Sunday, September 20, 2009

Wandering Life’s Corridors in Makanin’s Underground

Vladimir Makanin’s 1999 Booker Prize finalist Андеграунд, или герой нашего времени (Underground or A Hero of Our Time) feels like a literary missing link in my reading of Makanin’s fiction. I haven’t read all Makanin’s work, but Underground sure feels like a stylistic and thematic midway point between the spare 1992 Лаз (Escape Hatch), also a Booker finalist, and the stream-of-consciousness Асан (Asan), 2008’s Big Book winner. (previous post on Asan) (previous post on Escape Hatch)

Underground chronicles, in first-person narrative, a homeless 50-something nonwriting writer’s wanderings through mental and physical corridors that he compares to life itself. Petrovich apartment-sits for residents of a dormitory-like building, drinks quite a bit, and twice commits murder. The first half of this 550-page book felt like baggy, linked, almost stream-of-consciousness stories, but the second half read like a suspenseful and emotional novel, in chapters. I got so caught up in the end that I had a strange, dazed feeling when I finished.

Makanin builds much of Underground around references to Russian literature, which Petrovich claims as a key value, though I don’t seem to recall him reading much. The title refers to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground plus Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time (previous post). Petrovich certainly is an underground, intelligentsia, superfluous poster guy for the perestroika era, someone with a lot of “I” but no set home, job, or apparent value to society. Makanin opens the book with an epigraph from Lermontov, the famous line saying that his character’s portrait is a composite.

Petrovich likens himself and an old friend – a writer-double who is successful in the West – to a fable about a wolf with its freedom and a well-fed dog wearing a collar. Petrovich, of course, is the free wolf, and a proud Undergrounder, too. According to Petrovich, “Андеграунд – подсознание общества” – “The Underground is society’s subconscious.” Petrovich traces the Underground and his own intellectual heritage to Russia’s hermit monks, émigrés, and dissidents. Makanin also used an underground theme in Escape Hatch: a man crawls through a hole between above- and below-ground worlds.

Petrovich’s preference for the Underground fits with Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussion of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man in Проблемы поэтики Достоевского (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics), where he writes that the dominant aspect of the Underground Man is self-consciousness. Petrovich’s goal, even in killing, is always to preserve his “я” (“I”), which he also calls his жильё (living place).

The combination of gritty, naturalistic details and literariness makes the book feel hyperreal and symbolic or allegorical. (I would call “условная in Russian.) Petrovich’s breakdown in a homeless shelter is particularly scary in both real and symbolic ways, with its monosyllabic shrieks, Vietnamese neighbors jumping on him, and extreme existential distress.

Petrovich ends up in the same hospital as his brother Venya, another double of sorts. Venya is an artist who represents the brothers’ childhood; he has spent most of his adult life in the hospital and reverts to childhood behaviors when he has a day out. More allusions? The name Venya reminded me of Venedikt Erofeev’s Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line or Moskva-Petushki), with its introspection and drinking, and it may be unintentional, but one of the hospital episodes churned up distant memories of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Another: the chapter on Venya’s day of freedom refers to the title Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich).

Makanin packs so many characters, social observations, and allusions into Underground that the book is messy and crowded, difficult to read and describe. But, like Erofeev’s Moskva-Petushki, form reflects content, and I don’t think Underground would work if it were smooth and easy. I admit I had so much trouble with the stylistic and plot wanderings at the beginning of Underground that I considered stopping half-way through, but then a crisis gave the book so much drive that I couldn’t put it down.

To return to the missing link: the combination of realism and literary devices that felt contrived to me in Asan felt appropriate, even masterful, in Underground… I wonder if the reason is that Makanin felt closer to Petrovich’s writerly “я” in Underground than Zhilin’s military “я” in Asan.

Underground is available online, in Russian, here.

Makanin on Amazon


Post a Comment