Sunday, September 19, 2010

Riding The Devil’s Wheel

Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel) is a thickly populated and expertly constructed novel about perestroika-era heroin addicts and corrupt cops in Tbilisi, Georgia. Though the action takes place over a relatively short period, beginning on exactly August 25, 1987, Gigolashvili fills his book with so many storylines and vivid details that it becomes a voyeuristic epic about addiction to and withdrawal from drugs and a way of life. The Devil’s Wheel is one of my favorite types of books: an exceptionally readable novel that combines suspense, social commentary, lifelike characters, and Russian literary tradition.

Sure, The Devil’s Wheel sounds like yet another piece of чернуха (essentially: crushingly depressing naturalism) but Gigolashvili blends in comic relief and absurdity that, paradoxically, make the book feel more realistic. And some of his characters are down-and-out practitioners of the philosophy that hope dies last. Though I – and probably even they – didn’t quite believe they could become honest businessmen, quit crime, or kick heroin, I closed the book with a peculiar combination of lack of faith in their resolve, relief nobody else (even the ones that were up to no good) had died, and a hope that perhaps someone’s decision would stick. (Yes, I’ve been called “Pollyanna” more than once.)

I think my feelings about the book are complex because Gigolashvili creates such complex, human characters: he develops believable people by gradually revealing, in concrete terms, their actions, hopes, ambiguities, individual demons, and intertwined fates. With dozens of characters flitting in and out, The Devil’s Wheel often reminded me of War and Peace. The character who is physically the largest, for example, spoke little over several appearances in the first half of the book, disappeared for hundreds of pages, then reappeared just as I began to wonder where he was.

Some characters, like recidivists Satan(a) and his friend, Nugzar, a “thief in law,” commit reprehensible acts. They’re violent users but they eventually try to change their lives… albeit mostly through change of scenery to a freer place (Amsterdam, no less!) and, of course, more crime. Other characters seem more mundane – an artist, a bureaucrat, a journalist – but nearly everyone has distinguishing histories and tics for identification. Though the majority of Gigolashvili’s primary characters are male, his female characters are memorable, too: a grandmother whose grandson tricks her into buying drugs, the girlfriend of an addict, a schoolgirl, and an Asian prostitute in Amsterdam.

Addiction and withdrawal connect nearly everyone, with drugs – primarily variations on opium, but there is also pot and hashish – serving as a metaphor for the attachment to and loss of certain pre-Gorbachev Soviet comforts, many of dubious value. Addicts bemoan the loss of cheap drugs. Bribers complain it’s no longer clear whom or how to pay. The cops gripe, too, with the major quoting Stalin and high prices to free criminals. Much of the darkness is based in existential questions – for one thing, opium is a religion for those who plan squalid days around cooking and shooting up drugs – and Gigolashvili visits Dostoevskian questions about God and what happens when everything’s permitted.

After spending nearly 800 pages witnessing nonstop action, emotional and physical pain, arrests, and drug use, I felt relief at the end when Gigolashvili neatly, but not too neatly, drew his book back to its starting point, just as a Ferris wheel – the “devil’s wheel” of the title – picks up and discharges passengers on the same spot of ground. The Devil’s Wheel begins and ends with heavy nights and almost identical paragraphs… that after Gigolashvili has dragged his characters and readers through many circles of existence resembling Hell, even an actual conflagration. Still, after all those events that change every life in the book, I was left with the old and odd feeling that the more things change, the more they stay the same. A feeling that is at once a little comforting, very unsettling, and thoroughly fitting.

Summary: Very highly recommended, one of the highlights of this year’s reading. I didn’t want the book to end. I appreciated Gigolashvili’s clean writing style and ability to connect subplots, characters, deeper meaning, and extremely uncomfortable material… particularly after the good-natured but disappointing muddle of Kliuev’s Something Else for You (previous post) and Pavlov’s very heavy Asystole (previous post).

Language level for non-native readers of Russian: I didn’t think The Devil’s Wheel was especially difficult because I’ve read other books with drugs, swearing, and criminal vocabulary. Without that knowledge, though, many passages might be quite difficult, 3.5 or 4/5.

Up next: Margarita Khemlin’s Клоцвог (Klotsvog), a novel about a beautiful and manipulative woman who seems to be a serial marrier. I’m about half-way through and see that Khemlin is again – as she did with the long stories I read last year (previous post) – transforming distinctively simple language and material into something bigger.

Opium poppy illustration, received via Wikipedia, is originally from: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany.


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