Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Russian "Big Book" Award 2007 Internet Voting Winners

"The most popular Russian writers are Liudmilla Ulitskaya, Dina Rubina, Viktor Pelevin"
-Большая книга (Big Book Award) site

Okay, I know I'm picky, but a more truthful subheadline would refer to this troika as the most popular Russian literary fiction writers. Big Book's system neatly combines critical views with popularity: literary critics nominate finalists, then readers vote for their favorites over the Internet and a jury determines who wins prizes.

Although 2007's Internet vote winners for audience favorites haven't yet been translated into English, all three authors have written books that are available in translation.

Liudmila Ulitskaya's Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) took first place among readers. Ulitskaya wrote the book because she wanted to tell the story of Brother Daniel, a monk who converted from Judaisim during World War 2, in her own way. I'm looking forward to reading it: Ulitskaya is a rare post-Soviet writer who has achieved critical and commercial success by filling her books with vivid characters and situations that make reading feel easy. They also have enough depth to encourage rereading.

Three Ulitskaya books are available in English: two collections of novellas and stories, Весёлые похороны (The Funeral Party) and Сонечка (Sonechka); and the novel Медея и её дети (Medea and Her Children). The Funeral Party, about people who gather to witness a friend's last days, and Medea, a portrait of an extended family, both feel like collections of quirky characters linked by common situations. I don't particularly like that type of construction, though Ulitskaya's people and places in these works often have enough charm to keep me interested. If you're not as tied to plot movement and linear stories as I am, you may enjoy them quite a bit.

, about a woman who might be said to prefer reading fiction to facing life, is more realized as a story, though it veers away from Sonechka for some time, to describe another character who will change Sonechka's life. I think the most intriguing aspect of Sonechka for American readers will be Ulitskaya's descriptions of relationships, aging, and how women see themselves. Sonechka's choices (which I won't reveal) toward the end of the story may come as a surprise or shock to Americans, but a friend from the Former Soviet Union reminded me that Russian women perceive themselves differently as they age.

I hope that more of Ulitskaya's books will be translated into English soon. My two current favorite Ulitskaya novels -- Казус Кукоцкого (The Kukotskii Case) and Искренне ваш Шурик (Sincerely Yours, Shurik) -- have yet to appear in English. Kukotskii, about a doctor and his family, won the 2001 Russian Booker prize, and Shurik looks at a young man who tries to please everyone. Both books already exist in many languages other than English.

Dina Rubina won second place among readers with На солнечной стороне улицы (On the Sunny Side of the Street), which was also nominated for the 2006 Russian Booker. I haven't read it yet: I'm still working on her Вот идёт Мессия! (Here Comes the Messiah), a postmodern novel that mixes plot lines as it shows emigre life in Israel. Many of the vignettes are very nicely written and quite humorous, but I don't like the constant shifts between sets of characters. Only Rubina's Messiah has been translated into English, though other books are available in other languages.

Several books by Viktor Pelevin, who won third place with Ампир В ("Ampir V," get it?), have already been translated into English, though it's tough for me to understand why he fascinates American publishers. Then again, I may have started with the wrong book: Generation П, which was inexplicably "translated" into English as Homo Zapiens. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, with certain pop (literally) culture references and a post-perestroika combination of drear and hope, but the whole thing rapidly degenerates into a messy mass that involves channeling Che Guevara through a Ouija board, advertising, and mushroom-induced strolls. I might have enjoyed Generation П more if its characters felt more like people than props for Pelevin to express ideas. My Russian reader friends don't like Pelevin much, but some Russian readers' comments on online forums seem to recommend Чапаев и пустота (Chapaev and Emptiness, in the Buddha's Little Finger collection) and Оман Ра (Omon Ra) as favorites.

Edit: Post corrected on November 22, 2007.

Books mentioned in this post:
Books by Ulitskaya on Amazon
Dina Rubina's Here Comes the Messiah!
Books by Pelevin on Amazon


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