Sunday, November 11, 2012

City/Country: Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager

Andrei Dmitriev’s Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager), which won the “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” Yasnaya Polyana award last month and is also on the short lists for this year’s Big Book and Russian Booker prizes, is a novel composed of two intersecting character sketches. Dmitriev draws his two title characters in great detail: middle-aged Paniukov, an Afghan war veteran who lives in a Russian village, and teen aged Gera, a Muscovite who comes to stay with Paniukov to avoid military service. They are brought together by Vova, an old friend and former farming partner of Paniukov’s who now lives in Moscow.

Though I didn’t count pages or scenes, it felt to me that Dmitriev offered more backstory for the men—often about their not-so-happening relationships with women—than present-day interaction. In the beginning of the book, Paniukov still thinks about his youthful romance with Sanya, whom he sees around town, and Gera is madly in love with Tatiana, who’s in Moscow and difficult to reach by cell phone. There’s no cell signal in the village—this is my kind of place!—so he has to travel to call her. I didn’t find much of interest in either romantic plot line, both of which take up lots of pages, rehashing stories of love and loss that I’ve heard, read, and witnessed elsewhere. I didn’t find much of interest in the interactions between Paniukov and Gera, either; Dmitriev didn’t develop their differences as much as I’d expected.

Still, I never thought about abandoning the book. The Peasant and the Teenager is readable thanks to Dmitriev’s writing and his ability to create texture in the settings and secondary characters—including a cow—that surround Paniukov and Gera. The texture doesn’t always feel very new to me, either, but Dmitriev combines elements to create atmosphere, particularly in the village, that feels real, if only in a schematic way. He gives us villagers who speak only in the informal you (ты) to emphasize closeness, English-influenced slang and poor spelling, a contrast of urban and rural bathhouses, walks that don’t quite go into the woods, illegal wood cutting, and a group of hunters who stay with Paniukov and Gera. As the designated drinker of the pair (Paniukov is a teetotaler), Gera has vodka with the hunters, revealing himself a buzzkill by talking too much about Suvorov. Dmitriev also has Paniukov tell stories of unpleasant village fates: they begin to feel identical and dull to Gera, who’s been through a bit himself because his brother is a drug addict abandoned by his family.

I came away from The Peasant and the Teenager with mixed feelings. On the minus side, the novel felt a bit awkward—not quite finished (or connected?) and not quite the right length—and I prefer a book with more conflict between characters. Dmitriev raised expectations that he’d reveal more about Paniukov and Gera than their been-there-read-that love stories could show. On the positive side, all the details I described above made this medium-length book perfectly pleasant to read, particularly given supporting characters like Lika, who changes her hair color to stave off boredom, and Paniukov’s expressive cow. I give Dmitriev extra credit for the cow, who became my favorite character: it’s a rare book where I want to read more about a cow who’s at the center of everything in a place without a cell signal.

Disclosures: The usual. Dmitriev shares an agent with two writers I’ve translated.

Up Next: Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad and Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City


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