Sunday, December 16, 2018

Putting the Apocalypse in the Post-Apocalyptic: Verkin’s Sakhalin Island

Back in mid-November, I noted that Eduard Verkin’s Остров Сахалин (Sakhalin Island) was confounding me – a month later, with the passage of time, I can’t say I see things much differently. Sakhalin Island is imaginative, action-packed (much of the time), and absorbing, though on a structural level it’s an unholy mess, with an uneasy blend of genres, tropes, motifs, characters, disasters, and just about everything else. Of course I’m more than capable of enjoying and even loving overstuffed books that I describe with terms like “diabolical” and “unholy mess,” so I’m not surprised I never considered abandoning Verkin’s Sakhalin, though the book is trying my meager patience today, as I attempt to mentally list the many plot threads running through the book. And, oops, I didn’t pull nearly hard enough on a key plot thread, the one I found least interesting. Underrating that story line resulted in my feeling a bit lost when I reached the twist-and-everything-changes ending and came up short on meaning. (The twist ending, by the way, reminded me of another island novel, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, which also rankled.) I won’t reveal the twist in Sakhalin Island but I will include some minor spoilers in my descriptions of the book.

Yuzho-Sakhalinsk, a favorite place.
So what did I catch and what did I miss? Well, in this world after nuclear war (North Korea started it, the U.S. responded, horror ensued), Japan is the world’s remaining bastion of relative calm and industrialization, and beautiful Sakhalin Island essentially serves as a combination of buffer zone and giant refugee and prison camp. Population: around twenty million. A young woman named Lilac, a student of applied futurology who lives in Japan and is part Russian and part Japanese, travels to Sakhalin to have a look around. She’s armed with pistols, prepared to visit prisons, and planning to somehow learn something about the future, based on the past and present. (Confession: applied futurology and Lilac’s instructions from and discussions of her professor are the plot thread I should have paid more attention to.) Most of the book is told in Lilac’s first-person narrative; her voice is calm, assured, and generally logical, even after she’s begun using those pistols. Seeing that Verkin’s book follows in Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island tracks – many of the same prisons are mentioned and at least one reviewer has noticed similar wording in the two books – it’s only fitting that guns will be fired. Since the island is dangerous, Lilac is assigned a fellow traveler and body guard, Artyom, who is from the “chained to a hook” caste – he carries a large and very lethal weapon. (Verkin also borrows “chained to…” from Chekhov’s findings.)

During their travels together – which begin on a rather luxurious train and end in a stolen boat, with a lot of walking in between – Lilac and Artyom meet some curious figures, including an inmate Lilac remembers hearing at a poetry reading when she was younger, a crawling radical vegan who’s likened to an insect, and a little boy with albinism who has had his tongue and digits removed. Lilac and Artyom take the boy with them on their journey. Verkin also offers up disturbing race-related incidents, descriptions of crazy-making prison architecture, and accounts of what happens to corpses. Though these episodes, many of which are very odd, are important to the story, there’s often too much background information, slowing the pace in a book where seismic activity is most important because it triggers the arrival of a human-made disease known as mobile rabies, MOB, which puts victims into a zombified state that lasts implausibly long.

So, yes, the earthquakes are crucial here, which is why I mentioned “apocalypse” in my title. Not only does earthquake damage release prisoners (including the poet) from jail, it also enables MOB’s zombified (I love that word) victims to cross from the mainland to Sakhalin – on a side note, MOBsters have hydrophobia and avoid stairs, too, which can make retreat easy for the healthy. And so Lilac, Artyom, and the boy are running from rioting prisoners, the MOB ill, and crews they’re sure will come to clean things up after an invasion of zombified MOBsters. If all this sounds like a bit (or a lot) too much, you’re right, it is. And this isn’t the half of it. Even so (or maybe “thus”?), Sakhalin Island got under my skin and by its end, after mentions of an Edenic garden, earthquakes, hellfire, purification, and a second coming, not to mention a unicorn, Sakhalin brought me back to the Bible, to my beloved Book of Revelation. It also brought me to thoughts of innocence (and its loss) among the orphaned – including the maimed boy as well as other children and even adults, including Artyom – plus prisoners, and even Lilac, whose name is so fresh and springy, who wears a protective inherited mackintosh for most of the book, and who almost seems to become a trained assassin. An imperturbable one, too, and no wonder, since danger always lurks and, as a doctor tells her, “Sakhalin is fear. We’re afraid.”

Verkin achieves a lot with Sakhalin Island and my emotions loved it, thanks to my fascination with the Book of Revelation, the very concept of incarceration on an island, the poet (he’s a key figure, pull that thread if you read the book), the various figures chained to objects, the heavy debt to Chekhov (whose Sakhalin I haven’t read but paged through quite a bit), the MOBster zombies who shrink from the stairs our heroes conveniently manage to find, and the awfulness of a world with so much death, doom, destruction, and roasted rat meat. None of that will let me go and, good gracious, part of me wants to reread the book to decipher it. My brain, though, wishes Verkin’s editors hadn’t deserted him: despite her vividness, Lilac’s many prison visits and observations start feeling repetitious and many scenes could have been pared down, while other aspects of the book, like the Japanese poet, the “chained to…” figures, and the relationships between characters felt like they could and should have been given more attention. I realize that Lilac – a social scientist who’s ostensibly writing a trip report but may well be the ultimate unreliable narrator – probably didn’t have enough spare time or emotional energy to take much of that down (even mentally) while escaping earthquakes, riots, and a killer clean-up crew, but a little more balance from Lilac would have meant a better work of fiction for Verkin. I also admit to a bias against being presented with big twists in epilogues – I tend to see them as manipulative. But damn that Verkin, who’s packed so much into this book that I still can’t stop thinking about it, which is, I suppose, a sign that something worked pretty well in Sakhalin Island if the manipulative epilogue trick sucked me this time around.

Up next: Alisa Ganieva’s Offended Sensibilities and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped. The History of Crimes. Plus a trip report from the ASEEES/Slavist convention, which was ridiculously fun, and a list of translations that came out this year. I’m still taking entries for the list so translators and publishers, please send me a note if you have something to report.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received a copy of Sakhalin Island from Verkin’s literary agency, BGS, with whom I often converse and sometimes collaborate, and whose authors I often seem to translate.

Photo credit: btibbets, via Wikipedia. 

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