Sunday, December 27, 2015

Getting Off the Island: Vagner’s Truly Human

Sequels are always tough so I have to admit I began Yana Vagner’s Живые люди—which her agents call Truly Human, rather than the more literal and far more awkward Living People—with a bit of trepidation. I loved Vagner’s Vongozero (previous post) for its road journey: a group of people leaves Moscow for a remote island near the Russian-Finnish border, to escape a killer virus. There’s lots of snow. Most of the genres I mentioned before—psychological thriller, race for survival, and horror story—are still in force for Truly Human, but road story is replaced by a version of hermetic fiction this time. Hermetic seals are, of course, always just waiting to burst…

There’s snow on the island in Truly Human, too, since it’s still winter: Truly Human tells what happens when the road trip ends and the motley group of people settles in. The narrator is again Anya, a thirty-something woman who’s married to Sergei and is mother to teenage Misha. She’s crammed into a tiny house with her overbearing father-in-law, three neighbors from her old life (they’re still annoying), Sergei’s ex-wife and their child, and one other couple. There’s also a dog. Once again, Vagner’s writing is plain and very appropriate to her book’s events. This time she depicts a Spartan lifestyle: not only do the cigarettes run out but there’s lots of ice fishing, sleeping on uncomfortable-sounding beds, and sharing small spaces with people Anya doesn’t like very much.

I think that’s what I enjoyed most about Truly Human: Anya’s honesty about her companions. Some of them are shadowy here, barely described, reflecting their places in her consciousness. Or lack thereof: sometimes it feels like she simply wants to will them out of existence. With its island setting, Truly Human begins as a pretty hermetically sealed book but Vagner works in three new neighbors on the shore; one of them seems especially threatening, which starts building some slow suspense. It’s worth noting that the Chekhovian guns present in Vongozero haven’t exactly been thrown in the lake. Nor have most of the other post-cataclysmic, existential threats one might expect, like hunger, boredom, thin ice, and illness. Vagner covers most of that, too, again starting off slowly but quickening her pace.

Although there’s a distinct sense here of hell being other people (that’s one side of being “truly human” and “living people,” isn’t it?) Vagner also shows the women drinking by a campfire (there’s a nice mess of trout that day) and telling stories about their lives before the virus. And later, when the first of the group dies, everyone mourns not only that person but their other loved ones: to paraphrase, nobody had time to mourn the sharp feelings of loss they’d brought with them to the island. Anya may not always be a sympathetic character or narrator but she’s insightful and very, very real. And human, too, as emotions and plotlines heat up when all sorts of calamities hit. And how could they not? The food’s bound to run out, spring and migrating ducks come late to northern Russia, and the three guys on shore always looked a little sketchy. Even if I didn’t love Truly Human quite as much as Vongozero—which I’d expected after finding Vongozero so oddly magical—I have to admire Vagner’s ability to put her characters in a small house without much food, space, or privacy. And to let them sort things out in ways that felt, well, pretty truly human to me.

Up Next: Year-end summary, Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, and likely Yuri Buida’s Ceylon, which I started yesterday and which feels a little like comfortable old (but not smelly) slippers.


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