Sunday, August 29, 2010

No Heart Function: Pavlov’s Asystole

Oleg Pavlov’s Асистолия (sorry, Blogger wont let me simply italicize Cyrillic today...) (Asystole, colloquially “flatline”) is a tough book: 370 pages of third-person narrative streams about a nameless boy-then-man in a state of torpor. I think Asystole succeeds, perhaps even brilliantly, on its own terms, but it was very, very difficult to read…

Structure. Asystole’s narrative is a kind I don’t like much: sometimes jumpy and nervous with unexpected transitions between times, places, and characters, sometimes resting for many pages on seemingly unimportant episodes. Words flowed and flowed, and the reading sometimes felt robotic. I often wondered what I was missing but when I tracked back I found the answer was Not much. I shouldn’t have doubted. The book obviously affected me: the more I read, the more nameless guy’s miserable life sucked me in even as it repelled me.

The Characters. Some Russian reviews note that Pavlov’s nameless antihero is a modern-day superfluous man; I might kick in a bit of Dostoevsky’s spiteful, diseased underground man, too. Pavlov’s antihero is apparently a talented artist but, in therapy-influenced English, he doesn’t connect with other people. Or his own life, which inspires dread and fear. He says “не получается жить,” roughly that he has trouble living. He muddles along, and nobody else in the book is very appealing, either. His father died when he was small, and nameless guy and his mother don’t get along very well. He and his girlfriend-then-wife meet when he is quite drunk; she escorts him home. She has her own drinking problems and screams things like “Ненавижу!” (“I hate [you]!”) more than once. His uncle, a professor, is full of himself. But at least the other characters rate names.

The Diagnosis. Several characters, from nameless guy to the cat, have various heart problems; “asystole” is a physical and metaphorical diagnosis. Our antihero feels unneeded and empty, enjoyment is short-lived, and friends are few. I think the diagnosis extends to much of society, too, particularly opportunists at a funeral home and hospital, unfeeling bureaucrats at the civil registry office, and so on. An art teacher is one of the few relatively bright spots; nameless guy even invites him over for dinner once. The teacher tells him his mother is lonely. *sigh*

Unenjoyable Reading. It would be too strong to say I hated reading Asystole, but I didn’t enjoy it a bit. I did, however, admire – very much – Pavlov’s ability to drag me into the morass of nameless guy’s life, where all the main characters are so absolutely miserable. I found it far sadder than most of the other чернуха (chernukha, dreary naturalism) I’ve read because Pavlov forced me so deeply into his characters’ problems. Pavlov brings out the multifaceted inertness of their relationships with differing techniques: sometimes there’s no dialogue, sometimes there’s strange dialogue or monologue, and sometimes it seems that characters in the same place don’t interact.

At Least I’m Not Alone. I haven’t read a lot of Russian criticism of Asystole but the first few reviews I looked at showed that my reactions to and difficulties with Asystole were pretty typical. Blogger Заметил просто says he wished he could have punched a(ny) character. Lev Danilkin wrote only a mini review and hedges, not sure whether to call Asystole hallucination, dream, or sad fantasy. Liza Novikova sees lots of meaningless conversation and says nameless guy’s real difference from the rest of us is that he has trouble communicating with other people. I agree with all of them.

In the End… Asystole was a hard emotional hit, even though I’m not quite sure what I read: the book is amorphous yet fairly linear, dull yet mesmerizing. It was a book to feel rather than reason with, though its effect is also impersonal: nameless guy is so specific in his misery and lack of hope that it’s easy to think his diagnosis doesn’t apply to me or you. Even though it could or does… Which is the reason the one thing I know for sure about Asystole is that it is, for lack of other terms, depressing, a real downer. Still, I fully agree with Liza Novikova that you can feel the “биение его [романа] пульса,” the novel’s pulse beating.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 3.5 or 4.0/5.0. Vocabulary isn’t especially difficult but the narrative flow, transitions, and lack of breaks – Asystole is composed of seven lengthy “pictures” plus a very, very brief epilogue – make the book dense and difficult to follow.

For more:

  • The book’s ISBN: 978-5-9691-0553-9
  • Read Асистолия online in the journal Знамя here: начало окончание
  • Read Асистолия online in simulated book form, on Комсомольская правда here

Up next: Чертово колесо (The Devil's Wheel) from Mikhail Gigolashvili, about opiate addiction in Georgia. I’m just getting started but Gigolashvili’s straight-ahead narrative and brutal realism make this a big change from my last two books. We’re off to the beach…

Asystole image from Glenlarson, via Wikipedia.


  1. Got this in the mail recently. Not sure if "looking forward to reading it" is appropriate in this case, but will probably read it soon.

    There's a lot of contemporary lit that documents the idea of Russian anomie and social alienation. I hope that the Russian literary mainstream finds a new direction soon.

  2. Alex, yes, "anomie" is a very good word to describe Asystole and yes, there is certainly a lot of anomie in Russian fiction. I don't see it going anywhere: it has a long history and is a big part of life and literature, in Russia and beyond.

    I'd love to hear what you think of Asystole.

  3. This is a great blog! A reading group will meet to discuss four authors including Oleg Pavlov on the 4th April at Pushkin House. Please get in touch if you are interested.