Monday, February 25, 2008

Russian Identity Crisis: "The Phoenix Syndrome"

I can add another novel to my growing pile of contemporary Russian fiction focusing on identity: Aleksei Slapovskii’s Синдром феникса (The Phoenix Syndrome).

The title sounds ominous – a supersecret military operation gone bad? – but the book is a fairly gentle story of a man, Gosha, who loses his memory whenever he gets too close to fire. Gosha manages to reinvent himself, like a phoenix from the ashes, into a new person several times within 350 pages.

At times Slapovskii’s Phoenix Syndrome, like his Они (They), reads as much like a screenplay as a Big Book prize finalist. The result, though, is an unusually tightly written novel with supporting characters who drift in and out, abundant one-liners, quick scene changes, and a happy ending.

There are also dark undercurrents in the book – including a criminal past – as Gosha churns through personalities with the help of Tatiana, a store clerk and single mother who takes Gosha in and begins to love him. Still, Slapovskii’s intent is to provide light, humorous reading underpinned by social commentary about post-Soviet Russian life, something as changeable as Gosha’s personality. There’s plenty of funny-but-sad material about small town politics and jealousies, Gosha’s stint as a soccer savior, and construction projects.

One Russian article about the book, in Взгляд (View), referred to The Phoenix Syndrome as “philosophical fantasy,” an apt description to which I would add “fable.” Slapovskii begins by setting the book in the small city of Chikhov, just outside Moscow. “Chikh” (чих) means sneeze, and Slapovskii admits in his second paragraph “there is no such name but the town certainly exists.”

Unfortunately, I translated that phrase myself. And the names The Phoenix Syndrome and Slapovskii (or Slapovsky) only exist in English on this blog – I am not kidding! – so you’ll just have to believe me about the book, as I believed Slapovskii about Chikhov.

In the absence of a translation, readers interested in fire and Russian birds might want to look into the folktale of the Жар-птица, the Firebird.

Summary: Slapovskii’s Phoenix Syndrome is almost as paradoxical as Gosha: it is light but satisfying, funny but sad, old-fashioned but contemporary. Though The Phoenix Syndrome may not have enough heft to be one of the most profound post-Soviet novels I’ve read, it is one of the most clear, enjoyable, and concise.


Post a Comment