Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Two Sorokins: An Oprichnik’s Day and a Bad Trip

There’s nothing like a double dose of Vladimir Sorokin – two short novels like, say, День опричника (evidently to be translated by FSG as A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik) and Метель (The Blizzard) – to shake up a head that already feels scrambled by summer weather changes. The two books have some commonalities – both are novellas that combine Russia’s past and future, and both feature episodes with hallucinogens that affect language – but they left me with very different impressions…

Oprichnik is a first-person narrative told by an oprichnik named Komiaga. (Aside: though I initially thought the name was derived from a word like communal, I learned from The Blizzard that it is a hollowed-out log used as a feeding trough or a boat.) Though Oprichnik is set in the near future – cars have some advanced features – the return of the oprichnina, religious codes, and certain turns of phrase, draw on the past. I particularly liked one of the wardrobe touches: the oprichniki wear bell earrings that lack clappers, known in Russian as языки, a word more often used to mean “tongues” and “languages.”

Komiaga describes his day, from a morning dream interrupted by his cell phone (it has a creepy ring tone) to a late-night bedtime when he remembers the white horse in his morning dream. He thanks God that oprichniks keep Russia going. Komiaga takes part in all sorts of activities that I won’t describe in detail, lest I reveal too much of the story. Among them: a violent morning assignment, goldfish-related hallucinations (a nice use of a Russian folk tale theme), cocaine, travel around Russia, and a late-night banquet.

What’s most frightening is that Sorokin makes Komiaga, a top-level, hardcore oprichnik, such an engaging storyteller. He often seems almost normal, providing routine details about his day and his era: menus, Chinese influences, and traffic patterns. He also describes shows on opposition radio stations. Sorokin works in names that resemble those of contemporary figures, though he leaves Derrida intact: I particularly liked the idea of a book called Где обедал Деррида? (Where Did Derrida Eat Lunch?).

Sorokin crammed a lot into a small book without making it feel crowded, and I think he achieved a good balance of everydayness, humor, and, yes, political terror. That, I think, is the scariest of combinations: I came away feeling complicit for having enjoyed my time listening to Komiaga as he sped through Moscow and flew around Russia.

The pace slows in The Blizzard – there’s snow, snow, snow – and I thought the main characters were far less memorable. The Blizzard is a road story chronicling the travels of a doctor, Platon Ilich Garin, and a driver, nicknamed Perkhusha, who agrees to transport Garin during a blizzard. Platon Ilich needs to treat people suffering from an epidemic of a zombifying Bolivian disease known as чернуха.

I’ve used the word чернуха here before: it’s rooted in черный, black, and describes naturalistic books and movies that readers find particularly depressing. Is Sorokin trying to say that people suffer from this stuff, that it’s an epidemic that turns us into zombies? I don’t know, but he certainly draws on the Russian canon, from Pushkin’s Belkin Tales (previous post), where one story is even called “The Blizzard,” to Tolstoy and Chekhov. I had a strange Gogoly “whither Russia” feel as I read, too. With characters of all sizes, there’s also a Gulliver’s Travels feel to the endeavor; one scene, according to Russian critic Viktor Toporov, contains a direct borrowing. Lev Danilkin, though, sees Sorokin’s many-sized figures as references to folklore and the “little man” in Russian literature.

Maybe I’m fixated on the wrong thing, but hallucinogenic pyramids felt especially important, as if they were references to a strange literary (or meteorological?) LSD that creates Sorokin’s twists on literature, reality, and time. And of course the good doctor and his driver were on a pretty bad trip. (Yes, that is a term in Russian.) Unfortunately, despite lots of intriguing elements – the primeval past and throwback future, all that snow, literary references, and an extended play on the phrase “50 horse power” – The Blizzard never fully engaged me.

I don’t think I did The Blizzard any favors by reading it directly after Oprichnik, which had such a quick pace that I found it difficult to slow down for the snowy travel in The Blizzard. Reading order aside, I still think Oprichnik is more my kind of book, whether or not it’s read as political tea leaves. Sorokin himself says he doesn’t mind if people read Oprichnik as political satire; he sees it (Russian interview here) as futurology.

That’s perfectly apt, but I also agree with Toporov’s assertion (which I paraphrase from his review) that Sorokin’s focus with both books is less on ideas than on language and style. That, I think is the root of why I enjoyed Oprichnik more. In Komiaga, Sorokin creates a bad guy storyteller who uses and ends up embodying mixed-up words, styles, and histories. By contrast, the third-person narrator of The Blizzard left me wanting to shrug and say “whatever”: it feels more like a contemporary writer playing with tropes from the classics.

[Edit: So I don't forget: An interesting piece about The Blizzard from that mentions Bulgakov...]

Reading level for nonnative readers of Russian: I thought Oprichnik was fairly difficult, 4/5. The Blizzard was easier, 2/5 or 3/5.

Up next: Moscow Noir, an anthology of very dark stories, then a historical detective novel by Leonid Yuzefovich.

Photo from pukeycow via

Friday, June 25, 2010

Something Light: Anna Karenina Meets the Robots

Functioning robots are all alike; every malfunctioning robot malfunctions in its own way.

Android Karenina, Lev Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters

Call me old-fashioned, if you’d like: I confess that I’ve always thought of mashup books as gimmicky. I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, despite the promise of “ultraviolent zombie mayhem,” nor have I touched Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, though that sounds like a natural for a Mainer because of the giant lobsters.

But then came Android Karenina, a collaborative effort of Lev Tolstoy and Ben Winters. How could I miss that?

Is it heresy to rewrite Anna Karenina, adding robots and aliens? I don’t know. What I do know is that Android Karenina is a moderately entertaining book that works because Winters knows Anna Karenina well enough to mash in material that fits the original’s themes and characters. According to this Russian-language interview with critic Lev Danilkin, Winters has read the original AK several times. Winters says one of his goals with the book is to show a classic in a new light. I think that’s where the book succeeds best.

Winters preserves much of the basic plot of AK, making steampunk-inspired adaptations so the book feels simultaneously quaint and futuristic. So what happens when robots enter Anna Karenina’s world? I won’t mention much, lest I reveal too many of the book’s odd surprises but: Class I and II robots have “three-part nomenclature” just like Russian humans and an advanced class (III) of robots serve as “beloved-companions” who (mostly) calm their masters and mistresses. There is some off-earth travel. The discovery of a metal called groznium has changed Russian life. Winters says in this interview with Lisa Binion of BellaOnline that groznium is “made-up as all hell.”

Some of Winters’s inventions are very funny and apt: Karenin, for example, is half man, half machine, with a mechanical oculus (probably my favorite AK detail), and Levin’s beloved-companion is a giant robot called Socrates. Winters made Levin much more tolerable for me, both by shortening the book considerably and giving Kostya a groznium mining operation. So much for that pastoral scything! I admit I was happy to read that Danilkin also thinks Levin was the book’s weak link.

I’m not an avid sci fi reader and Anna Karenina has never been my favorite Tolstoy... but Android Karenina had a steady enough balance of silliness, legacy plot, existentialism, and futuristic novelty to keep me reading. Though I think Android Karenina is plenty of mashup for me for a long time, I give Winters lots of credit for creating a book that I didn’t abandon. I hope Android Karenina will inspire some readers to pick up Anna Karenina.

I’m grateful to Elif Batuman and her “Book Bench” piece on for relieving me of the duty of listing some of the ways Tolstoy portrayed mechanization way, way back in the nineteenth century.

An even bigger thank you to Quirk Books for giving me a review copy of Android Karenina at Book Expo America. Quirk tells me that Russian publisher AST purchased Russian rights to the book.

Android Karenina on Amazon

(The very small print: As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers click on my Amazon links and make purchases. Thank you! A very special thanks to the kind reader who recently made a large purchase after clicking.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

(Not-so-New-Anymore) LitNews

I’ve developed a bad habit: accumulating news stories until they’re not new. And then posting them in clumps. Here’s hoping something below is news to you!

The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, is now available in an online edition. It’s easy to spend lots of time here… Language and literature, for example, opens with an article on the history of Yiddish plus a list of links to other articles, starting with Belarusian literature. The paper edition of the encyclopedia won the 2008 Judaica Reference Award. I wish I’d had this inviting site as a reference when I read Anatolii Rybakov’s Heavy Sand (previous post). I added a link to the sidebar of the blog. (Thank you to MZPR for cluing me in!)

PEN Translation Awards. Two translators of Russian received grants from the PEN Translation Fund: Peter Golub for flash fiction by Linor Goralik and Margo Rosen for Anatoly Naiman’s novel Поэзия и неправда (Poetry and Untruth). Some of Goralik’s work is in the Rasskazy collection, and I haven’t read anything by Naiman, though I have his Каблуков (Kablukov) on my shelf. Poetry and Untruth sounds interesting: according to PEN, it combines novel and document, looking at Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandel’shtam, and Tsvetaeva. PEN’s summary of all grant winners is here. May all the books find publishers!

Anyone who reads Russian and enjoys contemporary literature will want to read this extensive online Q&A session with Russian critic Galina Iuzefovich. There are screens and screens of information. The Big Book short list (previous post) served as the starting point for reader questions. Iuzefovich’s favorites are Gigolashvili’s Devil’s Wheel and Zaionchkovskii’s Happiness Is Possible (previous post). Among other things, Iuzefovich also provides a list of 10 books she thinks represent late 20th century and early 21st century Russian fiction. They include Viktor Pelevin’s Generation П, known in English as Homo Zapiens, Vladimir Makanin’s Asan (previous post), and Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 (previous post). The Pelevin and Slavnikova books have been translated into English by, respectively, Andrew Bromfield and Marian Schwartz.

Metro Stop «Dostoevskaya». Thank you to a reference librarian at my local library for mentioning the marble mosaic murals at the new Dostoevskaya Metro stop in Moscow: they apparently include Raskolnikov with an axe and a Possessed/Devils-inspired scene with a gun, prompting fears that public art could make the spot popular for suicides. There’s a photo of one of the offending scenes here. An English-language article with a run-of-the-mill Dostoevsky portrait is here. The Moscow Metro Web site says the Dostoevsky stop is scheduled to open tomorrow. (Maybe there is news in this post…)

Fun with Russian Bestseller Lists. Elena Chizhova’s 2009 Booker Prize winner, A Time of Women (previous post), is near the top of the Russian bestseller list, at number 2. The novel came out recently in book form. Today’s top seller is A.....a, Evgeny Grishkovets’s thoughts about America. Others: Boris Akunin’s All the World’s a Theater (previous post) at number 4, Mariam Petrosian’s The House in Which…, at 37, and Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard, which I recently finished, ranking 46th. Translations on the list include Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (she also Plays with Fire in Russian), Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol, and Jerome D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I had no idea that J. stood for Jerome.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Finding Happiness in Zaionchkovskii’s Happiness

I’m happy I didn’t know much about Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Счастье возможно: Роман нашего времени (Happiness Is Possible: A Novel of Our Time) before I bought it. Had I known this Big Book award finalist consists of loosely linked short stories, I might have skipped it. Several of you have recommended Zaionchkovskii to me but my stubborn love of long-haul fiction means twenty-four stories in three hundred pages with largish print doesn’t sound like my kind of happiness.

Had I known more about the book and not bought it, I would have missed out on a beautifully indescribable collection of pieces about, yes, happiness. And life in general (of course), death (of course), love (of course), and living with a dog named Phil (a new twist on the happiness theme). Zaionchkovskii’s stories describe everyday occurrences in the life of a divorced Russian writer who often visits with his ex-wife and her husband. (Ouch!) We learn about voices heard through kitchen vents, a fishing trip with rain and cows, a funeral, newlywed housing, and the smell of a sewage treatment plant. Each story has its own small-scale narrative arc but the stories combine to create a meta-arc that gives the book a conclusion.

I think it’s safe to say the Novel of Our Time portion of the book’s title alludes to Mikhail Lermontov’s Герой нашего времени (Hero of Our Time) (previous post), another novel-in-short-stories. Zaionchkovskii’s book is more unified than Lermontov’s, though, employing just one first-person narrator, a writer who occasionally incorporates his fictional characters into stories about his own life.

The air of metafiction is mercifully minimalist and muted in Happiness: though it’s clear the writer in the book is writing about himself (and perhaps even incorporating aspects of his creator’s life?), the narrative voice is so unpretentiously conversational and friendly that I never felt I was being pomo-ed to a pulp. And because the book creates such a detailed portrait of the narrator using colloquial language and humblingly mundane happenings, I almost felt he truly was talking to me, not some anonymous reader, when he reached out using the second person.

Zaionchkovskii handles the temporal aspect of of Our Time nicely, too: Happiness Is Possible depicts contemporary Russian life with a blend of dark and quiet humor, wistfulness, and a combination of involvement and detachment. Plenty of details from post-Soviet Russia are here: how people go to a funeral, a pricey-sounding SUV, sleeping with the realtor, and the coincidences of Одноклассники, Classmates, a Russian site like Facebook. There are even memorable minor characters, such as an escalator lady from the Moscow Metro (ah, memories!) and a vodka-drinking cow herder, plus an appearance by the ubiquitous Christmas tree air freshener.

The fun of Happiness Is Possible wasn’t that I sometimes finished reading stories with a smile on my face – though that happened more than once – but that I read an intimate picture of a character who continually adapts, usually with success, to the conditions around him, no matter how absurd they are. And then there’s the book’s tone, which avoids cynicism but has just enough of an edge to prevent the book and the happiness it depicts from sinking into sugar or cheese. The power of the calm, cautious optimism in Zaionchkovskii’s book is that it made me happy because it is neither overbearing nor empty.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 2.5 or 3/5. Happiness Is Possible read very easily and enjoyably for me because it’s written in fairly conversational Russian, though readers without experience living in Russia may find some of the vocabulary difficult.

Up next: Fate has been sending me lots of short(er) fiction lately… Two short novels from Vladimir Sorokin: День опричника (A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik, as FSG is evidently calling the English-language translation), which I liked a lot and won’t attempt to summarize here, and Метель (The Blizzard), which I’m just starting. I’m also enjoying Moscow Noir, an anthology of English translations of Russian stories that Akashic Books sent to me after Book Expo America (previous post).

Monday, June 7, 2010

Kochergin Wins 2010 NatsBest Award

Eduard Kochergin won the 2010 National Bestseller Award for Крещенные крестами (Baptized with Crosses), an autobiographical novel about Kochergin’s post-war experiences running away from a home in Omsk for children of enemies of the people. An excerpt is available here.

Kochergin’s book and Oleg Lukoshin’s Капитализм (Capitalism) tied with two votes each, and Konstantin Tublin, honorary chairman of the jury, broke the deadlock by voting for Kochergin. Ironically, Kochergin and Lukoshin racked up the smallest point totals – five and six, respectively – in the previous round of voting. More insight into the voting and the book is available here, in English, on Voice of Russia; here, in Russian, on; and here, in Russian, on the NatsBest Web site. My summary of the NatsBest short list is here.

On a related note: Anne Applebaum’s “Angel Factories,” a New Republic (June 10, 2010) review of Children of the Gulag, by Cathy A. Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky (Yale University Press), is worth reading for its brief accounts of the lives of children living within the Soviet prison camp system. (If you’d like to read the article but can’t access it, send me a note and I’ll e-mail it to you.)

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.