Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The 2021 Yasnaya Polyana Award Shortlist

I was planning to blog today about a book (a book I actually read!) but then I saw that the Yasnaya Polyana Award announced their 2021 shortlist. All the better for the last day of an extra-long holiday weekend. Yasnaya Polyana will announce this year’s winners in late October.

Here’s the list. Three of YP’s seven finalists overlap with the Big Book Award’s 2021 finalists:

  • Maksim Gureev’s Любовь Куприна (Lyubov Kuprina) is apparently a long story/novella about writer Alexander Kuprin and his mother.
  • Maya Kucherskayas Лесков. Прозеванный гений (Leskov. The Missed/Overlooked Genius – I almost want to say something like “slept through” or “yawning” to capture the sense of sleeping!) is a big (656 pages, 668 grams) book about Nikolai Leskov. My life is embarrassingly under-Leskoved but, inspired by factors including Languagehat’s posts about Leskov and, subsequently, some personalized reading recommendations plus my own impressions after reading “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” back in my first youth, I’m looking forward to letting Kucherskaya, a kind person and a good reader, guide me to and through more Leskov.
  • Dmitrii Likhanov’s Звезда и крест (Star and Cross) apparently has two temporal settings: ancient Antioch and the Soviet-Afghan War.
  • Natalia Repina’s Жизнеописание Льва (Lev: A Life) is the only book on the list that I’ve read in full (previous post) thus far. It still tugs at me.
  • German Sadulaev’s Готские письма (literally Goth Letters/Writings) is described as a “conceptual collection” (“концептуальный сборник”) and sounds like it includes stories, historical essays (he writes about ancient Goths), and other materials.
  • Marina Stepnova’s Сад (The Garden) is also on the Big Book shortlist. I’ve read a large chunk and translated a (much smaller) chunk. I’m looking forward to reading it on paper: this is the sort of book that doesn’t really work for me on an ereader, thanks to either the nineteenth-century setting or the stylized language. Or (more probably) both.
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Филэллин (The Philhellene) is on the Big Book shortlist, too. This novel’s characters converse through journals, letters, and mental conversations. Yuzefovich’s own back-cover description refers to the novel as being closer to “variations on historical themes than a traditional historical novel.” This is one of those books where I’ve purposely avoided learning too much before reading.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. Two of my authors are on the YP jury. I’ve translated two of Stepnova’s novels (plus an excerpt from The Garden) and know several other writers on this list.

Up Next: The Dyachenkos’ The Ritual, Alexei Polyarinov’s The Reef, and Oksana Vasyakina’s The Wound.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Open Wounds: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon

I’ve used words like “flail” and “flummox” in all too many blogposts but today I’m invoking both, in advance, as I finally put fingers to keyboard and write about Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Анатомия Луны (The Anatomy of the Moon). I read Anatomy for the first time, electronically, in January, then read it in book form several months later. Now I’m translating the novel, finishing a first draft. But I’m still unsure what or how to write about Anatomy. As with any book, the more I translate, the more I see in the book. But the more I see in the book, the more I realize there’s still more to learn and grasp. When I translate, I read, I write, and I soak up details and motifs, making connections and finding ways to connect my emotional and intellectual reactions to the text. I think this is one of the biggest reasons I love translation so much, even if I’m still not always able to explain what I feel or understand in my books.

If I had to choose one word to describe The Anatomy of the Moon, it might (likely?) be “trauma.” I suppose that’s especially fitting since trauma often accompanies coming of age, something I also see in Anatomy, albeit in multiple stages at the life of Lo, the redheaded narrator who sees herself as a banshee. (Yes, “Lo,” like that other Lo; this is a thread I have yet to pull by rereading Lolita. And yes, that most famous line does echo in Anatomy…) Lo lives in a sort of ghetto, a borough called 20/20. She’s an artist and she escaped to 20/20 after the counterfeit art ring she was involved with was busted. (!) 20/20 is filled with others who have nowhere else to go. Among them is a Russian gang leader, a sort of gang manager; he was dumped in 20/20 by the police. He’s missing most of his nose. Others in the area are missing things, too: physical fingers or limbs, parents, or God, who’s left the premises for other parts of the universe.

God’s absence and the vacuum it creates on Planet Earth is one of the central motifs in Anatomy. At one point (I’ll paraphrase a bit here), Lo asks God to come back to pat people’s heads and protect them, be they sinners, prostitutes, or banshees shivering like little birds in the cold winter. She’s essentially praying for everyone. Residents of 20/20 seem to live on adrenaline (there’s brutal ethnic gang warfare, particularly between Russian and Salvadoran groups; this almost feels geopolitical, allegorical) and anesthetics like bootleg absinthe and the cannabis that Fedya Afrikanets, the Russian gang’s head warrior grows in mass quantity at his apartment by the waterfront. The artists in the area – one’s surname is Satanov, which is pretty clear, another’s is Grobin, nicknamed “Grob,” or coffin – avoid the rumbles but join in at the gang’s gritty bar that’s known as a teahouse.

I could write pages and pages about the many plot elements and turns in Anatomy – the Lo-Grob-Afrikanets love triangle, the meanings of characters’ losses of body parts and relatives, and the many twists in gang and even drug trafficking relations – but what underlies everything, at least to my mind, is art and authenticity. Among some beautiful descriptions of winter (blizzards, blocks of ice sticking out of the Neva-like river, wind rattling in ventilation shafts, I love this northern, Petersburgesque stuff) and horrifying accounts of battles and abuse, some in the past, some in the present, are threads about art. Yesterday’s work included what I might call a rant (I love translating a good rant!) about art, praising cave art in Lascaux and taking Duchamp’s Fountain to task, while also referencing (for the second time) Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit. God is gone, beauty is gone, Van Gogh is crying. Art has become an acquisition, something Lo and her fellow counterfeiters capitalize on in a consumer-oriented society that cares more about money and collections than appreciation of beauty and human beings… That society, which is geographically close but on another planet both socially and economically, treats people like the residents of 20/20 as disposable. And gang warfare, ethnic hatreds and ugly stereotypes, extreme poverty abound in 20/20. There’s a lot of extremely uncomfortable material in Anatomy. The book feels like a warning, a cautionary tale about what happens when the world goes off-kilter, when cans of crap are sold as art, and people don’t count. Of course there are many acts of kindness among friends and allies, not to mention some humor, and Kuznetsova’s characters aren’t all bad – more than anything, they’re people who’ve gone astray and have had little or no positive guidance in their lives – but it’s the bigger picture, the one that includes an absent God, a God who’s on the lam, that stays with me most. That and Fedya’s statement that the residents of 20/20 are like scraps of wood after a shipwreck. Indeed they are. Shipwreck. Fragmentation. Kuznetsova hammers on motifs like these, giving the novel a rhythm that doesn’t let the reader forget the trauma, the violence, and what’s missing in everyday lives.

I suppose that’s why Anatomy grabbed me so strongly the first time I read it: the novel kept me up at night, both as I read and as I considered what I was reading, thinking about the characters’ many sides, both as imaginary people who feel almost real and, even more as, well, literary devices created to convey the author’s messages. Anatomy still keeps me up because I still can’t forget about it. That’s not just because I’m translating and it’s not just that Kuznetsova writes about people on the margins who barely exist for most of the world, about haves and have-nots, about violence, about deep societal divisions, about things that shouldn’t happen. It’s because what she writes feels so phantasmagorically true and sad that it won’t leave me alone.

This may seem an odd way to conclude a post but no book has made me recall, so vividly, a sociology course I took years ago with Philip Rieff. Rieff showed us films – he called us “the video generation,” a term I resented because I’ve always been so book-oriented – and discussed the ways the films portrayed the breakdown of what he called the sacred order. He often said he hoped that, decades hence, we’d face situations that would bring back memories of the course and our discussions of the sacred order. I’m not sure if I first thought of Rieff because of Anatomy’s depiction of a broken sacred order or because one of the films we watched was Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, where toilets play a major role in one scene. Either way, Rieff’s teachings on the sacred order – a framework I don’t think of in strictly religious terms – helped shape my views of the novel and how it fits with my own perceptions of the world. My only regret in focusing here on the sacred order is that I’ve held back on so many other layers, including formal aspects of the book – not to mention the wonderful rabbit holes Anatomy offers, what with astronomy, banshees (very interesting!), art history (Breughel!), paint colors for the Eiffel tower, and a zillion other things – as, flummoxed, I flailed my way through writing this post.

Up Next: Marina and Sergei Dyachenko’s The Ritual, about, how about this, a princess and a dragon. Aleksei Polyarinov’s The Reef, a Big Book finalist.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I’m translating The Anatomy of the Moon (author commissioned, no publisher as yet) and the author provided me with copies of the novel.


Saturday, August 7, 2021

Ah, Sweet Mysteries of Life: Repina’s Lev: A Life

Natalia Repina’s Жизнеописание Льва (which I guess I’ll call Lev: A Life rather than something with “biography”) is a moderately mysterious short novel about a rather mysterious person named, of course, Lev. Repina lives up to her title, describing Lev’s life in 221 not-so-large pages that she splits into three parts. Lev is a somewhat unusual, awkward, and sensitive person. At one point, as a child, he’s described with a sentence that sounds painfully familiar: “He sometimes feels like an antenna that picks up on the conditions of others.” (“Он иногда чувствует себя антенной, которая ловит чужие состояния.”) I’ve written “others” because Lev is also a child who saves the worms he finds on mushrooms. In the second part of the novel, as an adult, he says (I’ll paraphrase/translate) he doesn’t eat killed animals or use leather things, nor does he give cut flowers or kill flies and cockroaches. He also sniffs books. Something I’ve done, too.

I suppose the mysteriousness of the novel for me is connected to the fact that some books make me feel like an antenna, too. I read and read and read Lev, understanding the words, taking in the emotions, settings, situations, and moods, but wasn’t always quite sure what to do with the words and descriptions. I don’t write that to cast blame on Repina, in fact I like the sort of book when I read and read and read, then finish one day with a pile of feelings about what I read. And often, as with Lev, those feelings include a sadness that the book ended because I’d grown accustomed to characters like Lev. Books like this flummox me, though, when I try to describe them, particularly when they’re life stories that are driven more by the passage of time than a plot with lots of action. Yes, there are relationships, though Lev has some uncomfortable dating situations. Yes, there’s a deception (to help someone keep an apartment) that even involves literature. Yes, the first part of the book is set at a Peredelkino dacha, where Lev goes with his mother (an accompanist at a music school) and grandmother; he plays with the neighbor kids. Yes, there are various intrigues among the dachafolk. And the last part of the book involves searches for Lev during the part of his life when he particularly resembles the “contemporary holy fool” (“современный юродовый”) Evgeny Vodolazkin describes him as in a blurb on the book’s cover.

I wonder if one of the reasons I find Lev so difficult to describe is that Repina did such a nice job writing the book (another blurb, from Marina Stepnova praises her voice) from multiple perspectives, drawing (and drawing out) characters and creating atmosphere. She lets Lev e-nun-ci-ate certain words and allows the final narrator’s panic to come through loud and clear on this reader’s antenna. And, unusually, the book moved along quickly for me even though I was immersing myself in its atmosphere more than following a plot: I sometimes consciously felt that I didn’t want to put the book down, lest I break Repina’s spell or leave the places she describes.

Another factor is (and here I’ll borrow from a third blurber, critic Natalia Lomykina) that Repina’s book is nostalgic in its depictions of the former intelligentsia (Lev even thinks of long-time dacha people with the word “formers,” using the Soviet-era word “бывшие”) as well as lost values from another time. All these elements accumulate into a strange sense of coming of age not just for Lev (who dies at age fifty-nine) but for Peredelkino, Russia, and Lev’s generation, as well as social constraints and the values Lomykina mentions. I’m so used to this thematic line in contemporary Russian novels that I often don’t even think about it, taking it for granted, though here Lev’s use of the word “formers,” which feels very marked to me, made it stand out.

I don’t have much plot to outline – despite the deception, which involves literature and draws in Lev since he’s a librarian who happened to study Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks – but when I look back at my notes, they return me to the book’s atmosphere and, well, the life and lives Repina describes so completely and concisely. Early on, for example, she mentions how the ear grows accustomed to background noises like distant trains or planes gaining altitude. (Perhaps this got me because we hear distant trains at our house and they never fail to remind me of Platonov’s heartbreaking “Immortality,” which Robert Chandler and I translated?) Later there’s discussion of individuals’ public and private selves; still later Lev’s observation that elderly people look dead when they sleep (!!) and the feeling that when a dacha is torn down, childhoods go with it. I guess the most relevant question I can ask about Lev is, Why does this book tug at me so much? If I’m honest, I don’t even have to ask myself the question. I already know it’s because of the tragic fragility of individuals who can get lost, societies that can change, and life itself, which inevitably ends. I suppose what I mean to say is that Lev is about life, living life, and what happens when a life is no longer lived. On the simplest level, it’s about what happens when we go from Point A to Point B, just like the two taxi rides that frame Repina’s wonderfully mysterious novel about Lev’s life.

A special note to subscribers: With the recent demise of FeedBurner, I’ve transferred my blog feed to follow.it. I think (hope! cross my fingers!) that I’ve done everything properly and all subscribers will now receive posts with the help of follow.it. I subscribe to posts via email and an RSS reader and will make adjustments if anything fails to work properly after this post goes up. A special thanks to subscribers for letting my posts invade your inbox or RSS reader! 

Up Next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which I was going to blog about today but decided against because that will be a more involved post and I was distracted this afternoon by the squash vine borers that are ending our zucchini season. (Lev would not be happy with me: I dissected the stems to inspect the damage and destroy the larvae, lest they overwinter and hatch next year.) And then Marina and Sergei Dyachenko’s The Ritual.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I’ve translated books by two of the three blurbers mentioned in this post and I know the third, Natalia Lomykina, through Facebook. You can view the blurbs and read the beginning of the novel on Labirint, where I bought my book.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Bogdanova’s Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures: The New Normal?

Vera Bogdanova’s Павел Чжан и прочие речные твари (Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures) is a debut* novel that feels like some sort of minor literary miracle. In Pavel Zhang, set a couple decades from where we are now, Bogdanova blends genres to create a dystopian novel with strong threads about the consequences of childhood trauma and the dangers of encroaching technology, both through Internet addiction and the threat of further government control after chipization. Most important, Bogdanova tells stories without letting her writing get either too ponderous or frivolous, and she includes slang, swearing, and sex so they feel organic – both in quality and quantity – to her text and her characters’ lives rather than props intended to shock or impress the reader. (Or herself!) I’m noticing more and more balance like this in my Russian reading; it feels like a relief. I hope it’s a new normal.

Bogdanova manages to work so much into four hundred pages that it’s far simpler to sum up the effect of the novel than its plot. But here goes; I’ll try not to spoil too much. Pavel Zhang is a coder at the Moscow office of a Chinese company that’s developing chips (the technology dates all the way back to 2029) that will be implanted into people; the chips are designed for “safety and convenience” (“безопастность и удобство” in the nominative). Pavel has no qualms about his work – he’s ambitious, sees himself as a clear-headed warrior, and even wants to go live in China – but his girlfriend, the redheaded Sonya (side note: I’m also finding a lot of redheads in recent novels written by women), who volunteers at a faith-based rehab center for Internet addicts, is part of a group that organizes guerilla protests against government tracking.

Pavel and Sonya met through volunteer work at an orphanage. Pavel himself is an orphanage veteran and the experience left him with deep, deep scars because of sexual abuse condoned by the orphanage’s administration. His mixed heritage also caused problems among his peers because his mother was Russian, his father Chinese; in one memorable flashback scene, he bites off the end of a bully’s nose. (His adult abuser, a pedophile, would have been lucky to escape with such a minor injury.) Given all this, it’s no surprise that Pavel feels he has no real place in the world; he also occasionally seems to drop out of reality. And no wonder, given the abuse that transformed him plus his long, focused hours at work. The work-related sections of Pavel Zhang almost have the feel of a production novel: there’s rivalry among IT employees as well as deadlines, presentations, and, of course, government hype about chipization. Bogdanova also includes a storyline about one of Pavel’s co-workers, Igor, who lives outside Moscow, takes care of his grandmother, and owns a coffeeshop with an “infodetox” mission: there’s no WiFi but there’s a bookstore that sells and lends books. Real printed books! Not everything goes smoothly for Igor, both in terms of action in the book and in terms of the novel’s structure, where his storyline feels a tiny bit lumpy. That’s not exactly a complaint, though, since Igor’s a good character (both literarily and, as it were, in his life) who has roles to play in the novel.

Those are the basics about Pavel Zhang. It would take at least a couple more pages and (far worse) a whole lot of spoilage to go into significant detail about Bogdanova’s vivid and well-chosen specifics of the main characters’ lives, their relationships, and their fates. Or to summarize more of her plot elements, things like the Russia-China alliance, the importance of “river,” the invocation of Chinese hell both in the name of Pavel’s employer (Diyu/Диюй) and Pavel’s thoughts about his life, the mention of a tourist’s selfie-drone (help!!), various forms of religion, and, of course, questions of freedom, monitoring, and use of personal data. And, on another summarizing level, the clashes that occur when memories, present realities, and virtual realities collide. I found in Pavel Zhang a novel that somehow manages to balance a lot of important material – orphandom, childhood abuse, the resulting trauma and pain, omnipresent technology, government control, and personal choices – in a story about characters and situations that feel appropriately real for fiction, all told in language that’s lively without attempting to be showy, controlled without feeling hermetically sealed. 

* Update on August 6: A mea culpa here: Pavel Zhang is only a debut for Bogdanova under her real name; she has written and published science fiction/fantasy novels using pseudonyms. (I feel especially silly about this because I even googled to check on "debut"... but apparently hit incorrect information first!)

Up Next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which also features a redheaded character, a self-described banshee. And then something else, I’m not sure what…

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, with nothing further to report at this writing.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Fear Itself: A. Pelevin’s Pokrov-17

The short and simple version: Alexander Pelevin’s Pokrov-17, which recently won the National Bestseller Award, is a strange and scary novel that kept me up at night. Part of me would love to leave things at that: Pokrov-17 is also complex as well as impossible to describe in much of any detail without spoiling the entire book for prospective readers.

The longer, rather jumbled version: The basic plot is that journalist Andrei Tikhonov is sent from Moscow to the Kaluga area for an assignment in a strange, closed area known as Pokrov-17. And what a road trip that turns out to be. He wakes up in the closed zone, in his car, with a corpse. And I bet you can guess who the killer is. Weird things have been happening in Pokrov-17 – “pokrov,” incidentally, means “cover” or “veil” or “shroud” or “protection” and has an entry on Orthodox Wiki, here – for decades and there’s a clear connection between those odd events (utter blackouts, for example, that come on suddenly and last for varying durations) and a battle fought in the local Church of the Veil of Our Lady in 1941. What really creeped me out, though, is that people can transform (their DNA changes), taking on traits of animals (bird feet, horse tails, dog heads, and the like) after being exposed to a certain substance; the process takes about a month. Also: Tikhonov wrote a World War 2 novel with scenes from the local battle. And then there’s this: Tikhonov’s trip is taking place during the so-called October Events of 1993, which are mentioned many times. There’s also a mysterious institute studying strange phenomena in Pokrov-17, a man named Харон (Charon!) who gives new meaning to notions of Spiderman, and (pick one more item, Lizok!) some strange haloed shadows. All the local anomalies can be traced back to the church and the battle.

And fear. The darkness is the fear of death, a man known only as the Captain tells Tikhonov. Though there are other colorful characters, I don’t want to give away too much so I’ll just say there’s instability in the community, the metamorphosized beings tend to run amok, and Tikhonov finds himself pulled into a very special mission. At a certain point, I knew what was going to happen: everything made sense because I read my Propp back in grad school and have read other A. Pelevin books. Warped time (there are three temporal layers here) and weird metaphysics are Pelevin’s thing and it felt perfect that he set Pokrov-17 during the October Events, when people also felt pretty much in the dark about what was happening inside the Russian White House.

I’m not quite sure how Pelevin stitches all this together to make such an absorbing novel but the excerpts from Tikhonov’s book, Tikhonov’s accounts of his travel in Pokrov-17, and the various documents that Pelevin inserts – a review of Tikhonov’s novel, a Yeltsin speech, and interviews – give the book depth and a sense of fictional authenticity. So do cultural references, including bits of songs, like DDT’s outrageously popular Что такое осень (“What’s Autumn”), which just about anybody who lived in Russia in the early nineties can sing and which gets on Tikhonov’s nerves when the Captain keeps reciting/singing it in the car. And then the Captain quotes Alistair Crowley – “one is eternally alone” – which I found, only now, is from Diary of a Drug Fiend. Which leads me to this: My only regret is that I read Pokrov-17 too quickly. The cultural and historical references deserve more attention than I gave them but Pelevin creates such tremendous suspense with Tikhonov’s first-person narrative and, especially, the horror of the metamorphoses that I couldn’t help myself. Even without a more careful reading, though, Pokrov-17 left me plenty to think about, particularly the way many people fear history and/or use history to create fear.

It’s not fair to compare a writer’s various novels – particularly when the author, like A. Pelevin, is capable of writing varied books – but even if Pokrov-17 doesn’t possess the literary dazzle of The Four (previous post), which has the stellar combination of space travel, cats, and Vvedensky (among other things), it inhabited me thanks to its quick-paced plot plus all those horrifying metamorphoses as well as revelations that provide plenty of metaphysical, existential, religious, and cultural threads to pull. Which is to say that Pokrov-17 offered plenty to keep me up at night, making it a fitting companion for our June heatwave.

Up Next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon, Vera Bogdanova’s Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures, and Eugene Vodolazkin’s book about a fictional island.

Disclaimers and Disclosures. The usual. I translated Masha Regina, by Vadim Levental, whose imprint at Gorodets published Pokrov-17.