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.