Sunday, August 26, 2012

When Chickens Fly: Lipskerov’s The Forty Years of Changzhuoe

It feels appropriate that I bought my copy of Dmitrii Lipskerov’s 40 лет Чанчжоэ (The Forty Years of Changzhuoe) at my local Russian grocery store: I didn’t buy chicken that day but the book chronicles the strange life of a town invaded by a horde of chickens. Still, though the residents of Changzhuoe—the name apparently means “Chicken City”—find ways to capitalize on the arrival of millions of birds and many people develop feathers, The Forty Years of Changzhuoe is less about birds and feathers then about upside-down worlds and, to borrow from one of the book’s characters, “обыкновенный атавизм,” which I think I might call “normal atavism” here. It’s a diagnosis of sorts.

Though The Forty Years of Changzhuoe chronicles the city’s forty-year history (and, by many accounts, borrows from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose Hundred Years of Solitude are but a vague, distant memory for me…), it’s difficult to pinpoint its temporal setting in our parallel world. The novel apparently takes place before the Russian revolution, though the passage of time is often distorted in the town’s history, which is typed in code by a character named Elena who works in a trance-like state. Her husband, Genrikh Shaller, an officer who’s not really an officer, brings the text to one Mr. Teplyi (Mr. Warm, who’s anything but warm), a teacher at the local orphanage, for deciphering. One of Mr. Teplyi’s students is Jerome, a character who helps connect several of the book’s threads, largely because he’s a nosy young voyeur.

Lipskerov populates his town with lots more characters, including Liza and Françoise, who are two of Shaller’s lovers, a physicist named Gogol, a doctor on the make, and a set of bickering town council members. There’s also a businessman who decides to build a Babel-like tower of happiness. For me, what’s most interesting about all these figures is the way Lipskerov twists myth and literary expectations. [Spoiler alert!] For example, in Changzhuoe, unlike in Nikolai Karamzin’s sentimental classic, “Poor Liza,” Liza doesn’t do herself in because she’s distraught—growing chicken feathers doesn’t push her to suicide—it’s her beau, the businessman with the tower, who kills himself by diving off the structure in front of a crowd.

Physical and metaphorical flights are a theme in the book, too, so a physicist named Gogol feels doubly mischievous, particularly since Nikolai Gogol’s nose-in-the-bread caper (among others), defies our world’s laws of physics. And then there’s the cannibalistic Mr. Teplyi, who keeps a gruesome library and kills because it helps him decode Elena’s text. Teplyi feels like a twist on Dostoevsky, particularly when he tells Shaller that the presence of a hatchet doesn’t necessarily indicate a killer.

Reading Olga Slavnikova’s 1997 piece about Changzhuoe in the journal Ural reminded me of numerous other aspects of this crowded novel that I’d either forgotten or downplayed as I read. I was glad for her mention of characters’ propensity to forget their pasts and take on new names, and Slavnikova notes the laic canonization of people whose sins are forgiven, calling Changzhuoe’s saints folkloric characters. This form of dvoeverie, or dual belief, fits nicely with the (many!) carnivalistic elements I found in the book. Slavnikova also points out the erasure of one key character’s character… in fact, most of the town erases itself, returning the place to the same status (essentially a hole in the ground) it had at the beginning of the chronicle.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Changzhuoe is that it’s not nearly as confusing or messy to read as it is to summarize. Even better, it’s a fairly enjoyable piece of work that combines eroticism, murder, magical realism, and, of course, atavism (usual or otherwise) and strange cycles of history. The book and its characters are certainly quirky, combining old-fashioned and modern, so I give Lipskerov lots of credit for placing most of his book—a debut novel—on the dark side of quirky rather than succumbing to cuteness. I can only imagine what some other writers might have done with all those feathers.

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: around 3/5 out of 5.

Up Next: A quick post on Ergali Ger’s Koma, then Andrei Rubanov’s short stories and Marina Stepanova’s Lazarus and all his women.

Image Credit: “Hen – Kura” from dudek25, via


  1. Thanks for this post - sounds like another one I'd really like to get my hands on!

  2. Ani, this time I'm anonynous in Moscow... this is a quirky but funnish book. At first I wondered where it would go but then it all started to make sense. If you find it, I hope you enjoy it!

  3. Hello Anonymous! (as someone once said to me!) I'm trying to find it in Mobi format; no luck yet but I may just start sending begging messages. How wonderful that you're in Moscow. Are you at the book fair??

    1. Ani, I'm mostly at the literary translator congress but also went to the book fair. I've been book shopping, too!)))