Friday, April 23, 2010

The End of the World as We Know It?

Like apocalyptic fiction? Oh, do I have books for you… if, that is, novels about Mayan prophesies or post-nuclear-war America are your thing. I’m now realizing I’m much more into dystopias than apocalypse, but I read Sergei Lukyanenko’s Атомный сон (Atomic Dream) and Dmitrii Glukhovskii’s (Dmitry Glukhovsky) Сумерки (edit: literally Dusk or Twilight (oops!), though I’ve seen it called It’s Getting Darker) in preparation for the fantasy/science fiction theme planned for the Books from Russia events at the London Book Fair. Both authors were on the schedule, though Glukhovskii’s name disappeared before Icelandic volcanic ash closed European airspace.

Given the content of It’s Getting Darker – there are devastating natural disasters in various countries – I joked with a friend that Glukhovskii must have known something the rest of us didn’t. The first-person narrator of It’s Getting Darker, a Spanish-Russian translator, describes, sometimes in painfully microscopic detail, his experiences translating a Conquistador’s diary. Earthquakes, a jaguar attack in Moscow, and some other bloody deaths ensue.

I didn’t especially enjoy the first half of It’s Getting Darker: I often wanted out of the narrator’s self-involved head. I thought he was a pretentious nudnik; he makes too much, for example, out of things like my beloved salad Olivier. My utter indifference to Mayan prophesies didn’t warm my feelings for It’s Getting Darker, nor did all-of-a-sudden developments like knocks at the door or an important scrap of paper falling from a pocket. At times It’s Getting Darker felt like parody. Still, I plowed through the first half while walking on the treadmill and, curiously, found myself almost looking forward to reading more when the book’s pace picked up and the narrator got out of the house more.

I don’t agree with the marketing genius who decided to call It’s Getting Darker the first Russian intellectual bestseller. I have no argument with “bestseller,” though “first” feels problematic: I have to think at least one of Boris Akunin’s Fandorin books -- which are, IMHO, far brainier -- hit the bestseller list before It’s Getting Darker. “Intellectual” is an even bigger stretch: I thought It’s Getting Darker was simplistic and formulaic, with a conclusion based in truisms about life and immortality. Maybe a book is considered intellectual these days if its narrator is from the intelligentsia? It’s interesting that the blurbs on the back of my book make comparisons to a diverse bunch: Dan Brown, Nikolai Gogol, and Stephen King. I haven’t read a thing by Dan Brown but Glukhovskii’s references to Gogol in It’s Getting Darker sure don’t make him a new Gogol, and I think Stephen King’s early works (which are all I’ve read) are far more capable of making the logically impossible feel plausible. And interesting.

Lukyanenko’s Atomic Dream, a long story, is also an introspective first-person narrative – broadly speaking, it’s about survival, sacrifice, and being human – but it moves much faster. The narrator, known as Drago, describes his meanderings with a man named Mike and a dog named Prince, years after an atomic bomb attack. I knew there was trouble when a two-meter spider appeared on the first page. There’s also occasional telepathy and cannibalism.

Though Atomic Dream didn’t interest me very much – I just couldn’t identify with it – I give Lukyanenko a lot of credit for writing the story in his early twenties and receiving the 1993 “Start” award, for best debut science fiction book, for his Atomic Dream collection. He’s won numerous other awards and books in his Ночной дозор (Night Watch) series have been translated into English and adapted for film. I read about half of Night Watch a few years ago and thought it was okay; I may yet pick it back up. The "Watch" books have been popular both in Russian and in English translation.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: The language in both It’s Getting Darker and Atomic Dream isn’t especially difficult, about 2.5/5 for each.

Translation Watch: Glukhovskii’s Metro 2033 was released in English translation in March 2010 by British publisher Gollancz.

Photo of stone jaguar: Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography, (bjearwicke, via

Metro 2033 on

Lukyanenko on


  1. I thought the right translation of "Сумерки" is twilight

  2. kolokolcev, you're absolutely right... I was going to call it Dusk to avoid using the same title as Twilight, the vampire book, but then noticed that Сумерки was called It's Getting Darker on the Glukhovsky Wikipedia page, among other places. Trying to provide "correct" translations of the titles of untranslated books really isn't much fun!

  3. Yeah, you can't really translate titles based on dictionary definitions. I mean, if you know nothing about the book and there's no official translation, that's what you have to do, but in general, titles are translated pretty loosely and sometimes more or less arbitrarily (which is to say, not translated at all in the technical sense): the movie Stagecoach known in French as La Chevauchée fantastique and in German as Ringo.

  4. Languagehat, that's interesting about the three very different titles for Stagecoach. That reminds me of a recent Russian film title, Как я провел этим летом, which was translated as How I Ended This Summer. The translation (which I believe the director chose himself) doesn't quite capture the mistake of the original but I do think it sounds a bit "off."

    I like what you say about titles not always being translated at all -- that seems particularly true when the original title is idiomatic in some way.