Sunday, March 28, 2010

Blurbing Petroleum Venus

My pocket paperback copy of Aleksandr Snegirev’s Нефтяная Венера (Petroleum Venus), a finalist for the 2009 National Bestseller award (previous post), has such curious blurbs on the back cover that I thought I’d use them to structure my comments about the book. Though I read one of the original reviews long ago, I’m not going to look up the rest online… what’s there is there, sequitur or non.

Как тут не посмеяться над теми, кто кричал, что роман помер!
You can’t help but laugh at those who screamed that the novel has died!

(Nina Savchenkova, Big Jury, National Bestseller Award)
Indeed. Snegirev can certainly tell a straightforward story and develop characters: Fedya, a first-person narrator, describes how his parents die in rapid succession, leaving him to care for his teenage son Vanya, who has Down syndrome. The title of the book comes from a painting that Vanya finds at an accident site. It works into an oddly carnivalesque passage toward the end of the book and a reunion of sorts.

…настоящий катарсис...
…real catharsis…

Agreed: The ending of Petroleum Venus is both sad and honest. (I’ve read articles indicating that Snegirev had a child with Down syndrome.)

Роман сильный. Очень сильный.
The novel is powerful. Very powerful.

(Pavel Krusanov)
Most powerful aspect of the book: Fedya’s nuanced and emotional description of his relationship with Vanya and Vanya’s life. Fedya and Vanya felt so real that I was ready to forgive Snegirev the book’s weaker elements: a very heavy dependence on coincidence and a late political tangent that feels contrived and/or leaning toward allegory.

Прочесть можно за два часа!
Can be read in two hours!

(Time-Out, Moscow)
Not here! The book did read quickly and easily, though. The Time-Out review is the one I read -- it mentions that the novel is written in simple language. Level for non-native readers of Russian: 2/5, moderately easy.

Прекрасный озорной роман.
A wonderful mischievous novel.
(Sankt-Peterburgskie vedomosti)
It wouldn’t have occurred to me to describe Petroleum Venus this way, but I can’t argue: Fedya isn’t a saintly father, and Vanya certainly knows how to find trouble. Don’t ever stick your tongue out at a BMW.

...виртуозно балансируется на грани жестокости и нежности.
…expertly balanced on the border of cruelty and tenderness.

Fedya’s description of his difficult relationship with his family members, including the ambiguous circumstances of his mother’s death, balances well with the book’s humorous and sweet moments, like Vanya’s participation in a production of Romeo and Juliet.

Рекомендуется даже тем, кто настороженно относится к молодой литературе.
Recommended even for those who are wary of youth literature [literature by younger writers; please see comments].

(Vecherniaia Moskva)
Age interests me far less than competent, confident writing. Some passages in Petroleum Venus felt overwritten or too slapstick, but Snegirev makes up for it with concision, pacing, and a good dialogue-to-description ratio.

Автора сильно волнуют отношения с Творцом, и своим волнением ему удается заразить читателя.
Relationships with the Creator concern the author very much, and he manages to infect the reader with his concern.

(Vash dosug)
Yes, God is in the book, including that cathartic ending, but I think the spiritual element in Petroleum Venus is broader, thanks to Fedya’s mother’s “dvoeverie” combination of religion and superstition.

Огромное спасибо от моей матушки!
A huge thank you from my mum!

(Aleksandr Morev, writer, Sakhalin)
I have no idea who Mr. Morev’s mother is or what, exactly, she appreciates, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she felt grateful for Snegirev’s portrayal of Vanya. Or thankful that Petroleum Venus is decent, unpretentious mainstream fiction with a big heart.


  1. молодой литературе — perhaps better translated as "contemporary literature"?

  2. It's funny, Alex, I went back and forth on this when I wrote the post... I just added a note to "see comments." Nothing felt quite right for a translation, perhaps because the blurb was so short and context-less. I felt like it really did mean books by young writers, which I figured would imply "contemporary," anyway.

    Your comment made me realize that "youth literature" sounds like "young adult" books (for teenagers) in English. I just can't seem to get used to these rather ambiguous terms, despite many conversations about and with the Youth Services Department of the local library!

    As for Petroleum Venus itself... by coincidence (or maybe not?), I think this would be a very good book for teenagers.

  3. Thanks for the response! For a second I thought the reviewer meant "молодежной" and not "молодой," but then I realized that молодежь is different enough from "youth" to make me think twice. Do you know, by chance, if there's any kind of Russian analog to YA books in English?

  4. The phrase "youth literature" sounds very odd to me, but apparently it exists, and Wikipedia says:

    Youth literature may refer to:

    * Young adult literature
    * Children's literature

    So I don't think you should use it here; a paraphrase ("literature by younger authors") would better convey your meaning.

  5. Alex, unfortunately, I'm not familiar enough with YA books in either language to answer your question. I do have the impression (and that's all it is) that the YA category has broadened a lot in the US. I'm going to ask the youth services librarians about terminology next time I'm at the library.

    Languagehat, agreed on all counts! I left the original "youth literature" in the post but added another note in square brackets to clarify.

  6. Your librarian might give you the possibly disappointing answer that Young Adult books are simply books teenagers might enjoy reading, often because they're about teenagers. I buy Russian-language books for my public library, and I have not found too many we would consider YA - the only recent purchases I've made in that category are Russian translations of the Twilight series.

  7. I'm pretty interested in this question. As far as I can tell, there is little that makes YA books specifically YA. They may be shorter (though not necessarily); they typically focus on teenage protagonists (though not all books with teenage characters are known as YA books); they often have exotic or fantastic settings (though obviously not all do).

    But books do get published and marketed "as" YA books. In fact, I think publishers have specifically YA imprints, and they do determine where in the bookstore a book is shelved and what kind of promotion the book gets based on their decision. I remember hearing on NPR (or reading somewhere… where I can't seem to find it at the moment) a piece about authors who were surprised when their publisher came back and explained that their new book will be sold as a YA book.

    So, and I realize that I'm belaboring the point, what I'm particularly interested in is whether Russian publishers have already managed to "construct" a YA audience and develop marketing tools aimed at that audience. I'm sure both Harry Potter and Twilight are very successful in translation. I wonder if anyone has had the bright idea to lump them together with the Brothers Strugatsky and sell them as books "для старшего школьного возраста".

  8. Alex, yes, your comments on YA books are very similar to what I've heard in the past at the library. I also read an article about an author (or authors?) who was surprised a book was being promoted as YA.

    Though I have absolutely no knowledge of how Russian publishers market their books to YA readers, I can say that a quick look at the Eksmo site (here) shows a number of Eksmo series/product lines for children/young readers. Even a quick look shows an interesting blend of books... for example, I noticed Aleksei Tolstoy's science fiction, including Aelita, another book several Russian friends have told me they enjoyed as teenagers.