Olga Slavnikova’s Лёгкая голова (which I’ll continue calling Lightheaded) is a novel about freedom in contemporary Russia that’s much easier to read than to write about, so I apologize if this post is a little messy. The story’s kernel: Maksim T. Ermakov, a chocolate company brand manager in possession of heavy body and light head, is approached by a government social prognosticator who hands over a gun and asks MTE to deliver Russians from disasters by shooting himself in the head. By creating in MTE a scapegoat for death, doom, and destruction, Slavnikova plays with age-old burning questions: “Who’s to blame?” and “What is to be done?” and “Do the ends justify the means?”
I enjoyed Lightheaded: it’s a thriller in its second half, but Slavnikova’s social commentary, satire, and riffs on freedom mean it’s far from empty-headed. MTE, who’s something of a loner, fights the request to kill himself, asserting his right to live, buy foreign goods, and, of course, exercise his right to be a couch potato and watch sci fi on TV. Though calling the main character “Maksim T. Ermakov” throughout the book felt a bit precious, the repetition certainly underscored the fact that the first letters of “maksimum” are M-a-k-s-i-m. I also wondered if Ermakov refers to Russian psychoanalyst Ivan Ermakov… or perhaps Ermak Timofeevich (Alenin), Cossack ataman and Siberian explorer.
I read the journal version of Lightheaded, from Znamia (which gave the novel an award), rather than the book version of the book. Meaning it’s possible I didn’t get the full story, though I certainly came away with the feeling I’d read a complete novel. There were no plot holes and even the journal version felt just a touch heavy in passages about MTE’s ghostly Stakhanovite grandfather and Internet comments about a video game based on MTE. On the other hand, I thought the section about MTE’s distant relationship with his family, though a bit tangential, was very poignant.
Those minuses are minor: even if Lightheaded wasn’t quite as edgy or unpredictable as I yearned for it to become, it’s a very competent, very readable piece of thoughtful mainstream – I mean that in a good way! – literary fiction that looks at big problems from the perspective of an individual. In my experience, that’s a rarity in Russian and in English.
In case you’re wondering… Slavnikova’s language is simpler in Lightheaded than in her Booker-winning 2017 and the book is, over all, less dense than 2017, too, though metaphor production hums along in Lightheaded. Despite the dire implications of the prognosticator’s request and an ending I won’t describe, Lightheaded feel almost cozy thanks to the relative familiarity and quirky ordinariness of its settings and characters, such as MTE’s chocolate job and religious neighbors who feign drunkenness and loose morals to blend in.
Slavnikova acknowledged in an interview that Lightheaded is risky because it may be considered lighter than her previous books, and she denies critic Viktor Toporov’s assertion that she wrote with translation in mind. (I’ve been trying to avoid reviews of Lightheaded until after I’ve posted so haven’t read Toporov’s comments…) In any case, Lightheaded is on the London Book Fair agenda, as Lighthearted, for presentation as a book recommended for foreign markets. I think Lightheaded would translate well and appeal to a relatively broad swath of Western readers. I’d certainly recommend it, thanks to Slavnikova’s blend of Russian specifics and universal questions about freedom and rights, with mysticism, absurdity, and humor swirled in.
jetBook note: Since some of you have been curious about my jetBook-Lite, I’ll add that I read Lightheaded on the jetBook in RTF format. I still don’t want to give up my paper-and-a-cover books but I do enjoy reading on the jetBook: it’s small and easy to handle, and I can even search for Russian words in a text. (There’s a Russian-English dictionary, too.) Sometimes I forget to recharge the batteries, though I could always substitute off-the-shelf AAs, and I most miss flipping through pages, but I’m getting accustomed to keeping notes in journals (very kindly provided by a former Russian student) rather than the margins and back covers of a book.
Level for non-native readers of Russian: Moderately difficult in places, 2.5 or 3.0/5.00, with many metaphors and some slang, including a touch of Olbansky. In the journal version, the book generally moves along quickly, giving it good reading momentum.
Up next: Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book), another book on the agenda at the London Book Fair that will be difficult to write about. Then Elena Chizhova’s Полукровка (first published, in a journal, as Преступница), in English either Half-breed or Criminal, of the female variety.