Saturday, April 11, 2009

Aleshkovskii’s “Fish”: The Big Novel that Got Away

That’s it: I’ll limit myself to just one fish pun for this post. But I can’t help myself for calling Petr Aleshkovskii’s (Peter Aleshkovsky) Рыба. История одной миграции (Fish. The Story of One Migration) a big novel that got away.

Fish begins in Tadzhikistan, where a teenage girl named Vera (Faith) lives with her Russian parents. Vera works one summer on an archeological dig, where she helps reconstruct, like a puzzle (пазл=pazl!), a fresco with a fish. Later that summer, Vera’s personal horseman of the apocalypse arrives: an Uzbek on a black horse who rapes her after drugging her with a nasty drink he’s brewed.

The trauma affects Vera, directly and indirectly, for the rest of the book. She becomes a nurse with somewhat mystically therapeutic hands and takes care of others, including her husband, a former patient, who, medically unable to work as a policeman, takes a job at a slaughterhouse and becomes an alcoholic. He’s the one who begins calling Vera a cold fish. Through the course of the book, Vera’s migrations take her to Dushanbe for education, a border town in Russia to escape war, the country for quiet after a son overdoses and her husband becomes a monk, and, finally, Moscow for a live-in nursing job. When the book ends, Vera is about to move to Italy to become a nanny.

All of which means that Fish, which was short-listed for the 2006 Russian Booker Prize, contains plenty of great material about life in Central Asia, the stresses of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and personal trauma. Unfortunately, though, Fish plods its way through geographical and emotional territory, squandering opportunities to expand the book beyond an accounting of sites seen and indignities experienced.

A few very vivid scenes stand out – a voyeuristic, sensual passage in a Tadzhik garden and Vera’s walk in the woods are particularly good – but other portions of the book are woefully underdeveloped. I kept waiting for details about Vera’s family’s fish-based business in the border town, after they’ve migrated to Russia, but nothing ever came. Aleshkovskii’s strength is in writing about nature – the beautiful chapters in the woods in Жизнеописание хорька (mistranslated as Skunk: A Life) made that book well worth reading – so expanding the fish theme seemed natural.

I think a big part of the problem in Fish is the first-person narrative. I don’t believe Aleshkovskii fails in writing from a woman’s perspective, but I think a third-person narrative would have enabled far broader and more nuanced observations of Vera’s experiences. There are tremendous inherent difficulties with narrating a book from the point of view of a person who’s so emotionally spent.

Vera fills her days and nights with extra work, much of it menial, as if she is carrying a saintly burden. She rarely reflects on her past… until the very last page, when she starts thinking back on the people and events in her life, and feels her “я” (“I”) separate from her body as she did when she was raped. This time, though, she calls the experience спасение (salvation) and, remembering the advice of an elderly Estonian man who rescued her after a failed pilgrimage of sorts, she realizes she needs to радоваться (be glad, feel joy). All the pieces of her life, like the puzzle of the fish fresco, seem to come together.

One interesting aspect of this rushed ending is that it occurs in a Moscow apartment at Metro “Беговая (“Begovaia”), named for the nearby hippodrome. The root of Begovaia, beg, means run(ning). The name neatly brings back the horse theme and, perhaps, Vera’s move away from Begovaia will finally signify the end of her numbness and escape from her self. Numbness is an important theme: others in Fish anesthetize themselves with alcohol and drugs, and some do not survive.

Unfortunately, I can’t argue too much with a Russian friend who thinks Aleshkovskii is just plain boring. I can’t say Fish was just plain boring, and I wanted very much to like it, but it wasn’t always very compelling, despite the cultural, religious, and current history motifs that Aleshkovskii wove in. With more detail and depth, Fish could have become a very significant book about social and personal changes, but instead it feels like an uneven draft, a big novel that slithered away.

Image: Auroqueiro, via


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