Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Mythologizing in Chechnia with Makanin’s “Asan”

Ah, war stories! On the surface, Асан (Asan), Vladimir Makanin’s Big Book prize winner, is a stream-of-consciousness account of events in the life of the Russian manager of a military warehouse in Chechnia. Deeper down, Asan is less a book about Russia’s Chechen wars than an unsatisfying, twitchy novel showing how war forces participants and observers to piece together narratives that explain or justify actions.

Makanin’s narrator, major Aleksandr Sergeevich Zhilin, shares names with literary predecessors. His first name and patronymic are borrowed from Pushkin himself, and a major Zhilin is the main character of Lev Tolstoy’s short story “Кавказкий пленник” (“Prisoner of the Caucasus”). The name Asan becomes a nickname for Makanin’s Zhilin: Asan is, in the novel, the name of a Chechen deity a general discovers in his voracious reading about Chechnia’s history. Of course there’s more significance: the name Asan resembles certain Russian nicknames for Aleksandr and could even refer to Alexander the Great. As a Russian officer with ambiguous morality, Zhilin also becomes a dubious hero of his time, a 21st century descendent of Mikhail Lermontov’s Pechorin, the main character of Герой нашего времени (Hero of Our Time).

Zhilin tells stories about his life: selling Russian fuels on the side for personal profit, calls to his unnamed wife about building a house with illegal money, rescues of soldiers and deaths of comrades, a visit from his hard-drinking father, and the appearance of two shell-shocked soldiers. Some of these episodes show plot promise but few develop into much. For example, the visit from the elder Zhilin, who loves Anna Akhmatova’s poems, is touching but feels more like a disjointed attempt to give the younger Zhilin a past than a way to extend his character.

Of course this may be intentional: Asan patches together stories to form a rough novel about rough topics. The narrator’s perspective even shifts a couple of times between first and third person. As I read Asan, I missed the tautness of Makanin’s novellas. Makanin-Zhilin loops his stories over and over themselves, repeating and repeating, adding … and adding … and adding …, then ending sentence after sentence with !. At first this style felt a little exhilarating and even addictive… Something important might happen!... I’m almost breathless!... but after about 50 pages I was ready for a rest.

Fortunately, the shell-shocked soldiers bring a bit of continuity to the book. The soldiers give both Makanin and Zhilin a focus: the soldiers want to return to their unit, and Zhilin must find a convoy to take them away. I won’t reveal much about the false start to send them back but will say that it leads to casualties. The soldier blames “солнечные зайчики” (“sun bunnies,” a term used here for dappled sunlight that is also the name of a camouflage pattern) and a pile of ill-earned cash. Zhilin creates a series of changes in stories – lies – that he and the soldiers can use to explain what happened.

Of course war, as Makanin reminds readers on several of Asan’s pages, is an absurd venture. You can’t understand it, says Zhilin, and there’s no logic. In short, truth slips and myths gain strength as Zhilin attempts to make sense of events, his actions, and his life. Asan is not about the kinds of war truths we expect from newspapers. It’s about how people try to order chaos by transforming war’s realities, commodities as elusive as sun bunnies, into myth .

I would be lying if I were to write that I liked reading Asan or admire the book as an example of well-written literary fiction. I didn’t, and I don’t think it is. Even if Makanin intended the book to be messy instead of elegant, the novel feels unfinished and not particularly original. That’s unfortunate because its messages about money, truth, and war are important reflections of sociopolitical life in today’s Russia. I wonder if this, rather than artistic merit, was the source of the book’s appeal to the Big Book judges.

For further reading:

Асан (first half) (second half)

“The biggest book ever?” – Vladimir Kozlov’s Moscow Times summary of the 2008 Big Book calls the prize to Makanin a “life achievement” award.

«Асан» или Риторика Маканина – Nikolai Aleksandrov’s Russian-language review of Asan interested me more than most I found on the “Runet.” Two scathing reader comments typify many others I’ve seen, citing Makanin’s lack of experience in the Caucasus and war.

Makanin novellas (previous post)

Vladimir Makanin on Amazon

P.S. Makanin appeared on the “Книжное казино” program of the Echo of Moscow radio station on February 1, 2009. The interview wasn’t particularly scintillating but it did provide a few insights into how he sees the book as a sort of fable. (link


  1. I just watched the episode of Школа Злословия featuring Майя Кучерская, and at the start of the fourth section (she has just been asked what contemporary literature she likes) she talks with enthusiasm about Asan; I thought you might be interested, so I'm passing it along.

    (You probably already know the show, but if not, it's worth checking out; Dunya Smirnova and Tatyana Tolstaya bring out good stuff from the people they interview.)

  2. Thank you, Languagehat, for the reminder about "Школа" -- it's been ages since I've watched!