Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Strugatskys’ Doomed City: Not Quite My Kind of Dystopian Town

My best news about reading Град обреченный (available in English as Andrew Bromfield’s The Doomed City, Chicago Review Press), by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, is that I finished it, all 444.25 pages. After attempting at least four or five other Strugatsky books (some of which I nearly finished), this is the first Strugatsky novel I’ve gotten through in Russian. The less good news is that The Doomed City may be a page-turner but I still feel a touch underwhelmed. That said, I found The Doomed City fascinating in certain ways. For starters, a lot of people from various countries and times have been spirited away to a city in an otherworldly place where mysterious mentors occasionally visit. People all somehow even understand each other’s languages. The sun is shut off and turned on. Baboons mysteriously appear. And so on and so forth. The book is loaded with sociopolitical and sociocultural material, and there’s a clear sense of mock(ing) Sovietdom. Scariest: the political experiments feel relevant now, too. Perhaps best of all, the book is far edgier than any other Strugatsky books I’ve tried, without the corny humor (sorry, but I’ve never enjoyed the Brothers’ humor) but with obscenities as well as less of a cookie-cutter science fiction feel. Oddly, I may want to reread it, for details: there’s just far, far too much to sort out in just one reading, making one reading feel like a very rough draft.

The Doomed City focuses on the career(s) of Andrei Voronin, depicting his progression through various professions over the course of the book, beginning as a garbage collector and ending as a presidential advisor and operative. (Changes of profession are forced.) Andrei, who was an astronomer back on Earth, is a pretty unsympathetic character: not only is he a Stalinist but his political gig is under a president who served Nazi Germany; Andrei does a nasty turn to Izya Katzman, the nicest, most thoughtful person in the book, who also happened to work for Joint; and he tends to think of women (who, eek!, barely even appear in The Doomed City—perchance this is a reason it’s doomed?) using terms like “slut” and “whore.” Given that the presence of all these people in the City is an experiment—it’s actually an Experiment and “The Experiment is the Experiment” is repeated over and over again—I think part of the Strugatskys’ point here (put simplistically) is to offer a portrait of a thoroughly unsympathetic (that word again!) person who starts as an astronomer, a scientist who should have distant vision, but is blinded by stubbornness and proximity to power and comfort.

There’s a intriguing sense of camaraderie among these disparate characters from all over the world, particularly when they gather to eat, drink, and even dance. It’s even interesting to watch the progression of the parties along with Andrei’s career: the core of the guest list remains the same but things get fancier and more official. The happiest person in the book, though, seems to be Wang, who risks to remain a garbage collector. Wang knows what he wants and understands himself, something that eludes Andrei, who realizes his thought processes are inconstant and whose mentor tells him, “You’ve just had understanding hammered into you, and it makes you feel sick, you don’t understand what the hell you need it for, you don’t want to know about it…”

In the end, I found The Doomed City more interesting and fun to read—the novel’s suspenseful and the Strugatskys draw Andrei’s psychology and actions pretty clearly—than to reflect on. I admit that’s partly because there were a few bits I didn’t quite get. I’m glad, for example, that Marat Grinberg’s review for Los Angeles Review of Books decodes the novel’s ending, prefaced by, “What transpires is very cryptic; one needs to be a fan of David Lynch to unravel the mystery.” Despite being a Lynch fan who’s seen lots of his films, not to mention all of Twin Peaks at least twice, in Russian (voiced over, mind you!) and in English, I still, dense of head, needed Grinberg’s help. Grinberg sums up the relationship between Andrei and Izya, including how Izya helps Andrei handle understanding better. (Alas, in the novel there’s a meandering three-page paragraph involved.) I realize that I’m more to blame than the Strugatskys for needing remedial assistance from Grinberg—I was caught up in the suspense of the novel and read crucial passages too quickly—but a lot of important material, including that crucial meandering paragraph and Andrei’s speech to statues during an expedition, felt more contrived and tacked on than it could or should have. Of course this is something that bothers me in lots of books: inorganic philosophy. I’d much rather see philosophy through characters’ actions and reactions than through long speeches. A case in point is Wang’s refusal to dump his garbage handling work.

I found a different, far simpler, form of wisdom about the book when I looked up Dmitry Glukhovsky’s introduction to Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which is partially available on Google Books. Glukhovsky thinks the Strugatskys modeled the City on a place where they both lived: Leningrad, which has also been the site of many experiments and whose residents also refer to it as “the City.” Andrei is from Leningrad.

The Grinberg and Glukhovsky angles on The Doomed City feel equally apt to me. Perhaps what feels aptest right now, though, is that despite (no, likely because of) my annoyance with Andrei’s bigotry and his willingness to join Heiger’s unsavory regime, the book feels like an important warning about the ramifications of chaos and lack of knowledge, and the authoritarianism that perpetuates them. I hope Glukhovsky continues to be correct that “In the West there is simply no need for the kind of science fiction that we had: you already have enough space without it to discuss the fate and fortunes of your own countries and your own peoples.” Therein, I suspect, lies the strange pull of The Doomed City.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Andrei Volos’s Shpakovsky’s Hat, a lovely short story cycle, more books in English, and upcoming award news. The backlog’s handy since I just started a fifth reading of War and Peace and don’t plan to blog about it this time around.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Jumbled Post on Two in English: Paul Goldberg’s The Château and Katja Petrowskaja’s Maybe Esther

I don’t receive a lot of English-language books that aren’t translations from the Russian but are somehow related to Russia, Russian, or the Former Soviet Union, so this February’s new releases brought two nice surprises: Paul Goldberg’s The Château and Katja Petrowskaja’s Maybe Esther, Shelley Frisch’s translation, from the German, of Petrowskaja’s Vielleicht Esther. Goldberg’s book is frenetic fiction, a satire, based on thoroughly up-to-the-minute reality (yikes) in the United States and Petrowskaja’s book is a metaphysical (I think I can say that) sort of memoir about family. The books have some threads in common: Jewish characters/relatives born in the Former USSR and the legacies of World War 2. Each book offers lots of other elements that I think should be of interest to readers of Russian language and literature so I’ll skew my descriptions sharply in those directions since both Goldberg and Petrowskaja have stuffed so much—to good effect—into their books.

Jason Sheehan’s review of The Château for NPR covers the ups and downs of the novel’s plot and structure so perfectly that I’ll just summarize by saying that in January 2017 Bill Katzenelenbogen, who’s been freshly fired from his science reporter job at The Washington Post, goes to investigate his college roommate’s mysterious death (a fall) in Florida, where Bill stays with his fraudster/poet father, Melsor Yakovlevich Katzenelenbogen, who’s running for the board of directors of his condo building, called, yes, Château Sedan Neuve. Much of the freneticness in The Château comes from Goldberg’s language: he captures Russian émigré language beautifully, so sliding glass doors become “slice doors,” 45’s name becomes “Donal’d Tramp,” and Melsor says to Bill, “Here. Translate. I will be long time. You have pen?” It’s pitch-perfect but not snarky.

There’s a fair bit of translation in the book, too: not only does Bill translate Melsor’s chastushki about the building, but Goldberg offers dialogue in transliterated Russian with English translation, often including slang and мат (obscenities). Here’s a sample paragraph: “’A chto eto za mudak? FBR?’ asks a woman in a black bathing suit. [Who is this fuckup? FBI?]” I couldn’t resist that particular paragraph since mudak is one of my favorite Russian vulgarities; there’s a nice summary of it later in the book, too, here. The word svoloch’ (more complex) gets more ink, including derivation (!) and utterances, gathered here. Lest you think I’m specializing in insults, perhaps I can interest you in a brief discussion of verbs of motion plus many lines of and references to real literature—Mandelstam and Vysotsky appear early on, and of course there are mentions of Gogol—meaning literature Melsor didn’t write. All in all, I’d recommend The Château to Russian-obsessed readers who also have a sense of humor about life in Florida (émigré life or otherwise) and are interested in reading about how politics gets out of hand even at the condo board level. There’s a reason the word “fascism” appears on the book’s flap. In these days of news overload, I give Goldberg extra credit for keeping me interested in the very political, very current Château, which also contains extraneous plot lines and thematic threads. Sheehan is right in calling the book “bonkers.” Then again, well, “bonkers” is a perfect fit for January 2017, meaning that Goldberg picked an appropriate level of crazy. He’s something of a specialist with bonkers: in many ways, the word also fits The Yid, which I wrote about last year (previous post).

It felt strange to follow Florida and The Château with Maybe Esther—which is subtitled “A Family Story”—and travel to Europe, where Petrowskaja is in search of her family’s history, including traces of her great-grandmother, whose name might have been Esther. Maybe Esther hit me especially well because so many elements reminded me of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog, which I’d been translating. Two examples: on a micro level, there’s discussion of what clothes were and weren’t taken into evacuation during World War 2 and on a macro level, there’s a sense of a war that never leaves. The war never left Petrowskaja’s grandmother, just as it never left Khemlin, who, like Petrowskaja, wasn’t even born until after the war. Petrowskaja’s travel and book prove over and over that the war hasn’t leave her untouched, either, that it’s part of her history. As she’s on her way to visit Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, she stands at a bus station waiting for bus 360 and the numeral feels appropriate because she says she’s moving in a circle. And then she sees fellow passengers with circular items: a toilet seat and life preservers. Petrowskaja makes every detail count in Maybe Esther.

Petrowskaja brings lots of humor and word play into the book and I marked a section on the Russian word organy (the organs, not just internal organs in the body but internal organs in the government, too, like the secret police) because I loved how the family discussed the organy (innards!) swallowing people up. With its blend of languages, I can only imagine how difficult Maybe Esther must have been to translate but Shelley Frisch’s translation reads beautifully and she handles Russian expressions (not just the organy) very adeptly. There’s also a fun passage with a ficus that includes lots of similar-sounding words, like fixated and fiction, and Shelley’s long sentences flow and flow, building momentum and rhythm, contrasting nicely with shorter sentences.

Dozens of small episodes and objects drew my attention: an incomplete recipe, the onset of blindness, the fuzziness of memory (of course), Petrowskaja’s great-uncle shooting a German embassy counselor in Moscow, the great-uncle’s trial, the grandfather who disappeared for decades, and the feeling of being Sisyphus. I could go on and on and on about numerous other little things so will just mention something that’s much bigger and more important because it encompasses thousands and thousands of reasons to read the book: Babi Yar and everyone who was lost and became a “maybe” like Esther. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction but I’m a sucker for narrative nonfiction where an author can tell stories, important stories, as Petrowskaja does, drawing me in and holding me from chapter to chapter with digressions, dreamily lofty observations, colorful figures, lives, historical settings, and language play, assisted here, of course by Shelley Frisch. Since I’ve only covered some favorite slivers of the lovely jumble that is Maybe Esther, here’s Linda Kinstler’s review for the Los Angeles Review of Books for more.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received review copies of both books. Thank you to HarperCollins for Maybe Esther and Picador for The Château. Special thanks to Picador for a finished copy, so I could check quotes. And read Goldberg’s acknowledgements; he’s a master of acknowledgements. I met Shelley Frisch at a translator conference.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, the Strugatsky Brothers’ Doomed City, Andrei Volos’s Shpakovsky’s Hat, a short story collection, and more books in English.