Monday, September 22, 2008

Prilepin's "Sin" Is Not Ugly

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.

I admire Prilepin’s simple language and story structures, which reflect the everydayness of what he writes. Though at first they seem unremarkable, these stories become a disjointed and oddly beautiful portrait of a young life. Best of all, Prilepin, unlike his soldiers in “Сержант” (“The Sergeant”), is not afraid of expressing his feelings. There is an honesty to the stories that is disarming and frightening, particularly because the balance of anger and sweetness is so precarious.

Although not everything Prilepin writes is exactly subtle, he rarely becomes precious (with puppies) or brutal (as a bouncer) for long. Even when he does, Zakhar still feels painfully real. His emotional rawness was, for me, so distinctive and overpowering in a positive way that it was easy to overlook small technical aspects – an extra plot element in one story or a bit too much action in another – that sometimes made me, a reader with a bias toward minimalism in short stories, wish he’d trimmed a bit.

One of my favorite scenes in the book is in “Ничего не будет” (“There Will Be Nothing”). Zakhar, now the father of two boys, describes family life with his beloved (любимая) but needs to travel out of town after his grandmother dies. He drives at night on desolate roads:
“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.” 

There’s lots more I could write about Sin and Prilepin himself, but I’ll end by adding that I don’t believe any of Prilepin’s writing has been translated into English. For those of you who read Russian, I’ve included below a link to a Russian page that contains links to some of Prilepin’s stories. The first five items are stories from Sin; the first story in the link called “рассказы” is “Белый квадрат.” The last link leads to the title story of Prilepin’s latest book.

Prilepin Books on Amazon

Photo: Jazza, via stock.xchang


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