I finally read Aleksei Motorov’s Юные годы медбрата Паровозова (Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years), which I’d been curious about ever since it won the readers’ prize in the 2013 NOSE competition; Male Nurse Parovozov was clearly popular with readers and sounded like very decent mainstream reading. Motorov’s book did, indeed, turn out to be decent mainstream reading, albeit autobiographical fiction that doesn’t feel especially fictionalized because apparently it’s mostly the names that have been changed… but fine, it was just the thing for yet another stretch of tired evenings. The heaviest lifting here was picking up the book itself, which weighs in at over 500 pages, though I’m certainly not complaining: Parovozov’s first-person narrator is engagingly genial and his stories generally held my attention.
The gist here is that male nurse Aleksei Motorov, our humble first-person narrator, works in emergency medicine at a Moscow hospital during the 1980s, as the Soviet Union is falling apart. Though Motorov is clearly a gifted nurse—doctors seem to trust him with a fair number of procedures—he’s tried and failed to get into medical school quite a few times. Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years strings together tales of hospital-based medicine during the ‘80s, describing Motorov’s work as well as a self-inflicted accidental injury that proves, yet again, that no good deed goes unpunished. The injury lands him a bed in his own hospital, and he later applies to med school, yet again, toward the end of the book.
Motorov is at his best when he simply tells stories and describes people at the hospital. Blurbs from writers Lev Rubinshtein and Linor Goralik on the back of my book refer to Motorov’s success in (Here, I’ll mash up their blurbs for you!) combining real life, convincing storytelling, and the everyday. And they’re right. Motorov describes his co-workers with humor and affection—I particularly enjoyed Tamara from Sukhumi and can just hear a sharp voice goadingly calling Motorov a conman at every possible opportunity—and talks about their work in such a perfectly matter-of-fact way that it almost gave me the illusion of being there.
My use of “matter-of-fact” here also functions almost like synonym for “not naturalistic”: though there are mentions of car accidents and brake fluid as a beverage, and Motorov’s hospital takes in refugees from Chernobyl, the point of the book isn’t to tell societal or medical horror stories. His reality finds a peculiarly gentle balance—I’m sure this is a huge part of its appeal to readers in this age of dark, dreary “chernukha” realism—because Motorov invokes successes, failures, and humiliations along with humor and sincerity. There’s nothing extreme other than the book’s humanity and optimism, even when Motorov himself is injured and facing absurd inconveniences during his recovery, like regular post-hospital check-ins with an oblivious policlinic doctor. Of course there’s also the absurd convenience of being able to smoke in the ward!
The majority of Parovozov is set at the hospital, which is good because that’s where the book feels most fluid and energetic, seguing from one chapter to the next almost like oral storytelling. My interest flagged in chapters about Motorov’s childhood and about shopping during the Soviet era, where I had the feeling I was rereading familiar background from other books and even newspaper articles; the account of his final attempt at getting into med school (e.g. witnessing his oral exams) seemed horribly anticlimactic even if chemistry went well. In the end, Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years left me with a rather amorphous impression—loosely veiled autobiographical writing often leaves me feeling that way since the narratives are modeled so closely on reality that they lack the intangible organic drive that my memory and readerly instincts thrive on—but Motorov’s geniality, love for medicine, and yes, things like Tamara’s needling jokiness certainly stuck with me, just as they seem to have stuck with readers who voted in the NOSE competition.
Level for non-native readers of Russian: 2.5 out of 5. Not particularly difficult; a conversational, friendly narrative voice. I’d particularly recommend Parovozov to medical interpreters.
Disclosures: The usual.
Up Next: Iurii Mamleev’s The Sublimes and Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard. And perhaps The Letter T.