If you’ve ever wondered about the ups and downs of knowing everything, you might enjoy Igor Sakhnovskii’s Человек, который знал всё (The Man Who Knew Everything). Sakhnovskii did a nice job convincing me that a character can take hold of an electrical wire, nearly die from electrocution, and then gain the ability to know everything. The Man Who Knew Everything was a finalist for the Booker and Big Book awards, and won the 2008 Bronze Snail award for full-length fiction.
The Man Who Knew Everything blends so many genres – fantasy, action, spy, rich-to-poor, existentialism, morality tale, and so on and so forth – that it sometimes seems as if Sakhnovskii thinks he knows everything, too. The story takes the title Man, Alexander Bezukladnikov, from poor scholar whose wife leaves him for another man, partly because he’s something of a milquetoast, to a wealthy, confident seer. He has some run-ins with criminals and spy agencies, as well as some interesting comments about visions of his own death.
Sakhnovskii tells the story through a friend of Bezukladnikov’s, who describes his meetings with Bezukladnikov – including a trip to Gaugin territory in the South Pacific – and includes documents like e-mail from Bezukladnikov and the transcript of a talk show interview with The Man. All this works, I guess, and the language is clear and direct, but it feels a touch too spare, as if the 250-page book is 25-50 pages too short.
Sakhnovskii’s dropping of certain plot lines, such as Bezukladnikov’s initial focus on trying to win back his ex-wife, who takes up with a bad guy, didn’t bother me nearly as much as coming away without a deeper feel for what it would mean to know everything. As a reader called Lartis points out on a Fantlab comment, Sakhnovskii’s use of documents means we don’t get much of a feel for Bezukladnikov’s inner workings. I think that’s why the book felt a little soulless to me.
That’s not to say Sakhnovskii doesn’t cover some good and varied territory between Moscow and Papeete: he incorporates a bit of carnival with Bezukladnikov’s gambling success, gives his character the ability to read books telepathically (wow!), and works in a reference to Ecclesiastes with “He who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” The book, predictably, I think, ends with a simple truth that I won’t reveal, lest you want to read the book, too. Alas, unless you’re Bezukladnikov and have the power to know everything, you’ll need to know either Russian or French (for the Gallimard translation from Véronique Patte) to read the book.
The Man Who Knew Everything didn’t meet my high expectations – those finalists for multiple major awards can be awfully tricky! – but it was a decent piece of intelligent entertainment with lots of fun bits. I particularly enjoyed the TV interview, which combined the host’s huckster-like persona with Bezukladnikov’s descriptions of his situation and a sharp, truthful answer to a guest in the studio audience. And when Bezukladnikov says people generally only know see about six percent of what goes on around us because we’re not capable of seeing the rest, I have to wonder if he might be telling the truth.
Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: 2.5 or 3.0, not particularly difficult, plus the book has relatively short chapters, making for a good feeling of progress.
Up Next: Favorites of 2010, then some medium-length fiction from Gleb Alekseev, a find from my October visit to the Russian bookstore in Tarzana. I’ll also be compiling a list of Russian-English translations that came out in 2010 and are expected in 2011… Reports on new releases would be most welcome!