Thursday, November 27, 2008

Two Shortish Novels, Two Shortish Comments

The great benefit of long Thanksgiving cooking times is that you can do other things – drink, entertain guests, prepare more food, or blog – while the turkey roasts and the apple pie bakes.

So, before the turkey dries out or the pie burns, here are a few observations about two books that I recently enjoyed…

Iurii Dombrovskii’s (Yury Dombrovsky) Хранитель древности (The Keeper of Antiquities) is a short novel concerning a museum worker, the title’s unnamed Keeper, Kazakh history, and, perhaps, an escaped boa constrictor who shows up at the Mountain Giant Collective Farm during the 1930s. Complete Review summed up the book beautifully here.

Keeper left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I enjoyed Dombrovskii’s friendly, casual writing style and the episodes of absurd bureaucracy he weaves into the story. I also loved the boa constrictor (called a “Bova constructor” by one character) that slithers its slimy way through the apple orchard and, metaphorically, other nature-heavy settings in Keeper... things aren’t quite Edenic, particularly with Hitler’s war and Stalin’s terror threatening. The novel’s final chapter is beautifully eerie, complete with a gruesome lullaby and multiple mentions of the devil.

But still… despite so much to love, the Keeper sometimes feels too weighted down with the history, natural and human, that he chronicles and catalogues. The book felt a little unsatisfying to me, as if its elements didn’t quite fit together. This may be because Keeper turned out to be a prelude to a larger work.

The Keeper reappears with a name in Факультет ненужных вещей, (The Faculty of Useless Knowledge), a much longer novel that I look forward to reading. Then there is the sad reality of Dombrovkskii’s writing practice, which Igor Shtokman’s introduction to my Russian edition of both novels mentions: Dombrovskii was only able to write when he wasn’t in prison or a camp. Writes Shtokman (in my translation), “he hurried, wrote in swallows, feverishly because he knew perfectly well that yet another arrest was not beyond the mountains.”

Fedor Dostoevsky’s Игрок (The Gambler) is another short, light-feeling novel that covers serious topics, like family scandals, gambling, self-loathing, and expat life in a town called Ruletenburg. So many miserable people! So many debts! So much spite! And so many zeroes!

Although it’s painful to listen to Aleksei Ivanovich, a narrator who sounds like a cousin of Dostoevsky’s underground man, tell stories of self-destruction, it’s hard to turn away from the ridiculous cruelty the characters unleash on each other and themselves as they angle for love and money.

Gambling is all about luck and fate, so, as Mikhail Bakhtin points out in Проблемы поэтики Достоевского (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics), carnival is one of The Gambler’s most important themes. Social class is another. Writes Bakhtin: “People from various (hierarchical) positions in life, once crowded around the roulette table, are made equal by the rules of the game and in the face of fortune, chance.”

That’s it for this Thanksgiving!

Photo: rasto via stock.xchng


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