Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Indescribable Walk in Nikitin’s Victory Park

Alexei Nikitin’s Victory Park— yes, that is the original title—is one of those books I think of as a lovely, fine mess. This is the book I mentioned as having “too many backstories for its own good”: it’s a loose and baggy novel, with a fairly large list of main and secondary characters. But Victory Park is also the book I described as “strangely endearing,” though I’m not sure what won me over most: the setting in Kiev, Nikitin’s blend of tragedy and comedy, or any of about five hundred details. Like a character mentioning Ardis’s 1981 edition of Vasilii Aksenov’s Остров Крым, which became The Island of Crimea, in Michael Henry Heim’s translation. I jotted a list of about twenty themes and motifs in the book without cracking a sweat or even the book… sometimes a lovely, fine mess is just the right thing.

In my reading, the most central character in the book is a college student. His last name is Pelikan, like the bird, and he comes from a family that does archaeological digs. Pelikan is infatuated with an unruly schoolgirl named Irka—he wants to buy her some black market Pumas for her birthday; this becomes a key plot element—but he’s also notable for receiving his draft notice. Victory Park is, appropriately enough, set in and around Victory Park during the perestroika era, when the Afghan War is still going on and soldiers are coming home. Nikitin adds historical and cultural depth to his setting by incorporating those digs, mentions of Kievan Rus and World War 2, and a character known as Buben, a mysterious and well-dressed man who’s come from Central Asia to Kiev for law enforcement but is more interested in managing the narcotics trade in Victory Park. The park is a quirky melting pot of nationalities and absurd ambitions.

File:Misha Boyarskiy.jpg
Mikhail Boyarsky or Vilya?
To expand on Pelikan’s story and offer more examples of the breadth of Nikitin’s details, I’ll add this: Pelikan wants to buy the Pumas from a black marketeer named Vilya who looks so much like actor Mikhail Boyarsky, who played one of the Three Musketeers, that he can fool just about anyone, including a married woman from Lithuania named Aphrodita whose husband, conveniently traveling when Vilya and AphroditeAphrodita hook up, just happens to be in law enforcement. Vilya comes to a bad end in Victory Park because of territorial disputes (hint, hint to a plot theme!) rather than his resemblance to Boyarsky (hint to wrinkles on identity). Pelikan and one of his friends seem like convenient possibilities for Buben to pin the crime on… though the reader witnesses the crime and knows neither is guilty.

Though I haven’t mentioned even a quarter of the characters or (I suspect) even subplots, like a wild birthday for the wild Irka, this already covers lots of the items on my jotted list, including some of the genres that Nikitin weaves in: love story, since it’s Pelikan’s longing for Irka that drives him to want those Pumas that result in Vilya’s downfall; crime novel, since we watch Buben and his buddies do some awkward interrogating and investigating of various wrongdoings; and social novel, since what we’re really watching is a Petri dish of human behavior. Perhaps even more important, though, Victory Park is also a coming-of-age novel for the good-hearted Pelikan, who begins as a guy who’s been called, late, for his military service and ends up, of course, beginning that military service. On a larger scale, Victory Park is a coming-of-age novel for the country that’s still the Soviet Union: Victory Park creates a thoroughly apt microcosm thanks to its (literal) underground activists, Afghan vets, blend of cultures, people waiting at stores for goods to arrive, sense of lawlessness and corruption, Georgian food, and whiff of carnival. About the only item left on my penciled list is “motorcycles”; I’m going to ignore my marginalia to keep things sane.

It’s Nikitin’s good-natured tone and humor that keeps the book going, even when some of those backstories get a little long: his humor and absurdity are gentle even when they’re sharp, and I get the feeling he truly loves and knows his characters and their tender wishes. That combines beautifully with his portrayal of human tragedy and hardships, economic imbalances, and the era’s many geopolitical discomforts. I wish the geopolitical discomforts and motifs of corruption and fighting for territory in Victory Park didn’t feel so relevant these days.

I’ll end on the same note as Tatyana Sokhareva did in her review of Victory Park for with a quote from the book, one Sokhareva says is something Dovlatov would have been proud of: “Я уж не говорю о свободе слова, о ней я предпочитаю свободно молчать,” roughly “I’m not talking about freedom of speech here, I prefer to freely keep quiet about that.” Fittingly, this comes from the book dealer who mentions Ardis. The book’s full of lines like that, which is why it kept me such good company—and kept me laughing—during a time with lots of work and distractions.

Up Next: Two more books that include Ukrainian settings—Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov and Gleb Shulpyakov’s Museum Named After Dante—and then Cartagena by Lena Eltang, a complex murder mystery of sorts that I’m reading slowly to appreciate all the details. There’s also been a nice crop of novellas lately…

Disclaimers: The usual.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The 2015 NatsBest Long List

I’ve been so busy translating and tallying snow totals—nearly four feet in the last two weeks, with about another foot allegedly on the way!—that I completely forgot the NatsBest long list was on the way, too. I always love the National Bestseller Award long list: it’s presented in table form with two columns, one for the nominator’s name, the other for the nominee’s name and title, making it easy to see exactly who nominated whom. And it’s always quirky. This year’s list comes courtesy of 53 nominators and I think there are only two books nominated twice, so I will most certainly not list everyone. All the more fun for you to research the list… which is always particularly entertaining because NatsBest begins posting the Big Jury’s reviews of nominees almost as soon as the long list is published.

First off, the two books nominated twice:
There’s one book I’ve already read and one that I’m reading now:
  • Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок (provisionally called The Italian Lessons in English) concerns a doctor in present-day Moscow faced with choices about where and how to live (previous post). I love that Anna Matveeva says in her Big Jury review that Stepnova seems to write in some sort of 5D cinematic format. After translating Stepnova’s Women of Lazarus, I can attest that Matveeva describes Stepnova’s writing perfectly.
  • Lena Eltang’s Картахена (Cartagena) is, hmm, a polyphonic murder mystery. Or at least that’s what it appears to be… the book feels as mysterious as the murder itself, thanks to Eltang’s metaphors, surprising turns of phrase (like that passionate evening involving mussel madness), and vivid Italian settings that I picture oh-so-well after translating excerpts for Eltang’s literary agency. Enjoyable reading for many reasons, particularly because I want to read quickly to find out what happened but keep slowing down to appreciate Eltang’s writing.
And then lots of books by authors I’ve read before:
  • Roman Senchin’s Зона Затопления (Flood/Immersion/Underwater Zone… hard to say without knowing more) is a collection still only in manuscript form, though several pieces have been published by journals.
  • Sergei Nosov’s Фигурные скобки (Curly Brackets (this English term falls into the “you learn something new every day category” for me)) should be available online soon from the journal Новый Мир, which published it.
  • Alexander Snegirev’s Вера (Vera, which also means Faith) is a novel about a forty-year-old woman who is unmarried. Snegirev’s Facebook description uses words including dramatic, comic, erotic (a bit), and political (a little). I’m looking forward to reading it.
  • Tatiana Tolstaya’s Легкие миры (Light Worlds? In which light has the meaning of not heavy…) Short stories; the title story won the Belkin Award. I bought the book after hearing Tolstaya speak at the Moscow International Book Fair in early September.
  • Anna Matveeva’s Девять девяностых (Nine from the Nineties). Short stories. Some, including (apparently) this one, were written for Snob. I thought some of Matveeva’s stories in an earlier collection were very decent.
  • Polina Barskova’s Живые картины (Live Pictures) is a book of prose by a poet, a collection of twelve pieces that came out of Barskova’s research into the history of the Leningrad blockade (excerpt). Knowing Polina’s dedication to this subject, I can’t imagine that the book isn’t interesting.
  • Boris Minaev’s Батист (Batiste) (part 1) (part 2) is a novel about two families, set in the first quarter of the twentieth century. A summary here also includes summaries of a Senchin story (see above) and, for good measure, Aleksei Varlamov’s Мысленный волк (The Imagined Wolf?), a novel set in the 1910s that involves some real-life figures, including our old friend Grigory Rasputin, as well as Yury Arabov’s Столкновение с бабочкой (Clash/Collision with a Butterfly), alternative history with a first chapter titled “Lenin in Zurich.”
That’s already a lot of books so rather than write up full listings of a couple familiar titles from other lists—they’re by Aleksei Makushinskii and Elena Minkina-Taicher, both described in this previous post—I’m going to look up a few couple completely unfamiliar names whose books look interesting and are already published rather than only available in manuscript form:
  • Ulyana Gamayun’s Осень в Декадансе (Autumn in Decadence) concerns a city as seen by a court artist, and (to summarize) Big Jury reviewer Mikhail Viesel says what’s most important here isn’t so much “what” as “how.”
  • Dmitrii Dolinin’s Здесь, под небом чужим (Here Under an Unfamiliar/Alien Sky) contains two novellas, both set during/around the time of World War 1 (excerpt). Dolinin is a former cameraman for the Lenfilm studio.
Up Next: Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I loved; Gleb Shulpyakov’s Museum Named After Dante, which I found mysteriously enjoyable; Alexei Nikitin’s Victory Park, which I found strangely endearing despite having too many backstories for its own good, and the afore-mentioned Cartagena by Lena Eltang, which is just the book for this ridiculously snowy season.

Disclaimers: The usual for having translated, chatted and eaten with, and/or otherwise gotten to know a number of the writers and nominators on the list. Plus I’m translating NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina (previous post) for Oneworld Publications.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Two Awards: NOS(E) for 2014 & The 2015 Prix Russophonie

Two bits of news about Russian literature awards. Sorry, sports fans: this stuff is far more exciting than any Super Bowl!

File:Aleksej Tsvetkov.jpg
Aleksei Tsvetkov
The NOS(E) award’s jury prize for 2014 was selected on Friday: Aleksei Tsvetkov won for his story collection Король утопленников (King of the Drowned) and Vladimir Sorokin won the reader prize, announced earlier last week, for his Теллурия (Tellurium). Tsvetkov, who is often referred to as “the younger” to distinguish him from the Aleksei Tsvetkov who is known as a poet and essayist, arranged his collection’s stories in order of length, from shortest to longest. The collection is available online here and published under Creative Commons. When Tsvetkov won the Bely Prize for King last fall, I wrote that the stories looks appealing… and I still think so.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Hélène Sinany won the 2015 Prix Russophonie for Le Persan, her translation of Alexander Ilichevsky’s Перс (The Persian). The book was published by Gallimard.

Up Next: I’ll be getting back to a more normal reading, posting, and sleeping schedule now that I’ve turned in a manuscript! Upcoming posts will cover Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I loved; Gleb Shulpyakov’s Museum Named After Dante, which I found mysteriously enjoyable; and Alexei Nikitin’s Victory Park, which is strangely endearing despite having too many backstories for its own good… I’m going to finish Victory Park tonight and then start something friends brought me from Moscow last month, probably Lena Eltang’s Cartagena: I read a large chunk of the book electronically when I translated excerpts last fall and can’t wait to read the whole thing now that the book is out on paper.

Photo: from Antonio Ramos, Creative Commons, on Aleksei Tsvetkov’s Wikipedia page.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Marina Stepnova’s Doktor Ogarev: First, Do No Harm?

Some books are most interesting to write about long after I’ve read them: my impressions seem to sort themselves out, leaving a clearer picture of what truly felt most important. That’s particularly helpful when books are as flowlingly easy to read but tremendously, disarmingly complicated to describe—and filled with detail—as Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок, which Stepnova’s literary agency is provisionally calling The Italian Lessons in English.

Even the novel’s title requires a bit of explanation: Bezbozhnyi pereulok refers to a Moscow street, the name of which implies, literally, Godless, not religious, antireligious, or even (if I synthesize a translation in the Oxford Russian Dictionary with definitions in the Ozhegov and Dyachenko dictionaries) outrageous in various ways that may be immoral. The street’s pre-Revolutionary name, Protopopovsky, was restored in 1992, according to Wikipedia. Simpler to translate since it’s just a surname, but hardly as interesting for a book title.

I’m not sure which title—the Russian original or the very different provisional English title—fits the book better but I’ll use the title as an entry to describing the novel’s plot. On a purely geographical level, something that’s important to the novel, I like the English title because the novel’s main character, Dr. Ivan Ogarev, is involved in two love triangles: the first between his wife Anya (also Antoshka) and his mistress Malya, the second between his native Russia, where he lives, and Italy, where he goes with Malya. The triangles themselves are remarkably similar because life with Antoshka, who’s the receptionist at the medical office where Ogarev works, is filled with Russian routine, but life with Malya, who lives off her wealthy father’s money, is filled with spontaneity and travel… to places including Italy. Malya might have studied in London but Ogarev, who’s a little older and grew up in the Soviet era, didn’t even know about passports for foreign travel. It is Malya, by the way, who lives on Bezbozhnyi pereulok.

Part of the fun of reading The Italian Lessons lay in observing how the novel differs from Stepnova’s previous book, The Women of Lazarus, (previous post), which will (here’s a shameless mention!) be out this fall, in my translation, from De Geus’s new World Editions imprint. I was glad to find Stepnova’s wonderful literary tics ticking away again: lots of quoting from and referring to classics, food preparations (walnuts are ground on the very first page) that never fail to make me hungry, and characters whose lives coincide with changes in Russian history. Ogarev comes of age during perestroika and the lives of the three main women in The Women of Lazarus reflect their times, too: the 1917 revolution and World War 2, the thaw era, and the socioeconomic difficulties of the 1990s. Stepnova also includes lots of one-word sentences, off-hand parenthetical comments, and even a budget from the nineties… in short, Stepnova is still the indescribable literary magpie I came to love more and more with each new draft of The Women of Lazarus. (And there were many drafts… the book is stylistically very complex…)

What’s different in The Italian Lessons is that Stepnova focuses on just one generation—Ogarev’s generation, with its Soviet-era childhood and post-Soviet adulthood—as the setting for a story that’s less about a doctor healing patients than about a doctor healing himself in a country that’s critically ill. Ogarev is a guy who’s angry with the world (he didn’t exactly have a happy childhood) and Stepnova writes early on that if he’d been born in the nineties, he probably would have been some sort of criminal. Instead, he’s a talented doctor who’s almost criminally unhappy. Here’s a brief paragraph about his Moscow life, from about two-thirds of the way through the book:

Три тысячи двести семь пациентов в базе данных. Простуженная жена. Пробки. Путин. Съёмная квартира. Системно чужой город. Системно чужая безрадостная страна.
Three thousand two hundred and seven patients in the database. Wife sick with cold. Traffic jams. Putin. Rented apartment. Consistently/systematically alien city. Consistently/systematically alien, joyless country.

That day is cold and dark, and Ogarev has fallen out of love with his native country (I purposely used “alien” to reflect Ogarev’s alienation), but it’s also a week after he met Malya, a patient, who brings him coffee. From Starbucks. True to the book’s provisional English title, though, The Italian Lessons ends in [spoiler alert!] Italy. Where Ogarev is described as a “свободный человек,” a “free person,” and reminds me of a modern-day Levin as he mows the lawn. A page of so later, there’s a run of words that includes July, Italy, sun, and, yes, even Tolstoy. And then Stepnova finishes the book a bit later with the word “человек,” meaning “person” or, perhaps better yet, “human being.” I won’t spoil anything else with more details—this book, which I liked very much (and would, of course, love to translate), is desperately difficult to write about without giving everything away—though I will say that Ogarev pays dearly for that freedom to become a human being.

Disclaimers. The usual. As mentioned, I translated Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus. And I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Stepnova in Moscow last September. I’ve also worked on projects with Stepnova’s agency, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova.

Up Next. Another difficult-to-describe book: Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov. And then Gleb Shulpyakov’s Museum Named After Dante, which I found mysteriously enjoyable. I’m still trudging along through Alexei Nikitin’s Victory Park, which sometimes seems to have too many backstories for its own good… though there’s something about the humor, which seems to be turning darker, that keeps me going. And the NOSE award at the end of the month, too…

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year! & 2014 Highlights. The Footnotes Have It!

Happy new year! С Новым годом! I wish everyone an extraordinarily happy, healthy 2015 with an abundance of good, (whatever that may mean to you), fun, enjoyable books. This year, like last, turned out to be all about quality over quantity, with, alas, a plethora of abandoned books… fortunately, the good books more than made up for the books I didn’t finish. Here are some highlights.

Favorite book by an author I’d already read. I still haven’t posted about Evgeny Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I finished several months ago. But a post is on the way. Seriously. In brief, though, Solovyov is a Petersburg historian who goes to Crimea for a conference about Larionov, a White Army general. Much academic hilarity ensues. Some of it in footnotes. Of course there are many, many more elements--like timelessness and some malfeasance involving a document--to this fun novel, a big reason why it’s so difficult to write about…

Favorite book by an author I’d never read. This one has to be Evgeny Chizhov’s Translation from a Literal Translation, (previous post), which I loved for Chizhov’s grace in mixing genres, making an invented country work for this skeptical reader, and effectively describing all sorts of heat. I was glad to see that Translation won the Venets award last week from the Moscow Union of Writers.

Favorite book read in English. I admit that, as per the usual, I didn’t read as many Russia(n)-related books in English during 2014 as I might have... but that doesn’t mean Soviets, by Danzig Baldaev and Sergei Vasiliev, (previous post), isn’t worthy of another mention. The combination of detailed caricatures, black and white photos, and pointed captions is well worth reading and studying. This must be my year of loving footnotes: Soviets, translated by Polly Gannon and Ast A. Moore, contains lots of helpful explanatory notes. The publisher, Fuel, continues to produce beautiful books: I’ve been saving their Soviet Space Dogs, another attractive book, as a treat. The New Year holiday may be just the right time…

Favorite travel. Everything was good this year—BookExpo America in New York, the American Literary Translators Association conference in Milwaukee, and the Congress of Literary Translators in Moscow—but I have to vote for the Congress. Not much beats a trip to Moscow that includes a visit to Andrei Platonov’s grave, speaking about translating old language in contemporary novels, and having an opportunity to see so many of “my” writers, not to mention translator colleagues from all over. It was especially fun and helpful to meet the afore-mentioned Evgeny Vodolazkin and talk about his Laurus, which I’m busily working on now…

What’s coming up in 2015? Top blogging priority is to get caught up on posts. And I’m still trying to figure out ways to capture notes and comments about some of the books I abandon. Often hundreds of pages in, like, let’s say, Zakhar Prilepin’s The Cloister, a book that offers a new aesthetic for prison camp novels but just wasn’t going anywhere for me, or Vladimir Sorokin’s Tellurium, which seemed to rehash too many Sorokin books I’d already read. I suppose one way to capture this information is to write by-the-by notes, or add a “Biggest Disappointment of the Year” paragraph to my year-end posts. I could have written that paragraph this year about Prilepin’s book, which won the Big Book Prize. I could say that Konstantin Milchin sums up my problems with The Cloister beautifully here, noting, among other things, (and I’ll paraphrase) that the novel, which is a bit lacking on the plot side, could have been 300 pages or 1,000 pages long, all to, roughly the same effect. (For the record, I read around 270 pages so didn’t come up very short on that 300 figure...) I was very happy that Milchin mentions Prilepin’s language, which hardly seems to vary among his 1920s characters, who speak in suspiciously (my word!) modern terms. I’d wondered about this but, as a non-native reader of Russian, thought maybe I was too demanding, particularly given my work on Laurus, where it’s an understatement to say the dialogue sure does vary.

A reading priority for 2015: I’m hoping to keep reminding myself to look for more books published by smaller publishers and literary journals…

Thank You! Finally, another big thank you to everyone who visits the blog, whether regularly or occasionally. Happy New Year to everyone! And happy reading!

Up Next: Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, Marina Stepnova’s The Italian Lessons (Безобжный переулок), and Alexey Nikitin’s Victory Park, which is off to a great start… Also, a list of translations coming out in 2015. I’m taking names and titles, so send them on in now!

Disclaimers. The usual.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.