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!


  1. Also, блины со сметаной are delicious. Are Blinkin and Smetankin two aspects of the same delicious character?

  2. Thanks for this comment, Alex! Oh my, I especially love bliny with sour cream and raspberry or cherry jam... it's funny, I was thinking so much of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod that I didn't even think of bliny with smetana.

    To answer your question, though, Blinkin and Smetankin are not quite two aspects of the same delicious character, however they develop certain connections... It is Blinkin père who thinks Smetankin would have made a great son. And it is Blinkin fils who uses the pen name Trigorin.

  3. Interesting as always. Thanks for the comment on my blog!

    1. Thank you, Lucy! And you're welcome -- I'm glad you enjoy War and Peace so much.