Sunday, May 21, 2017

Food for Thought: Sorokin’s Manaraga

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/37/Saranpaul_-_view_over_river.jpg/640px-Saranpaul_-_view_over_river.jpg
Manaraga, in Russia's Komi Republic
I think the only way to write about Vladimir Sorokin’s latest novel, Manaraga is to imagine myself in the book for a minute. So: if, I, a woman, were somehow miraculously admitted into the exclusive ranks of book’n’grill chefs in some near-but-future century that I’m too lazy to calculate, what would be the most appropriate meal to grill using Manaraga (preferably a signed first edition) as a (burning, yes, burning) log?

My answer would be mixed grill. Preferably ordered by a book club whose members have finicky taste. And not to worry if they don’t read the book: there’s not much old-fashioned reading in Manaraga. What is important is what is to be grilled: I’d hope for a barely compatible combination of shrimp, sausage, and some kind of nicely marinated chicken pieces. The chicken would be skewered since lots of things get skewered in Manaraga. The chicken would be the meal’s highlight because so often marinade is where the real flavor is. Humor is the marinade in Manaraga, at least for me.

I’ll start with the chicken because I love marinated chicken (especially this simple and ridiculously versatile recipe) and I loved the humor in Manaraga, too. As is already obvious, half the fun of Manaraga is that it’s about books. About the sad fate of books in an age where electronic reading has taken hold and only money is printed. This is a time when book’n’grill chefs use illicitly procured books to grill food in private homes—this is known as reading—and fulfill clients’ specific requests. Sorokin doesn’t spare much of anyone, skewering everything from self-publishing to poor paper quality in the Yeltsin-era (oh, do I have evidence of this on the Bookshelf!) for an edition of Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur. Books used as logs fit with aspects of clients’ celebrations or lives, too, so a reading with M. Ageyev’s Novel [or “romance”] with Cocaine includes white powder and a reading for the cast of a Master and Margarita adaptation includes the novel plus, of course, jokes about manuscripts burning (or not). And there’s also the insight that Chekhov stories are ideal for cooking shrimp… I had many an audible laugh with Manaraga. Here’s another one: reading Bakhtin is a good moneymaker. Fortunately, Sorokin didn’t let me down on an obvious laugh: I’d wondered how far in I’d need to go for a mention of Fahrenheit 451: since it just had to be there, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything at all to say it’s about half-way through. It involves steak.

Part of why Sorokin’s humor works so well in Manaraga is that he creates a homey voice for his narrator, Geza, a 33-year-old man who travels the world to read Russian classics. I should add that he’s guided and protected by electronic “fleas” implanted in his head. Book’n’grill is an underground venture so it’s dangerous and the fleas—this is one of the futuristic aspects of the novel—assess safety and provide background information on what Geza sees. Woe be to anyone whose fleas are removed and becomes naked and helpless. (This is yet another reason I wouldn’t want a smart phone...)

Shrimp is risky grill food (even in this delicious rendition) because it can dry out so quickly, which means there are times when it feels like Sorokin’s using one too many of his familiar tropes. We get details of a man’s journeys and work, and that somehow reminds of The Blizzard and Day of the Oprichnik, even more so because holograms, a giant narco-goldfish, and mentions of past wars come into play. Many of those familiar details didn’t matter much to me because I was so taken by the book-related layer. Even so, the weakest element of Manaraga is related to those tropes: though most of the individual readings are fun enough to read, the slow-burn thread (skewer?) that Sorokin chooses to hold those episodes together—a threat to the book’n’grill chefs’ Kitchen conglomerate, caused by mass-produced molecular copies of one certain individual old copy of Nabokov’s Ada—and create the semblance of a novel feels more like a plot device to create the semblance of a novel than an organic development. This seemed more like a linkage and development problem than anything else: the conclusion (cue the action genre!) made perfect sense to me, though because of accounts of the individual readings that preceded it.

In the end, Manaraga feels rather like sausage: something in it might be a little artificial, clichéd, and/or guilt-inducing but—like this Maine-made kielbasa that’s so delicious that even I happily ate some cold one night—it’s very tasty fun and pretty filling, too, since there’s plenty of food for thought about the present and the future of books. Electronic or print? Bespoke or mass-produced? For the mind or the market? Are books like franchises? And what is reading, anyway? And how should it affect you? As with mixed grill, there’s something for just about anyone in Manaraga and—given the humor and my familiarity with Sorokin’s menu of literary ingredients—the book feels almost like comfort food. I wonder, of course, if that’s a good thing… and I ask myself if that’s because I’ve immersed myself further into Sorokin’s world or because his writing doesn’t have the edge it used to? Or both?

I won’t offer my answer to all those questions but I realize now that I forgot to add marinated mushroom burgers to my mixed grill menu: they’re light but nutritious and delicious, too.

Yes, I’m hungry.

Edit, three days later. I should add that my original post wasn’t clear enough about the nutritional aspects of Manaraga: comfort food or not, what sticks with me most about the novel is the broader sociocultural implication of Sorokin’s vision of literature, books, and, perhaps most frightening of all, the huge influence of fleas. Again, it’s Geza’s homey storytelling voice that underpins the novel’s success for me: Geza makes this world feel as if it’s (almost?) normal.
For more fun details (and some mild spoilers) about Manaraga, visit literary agent Galina Dursthoff’s site, here.

Up next: I hadn’t been planning to write about Manaraga so soon so the backlog grows! First up will be also a shortish novel by Aleksandr Gadol that won third place in last year’s Russian Prize competition. And lots of award news, too: the Big Book short list and NatsBest winner. Plus Afanasy Mamedov’s novella set in Baku that I mentioned in so many previous posts. And some futurist-related reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist and James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems.

Photo credit: By ugraland [1] from Moscow, Russia - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2183152

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Yet More Award Info: Another Better-Late-Than-Never Post

Better-late-than-never posts seem to have become a bit of a habit here at the Bookshelf. Then again, this does seem to be award season: posts about the Big Book shortlist, Yasnaya Polyana longlist, and NatsBest winner will all be on the way relatively soon, too. In a more timely manner. I hope.

For now, though, a few bits of old news.

I’m often remiss in writing about the annual Pushkin House Book Prize since it covers only nonfiction, but this year’s shortlist includes a few titles that sound particularly interesting even to a fiction freak like me. One, Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, is a translation by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg, with an introduction by Edyth C. Haber. Another is Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, which I’ve been interested in since reading several enthusiastic reviews when it was released. (I suspect the title helps, too, since I thought Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead was so good…) And then there’s Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1918, which sounds especially vivid. The other titles—Rosalind P. Blakesley’s The Russian Canvas, Anne Garrels’s Putin Country, and Simon Morrison’s Bolshoi Confidential—help create a nicely rounded shortlist. Pushkin House’s page with the shortlist includes links to helpful individual pages about each book so I’ll leave the details to them. The winner will be announced on June 7.

And then there’s the Russian Prize, the Русская Премия—for writers who live outside Russia and write in Russian—which was awarded in late April, just when I was so caught up in finishing a translation that I completely missed the news. Oops. Mikhail Gigolashvili won the long fiction award for his Тайный год (The Secret Year, I guess…), which should arrive at my doorstep any day now. Second and third prizes went to, respectively, Shirin Shafieva for Сальса и Веретено (Salsa and Vereteno) and Vladimir Lidskii for Сказки нашей крови. Метароман (hmm, maybe The Fairytales of/in Our Blood. A Metanovel, or even “tall tales,” depending on the book…). Short fiction awards went to Tatiana Dagovich, Leia Liubomirskaia, and the team of Andrei Zhvalevskii and Evgenia Pasternak, and poetry awards were made to Gennadii Rusakov, Sergei Solovyov, and Oleg Iuriev. All titles, along with countries of residence and brief descriptions, are available on the information-packed Год литературы site, here, or on the Russian Prize site, here.

Finally, two brief items on translations. I’m very excited that my translation of Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, published by Oneworld, is a finalist for this year’s Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, which will announce results on June 3. Contemporary Russian fiction was represented on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award prose shortlist, too, by Oblivion (Предел забвения in Russian), written by Sergei Lebedev, translated by Antonina Bouis, and published by New Vessel Press. Since this one’s all over, I’ll mention that the BTBA winner for prose was Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and published by Open Letter Books. The poetry winner was Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert, and published by New Directions.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: There’s a bit of a backlog around here, particularly with more award posts coming… There’s also the Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku that I mentioned in previous posts. And some reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, which was perfect reading for (and about) a hectic time; it pairs nicely with James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems, which arrived not long ago. There’s also a shortish novel by Aleksandr Gadol that won third place in last year’s Russian Prize competition… I just finished it but it got under my skin enough that I may write about it first.