Sunday, June 12, 2011

It’s Always Fun Until…: Benigsen’s GenAcide

Vsevolod Benigsen’s novel ГенАцид (GenAcide) reminds me of lines parents and teachers love to use on kids, things like “It’s always fun until someone gets hurt.” Benigsen’s descriptions of Russian village life and residents are gentle but unforgiving, presented with humor that reminds me of Vladimir Voinovich’s depiction of soldier Chonkin’s adventures. But Benigsen morphs farce into tragedy by creating, gradually, tension within his fictional community. Fear not: I won’t reveal specifics of the ending, though it’s clear from the first pages that a happy end is not in store. If that’s not enough, a weapon appears in the first half of the book, not long after a discussion of Chekhov.

In GenAcide, Benigsen describes a village, Bol’shie Ushchery, in which each resident is given, according to a presidential order, a piece of Russian literature to learn. Quickly. There will be a test. The project name, “ГенАцид(GenAcide), stands for Государственная Единая Национальная Идея – roughly State Unifying National Idea. It sounds like “genocide.” Book distribution is delegated to the town’s librarian, Anton Pakhomov, a historian who has nothing in common with his neighbors and sees history as “бардак,” a word for brothel that has come to mean, essentially, a terrible mess.

Book distribution goes okay and residents take to reciting their works in public and at parties. Even local unity, however, is not guaranteed: one resident balks at receiving Andrei Platonov’s Чевенгур (Chevengur) and things start falling apart in a big way when cliques – e.g. prose against poetry – develop and rivals fight. Some of this is very funny, including residents’ neologisms for describing themselves as GenAcide participants. I particularly appreciated a character who speaks his own odd form of Russian: he receives Kruchenykh to memorize. Zaum, indeed!

After all the humor, GenAcide concludes with jarring actions of a violent mob and a character’s thoughts that Russians have a tendency toward chaos and problems. I won’t say more than that… but I will say that I was surprised to read Lev Danilkin’s review, which finds Russophobia in the book. Danilkin enjoyed much of Benigsen’s laugh-out-loud humor but concludes by calling the book “Остроумный, но неприятный роман,” a “witty but unpleasant novel.” He doesn’t like the ending. Neither does Maya Kucherskaya, who thinks the finale doesn’t fit what precedes. She thinks Benigsen lacks empathy and says the book is too realistic, not schematic enough for farce.

I’m not Russian but I read GenAcide very, very differently, far less literally than Danilkin and Kucherskaya. I didn’t find Russophobia at all but a universal, well-constructed book about myth, a parable-like account of the consequences of attempting to use culture – in this case, Russian literature and its surrounding myths – to create a politically expedient national unity, something that’s elusive (perhaps mythical?) in a pure and benign form. Of course part of the problem with mythmaking is that truths and stories tend to be incomplete, and GenAcide’s creators follow the pattern by, often, commanding that people receive chunks of works, like chapters six and seven of Evgenii Onegin or chapters from Saltykov-Shchedrin. Receiving literary works out of context is only one reason residents have difficulty understanding them: one woman can’t even read.

Benigsen pours in many other layers of myth. One example: Pakhomov, who has written about myth, can’t bring himself to take down materials hanging in the “military-historical corner” of his library because the corner feels like a monument to Soviet mythmaking. And Benigsen’s characters felt very obviously (arche)typical to me, offering another hint that Benigsen never aimed for a literal, realistic reading of GenAcide. Beyond Pakhomov, who’s a typical intelligent out-of-his-element, Benigsen offers up a tractor driver (!), a World War 2 partisan, a Central Asian immigrant, a young, pregnant postal worker who steams open a letter to her baby’s father and contemplates how to handle the information… and so on. Yes, everybody feels absolutely vivid, real, and funny, even cozy, at the start of the book but that’s largely because we already know them and their stereotypical situations, both comical and, later, tragic, from elsewhere, from books, TV series, and even the news.

I could write lots more but will mention just one other way Benigsen removes the residents of Bol’shie Ushchery from reality. We learn fairly early in the book that they weren’t counted in a census, something Russians tend to dislike. (I’ve even read scholarly article about this.) Many BU citizens lack documents, don’t know their ages, and can’t explain their jobs. Without documents or real biographies, some are, writes Benigsen, “как дети в дремучем лесу,” “like children in a thick forest,” reinforcing that the characters are the stuff of folktales with uncertain, even composite identities. And documentless people are nonentities in the eyes of government bureaucracy, making them an oddly perfect choice for a project with a name like GenAcide.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 3.0-3.5, moderately difficult in parts, with slang and lots of literary references, but the story itself moves along quickly, with humor, making the reading feel effortless.

Up Next: Il’ia Boiashov’s Каменная баба (The Stone Woman), another book that’s heavily about myth. It’s far, far less forgiving than GenAcide as it looks at showbiz.

Disclosures: I received a copy of GenAcide at the London Book Fair from display of the publisher, Vremya, in the Russian pavilion. Thanks to all!


  1. I bumped into this article by pure accident and must say it is one of the best reviews on my novel that I have ever read. Insightful, accurate and articulate.
    Incredible how blind a critic might go when he has trouble identifying the genre of the book.
    And unfortunately most critics oversaw that obstacle. Unlike you.
    Nice job!
    Vsevolod Benigsen

  2. Thank you for your very kind comment, Anonymous Vsevolod Benigsen!