Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Going Round and Round: Bykov’s ЖД

Great idea. Messy execution. That pretty much sums up my thoughts on Dmitrii Bykov’s novel ЖД (ZhD) (chapters here), which Alma Books recently released in an English version as Living Souls (PDF excerpt here).

The great idea: ZhD presents an alternative view of Russian history and politics, in which northerners (Varangians) and southerners (Khazars) live in ongoing conflict. History moves in endless cycles, as do people who literally walk and ride around in circles. The book takes place in a post-petroleum near future, and many of Bykov’s characters are in the military and/or romantic couples. I’m giving only the barest summary here because the Glas site provides so much information (warning: including many spoilers) here.

ZhD gave me an odd case of déjà vu. Like Bykov’s Списанные (The List), which I read last summer (post here), ZhD left me thinking Bykov couldn’t decide if he wanted to write essays or a novel. Both books contain many, many pages of heavy-deep-and-real conversations that could conceivably occur in life but, for my taste, felt too repetitive or contrived for fiction. I’m glad Bykov broaches difficult topics but his methods and his humor, which can get a little shticky (in these senses, not these), just don’t seem to grab me.

I frequently lost interest during the political discussions and background: even when they started out topical and intriguing, there was often too much of a good thing. Worse, they detracted from the book’s stronger layers. I most enjoyed sections when Bykov let his characters out into the world, where they could experience rather than just talk. Some scenes were fantastical, like a ghost telegraphist mentioning eternal war. I also thought an officer’s lousy Moscow home leave showed bureaucracy and spiritual poverty quite nicely. I particularly liked Bykov’s characters called Vas’ki, people who wander Russia and lack memory but have their own peculiar wisdom. They reminded me of holy fools.

Bykov includes all sorts of literal and metaphorical circles in ZhD. The title characters of ZhD want to reject what Bykov calls the замкнутый круг (vicious circle) of history, preferring to get off the track and create something new – children, a future – rather than wander the world and, ultimately, history, in circles, like the living dead.

From a historical perspective, the circles in ZhD are part of a literary progression. First: Dante’s Divine Comedy, a poem, featured circles of Hell. Second: Nikolai Gogol called his Dead Souls a poem and wanted to create a Russian Divine Comedy. Third: Bykov evokes Gogol by calling ZhD a poem and saying the title letters could stand for живые души, “living souls.” And Bykov includes lots of hellish-sounding circles.

Though ZhD felt overloaded at 685 pages, I’m sure readers who enjoy novels of ideas with characters chewing the political and historical fat will love it. Even some readers who don’t like all the chat may come away feeling more positive than I did: a Russian friend who told me she liked ZhD admitted, upon pointed questioning, that she’d skimmed.

Readers of the English translation, Living Souls, may feel less urge to skim. The English version of the book is roughly 50 pages shorter than the Russian original that my friend and I read. The Living Souls translator, Cathy Porter, told me in e-mail correspondence that, in collaboration with Bykov, she didn’t chop but chose to prune things like repetition and untranslatable Russian word play, to keep the narrative moving without losing the book’s humor and poetry. Porter said Bykov, who encouraged a free translation, thoroughly appreciates her tightening of the text.

Reading level for non-native readers: 3/5, average difficulty. I found it most difficult to plow through the repetition.

Bykov's Living Souls on Amazon


  1. I haven't read Bykov's novel (and based on Lizok's comments I may choose not to), but the title strikes me as interesting. Surely ЖД is also meant to evoke Russian railways (железная дорога)?

  2. Jamie, I'm glad you asked this question. Yes, железная дорога is one of the possibilities Bykov mentions in his brief introduction to the book, and my edition even has a round railroad track on the cover. Bykov writes that "Живаго-доктор" is another жд option, as is "жирный Дима." There is also the uncomfortable word жид; the sample translation shows the translator rendered жд, referring to a person, as Yd.

    ЖД simply isn't my book, though I've read many very positive Russian reader comments. I've only seen two English-language reviews: the review in The Times was generally positive but The Literateur's thoughts on it correspond very closely with mine, as do Lev Danilkin's, here.

  3. Bykov discusses the title here:

    Нет обязательной для всех расшифровки названия – “ЖД”: железная дорога, жесткий диск, жаркие денечки, жирный Дима, жуй давай, жуткая дрянь, жалко денег, живой дневник, Живаго-доктор. Я придерживаюсь варианта “Живые души”.

  4. Languagehat, I'm glad I'm not the only person who still says "jinx"!

    I'm even gladder you added the link to the introduction: I'd meant to do that but am a little preoccupied this morning because of the plume of volcanic ash that has closed Heathrow. I'm supposed to fly out tonight and am wondering if my layover in Philadelphia could get long!

  5. Slawkenbergius's Tales has another view of ЖД here.