Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gigolashvili’s Perceptive Interpreter

I’m a selfish reader so I’ll state my selfish wish right away: I want Mikhail Gigolashvili to write more novels. Alas, I’ve nearly exhausted his novel-length repertoire by reading Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel/The Ferris Wheel) and Толмач (The Interpreter); Gigolashvili’s early novel Иудея (Judea) seems unavailable. I thoroughly enjoyed The Devil’s Wheel and The Interpreter: both demonstrate Gigolashvili’s skill at hearing and conveying diverse voices and capturing the pain of sociopolitical transitions, while blending in humor and absurdity that lend realism and levity.

And so, The Interpreter, a book hovering somewhere between connected-short-stories-as-novel and epistolary novel… Each chapter is narrated by a nameless man, a native speaker of Russian who interprets for refugees in Germany in 2001. The chapters are rigidly structured, beginning with personal notes to a friend about life and health problems, like tinnitus; signing in and bantering with a beer- and money-loving employee at the refugee camp; interaction with interpreters from around the world; and interpreting immigration officials’ interviews with refugees. There are twenty chapters plus an epilogue that actually deserves to exist.

Yes, my heart sank when I began the second chapter and thought I was reading yet another (*sigh*) collection of stories passed off as a novel. But several chapters in, The Interpreter’s structure gave me the feeling I was accompanying the narrator to work, not reading isolated tales. I was as curious as he to learn who would be interviewed next: I opened each chapter by scanning for the refugee’s dossier. Though the book is fiction, Gigolashvili’s inclusion of names and years of birth felt naughtily voyeuristic to me after working as a medical interpreter. The narrator also repeats several times that interpreters are a means of communication, not “человек,” a person.

As I observed interviews, I came to know immigration rules and the officials charged with observing them – Mark, with the stomach problem, was particularly memorable – and I started considering who would and wouldn’t be granted political asylum. Despite interpreters not being people, the narrator, and the officials, too, are thoroughly human, commenting in asides about the immigration process and problems in the Former Soviet Union. Our narrator occasionally shows a lascivious side in conversations with and about female interpreters and even – danger! – an applicant.

Of course the twenty applicants and their stories are the highlight of the book, and they become a modified Greek chorus: though their voices and woes are unique, they begin blending into a more universal story of truths, lies, and wishes for better lives. Many are caught lying, few have legitimate claims for political asylum – simply wanting new opportunities doesn’t count – and I’d guess the majority of them claim not to possess a valid passport, to the frustration of officials. Many refugees say they’re from Chechnya and many trust that “good people” will save them in Germany. Among the most vivid figures for me: a woman who offers her body as incentive; nuns; a confused woman who probably has dementia and mixes up words, speaking of the Stalinist depression instead of the Stalinist repression; and a man formerly from the special forces who starts a fight. The novel reminded me a bit of a Breugel painting.

The other interpreters create another chorus, grudgingly grateful to dictators for driving people out of their native countries so they have work in Germany. Our narrator says, in part, that interpreters have scratches and scars on their hearts from each meeting. I often felt the same way after interpreting because an interpreter, even when neutral, is still a person. Voicing someone else’s pain leaves traces. I’m sure that’s a big reason the book, which Gigolashvili constructed with the all-too-rare combination of writerly discipline, lively language, social relevance, and playfulness, resonated so much with me. As with The Devil’s Wheel, I was sorry when the book ended.

For further reading: Chunks of The Interpreter are online here, thanks to the literary journal Знамя. Some of Gigolashvili’s other повести (long stories and novellas) and short stories are available online, too.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 3.5-4.0/5.0. Some passages would be fairly difficult without knowledge of colloquial language and accents. One section, about a criminal, contained slang that the interpreter didn’t know, so there were explanations. The Interpreter, of course, focuses a lot on storytelling and what I guess I’d call the mechanics of mutual understanding on linguistic and human levels, but it’s candid rather than politically correct.

Up next: Olga Slavnikova’s Лёгкая голова (Light-Headed or A Light Head), a post-Soviet account of one guy against The System, with debate about freedom plus a reality-or-entertainment thread.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Fazil Iskander

Finally, a favorite writer for the letter И! I’ve had a collection of Fazil’ Iskander’s stories on my shelf since the ‘90s but never seem to want to pick it up... But Iskander’s Детство Чика (Chik’s Childhood) drew me in right away because its stories are connected by characters: a boy named Chik who’s finding his place in the world, his addled Uncle Kolya whose fishing tackle lacks a hook, and a group of neighborhood boys and girls.

I read three of the pieces in the book and particularly enjoyed the longest (of course!), Ночь и день Чика (Chik’s Night and Day), in which Chik has trouble sleeping at night – he thinks about fears, like scorpions – and then goes on an expedition with his friends the next day to harvest pine sap to make into chewing gum. Iskander’s writing is simple without being simplistic, and his observations about childhood create in Chik a vivid portrait of a boy who can be generous with other children, including a child teased for his disability, but sharp in his judgments. When Chik thinks about adult sneakiness, he reminds me of a young, Abkhazian Holden Caulfield.

I think what I enjoy most about the Chik stories is that Iskander presents a balance of information about Chik’s life and surroundings, including references to Chik’s knowledge of sociopolitical problems of the Stalin-era, like the arrest of a neighbor girl’s father and talk of wreckers, together with the childish joy of the pine sap adventure. That outing is fraught with hazards, too, like a band of neighborhood boys and a biting dog. In our era of play dates and safety, I’m sure many parents would disapprove of kids starting an outdoor fire to boil their pine sap! I should mention that I also loved the portrayal of Chik as a proud child actor – Chik does not lack in self-confidence – who gets demoted from a lead role to a nonspeaking role in “Чик и Пушкин” (“Chik and Pushkin”).

I’m setting Chik aside for now, saving the rest of the stories to read another time. By the way, according to Wikipedia, at least eight volumes of Iskander’s work have been translated into English.

As for other И/I writers… I enjoy Il’f and Petrov, particularly The Golden Calf (previous post), but they’ll never be favorites. And I thought many passages in Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Matisse (previous post) were very good but the book didn’t quite held together for me. Ilichevskii’s Persian is on my shelf waiting (or weighting, since it’s thick?) for a second try. I’m hoping Ilichevskii’s listing on the Academia Rossica Web site means he’s one of the 40 (!) or so writers who will be at the London Book Fair in April.

I always enjoy recommendations on my alphabet favorites posts, so look forward to reading comments!

Up Next: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Толмач (The Interpreter), which I enjoyed very much; I may need to add Gigolashvili to my Г/G favorites page. Then Olga Slavnikova’s Лёгкая голова (which I think I’ll call Light Headed, at least for now), a curious book about a brand manager at a chocolate company who is approached by government agents with a strange proposal.

Image credit: Abkhazian commemorative coin celebrating Iskander’s eightieth birthday, from Bank of Abkhazia and Sephia karta, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Modern Minsk: Martinovich’s Paranoia

Ah, paranoia! Ah, Minsk! Viktor Martinovich combines the two in Паранойя (Paranoia), an absorbing but not-quite-satisfying novel about life in a Belarus run by the security ministry. Paranoia is a mashup on several levels: Martinovich calls his genre mix “reality antiutopia” and says fear is the main character, though I’d probably call it a police state love story with documentation. Martinovich scatters in references ranging from Lewis Caroll’s Alice to Dante’s “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” to a line from The Matrix to the Marks & Spencer name. And so on.

On the simplest plot level, Paranoia is a boy-meets-then-loses-girl novel: Anatolii Nevinskii, whose last name means “innocent,” meets Liza in the Chess coffee shop. She likes latte macchiatos, parks her Lexus SUV illegally, and tells Anatolii she’s been waiting for him all her life. Anatolii, a writer published in the West who drives a BMW he calls his frau, is smitten. They take a walk in the park. A romance ensues, and they rent an apartment in which to meet.

The love nest is bugged, and the middle of the book is transcripts of listening sessions, with some analyst commentary that made me laugh. Our lovers, by the way, are code-named Gogol and Lisa (лиса/lisa in Russian means fox). Liza isn’t any old poor Liza from Russian literature: she’s rather well-to-do, thanks to security minister Muravyov himself, who’s given her real estate and cars. Their relationship isn’t quite clear but when Liza becomes pregnant, she tells Anatolii that Muravyov may be the father. Romance in a dictatorship – particularly when the dictator is one side of a triangle – involves lots of people and no privacy. So: End of romance with Anatolii. And end of Liza: she disappears and Anatolii becomes a suspect.

Descriptions of the Liza-Anatolii relationship weren’t very interesting, perhaps because they reminded me so much of the romance in Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 that was also intended to be illicit and mysterious. Like Slavnikova, Martinovich employs a sea of metaphors at the start of the book, most memorably comparing used condoms at the park to jellyfish. Paranoia’s characters felt both hyperreal – the bug transcripts are oh-so voyeuristic – and abstractly hollow, with Liza seeming to represent some desired post-Soviet Feminine and Anatolii and Muravyov seeming to represent some yin and yang, two sides of the same coin, or similar cliché for complementary opposites. Liza, by the way, sees a kinder side in Muravyov and likes hearing him play the piano, particularly Mozart’s 24th piano concerto. Even Anatolii admits, after hearing Muravyov perform the concerto at a concert, that the maestro’s playing is sincere.

Absurdity, appropriately jittery language, the Minsk setting, humor, and odd details, such as Anatolii’s Rasta friend with helpful connections, give Paranoia appeal, and Martinovich’s observations often show humor. I particularly liked this line about two musicians:

Старички имели на лицах лучезарное выражение наивности, отличавшее людей, всю жизнь отдавших нотным партитурам в стране, которая меньше всего напоминала мелодию для флейты и клавесина.


“The radiant expression of naïveté on the old men’s faces identified them as people who gave their whole lives to musical scores in a country that reminded one least of all of a melody for flute and harpsichord.”

It’s difficult to explain why Paranoia disappointed. The ending, with Anatolii’s state-induced retreat to a combination of fantasy and his new reality, felt inevitable after talk about how “they” control people, but the last pages felt weak, easy, and indefinite. More disconcerting were long passages about love – we already know Anatolii’s in love! – and all those literary and cultural references. Early on there’s a mention that Anatolii’s literary agent says there’s no need to invent books like 1984 because we have reality. Fine. But I thought the balance in Paranoia tilted far more heavily toward references to brands and reams of other authors’ work, e.g. 1984, than toward an account of reality, despite Martinovich’s vivid descriptions of present-day Minsk and all the surveillance.

I don’t care about the “reality-antiutopia” balance but I thought the references loaded the book down and made it feel derivative, even as its final third sucked me in because I wanted to learn Anatolii’s fate… then the end reminded me of Mikhail Elizarov’s Librarian finale. I realize this may be a personal problem: I don’t know if Martinovoich has read The Librarian or 2017 or some of the other books I felt traces of in Paranoia. I’m probably just catching a lot of zeitgeist in all the contemporary Russian novels I read; many contain elements of fantasy and/or dystopia.

Unfortunately, Paranoia always seemed to remind me of other books instead of announcing itself as a unique novel called Paranoia. I’m especially sorry to report that because the book is generally quite readable, with good material. I think it’s more important as a political statement about Belarus than as a literary work, though it left me feeling a little empty, without new or unusual insights into totalitarianism or paranoia itself. Of course the banality of totalitarianism and paranoia might be part of Martinovich’s point, but I don’t think that makes the book feel any deeper or less muddled.

For more:

-The New York Review of Books ran an article-review by Timothy Snyder.

-The first 30 pages of Paranoia are online in PDF form here.

-Reader reactions have been positive on Ozon (here) but less so on TextExpert (here), where I concur with commenter Afineja’s thoughts: Paranoia needed more editing but is worth reading. The beginning of the TextExpert review piece seems to provide a clue to the editing problem: reviewer KoLibri refers to a Martinovich blog post (here) in which Martinovich says he thought about the book for a year and a half, then wrote it in a month and a half, writing a large portion on a Nokia qwerty keyboard.

Level for nonnative readers of Russian: 3.5 out of 5.0, moderately difficult at times, with lots of metaphor, references, and odd speech.

Up next: Iskander’s stories about Chik or Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Толмач, which I think I’ll call The Interpreter.

Photo credit: Lhoon, Ilmari Karonen, via Wikipedia. Government building in Minsk.