Sunday, November 13, 2011

At the Heart of Buida’s Blue Blood

Iurii Buida’s latest novel, Синяя кровь (Blue Blood), is so filled with literary allusions, peculiar characters, and odd happenings that the book took some getting used to: on the first page, for example, a fly-catching elderly actress with the not-so-common name Ida gets up when the clock rings three in Africa. All this in a Russian town called Chudov, a name a little longer than чудо (miracle or wonder) and a little shorter than чудовище (monster). I’m glad the book and I came to terms after about 50 pages. Once I settled into Blue Blood, it became, by far, my favorite among this year’s Big Book Award finalists (previous post). I’ve read (or attempted to read) all the books on the list, though have yet to give Dmitrii Bykov’s Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) the real college try.

Africa, it turns out, is the name of the building where Ida lives: it was formerly the bordello known as Тело и дело—two rhyming words that mean body and deed—where Ida’s mother worked. Ida’s nephew, whom she calls Friday, narrates the book, telling stories about Ida, whom Buida based on actress Valentina Karavaeva. Meaning Blue Blood is a fictionalized, quirkily embroidered biography of Karavaeva filtered through a (fictional?) character’s childhood and adult observations. The nickname Friday, by the way, is just one piece of a series of references to Robinson Crusoe; Kirill Glikman’s review on focuses on that element of Blue Blood.

“Actress” sounds glamorous but Ida’s life is filled with pain: a brief marriage to an Englishman, an accident that ruins her film career by making her face look like a broken plate, the Stalinist repression, and the sudden appearance of a former husband’s wife and child. As Ida likes to say, “От счастья толстеют.” – “Happiness makes you fat.” She eats little and smokes 10 cigarettes a day, something memorable because of Friday’s habit of repeating lists of objects important to characters. Here, Glikman recognizes something from Robinson Crusoe (which I haven’t read) but Friday’s tic reminded me of repetition in fairy tales, particularly given the proximity of characters with names like Baba Zha. Blue Blood also contains dark, Soviet-era transformations of fairy tale elements identified by Vladimir Propp. Among them: Ida leaves home, returns home, handles numerous difficult tasks, and marries. There is villainy on many levels, and there is even a kiss (from a general, no less) worthy of the one that awoke Sleeping Beauty.

Buida also works in references to higher literature. Dostoevsky stood out for me, perhaps in part because I’ve been reading Netochka Nezvanova: one night I read from both books, and a chapter in each ended with a cliffhanger involving fainting. Beyond that, Buida offers a mention of people униженные и оскорбленные (often translated as humiliated and insulted), a child called Grushen’ka, and a character likened to a Dostoevskian pleasure-seeker. Beyond Dostoevsky, Ida plays Nina Zarechnaia in Chekhov’s Seagull. The name Zarechnaia (on the other side of the river), certainly suits Ida, who is clearly her own person, her own myth. One more: Ida recites Romeo and Juliet for hospital patients, improvising as needed, thus emphasizing characters’ storytelling powers as she tells of tragedy and suffering, something she says benefits those who come after us… I read this in a broad context—the family of all humanity—since Ida is childless and Buida populates his novel with orphans and broken families.

The metaphor of blue blood also flows through the novel: in short, Ida’s actress friend Serafima tells her red blood is hot and makes the head spin with ideas, but cooler blue blood is a more controlled, self-possessed mastery, “Страшный Суд художника над самим собой”—an artist’s self-imposed Judgment Day—something Serafima says is both a gift and a curse. It can freeze.

Buida’s novel is also a gift and a curse, though it’s my favorite kind of literary curse, a book that contains so much to consider, feel, and cross-reference that it doesn’t let me go or lend itself to quick analysis. The long list of big topics I’ve left uncovered includes death (e.g. Ida’s work with girls who release doves at funerals), purpose in life, a touch of something gothic, Chudov’s “Pavlov’s Dog” café, nightmares, and acting, which has subtopics like mimesis and a list of Ida’s various names and roles. Ida’s roles include parts she plays in her personal home movie archive as well as “Ida,” a name she selects for herself as a child instead of going through life as Tanya.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 3.0/5.0 or so, moderately difficult. I found the book’s oddities more challenging than its language.

Up next: Dostoevsky’s Netochka Nezvanova and Kaverin’s Открытая книга (The Open Book or maybe An Open Book, I’m still deciding…), which has been a perfect (relatively) light book to take slowly at a time when I’ve been distracted by a confluence of work deadlines, a cold, and preparation for this week’s American Literary Translators Association conference. I may write about that, too, we’ll see.


  1. Hi there! Excellent blogging and keep up the awesomeness! Hope you enjoy the Liebster Blog Award as much as I did:

  2. Thank you, Josefina! It's always wonderful to hear from you, but this comment was especially pleasant!

  3. how long did it take you to get into Blue Blood, Lisa? I gave up after the third paragraph. It reminded me too much of the collages I used to make with my children out of torn up pieces of old magazines and catalogues.

  4. It took about 50 pages, Alexander. To be honest, I'm not quite sure why I stuck with it. It came perilously close to becoming too something -- a combination of quirky, cute, and mystical -- for me but then it started to make sense to me. With all those references (I certainly didn't list all the ones I marked when I read the book), including the true story of Karavaeva, there is most definitely collage-like technique at work here!