, of course, were the small details: the dyed locks of wool, the rings in the forked ears, the jewelry piercing the eyelids and lips. …  The garments and jewelry on some of the freaks suggested that the Birds had wiped out whole civilisations and cultures in order to test a new tip for their spear. And those live spearheads must have pondered in the light of the ancient stars: what force and for which purpose had  brought them into being?

The novel consists of three novellas written by Kyklops and the meta-story linking them together. The longest novella has the English title Fuck the System and  is a disturbing description of a future society with echoes of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, the Alan Moor of V. for Vendetta and, most pertinently, the Wachowski siblings. The main character of this story portraying a Matrix-like society is a certain Kesha who used to be an inveterate Internet troll in his previous life three hundred  years before.  He and his social partner (a wife of sorts), like most of the denizens of this brave new world, live in a tiny cell in a cyclopic edifice called “cluster”  which is several kiolmetres tall and from the outside looks like an enormous garbage dump.

It resembled a huge multi-storey installation composed of scratched beer cans, dirty balloons, patched nest boxes and  milk cartons turned grey by time: that is how the individual lodging units looked; they had been manufactured at different times and attached to the common anti-gravitational base.

He is connected to the global control system by different cables and tubes which  feed him, wash him, and extract his bodily fluids, while special wires implanted right into his brain keep him immersed in virtual reality indistinguishable from lived experience. This rather unoriginal scenario allows Pelevin to vent his sarcastic condemnation of all the major evils of the Internet from addiction to social networks to online pornography. This bleak futuristic world is ruled by the above-mentioned zuckerbrins, which are some kinds of algorithms that transfer power from one to another every second. The main engine of this narration derives from a very peculiar love triangle between Kesha, his social partner Marilyn and the avatar from Kesha’s virtual environment represented as a Japanese schoolgirl.  As a corollary to the technological advances of this society Kesha does not have real physical relations with Marilyn as they meet each other and make love in the shared cyberscape, but experience physical pleasure with the help of the devices called respectively Google Dick and Google Pussy.  In this particular future the famous Internet-related services company has developed into a worldwide leader in the manufacture of prosthetic genitals. Kesha’s adultery is effected by superimposing the virtual image of the Japanese schoolgirl onto the virtual image of his wife. This captivating love adventure unrolls among the alarming reports of the  cyberterrorist Batu Karayev insidiously wreaking havoc to the matrix by sending viruses to the servers maintaining the collective dream of the cluster dwellers. The nightmares triggered by Karayev’s program are so powerful that many of the dreamers actually die upon experiencing them. As many will rightly suppose, sooner or later the paths of Kesha and the elusive terrorist will cross.

The main events of this dystopian scenario unfolding in one of the countless universes have precedents in the framing narrative of Kyklops set in our time and some interesting reverberations in a completely different future world which appears to be a satirical version of the Biblical paradise. The whole picture may seem a bit confusing, but we shouldn’t forget that Pelevin is a writer who does not necessarily tie all the loose ends.

The novel was mostly panned by the Russian reviewers, and one can clearly see why. In terms of the plot, the characters and the major themes it adds very little to the previous works of Pelevin, and some of the moralising at the end will seem to many rather banal and dispensable. Nevertheless, the book has its moments (some of them very funny)  and certainly deserves being translated  with explanatory notes, so that the foreign reader will at least have an idea why some passages will make the context-aware Russian reader laugh out loud. By the way, compared to most of the previous novels, you will not find a single swear word in Russian in this novel, which is Pelevin’s sarcastic response to the recent absurd obscenity ban which prohibits swearing in Russian arts and media. So, for example, instead of writing “fucked”, the author left three asterisks with the footnote “the verb beginning with f used  in the past tense”. And that is another proof that Pelevin, regardless of undeniable quality issues in his latest effort, still remains the most up-to-date Russian writer you will ever read.

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The Capture of Izmail (Взятие Измаила) by Mikhail Shishkin

CaptureOfIsmailIf you can read French or Italian, grab your copy of Mikhail Shishkin’s The Capture of Izmail immediately because it’s his best and most difficult novel so far.  If you thought Maidenhair was a challenge, you’re in for an overwhelmingly perplexing ride. Even most of the Russian critics were lost in this labyrinth of styles, voices and chronotopes. The novel is disorienting, frustrating and even outrageous. It requires multiple readings along with a notepad or an array of differently coloured highlighters to keep track of the characters and the events. Although a completely different beast, William Gaddis’s JR provoked in me a similar sense of confusion when time and again  I suddenly realised that I was no longer sure of who was talking to whom.

Shishkin’s novel is an elaborate exploration of a certain theme through the media of masterly imitated styles and registers. Letters, diaries, lectures, law-court speeches, witness statements, criminology textbooks, ancient fables and chronicles, you name it. Out of these snatches and snippets, the writer gradually erects a horrifying monument to his major and perhaps only preoccupation: how to live with the knowledge of your inevitable death. That’s how Shishkin himself refers to the main agenda of his writing in an  interview:

– For me, writing is like an attempt to answer the questions that I asked myself as a child. Once I was walking along with my grandmother, and on the side of the road we saw a dead cat. And my grandmother went home, got a shovel and returned. And when she buried it on the side of the road, I suddenly realized that I too will someday die… And grandmother will die, and all the people that I love and that love me will die some day. And what can one do about this? And ever since I have been asking myself: is it possible to fight death?

While walking through the atrocity exhibition unfolding on the pages of The Capture of Izmail, one stumbles over and over on this question and its derivatives. How to come to terms with death, injustice, suffering, disease, stench and putrefaction? The beauty of the language quite effectively brings home the sheer enormity of the subject matter. This contrast has become an immediately recognizable staple of Shishkin’s prose.  The central motif is no less than suffering and death of a child. And you will find quite a few tormented children in this novel. There is even a defense speech in which an attorney tries to justify a woman who killed her own baby by invoking some primitive cultures practising infanticide as well as famous philosophers condoning it in certain cases. This passage appears to me a kind of A Modest Proposal with its satirical sting clinically removed. Shishkin is too serious to be grotesque.

Contemporary people like us, having just a different skin colour, smother, cut, strangle, drown, burn their babies, which is not considered a crime. On the Fiji Islands they still devour their children — read Bode or, at least Kohler. […] Plato in his philosophical state without any hesitation destroys all the children conceived out of wedlock or by women older than forty. Moreover, he allows not only weak babies to be killed, but also those well developed, if the number of the newly born exceeds a certain limit.

Is it one of the main characters, the attorney Alexander Vasilyevich, defending just another client of his? I cannot confirm this with any degree of certainty since the novel is chock-full with interrupted plotlines that will not be necessarily resumed. The story of little boy Sasha who grows up to become the attorney Alexander Vasilyevich is one of the several developments that provide the reader with illusory stability in the chaotic environment of the novel. The atmosphere of a trial is asserted from the very beginning when we are introduced to the judge, prosecutor, attorney and  defendant bearing the names of Slavic pagan gods. A woman referred to as Mokosh (goddess of fertility)  is tried for murdering her blind mother. She is believed to have left her mother outside the house to freeze to death. The prosecutor in his speech mentions the Roman law according to which matricides were drowned in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a snake and a monkey.  The attorney reminisces about a woman who shoved her supposedly stillborn baby into the burning oven, after which the doctor established that there was air in its lungs; hence, the baby had been alive. Mokosh is separated from her child. She fakes madness not to be sent to Siberia by smearing herself with her own excrement. When exposed, she strangles herself on the eve of the transportation. That’s it. And there will be more stories like that.

Most of the characters in the novel are pure nodes of suffering. There is very little hope all the way  up to the semi-autobiographical Epilogue. One unhappy family replaces another until the author himself becomes a character in his novel. He does seem to be better-off than his fictitious predecessors, although there is enough misery in his own story to jerk a tear or two from an overly sensitive reader. Mind you, not necessarily everything is true, for Shishkin seems to throw in a good share of invention into his story. The more or less coherent plot-oriented parts of the novel tell us about people who are beset by death, disease and betrayal to such an extent that you cannot help but get rather desensitised by the time the book is finished. But what I find fascinating about this novel is actually everything besides these islands of traditional story-telling. That turbulent textual element which tends to break the narrative, and, out of the blue, overwhelm the reader with a ghastly historical testimony or a ludicrously salacious folk tale seguing into a cento of unattributed quotations. A postmodern symphony in prose, The Capture of Izmail is definitely one of the most impressive literary achievements by a Russian author in recent years. Shishkin’s approach in this novel is more radical and uncompromising than in his later two works available in English (Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark).  One of my favourite episodes is the one in which a Russian medic arrives in Tundra to inoculate the Samoyedic peoples.  A seemingly realistic story  transforms half-way into a nightmarish journey to ancient Egypt which bears some resemblance to Russia at different moments in its history. A series of Biblical plagues is visited on the country, but, just like in the Bible, each time the heart of the King gets even more callous as large-scale iniquities are committed with renewed ardour.

Those who are familiar with Russian history will know that Izmail is the Turkish fortress captured by Russian troops at the end of the eighteenth century during the Russo-Turkish War. In charge of the storming was the legendary commander Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov. In the novel, what is left of this historic event besides the title is the hapless attorney’s name which coincides with that of the great military leader. Actually, The Capture of Izmail crops up once in the narrative itself as the title of a circus routine a little boy wants to stage some day after watching a performance with trained animals. It will feature mice storming a cardboard fortress. The irony levelled at the impersonal grand history of the state is quite obvious here. Shishkin  is more interested in individuals: humiliated, oppressed, hopeless and helpless. Being in their company is not the most pleasant way of spending your time, but that’s what you will have to resign yourself to if you wish to experience the best that contemporary Russian writing has to offer.  I hope that the English translation of this novel will eventually appear and create a splash among readers of serious literature. 

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Remember Famagusta (Помни о Фамагусте) by Alexander Goldstein

RememberFamagustaThe 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 that 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 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 in 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 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 some day 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 is forthcoming this April from Matthes & Seitz Berlin.

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