Sunday, May 3, 2009

Gelasimov’s “Steppe Gods”

Andrei Gelasimov’s Степные боги (Steppe Gods) is a short and disappointing coming-of-age novel set in the steppe beyond Lake Baikal in 1945, shortly before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The novel gets off to a decent start. A boy named Pet’ka, who likes to play war, rescues a baby wolf that he names Испуг (Fear). He hides the cub near his grandmother’s goat herd.

Pet’ka lives near a camp housing Japanese prisoners of war captured at Khalkhin Gol. Among the prisoners is an herbalist of samurai stock who keeps a diary for his sons in Nagasaki. Pet’ka likes to visit the camp, where officers ease his loneliness with talk and his hunger with kasha and canned meat. Pet’ka is often teased because he is illegitimate, and he seems to be at war with many of the boys in his village. They even try to hang him at one point.

Gelasimov’s handling of Pet’ka’s family status was my first indication that Steppe Gods wouldn’t fulfill its potential. Did Gelasimov really need to repeat so much swearing [edit: words with vulgar roots]? The vulgar бля- (blia-) root, basically “whore,” for example, appears nearly 30 times, often in a “son of a” variant used to describe Pet’ka. I know all these words and they certainly don’t make me flinch – I used to hear the simplest of them used like punctuation all the time in Moscow – but I think they lose their effect because Gelasimov puts them in characters’ mouths far too often. I’m not sure if he wants the reader to remember Pet’ka’s origins, stress the low level of culture in the village, or both. Either way, I got the point. One of Pet’ka’s nastiest accusers is a woman who sleeps with officers while her husband is at war. Pet’ka gets revenge by spattering her with kasha.

I’m not sure why, but all these difficult conditions at the end of the war – hunger, infidelity, loneliness, physical and emotional abuse – don’t quite mesh with the parts of Gelasimov’s narrative that reflect Pet’ka’s thoughts. They sound convincing [disclosure: I lack a Y chromosome] and almost nostalgically childlike despite the suffering. I read Steppe Gods to the end because I wondered where the uneasy tension of childhood and abuse were going. Imagine my surprise when the last pages brought a Hollywoodesque, feel-good, new-agey ending that found multicultural common ground between the politically incorrect Pet’ka and the very kind Japanese prisoner!

The ending drew together larks, wolves, and rituals that conjure up the gods of the title, desperately resurrecting occasional motifs that hadn’t exactly dominated the previous 130 pages. The baby wolf, for example, had dropped out of the book for dozens of pages. A one-page epilogue described subsequent events that extended until 1963. [Note to writers of all nationalities: epilogues that tie up all loose plot ends are usually superfluous.]

I’ve enjoyed some of Gelasimov’s other fiction – “Жанна (“Joan”) and Год обмана (The Year of the Lie) are very decent contemporary literary fiction – so I was surprised to dislike Steppe Gods so much. At least I’m not alone: plenty of readers on the Runet seem to have found Steppe Gods equally unsatisfying. I can’t help but agree with critic Lev Pirogov, who writes that the book reads as if it were written for the movies. Pirogov and another reader also allude to the book’s violence, and bad behavior, which they think meet the demands of readers seeking grit that feels realistic. For me, the problem with Steppe Gods isn’t the inclusion of all these unpleasant details. It’s the absence of a deeper feel for what they all mean.

P.S. Oops, I forgot to mention that Steppe Gods was shortlisted for the National Bestseller award. (previous post)


  1. Great blog. I'm always checking your posts - as I'm studying the contemporary Russian literature through the Russian Booker Prize. It's been helping me a lot! Thank you!

  2. Thank you for your comment, deisoca!

    I'm glad the blog is helping you with your research. Your topic is interesting, and it's linked to why I started writing the blog: I couldn't find much English-language information about contemporary Russian writers to give my friends and students.

    I'm sorry I can't read your blog!

  3. Lisa,

    sorry but I changed my blog's address. Now It's
    I know you can't read Portuguese, but you still can enjoy the pictures!

  4. Thank you, deisoca! You have been making quite the literary tour!