Sunday, December 27, 2009

Yuzefovich’s Cranes and Dwarfs: Pretenders and Historical Cycles

It’s easy to see how Leonid Yuzefovich’s novel Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Dwarfs or Cranes and Pygmies) was big enough in scope to win the 2009 Big Book award. Yuzefovich covers big themes from Russian culture and history including pretenders, spirituality, times of trouble, and a human tendency for endless conflict. All in 476 very readable pages.

The predominant story line of Cranes and Dwarfs is set in a place I knew well: 1993 Moscow. Yuzefovich chronicles the struggles of “victims of shock therapy” to find new lives in post-Soviet Russia. Shubin, a writer, connects the novel’s disparate centuries and characters: he knows Zhokhov, a scheming Russian businessman, and in 2004 meets Baatar, a scheming Mongolian businessman. Shubin also researches and writes about two historical pretenders to the Russian throne, offering articles to sketchy journals whose editors are literary pretenders. Inanimate objects – a starting pistol, cheap clothing, and plastic souvenirs – try to pass themselves off as authentic, too.

Zhokhov, whose name means “rogue,” gets more ink than his pretender counterparts in other eras and locales. We observe Zhokhov in the middle of various bungled deals, and Yuzefovich provides particularly painful details of his attempt to make a bundle of money selling europium – it’s clear Zhokhov will find a way to fail. In the midst of these business ventures, Zhokhov meets a woman, a waitress at a rest home, and passes himself off as the illegitimate son of the owner of a neighboring dacha. In the background, ‘90s Moscow is ’90s Moscow: we find Herbalife, street vendors, payphones in the pre-mobile age, suffering scientific institutes, and lines like this: “Что такое бог? Единое информационное поле планеты.” (“What is God? The planet’s unified information platform.”)

As Zhokhov attempts his deals, Russia is hurtling toward the infamous October Events, which involved political pretending and very real tanks firing at the Russian White House. Zhokhov, of course, gets mixed up in that, too, and his situation is all the worse because he is carrying a painted portrait of Bill Clinton. If this sounds too ridiculous for fiction, please trust me, it fits the era. And it feels believable because Yuzefovich incorporates pointed humor that avoids crankiness, and creates characters who feel real because they are quirky and odd without being cute and contrived.

The combination of reality and invention carries over to the book’s structure, too. Shubin writes nonfiction (mostly) about historical figures, making him a literary device who produces documentary material. I particularly enjoyed his accounts of Timoshka Ankudinov, a 17th-century would-be royal who travels Europe using the name Prince Shuisky. It is Ankudinov who first brings up the cranes and dwarfs theme, describing how both sides perpetuate violence and ill will. The crane-dwarf struggle pops up frequently in world mythologies, according to this paper (in PDF), and Yuzefovich includes five lines from Homer’s Iliad that refer to it, too.

Endless conflicts spill into the novel’s other plots and subplots, whether businessmen or governments fill in for birds and little people who struggle over turf. Yuzefovich portrays cycles of violence and opportunism, though Baatar offers Mongolians up as peaceful people, at least post-Genghis Khan.

Cranes and Dwarfs survived a less-than-ideal reading: I had to put the book down for more than a week when my head, inflamed with cold or flu, couldn’t handle books. But Yuzefovich’s situations and characters remained so vivid that I lost little momentum. My biggest complaint about the book is pretty petty: a few of the Mongolian descriptions toward the end felt a bit too anthropological (or pedagogical?) for my taste. By contrast, the landscape of 1993 Moscow felt completely organic, perhaps because the details and inhabitants are so familiar that they create instant atmosphere without glosses. There were even a couple mentions of Yegor Gaidar who, by coincidence, died as I was reading the book, resurrecting even more memories of post-Soviet Russia.

Bonus! The Life Stories collection from Russian Information Services includes Yuzefovich’s story Гроза (“The Storm”). The story combines a fifth-grade class, a kindly teacher, and a guest speaker’s lecture about traffic safety with an approaching thunderstorm. “The Storm,” like Cranes and Dwarfs, combines humor with life-and-death seriousness. I’ve read about half the stories in Life Stories, and it’s one of my favorites so far. Marian Schwartz translated “The Storm” as well as this excerpt from the first chapter Cranes and Dwarfs. Cranes and Dwarfs is online in Russian: beginning middle end

Image: (per Wikipedia) 16th century drawing by Olaus Magnus, of cranes and dwarfs fighting in Northern Sweden.


  1. Sounds delightful -- thanks for including the Дружба Народов link!

  2. You're welcome, Languagehat. This is a good book, particularly if you're interested in Moscow in 1993. Yuzefovich really captures its weirdness.