Monday, July 30, 2012

People Who Need People: Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets

Maria Galina’s Медведки (Mole Crickets) is not, alas, a novel about entomology, though there are superficial metaphorical similarities between the nocturnal, burrowing mole cricket and the novel’s narrator, a man who calls himself an editor and lives alone in a rented dacha somewhere in the vicinity of the Black Sea. Galina incorporates plenty of humor as she patches together slivers of various genres—particularly fantasy and picaresque—to examine identity and family, storytelling and mythmaking, truth and invention.

Richard Lydekker's life history of the mole cricket from
The Royal Natural History, 1879. (via Wikipedia)

It’s narrative voice rather than plot or structure that gives Mole Crickets its appeal and cohesion. Our loner narrator, whose last name is Blinkin but goes by the penname Trigorin—Chekhov alert!—writes books for clients, creating pastiches by plopping the clients into storylines from existing works. (I love that he never gives them cell phones...) At the start of Mole Crickets, we watch him transform Joseph Conrad as he fills a client’s order, changing the name of a sea and concluding that Conrad was a pretty good writer.

Blinkin’s somewhat reclusive life is disturbed early in the book when a new client, Smetankin, who grew up in an orphanage, appears and asks Blinkin to create a family history for him. Smetankin’s request is intrusive for Blinkin on many levels. Beyond insisting on fast service that Blinkin would prefer to refuse, Smetankin worsens Blinkin’s relationship with his widower father: Dad thinks Smetankin would be a better son than his editor son, whom he considers a slacker. Smetankin even renovates Dad’s apartment. And then there’s Rogneda, a gothish young woman who arrives at Blinkin’s dacha, claiming to be Smetankin’s Siberian daughter and asking for lodging until Smetankin has a party, a reunion of sorts for his invented (or not?) family. We also meet Finke, Blinkin’s dacha neighbor, an archaeologist.

Mole Crickets is a pleasure to read because Galina’s Blinkin is so engagingly human as he tells all these stories, saying he tires of people, has three nipples like his father, and loves making flea market visits to scout for china. Blinkin’s voice is strong enough that I enjoyed the book to the end even when the interweaving of the book’s subplots didn’t quite work for me. I think part of my (slight) disappointment is that Mole Crickets veered away from expectations Galina established at the start of the book: I enjoyed watching Blinkin size up his client and rewrite Conrad so was looking forward to observing more interactions with clients, books, and various types of fictions.

Blinkin’s invention of a family history for Smetankin worked well for me, though the arrival of Rogneda did not: Rogneda tipped the quirk-o-meter enough that I had trouble suspending disbelief. Rogneda felt a little too modishly clichéd with her attitude and dark clothes, plus I just couldn’t buy that Blinkin would let her stay in his personal (albeit rented) space. Rogneda also contributes to the novel’s mystical and mythical elements, most of which felt tacked on to me. Finke, with his study of Achilles, Hecate, and sacrifices, is part of this angle, too, and Galina even includes a scholarly paper by Finke as an appendix to the novel.

Still, my misgivings feel pretty picky given the sheer entertainment value of Mole Crickets: Galina and Blinkin won me over with their observations about people who need people… as well as family histories that put all those people in context.

Four things:

  • Mole Crickets is a finalist for the 2012 Big Book award. 
  • Mole Crickets was named book of the year (written by a Russian author) on the site Fantlab. 
  • Медведки is available online on Журнальный зал (beginning) (end) and Bookmate (here). 
  • Amanda Love Darragh won the Rossica Prize for her translation of Galina’s Гиви и Шендерович, known in English as Iramifications and available from Glas. 

Up Next: Dmitrii Danilov’s Чёрный и зелёный (Black and Green), a novella about a tea salesman that overshadowed Mole Crickets because I loved it so much. Then short stories galore and Dmitrii Lipskerov’s 40 лет Чанчжоэ (The Forty Years of Chanchzhoeh), which I was surprised to find on my local Russian grocery store’s tiny shelf of used books along with Viktor Pelevin’s Чапаев и пустотa, known in English as Buddha’s Little Finger. A nice consolation purchase since they’d sold out of my beloved halva in chocolate.

Disclosure: The usual. I received a copy of Mole Crickets from Read Russia! Thank you!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Monday Miscellany: Zakhar Prilepin’s Literary Lists

I love lists—particularly when they catalogue contemporary Russian fiction—so wanted to be sure to post two lists of Zakhar Prilepin’s favorite books and stories from the noughties before I forget their existence.

Both lists appear online and both are taken from Prilepin’s new book, Книгочёт. There’s an interesting mix here: several writers I’d never heard of, a clump of books that didn’t grab me, some unread items on my shelf, and writers I’ve enjoyed very much. Several books and stories have even been translated. The lists are long, so I’ll keep the commentary short… but I’m always happy to hear recommendations!

Novels first:
  • Aleksei Ivanov’s Блуда и МУДО (I’ve seen the title rendered as Cheap Porn). Waiting on my shelf... I’m a little scared of this one because of high expectations. Like Prilepin, I thought Ivanov’s Geographer was good (previous post) but not great.
  • Aleksandr Kuznetsov-Tulianin’s Язычник (The Heathen or The Pagan)—Kuznetsov-Tulianin is a new name for me. Журнальный зал calls this an ethnographic novel.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чёртово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel)—One of my own big, big favorites (previous post). I just love this book.
  • Vladimir “Adol’fych” Nesterenko’s Огненное погребение (literally something like Fiery Burial)—Another new name for me. Crime.
  • Mikhail Shishkin’s Письмовник (Letter-Book)—Letter-Book will be out in Andrew Bromfield’s English translation in 2013 (previous post). Won the 2011 Big Book.
  • Aleksandr Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov’s [Голово]ломка (Headcrusher)—2003 NatsBest winner. Also on my shelf; it never seems to appeal to me. Available in Andrew Bromfield’s translation.
  • Andrei Rubanov’s Сажайте, и вырастет! (Do Time Get Time)—Andrew Bromfield translated Do Time Get Time and recommended Rubanov; alas, my usual book sites and stores never seem to have this particular book.
  • Sergei Samsonov’s Аномалия Камлаева (The Kamlaev Anomaly)—I’ve only read Samsonov’s Oxygen Limit, which I thought was flawed (previous post), but Anomaly sounds better.
  • Aleksandr Terekhov’s Каменный мост (The Stone Bridge)—Coming out soon from Glagoslav in Simon Patterson’s translation. Another nonfavorite, though several friends loved it.
  • Dmitrii Bykov’s trilogy of Оправдание (Justification), Орфография (Orthography), and Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, Or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice)—Though I couldn’t get through either Justification or Ostromov, which won the 2011 NatsBest, I swear I will try Orthography. Too many of you have recommended it.

The stories and novellas sound even better to me:

Up Next: St. Petersburg Noir, a story by Alexander Snegirev, and Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Disclaimers: The usual. Many of the writers on these lists were at BookExpo America last month. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Booker Is Back: The 2012 Long List

Yes, indeed, the Russian Booker is back for 2012… the long list was released today. The list contains 24 books chosen from a field of 114 eligible nominations; since no regular Booker was awarded last year, this year’s competition includes books that would have been eligible in 2011. The 2012 short list will be announced on October 3; the winner will be named on December 4.

Here’s the entire long list, in Russian alphabetical order. I’ve marked 2012 Big Book finalists plus previous major prize winners and books I’ve read or have waiting for me on the shelf.

  • Marina Akhmedova: Дневник смертницы. Хадижа (Diary of a Death Girl. Khadizha. [a key title word can mean a prisoner condemned to death or a suicide bomber])
  • Iurii Buida: Синяя кровь (Blue Blood)—won third reader prize in 2011 Big Book, previous post
  • Dmitrii Bykov: Остромов, или Ученик чародея (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice)—won 2011 NatsBest plus third jury prize and second reader prize in the 2011 Big Book
  • Valerii Bylinskii: Адаптация ([The?] Adaptation)
  • Andrei Volos: Предатель (The Traitor)
  • Iakov Gordin: Солдат и его империя (The Soldier and His Empire)
  • Georgii Davydov: Крысолов (The Rat Catcher)
  • Andrei Dmitriev: Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager)—Big Book 2012 short list
  • Oleg Zaionchkovskii: Загул (perhaps The Drinking Binge or The Bender)
  • Aleksandr Ilichevskii: Анархисты (The Anarchists)—previous post
  • Nikolai Kryshchuk: Ваша жизнь больше не прекрасна (Your Life Is No Longer Beautiful)
  • Anatolii Kurchatkin: Полет шмеля (The Flight of the Bumblebee)
  • Eduard Limonov: В Сырах (In Syry… “Syry” is the nickname of a Moscow region; it’s based on street names.)
  • Aleksandr Melikhov: И нет им воздаяния (They Get No Recompense/No Recompense for Them)
  • Sergei Nosov: Франсуаза, или Путь к леднику (Françoise, Or the Way to the Glacier)—Big Book 2012 short list, on the shelf
  • Valerii Popov: Плясать досмерти (To Dance to Death)—Big Book 2012 short list
  • Evgenii Popov: Арбайт, или Широкое полотно (Arbeit, or A Wide Canvas)
  • Zakhar Prilepin: Черная обезьяна (The Black Monkey)—Big Book 2012 short list, previous post (This book continues to rattle around in my head…)
  • Olga Slavnikova: Легкая голова (Light Head)—previous post
  • Aleksei Slapovskii: Большая книга перемен (The Big Book of Changes)
  • Marina Stepnova: Женщины Лазаря (The Woman of Lazarus/Lazarus’s Women)—Big Book 2012 short list, on the shelf
  • Aleksandr Terekhov: Немцы ([The?] Germans)—won 2012 NatsBest, on the shelf
  • Aleksei Chepelov: Перед Европой (Before Europe)
  • Viktor Iagofarov: Проект «Первый кирпич» (The “First Brick” Project)

Up Next: A story from Alexander Snegirev, comments on Vladimir Makanin’s Two Sisters and Kandinsky (which I am most likely abandoning due to lack of reader interest), and St. Petersburg Noir. Also: some lists from Zakhar Prilepin…

Monday, July 9, 2012

On Edge by the River: Alexander Ilichevsky’s Anarchists

Alexander Ilichevsky’s Анархисты (The Anarchists) was a lovely reading surprise, a novel that blends, fairly successfully, classical and contemporary themes and stylistics. Though I can quote my own post from 2010 about Ilichevsky’s Booker-winning Matisse and say The Anarchists is also “an ambitious, lumpy novel that uses complex, often poetic imagery and language to present social, existential, and metaphysical angles on post-Soviet Russia,” I found in The Anarchists a more even and more satisfying novel than Matisse.

The Anarchists focuses on Petr Solomin, an aspiring artist who left his Moscow life as a businessman to paint on the Oka River, in the Kaluga oblast’. Solomin’s name is rooted in Russian words related to “straw” and he idolizes Isaac Levitan, who died in 1900 but appears in the book as a character. Solomin wants to understand Levitan’s perspectives. Solomin lives with a woman named Katya, whom he meets early in the book, when she gives him a ride in Moscow. And quite a ride it is: Katya, whose beauty is compared to Greta Garbo’s, is a flaky driver. Solomin has to bring her home with him; she turns out to have an addiction. Their acquaintances in the country include two doctors, an Orthodox priest, super-rich newlyweds, and a schoolteacher who’s a specialist in Yevgeny Onegin.

The Anarchists focuses primarily on Solomin’s various sufferings—with himself, with Katya and her addiction, with a Bazarov-like young doctor, and with the rest of the world—and Ilichevsky generally paces the book nicely. The first half of the book is a bit slower and background-heavy than the second, with tangents that take us back in history, telling the story of a local anarchist and natural history expeditions—for those of you keeping track, the Tunguska event gets another mention here and may soon win a tag of its own on the blog. We see the contemporary characters interact with nature, too, particularly the river. There are also heavy, deep, and real conversations among the doctors and the priest: they talk about philosophy and, yes, gossip about Solomin and Katya. Some of this talk feels playful, on the verge of parody.

Ilichevsky folds in lots of literary predecessors, including the afore-mentioned Yevgeny Onegin, Dostoevsky’s Myshkin, a Chekhovesque gun, Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, and the ever-dreaded-but-popular superfluous man. Many of the book’s themes come together when Solomin tells Dr. Dubrovin that all the escapees to the provinces are anarchists because they want autonomy. Solomin also admits to being a superfluous man. We already know his difficulties with Russian society: he loves Eurotravel and fancies the idea of getting lost or disappearing amidst spirits in the woods. Which he does.

How I imagined it: 
Levitan’s Тишина (Silence)
For me, it’s the river that anchors the novel, connecting themes—art, science, nature—and historical eras, and offering landscapes (often with people) for Ilichevsky to describe. And describe he does, beginning the novel with summaries of seasons on the Oka and ending it with the river reflecting a female face. I think the river, both because of its constancy and because of Ilichevsky’s descriptions, contributed most to my rather indescribable enjoyment of The Anarchists.

Rarely do I use words like “beguiling” to describe a novel… but “beguiling” fits my experience with The Anarchists. I loved the book’s contrasts and combinations: the feel of simultaneously reading the present and the past, the feel of rural leisure and urban urgency, and the feel of ancient settings inhabited by contemporary people. Yes, The Anarchists is lumpy, but I think the lumps and tangents give the book much of its organic energy. Ilichevsky pulls so many elements into his novel that it’s tempting to call him an anarchist, too, but he’s careful with his material, which he seems to love very much. Perhaps that gave him the strength to pull back from offering too much about, say, expeditions, anarchists, or Levitan himself. The result is a curiously timeless composite of past and present that mixes post-Soviet alienation with language, straw hats, rural doctors, river banks, bicycles, and literary motifs that took me back to alienated characters from Russian classics, particularly Chekhov and Turgenev.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of The Anarchists from Read Russia, where Ilichevsky was a participant. The usual.

Up Next: Vladimir Makanin’s Two Sisters and Kandinsky, another book that combines classic and contemporary…

Image Credit: Isaac Levitan’s Молчание (Silence), 1898, via

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Ы!: Zakhar Prilepin’s Black Monkey

The core of Zakhar Prilepin’s novel The Black Monkey tells the story of the implosion of a contemporary Russian nuclear family—narrated by a nameless father who tells of his nameless son, nameless daughter, and nameless wife—that ends (almost) not with a bang but with the whimper of the letter ы. Prilepin extends his range beyond the family by inserting set pieces from other times and places that show the destruction of other families and, by extension, societies. One story, set in Africa, includes an extreme example of in loco parentis, for child soldiers, plus mentions of, apparently, celebrity mom Angelina Jolie.

Since Prilepin is, thank goodness, still Prilepin, he juxtaposes episodes of misbehavior, stupidity, and cruelty, some quite nasty, with tenderness, particularly his mixed-up narrator’s love for his small children. He feeds them, reads to them, and worries about them. His descriptions of how they unlock the apartment door when he rings, dragging a chair to the door so they can reach the lock, felt especially sweet. Meanwhile, stories of child violence and the father’s visits to his mistress and a prostitute led this reader to wonder what will happen to these kids who chew gum like a meat grinder and eat whatever hotdogs and pel’meni their nameless father puts on their plates…

The Black Monkey worked best for me as an atmospheric novel, in large part because Prilepin combines realism and abstraction, using language that has a quick, modern flow. The novel has wonderfully mischievous humor that felt especially vivid after seeing and hearing Prilepin at BookExpo America. And the book is a page-turner, albeit in a strange way: I didn’t especially look forward to reading it but it held my interest and kept me reading whenever I picked it up, despite a somewhat disjointed structure that, I must admit, fits the topic. Most telling, though, is that The Black Monkey keeps knocking around my poor skull; it dug its way into my subconscious.

For me, the highlight of The Black Monkey was a brief scene where Nameless Dad reads to his  children from a primer. The primer, though, is unusual: the letters aren’t presented in alphabetical order. Instead, they’re listed “будто в строгий порядок букв упал камень и все рассыпал,” (“as if a rock fell into the strict order and scattered everything”). The book presents “a,” the first letter of the alphabet, then another vowel, у,” which occurs in the second half of the alphabet and sounds like “oo.” Dad plays with words for a bit with his kids then leaves them, saying he’s going for cigarettes. He calls his mistress and plays more with the primer’s words as he trots down the stairs and, literally, runs into his wife at the entrance to the apartment building.

Nameless Dad calls his mistress, Alya, again from her building’s entryway, pronouncing three vowel sounds, “Ы. У. О.” (“Y. U. O.”… though “ы” doesn’t sound like “y,” it sounds like the tiny ы audio on this page). Alya asks, “Кто это?” (“Who is this?”), addressing a Big Issue of Nameless Guy’s life that goes along with the collapse of his family, the disordering of his alphabet (scary for a journalist), and all that violence. I’d say the letter ы wins a place of (dis?)honor in the book: Nameless Dad’s last utterance is a pained “Ы-ы-ы!” Accompanied by thoughts of Hell.

Up next: Alexander Ilichevsky’s Анархисты (The Anarchists), which I’m enjoying even more than I’d hoped. And St. Petersburg Noir, which is going to the beach with me this afternoon. And more 2012 Big Book Award finalists… The Black Monkey is the first I’ve read.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Image credit: Letter ы from OwenBlacker, via Wikipedia.