Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Universal Solvent: Kuznetsov’s The Circle Dance of Water

I felt like I should cue up Sister Sledge singing “We Are Family” (here’s the Oprah version) when I finished Sergei Kuznetsov’s Хоровод воды (The Circle Dance of Water): Kuznetsov’s novel is a family saga, an ode to family ties and history that examines birth, aging, flaws, and fear of death. Circle Dance is a 2011 Big Book prize finalist, and Kuznetsov’s readable tale of multiple generations in an extended family is big indeed, both in size, at 600 pages, and century-long scope, with family members who include a female sniper in World War 2, an NKVD agent, and an alcoholic artist. Thank goodness the book had a family tree.

Though I think The Circle Dance of Water is probably the most enjoyable of the seven Big Book finalists I’ve attempted so far this year, I also think it’s deeply flawed. Kuznetsov’s water theme, for example, expands to kitschy tidal wave proportions by the end of the book, thanks to an overdose of, yes, mysticism. In the beginning, though, the water theme flows smoothly through the lives of three main characters living in 21st-century Moscow. Nikita is a businessman with a custom aquarium business who is having an affair and a mid-life crisis but loves his depressed wife. Anya (née Elvira) is a shoe saleswoman and single mother who loves to swim. And Moreukhov is a formerly fashionable artist who goes on benders drinking alcoholic liquids.

I think Kuznetsov is at his best observing the lives of his contemporary characters. Nikita, for example, remembers having no money, when buying Danone yogurt made everybody happy. Now it’s caviar and Paris. In another scene, Dasha, Nikita’s much-younger mistress, looks at Nikita through the aquarium he built for her to decorate the apartment he rents for her. Nikita, with double chin and circles under his eyes, looks like a fish. And though I think Kuznetsov makes too much of Moreukhov’s obsession with movies, his choice of genre for his life, film noir, is absolutely fitting, even touching. With his heavy drinking, Moreukhov is a literary descendent of drinkers like Venedikt Erofeev’s Venya in Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line) and Vladimir Makanin’s Petrovich in Андеграунд (Underground) (previous post), among others.

As an artist and storyteller who values ancestry and the past, Moreukhov, who also happens to be Nikita’s half-brother thanks to an extra-marital relationship, represents artistic representation and license. To Moreukhov, film conveys the feel of other times, blending art and life… making it a logical next step for Moreukhov to generate stories about various generations of family members. Moreukhov is only one of Kuznetsov’s narrators, and Kuznetsov sometimes hands storytelling duty from one character to another on quick notice. This is far less confusing than it probably sounds, particularly if you’re warned. Kuznetsov also connects individual chapters, characters, and eras with common objects or gestures, such as entwined hands.

Kuznetsov works lots, lots more into The Circle Dance of Water: creatures from beyond, orphaned characters, single mothers, religion, fears of aging and commitment and death and water, reincarnation, bodily fluids, literary references, and so on and so forth. Kuznetsov handles lots of this material with considerable grace, energy, and emotion, so I was very disappointed--and almost a little shocked--to find that he ties everything up neatly, first with a chapter of new agey sacrifices, then with an epilogue that includes a chapter called “Хеппи-энд” (“Happy Ending”). It is the 107th of 108 chapters, apparently referencing the number of defilements in Buddhism. (I’m glad literary agency Goumen & Smirnova posted a brief blurb from Echo of Moscow that mentions 108 and the Buddhist connection…)

Though I agree with Echo’s assessment that the book is more “a history of human passions” than a story of individual characters, I thought Kuznetsov’s water-based methods evolved to be too obvious, too programmed, even too superfluous to create a graceful transition from individual characters to universal passions and values. I wholeheartedly agree with the blogger known as Заметил просто that (I’ll paraphrase) the book would have left a better impression if I/we hadn’t read it to the very end. Which is too bad: trusting us, the readers, more and leaving some of the mysticism and the water to the imagination might have transformed the book—which I looked forward to reading and found entertaining—into something far more moving and satisfying.

Up Next: Not sure… I started Sergei Soloukh’s Игра в ящик (The Box Game) yesterday and am not enjoying his writing, which has the consistency of yeast bread that never rose. I visited the Big Book page on imhonet.ru to see what others thought and wasn’t surprised to find that both comments about The Box Game used the word жуткий (terrible, dreadful) to describe Soloukh’s writing.

Disclosures: Just the usual.

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