Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Big Wheel Effect: Salnikov’s Chilling Department

Alexei Salnikov’s Отдел (The Department), the author’s debut novel, is one of those marvelously maddening books that’s nearly impossible to write about because the experience of reading was so total, so all-consuming, and so invasive that it moved in and occupied my psyche. The visit may be permanent. Thanks to dark humor, a macabre plot, and Salnikov’s portrayal of twisted normalcy in a place that seems irreparably fragmented, The Department is a painfully (in an almost physical sense) tense book to read. Although it’s easy enough to recount plot basics – Salnikov knows how to tell a story – it’s far harder to interpret the novel because Salnikov packs in so much, so many layers: writer Shamil Idiatullin’s blurb on the back of my book offers five possible takes on The Department (including a dystopia that reinterprets/revisits American and Soviet writings or “we were just following orders”) and I could add several more, including an old favorite, the absurdity of contemporary life.


The gist of the story is that a man, Igor, who lost his job long ago, finally succeeds at finding work in a certain murky office (the department in the title) located in an old heating plant. He has a few coworkers – his boss’s first two initials are SS, leading to a nickname – who are also, for various reasons, unemployable outcasts. They all know they’re a bit off. The most immediate reason, I suppose, has less to do with their backgrounds than with their jobs, which involve killing. Sometimes they do that by making house calls, sometimes they do the job in the department’s basement, which they call Hollywood. Either way, Igor has problems at home, too. Mild spoiler: his wife (who’s pretty successful at work, frustrated with Igor’s job situation, and even mentions PMS and menopause – I think Salnikov is one of the first Russian writers I’ve read who mentions пэмээс) will end up bailing on him, taking their son with her.

For Igor, that’s something of a relief, particularly given the nature of the department’s work, which is a strong, stressful force that serves to bond the guys: they take smoke breaks together and drink together, like lots of co-workers do, making them seem pretty normal for much of the book. At least until the next killing assignment. For me, anyway, this, another variation on the banality of evildoers, is at the root of the tension I mentioned in my opener: Salnikov shifts between relatively mundane things – bureaucracy or a wife’s affair – and that killing, resulting in contrasts that remind me of nothing more than the scene in The Shining, where Danny rides his Big Wheel over bare floors (noisy) and rugs (quiet). It’s the sound that matters there, jarring the viewer each time those big wheels hit the bare floor. In The Department, the killing sure seems pointless (slight spoiler: Igor’s job is to read dozens of inane questions to the victim, for a weird interrogation about things like fear of heights, frequency of sharpening kitchen knives, and the like) and about all that we know is that it’s brutal. And that we don’t want to look. It’s as if the plot hits that bare floor, jarring the reader’s nerves and sensibilities after the soft rug of, say, Igor talking with his son (even if there is a mention of guns, aliens, and terrorism). I should add that Salnikov made a brilliant choice in choosing Igor’s part of the killings. Allegedly the victims are threats – one is a young woman and at one point, Igor wonders who will be next: someone disabled, a child, a cancer patient, or even a panda – but the killers themselves have no idea why. They even wonder if they’re aliens. As, of course, they are themselves in their society: the department’s location isn’t even on the map. What’s scariest is that Salnikov constantly forces the reader to ponder how bad these characters’ actions are, forcing the reader to ponder what they would do in, say, Igor’s place.

All that pondering – you know what they’re doing is wrong but yet… – has a Big Wheel effect on the reader, too, and ratchets up the suspense because the reader becomes so involved. Salnikov builds a world that’s ours yet not (we hope, we really hope) ours, a place where horrible things that are part of some larger plan are hidden, occult, and in the shadows at a derelict heating plant, along with characters who aren’t clued in. Salnikov wraps up the novel’s epilogue with Igor telling a small lie, a lie he wants to believe. The novel’s final paragraph speaks about lies and illusions that, essentially, hold the world together. It’s horrifyingly homey. Ignorance is bliss. Better the sweet lie than the bitter truth.

Having recently finished Salnikov’s Опосредованно (which I think I’ll continue calling Indirectly) and having picked up his Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него (The Petrovs In and Around the Flu) again yesterday, I think what endears Salnikov’s books to me is his ability to combine harsh realities – almost a variation on чернуха (chernukha) the dark-dark reality I read so much of some years ago – with humor, ordinary foibles, absurdity, and what’s hidden, be that in an occult sense or in an almost parallel world. I think there’s a new wave of very creative chernukha, thanks to writers like Salnikov, Evgeniya Nekrasova, and Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina (previous post), who incorporate humor, irony, and even folk motifs and occult-like elements into their writing. Their works are frightening but also playful, making them scarier.

The fragmentation I noted earlier is present in all three of Salnikov’s books, thanks to fissile nuclear families, personal and societal alienation resulting from secrets, and even structural compartmentalization in the novels themselves. I won’t be writing about Indirectly just yet because I need to reread it, in a printed edition, but now that I’ve read The Department and Indirectly, I’m appreciating and understanding The Petrovs more. I suspect the more linear Department and Indirectly showed me the way into Salnikov’s universe more efficiently than the chunked Petrovs, where I’ve always admired the material – particularly (again!) the dark humor and sharp social observations – but felt puzzled by a certain amorphousness that is beginning to make sense for me now that I’m more at home (scary thought!) with Salnikov’s writings, which are so very, very thick with observations about the twists and turns of contemporary life.

Next-day edit on The Petrovs: After learning last night about how and why Petrova is losing her mind, I’m all the gladder that I picked up The Petrovs again after reading Salnikov’s other books. I’ve long thought, perhaps even known, that the order in which I read an author’s books can be a crucial factor in understanding but this example really clinches it. I’m also very much enjoying seeing how Salnikov’s three books fit together, through common motifs/tropes/thematic elements, rather like Vodolazkin’s novels do. Best of all, I’m now feeling almost as unsettled reading The Petrovs as I did when reading The Department, in large part because I’m more attuned to the rhythms of Salnikov’s writing. I suspect the Big Wheel Effect will come back to haunt us all.

Up Next: Evgeniya Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina, which I’m glad I went back to finish (I think I needed to read it in two chunks because of a big change in the middle), plus some shorter works.

Disclaimers: The usual, including collaborating with Salnikov’s literary agency. I received a copy of The Department from the organizers of the Russian stand at the London Book Fair, thank you! Salnikov was a member of the LBF delegation.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Big Book Goes Big With Its 2019 Long Longlist

Last week the Big Book Award announced a longlist consisting of forty one titles. The Big Book’s shortlist – of somewhere between eight and fifteen titles – will be named on June 5. Given the sheer volume of volumes on this year’s (long)list, I’ll name about a third of those selected, including the books I’ve read, a couple overlaps with the National Bestseller shortlist, and several completely unfamiliar books that sound like they might be interesting.

The books I’ve already read:
  • Eduard Verkin’s Остров Сахалин (Sakhalin Island) (previous post) still bugs me for being such an absorbing and unforgettable but rather messy postapocalyptic novel that channels Chekhov.
  • Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Брисбен (Brisbane) tells the story of a virtuoso guitar player who discovers he has an incurable medical condition.
  • Anna Nemzer’s Раунд (Round) (previous post) is a polyphonic novel about love, identity, history, and everything else.
  • Alexei Salnikov’s Опосредованно (Indirectly perhaps? This is what a colleague and I think might fit…), which I’ll finish today, is about a woman living in the Urals who writes poetry in a world that’s almost like ours, though poems have drug-like effects.
  • Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) (previous post) is the first-cat narrative I so enjoyed last year.
  • Evgenia Nekrasova’s Калечина-Малечина (Kalechina-Malechina) is waiting for a second chance. I read half of K-M and am now feeling strong pangs that demand I return, particularly after just finishing Nekrasova’s novella Несчастливая Москва (Unhappy Moscow). I already appreciated her use of language and now I’m starting to get into her (abundantly peculiar and rather frightening) universe, too, so feeling ready for the second half of K-M. (I’m also finally going to read Platonov’s Happy Moscow. I’m so long due to read more Platonov, but even his short works are always a big itch to try to scratch.)
The two books that overlap with the National Bestseller list (previous post) are Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina and Andrei Rubanov’s Финист - ясный сокол (Finist, the Brave Falcon).

A few books and authors completely unfamiliar to me, listed in alphabetical order by author:
  • Olgerd Bakharevich, author of Собаки Европы (The Dogs of Europe), says this gigundo (nine-hundred-page) book is about everything, with Belarus, Europe, the world, and Minsk being some of that “everything.” He translated the book himself, rewriting it in the process.
  • Fyodor Grot’s Ромовая баба (Rum Baba) warrants a mention for the simple fact that the beginning mentions plague.
  • Anna Klepikova’s Наверно я дурак (literally something like I’m Probably a Fool) describes itself as an anthropological novel (it appears to be autofiction) and sounds like it’s about a volunteer at a home for children with (apparently) psychiatric issues. (An excerpt)
Finally, there are two manuscripts. Manuscripts always have an air of mystery (and, honestly, irritation as well) since no author’s name or publisher is mentioned. But at least these titles are simple! Number 141 is Вавилонская лестница (The Staircase of Babel) and number 158 is Рюрик (Rurik).

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Many of the books mentioned in this post were given to me; I know some of the authors listed and have translated three books by one. I’m a member of the Big Book’s jury, known as the Literary Academy.

Up Next: A Salnikov post covering The Department and what I’ll provisionally continue to call Indirectly. And then probably Nekrasova.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The 2019 National Bestseller Award Shortlist

The NatsBest Award announced six finalists last week. I’ve listed the books below, with the first (“big”) jury’s point totals. I haven’t read any of the books in full (yet) and know little about them beyond bits I’ve read in reviews and descriptions, so more caveat emptor (as it were) than usual on my summaries (and titles, too). I also confess that I’ve looked the least into the last two books: they interest me most and, selfishly, I don’t want to know too much before reading. The winner – who is supposed to wake up famous – will be announced on May 25.

Film critic Mikhail Trofimenkov’s XX век представляет. Кадры и кадавры (The 20th Century Presents. Cadres and Cadavers is the title that sounds best, translating “кадры” as “cadres” but given the film topic, well, I suspect there’s at least a double meaning of “frames” or “shots,” plus “кадавр” apparently has an additional meaning of some sort of living dead in Russian, a topic seeming to warrant further study and reading!) is a sociopolitical/sociocultural book about film in many countries during the second half of the twentieth century. (14 points)

Andrei Rubanov’s Финист - ясный сокол (Finist, the Brave Falcon; at least for now I’ll borrow the title from a Soviet film) sounds like a blend of ancient Russia, folktale motifs, and fantasy. Here’s a version of the story of Finist. (a lucky 13 points)

I’m so unschooled about manga and anime that I didn’t recognize the “otaku” in Upyr Likhoi’s title Славянские отаку (Slavic otaku). I was curious about the author’s name, too, a pseudonym borrowed from an eleventh-century Russian scribe and priest, though simply looking at the words, the name sounds like Vampire/Ghoul + Evil/Spirited; I kind of like the “Wicked Vampire” option mentioned on Wikipedia’s Öpir page. In any case, it’s a great pseudonym with a fair bit of history. In any case (again), it sounds like the book is an allegory (satirical, too?) of the political conflict between Russia and Ukraine told through two guys who spend a lot of time online. (7 points)

The only book I’ve read any of (about half) is Evgenia Nekrasova’s Калечина-малечина (Kalechina-Malechina): this novel about a girl who is bullied and often left to her own devices struck me most for Nekrasova’s imaginative use of language and vivid settings and situations. I admired those aspects of the book enough that this one has been bothering me, asking, even begging, for another chance at finishing. (7 points)

Alexander Etoev’s Я буду всегда с тобой (I’ll Always Be With You) is set in 1943, in Russia’s Far North. (6 points)

Alexander Pelevin’s Четверо (The Four or perhaps even something like Four of Them) sounds tempting, blending elements of science fiction and detective novels, plus three very distinct temporal settings that somehow connect. (6 points)

Up Next: Alexei Salnikov’s wonderfully twisted The Department.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, plus I translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

London Book Fair 2019 Trip Report, the No-Notes-Means-Minimal-Substance Edition

That’s right: I took no notes at any of the events I attended or participated in during the week of the London Book Fair. I slacked. I’ve pieced together a bit, though, based on memory…

I suppose I have a bit of an excuse for shirking during the first event I attended, since it took place roughly twelve hours after landing at Gatwick and roughly thirty hours after my last real (lying in a bed) sleep. The event was a book club meeting with Alexei Salnikov, who discussed his Отдел (The Department) at the Waterstones/Piccadilly store. In some ways, jetlag was the ideal state for me to be in since I hadn’t yet read the book and didn’t want spoilers; thanks to jetlag, there was no need to tune anything out! Now that I’ve read the book, I think that attending without really processing the conversation was perfect. Among other things, I probably would have disbelieved what people said about The Department. And attending without really listening/retaining fits beautifully with the novel’s absurdity. As did the intensity and urgency of the conversation, which I (think I) do remember. I’ll be writing about the book soon and will only add for now that the book was deeply unsettling in all the right ways. So I loved it.

Thank goodness for real sleep: Day Two included two events! A translation roundtable at the Russian stand brought together eight translators, moderated by Hamid Ismailov, whose The Devils’ Dance, translated by Donald Rayfield with John Farndon, recently won the EBRD Literature Prize.
Photo: Anastasia Kornienko
Here we are, left to right: Donald Rayfield, Robert Chandler, me (I was cold, not critical!), Oliver Ready, Hamid Ismailov, Alexander Chantsev, Arch Tait, Ola Wallin, and Carol Ermakova. I remember a few things: mentioning my translation of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog for the Russian Library and saying that I look for books that I enjoyed reading and think I will enjoy translating – I see having fun as a critical part of the process. Also: Donald Rayfield learned Uzbek to translate The Devils’ Dance and Carol Ermakova spoke of her translations of Elena Chizhova’s novels. Other details are too murky to mention since I don’t want to get anything wrong or, heaven forbid, start rumors. Day Two also brought me back to Waterstones: Guzel Yakhina spoke, primarily about her Zuleikha, which recently came out in my translation for Oneworld Publications. I talked for a short bit about the translation, addressing (Ура, I remember this part!) how we handled the Tatar words in the Russian text: transliterating and italicizing those that the text already explained, but just translating the rest. This was a lucky case where the Russian text held the perfect solution.

The evening of Day Three took me to Pushkin House for a screening of the first episode of the series Хребет России (The Ridge of Russia), about the Urals, followed by Q&A with author Alexei Ivanov and moderator Anastasia Koro. Thank goodness there’s information here, on the Pushkin House site, about the event and how everything (and everybody) fits together! Tales of Yermak were particularly memorable, though the linguist in me was most fascinated that Ivanov and TV guy Leonid Parfyonov, who’s also part of this road-trip-esque series, stressed different syllables in the plural of the word for Cossack. This struck me because a friend has noted a couple of times that she prefers the stress as казáки; I’d been stressing endings. (There’s lots on the Internet about this stressful topic, here, for example. Fear not: basically, either way is fine. Ozhegov and my two orthographical dictionaries also show stress patterns both ways for the plural, with the root endings as second choice.) Bonus: Yulia Zaitseva, who’s also in the series (she even hang glides!), was in attendance at Pushkin House, too.

Day Four was especially eventful for a roundtable I participated in with Guzel Yakhina, literary agent Julia Goumen, and Glagoslav editor Ksenia Papazova: “Women in Literature & Translation: Realities and Stereotypes,” moderated by Daniel Hahn. There were so many subtopics that it’s very hard to summarize, let alone offer much context, but things began with a brief talk from Guzel during which, among other things, she talked about Zuleikha and said she’d never felt she’d been discriminated against for being a woman. We ended with audience questions, including one from a man who’s interested in translating a woman author. (I hope his project works out!) Other topics included book covers, author age, and specific writers, including Valentina Nazarova, Elena Chizhova, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I talked about the role translators, particularly women, can/should take in working toward ensuring more women’s books are translated and published, noting that since more women writers tend to be translated by women than men (during Q&A, though, I made sure to give men their due and specifically mentioned Arch Tait, whose authors I didn’t list; they include Ulitskaya and Alexievich, among others) we need to actively read, scout, and properly pitch projects if we want to close the gap. (For some stark statistics on how few translated books are written by women, please see this interview with Chad Post from the London Show Daily for 14 March 2019.) I seem to recall repeating that plenty of Russian women are writing high-quality books that deserve to be translated, adding “It’s only fair!” several times. Post-LBF, my biggest hope is that more (“all” is probably asking too much!) translators, agents, scouts, publishers, and others in the industry – men or women – will think more about these disparities when they read, research, and consider projects. Our choices and decisions matter. My reward for finishing my events
Mushy peas, no thanks. Photo: Ilona Chavasse



during the trip was a hot lunch – an old favorite, fish and chips! – with translator colleague and friend Ilona Chavasse (translator of, among others, Yuri Rytkheu – their A Dream in Polar Fog awaits me…), who stealthily immortalized my meal when I stepped away from the table for a minute. The perfect capper to the book fair was Chris Gribble’s half-hour “in conversation” Q&A with Jeremy Tiang, LBF’s first-ever Literary Translator of the Fair. And an excellent choice he was: he’s a thoughtful speaker and I particularly appreciate the wisdom, gentle humor, and love with which he speaks about the realities of literary translation. In an interview with Michelle Johnson of World Literature Today, he said something that I think particularly deserves to be read, remembered, and repeated, repeated, repeated: “Literary translators are artists in our own right. Treat us as partners in a creative process, not functionaries. We have a lot to offer.”

And that’s about it for public events! I did bring home piles of books, most in English… I’m currently enjoying Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk in Sora Kim-Russell’s translation (after loving Hye-young Pyun’s The Hole in Kim-Russell’s translation, this one called out to me, then turned up on the international Booker longlist later in the week!) and have plenty more on the shelves, including Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation, and Frank Wynne’s translation of Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 2, which I just had to buy after reading VS 1 last year, thanks to the good people of Despentes’s UK publisher, MacLehose Press, who gave me a copy at the Frankfurt book fair. VS 1 is apparently on the way to the US in late 2019, from FSG.

Disclaimers, Disclosures, and Thanks: The usual. Thank you to Read Russia for bringing me to the London Book Fair and giving me books, too!

Up Next: Salnikov’s The Department, which may take a bit of time to process and come to terms with, thanks to a powerful combination of absurdity, unease, tension, and even coziness. The NatsBest shortlist. And then another book. It’s hard to know what to read after The Department.