Sunday, May 28, 2017

Instructions for Everything: Gadol’s Director. Instructions for Liberation

Alexandr Gadols Режиссёр: инструкция освобождения (Director. Instructions for Liberation; please note that this title and transliteration of the author’s name are on the book’s cover) turned out to be an interestingly pleasant surprise from start to finish. I was surprised when a colleague from the Institute of Translation whod been deputized as a book courier handed the book to me in New York earlier this month and even more surprised at the novel’s unexpected layers and twists, and how they affected me. Director is about prison life but that’s only part of the story. The book is also about how the narrator, who’s identified only by the nickname “Director” (though he has no films, shows, or plays to his name, only the real-life scenarios he cooks up...), attempts to stay out of prison; getting knifed can be a temporary help. It’s about metaphysical things, too. This is a book where an English-language translation of the Bible is smoked. In prison. In any case, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at how much I enjoyed Director: Gadol won third place for the book in the 2016 Russian Prize competition.

There are so many angles I could take on Director—this may be one of my biggest surprises since I don’t often seem to end up enjoying books that feel so open to varying interpretations—that I think I’ll first pick up on a small point raised by critic Aleksandr Chantsev here, on Rara Avis, and move on from there. The title of Chantsev’s review, “Антропология тюрьмы, свободы и страны” (“The Anthropology of Prison, Freedom, and a Country”) sums up a lot about the book: I’m not sure which social science I’d choose to describe Director but anthropology is as good as any, with psychology and sociology viable candidates, too. My favorite motif in the book is film noir, which pops up fairly frequently and contributes to the anthropological portrait. Gadol is even quoted on the back of the book saying that when he was in prison he imagined himself as a film hero, something that made his life a little easier and kept him from losing his mind. Beyond that, Gadol, who has also worked as a director for Kiev TV stations, notes that he particularly enjoys American noir from the 1940s and 1950s. Director includes references to Crime and Punishment, which feels pretty noirish in its own early way and there are trips to a bar called Capone, which hosts a “Chicago in the Thirties” gangster party. Just for fun, I’ll add that there’s a mention of Dawn of the Dead, too.

Director’s prison scenes are interesting—looking at phenomena like pecking orders and how people can be good as individuals but jerks when together are only a couple of the social sciency aspects that attract—but my favorite layer of the book is Director’s time spent outside, when he’s waiting to learn his fate. After visiting a scammy and seemingly very young psychoanalyst (!) on a hill (the novel takes place in a city on seven hills, which could be Moscow, though I think it’s Kiev, and not just because Gadol is from Ukraine and Chantsev guesses Kiev, too… this just doesn’t feel like a Moscow book to me…), Director decides he wants to be a scammy psychoanalyst, too, so he rents himself an office, buys himself a diploma, and procures himself a gun, a Colt 45 like Dirty Harry’s. Of course.

There’s an absurd and noirish feel to all that that goes nicely with a passage I marked later on, where light comes through venetian blinds, creating lines on characters’ faces: Gadol even writes that this is like a shot from a noir film. (Personal experience strengthened this for me, too: I remembered analyzing light on criminals’ faces in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing during film class…) A bit later, at the Capone with the scammy and seemingly young psychoanalyst and some of his buddies, Director describes the sounds, smells, and people as being cinematic: things remind of black-and-white film noir and a conversation about the search for truth ensues, along with mentions of Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather theme song, too.

With its brief chapters, jumping timelines, and multiple storylines, Director is the sort of book that’s particularly ripe for varying interpretations. I noted lots of existential moments (“a mini existential crisis” among them) but my dominant prism for reading became truth-and-noir, with that preference for non-prison scenes, though the prison scenes often echoed the outside and addressed the nature of truth. There seem to be gurus on hills everywhere in Director—there’s a fair bit of religion involved, not just the afore-mentioned Bible but also Buddhism—though not all are genuine (or are they?) and there’s hardly anyone in the novel who uses a name that’s printed on, say, a government-issued form of identification. (And what’s in a name, anyway?) There’s also talk of being behind bars that are formed by everyday things, like letters and words on the pages of books or stars in the sky. Meaning that prison is everywhere you turn. A cover blurb from Alexander Snegirev praises Gadol’s concentrated prose, which he says is almost poetry, and I have to agree. Gadol’s language, which often includes prison/criminal slang and sometimes involves long lists, creates situations and imagery that simultaneously feel abstract and vividly concrete. Reading the book was a sensory experience: climbing those hills nearly made me sweat, there was lots of second-hand smoke to inhale, and watching people who’re watching people on public transportation (in a scene that felt almost like flash fiction) made me feel like a voyeur, too.

A story almost long enough to consider a novella follows Director in the volume and “Живучий гад” (hmm, I’ll go literal and call it “A Tenacious Snake”…), which is very linear—this time I felt almost like I was watching a train wreck, right up close—is far easier to describe than Director. The story tells of Sasha, who begins a life of dubious entrepreneurship at the age of twelve by buying fishing lures and reselling them at a premium after gluing “foreign letters” on the packages. Sasha becomes the first black marketeer in his school, eventually moving on to (spoiler alert!) running a videosalon (these sites for makeshift, unauthorized movie showings were a real phenomenon), comfy pay toilets, synthesizing LSD, and, eventually (but of course!), a run for politics. The story made me laugh, too: Sasha’s lessons in life from American movies like Good Fellas and Used Cars (which, imagine that, is apparently helpful for teaching a kid how to buy a used car) are sometimes hilarious, though the anthropology of (sometimes petty) criminal behavior struck me most. “A Tenacious Snake” feels like a diabolical appendix to Director, what with its myriad mentions of movies plus lots of false and farcical identities—Sasha even enlists an adult to act as the nonexistent Georgian head of the videosalon—that make the combination of the story and the novel feel like a small volume of case studies of what goes wrong or (perhaps more accurately) what goes false in ways that make children want to become criminals. Unlike one of the characters in Director, I don’t think the theme music from The Godfather is to blame.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of Director from Русская премия (Russian Prize), thank you very, very much! I’ve long felt remiss in not following the Russian Prize—and, really, literature written in Russian by writers living outside Russia—more closely so am especially grateful for a reminder of the importance of the award and the authors it recognizes. There will be more to come! I also want to add that Director is from publisher Eksmo’s .RU imprint, which focuses on contemporary Russian-language books by authors living outside Russia.

Up Next: Award news: Big Book finalists, National Bestseller winner, and Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist. Then more books…


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