Sunday, August 29, 2010

No Heart Function: Pavlov’s Asystole

Oleg Pavlov’s Асистолия (sorry, Blogger wont let me simply italicize Cyrillic today...) (Asystole, colloquially “flatline”) is a tough book: 370 pages of third-person narrative streams about a nameless boy-then-man in a state of torpor. I think Asystole succeeds, perhaps even brilliantly, on its own terms, but it was very, very difficult to read…

Structure. Asystole’s narrative is a kind I don’t like much: sometimes jumpy and nervous with unexpected transitions between times, places, and characters, sometimes resting for many pages on seemingly unimportant episodes. Words flowed and flowed, and the reading sometimes felt robotic. I often wondered what I was missing but when I tracked back I found the answer was Not much. I shouldn’t have doubted. The book obviously affected me: the more I read, the more nameless guy’s miserable life sucked me in even as it repelled me.

The Characters. Some Russian reviews note that Pavlov’s nameless antihero is a modern-day superfluous man; I might kick in a bit of Dostoevsky’s spiteful, diseased underground man, too. Pavlov’s antihero is apparently a talented artist but, in therapy-influenced English, he doesn’t connect with other people. Or his own life, which inspires dread and fear. He says “не получается жить,” roughly that he has trouble living. He muddles along, and nobody else in the book is very appealing, either. His father died when he was small, and nameless guy and his mother don’t get along very well. He and his girlfriend-then-wife meet when he is quite drunk; she escorts him home. She has her own drinking problems and screams things like “Ненавижу!” (“I hate [you]!”) more than once. His uncle, a professor, is full of himself. But at least the other characters rate names.

The Diagnosis. Several characters, from nameless guy to the cat, have various heart problems; “asystole” is a physical and metaphorical diagnosis. Our antihero feels unneeded and empty, enjoyment is short-lived, and friends are few. I think the diagnosis extends to much of society, too, particularly opportunists at a funeral home and hospital, unfeeling bureaucrats at the civil registry office, and so on. An art teacher is one of the few relatively bright spots; nameless guy even invites him over for dinner once. The teacher tells him his mother is lonely. *sigh*

Unenjoyable Reading. It would be too strong to say I hated reading Asystole, but I didn’t enjoy it a bit. I did, however, admire – very much – Pavlov’s ability to drag me into the morass of nameless guy’s life, where all the main characters are so absolutely miserable. I found it far sadder than most of the other чернуха (chernukha, dreary naturalism) I’ve read because Pavlov forced me so deeply into his characters’ problems. Pavlov brings out the multifaceted inertness of their relationships with differing techniques: sometimes there’s no dialogue, sometimes there’s strange dialogue or monologue, and sometimes it seems that characters in the same place don’t interact.

At Least I’m Not Alone. I haven’t read a lot of Russian criticism of Asystole but the first few reviews I looked at showed that my reactions to and difficulties with Asystole were pretty typical. Blogger Заметил просто says he wished he could have punched a(ny) character. Lev Danilkin wrote only a mini review and hedges, not sure whether to call Asystole hallucination, dream, or sad fantasy. Liza Novikova sees lots of meaningless conversation and says nameless guy’s real difference from the rest of us is that he has trouble communicating with other people. I agree with all of them.

In the End… Asystole was a hard emotional hit, even though I’m not quite sure what I read: the book is amorphous yet fairly linear, dull yet mesmerizing. It was a book to feel rather than reason with, though its effect is also impersonal: nameless guy is so specific in his misery and lack of hope that it’s easy to think his diagnosis doesn’t apply to me or you. Even though it could or does… Which is the reason the one thing I know for sure about Asystole is that it is, for lack of other terms, depressing, a real downer. Still, I fully agree with Liza Novikova that you can feel the “биение его [романа] пульса,” the novel’s pulse beating.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 3.5 or 4.0/5.0. Vocabulary isn’t especially difficult but the narrative flow, transitions, and lack of breaks – Asystole is composed of seven lengthy “pictures” plus a very, very brief epilogue – make the book dense and difficult to follow.

For more:

  • The book’s ISBN: 978-5-9691-0553-9
  • Read Асистолия online in the journal Знамя here: начало окончание
  • Read Асистолия online in simulated book form, on Комсомольская правда here

Up next: Чертово колесо (The Devil's Wheel) from Mikhail Gigolashvili, about opiate addiction in Georgia. I’m just getting started but Gigolashvili’s straight-ahead narrative and brutal realism make this a big change from my last two books. We’re off to the beach…

Asystole image from Glenlarson, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Plenty Up His Sleeve: Kliuev’s Something Else for You

I thought a lot about my old Moscow apartment building when I read Evgenii Kliuev’s Андерманир штук (Something Else for You). Though I lived just inside the Garden Ring Road, I often talked about my building and street using words like forgotten, deserted, and unnoticed. My street, 6-ой Монетчиковский пер., intersects the Ring Road but few people seemed to know it existed. And, as the 6 in the name suggests, several other small streets share a name, but not a number, with mine. Kliuev writes a lot in his long, chatty novel about forgotten, hidden places – including clusters of streets like mine – depicting them as secret and unmapped until the fall of the Soviet Union.

Mentioning my former building is probably a stalling technique: I don’t know how to describe, let alone assess, Something Else for You. I hope this post won’t end up as unwieldy as the book but this much is easy: Something Else is about circuses, magic, supernatural powers, and strange institutes, and their borders with the official, obvious world. Kliuev’s characters include a circus performer; his daughter, whom he regularly saws in half; and her son, Lev (“Lion”), who is born covered with black fur, sleeps with his eyes open, and converses with his dead grandfather. Other figures include Vladlen, a Party member and retired Metro booth attendant who finds religion; Ratner, a Kashpirovskii-esque psychic; Lev’s mother’s lovers; and Lev’s girlfriend Liza, who creates perceptive paintings. Some characters disappear.

I wouldn’t disagree if you were to tell me this sounds a bit precious. It can be, and I quickly wearied of one of Kliuev’s verbal tics: exploding words into syllables to e-nun-ci-ate. A little goes a long way. So do Kliuev’s instructions on sleight of hand and illusion. Something Else for You often felt wordy, repetitive, uneven, and unedited [edit: or maybe underedited?], and I yearned for some of the subplots to intersect earlier or more often. Some of the events toward the end of the book felt rushed.

Despite all the muddle, much of the book was very engaging. I wouldn’t recommend Something Else to impatient readers or people who prefer fact to fantasy, but many of its chapters felt paradoxically familiar and real. I guess you could say I was open to some of Kliuev’s messages and welcomed his strange interstices, whether they were between life and death or just two streets. Of course I lived some of this – in the transitional “sociophrenic” Russian era and odd geography he describes – but anyone who’s ever discovered an urban shortcut, restaurant, neighborhood, or atmosphere, only to never find it again will know what his characters feel as they fall and crawl in and out of strange geographic and psychic places.

Lev’s grandfather uses the book’s title words, андерманир штук (andermanir shtuk) many times to mean “something else for you” in a way that reminds me of “And now for my next trick!” Sometimes I thought Kliuev had too many rabbits in his hat or couldn’t quite pull off his illusions, meaning Something Else for You, like Vladimir Orlov’s Danilov, the Violist (previous post), never turned into my perfect novel. I’ve read enough not-quite-satisfying books about circuses, magic, and illusion to wonder if, heaven forbid!, I’m the problem or if writers think all the words in their works about magic will be transformed into successful novels by some sort of alchemy.

Danilov and Something Else both draw energy from Moscow settings, and both combine magic, reality, and humor, leading me to wonder if Kliuev’s Lev’s last name, Orlov, is an homage to Vladimir Orlov. Both books are also very goodhearted. A reader on rightly mentions that Something Else is positive and a breath of fresh air compared to чернуха/chernukha, that intense naturalism I seem to read so often and like so much.

Something Else wanders geographically and psychically, covering lots more topics than I’ve mentioned, but a simple message about everyday human powers of observation is one of its most consistent. Illusions and magic are about deceiving a willing spectator, and the modern world loves to divert our attention. Toward the end of Something Else, Lev’s grandfather tells him that all Russia is on tranquilizers, be they sleeping pills, Swan Lake, television, or newspapers. “Ты спишь, Лев, с открытыми глазами спишь,” he tells him, “You’re asleep, Lev, you’re asleep with open eyes.”

You can read Андерманир штук, and its fellow Big Book finalists, online here.

Up next: My reading of Big Book finalists continues with Oleg Pavlov’s Асистолия (Asystole [Flatline]). I’m even more excited to have finally found and ordered Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel).

P.S. My new blog, Lisa’s Other Bookshelf, has been online since July. Today’s post about three debut novels includes thoughts on Broken Glass Park, by Russian-born German writer Alina Bronsky.

P.P. S. The cover review for today’s New York Times Book Review is Olen Steinhauer’s fairly positive take on Martin Cruz Smith’s Three Stations.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nikolai Maslov’s Siberia

I’m glad that a word on the end of the graphic novel shelf at the Seattle Public Library caught my eye one Saturday in early May. The word? Siberia, the title of an autobiography with pencil drawings by Nikolai Maslov; Blake Ferris translated the text.

The story behind the publication of Siberia, which was originally called Советская молодость (A Soviet Youth) is almost as good as the story within Siberia itself. To keep things brief, I’ll quote the back of my book: “In 2000, Nikolai Maslov, then a night watchman, opens the door of Emmanuel Durand, a French book salesman in Moscow and an editor of Asterix in Russia, and shows the Frenchman three panels from a graphic novel, asking him to finance the rest.” Durand did.

Many aspects of the story in Maslov’s book didn’t feel very unusual to me – the military draft, hazing, politicized art school, bits of Soviet history, a mention of Deep Purple, stores with shortages, and lots of the other late Soviet-era details were familiar. But those usual details that Maslov covers, both in writing and visually, make the book feel important because it describes and shows everyday life. What makes the book unusual is the emotion and the art that Maslov brings to the drinking, fights, grotesque faces, and turns in his life. I think the book succeeds in presenting a very nuanced and precise version of an often brutal world because his pencil drawings create that world out of, literally, shades of gray.

The drawings give Siberia, both the book and the place, a stark beauty and dignity. I’m new to graphic novels – Siberia is my first – and I’m no art critic but the pencil drawings reminded me of black-and-white photographs in a magazine or newspaper. Some realistic panels have a documentary feel, and they contrast sharply with distorted faces and fuzzier images in other panels. All the panels, though, share a gray etherealness.

I focus so much on words that the small bits of text in Siberia felt particularly weighty. One panel, which shows the narrator, alone, stood out: “I left Siberia with a heavy heart. I sat on a bench, barely holding myself upright as the ridiculously simple truth weighed upon me: When you’re part of a herd, it doesn’t matter who is first and who is last.” The next panel shows a wooden house, a run-down fence, and a tilting utility pole. It reads “My farewell present from the place where I was born was a deep anguish, a feeling of absolute despair.”

Siberia’s ending carries hope, but despair runs deep in the book. There is also tremendous depth in the visual details: a pack of Belomorkanal cigarettes here, graffiti there, and, always, endless pencil shading. And there is a sense of the huge dimensions of Siberia and Mongolia. I enjoyed reading Siberia the first time but have gotten even more pleasure from paging through the book again and again to, yes, look at the pictures. Everything, from the patterns on the wallpaper to the cement truck, looks real to me, even when the drawings are close to caricature.

For more: Cover images for Siberia and its sequel, which is available in French, plus a fuzzy sample are available on this Russian page. (I don't believe a Russian version of Siberia is available.) Boston Bibliophile reviewed Siberia in March 2009 here.

A very big thank you to Soft Skull Press and Counterpoint Press for sending me a copy of Siberia, at my request, after I visited Soft Skull’s booth at Book Expo America.

Siberia on Amazon

(The very small print: As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers click on my Amazon links and make purchases. Thank you!)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Storytelling to the Nth Degree: Two of Iuzefovich’s Putilin Novels

Oy, the old unreliable narrator trick combined with the old fiction-based-on-a-real character trick! Leonid Iuzefovich’s (Yuzefovich’s) Костюм Арлекина (Harlequin’s Costume) and Дом свиданий (The Whorehouse), the first two books in a historical detective novel trilogy, have cramped my brain with layers and layers of reality and invention…

Where to start? Iuzefovich frames his novels about Putilin with a fictitious writer, Safronov, who visits post-retirement Putilin to take down stories about Putilin’s life and career. The detective stories in the books are ostensibly written by Safronov. Not so complicated.

But. The covers and descriptions of my Iuzefovich books don’t mention that their main character, Ivan Dmitrievich Putilin, was a real person who worked as chief inspector of the Saint Petersburg police during the 19th century. Somehow I missed that tidbit when I looked at translator Marian Schwartz’s Web site: Marian has translated Harlequin’s Costume and uses the words “real life” to describe Putilin. (I bought my books after Marian mentioned the trilogy when I interviewed her in this post.)

And the plot thickens: Roman Antropov, a contemporary of Putilin who used the pseudonym Roman Dobryi (“dobryi” means nice or kind) wrote stories about Putilin’s adventures. I haven’t read Antropov’s work about the “genius” inspector, but it’s online here. Of course I wonder how Iuzefovich might have played on them. But there’s still more: According to the Russian Wikipedia page about Harlequin’s Costume, Iuzefovich used Putilin’s memoir for material; the publisher’s name was Safonov, only one letter off from the writer in Iuzefovich’s books.

To summarize: it looks like we have one real person (Putilin) appropriated for two writers’ (Iuzefovich’s, Antropov’s) fiction, one (Putilin) memoir, and at least one fictional writer (Safronov) hired by a fictional representation of Putilin. Somehow, I’m sure there’s more to learn, but I’m stopping here for now.

Which brings me to where I’d intended to start, before I realized that Putilin existed: Iuzefovich’s Putilin may be a police inspector who solves crimes, but he takes a very flexible approach to the telling the truth about his own life and stories. He’s a horribly unreliable editor of the facts of his own life; he likes a good story. At the end of the second book, for example, when Safronov and Putilin work through details of the story, Putilin suggests Safronov keep the murder victim alive and cure his limp. For his part, Safronov notices that Putilin sometimes resurrects figures he finds appealing; Safronov initially misses some details from Putilin’s stories.

As for basic plot summaries… Harlequin’s Costume blends two lines: the murder of an Austrian diplomat and the search for Vanka Pupyr, a hardened criminal who hides out with a laundress. Though the diplomat-oriented part of the novel didn’t grab me at all – I’ve never been partial to geopolitical murder mysteries – I enjoyed Pupyr’s story and many of the secondary and tertiary characters. Both books have atmospheric settings, including taverns and the port.

The Whorehouse is a very different book: Putilin’s neighbor has been killed in the title institution, and Putilin searches for his killer. Iuzefovich tosses in references to mythology and literature when Putilin attempts to decipher the meaning of a mysterious coin-like medallion that keeps turning up: the truth behind the symbols turns out to be quite earthy, resulting in a mix of high and low. Both books have a feel of slapstick and farce, but those elements were particularly strong in some of the late-night interaction between neighbors in The Whorehouse.

For me, the real appeal of the books was the Iuzefovich-Safronov version of Putilin himself. I’m not sure if I’d go so far to call Putilin schlumpy but he isn’t a dashing or glamorous figure, and he’s not hard-boiled, either. His wife pesters him about not exacerbating his stomach problems, at one point he carries a jar of mushrooms in his pocket that he claims are a revolver, and his wife locks him out because he comes home too late after sleuthing. He even slips on noodles that he drops after snacking in an apartment he’s entered (without permission), to look around. He’s sometimes on the outs with his superiors but he has strong intuition.

The Putilin-Safronov team’s filtering of the truth for the reader was the most intriguing aspect of the books for me, so it was fun to make my late discovery that Putilin existed. Putilin, in the Iuzefovich rendition, has grown on me, and I hope to read the last book of the trilogy, Князь ветра (Prince of the Wind), which won the 2001 National Bestseller award. I’d also like to take a look at Antropov’s characterization of Putilin. And maybe even Putilin’s characterization of Putilin. Or perhaps I should look into police history, which might be even more memorable: Safronov and Putilin discuss “true” details that seem implausible, yet another affirmation, albeit from a novel, that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Translation watch: Iuzefovich’s literary agent’s Web site shows translations of all three Putilin books into various languages. Translator Marian Schwartz has finished an English-language manuscript of the first book in the trilogy.

Next up: Nikolai Maslov’s graphic novel/autobiography Siberia, which contains wonderful pencil drawings; then Evgenii Kliuev’s Андерманир штук (Something Else for You), a Big Book shortlister that I’m loving after setting aside Bakhyt Kenzheev’s Обрезание пасынков (Pruning the Shoots)…

The photo of Ivan Putilin came from Wikipedia; Wikipedia references a page on, which contains, yes, an article about Putilin.