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.


  1. God, that was a really depressing read. чернуха!

    1. Oh, Steven Lubman, yes, it's like a чернуха precursor, isn't it?! Sometimes even in the literal sense, when they don't switch on the sun. It really is a pretty, er, dark book. Seriously, though, the word "чернуха" makes me realize why so much felt so familiar.

      Thank you for checking in on this one!

  2. The heavily hollywooded film version:

    1. That's interesting, thank you, Anonymous, casual Googling shows lots of similarities!