I started writing about Mikhail Butov’s Свобода (Freedom) last weekend, when more than 30 inches of fresh blizzard-begotten snow were still languishing outside my office window. Blizzard memories felt perfect for Freedom, a book that isn’t just a blizzard of words and ideas about aimlessness in the 1990s: Butov includes a set piece about a winter camping trip, complete with a blinding snowstorm, ill-preparedness, and references to Jack London.
Freedom, which is narrated by a nameless (I don’t think I missed a name…) first-person narrator who loses his job early in the book, is filled with metaphors for loss of direction and loss of one’s place in the world. Like several other narrators I’ve met—Makanin’s Petrovich in Underground, which lost the 1999 Russian Booker to Freedom, comes to mind—Butov’s character apartment sits for a friend. The friend has gone off to Antarctica; people go to the ends of the earth in this book. Our narrator doesn’t seem to mind being alone a lot, though he’s not strictly alone: he shares his friend’s apartment with a menagerie of mice, rats, roaches, regular flies, fruit flies (there’s a trash chute problem, something I seem to be finding a lot lately), and spiders. Only the spiders cross the threshold into the room where the narrator sleeps. The narrator feeds and even names one spider. Ursus.
I found myself surprisingly agreeable to reading about Ursus and urban solitude and solitariness: Butov’s descriptions of detachment and emotion can be very striking. In one, the hungover narrator vomits into the sink, after which,
Потом я стоял у окна, очень пустой и очень легкий, и двор, еще безлюдный ранним воскресным утром, видел сквозь сгусток внутренней своей темноты. И вдруг, прямо у меня на глазах, стал падать первый снег. Неуверенный и мелкий, как соль, он таял, едва достигал асфальта, — но брал числом, и площадка для машин перед домом медленно покрывалась белым.
Тогда я заплакал. От полноты переживания.Then I stood at the window, very empty and very (s)light, and I saw, through a clot of my internal darkness, the yard, which was still unpopulated on an early Sunday morning. And suddenly the first snow began to fall right before my eyes. Uncertain and as fine as salt, it melted as soon as it reached the pavement, but it accumulated and the parking area in front of the building slowly whitened.
Then I began to weep. From the fullness/completeness of the feeling/experience/suffering.
I’ve purposely left the translated paragraph fairly literal, with alternate meanings and favorite Russian tics, like вдруг/suddenly. That last line reminds me of the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, particularly after the narrator’s physical emptiness...
Our narrator doesn’t spend the whole book alone, though. There are some brief scenes with an occasional female caller and he visits his mother toward the end of the book. And the anonymous narrator spends lots of time with a college friend, Andriukha, an adventurer whose self-destructive tendencies lead to problems with money, ill-gotten goods, and petty criminals. The lone narrator and Andriukha sometimes feel as antipodal as Freedom’s Antarctica and far north.
The wonder of Freedom is that it works at all: as you can probably tell, it’s lumpy and fairly plotless, and the narrator himself says toward the end that he began by stringing together some funny stories, not thinking they’d turn into an adieu to youth. And Freedom is so dense I reread enough passages that I can practically say I’ve already read the book twice. But the time and effort were more than worth it: for the first snow, for the damn spider, for the narrator’s mother’s clock collection, for a telescope in a kiosk, and for a conversation with Andriukha about death-and-will-it-happen, the conversation we’re supposed to avoid. It’s the combination of Big Things and little things that got to me. And the spontaneous powerful feelings. There’s also a globe factory. Learning about birds from matchboxes. And a reference to railroad stuff and Platonov characters, how could I not appreciate that? Finally, there’s a mention of Tunguska. This is my sixth Tunguska tag, dear readers!
Disclosures: I met Mikhail Butov in Moscow last year through Dmitrii Danilov, who pulled Freedom off a bookstore shelf and recommended it to me as a favorite. I have already thanked him.
Up Next: Grigorii Danilevskii’s Princess Tarakanova, an easy-reading historical novel and Vasily Grossman’s Armenian Sketchbook. Then Ekaterina Sherga’s The Underground Ship, which I’m enjoying. My morbid fascination with Elena Katishonok’s Once There Lived an Old Man and His Wife has come to an end (it feels too goopy and dull, particularly when I have so many other books on the shelves), and I’m reading Mikhail Gigolashvili’s The Capture of Muscovy slowly: his language-based humor can be very, very funny but the book could have used some significant edits.