Afanasii Mamedov’s Фрау Шрам (Frau Scar) is a pleasant literary jumble of metafiction and storytelling, remembrances of childhood, a vacation fling, ethnic and national identity, and descriptions of cities. A young writer named Ilya, who lives in Moscow (in Master and Margarita territory), tells the story of his short, present-day vacation to visit his mother in Baku. Ilya often wanders from his simple, linear narrative about the vacation, meandering into detailed childhood memories, dreams, and letters. I’ll meander, too, as I describe the book…
Frau Scar, a 2003 Booker Prize finalist, takes place in 1992, during Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia and a domestic political crisis – there is a curfew during Ilya’s vacation, and he sees young soldiers going off to fight. Ilya also mentions the 1991 coup attempt in Russia; he and his father both ended up at the Russian White House.
Mamedov throws in plentiful details that conjure up the atmosphere of the period. For example, Ilya’s landlady’s significant other, Christopher, makes an appearance on the TV show “Третий глаз” (“The Third Eye”), a talk show about the supernatural. (Watching the beginning of this YouTube clip brought back memories!) Later, in Baku, Ilya and his mother buy a TV antenna that attracts the neighbors; they come to watch “Santa Barbara.” And Sergei Dovlatov is a constant presence in Frau Scar: the simplest example is that Ilya buys a Dovlatov book in Baku, several times mentions reading it, and even says Dovlatov isn’t his writer. He prefers art where there’s “много лишнего,” literally “a lot of extra,” then mentions Sasha Sokolov… whose Палисандрия (Astrophobia) and Школа для дураков (A School for Fools) have been languishing on my shelf for years.
Oddly, part of the fun of Frau Scar is that it’s a little – okay, maybe even a lot – confusing at times, thanks to all the extra-but-crucial, and sometimes contradictory, characters, moods, and details that populate the book. Mamedov even alerts the reader that things may be odd: early on, one of Ilya’s coworkers asks him about going on vacation, saying, “Покарнавалить, значит, решил?” The verb “покарнавалить,” derived from “carnival,” isn’t very common, but it’s perfect for asking if someone’s about to go for some off-kilter fun.
A few pages later, Ilya gets his hair cut and starts to see, through a cascade of mirror images, pictures of his childhood through the looking glass… later, we visit Baku’s maze-like old city, where the houses sit close together. I should also mention that Ilya grew up on Baku’s Second Parallel Street, another indication of all the various worlds and perspectives – Russian, Azeri, Jewish; upstairs, downstairs; humorous, deadly serious; and even two eyes, three eyes – that coexist in the book.
You may be wondering how the book got its name. In one of the novel’s metafiction touches, Ilya gives the name Frau Scar to the woman with whom he has his vacation romance; some affairs leave indelible marks. Frau Scar left plenty of (injury-free!) traces on me, and it was very enjoyable to read, though it’s tough to explore and appreciate all the book’s corners and detours in just one reading. I certainly appreciated Mamedov’s ability to embellish a straightforward story with reminiscences, politics, and humor that are simultaneously typical and unique. Mamedov’s combination of material somehow work, probably because our stories and identities are so mobile and Ilya is such an amiable storyteller. I particularly enjoyed the Baku scenes, which brought back memories of my own travel…
Up next: Sergei Lukyanov’s Глубокое бурение (Deep Drilling).
Baku/Caspian Sea photo from Jacobolus, David Chamberlain, via Wikipedia.