Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mining the Human Landscape in Slavnikova’s 2017

Olga Slavnikova’s Booker-winning 2017 is so tough to describe that I think I’ll do something very lazy and begin with words that compactly list some of its themes: rock hound, translucence, rubies, Looking Glass (beyond), death, carnival, existentialism, false, genuine, mountain spirits, nature, reality, emptiness, illegal, companionship, revolution, secrets, Bazhov…

How does Slavnikova fuse a clutch of loosely connected plot lines about people in the illegal gem industry into a coherent philosophical novel? That’s more mysterious to me than the formation of the veins of corundum – known as rubies if red – that 2017’s people pillage in the wilderness.

2017’s main character is Krylov, a gem cutter who goes to the train station to bring a sweater to his mentor, a professor and illegal gem hunter who’s about to embark on a ruby expedition. Krylov meets an enigmatic woman at the train station. Trysts ensue: they use assumed names (Ivan and Tanya), don’t exchange contact information, and often rent a room. I’ll be honest: the lengthy portion of the book that presents Ivan and Tanya barely held my interest. There’s not enough dialogue for my (picky) taste, and the characters, their situations, and their portrayal didn’t touch me much, emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. These passages were also so dense and laden with description and metaphors, some of which felt contrived, that I had to read many more than once to feel I wasn’t missing anything important. I know that part of my problem was adjusting to Slavnikova’s style and vocabulary after simpler books but Russian readers and reviewers have also mentioned 2017’s difficult language.

Fortunately, I couldn’t abandon the book: 2017 is coming out in English translation in March (Marian Schwartz’s translation, Overlook Press). [Edit/Clarification: I have not seen the translation.] After about 100 pages, I decided that Slavnikova’s metaphors serve a practical purpose: they veil reality, adding a formal way for her to convey her messages about opacity, translucence, and what exists. Slavnikova also loads in lots of recurring symbols. Beyond the stones, some of which are as malformed as the people who find them, the book is filled with glass and mirrors. Tanya wants to go through the looking glass, and Krylov’s loving ex-wife Tamara, a high-end undertaker who holds lotteries for grieving families, has a conference room equipped with a mirrored table. Tamara also appears on a talk show that’s filmed in a studio with a mirrored floor. She brings caskets.

Slavnikova works in endless contrasts between reality and invention, too: real and synthetic gems, plastic surgery, holograms, a nonexistent city, liars, and other types of pretenders. Meanwhile, Russia is getting ready to celebrate the centenary of the 1917 revolution, and people begin dressing in white and red army uniforms, creating fake revolution that results in real deaths. Slavnikova also tosses in references to Pavel Bazhov’s Urals folk stories, which tell of mountain spirits that accompany miners. Those references made the magic and apparitions in the book feel rooted rather than fanciful.

Somewhere around the middle of 2017, this jumble of people, plot lines, and themes somehow transformed into a novel that remained puzzling but tilted from foggy puzzling to intriguing puzzling. I finally got what I love so much: a heady novel about life and the world that I couldn’t put down or stop thinking about. I don’t think I’m imagining that Slavnikova simplifies her language as she polishes her characters and messages, resulting in a faster pace and an atmosphere of concreteness and lucidity rather than fuzziness and dreaminess. Even schematic situations and settings – particularly the final scene between Krylov and Tanya – felt direct and crystal-clear. (Sorry!)

All of which is to say that I recommend 2017, despite my initial difficulty engaging with it. Slavnikova’s expedition scenes, carnivalesque episodes, and the portrayals of reality and aloneness made 2017 more than worth the time and effort. 2017 became a book that I can feel better than I can explain, particularly the lonely ending, which I found oddly lovely thanks to its mention of fate.

2017 on Amazon

Pavel Bazhov's Tales from the Urals on Amazon

Image: Rubies in the rough, from GlennPeb, via sxc.hu


  1. Fortunately, I couldn’t abandon the book: 2017 is coming out in English translation in March

    That sounds like a non sequitur to me. If anything, I would have thought that would be a reason to give up on the Russian, figuring it would be easier to finish it in English. Now, if you were the translator, I could understand the situation!

  2. Languagehat, you're not the first person to question my logic! Yes, that sentence is strange, but I felt compelled to finish the book and write about it before the translation is released. I'm glad that self-imposed assignment kept me reading because I ended up loving the book.

    I'm far too stubborn to give up on Russian for a translation, though the 2017 translation excerpt I've seen online (available here) looks very good. I do expect to receive the whole translation soon.

  3. As I have started plodding through the recent Russian Booker nominations, I look forward to reading this book.

  4. The beginning of 2017 truly is a bit of a plod, Margarita, but it's well worth reading!

  5. thank you, this is just what I happen to be needing - someone with a brain! who can write about the Russians!