One of the books I brought back from Moscow last September is a big, thick collection of short stories and not-very-long novels by Valery Zalotukha, whose gigundo novel Свечка (The Candle) was a Big Book Award runner-up among jury and reader’s choice voters in 2015. Zalotukha’s publisher gave me the collection and recommended I read the novella Мусульманин (The Muslim), which served as the basis for a 1995 film of the same name, directed by Vladimir Khotinenko. The movie won a special jury prize at the Montréal World Film Festival that year and won a (Russian) Nika Award for best screenplay in 1996. Zalotukha, who passed away in 2015, was a well-known screenwriter: he also wrote Makarov, which Khotinenko also directed, and which also won awards.
The Muslim is brief—around 80 pages—and written very clearly. It’s dated 1994 and feels almost like an early example of чернуха, that dark-dark-dark realism I’ve written about so many times; it is village-based. Zalotukha tells the story of Kolya, who has returned to his hometown from the war in Afghanistan, where he was MIA. Lots changed during those years: Kolya’s father committed suicide, his bully of a brother (Fedya) was released from prison, and Kolya himself has converted to Islam and uses the name Abdula.
You can read Dennis Grunes’s excellent detailed summary (with spoilers!) of the film version of The Muslim, which appears to be very close to the novella, so I won’t waste time outlining the plot, particularly since the simple use of the word чернуха above tells you that many things can and will go wrong after Kolya’s return. What made the novella particularly interesting for me was the 1990s atmosphere that Zalotukha creates: villagers sniff American dollars, collective farms are changing, one character speaks in advertising slogans, and there’s a mention of the ubiquitous Mexican soap opera The Rich Cry, Too, which sucked in millions of Russian viewers. There’s also a bit of a carnival feel when lots of dollars get loose…
At the core of the story are cultural differences and otherness. Kolya stands out from his family and townspeople not just because of his new name: he also refuses to take part in certain rituals, like drinking vodka at his father’s grave or accepting free, essentially stolen, feed grain. There’s a particularly sharp contrast between Kolya and Fedya because Kolya has a strong work ethic and Fedya, though initially loyal to his brother, is prone to heavy drinking and violence. The Muslim features another other, a mysterious visitor, an outsider who comes to town. Though The Muslim’s ending felt a bit more obvious—and perhaps more sudden—than I might have hoped for, the novella kept me thoroughly engaged, both because of my interest in the 1990s and because I always enjoy reading about cultural clashes that include figures like the all too typical Fedya.
Zalotukha’s Последний коммунист (The Last Communist), which is dated 1999 and was a Russian Booker Prize finalist in 2000, was less satisfying. The Last Communist is a family drama of sorts, too, and it also tells of a son’s return. This return feels less monumental: Ilya Pechenkin returns from school in Switzerland to his wealthy family in southern Russia. The 1990s are still in full force here, too, and it feels like Papa Pechenkin, who made his fortune in agriculture, owns the town. (I wonder if it’s a coincidence that his initials work out to VIP if they’re shown as first name, patronymic, surname?) It’s Ilya who wants to be the last communist and foment some sort of revolution, and Zalotukha works in plenty of family conflict—there are father-son relations, of course, as well as VIP’s extra-marital activity with a modest schoolteacher—as well as lots of reminders of the many sociopolitical and sociocultural aspects of generation gaps. Although Ilya makes friends with some peculiar characters who inspire Zalotukha to include martial arts poses at the market and a conversation about why people love McDonald’s (no swearing or barfing there, to which I would add clean and calm, pluses in the 1990s), it’s VIP, with his preference for movies over reality and his utter cluelessness about everything and everyone around him that caught me most.
I could stick lots of labels on The Last Communist—absurd, farcical, tragicomic, among them—and there are little gusts of classics blowing through the book, too, what with references to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (my reread, which is slow but steady, is paying off already!) and Ostrovksy’s How the Steel Was Tempered. Despite wonderfully absurd situations in The Last Communist that lend the novel a humor that feels peculiarly poignant—all the more so for having met people who were a bit like VIP—the plot was a bit too madcap and even confused at times for my taste, making me appreciate the clarity, brevity, and, yes, even the obviousness of The Muslim even more. I always admire stories and novels that are straightforward but difficult to put down, usually for reasons I can’t quite explain. What’s strangest about reading Zalotukha (this includes The Candle, too) is that I find myself wanting to read more even when his storytelling isn’t as sharp as it might be: I suspect that’s both because his writing is generally very energetic, which I appreciate, plus it almost always feels as if the Russia that fascinates Zalotukha is the same Russia that fascinates me.
Disclaimers: Thank you to publisher Vremya for my copy of this Zalotukha collection! It’s a huge book so there’s still plenty more to read. Including Makarov.
Up Next: A short novel set in Baku by Afanasy Mamedov.