And let me count the ways… Emotionally, this novel about Viktor Sluzhkin, a young man in 1990s Perm’ who becomes a geography teacher because he needs a job, is both bitter and sweet, without either ipecac or saccharine. Genre-wise, I’d vote for a late bloomer’s coming-of-age novel and a comedy of morals. For the former, Sluzhkin make realizations about himself and his place in the world, for the latter, there is plenty of humorous melodrama about relationships, where love interests rarely coincide.
Thanks to my incessant focus on the mechanics of fiction, Geographer’s stylistic two-in-one struck me most. The majority of the novel is written in the third-person, but Sluzhkin narrates a hundred-page chapter, “Оба берега реки” (“Both Sides of the River”). The chapter, in which Sluzhkin describes his river trip in the taiga with some students, comes near the end of the book. The trip, with its Greek chorus of temptations and dangers, is every parent’s nightmare: brushes with the elements, vodka drinking, and a teacher (yes, that would be Mr. Sluzhkin) infatuated with a student he wants to “take” right on primeval damp mother earth.
Despite the hazards of nature, drunk locals, and a problematic vessel, I found the wilderness trip almost dull because Sluzhkin’s narrative voice felt flat and detail-oriented compared with the lightly sardonic humor of the third-person storyteller, who resumed duties for the end of the book. I admit many of my biases were at work: I hated Lord of the Flies, never went on Outward Bound, and think first-person narrative often severely limits the author’s ability to dole out details about the narrator.
Yes, I’m a selfish reader who hates losing an engaging narrator for a quarter of a book but I’ll admit Sluzhkin’s story serves a purpose: the trip through the wilderness is also a journey through topics of Russian culture and history – the group finds sites like an abandoned, profaned church and an old prison camp. I’d already figured out the history bit, but Sluzhkin confirmed it: “Мы проплыли по этим рекам – от Семичеловечьей до Рассохи – как сквозь судьбу этой земли, -- от древних капищ до концлагерей.” (“We floated along those rivers, from Semichelovech’ia to Rassokha, as if through the fate of our country, from ancient pagan temples to concentration camps.”)
More important, the wilderness chapter is Sluzhkin’s journey. He is, after all, an untrained geography teacher who navigates, not always successfully, throughout the book’s journeys. The guy even invents his own constellations. After contemplating the history lesson of the trip, he reflects on his transgressions and betrayals but feels at peace, soon equating pain in his cold hands to the pain of life. I think that combination of calm and pain, in the real or metaphorical wilderness, is the core of the novel. The Russian wilderness, with its emptiness, river rapids, trees, snow, and storms, conveys it, too. It’s fitting that the book’s last word is одиночество: loneliness or solitude.
Ironically, I’ve focused on the portion of the book I liked least. I enjoyed the first 250 pages far more, with stories of Sluzhkin’s Russian Sweathogs (one uses urine to moisten the classroom rag for cleaning the blackboard) and personal problems, many of which involve his wife and other women. I particularly loved the passages about Brezhnev’s death, which flash back to Sluzhkin’s high school days, showing him as something of a misfit. Among other things, he gets caught peering through the window of the women’s banya and mistakenly gives his teacher a tape cued to ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” instead of funereal music for a Brezhnev memorial ceremony.
Geographer, the novel, is a little like Sluzhkin the character. Sluzhkin knows he’s imperfect and Geographer isn’t my perfect novel, but I enjoyed their company and was sorry to finish the book. This is my favorite kind of fiction: enjoyable, vivid, and intelligent without being pretentious. As a northerner, I’m probably predisposed to like the одиночество (as solitude) message. I should add that I have tremendous respect for the fact that Ivanov wrote the book when he was young: he was born in 1969 and he wrote Geographer in 1995.
Translation Watch: This literary agency reports that Geographer has been translated into French and Dutch, with rights sold for Lithuanian. Another agency shows that Bulgarian rights have also been sold.P.S. This is my first post with “Translation Watch.” I’ve also added a new tag, “available in translation(s)” that I’ll use for any books I review that have been translated into English or other languages. I’ll add tags to old posts, though it may take some time.