Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Little Existentialism -- Two Short Novels by Vladimir Makanin

How many languages have a diminutive for "existential"? There is at least one: Russian, with экзистенциалка (ekzistentsialka). It's not important that the word is rare and a Google search only pops 23 results in the nominative case. It exists. And why shouldn't it? Some of us have tender feelings for stark, dark novels and movies about life, death, and the choices they force.

If you've been yearning to read a couple of very accessible existential novellas, I have two suggestions: Vladimir Makanin's Лаз (Escape Hatch) and Долог наш путь (The Long Road Ahead). Escape Hatch was nominated for the first-ever Russian Booker Prize in 1992, and it has been neatly combined with the complementary Long Road for a volume of translations. (This piece describes the book nicely, but contains a lot of spoilers for The Long Road. This review also has a few spoilers.)

Escape Hatch begins with a cat standing at a door, blocking her master by not deciding whether to stay in or go out. The paragraph sums up a lot: the cat's person, Kliucharev (the root, kliuch, means "key"), is also torn between two places. He lives on the earth's surface, where life is dark, hungry, and violent, but uses a hole to climb underground, where lighting is natural and people enjoy good food and wine.

The hole's opening shrinks during the course of the book, making passage more dangerous. Meanwhile, Makanin examines the stark dichotomies of Kliucharev's life and choices: up or down, dark or light, crowd or individual, freedom or entrapment, life and death. In one scene, Kliucharev squeezes below ground, landing in a cafe, where he is offered a nice meal, a shot, and, most important, the chance to listen to conversation about Dostoevsky and the undesirability of happiness based on the unhappiness of others. He considers himself an intellectual, so the conversation causes him to come to life, writes Makanin, like a fish returning to water.

Escape Hatch is oddly suspenseful, whether Makanin shows Kliucharev navigating a crowd, a deserted street, or the hatch. Makanin also includes some nice touches, like comparing Kliucharev to a worm as he crawls through the dirt... years before genomic sequencing showed how much human and worm genes hold in common. The book's setting, though Russian, is left vague, and it's unclear what caused a societal breakdown.

The Long Road Ahead has a much different feel. It is less schematic than Escape Hatch, and has a dystopian bent: there haven't been wars for 200 years, and society lives with the comforting idea that food is synthetic, eliminating the need for killing, say, cows. Of course not all is as it seems, and Makanin's nameless main character, a man on a business trip, becomes caught up in situations that make him feel trapped.

I normally don't take well to postmodern devices that twist plots and narration, but Makanin uses one in The Long Road in a way that, I think, works because it doesn't distract from the meaning of the story. The ending combines dread, hope, and strange beauty in a way that crystallizes Makanin's ideas.

The pleasure of reading Makanin's fiction is that he successfully demonstrates his philosophy and ideas through plot and characters, rather than lectures, making even the strangest actions and places feel quite real. Makanin's unpretentious approach provides stories that encourage, rather than coerce, the reader to explore layers of meaning.

These two short novels fit nicely with comments that Makanin made about his philosophy of life and death during a 2004 interview on the Russian talk show Ночной полёт (Night Flight). Although Makanin spoke about his newer book Испуг (Fear), about an old man's love for a much-younger woman, his talk about the fear of death and loneliness complemented Escape Hatch and The Long Road. He also reinforced the optimism that I felt when reading his work, particularly The Long Road. When people become fearful of life, Makanin suggested that they simply live their lives. Prodded by the moderator to clarify, he said that we should love but also remember that we will die. Something about Makanin was endearingly sincere.

Two other translations of Makanin are available in English:

-Утрата (The Loss), a volume containing a novella and two short stories.
-Стол, покрытый сукном и с графином в середине (Baize-Covered Table with Decanter), which won the Russian Booker in 1993. This novel is about interrogation; it creates an atmosphere that felt, to me, far more claustrophobic than the tunnel in Escape Hatch. Although I had looked forward to reading it, I just couldn't get into Table. I'll try again someday, but I think Table suffered by comparison to the imaginative novellas I read: Table felt less interesting because interrogation has, unfortunately, been all too common a theme in Russian life and literature.

Vladimir Makanin Books on Amazon


  1. great blog, I really appreciate your posts. Could you please tell me the original title of The Long Road Ahead?
    Thank you


  2. Ioulia, the original title is Долог наш путь. Enjoy!

  3. Excuse me, where can I buy this book? I cannot find it.
    I've found just a russian mp3 version, but I would like to read it.

  4. Makanin's "Underground" is pretty impressive: