Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year! & Reading Highlights from 2010

Happy new year! С Новым годом! I hope 2011 brings you lots of fun and intriguing Russian fiction, whether you read in English or Russian. Before the year ends, I thought I’d mention some 2010 favorites and a few reading intentions – not to be mistaken for goals or resolutions – for 2011:

Most enjoyably readable long novel: Based on reviews and awards nominations, I expected to like Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel), but I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the book or the skill with which Gigolashvili brings dozens of characters to life while describing withdrawal from drugs and the Soviet way of life. (previous post) Bonus: Ad Marginem, which published The Devil’s Wheel, sent a link to a story by Gigolashvili as a holiday gift. (No, I haven’t read it yet…)

Favorite first-person narrative: With Клоцвог (Klotsvog), Margarita Khemlin does a wonderful job putting the reader inside the head of a character with all sorts of unpleasant life experiences. Khemlin has a tremendous ability to use simple language to create complex situations and characters. I’ve translated one of her short stories and hope to find it a good home in 2011. (previous post)

Favorite чернуха (dark/naturalistic realism): Roman Senchin’s Елтышевы (The Yeltyshevs), a horribly sad and realistic depiction of a failed family, is so beautifully and simply told that I asked about translating it... I’m working on it… (previous post)

Best nonfiction: I’m still recovering from Drawings from the Gulag, written and drawn by Danzig Baldaev. With its graphic visual and written descriptions of Gulag abuses, the book is very difficult to read but I think Baldaev’s perspective is important. Yes, I admit I only read one book of nonfiction this year but this one carries so much emotion and information that I know it would have been notable even if I’d read dozens. (previous post)

Favorite translated book: I did something unusual this year: I read a book, Moscow Noir, in Russian-English translation because I couldn’t wait for the collection of originals to appear in Russian. The translations read well, and the book was dark, dark, dark, as promised. Okay, I confess this is another category with no real competition since Drawings from the Gulag is bilingual. But the book was good, and the editors, Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen, did a great job compiling it. (previous post)

What might be coming in 2011: Hmm, the Sh writers seem to lead: I’ve been delaying my Shklovsky mini-marathon for far too long, and I’ve been staring at several of Mikhail Shishkin’s books for months. I also have Viacheslav Shishkov’s Угрюм-река, which I’ll call Gloom River in English, if only because it sounds like “Moon River”… Finally, I’m particularly looking forward to reading Iurii Buida after finally being able to buy one of his books, after several years of on-and-off attempts.

A big thanks to everyone for all your visits, comments, and e-mail messages in 2010! It’s been a fun year of reading, blogging, and hearing from so many of you. I look forward to more reading and book talk in 2011 -- happy new year!

Disclosures: I received Drawings from the Gulag and Moscow Noir from their publishers, Fuel and Akashic, respectively.

New year stamp image from Mariluna, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sakhnovskii on the Hazards of Knowing It All

If you’ve ever wondered about the ups and downs of knowing everything, you might enjoy Igor Sakhnovskii’s Человек, который знал всё (The Man Who Knew Everything). Sakhnovskii did a nice job convincing me that a character can take hold of an electrical wire, nearly die from electrocution, and then gain the ability to know everything. The Man Who Knew Everything was a finalist for the Booker and Big Book awards, and won the 2008 Bronze Snail award for full-length fiction.

The Man Who Knew Everything blends so many genres – fantasy, action, spy, rich-to-poor, existentialism, morality tale, and so on and so forth – that it sometimes seems as if Sakhnovskii thinks he knows everything, too. The story takes the title Man, Alexander Bezukladnikov, from poor scholar whose wife leaves him for another man, partly because he’s something of a milquetoast, to a wealthy, confident seer. He has some run-ins with criminals and spy agencies, as well as some interesting comments about visions of his own death.

Sakhnovskii tells the story through a friend of Bezukladnikov’s, who describes his meetings with Bezukladnikov – including a trip to Gaugin territory in the South Pacific – and includes documents like e-mail from Bezukladnikov and the transcript of a talk show interview with The Man. All this works, I guess, and the language is clear and direct, but it feels a touch too spare, as if the 250-page book is 25-50 pages too short.

Sakhnovskii’s dropping of certain plot lines, such as Bezukladnikov’s initial focus on trying to win back his ex-wife, who takes up with a bad guy, didn’t bother me nearly as much as coming away without a deeper feel for what it would mean to know everything. As a reader called Lartis points out on a Fantlab comment, Sakhnovskii’s use of documents means we don’t get much of a feel for Bezukladnikov’s inner workings. I think that’s why the book felt a little soulless to me.

That’s not to say Sakhnovskii doesn’t cover some good and varied territory between Moscow and Papeete: he incorporates a bit of carnival with Bezukladnikov’s gambling success, gives his character the ability to read books telepathically (wow!), and works in a reference to Ecclesiastes with “He who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” The book, predictably, I think, ends with a simple truth that I won’t reveal, lest you want to read the book, too. Alas, unless you’re Bezukladnikov and have the power to know everything, you’ll need to know either Russian or French (for the Gallimard translation from Véronique Patte) to read the book.

The Man Who Knew Everything didn’t meet my high expectations – those finalists for multiple major awards can be awfully tricky! – but it was a decent piece of intelligent entertainment with lots of fun bits. I particularly enjoyed the TV interview, which combined the host’s huckster-like persona with Bezukladnikov’s descriptions of his situation and a sharp, truthful answer to a guest in the studio audience. And when Bezukladnikov says people generally only know see about six percent of what goes on around us because we’re not capable of seeing the rest, I have to wonder if he might be telling the truth.

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: 2.5 or 3.0, not particularly difficult, plus the book has relatively short chapters, making for a good feeling of progress.

Up Next: Favorites of 2010, then some medium-length fiction from Gleb Alekseev, a find from my October visit to the Russian bookstore in Tarzana. I’ll also be compiling a list of Russian-English translations that came out in 2010 and are expected in 2011… Reports on new releases would be most welcome!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mixing Genres in Luk’ianov’s Deep Drilling

Aleksei Luk’ianov’s Глубокое бурение (Deep Drilling) is an entertaining long story/short novel that begins with a bang, when a meteorite hits the Kremlin. I wouldn’t call Deep Drilling a disaster story, though: Luk’ianov’s blend of stylized reality and the fantastic is less concerned about the fate of the government than with the peculiar, everyday adventures of a group of railroad workers. Deep Drilling won two awards for fantasy writing in 2009: the Bronze Snail for medium-length fiction, and the Noon 21st Century award for prose.

Part of the fun of Deep Drilling is that Luk’ianov, a blacksmith, incorporates his work experiences – even creating a blacksmith and award-winning author named Lyokha – into his fiction. And to good effect: though Luk’ianov’s language was challenging at times for this nonnative reader, it was worth the effort because of his feel for colloquial speech. He also has a way with ribald humor – Deep Drilling includes some talking body parts – that made me laugh out loud, probably because it’s so goofy and readable that it couldn’t offend.

Deep Drilling addresses politics, too, but usually through the eyes of good-natured, humorous people who do madcap things, like drilling to the other side of the damaged earth. (Disclosure: This may appeal to me because I was one of those kids who was always trying to dig to China.) Boris Strugatskii, who wrote in introductory endorsement blurb to the Deep Drilling collection and is the one and only Bronze Snail judge, also likens Deep Drilling to a fish story. I couldn’t agree more, though I respectfully disagree with Strugatskii’s assertion that Luk’ianov had enough material in Deep Drilling for a novel. Maybe that’s true, but I think Deep Drilling would have lost its energy if it had been longer.

Luk’ianov’s honors go beyond the Bronze Snail and the Noon awards: he was also, twice, a finalist for the Debut Prize. He came to the U.S. last month, and I met him in New York at a book launch party for Squaring the Circle, which includes Marian Schwartz’s translation of one of his stories. (Disclosure: I was involved in that book project, too.) I enjoyed talking with Aleksei: he’s funny and sincere, and it was interesting to hear his thoughts on contemporary Russian fiction. During the program’s Q&A, he recommended Aleksei Ivanov’s work, particularly Сердце Пармы (The Heart of Parma) and Золото бунта (Gold of the Rebellion). The Russian-language speech Luk’ianov prepared for U.S. events is here.

On a more global note: Reading Deep Drilling, with its fantastical twists and blend of genres, then following it with two more books that layer fantasy onto reality (or reality onto fantasy?), brought out for me, yet again, the reality of the unreal in contemporary Russian fiction. Yes, I already knew this – the reality-fantasy combination was a big focus of Russian Book Week at the 2010 London Book Fair – but I don’t know if I’ve ever read so many books, in succession, with threads of mysticism and/or fantasy. Before Deep Drilling¸ there were Frau Scar, Moscow 2042, Matisse, Kazaroza, and Light in the Window, all of which, arguably (I know I’m stretching things most with Kazaroza), contained major or minor elements of something mystical, magical, or otherwise unreal.

In case you’re wondering, the first of my two books after Deep Drilling was/is Mariam Petrosian’s Дом, в котором (The House Where/in Which), which I’m sorry to say I set aside for now: it’s a big book (1043 grams, according to Ozon, and 950+ pages) I’d been hoping to settle in with for a while. Unfortunately, its schematic characters, who all carry nicknames like Sphinx and Smoker, and sluggish narrative make it very unsatisfying. On the surface, it’s a book about a House (always in caps) for disabled children and teenagers; the book (or maybe the House?) felt claustrophobic. I think it falls squarely into the “it’s just not my book” category but I will give it another chance. The House has been very popular, so I’m definitely in the minority on this one.

Which leads me to my Up Next book: Igor Sakhnovskii’s Человек, который знал всё (The Man Who Knew Everything), another Bronze Snail winner that, like House, was also a Booker and Big Book finalist. I’m enjoying it much more, though Sakhnovskii’s mixture of genres – the unreal, crime, action, spy, a bit of a love story – feels a little patched together. The basic plot: After an incident with a big electrical shock, the title man has the power to know whatever he wants to know.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Scars that Bind: Mamedov’s Frau Scar

Afanasii Mamedov’s Фрау Шрам (Frau Scar) is a pleasant literary jumble of metafiction and storytelling, remembrances of childhood, a vacation fling, ethnic and national identity, and descriptions of cities. A young writer named Ilya, who lives in Moscow (in Master and Margarita territory), tells the story of his short, present-day vacation to visit his mother in Baku. Ilya often wanders from his simple, linear narrative about the vacation, meandering into detailed childhood memories, dreams, and letters. I’ll meander, too, as I describe the book…

Frau Scar, a 2003 Booker Prize finalist, takes place in 1992, during Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia and a domestic political crisis – there is a curfew during Ilya’s vacation, and he sees young soldiers going off to fight. Ilya also mentions the 1991 coup attempt in Russia; he and his father both ended up at the Russian White House.

Mamedov throws in plentiful details that conjure up the atmosphere of the period. For example, Ilya’s landlady’s significant other, Christopher, makes an appearance on the TV show “Третий глаз” (“The Third Eye”), a talk show about the supernatural. (Watching the beginning of this YouTube clip brought back memories!) Later, in Baku, Ilya and his mother buy a TV antenna that attracts the neighbors; they come to watch “Santa Barbara.” And Sergei Dovlatov is a constant presence in Frau Scar: the simplest example is that Ilya buys a Dovlatov book in Baku, several times mentions reading it, and even says Dovlatov isn’t his writer. He prefers art where there’s “много лишнего,” literally “a lot of extra,” then mentions Sasha Sokolov… whose Палисандрия (Astrophobia) and Школа для дураков (A School for Fools) have been languishing on my shelf for years.

Oddly, part of the fun of Frau Scar is that it’s a little – okay, maybe even a lot – confusing at times, thanks to all the extra-but-crucial, and sometimes contradictory, characters, moods, and details that populate the book. Mamedov even alerts the reader that things may be odd: early on, one of Ilya’s coworkers asks him about going on vacation, saying, “Покарнавалить, значит, решил?” The verb “покарнавалить,” derived from “carnival,” isn’t very common, but it’s perfect for asking if someone’s about to go for some off-kilter fun.

A few pages later, Ilya gets his hair cut and starts to see, through a cascade of mirror images, pictures of his childhood through the looking glass… later, we visit Baku’s maze-like old city, where the houses sit close together. I should also mention that Ilya grew up on Baku’s Second Parallel Street, another indication of all the various worlds and perspectives – Russian, Azeri, Jewish; upstairs, downstairs; humorous, deadly serious; and even two eyes, three eyes – that coexist in the book.

You may be wondering how the book got its name. In one of the novel’s metafiction touches, Ilya gives the name Frau Scar to the woman with whom he has his vacation romance; some affairs leave indelible marks. Frau Scar left plenty of (injury-free!) traces on me, and it was very enjoyable to read, though it’s tough to explore and appreciate all the book’s corners and detours in just one reading. I certainly appreciated Mamedov’s ability to embellish a straightforward story with reminiscences, politics, and humor that are simultaneously typical and unique. Mamedov’s combination of material somehow work, probably because our stories and identities are so mobile and Ilya is such an amiable storyteller. I particularly enjoyed the Baku scenes, which brought back memories of my own travel…

Up next: Sergei Lukyanov’s Глубокое бурение (Deep Drilling).

Baku/Caspian Sea photo from Jacobolus, David Chamberlain, via Wikipedia.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag: The Pain of History

Drawings from the Gulag makes explicit the capacity one individual has to destroy another. It shows how moral borders disintegrate, and how the descent into indifference can be sanctioned, justified and excused in pursuit of a flawed ideology.

-the last two lines of the introduction to Drawings from the Gulag

Danzig Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag is a deeply disturbing book that documents, through detailed drawings and concise captions, the horrors of the Soviet Gulag system. Drawings begins with the conception of the system, which Baldaev dates to 1917; that panel carries a dedication to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “a giant of Russian literature.” A bit of background: Baldaev lived part of his childhood in an orphanage for children of enemies of the people; he later worked as a warden in the Kresty prison in Leningrad.

Drawings from the Gulag, published by Fuel, preserves Baldaev’s descriptive Russian-language captions for each panel and provides English-language translations from Polly Gannon and Ast A. Moore, plus footnotes and quotes from other sources that decipher acronyms and offer further information. The drawings are divided into categories – e.g. journey to the camp, children, and the country becomes a Gulag – and a series of short articles in the back of the book offers additional background, including definitions of slang. By depicting political prisoners and criminals, as well as the workers who interrogated, guarded, and maltreated them, the book becomes a small pictorial dictionary of intense suffering.

I knew Drawings from the Gulag would be rough, uncomfortable reading because of its unsparing, brutal, and graphic accounts of prison camp torture, sexual abuse, and other forms of humiliation and debasement, but I wasn’t expecting it to affect me as deeply as it did. I read in small installments. Baldaev’s black-and-white drawings balance the grotesque and the realistic in each panel, revealing and releasing more pain and disdain, from his subjects (and, I suspect, Baldaev) than photos could. Many drawings include prisoners’ tattoos: Baldaev meticulously recorded the meanings of tattoos, and I’ve known his work for years because of his contributions to a Russian dictionary of prison language that has a section on tattoos.

Drawings from the Gulag is an angry book – the title for a panel on the holodomor reads “Famine – dearest child and companion of the Communist Party” – and Baldaev’s last chapter of drawings compares the Gulag system to the Holocaust. That section of the book includes pages about the sinking of barges carrying prisoners, mass killings in Kuropaty, and mass shootings of enemies of the people. Many of Baldaev’s drawings depict, with sharp irony, patriotic slogans: a prison wall quotes Beria with “The Gulag is the best correctional institution for criminals in the world.”

More than anything, I wish that life hadn’t given Baldaev – or anybody else – the experiences and raw material that inspired him to create Drawings from the Gulag. Nearly everything that I’ve tried to write about the book’s many merits feels trivial. But I will say this: given the history of the camps and the large body of Russian-language fiction that they spawned, I found in Drawings, like the dictionary to which Baldaev contributed, a very valuable account of what happened in the Gulag and the language used to describe the horrendous, unthinkable things that people did to each other.

For more: Fuel’s Web site has a small slide show of images from the book.

For a different angle on the book and further perspective on Baldaev himself: Roland Elliott Brown writes in a review in The Observer that “Viewers may also question whether the artistic merits of Baldaev’s drawings redeem their potential prurience”… and (sort of) answers his own rhetorical question about merits by comparing Baldaev’s work to that of Goya and Doré. From my perspective: Having read historical and fictional accounts of guards’ abuses of women in the camps – Aksyonov’s Generations of Winter springs to mind first – I would have been very surprised if Baldaev’s book hadn’t included sexual content.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Fuel editor Damon Murray for contacting me and sending Drawings from the Gulag.

Up Next: Afanasii Mamedov’s Фрау Шрам (Frau Scar), a not-too-long novel that takes place during the 1990s in Moscow and Baku. It’s oddly enjoyable.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

2010 Russian Booker Awarded to Koliadina

The 2010 Russian Booker Prize was awarded to Elena Koliadina today for her novel Цветочный крест (The Cross of Flowers or The Flower Cross, take your pick), about a 17th-century man of the cloth, father Loggin.

The news article announcing the award notes that The Cross of Flowers generated plentiful reader reaction. In summary: Lenta mentions negative reviews criticizing Koliadina’s stylized use of old Russian language, comical eroticism, lack of feel for language, and, to top it all off, “элементарное невежество,” “basic ignorance/lack of manners.” I guess nobody should be surprised about any of this since the line under the novel’s title reads “роман-катавасия” – “novel-muddle.”

The Lenta article quotes [indirectly] Koliadina as saying she’d always wanted to write a novel about love and sex but couldn’t find the right words in contemporary Russian. That, apparently, inspired her to seek shelter in pre-Petrine Russian. The key word in the first sentence, though, is афедрон/aphedron, which apparently hails from Greece. Афедрон isn’t in my Russian dictionaries, but the Internet tells me it can mean both latrine and anus in Russian… the specific meaning quickly becomes clear on the first page of the novel. So do the stylistic peculiarities of Koliadina’s writing.

The novel is currently only available in journal form; AST will release it as a book sometime around the new year holiday. For now, find The Cross of Flowers online at the Вологодская литература (Vologda Literature) site, here: beginning middle end.


An English-language article about the award, from Voice of Russia, with a plot summary plus comments from Booker secretary Igor Shaitanov.

Further Russian-language commentary on the book: has a brief news item about the post-award scandal, followed by lots of very interesting comments. I particularly enjoyed reading critic Aleksandr Gavrilov's critique of the novel's stylistics; he essentially says it's sloppy and overloaded, which was my impression, too, from reading the first page and some random pages further in. (Gavrilov read the whole thing.) Snob's summary notes that one article about the award, from Kommersant, mentions that the Booker's five-year contract with its sponsor -- BP! -- is ending. Kommersant writer Anna Narinskaia wonders if the award was meant as a "жест" (gesture) indicating that the Booker organizers are tired of the award. Indeed.

-A piece by Artyom Efimov on, discusses the post-award scandal and plays on Koliadina's use of the word "aphedron."

-The blogger who writes as zametilprosto seemed to root most for Petrosian to win the Booker but liked Cross second-best. Zametilprosto says the book is far more focused on holiness and sin than love and sex. A commenter agreed and calls the book easy but dull/boring (скучно) reading.

-Another news article. This one has quotes from Koliadina... including how her work for Космополитен got her going on the book.

-Critic Andrei Nemzer's absolutely scathing commentary on the award and the book.