Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Strugatskys’ Doomed City: Not Quite My Kind of Dystopian Town

My best news about reading Град обреченный (available in English as Andrew Bromfield’s The Doomed City, Chicago Review Press), by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, is that I finished it, all 444.25 pages. After attempting at least four or five other Strugatsky books (some of which I nearly finished), this is the first Strugatsky novel I’ve gotten through in Russian. The less good news is that The Doomed City may be a page-turner but I still feel a touch underwhelmed. That said, I found The Doomed City fascinating in certain ways. For starters, a lot of people from various countries and times have been spirited away to a city in an otherworldly place where mysterious mentors occasionally visit. People all somehow even understand each other’s languages. The sun is shut off and turned on. Baboons mysteriously appear. And so on and so forth. The book is loaded with sociopolitical and sociocultural material, and there’s a clear sense of mock(ing) Sovietdom. Scariest: the political experiments feel relevant now, too. Perhaps best of all, the book is far edgier than any other Strugatsky books I’ve tried, without the corny humor (sorry, but I’ve never enjoyed the Brothers’ humor) but with obscenities as well as less of a cookie-cutter science fiction feel. Oddly, I may want to reread it, for details: there’s just far, far too much to sort out in just one reading, making one reading feel like a very rough draft.

The Doomed City focuses on the career(s) of Andrei Voronin, depicting his progression through various professions over the course of the book, beginning as a garbage collector and ending as a presidential advisor and operative. (Changes of profession are forced.) Andrei, who was an astronomer back on Earth, is a pretty unsympathetic character: not only is he a Stalinist but his political gig is under a president who served Nazi Germany; Andrei does a nasty turn to Izya Katzman, the nicest, most thoughtful person in the book, who also happened to work for Joint; and he tends to think of women (who, eek!, barely even appear in The Doomed City—perchance this is a reason it’s doomed?) using terms like “slut” and “whore.” Given that the presence of all these people in the City is an experiment—it’s actually an Experiment and “The Experiment is the Experiment” is repeated over and over again—I think part of the Strugatskys’ point here (put simplistically) is to offer a portrait of a thoroughly unsympathetic (that word again!) person who starts as an astronomer, a scientist who should have distant vision, but is blinded by stubbornness and proximity to power and comfort.

There’s a intriguing sense of camaraderie among these disparate characters from all over the world, particularly when they gather to eat, drink, and even dance. It’s even interesting to watch the progression of the parties along with Andrei’s career: the core of the guest list remains the same but things get fancier and more official. The happiest person in the book, though, seems to be Wang, who risks to remain a garbage collector. Wang knows what he wants and understands himself, something that eludes Andrei, who realizes his thought processes are inconstant and whose mentor tells him, “You’ve just had understanding hammered into you, and it makes you feel sick, you don’t understand what the hell you need it for, you don’t want to know about it…”

In the end, I found The Doomed City more interesting and fun to read—the novel’s suspenseful and the Strugatskys draw Andrei’s psychology and actions pretty clearly—than to reflect on. I admit that’s partly because there were a few bits I didn’t quite get. I’m glad, for example, that Marat Grinberg’s review for Los Angeles Review of Books decodes the novel’s ending, prefaced by, “What transpires is very cryptic; one needs to be a fan of David Lynch to unravel the mystery.” Despite being a Lynch fan who’s seen lots of his films, not to mention all of Twin Peaks at least twice, in Russian (voiced over, mind you!) and in English, I still, dense of head, needed Grinberg’s help. Grinberg sums up the relationship between Andrei and Izya, including how Izya helps Andrei handle understanding better. (Alas, in the novel there’s a meandering three-page paragraph involved.) I realize that I’m more to blame than the Strugatskys for needing remedial assistance from Grinberg—I was caught up in the suspense of the novel and read crucial passages too quickly—but a lot of important material, including that crucial meandering paragraph and Andrei’s speech to statues during an expedition, felt more contrived and tacked on than it could or should have. Of course this is something that bothers me in lots of books: inorganic philosophy. I’d much rather see philosophy through characters’ actions and reactions than through long speeches. A case in point is Wang’s refusal to dump his garbage handling work.

I found a different, far simpler, form of wisdom about the book when I looked up Dmitry Glukhovsky’s introduction to Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which is partially available on Google Books. Glukhovsky thinks the Strugatskys modeled the City on a place where they both lived: Leningrad, which has also been the site of many experiments and whose residents also refer to it as “the City.” Andrei is from Leningrad.

The Grinberg and Glukhovsky angles on The Doomed City feel equally apt to me. Perhaps what feels aptest right now, though, is that despite (no, likely because of) my annoyance with Andrei’s bigotry and his willingness to join Heiger’s unsavory regime, the book feels like an important warning about the ramifications of chaos and lack of knowledge, and the authoritarianism that perpetuates them. I hope Glukhovsky continues to be correct that “In the West there is simply no need for the kind of science fiction that we had: you already have enough space without it to discuss the fate and fortunes of your own countries and your own peoples.” Therein, I suspect, lies the strange pull of The Doomed City.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Andrei Volos’s Shpakovsky’s Hat, a lovely short story cycle, more books in English, and upcoming award news. The backlog’s handy since I just started a fifth reading of War and Peace and don’t plan to blog about it this time around.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Jumbled Post on Two in English: Paul Goldberg’s The Château and Katja Petrowskaja’s Maybe Esther

I don’t receive a lot of English-language books that aren’t translations from the Russian but are somehow related to Russia, Russian, or the Former Soviet Union, so this February’s new releases brought two nice surprises: Paul Goldberg’s The Château and Katja Petrowskaja’s Maybe Esther, Shelley Frisch’s translation, from the German, of Petrowskaja’s Vielleicht Esther. Goldberg’s book is frenetic fiction, a satire, based on thoroughly up-to-the-minute reality (yikes) in the United States and Petrowskaja’s book is a metaphysical (I think I can say that) sort of memoir about family. The books have some threads in common: Jewish characters/relatives born in the Former USSR and the legacies of World War 2. Each book offers lots of other elements that I think should be of interest to readers of Russian language and literature so I’ll skew my descriptions sharply in those directions since both Goldberg and Petrowskaja have stuffed so much—to good effect—into their books.

Jason Sheehan’s review of The Château for NPR covers the ups and downs of the novel’s plot and structure so perfectly that I’ll just summarize by saying that in January 2017 Bill Katzenelenbogen, who’s been freshly fired from his science reporter job at The Washington Post, goes to investigate his college roommate’s mysterious death (a fall) in Florida, where Bill stays with his fraudster/poet father, Melsor Yakovlevich Katzenelenbogen, who’s running for the board of directors of his condo building, called, yes, Château Sedan Neuve. Much of the freneticness in The Château comes from Goldberg’s language: he captures Russian émigré language beautifully, so sliding glass doors become “slice doors,” 45’s name becomes “Donal’d Tramp,” and Melsor says to Bill, “Here. Translate. I will be long time. You have pen?” It’s pitch-perfect but not snarky.

There’s a fair bit of translation in the book, too: not only does Bill translate Melsor’s chastushki about the building, but Goldberg offers dialogue in transliterated Russian with English translation, often including slang and мат (obscenities). Here’s a sample paragraph: “’A chto eto za mudak? FBR?’ asks a woman in a black bathing suit. [Who is this fuckup? FBI?]” I couldn’t resist that particular paragraph since mudak is one of my favorite Russian vulgarities; there’s a nice summary of it later in the book, too, here. The word svoloch’ (more complex) gets more ink, including derivation (!) and utterances, gathered here. Lest you think I’m specializing in insults, perhaps I can interest you in a brief discussion of verbs of motion plus many lines of and references to real literature—Mandelstam and Vysotsky appear early on, and of course there are mentions of Gogol—meaning literature Melsor didn’t write. All in all, I’d recommend The Château to Russian-obsessed readers who also have a sense of humor about life in Florida (émigré life or otherwise) and are interested in reading about how politics gets out of hand even at the condo board level. There’s a reason the word “fascism” appears on the book’s flap. In these days of news overload, I give Goldberg extra credit for keeping me interested in the very political, very current Château, which also contains extraneous plot lines and thematic threads. Sheehan is right in calling the book “bonkers.” Then again, well, “bonkers” is a perfect fit for January 2017, meaning that Goldberg picked an appropriate level of crazy. He’s something of a specialist with bonkers: in many ways, the word also fits The Yid, which I wrote about last year (previous post).

It felt strange to follow Florida and The Château with Maybe Esther—which is subtitled “A Family Story”—and travel to Europe, where Petrowskaja is in search of her family’s history, including traces of her great-grandmother, whose name might have been Esther. Maybe Esther hit me especially well because so many elements reminded me of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog, which I’d been translating. Two examples: on a micro level, there’s discussion of what clothes were and weren’t taken into evacuation during World War 2 and on a macro level, there’s a sense of a war that never leaves. The war never left Petrowskaja’s grandmother, just as it never left Khemlin, who, like Petrowskaja, wasn’t even born until after the war. Petrowskaja’s travel and book prove over and over that the war hasn’t leave her untouched, either, that it’s part of her history. As she’s on her way to visit Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, she stands at a bus station waiting for bus 360 and the numeral feels appropriate because she says she’s moving in a circle. And then she sees fellow passengers with circular items: a toilet seat and life preservers. Petrowskaja makes every detail count in Maybe Esther.

Petrowskaja brings lots of humor and word play into the book and I marked a section on the Russian word organy (the organs, not just internal organs in the body but internal organs in the government, too, like the secret police) because I loved how the family discussed the organy (innards!) swallowing people up. With its blend of languages, I can only imagine how difficult Maybe Esther must have been to translate but Shelley Frisch’s translation reads beautifully and she handles Russian expressions (not just the organy) very adeptly. There’s also a fun passage with a ficus that includes lots of similar-sounding words, like fixated and fiction, and Shelley’s long sentences flow and flow, building momentum and rhythm, contrasting nicely with shorter sentences.

Dozens of small episodes and objects drew my attention: an incomplete recipe, the onset of blindness, the fuzziness of memory (of course), Petrowskaja’s great-uncle shooting a German embassy counselor in Moscow, the great-uncle’s trial, the grandfather who disappeared for decades, and the feeling of being Sisyphus. I could go on and on and on about numerous other little things so will just mention something that’s much bigger and more important because it encompasses thousands and thousands of reasons to read the book: Babi Yar and everyone who was lost and became a “maybe” like Esther. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction but I’m a sucker for narrative nonfiction where an author can tell stories, important stories, as Petrowskaja does, drawing me in and holding me from chapter to chapter with digressions, dreamily lofty observations, colorful figures, lives, historical settings, and language play, assisted here, of course by Shelley Frisch. Since I’ve only covered some favorite slivers of the lovely jumble that is Maybe Esther, here’s Linda Kinstler’s review for the Los Angeles Review of Books for more.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received review copies of both books. Thank you to HarperCollins for Maybe Esther and Picador for The Château. Special thanks to Picador for a finished copy, so I could check quotes. And read Goldberg’s acknowledgements; he’s a master of acknowledgements. I met Shelley Frisch at a translator conference.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, the Strugatsky Brothers’ Doomed City, Andrei Volos’s Shpakovsky’s Hat, a short story collection, and more books in English.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Riding Yakovleva’s Red Horse

I often seem to enjoy detective novels most for their portrayals of fears related to violent crime. I love the formal aspect, too, particularly when writers stretch the genre: What builds suspense and keeps the pages turning? Beyond that, I like thinking about how all those factors tend to differ in books from various countries. What might they indicate about cultures and societies?

In novels like Yulia Yakovleva’s Укрощение красного коня (Taming the Red Horse; you might want to click through for a plot summary), the fears go far beyond violent crime and, for me, anyway, the suspense comes far less from trying to figure out who dunnit than in wondering how detective Vasily Zaitsev will act when forced to face moral dilemmas. Zaitsev isn’t perfect but he does pretty well, ethically speaking, particularly given the decisions facing a resident of Leningrad in the early 1930s. I’ll confess that I don’t even remember who, exactly, ended up committing the crime. I focused primarily on Yakovleva’s geographical settings in Leningrad and Starocherkassk, not to mention the treacherous temporal setting when—this is mentioned early in the novel—most crimes were being labeled with “political.”

The basic crime here is that a lauded horse (Пряник, Gingerbread, sometimes a cookie, I love them) keels over at the race track and his rider ends up dead, too. Despite a distinct lack of interest at HQ, Zaitsev insists on investigating, leading him to a cavalry riding school, a vet school, and, eventually, Starocherkassk. The horse turns out to an Orlov and varying opinions among the novel’s horsey characters—is it better to purify the breed or bring in new blood?—seem to echo social issues of the time, particularly given the “red” in the novel’s title. Even with the horse details, in my reading, Zaitsev’s detective investigation feels like just a formal skeleton for a novel about a period when society is divided—the revolution wasn’t even a full generation ago—leading Zaitsev to wonder, for example, how a horse can differ in tsarist and Soviet times, and to notice differences in how former nobles and present peasants/workers comport themselves. Yakovleva somehow works this all into the story so it feels very natural: she’s chosen her temporal setting and formed her main characters wisely.

One of Zaitsev’s challenges is an assignment to travel to Starocherkassk with a woman named Zoya, whom he first meets when she comes to his office and throws up in his wastebasket. I figured out the cause long before Zaitsev does (he’s smart about crime but not biology!) and though he initially seems to have difficulty with Zoya’s feminist views (I noted down “Zaitsev not much for women’s lib”), he softens considerably over the course of the novel, particularly after realizing why she’s thrown up and seeing how she sacrifices so they’ll both have enough to eat during their time away. Zoya, by the way, brings Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don on the trip with her.

Dekulakization is the source of many of Zaitsev’s moral dilemmas. He gives food to starving children at a station stop during his train trip with Zoya and is later asked to participate in a security operation, as part of a “communist answer” to the “kulak bandits.” When Zaitsev is asked to participate in another unsavory bit of work later in the book, he again finds a way to refuse. The era’s catastrophic combination of repression, food shortages, dekulakization, and collectivization affect Zaitsev and Zoya in other ways, too. Zaitsev even wonders if they’re being lodged with a family that’s moved into a former kulak’s house.

If all that isn’t enough, the book oozes with atmosphere, something Yakovleva’s very good at creating. There are smelly bars, Zaitsev’s crowded communal apartment (a neighbor lends him luggage), and the unbearable heat in Starocherkassk. Sweat. Fairly early in the novel, I noted “a feeling of filth” when Zaitsev pats a stray dog then goes to rinse his hand in the Moika river, the same place people urinate. Not to worry: the water smells fresh anyway. I cringed anyway. There are nice little touches about Zaitsev, too: before leaving Starocherkassk for Leningrad, he makes sure to return tiffin boxes to a cafeteria worker so she won’t get in trouble.

I enjoyed Yakovleva’s first Zaitsev novel, Tinker, Tailor (previous post), but I think Red Horse is a much better book. Tinker, Tailor has some awkward plot lines (the love story, the imprisonment) and is saved by atmosphere, Leningrad, a serial killer’s quirky method, and Zaitsev himself. Red Horse isn’t perfect—it’s a bit long in places—but it moves along at a moderate pace, going into enough depth about Zaitsev’s psychological state and all the difficulties he faces at home (why does he suddenly have lots of servants he doesn’t need?) and work (will he be a goner because he’s acting according to his conscience?). Yakovleva layers all that very well, creating a sort of hybrid book: it’s ostensibly a detective novel but, as I mentioned above, I don’t even remember who dunnit because I was far more interested in Zaitsev, his identity, and his environment. That’s what kept me turning pages. Reviewer Kira Dolinina, writing for Kommersant, seems to have read the book similarly and I hope she’s right that Yakovleva doesn’t seem to have exhausted the detective genre yet. I, too, would love to read more about Zaitsev.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, two English-language titles, and the Strugatsky Brothers’ Doomed City, which will be the first of their books that I’ve been able to read in its entirety in Russian. (I’m not quite done but I already know I’ll have to finish!)

Disclaimers: The usual. I first heard about Yakovleva’s books from Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency; BGS represents Yakovleva and quite a few of my authors, and I often collaborate with them.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

2018 NOS(E) Award Winners: 2 Sorokin, 1 Sal’nikov

Vladimir Sorokin was the big winner at this year’s NOS(E)Award ceremony last week, receiving both the main jury prize and the reader’s choice prize for his Manaraga (previous post). Aleksei Sal’nikov won the literary critic panel’s prize for his Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него (which I think I’ll just call The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu yet again). The literary critic panel award is new this year and, given critical reactions to The Petrovs, I wasn’t at all surprised to see Sal’nikov win. Though I haven’t finished The Petrovs, I noted in last week’s post that I’m looking forward to reading the book in a print edition; somehow it just didn’t feel right to read in electronic form.

Although I was pleased to see Manaraga win the reader’s choice prize and thought the book was a lot of fun, I was surprised to see the main jury choose it. For one thing, Sorokin won a NOSE Award in 2011 for his Метель (The Blizzard) and a repeater win is hardly an example of “новая словесность”—new literature/letters, which is what NOSE was established to recognize—in action. Manaraga may not feel as derived from other Sorokin books as, say, The Sugar Kremlin feels linked to Sorokin’s Oprichnik, but it would be impossible to think anyone but Sorokin wrote Manaraga. I liked Manaraga well enough to put it on my 2017 year-end post as a favorite: the whole “book‘n’grill” idea is ridiculously entertaining and the creepy ending is just right even if Manaraga might feel a tiny bit light. Though not quite lite.

I haven’t read much from the NOSE shortlist (previous post) but I still think Vladimir Medvedev’s Zahhak (previous post) would have been a very worthy winner of any of this season’s major awards: beyond being truly polyphonic, the novel is suspenseful, meaningful, literary, and very readable. The setting in Tajikistan during the early 1990s also gives it plenty of social and historical relevance. I don’t understand juries’ apparent dislike—or maybe just ambivalence?—toward the book, particularly given the many positive comments I’ve heard from other readers. I realize I’m biased about Zahhak after translating excerpts from the book that only reinforced how different Medvedev’s voices are. I suppose this is yet another mystery from the world of contemporary Russian literature.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, which I’ve already mentioned enjoying tremendously. And the horsey sequel to Yulia Yakovleva’s Tinker, Tailor, which has been just the sort of slow-action detective novel I needed for a busy time. And some English-language titles.

Disclaimers: The usual plus the excerpts from Zahhak and the fact that the Prokhorov Fund, which runs the NOSE Award, supports many of my translations.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Translation Award News: AATSEEL & Read Russia/Anglophone

The American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages announced the winner of AATSEEL’s annual translation award this weekend. The winner is Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad, edited by Polina Barskova and including works by Gennady Gor, Dmitry Maksimov, Sergey Rudakov, Vladimir Sterligov, and Pavel Zaltsman. The translators are Anand Dibble, Ben Felker-Quinn, Ainsley Morse, Eugene Ostashevsky, Rebekah Smith, Charles Swank, Jason Wagner, and Matvei Yankelevich. The book was published by Ugly Duckling Presse and includes an introduction by Barskova and an afterword by Ilya Kukulin. Written in the Dark is a bilingual edition with endnotes. I have the book and have read quite a few of the poems. Yes, I recommend it, though I’m pretty inept at writing about poetry, so will leave details to Piotr Florczyk’s review for Los Angeles Review of Books, which includes this line about Gor’s poems, “For the most part untitled, and rhyming in the original Russian but less frequently in translation, these poems are surreal indeed, and even macabre.”

In other translation award news, Written in the Dark also made the shortlist for this year’s English-only Read Russia Prize for translation. The finalists are, in the order listed on the Read Russia site:

  • Written in the Dark (please see extensive details above!)
  • Rapture, by Iliazd (Ilya Zdanevich), translated by Thomas J. Kitson; Columbia University Press.
  • The Gray House (Дом, в котором), by Mariam Petrosyan, translated by Yuri Machkasov; AmazonCrossing.
  • Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, by Teffi (Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya), translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg; New York Review Books/Pushkin Press.
  • Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky, translated by Bryan Karetnyk, Anastasia Tolstoy, Robert Chandler, Maria Bloshteyn, Ivan Juritz, Donald Rayfield, Boris Dralyuk, Justin Doherty, Dmitri Nabokov, Irina Steinberg, and Rose France; Penguin Classics.

Congratulations to everybody involved with all these books!

Up Next: The NOSE Award winner tomorrow. I was glad to see that Sorokin’s Manaraga, which I enjoyed, already won the reader’s choice award. Also: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, which I already mentioned enjoying very, very much. Some English-language titles. And the sequel to Yakovleva’s Tinker, Tailor, which has been just the sort of slow-action detective novel I needed for a busy time.

Disclaimers: The usual, in full force since I’ve collaborated with many of the translators and publishers on this list, not to mention Read Russia!