Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Road to Somewhere: Vagner’s Vongozero

I’ve always loved genre-bending fiction so it was no surprise to thoroughly enjoy Yana Vagner’s Вонгозеро (Vongozero), a novel about a road trip in a time of virus-based havoc. The combination of road story, psychological thriller, race for survival, horror story, and, yes, winter snow was a perfect antidote to holiday madness for someone (that would be me) who doesn’t much like shopping or Christmas carols.

Vagner’s narrator is Anya, a thirty-something woman who lives in a beautiful-sounding house outside Moscow with her husband, Sergei, and son, Misha. When a virus starts killing so many people—including Anya’s mother—that Moscow is quarantined, they decide to head for an isolated and very small house near the Russian-Finnish border. That decision is largely forced by Anya’s father-in-law, a domineering but inventive type, the sort of guy you want to tell you to get out of town and then want to have along for the journey, too. Over time and miles, their group grows to include Sergei’s ex-wife and their son, two rather annoying neighbors and their daughter, two rather annoying friends, a dog, and a doctor. They make for quite a caravan, particularly with all their supplies. (Of course I wondered from the start when the cigarettes would run out…)

It’s Anya’s narrative voice that made the story work for me: her honest (but not quite whiny) admissions about wanting to ride with her husband, disliking the neighbors, and just wanting to be alone (or not) thoroughly endeared her to me. Even better, Vagner’s writing is nice and plain, the sort of writing that looks easy to craft but just isn’t. Even better again, it’s the sort of writing that lets Vagner and Anya reveal characters’ motivations and tell stories rather than focusing on linguistic pyrotechnics that wouldn’t have fit the cold, snowy environment or the cold paradoxes of survival.

The miles roll out slowly in Vongozero, balancing bursts of excitement and quiet introspection. Some of the obstacles and difficulties are fairly standard—a serious injury that requires amateur medical assistance, some lone helpers who turn up at random, deserted cities, government malfeasance, a glimpse of certain death—but I think part of the fun of genre norms is observing individual writers’ variations on plot twists we’ve all seen many times before. Vagner also makes sure her characters have plenty of firearms from the start, so Chekhov’s gun is along for the ride, too, and Misha, a teenager, seems to become a man almost overnight. And did I mention snow? Winter fits perfectly in Vongozero, both as the season that always seems to symbolize the difficulties of survival (at least in northern climes) and harsh, cold realities, and as a beautiful blank white slate of a setting perfect for people setting off for what they hope will be a new life.

Disclaimers: After liking a Facebook post from Vagner’s literary agency, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova, mentioning that the Slovak translation of Vongozero had hit the e-book bestseller list in Slovakia, I received an electronic copy (Russian, not Slovak!) of Vongozero from BGS. I’d been meaning to ask for the book for several months just because it sounded like my kind of fun reading. One other thing: I didn’t know until I read Vongozero that it started off as an online book that Vagner posted to her Live Journal… it was eventually published by Eksmo, one of Russia’s largest publishing houses, after what BGS’s catalogue (PDF) calls “a heated auction among major Russian publishers.” The real disclaimer: I’ve translated excerpts for BGS and am working on a book by another of their authors.

Up Next: Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina and Denis Gutskov’s Beta Male.

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