The back cover of Aleksei Slapovskii’s (Aleksey Slapovsky) novel Они (They) recommends the book as educational material for Russian politicians and government workers who should learn more about their own country. The book certainly feels contemporary and relevant: Slapovskii describes what happens when a boy “finds” a bag of money and documents that a New Russian architect has dropped at a Moscow market.
Slapovskii shows police methods, class differences, treatment of minorities, and what happens when people look for easy pieces of happiness. Most of what he writes in They doesn’t feel like new information to me… not because I’m feeling cynical on a cold day but because I’ve read about or witnessed these problems for so many years.
Slapovskii connects his subplots smoothly in They, jumping between cast members as he explores sociocultural problems, otherness, and relationships between imperfect people. This book about difficult subjects reads easily but the unfortunate side of Slapovskii’s intertwined characters and unembellished style is that They feels more like material for a screenplay than literature. That’s not surprising: Slapovskii writes novels and screenplays, including the script for the recent blockbuster sequel to the classic Ирония судьбы (The Irony of Fate).
I wouldn’t argue with Russian reviewers who say They resembles a mixed-genre TV series. Like a miniseries, They lagged in spots but was absorbing enough to follow to the end. I set it down and picked it up several times over several months, which felt unusually convenient because the characters and situations were so familiar and clearly drawn.
Although Slapovskii has been nominated for the Russian Booker Prize several times, none of his novels seem to have been translated in full. (Excerpt info on one is here.) Several books are available in French and German, according to Amazon. It’s too bad Slapovskii is not better known outside Russia: I think They would be of tremendous interest to non-Russian readers, as an example of 21st century Russian fiction that reflects the problems of its time.
Though They, as a novel, left me feeling somewhat indifferent, I'm looking forward to Slapovskii’s Синдром феникса (The Phoenix Syndrome), about a man who’s lost his memory.