Saturday, June 5, 2010

Elizarov’s Scary Cartoons

Mikhail Elizarov’s latest novel, Мультики (I’ll call it ‘Toons), isn’t Saturday morning TV material: the book chronicles the (mis)adventures of a good boy gone bad on the outskirts of a city in the late perestroika era. His given name is German but his new friends call him Rambo. Though Elizarov wrote ‘Toons as a first-person narrative without chapter breaks, the novel divides naturally into three parts: German’s quick transition to “Rambo” and petty crime, his experience in a police station’s room for juvenile offenders, and the confusing aftermath of said time in the juvenile room.

I enjoyed Elizarov’s previous novel, the Booker Prize-winning Библиотекарь (The Librarian) (previous post) for its strange alternate world, in which groups of readers fight to the death for socialist realist novels. Elizarov continues twisting reality with ‘Toons, though the effect isn’t as striking. The title initially refers to a street con, in which a few teenage boys walk with a young woman dressed in a fur coat and little else. When they see a man, the woman flashes him, then the guys hit up the unwitting spectator for money, saying he’s seen cartoons so should pay.

The title represents something completely different after our antihero is caught and brought to the детская комната (children’s room) at the local police station. A man with the nickname Разум (Razum: Rationality) comes in and shows filmstrips, narrating the story of his own life… he was also a juvenile offender. German-Rambo also, rather mysteriously, turns up in Razum’s show, as does the man who used visual aids to save Razum from a life of crime. Their stories create a chain of doubles living during important times in Russian history, tracing back from Rambo’s Gorbachev-era hours at the videosalon to World War 2 and the Russian revolution. I’ve never read a graphic novel but ‘Toons gave me the odd sensation of reading a book that wasn’t just words.

‘Toons left me with other sensations, including an ironic déjà vu when Elizarov’s writing felt intentionally Soviet: in the beginning, German’s family takes a trip to the Black Sea then German leaves his товарищи (comrades, friends) behind when the family moves. When picked up by the police, German-Rambo lists his positive qualities, like collecting recyclables and being a Timurovets (in short: a model Pioneer). Later, in the children’s room, the talk about social responsibility gets thick with discussion about the meaning of happiness (счастье) for Soviet citizens and the need to love people. The children’s room talk comes through Razum’s pedagogical discussions with German-Rambo: machinery pierces the darkness with light that projects narratives that interpret reality. Ah, technology, bright futures, and redemption!

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, that may be because ‘Toons has lots in common with Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange – violent teenagers, use of film in the reform process, faith, even the three-phased story. Elizarov’s book feels decidedly minor next to Burgess’s… but of course most novels feel minor next to A Clockwork Orange, thanks to Burgess’s use of languages, both Russian and English, but that’s another topic. I give Elizarov credit for even attempting ‘Toons, which, like it or leave it, presents a post-Soviet picture of Soviet juvenile crime, corrections, social engineering, and appeals to the conscience and rationality.

To this reader, who found the book’s tone a little ambiguous, what’s most interesting about ‘Toons is that Elizarov apparently intended to depict those social phenomena through the prism of Soviet забота (I’ll stay neutral and call zabota care and concern for someone’s well-being). Lev Danilkin mentions this in his fairly positive review of ‘Toons, and Elizarov comments on that he especially likes a phrase in Danilkin’s review that (I’ll summarize and paraphrase) refers to the book’s nostalgia for Soviet-era zabota, which used reeducation and the children’s room at the police station for the common good. I see zabota is a common thread between ‘Toons and The Librarian.

Though I finished ‘Toons a few weeks ago I still don’t know what I think about it. On the one hand, I agree with Danilkin that Elizarov calmed down as a narrator and listened more to history with ‘Toons than he did with The Librarian. On the other hand, I thought the stories in the middle of ‘Toons became repetitive and uninteresting. (Or maybe reading it on a cross-country flight, when I felt trapped, too, was a mistake?) On the third hand, despite its surreal twists, I think ‘Toons edges much closer to reality than The Librarian, making it more unsettling, particularly given the combination of the darker side of the забота Elizarov depicts and our 21st-century knowledge that real crime thrived in Russia after German-Rambo’s fictional offenses.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 3 out of 5, with some slang. Familiarity with typical Soviet-era phraseology is a big plus.

Bonus: A site with links to many classic Soviet-era cartoon filmstrips.

Up next: Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Счастье возможно (Happiness Is Possible), a collection of linked short stories that’s on the Big Book short list

Photo credit: A. Sdobnikov, via Wikipedia.


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