Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Listed in the Zero Years

Dmitrii Bykov seems to write everything: novels, poetry, essays, literary and film criticism, even voiceovers for the documentary Девственность (Virginity). Bykov knits together elements from many of those forms in Списанные (The List), a 2008 novel that portrays aspects of Moscow life in the нулевые годы – the “zero years,” our strange current decade that apparently has no name in American English but is called “the noughties” in British English.

The book’s title refers to around 180 souls who discover they’ve been placed on a mysterious list. The verb списать (spisat’) can mean copy, and it’s the root for список (list), but it can also mean “write off” in an accounting sense.

Bykov focuses on Sergei Sviridov, a young screenwriter who, at the start of the book, is flying to a film festival in Ukraine with Маленькое чудо (The Little Miracle), a treacly sounding children’s film about a young ballerina. The List tracks Sviridov’s life after he learns he’s on the list. He meets other listees, first through the Internet, then in person, spending time with them at a dacha party, cafes, and his own bed. Despite all the meetings and events, some of which sound painfully predictable and Soviet, Bykov relies more on psychology and conversations than dramatic plot twists to move The List.

Though the list’s provenance remains something of a mystery and still feels sinister even at the end of the book, I came to see the list as a tool that characters used to build relationships and fill vacuums in their zero years lives. One chapter even covers who sleeps with whom, a Dionysian list within the list.

With all its slang, borrowed words, verbal tics, and commentary on contemporary Russian politics and culture, The List feels almost self-consciously set in our time. Bykov’s tinges of Kafka, Dostoevsky, fantasy, and the grotesque (to borrow from the blurb on the back of my book) seem, paradoxically, to add to its almost documentary atmosphere. Life is, after all, absurd.

For me, the book’s biggest shortcoming is that some passages are too busy with discussions about politics and philosophy, or cultural references. (One page mentions both Vladimir Zhabotinskii and David Cronenberg.) Though I could imagine many of the conversations taking place in what passes for real life, I thought many of the denser idea-based sections felt inorganic to the book, as if Bykov-essayist had temporarily overruled Bykov-novelist. I much preferred Bykov-novelist’s straightforward scenes focusing on Sviridov’s emotions and relationships.

With so much diverse material, I suspect that List readers have very different takes on what dominates: some will read it as a humorous novel, others will find a social novel about repression and politics in post-Soviet Russia, I see a picture of loneliness and attempts to understand what passes for reality. And so on.

The List left me with an unusual and rather odd ambivalence. Though I enjoyed some sections – like Sviridov’s struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder – when I finished, I felt a little underwhelmed. Most of the themes and ideas were familiar from the news, other fiction, and my own life. That is, I suppose, the downside of a book that focuses so closely on the present day.

The other side of my ambivalence is this: I understand why someone might like all of The List. I know many fiction readers enjoy reading political and philosophical conversations, and I suspect the book could well appeal to readers outside Russia, in translation, as one writer’s fictional but documentary-feeling picture of Russia in the noughties.

Speaking of translations: A blog reader mentioned that Alma Books is preparing a translation of another Bykov novel, ЖД, which Alma’s blog says may be translated as Living Souls or Jewhad. The post calls Living Souls “this 800-page maelstrom of a novel.” Alma also provides an interesting perspective on Russian contemporary fiction. To paraphrase, the continuing influences of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky make it difficult to export Russian writers, but Alma sees value in what “could be the classics of the future.” (Alma Books post)


  1. Hmm. I loved Орфография (have you read it?), but based on your description, I think I'll pass on this one.

  2. No, I haven't read Орфография, Languagehat, but I've seen some very favorable reviews... I'll have to look for it.

    As for Списанные, I rarely have such conflicting feelings about books! I could write on and on about what I did and didn't like. And why. I don't regret reading it, though I probably would have skimmed some passages if I hadn't been reading with the intent to blog.