Friday, November 23, 2012

Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City

Reading Dmitrii Danilov’s latest book, Описание города (Description of a City) was a big, huge literary relief: after enjoying his spare but detailed Horizontal Position and “Black and Green” very much, I’d wondered what he would (or possibly could!) do next. My hope—selfish, of course—was that he would continue writing prose that is impersonal and I-less, but deeply personal... and, somehow, expand into another dimension. Which is exactly what Danilov does, in Description of a City, a book that is both very touching and quietly funny, a book that describes—and, really, defines—a city he visits once a month for a year. Beginning in January.

The narrator in Description of a City catalogues his goals on the first page. A summary: walk around, ride around, look around, stay in hotels, buy things, go from end to end many times, walk the central street and other streets a million times, make the place feel native so it gets under the skin. The city was chosen for its railroad connections and relatively short distance from Moscow (six hours by train), sports teams, wealth of industry, and dearth of tourist attractions. We learn that it’s essentially flyover country: the city’s airport doesn’t have many flights and the narrator sees planes flying overhead.

But my description of Description is off. Danilov uses terms like these, which I’ll translate very literally:
  • описаемый город –city being described
  • гостиница, название которой совпадает с названием одного из областных центров Украины – hotel the name of which coincides with the name of one of the regional centers of Ukraine
  • улица, названная в честь одного из месяцев – street named in honor of one of the months
  • площадь имени одного из величайших злодеев в мировой истории – [city] square named for one of the greatest villains in world history
Part of what makes this nomenclature work is that the place names start to pile up when the narrator goes from one train station to another, crosses a certain street, or sees a certain building. This sometimes creates absurdly long lists of names-that-don’t-name that might not seem to mean much. But they become names for us, Description’s readers, and they do have meaning—a lot of very marked meaning—even for a foreigner. I know, for example, the habit of naming hotels after other cities from the FSU, I know there are lots of Russian streets named after October, and I know Lenin and Marx are still pretty popular on Russian maps.

The cumulative effect of all those names-that-aren’t-names surprised me. Not only did I create a vivid mental picture of an imaginary city that drew on all my travel—in the years I lived in Russia I went to lots of small cities not unlike Danilov’s—but the city being described began to feel like a mythical, almost mystical place thanks to all the descriptions of names that draw on Soviet-era figures and clichés. Danilov has been called a new realist but his realism is a very particular and peculiar realism. His realism is abstract and almost transcendent, a realism with a lot of остранение, defamiliarization.

Danilov discusses words in other ways throughout the book, asking, for example, about the use of the word ритуальный (ritual) instead of похоронный (burial) when discussing funeral services. I’ve always thought this was strange, too. Also: can a wooden square that is obviously intended for use as a sandbox be called a “sandbox” if it contains no sand? And he wonders, throughout the book, about the expression “войти в печенки,” something the city being described should do to him, though he doesn’t quite grasp the expression. I don’t quite grasp the expression, either: literally it’s apparently “get into your livers” (!) and the Oxford Russian-English dictionary has the translation “to plague (someone)” for when something is, in Russian, in your livers. To me it feels a lot like “get under the skin.” In any case, at the very end of the book Danilov wraps things up nicely, saying there’s no longer any sense in talking about getting into livers. “Надо назвать вещи своими именами,” he says. Meaning his narrator is feeling compelled to call things by their true names so ‘fesses up: I don’t think it gives away anything at all to add that he says he has come to love that city… and of course the confession doubles as the narrator’s explanation of the livers expression.

So, yes, Description of a City got under my skin and into my livers, too, thanks to Danilov’s wonderful pile-ups of names that sometimes feel poetic, hours spent sitting on benches at train stations, on seats of buses, on seats at stadiums. The contrast of movement and transportation with open expanses and a meditative state I’ve come to expect from Danilov is also lovely. Most of all, though, I appreciate how Danilov uses language to deconstruct urban naming and describe a city that readers can build—one generic, clichéd name or building at a time—into imagined cities that draw on memories of real places and Soviet myths his readers already know. It’s quite a nice trick.

The train station known as
City Being Described-1. 
P.S. In case anyone wonders what city served as the model for the city being described, it’s Bryansk, something Danilov told me before I read the book, though I decided not to look at photos until finishing my reading. One reason Danilov chose Bryansk: his tremendous respect for Leonid Dobychin, a writer who lived in Bryansk. Of course Dobychin isn’t mentioned by name—he’s “выдающийся русский писатель” (an eminent Russian writer)—but Description of a City mentions monthly visits to the empty lot where Dobychin’s house once stood. It is, writes Danilov, on a street named in honor of one of the months, though the month is neither January or February. As I said, the book got into my livers.

Disclaimers: Danilov gave me a copy of Description of a City when I saw him in Moscow earlier this fall.

Up Next: Vorishilovgrad from Serhij Zhadan, which I swear I will finish writing about one/some day soon! Margarita Khemlin’s The Investigator. And the Big Book award.


Post a Comment