Sunday, May 6, 2012

BookExpo America & Andrei Rubanov’s Good Life

With BookExpo America—which has a big, huge Russia focus this year—coming up in about four weeks, I’m focusing my reading on BEA writers for the next month or so. Today’s post, about Andrey Rubanov’s Жизнь удалась (All That Glitters), is the first of a series of pieces about books by writers who will be at BEA.

A brief point of information before I get to Rubanov: The Russian global market forum at BEA is just one part of a bigger program, Read Russia 2012, which includes a slew of events in New York open to the public, an expo of books and art for children, and a documentary on contemporary Russian writers. As I’ve mentioned before, I am (disclosure!, disclosure!) very happily working away on projects for Read Russia and will be at BEA, which I love every year… meaning I am beyond excited for this year’s fair. An intensifier for all that excitement: an anthology of Russian stories will include two of my translations, plus some of my favorite writers, including Margarita Khemlin and Vladimir Makanin, will be coming to New York for BEA.

So! On to Mr. Rubanov’s book, known as All That Glitters on his agent’s Web site. What I found most interesting about Rubanov’s novel—which covers the disappearance and subsequent finding of a Moscow wine salesman named Matvei Matveevich Matveev—is Rubanov’s mixture of two genres: social novel and detective novel. Matveev disappears after saying goodbye to his loyal wife, Marina, at the beginning of the book, and Rubanov interweaves numerous characters’ timelines, establishing MMM’s rise from aimless youth to a member of the upper-middle class who falls very ill after visiting two men who promise to forgive his rather substantial debt.

Rubanov also offers histories of the men MMM goes to see: a retired hockey player who goes on to head up an NGO for retired athletes and his evil sidekick, a prickly former doctor known as Kaktus. He works in a police detective, too, a hardboiled lone wolf, Svinets, (“lead,” as in Pb), whom Marina hires to find MMM. This is a lot of main characters, but I thought Rubanov managed them and his supporting characters efficiently, showing, for example, how MMM and Kaktus crossed paths in high school—old jealousies run horribly deep here—and revealing back stories in a way that combines suspense with (almost) plodding detail.

I thought Rubanov did even better on the social side, describing the Moscow nineties with mentions of the MMM pyramid scheme, which interplays well with Matveev’s name, crooked nonprofit organizations, and the idea that qualities like decisiveness and stick-to-itiveness were more important in that era than education. He also notes the October Events of 1993; Matveev keeps a distance, as he did in 1991.

Another most interesting thing about All That Glitters is its kitsch element, something I noticed even before I read that Rubanov himself called the book “чистый кич” (“pure kitsch”). I think it was MMM’s focus on a happy orange sky, a motif in the book that sounds suspiciously like the bright future of socialist realism, that tipped me off early in the book. Plus characters using the title words, which, in dialogue, might sound more like “life is good” or “the good life.” Then there’s the removal of the pads on one character’s fingers (this has some icky consequences), the hardboiled cop’s tractor-driving brother outside Moscow, and all those searches for empty lives with lucre that (as we know) can’t buy happiness. Of course the novel wouldn’t have been complete without a stripper. Or Svinets having to watch the same TV channel as the neighbors, who live beyond a thin wall, so he can feel like he has his own space.

The final most interesting thing about All That Glitters is that it works fairly well as a slow-burn thriller with lively language and a strong social element that generates sadness, humor, and irony. Despite being a little overloaded with information and back story in many spots, with Rubanov’s take on Moscow in the nineties and the choice of hockey (which I love) instead of, say, soccer or basketball, All That Glitters managed to keep me well-entertained even when my head was cloudy from a cold. 

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 2.5-3.0/5.0. Not especially difficult, though there is some slang. I loved seeing the word мебеля in print!

Disclosures: I am working on projects for Read Russia. And I look forward to seeing Julia Goumen, of Goumen&Smirnova Literary Agency, at BEA next month. I also hope to hear Andrey Rubanov speak. He is, by the way, a great admirer of Varlam Shalamov.

Up Next: Andrei Astvatsaturov’s Люди в голом (People in the Nude). Then other BEA writers: Sergei Shargunov and Yuz Aleshkovsky. 


  1. I'm excited that BEA is going to focus on Russia! I also just checked the events list for Read Russia 2012 and . . . wow.

    Also congrats on having your translations included in the anthology!


    1. Thank you so much, Emily! I hope to meet you somewhere along the way before and/or during BEA. There's so much going on!

    2. Whoops, I probably should've read your reply before BEA - I hope you enjoyed it, though! I picked up a copy of the anthology, and have just read the first story (Basileus) so far but am very excited about the rest.

    3. Sorry we didn't meet at BEA but I'm glad you picked up an anthology! I hope you enjoy it. I had a great time at BEA and Read Russia events, and hope you did, too!

  2. Lisa,
    What a fabulous opportunity for you, having BEA focus on Russia, with authors you admire attending. I hope it's just wonderful. And yes, congrats on having your translations in the anthology!

    1. Thank you very much, Lisa C. I've been looking forward to this for two years, and it seems all the nicer because of the anthology!