Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Best of Intentions: Oleg Pavlov’s Barracks Tale

Oleg Pavlov’s writing seems to drive me to contradictory reactions: even when I don’t enjoy his books, I can’t put them down. And then, upon reflection, I find myself respecting, liking, and recommending them. Pavlov’s Асистолия (Asystole or Flatline), which I called “a real downer” when I read it last year, still feels like a downer because it delves into the psychology of a nameless guy in post-Soviet Russia who lacks heart function… but it still won’t let me go, a quality I value more than enjoyment during reading.

Pavlov’s Казенная сказка, which I’ll call A Barracks Tale for now, is a downer, too, though in a very different way: Pavlov offers up a sad military parable with a big share of absurdity. I came away from this first novel amazed at Pavlov’s ability to weave together the tragic and the absurd using wickedly expressive language that is almost home(l)y without being cloying or fussy.

With plenty of plot and a setting in the Kazakh steppe, A Barracks Tale may be more topographically open than the extreme interiority of Asystole but Pavlov’s depiction of relationships and close quarters at a military company co-located with a prison, gave me a powerful feeling of claustrophobia. The crux of the story: a captain, Khabarov, plants potatoes to keep his men from going hungry then gets in trouble; the potatoes are confiscated. That’s only the half of it, but Khabarov’s actions and fate (a bad one that I won’t reveal since this book is destined for translation) remind me of one of the most famous utterances credited to Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, “Хотели как лучше, получилось как всегда,” roughly “We wanted better but things turned out the same as usual.” I won’t summarize the plot more since Pavlov’s Facebook page includes a summary (written by Susan Anne Brown for Dalkey Archive Press) of Tale and two subsequent short novels; the trilogy is known as Повести последних дней (Tales of Recent Days).

The summary also likens Pavlov to Gogol, which is perfectly apt, though Pavlov’s humor seemed more muted to me, perhaps because it’s so intrinsically connected with the tragedy and recentness of horrible degradation in the late Soviet era. Pavlov’s dense writing and vivid imagery is perfect for conveying the deprivations and indignities—including lice, not enough (unappetizing) food, and cold—the men face. I felt immersed in shades of khaki, brown, and gray. Though the imagery and action sometimes seemed a little overwhelming and even over-extended—as with Asystole I sometimes couldn’t quite recall what I’d read but then realized, upon review, that I hadn’t missed anything—the novel wraps up with a welcome clarity I hadn’t expected.

As for that title. The second word, сказка/skazka, is the easy one: it’s the word for a fairytale or folk tale. But казённая/kazyonnaya, is difficult because it’s derived from the word казна/kazna, for treasury. Казённый is often used to refer to government property but has taken on more metaphorical meanings that reflect how people see government property and matters: bureaucratic, bland, mediocre. It’s a perfect choice for the title of the book because it expresses so much, from government involvement in a horrible episode to the ubiquitous nature of the problems it depicts.

Toward the end of the book, Pavlov refers to Khabarov as “our captain,” reinforcing his own role as storyteller—this is a skazka, after all—as well as Khabarov’s representation of his men and, by extension, humanity. That “our”—and others before it—also reinforces Pavlov’s power to draw the reader into his story.

Disclosures: Oleg Pavlov very kindly gave me a copy of Казённая сказка at the London Book Fair, where we talked about his work, particularly Asystole. I’ve also met other people involved in bringing A Barracks Tale into English, including Stefan Tobler of publisher And Other Stories.

Up next: Iurii Buida’s Дон Домино, Don Domino, known in Oliver Ready’s English translation as The Zero Train, which I enjoyed very much. And then Viktor Astaf’ev’s Печальный детектив (The Sad Detective), which I’ve just started. Favorites from the letter K and a nonfiction roundup are on the way this summer, too.

Image credit: Ayla87, via


  1. Thoughtful and thought-provoking – thank you. Your comment on the claustrophobia so strangely evoked by Pavlov – in the middle of the steppe – reminds me of Pavel Basinsky’s observation after reading the same author: Bozhe, kak tesna Rossiya! (or words to that effect). Perhaps the missing link between Gogol’ and Pavlov (and the different tonality of their humour) is Platonov. The humour becomes ever less tangible, though, in the next two parts of the trilogy, which are very dark indeed. I find the second, Delo Matyushina, the most haunting and powerful. Hope you will write about that too. The stories collected in Stepnaya kniga are also unforgettable.

  2. Thank you for the comment, Oliver, it's always nice to hear from you. I like Basinsky's observation -- the tone fits with my thoughts beautifully!

    As for the humor, yes, I agree that Platonov feels like something of a missing link, at least for this book... I very much enjoyed reading Pavlov's comments about Platonov in this interview -- saying he appreciates Platonov's dark humor but that he [Pavlov] writes differently, thinking in words rather than thinking up words.

    I'd hoped someone would mention Platonov because I'd wanted to work Platonov into my post... but then the post just wrote itself without Platonov. I found that Казённая сказка and Platonov's Ювенильное море were, in odd respects, similar reading experiences. Both were dense, intense, difficult, and disarmingly disorienting, but very rewarding. And both involved the steppe, though Platonov didn't leave me feeling quite as closed in. And this may sound strange but both pieces made me feel as if the texts went straight into my consciousness, absorbing on their own even though I reread many (if not most) passages in both books.

    Yes, I am definitely planning to read Дело Матюшина... perhaps later this summer. It's in the (Vagrius) book that Oleg gave me, along with two stories.

  3. Good day. Thank you for this interesting review. I haven't read Казенная сказка, but judging from the plot you mentioned the word "казенный" doesn't mean something derived from a barrack. It means something not private, coming from the state, very official and therefore soulless, heartless, not belonging to anyone. This word would be used in a context when orphans in the orphanage would eat казенную еду. It's very hard to translate into English, because it's a very Soviet piece of reality.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Arina. It sounds like your thoughts on "казённый" are a lot like the ones I mentioned in my post! Book titles are always difficult to translate, and it will be interesting to see how this one is rendered into English when the book is published.

  5. Lisa, I just finished reading Казённая сказка. Thank you for lending it to me! You are so right - even when I wasn't enjoying the book, I couldn't put it down. It reminded me of Елтышевы. I thought that Елтышевы was a very СТРАШНЫЙ роман but Pavlov's stories are "real downers".

    Love what you note in Павлов's writing - his ability to weave together the tragic and the absurd; his almost home(l)y language; dense writing (may be) and (very) vivid imagery for conveying the deprivations. I didn't read Асистолия but in Казённая сказка his imagery and action sometimes seemed a little overwhelming and even over-extended, too.

  6. Dolgormaa, your comparison of the effects of those two books is, as always, very apt! (Though I would be hard-pressed to try to explain the difference to someone who hasn't read the books... there's something almost physical about the reactions to these books.) Have you read Дело Матюшина yet? Whether that's yes or no, we'll have to meet to talk about Казённая сказка!

  7. I did read Дело Матюшина and actually like it more than Казённая сказка. Or may be it was easier to read - the plot was more linear. Дело Матюшина is the one that reminded me of Елтышевы, especially the beginning - a family with two sons, one son goes away, etc. I have your three books sitting in my office, so it time to get together!

  8. Dolgormaa, considering what you and Oliver say, I think I'll move Дело Матюшина over on the shelf and read it sooner!