Sometimes the best thing a book can do for me, particularly during busy spells—like, say, the last two years—is leave me with a pleasant, blurry feeling of having read an enjoyable book. The details that stick (and sometimes there aren’t very many, even if the book is thought-provoking and complex) aren’t nearly as important as the experience of reading a book that carries me away from dismembering and rebuilding sentences, deadlines, and my searches for apt words. On this short “spring forward” day, here are short takes on two books I found especially enjoyable for reasons I can’t exactly explain…
At first glance, Gleb Shulpyakov’s Музей имени Данте (Museum Named for Dante) seems like an odd candidate for a busy-time book: it’s a moderately thick novel about, among other favorite themes, political and social changes, and Shulpyakov incorporates poems, diary entries, and a play. There’s so much in the book—changes in geographical and temporal settings, literary references, love stories, the prickly poet Gek (“Gek” is what Huck Finn is called in Russian), and all sorts of other layers—that I’d even forgotten the main Dante connection (Reminder: not all details stick!) until I looked at my notes: our narrator, a sometime TV journalist and sometime used book dealer finds a draft translation of part of Dante’s Inferno.
There are two aspects of Museum that held particular powers to generate those pleasant, blurry impressions I mentioned above: nineties Moscow and the language Shulpyakov gives his first-person narrator. Nineties Moscow is, of course, a favorite setting since I lived there, though Shulpyakov does well with lots of travel, too, including to a remote island and a dig. Shulpyakov includes tanks in central Moscow, booksellers, mentions of Khasbulatov and Yeltsin that help make this another October Events novel, and references to period details like the MMM pyramid scheme and the TV show “600 Секунд” (600 Seconds). On another level, our narrator notes that he feels like an uncomfortable loser in a new place and time, wondering if he belongs in a place where the comfort of the kitchen is disappearing. This is familiar, too. As for language, Shulpyakov’s writing has a clear, simple elegance that I admire. I think the language is a big part of why the book grabbed me so nicely: the simplicity of the language meant I didn’t have to stop much to sort through difficult sentences, leaving me open to getting fully drawn into the book’s content on an almost subconscious, dream-like level. That’s a great feeling, even if it’s difficult to describe.
It wasn’t the plot that kept me going with this book, either, though there’s lots of great material—power outages, a love story, quirky work details—and the thought of a maritime lawyer named Slims Achmed Makashvili sending letters to Hillary Clinton because he wants to go on a technical training program to the United States certainly has its appeal. What I loved was (and maybe there’s a trend here?) the language Nichol gives her first-person narrator. Her language combines beautifully with her eye for details: “Tbilisi is a small city and on the street it is possible to recognize many people: the hundred-year-old Soviet ballerina, the talk show host whose huge yellow sunglasses make him look like a bug, the documentarians who make films about ancient door locks. Look in front of the bank. The security guard was once a famous bison breeder.” In the next paragraph there’s a mention of
“the modern American emotion of stress.” Later, when Slims is stopped by a
policeman and asked if he’s been drinking and says he hasn’t, the cop asks, “Why
is your passenger wearing a seatbelt then?” It ’s because Slims’s British passenger refuses
to ride without wearing a safety belt. And then there’s all the food, appetizingly
torturous given the lack of Georgian restaurants in Maine. Page 261 includes
chicken in walnut sauce, tomato salads with peppers and herbs, mutton pilov, a pastry with noodles and cheese,
and the line, “The food on the table wasn’t just food but pure philosophy.” This
is a book to give someone along with a copy of Darra Goldstein’s The Georgian Feast
and a few packets of khmeli
suneli, a wonderful spice blend that, for me, makes even a simple burger taste
a little bit Georgian.
Finally, I’m very happy to write that my translation of Vladislav Otroshenko’s Приложение к фотоальбому is now out from Dalkey Archive Press as Addendum to a Photo Album. It was nice to read in Kirkus’s review that the reviewer called the book “carefully translated,” and I think the conclusion—“A deeply strange novel that reads like a Chekhov play inspired by the comedy stylings of Monty Python.”—sums things up beautifully.
Disclaimers: I received a copy of Waiting for the Electricity from The Overlook Press, thank you!
Up Next: Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov and Cartagena by Lena Eltang, a complex murder mystery of sorts that I’m still reading slowly to appreciate all the details. Plus maybe a novella or two…