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

Sunday, August 19, 2012

All Sorts of Shorts: Short Stories from Noir and Snegirev + Two Short Summaries

After calling the Moscow Noir short story anthology “a dark book indeed” two years ago, I think I can sum up St. Petersburg Noir, a new collection edited by Julia Goumen and Natalia Smirnova for Akashic’s noir anthology series, as “a pretty dark book.” Put another way: If Moscow is pitch black, St. Peterburg is moving toward deep dusk.

I loved the brutal, elemental scariness of the Moscow book—and recognize how very skewed my perspective is after living and working near all too many Moscow crime scenes—but wonder if the slightly lighter St. Petersburg collection, which is very decent, might find a broader readership.

Bits of St. Petersburg Noir’s stories blended together in my mind as I read, melding into a composite portrait of a city loaded with poverty, aimlessness, drugs, back streets, squalid apartments, ballet, and canals… plus murder and other violent misdeeds set amidst cultural sites and monuments. Here are a few stories that especially distinguished themselves for me:

Andrei Rubanov’s “Barely a Drop,” translated by Marian Schwartz, felt the most classically noir to me, focusing on a writer who takes the train to St. Petersburg to spy on his wife, whom he suspects of having an affair. Rubanov is an economical writer who can fit a lot into a short story.

The first story in the book, Andrei Kivinov’s “Training Day,” translated by Polly Gannon, looks at law enforcement, morgue runs, and everyday fears (e.g. elevators, one of my own Russia phobias) with an apt combination of seaminess and humor.

“The Sixth of June,” by Sergei Nosov and translated by Gannon, stars a first-person narrator who quickly introduces himself as a would-be assassin with plans to act on Pushkin’s birthday.

I thought Julia Belomlinsky’s “The Phantom of the Opera Forever,” translated by Ronald Meyer, a revenge tale, was one of the edgiest stories in the book. It begins with a small chunk of Crime and Punishment and moves on to “All our life here—it’s a fucking Dostoevsky nightmare!”

Though Pavel Krusanov’s “The Hairy Sutra,” translated by Amy Pieterse, felt silly and predictable with its museum zoologists, conflicts, and specimens, it turned out to be one of the most oddly memorable stories in the book because of its distinct setting, characters, and exhibits.

Still, the scariest and darkest story I’ve read lately is in the thick journal Новый мир: Alexander Snegirev’s “Внутренний враг” (“The Internal Enemy”). Snegirev’s story is rooted in sociopolitical and historical tension: a young man, Misha, gets a call about an inheritance and then finds out his family history isn’t quite what he thought. Snegirev plays on Misha’s idealism, identity, and dread of the KGB as he builds a creepy, phantasmagoric family drama set in a house that feels haunted. The story’s psychological suspense and intensity surprised me—and sucked me in—after some early passages that felt a bit conventional. 

Finally, two novels I don’t plan to finish but that I want to mention because they’re both finalists for the 2012 Big Book Award: The first 140 pages of Vladimir Makanin’s Две сестры и Кандинский (Two Sisters and Kandinsky) also center around societal divides and the KGB as Makanin examines the consequences of informing. Alas, the novel, which draws on Chekhovian themes and reads almost like a play, didn’t hold my interest and I stopped reading after the first act section. I also had trouble with Sergei Nosov’s Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise Or the Way to the Glacier): eavesdropping on a guy who chats with his herniated disc just isn’t my thing. There’s more to the book than that, of course, including a Russia-India contrast, leeches, a stolen lung, and smoking cessation courses, but the whole package felt gimmicky, contrived, and surprisingly dull. Françoise was also shortlisted for the 2012 NatsBest.

Up Next: Dmitrii Lipskerov’s 40 лет Чанчжоэ (The Forty Years of Chanchzhoeh/Changzhuoe), Ergali Ger’s Koma, Andrei Rubanov’s Стыдные подвиги (Shameful Feats/Exploits… I’m still not sure…), and Marina Stepnova’s Женщины Лазаря (The Women of Lazarus/Lazarus’s Women).

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I received a review copy of St. Petersburg Noir from Akashic Books, thank you very much! I have met and chatted with Julia Goumen, one of the book’s editors, on numerous occasions. I enjoyed meeting Alexander Snegirev, whom I’d known online for a couple years, at BookExpo America in June… I promised him I’d be honest in my assessment of “The Internal Enemy.” And, of course, I was!

Image Credit: Photo of St. Petersburg from uun, via

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Two Teas: Dmitry Danilov’s “Black and Green”

I’m glad Zakhar Prilepin’s list of favorite books and stories from the noughties reminded me that I had Dmitry Danilov’s Чёрный и зелёный (“Black and Green”) on my e-reader—Danilov’s novella about the wanderings of a tea salesman was fun to read, a lovely example of form and content intertwined. I enjoyed Danilov’s Horizontal Position very much, too (previous post), but “Black and Green” somehow felt even better, more homey… I’d like to think it’s all the tea, though I suspect I just feel even more at home now in Danilov’s world, finding humor and humanness in a place that initially felt bland and sketched but now feels full and almost cozy in its spareness.

Danilov tells “Black and Green” in a first-person voice that resembles the narrative voice of Horizontal Position: the anonymous storyteller of “Black and Green” uses clipped, stripped language, too, offering minute detail about what he sees in his travels and work but saying little about his background or the family he needs to feed. Though the bulk of “Black and Green” describes tea-selling trips to places outside Moscow, Danilov begins his story by describing a dull night job in an office, then an attempt to sell books and postcards to bookstores. It’s futile in the summer. Come back later. Okay.

It’s difficult to convey the strange pleasure of reading “Black and Green.” In terms of detail, the descriptions of tea and towns are wonderful, particularly if you are a tea drinker and/or have been to Russia, but I think this bit, about the narrator’s tea trips with a car owner, Sasha, gets at the essence of what I love so much about how Danilov writes:

Стали ездить с Сашей. Это, конечно, гораздо удобнее и приятнее, чем на электричках, да и вдвоем лучше, хотя последнее и не факт, потому что когда едешь куда-нибудь далеко один, не болтаешь, и больше шансов впасть в полумедитативное остолбенение и заметить вещи, которые в нормальном состоянии заметить трудно.
I began riding with Sasha. Of course this was much nicer and more convenient than taking electrichkas, and, sure, it’s better to work together, though the latter is not a hard-set rule because when you go somewhere far away by yourself, you don’t chat, so there are more chances to fall into a semimeditative stupor and notice things that are difficult to notice in a normal condition.

Kazansky Station, Moscow, with elektrichka trains.
Photo: Dmitry Danilov
In a later section titled “Rage Against the Machine,” the narrator describes his own experiences driving, concluding that driving wears on the nerves, which is hardly interesting or poetic, qualities he implies he found on public transportation. That follows up nicely on the appealing “semimeditative stupor” in the passage above: Danilov’s use of repetition, short sentences, and seemingly irrelevant details all fit beautifully with the paradoxical daze that envelopes his narrators and acts on the reader. He piles on seemingly dull information but stops short of overload, creating unexpectedly nuanced pictures of situations and atmospheres. And what the narrator of “Black and Green” doesn’t say—about his wife, his clients, his aspirations—is at least as important as what he does say, pushing the reader’s imagination to feel the significance of the gaps.

“Black and Green” includes everything from advice on brewing green tea—Maybe I’d like the stuff if I made it properly?— to quietly humorous summaries of towns. The brief entry for the town of Chekhov, for example, ends with this: “Чехов – не очень хороший город. Чехов – очень хороший писатель.” (“Chekhov is not a very good city. Chekhov is a very good writer.”) The novella also includes a passage about a funeral for a friend who committed suicide. Danilov captures drabness before the funeral:

“Серый день и серый дым из огромной серой трубы. Перовская улица, недра неприятного района Перово. Серые пятиэтажные здания и грязно-белые девятиэтажные здания.”   
“Gray day and gray smoke from a huge gray smokestack. Perovskaya Street, the heart of the unpleasant Perovo area. Gray five-storey buildings and dirty-white nine-storey buildings.”

One of Danilov’s best writerly gifts is that he stops when he’s written enough… just as his narrator in “Black and Green” knows when it’s time to leave the tea trade for an office job, before he tires of tea and no longer enjoys his clockwise sweeps through the Moscow region, loaded down with packages of tea.

A Few Notes:

  • “Black and Green” mentions the Tunguska Event so, as promised, I’ve initiated a Tunguska Event tag
  • “Black and Green” was shortlisted for the Andrei Bely award in 2010, along with Horizontal Position.
  • Литературная газета recently published an interview with Danilov; it’s here.

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: 2/5, not especially difficult language; novella length. An especially good choice for readers who’ve visited Russia.

Disclaimers: The usual. I met Dmitrii Danilov at BookExpo America.

Up Next: Dmitrii Lipskerov’s 40 лет Чанчжоэ (The Forty Years of Chanchzhoeh), an odd piece of work about a town invaded by hens. And short stories galore, including St. Petersburg Noir. Then even more stories: Andrei Rubanov’s Стыдные подвиги (Shameful Feats/Exploits… I’m still not sure…), a collection of short stories that I’ve been reading at the beach.