Sunday, September 15, 2019

My Lucky Day: The 2019 Yasnaya Polyana Longlist

Yesterday really did feel like my lucky day: just after I sat down, book at my side, to start blogging about Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, I noticed a Facebook post about this year’s Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist. Why lucky? Because I was in more of a news mood than a book description mood. Meaning: Here’s a post about the forty-three-book longlist, of which I’ve read six in full and seven in part, with another five already on the shelves. As usual, several overlap with other award lists (notably the Big Book shortlist) and some are only available in journals.

The Yasnaya Polyana shortlist will be announced later this month; the award ceremony will be held in October. This list is so long and so full of titles I’ve seen but don’t know much about that I don’t have many guesses about what might make the short list. So I’ll just get on with things!

Books I’ve already read in full:
  • Alisa Ganieva’s Оскорбленные чувтсва (Offended Sensibilities) (previous post), an entertaining depiction of contemporary life in a smallish Russian city.
  • Anna Kozlova’s Рюрик (Rurik) is the one I’ll write about next week. I liked Rurik a lot for its biting humor, portrait of people and mores in the contemporary world, and edginess.
  • Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina (previous post), which I admired for Nekrasova’s imagination and Platonovesque flourishes. A Big Book finalist.
  • Anna Nemzer’s Раунд (The Round) (previous post), a novel with a documentary feel that covers past and present with raw emotion, colloquial language, and suspense. A NOSE finalist.
  • Aleksei Saln’ikov’s Опосредованно (Indirectly or something similar) is one of my favorites of the year, though I haven’t written about it yet because I want to reread it in hard copy. A woman living in the Urals in a world a lot likes ours writes poetry, which has narcotic effects. A 2019 Big Book finalist.
  • Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) (previous post) was one of my 2018 favorites: I just couldn’t resist the first-cat narrative set in Moscow. Another 2018 Big Book finalist.
Other 2019 Big Book finalists on the YaP longlist:
  • Aleksandr Gonorovsky’s Собачий лес (Dog Forest, though I’m suspecting layers of meaning here…) apparently combines a lot of genres and addresses topics including historical trauma. I have yet to begin this book.
  • Roman Senchin’s Дождь в Париже (Rain in Paris) is about a Russian man who’s in Paris reflecting on his life and missing out on seeing the city. Rain in Paris is cleanly written and contains lots of material for readers interested in the 1980s and 1990s in Russia (ah, video salons!) but it felt derivative (вторичный) and too familiar to me, meaning I couldn’t get past the first day of drinking and reminiscences in the hotel room. (Recommended, though, for anyone interested in that period who has not yet read much fiction about it.)
  • Vyacheslav Stavetsky’s Жизнь А.Г. (The Life of A.G.) concerns a Spanish dictator who fails to shoot himself (to escape punishment) and is sentenced to being paraded around the country in a cage. Despite my interest in twentieth-century Spain (it comes up a lot in my Russian reading) and despite my love of language (where would I be without it?), I quickly grew frustrated with Stavetsky’s wordiness (which Galina Yuzefovich sums up perfectly in her review for Meduza) and loads of background information. I’ll try it again to give it a fair shot for the Big Book but I felt like both A.G. and I were victims of the undertow of Stavetsky’s waves of words and sentences.
  • Guzel Yakhina’s Дети мои (Children of the Volga) blends history and fairy/folk tale motifs in a novel about a Volga German man and his daughter. Reading in progress.
A few authors I’d never heard of (there weren’t many to choose from) whose books sound promising:
  • Lora Beloivan’s Южнорусское Овчарово (Southern Russian Ovcharovo, where the title is apparently a place name and “Ovcharovo” is related to the word for a shepherd dog if a book site commenter is to be believed) sounds like a cozy, enjoyable book set in the Russian Far East.
  • Evgenii Kaminskii’s Свобода (part two) (Freedom) looks very northern, with its ice packs and bears. After the hot summer, give me winter.
  • Maria Rybakova’s Если есть рай (If There’s a Heaven/Paradise) is a bit of a cheat because I didn’t recognize her name until I saw she also wrote Гнедич (Gnedich), translated by Elena Dimov for Glagoslav.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Two authors I’ve translated are on the Yasnaya Polyana jury and I’ve received many of the above-mentioned books from publishers, authors, or the Big Book Award.

Up Next: Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Earthly Paradise, two books in English, and some other books in Russian.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

It’s the Pits: Digging Deep In A. Pelevin’s Kalinova Yama

Yes, Alexander Pelevin remains my favorite Pelevin even if his Калинова Яма (Kalinova Yama) doesn’t offer quite the level of cosmic suspense and heady thrills, chills, and excitement of Четверо (The Four) (previous post), which I so enjoyed a couple months ago. In The Four, Pelevin skillfully, even sneakily (I admire “sneakily” in writers), connects three very distinct plotlines, partly aided by, surprise!, a Vvedensky poem. Kalinova Yama feels heavier, weightier, with its twentieth-century history – Spain, Germany, the USSR, wars – and the novel’s storytelling devices feel slightly labored, too, though I enjoyed the tension of the slower pace. All told, Kalinova Yama v. The Four is a case where the comparison sounds far harsher than the reality, at least for me: I finished and enjoyed Kalinova Yama, unlike a friend who picked it up thinking it was by that other Pelevin; alas, she found the book “нудная (the Oxford Russian Dictionary offers up “tedious” and “boring” – think “nudnik”!), perhaps because she was expecting something completely different. Kalinova Yama did feel a slight bit long, something Dmitry Bykov mentions here, so pruning could have prevented a little skimming, per Elmore Leonard’s tenth rule, here. But I digress.


So, yes, I finished the book, enjoying it and letting it keep me up at night. Describing Kalinova Yama isn’t easy, though. I jotted in the back of my book “blends World War 2, psychology of the 1930s, folk motifs, spy novel.” All basically true. The main character initially seems to be a Soviet journalist, Oleg Safronov, but he turns out to be German, one Helmut Laube, who’s working undercover and receives instructions to travel to Kalinova Yama in June 1941. He tells his editor he wants to go interview a local writer. (Ha!) The catch – the mystery, really, which I’ll be very vague about so as not to spoil things – is that something happens in Kalinova Yama and Laube’s train ride turns out to be extraordinarily, even epically, problematic.

Pelevin writes his novel in several layers. The layer that interested me most was Laube’s activity in June 1941: the runup to his travel and the travel itself, which gets weirder and weirder. And then even weirder. But I like weird. (In fact I’m prizing weird books more and more these days, perhaps because of the state of the world?) I loved the numerous takes on the train station and Laube’s contact in Kalinova Yama, not to mention the conductor in Laube’s train car; the word “проводник” can also mean a sort of guide, which this conductor ends up being, too. Other pluses: interrogation transcripts that are interspersed throughout the novel and some of the texts attributed to the local writer. I was less interested in Laube’s past in Spain and Poland (some passages felt too long) and his future, from which he tells of his post-war fate; I zipped through some of it fairly quickly.

There were other texts tossed in, too, including an article (real or not, I’m not sure) about the psychology of the яма/yama, a word that means, among other things, “pit” or “dip” or “pothole” or even “prison,” and is used in the book’s title, which is a toponym. This, of course, sets up an interesting set of pits: the personal and psychological, as well as the geographical and physical, plus something bigger and more metaphysical, what I came to think of as a sort of meta-pit. Pelevin’s at his best describing what I’ll call Laube’s series of approaches into Kalinova Yama (there’s far more to it!) and all the confusion (so much confusion! so many dreams! so many nationalities! so many names!) that arises around Laube, then tossing in information on how others see Laube. There are also nice touches like a talking duck, a yucky hotel, and a cigarette case that magically doesn’t empty. All in all, my only regret is that I read The Four, Pelevin’s third book, before reading Kalinova Yama, which is his second book: Kalinova Yama has more than enough to offer as an interesting, twisted, and even enigmatic exploration of identity and reality that kept me reading and wondering, but The Four felt much more accomplished, more sparkling, to me, with nothing at all (per Elmore Leonard) that I ever considered skipping or skimming.

Disclaimers and disclosures. The usual.

Up next. Anna Kozlova’s Rurik, Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Big Book finalist Earthly Paradise, and then something else. Two books written in English: Jennifer Croft’s memoir Homesick and Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories.