Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Revolution Will Be Novelized: Prilepin’s San’kya

If you’d like a intimate view of politically motivated violence, vandalism, and mayhem, you’ll probably love Zakhar Prilepin’s Санькя (San’kya). San’kya tells the story of Sasha Tishin, a young man bent on finding an active role in an opposition party. His grandparents, who live in a remote village, call him San’kya, and his last name is derived from тише (quieter), though he also has an aggressive side.

Other than the Molotov cocktails and intention to kill a Latvian judge, Sasha feels pretty typical: he respects his grandparents, takes offense at his mother’s low nursing salary, and sometimes drinks vodka. He thinks about finding work. The problem with Sasha as a literary character – even if he’s an antihero of our time – is that his head often overflows with пустота (emptiness). Prilepin writes that we are all empty, with wind rattling through our atoms, but it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say Sasha and his party comrades feel devoid of principles or ideas beyond resentment and a desire to burn something.

Though Sasha’s emptiness may be socially or politically important, Sasha feels too undeveloped as a character to fill a novel. It’s also frustrating that San’kya includes secondary characters, like brothers known as Negative and Positive, who feel distinct but abbreviated and typecast in ways that make it easy for Prilepin to elicit reader recognition and reactions. The brothers, for example, grow houseplants, and a girl from the party named Verochka (from Vera, or Faith) is quite small, making her feel fragile. The contrast between rural and urban life didn’t feel fresh to me, either.

The shortcuts might work fine in a short story but in San’kya they contributed to my feeling that the book was watered down, as if Prilepin extended novella material into a full-length novel of 367 pages. I’ve enjoyed and admired Prilepin’s short stories much, much more: though simple, their condensed emotions have a far greater impact than the sometimes plodding pace of San’kya. Sure, political conflict can plod along endlessly, as the book’s last line reinforces, but in San’kya it doesn’t make for shapely fiction.

Despite thinking San’kya isn’t Prilepin’s best work, I don’t think it was a waste of time. It fits squarely in the post-Soviet “(anti)hero of our time” mosaic, and has been compared to Maksim Gorkii’s Мать (Mother), landing it within a long continuum of Russian political writing. Though I couldn’t finish Mother and (obviously) don’t think San’kya is a great piece of fiction, I have to admit both books have places.

Two other things: First, Prilepin is, himself, a member of the opposition National Bolshevik party. I’m not interested in whether art imitates life or vice versa, but some readers may be interested in how Prilepin portrays political activity that can easily be called extremist. Second, San’kya was a finalist for both the Booker and National Bestseller awards, losing to, respectively, Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 and Dmitrii Bykov’s Boris Pasternak. San’kya won the Yasnaya Polyana award.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 2/5, not too difficult, thanks to short sentences and common vocabulary. Translation Watch: Available in Chinese, Polish, and French.

Photo by Cheryl Empey, via


  1. Doesn't sound like something I'll want to spend time on. What would you recommend of his?

  2. Languagehat, no this one wouldn't be at the top of my recommendation list, unless you love fiction about politics. I liked Prilepin's Грех a lot: it's a story collection I wrote about here. A friend who read it found it completely unremarkable but I liked the everydayness of the stories. Грех won the 2008 National Bestseller award.