Tuesday, November 27, 2012

2012 Big Book Awards

The Big Book awards are scheduled for November 27, when I'll be in Moscow... and plan to go to the Big Book award ceremony. Since I'm traveling light, at least electronically speaking, I'm scheduling this piece to post automatically -- I'll tap in a comment, as Anonymous, late that day/night with the winners. I'll try to remember to take pictures to post later in my trip report!

For everyone's reference, here's the list of finalists:

  • Maria Galina: Медведки (Mole-Crickets)
  • Daniil Granin: Мой лейтенант… (My Lieutenant…)
  • Aleksandr Grigorenko: Мэбэт. История человека тайги(Mebet. The Story of a Person from the Taiga)
  • Vladimir Gubailovsky: Учитель цинизма (The Teacher of Cynicism)
  • Andrei Dmitriev: Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager)
  • Aleksandr Kabakov, Evgenii Popov: Аксёнов (Aksyonov)
  • Vladimir Makanin: Две сестры и Кандинский (Two Sisters and Kandinsky)
  • Sergei Nosov: Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise, Or the Way to the Glacier)
  • Valerii Popov: Плясать досмерти (To Dance to Death)
  • Zakhar Prilepin: Чёрная обезьяна (The Black Monkey)
  • Andrei Rubanov: Стыдные подвиги (Shameful Feats/Exploits)
  • Marina Stepnova: Женщины Лазаря (The Women of Lazarus/Lazarus’s Women)
  • Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov): «Несвятые святые» и другие рассказы (“Unsaintly Saints” and Other Stories)
  • Lena Eltang: Другие барабаны (Other Drums)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City

Reading Dmitrii Danilov’s latest book, Описание города (Description of a City) was a big, huge literary relief: after enjoying his spare but detailed Horizontal Position and “Black and Green” very much, I’d wondered what he would (or possibly could!) do next. My hope—selfish, of course—was that he would continue writing prose that is impersonal and I-less, but deeply personal... and, somehow, expand into another dimension. Which is exactly what Danilov does, in Description of a City, a book that is both very touching and quietly funny, a book that describes—and, really, defines—a city he visits once a month for a year. Beginning in January.

The narrator in Description of a City catalogues his goals on the first page. A summary: walk around, ride around, look around, stay in hotels, buy things, go from end to end many times, walk the central street and other streets a million times, make the place feel native so it gets under the skin. The city was chosen for its railroad connections and relatively short distance from Moscow (six hours by train), sports teams, wealth of industry, and dearth of tourist attractions. We learn that it’s essentially flyover country: the city’s airport doesn’t have many flights and the narrator sees planes flying overhead.

But my description of Description is off. Danilov uses terms like these, which I’ll translate very literally:
  • описаемый город –city being described
  • гостиница, название которой совпадает с названием одного из областных центров Украины – hotel the name of which coincides with the name of one of the regional centers of Ukraine
  • улица, названная в честь одного из месяцев – street named in honor of one of the months
  • площадь имени одного из величайших злодеев в мировой истории – [city] square named for one of the greatest villains in world history
Part of what makes this nomenclature work is that the place names start to pile up when the narrator goes from one train station to another, crosses a certain street, or sees a certain building. This sometimes creates absurdly long lists of names-that-don’t-name that might not seem to mean much. But they become names for us, Description’s readers, and they do have meaning—a lot of very marked meaning—even for a foreigner. I know, for example, the habit of naming hotels after other cities from the FSU, I know there are lots of Russian streets named after October, and I know Lenin and Marx are still pretty popular on Russian maps.

The cumulative effect of all those names-that-aren’t-names surprised me. Not only did I create a vivid mental picture of an imaginary city that drew on all my travel—in the years I lived in Russia I went to lots of small cities not unlike Danilov’s—but the city being described began to feel like a mythical, almost mystical place thanks to all the descriptions of names that draw on Soviet-era figures and clichés. Danilov has been called a new realist but his realism is a very particular and peculiar realism. His realism is abstract and almost transcendent, a realism with a lot of остранение, defamiliarization.

Danilov discusses words in other ways throughout the book, asking, for example, about the use of the word ритуальный (ritual) instead of похоронный (burial) when discussing funeral services. I’ve always thought this was strange, too. Also: can a wooden square that is obviously intended for use as a sandbox be called a “sandbox” if it contains no sand? And he wonders, throughout the book, about the expression “войти в печенки,” something the city being described should do to him, though he doesn’t quite grasp the expression. I don’t quite grasp the expression, either: literally it’s apparently “get into your livers” (!) and the Oxford Russian-English dictionary has the translation “to plague (someone)” for when something is, in Russian, in your livers. To me it feels a lot like “get under the skin.” In any case, at the very end of the book Danilov wraps things up nicely, saying there’s no longer any sense in talking about getting into livers. “Надо назвать вещи своими именами,” he says. Meaning his narrator is feeling compelled to call things by their true names so ‘fesses up: I don’t think it gives away anything at all to add that he says he has come to love that city… and of course the confession doubles as the narrator’s explanation of the livers expression.

So, yes, Description of a City got under my skin and into my livers, too, thanks to Danilov’s wonderful pile-ups of names that sometimes feel poetic, hours spent sitting on benches at train stations, on seats of buses, on seats at stadiums. The contrast of movement and transportation with open expanses and a meditative state I’ve come to expect from Danilov is also lovely. Most of all, though, I appreciate how Danilov uses language to deconstruct urban naming and describe a city that readers can build—one generic, clichéd name or building at a time—into imagined cities that draw on memories of real places and Soviet myths his readers already know. It’s quite a nice trick.

The train station known as
City Being Described-1. 
P.S. In case anyone wonders what city served as the model for the city being described, it’s Bryansk, something Danilov told me before I read the book, though I decided not to look at photos until finishing my reading. One reason Danilov chose Bryansk: his tremendous respect for Leonid Dobychin, a writer who lived in Bryansk. Of course Dobychin isn’t mentioned by name—he’s “выдающийся русский писатель” (an eminent Russian writer)—but Description of a City mentions monthly visits to the empty lot where Dobychin’s house once stood. It is, writes Danilov, on a street named in honor of one of the months, though the month is neither January or February. As I said, the book got into my livers.

Disclaimers: Danilov gave me a copy of Description of a City when I saw him in Moscow earlier this fall.

Up Next: Vorishilovgrad from Serhij Zhadan, which I swear I will finish writing about one/some day soon! Margarita Khemlin’s The Investigator. And the Big Book award.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

City/Country: Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager

Andrei Dmitriev’s Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager), which won the “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” Yasnaya Polyana award last month and is also on the short lists for this year’s Big Book and Russian Booker prizes, is a novel composed of two intersecting character sketches. Dmitriev draws his two title characters in great detail: middle-aged Paniukov, an Afghan war veteran who lives in a Russian village, and teen aged Gera, a Muscovite who comes to stay with Paniukov to avoid military service. They are brought together by Vova, an old friend and former farming partner of Paniukov’s who now lives in Moscow.

Though I didn’t count pages or scenes, it felt to me that Dmitriev offered more backstory for the men—often about their not-so-happening relationships with women—than present-day interaction. In the beginning of the book, Paniukov still thinks about his youthful romance with Sanya, whom he sees around town, and Gera is madly in love with Tatiana, who’s in Moscow and difficult to reach by cell phone. There’s no cell signal in the village—this is my kind of place!—so he has to travel to call her. I didn’t find much of interest in either romantic plot line, both of which take up lots of pages, rehashing stories of love and loss that I’ve heard, read, and witnessed elsewhere. I didn’t find much of interest in the interactions between Paniukov and Gera, either; Dmitriev didn’t develop their differences as much as I’d expected.

Still, I never thought about abandoning the book. The Peasant and the Teenager is readable thanks to Dmitriev’s writing and his ability to create texture in the settings and secondary characters—including a cow—that surround Paniukov and Gera. The texture doesn’t always feel very new to me, either, but Dmitriev combines elements to create atmosphere, particularly in the village, that feels real, if only in a schematic way. He gives us villagers who speak only in the informal you (ты) to emphasize closeness, English-influenced slang and poor spelling, a contrast of urban and rural bathhouses, walks that don’t quite go into the woods, illegal wood cutting, and a group of hunters who stay with Paniukov and Gera. As the designated drinker of the pair (Paniukov is a teetotaler), Gera has vodka with the hunters, revealing himself a buzzkill by talking too much about Suvorov. Dmitriev also has Paniukov tell stories of unpleasant village fates: they begin to feel identical and dull to Gera, who’s been through a bit himself because his brother is a drug addict abandoned by his family.

I came away from The Peasant and the Teenager with mixed feelings. On the minus side, the novel felt a bit awkward—not quite finished (or connected?) and not quite the right length—and I prefer a book with more conflict between characters. Dmitriev raised expectations that he’d reveal more about Paniukov and Gera than their been-there-read-that love stories could show. On the positive side, all the details I described above made this medium-length book perfectly pleasant to read, particularly given supporting characters like Lika, who changes her hair color to stave off boredom, and Paniukov’s expressive cow. I give Dmitriev extra credit for the cow, who became my favorite character: it’s a rare book where I want to read more about a cow who’s at the center of everything in a place without a cell signal.

Disclosures: The usual. Dmitriev shares an agent with two writers I’ve translated.

Up Next: Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad and Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City

Sunday, November 4, 2012

NOSE Finalists, 2012-2013

The NOSE Award named its [somewhat curious] list of finalists last week… here they are listed in Russian alphabetical order: 

  • Elizaveta Aleksandrova-Zorina: Маленький человек (A Little Man), “a social novel with a detective [novel] plot,” according to the publisher’s description on Ozon.ru. Update on November 17, 2012: This book was also shortlisted for the 2012 Debut Prize for long fiction.
  • Lora Beloivan: Карбид и амброзия (Carbide and Ambrosia), a short story collection.
  • Sergei Gandlevskii: Бездумное былое (something like Feckless Bygone Days, though I almost missed the д and made this into Insane Bygone Days, an easier title to deal with, really…), a memoir about everything from family history to political protest in 2011.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili: Захват Московии (The Capture of Muscovy), a novel that a couple friends have enjoyed, though one said it’s not nearly as good as The Devil’s Wheel… then again, Gigolashvili set ridiculously high standards for himself with The Devil’s Wheel and The Interpreter.
  • Georgii Davydov: Крысолов (The Rat Catcher), a novel that’s also on this year’s Booker short list.
  • Nikolai Kononov: Бог без машины. История 20 сумасшедших, сделавших в России бизнес с нуля (God Without a Machine [or, heaven forbid, God Without a Car?]. The History of 20 Crazy People Starting Businesses in Russia from Nothing), nonfiction where the second part of the title seems to explain a lot more than the first. At least to me.
  • Aleksei Motorov: Юные годы медбрата Паровозова (Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years), an autobiographical novel that Ozon readers have loved. This one sounds like very decent mainstream.
  • Oleg Rashidov: Сколково. Принуждение к чуду (Skolkovo. Necessity for a Miracle), another business-themed book, this one about the Skolkovo Innovation Centre.
  • Lev Rubinshtein: Знаки внимания (Signs of Attention), a collection of columns from various publications and various years.
There’s a lot of nonfiction in that list but, as of this writing, fiction leads the online voting: Male Nurse Parovozov is first with 559 votes, followed by The Rat Catcher with 408 and Carbide and Ambrosia with 273.

Up Next: Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, Andrei Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager, Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City…