It’s hard to explain the effect of Zakhar Prilepin’s book called Грех (Sin), which won this year’s National Bestseller prize. The book describes itself as a novel in short stories – not quite accurate, since there is also a section of poetry – and each piece about a young man named Zakhar establishes its own mood. All the stories, though, combine threads of tenderness, rage, and тоска (toska), an untranslatable Russian word that represents a sort of soulful yearning and worry.
That combination results in stories that range from merely sad to heartbreaking to absolutely deflating. “Белый квадрат” (“White Square”), for example, reaches a shocking end that feels unexpected… until the reader returns to a few bits of dialogue strewn through the story. A lighter piece, “Карлсон” (“Karlsson”) is named for an Astrid Lindgren character but is, put briefly, a tale of how Zakhar and a friend drink a lot outside and sometimes visit bookstores. Still, Zakhar begins “Karlsson” by explaining that he’d felt such “нежность к миру” (“tenderness for the world”) that he’d decided to try joining the Foreign Legion at a strange age when it’s still easy to die.
There are also stories involving love and lost puppies, work as a gravedigger, serving in Chechnia, family responsibilities, a stay in the country with nubile cousins, and what sounds like an exceptionally rough night as a bouncer. Zakhar himself, usually as a first-person narrator, links the stories. They are presented out of chronological order. Prilepin’s motivations for using his own pseudonym for a character’s name interest me far less than the result: an almost ironic genericness and a sense that “Zakhar” is, somehow, an archetypical figure from contemporary Russia.
The settings and situations in Sin often add to that tone because they feel universal – many of the seven deadly sins make appearances – yet still uniquely Russian because of characters’ choices. Prilepin mentions only small details, like a signpost, references to a transitional time, and, of course, the Chechen War, to place the book in a concrete place and time.
“Несколько раз меня обгоняли, и я поддавал газку, чтобы ехать в компании с кем-то, ненавязчиво держась метров в ста.”“A few cars passed me, and I hit the gas in order to drive together with someone, unobtrusively hanging back about 100 metres.”
The other cars eventually turn off the road, leaving Zakhar alone again.
I wish more writers had the courage to write passages, stories, and novels that rely on such simple metaphors, basic language, and true emotions. Prilepin is quoted in this article as saying that Sin looks at “how to ‘indulge in happiness while not sacrificing one’s soul and drowning in sin.’” I find in Sin an edgy happiness and joy for life that cohabitate with a recognition of death and loneliness. It’s only fitting that Zakhar is described, in “The Sergeant,” as a man who has felt several times in life “a strange nakedness, as if he’d shed his skin.”
Prilepin Books on Amazon