Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year! & 2012 Highlights

Happy new year! С Новым годом! I hope 2013 brings you many more Russian books and stories to love, no matter what language you read in. Before moving on to 2013, here are a few highlights from 2012, a year with lots more travel (hence a little less reading!) than I’d expected…

Favorite book by an author I’d already read. Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City (previous post) was one of my favorite books of 2012, a lovely small novel about visiting a city once a month for a year. Danilov’s combination of form and content worked beautifully for me.

Favorite book by an author I’d never read. Marina Stepnova’s Lazar’s Women/The Women of Lazarus (previous post), which was shortlisted for the National Bestseller, Big Book, and Booker awards, winning two third prizes from Big Book. If you’re looking for a family saga with touches of postmodernism and perfectly positioned пошлость, this is your novel.

Favorite book that friends didn’t seem to like. Sure, I described Alexander Ilichevsky’s The Anarchists (previous post) as “lumpy” and, yes, I’ll agree with those of you who think some of the tangents are too long… but I still enjoyed the book very much, thanks to Ilichevsky’s combination of old and new. A perfect book to read on the deck during the summer.

Favorite travel. All of it! Two trips to Moscow, first for the International Congress of Literary Translators then for workshops and the Non/fiction book fair, were, by far, my biggest and best travel surprises of the year. A week in New York for BookExpo America and Read Russia! events was a lot of fun, too, and the American Literary Translators Association conference, in Rochester, NY, was a great time as well, despite the untimely late-night appearance of a bedbug.

What’s coming up in 2013? Top priority is getting rid of an intransigent cold!... Thanks to those trips to Moscow, my bookshelves are more loaded now than they’ve ever been, meaning I have so many reading choices I don’t even know what to say I’m most looking forward to… As for travel, the 2013 ALTA conference will be in Bloomington, Indiana, which I’m especially excited about because a friend and former co-worker from Moscow lives near Indianapolis. I’m also waiting to hear more about a possible Russian translation workshop in England next summer… Beyond all that, the Read Russia! program continues and I have some fun translation projects to work on after the holidays.

Thank you! Most important, a big thanks to all of you for visiting the blog, leaving comments, recommending books, and/or sending me notes and books. I enjoy hearing from you and was glad to see so many of you this year... I hope to see and meet more of you in 2013! Here’s to lots more happy reading in the new year!

Disclosures.  The usual. Previous posts that I referenced in this post contain further disclosure information about individual books and relationships.

Up next. Aleksei Slapovskii’s День денег (Money’s Day/A Day for Money) and Valerii Popov’s Плясать до смерти (To Dance to Death). The incredible lightness of reading Olga Lukas and Andrei Stepanov’s Prince Sobakin’s Elixir became too cloying, like trying to make a meal of meringue.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Busybody: Khemlin’s Investigator

Where to start? A murder. A stabbing that hits the heart. May 18, 1952. Klara Tsetkin Street, Chernigov, Ukraine. The victim is Lilia Vorobeichik. The man sent to investigate the case is Mikhail Tsupkoi. Case closed early, murder solved, pinned on Roman Moiseenko, who’d been romantically involved with Vorobeichik. Moiseenko is dead, suicide.

The book is Margarita Khemlin’s Дознаватель (The Investigator), and Tsupkoi, a decorated World War 2 veteran is the title figure and first-person narrator. I should note that Tsupkoi says he’s a дознаватель, an investigator who doesn’t normally handle serious crimes. But he’s sent to handle the Vorobeichik case on his own because the department’s so busy.

Tsupkoi stays busy, too, continuing to investigate the Vorobeichik case after it’s closed. According to seamstress Polina Laevskaya, Vorobeichik’s friend, there are rumors going around town. People don’t believe Moiseenko did it, and Tsupkoi is accused of trying to keep the story quiet because Vorobeichik was Jewish. And so Tsupkoi spends the rest of the book questioning and requestioning Vorobeichik’s friends, neighbors, and family, including her twin sister Eva. As Khemlin said on Echo of Moscow’s “Book Casino,” Tsupkoi thinks everything can be figured out, calculated (рассчитать is her verb) but this is a story about “безумная любовь,” we’ll call that “crazy love.” And crazy is impossible to calculate. Other factors in this dense, crowded book: more death, a resurrection, births, betrayals and infidelity, theft, matzo, adoption, tailored clothing, knives, and gold.

The Investigator is one of the most complex, absurd-at-the-very-core, and bizarrely rewarding books I’ve read in ages: though I kept reading and reading, hypnotized as Tsupkoi zigged, zagged, clomped, and tromped his way around Chernigov, Oster, and the last decade or so to question and listen, it took more than half the book to realize what Khemlin was up to. I knew all along that the novel was literary fiction with elements of detective novel, soap opera, Jewish history, Ukrainian history, Soviet history, World War 2 history, and more...

But then the book spirals more sharply, drawing Tsupkoi closer and closer to the essence of what went wrong for Lilia Vorobeichik, the other characters, and society. I’ll attempt to explain… Though it’s often difficult to keep track of who’s who in The Investigator—there must be dozens of characters of various ages and importance—the book simultaneously chronicles family life and creates a protocol of an unofficial investigation. The ever-present Big Picture in the background is unrelenting: as Khemlin noted on Echo, the post-war atmosphere in the Soviet Union wasn’t easy. She mentions the doctors’ plot, Zionist conspiracy theories, and the interconnectedness of everyday people. That interconnectedness and the misunderstandings it can create are crucial in The Investigator: everybody knows everybody’s business, yards and houses are close, and Tsupkoi, investigator, is the novel’s chief busybody, reaching, always, for the most personal, hidden truths, which he finally finds at the end of the book. Most important, most of those truths reach, somehow, back to World War 2. One character was a partisan. Another’s children burned. Tsupkoi’s war buddy, Evsei, is in the book, too, and there’s even a bag of gold that includes some fillings. The stories build and build, generating pain and tension that become unbearable by the end of the book. There is a confession. Of sorts. As a review in НГ-Ex Libris notes, given Khemlin’s balance of good and bad, every reader will have an opinion about the punishment side of things; Ex Libris put The Investigator on their list of 25 best fiction and poetry books of 2012.

What fascinated me most about The Investigator was how and how much people talk. Tsupkoi questions and questions and people talk and talk, creating some paradoxes: Tsupkoi is an investigator and the novel’s narrator, but huge swaths are told by other characters, who describe their lives and relationships. They tell stories within stories. But is Tsupkoi a faithful protocol writer and narrator? Who knows? Either way, the book is, as Vladimir Guga’s excellent piece for notes, polyphonic, because Khemlin offers up varied voices, including one that’s not audible because its owner can’t speak. (I should also note that Guga thinks Khemlin does well writing the book from a man’s perspective.) No matter how varied the voices, though, the war keeps coming back. As Khemlin said on Echo about Tsupkoi, “Выиграть войну можно. Но как жить потом, не знает никто.” – “It’s possible to win the war. But nobody knows how to live after that.”

I’ve read all Khemlin’s books and translated two of her stories plus an excerpt from Klotsvog so it’s interesting for me to watch how she addresses the war, over and over again, in her fiction. I remember her saying (though I don’t remember where) that she grew up living among the aftereffects of the war and that compels her to write. When I read her collection The Living Line, I wrote that the book’s unconnected novellas seemed to meld into “a mural that feels like a small world: Jewish heritage, settings in Ukraine, and the feel that someone is sitting with you, telling tales.” Now, after four books, I feel as if all Khemlin’s books meld into an even bigger mural that blends the personal and the public, the Jewish and the non-Jewish, telling stories that are individual but universal, where characters often speak in Soviet-era clichés, use dark, dark humor, and describe things nobody should ever experience.

I think what I find most mysterious and, thus, appealing about Khemlin’s writing is that, whether I’m reading or translating, nearly everything (except, perhaps, the occasional “суржик,” a blend of Russian and Ukrainian) feels relatively simple at first, as if I’m reading the barest, most factual of fiction… but then her writing evolves into something more complex as I realize how much history and emotion she packs into her words.

Disclaimers: The usual. Margarita gave me my copy of The Investigator.

Up Next: 2012 year-end post. Then Olga Lukas and Andrei Stepanov’s Prince Sobakin’s Elixir and, most likely, Aleksei Slapovskii’s День денег (Money’s Day)… I started reading Slapovskii, which I liked, but then got sick (again! or relapsed?) so went for the extreme lightness of the Lukas/Stepanov book, a perfect accompaniment to lots of coughing and snow.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Crossing Over: Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad

There’s a certain category of books—including today’s subject, Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad—that are nigh on scary to write about. Voroshilovgrad, which I read in Russian, in Zaven Babloyan’s translation from the original Ukrainian, isn’t just a novel: it’s a wonderfully mind-occupying and mind-bending experience in the form of a first-person narrative from a man, German Korolev, who returns to his childhood places after his brother, proprietor of a service station, goes missing.

Voroshilovgrad crosses, with tremendous grace, back and forth between lyrical dreaminess and brutal nightmarishness, and Zhadan works in lots of absurdity… it’s absurdity of the sort that feels normal in books set in the Former Soviet Union, making everything in Voroshilovgrad feel paradoxically both real and bizarre. There are cornfields, grabby criminals, members of the Штунда/Stunda sect, a bus driver asleep at the wheel, a refugee camp inhabited by nomads wanting to head west, and the most bizarre soccer game I’ve ever read.

When I asked Zaven, who gave me a copy of Voroshilovgrad in September at the Translators Congress in Moscow, if there was anything he wanted to tell readers about the book, here’s what he wrote:
Тому, кто никогда не жил на Востоке Украины, многие сцены должны казаться совершенной фантасмагорией -- а они этнографически точны. Из локального, ностальгического и мистического Жадану, мне кажется, удалось сложить нечто, выражающее уникальные и универсальные чувства -- чувства, какими всегда пропитаны великие истории. 
In my not-so-graceful [but with dumb error corrected!] translation: 
Many scenes probably seem absolutely phantasmagorical to someone who’s never lived in Eastern Ukraine, but they’re ethnographically accurate. I think Zhadan managed, using the local, the nostalgic, and the mystical, to create something that expresses unique and universal feelings, the sorts of feelings that always permeate great stories/histories.
I see lots of direct connections between Zaven’s comments and the element of the book that stood out most for me: constant crossings of temporal, geographical, national, and state-of-mind boundaries. A favorite example of the latter: German’s sweet, outdoor morning nap is interrupted by an inexplicable warm draft of air, a sensation that he realizes, eyes still closed, emanates from a bus. Of course the bus is an Ikarus that’s arrived to take German and his teammates (and what teammates they are!) to play that bizarre soccer game against a bunch of gas industry workers. This isn’t the first time German rides on an Ikarus, a name that indicates flying, something that’s important here, both literally and metaphorically. Zhadan includes crop dusters, dreams of flight, and a line about childhood ambitions that’s on the cover of my book, “Все мы хотели стать пилотами. Большинство из нас стало лузерами.” (“We all wanted to become pilots. Most of us became losers.”)

There are lots of on-the-ground trips by train and car—and I don’t use the word “trips” lightly: the book feels like “trips” in many ways—in Voroshilovgrad, too, making the novel feel like an extended road trip that harkens back to The Wizard of Oz. There’s even a mention at a funeral of the Yellow Brick Road, plus there are scenes set in cornfields. We’re certainly not in Kansas but the reference to Oz (and/or its rough Russian equivalent) feels perfectly fitting, because of blurry borders between real and imagined.

Postcard-like photo of Kliment
Voroshilov monument in Luhansk:
it (kinda sorta) gets a mention in the novel.
In case you’re wondering, Zhadan doesn’t write much in Voroshilovgrad about Voroshilovgrad, though the city is another example of the local, nostalgic, and mystical aspects of Voroshilovgrad that Zaven mentioned. For one thing, Voroshilovgrad, named for Kliment Voroshilov, a local man with a checkered history, no longer exists because it’s been rerenamed Luhansk (which is spelled Lugansk in Ukrainian). Voroshilovgrad comes up when German and a woman, Olga, find shelter from the rain in the Lenin room of a children’s camp (now, there’s Soviet myth for you!) where Olga once worked. German mentions that his childhood German teacher used to hand out sets of postcards with scenes from cities, like Voroshilovgrad, that the children had to describe even if they’d never visited. German compares this sort of uninformed description with demands that he live by someone else’s rules, something he’s dealing with in situations related to his brother’s absence.

Later in the book, Olga finds a packet of Voroshilovgrad postcards, saying she bought lots of them years ago to send to a penpal in Germany. Now, she says, the entire episode feels like something from another life, another city, and another country, with completely other people. That’s a lot of crossing over. “Наверное, эти картинки и есть мое прошлое,” she says, meaning “Those pictures probably are my past.” Though Olga says she was supposed to forget this past, she can’t: it’s a part of her, perhaps even the best part.

A bit of background: Voroshilovgrad won BBC Ukraine’s Book of the Year award in 2010. Liza Novikova’s review of Voroshilovgrad for Izvestiia notes that Zaven’s translation is a retranslation (an improvement!), adding that usually only classics are honored with retranslations. Liza also calls Zhadan a cult post-Soviet writer and refers to Voroshilovgrad as a “манифест поколения” (“a generation’s manifesto”).

Also: Zhadan’s “The Owners,” translated by Anastasia Lakhtikova is in Best European Fiction of 2012; the book says the piece is an excerpt from Гімн демократичної молоді (Anthem of Democratic Youth). I enjoyed it, too.

Disclaimers: I know Zaven Babloyan, Liza Novikova, and Anastasia Lakhtikova in my real and virtual lives. Zaven gave me a copy of Voroshilovgrad. It was a great gift: I think his translation reads very nicely, successfully creating a voice able to convey, often at very short notice, the lyricism, humor, and absurdity I mentioned. It was a pleasure to read his work.

Up next: Another book set in Ukraine, Margarita Khemlin’s The Investigator, then something else TBD… I’ve brought back so many books from Moscow that I have an embarrassing number of choices! I think I’m leaning toward Valerii Popov’s To Dance to Death, which several friends have praised very highly.

Image Credit: Alex Chupryna, via Wikipedia

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Moscow Trip Report, November-December Snowstorm Edition

It was, put mildly, a supremely pleasant surprise to spend last week in Moscow: how could I refuse an invitation from the Institute of Translation to spend three days in workshops on publishing and translation, plus excursions to the Non/fiction book fair? I added a few days to the beginning and end of my trip so I could see friends, go the Big Book award ceremony, and buy books, making for perfect business-with-pleasure travel. A few highlights:

Big Book. A huge thank you to Georgy Urushadze, Big Book’s general director, for putting me on the list for the Big Book evening: it was great fun to attend my first Russian book award ceremony and see friends and colleagues at the event. Though I was a little surprised that Daniil Granin won two awards—the top prize from the jury for My Lieutenant plus a special award for honor/merit/virtue—Georgy explained to me the next afternoon that special awards are determined long before the ceremony but votes from the jury (a.k.a. a “literary academy” of around 100 people) are tallied just before the ceremony. I’ve read so little of Granin that I have no opinion about his awards… but I was very happy to see Marina Stepnova win third prize from readers and the jury—her Lazar’s Women feels like a “big” book to me—and for Maria Galina to win second prize from readers for her engaging Mole Crickets. I still have a bunch of this year’s finalists on the shelf, including Granin’s book and Valery Popov’s To Dance to Death. For a fun bit of reportage from Big Book, take a look at this video concerning Кто убил русскую литературу?” (“Who Killed Russian Literature”)—the reporter, one Oleg Koronnyi, seemed always to be standing in front of me when I was sitting so I’m relieved to learn he was working on something important. A Big Book bonus: the винегрет/beet salad was a great snack.

The Workshops. I must admit I was a bit puzzled when the Institute invited me to Moscow for three days of workshops and book fair visits: I’m so used to having specific tasks when I travel, e.g. “give a talk/reading” or “write ten brief articles about this conference,” that I couldn’t believe my only formal responsibility was to contribute in roundtable discussions about publishing Russian literature in translation. I confess I’m sometimes a rather slow study so it took me a couple days to figure out this was a very good thing indeed. I know it sounds painfully cheesy (or like I’m sucking up to someone, something I have absolutely no existential or other need to do!) but all the interaction, learning, and contributions began to feel effortless, thanks to a casual atmosphere and a fantastic international group of publishers, translators, literary agents, and others with a professional interest in Russian literature. A few examples from the group: Ola Wallin, a Swedish publisher (Ersatz) and translator who brings a diverse selection of Russian fiction, from Andrei Platonov to Dmitrii Glukhovskii, to diverse Swedish readers… Christine Mestre, who’s president of the Prix Russophonie and founded Les Journées du Livre Russe festival, and makes me think Paris in February sounds like the very best of ideas… Margherita Crepax, who translates into Italian and won the Premio Gorky for her translation of Sasha Sokolov’s School for Fools; Margherita told how two of her translations—Tolstaya’s The Slynx and Platonov’s Dzhan—were commissioned but never published… I could go on and on and on but will just add that the only bad development was the weather: I love a multiple-day storm with lots of snow, drizzle, sleet, and related precipitation, but "our" storm created horribly slippery sidewalks that caused falls and even a bunch of broken bones. Ouch!

Non/fiction with drizzle.
Non/fiction. I’m relieved that the Non/fiction book fair didn’t let me down! I’d been wanting to go for several years and was glad it lived up to its reputation for fun and usefulness: no wonder people will wait in the cold, wet snow for tickets. For someone like me who doesn’t go to book fairs to buy or sell rights, it’s difficult to describe the difference between Non/fiction and the Moscow International Book Fair, which I visited in September. Many (or at least some!) of the exhibitors were the same—from big houses like Eksmo and AST to the small railroad publisher I chatted with about vocabulary in September—but Non/fiction calls itself, rightly, an intellectual book fair and creates a far cozier atmosphere for discussion thanks to its location in the Central House of Artists instead of a pavilion in what used to be the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy. Potentially relevant bonus: The coffee vendors were better placed! Non/fiction was a great chance to see friends, colleagues, and books, many of which were, yes, works of fiction.

Things I carried home:
books...  plus German throat lozenges  I wish 

I could buy in the U.S. and a ticket to Non/fiction
Book Acquisitions. I didn’t bring home as many books as I did in September, largely because I caught a bit of a cold and didn’t have enough energy and curiosity for rigorous book shopping. I still managed to bring back a nice little stack of books, though, including Oleg Ermakov’s The Arithmetic of War, which many people have recommended, Maya Kucherksaya’s The God of Rain, Mark Kharitonov’s To See More (after talking with Margherita Crepax, who’s translated Kharitonov, I felt guilty about never having read him!), Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Brother Laurus (literally Laurel), and Anton Utkin’s The Road into Snowfall (?), a title that felt weather-appropriate. Marina Aromshtam, a friend of two friends, very kindly gave me copies of two of her books, including When Angels Rest, a finalist for the “youth” category of this year’s Yasnaya Polyana award. A bonus: when I gave Natasha Perova of Glas a copy of Everything Matters!, by Maine writer Ron Currie, Jr., in exchange she gave me Still Waters Run Deep: Young Women’s Writing from Russia, which contains translations by several of you. I’m looking forward to reading your work!

Finally… I had another lovely visit with Vladislav Otroshenko and am pleased to say that my translation of his “Языки Нимродовой башни” (“The Languages of Nimrod’s Tower”) will be published in Subtropics, in January… My airplane reading included the December issue of Snob, which I bought at the airport to spend my last rubles. Snob feels considerably less snobby now than last year when I had a trial subscription, and it was fun to open it up somewhere between Moscow and Zurich and find Stas Zhitskii’s piece listing three books about cities, including Dmitrii Danilov’s Description of a City, which I liked so much; the other two books, BTW, were Maks Frai’s Stories of Old Vilnius and Alexander Ilichevsky’s City of Sunset, about Jerusalem… A dictionary of fashionable words was good company on the Zurich-to-Boston flight, even if I have my doubts that a word I’ve been using for about two decades—облом/oblom—can qualify as fashionable for a book about language in the twenty-first century. Maybe I’m just way ahead of my time?...

Disclaimers. A big thank you to the Institute of Translation, with which I collaborate directly and indirectly through Read Russia!, for bringing me back to Moscow, to Georgy Urushadze for inviting me (at my request) to Big Book, and to many, many friends and colleagues for tea, time, and advice.

Up Next. Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad (I realize this probably feels like Waiting for Godot by now…), Margarita Khemlin’s The Investigator, and then maybe Granin’s Lieutenant or Popov’s To Dance to Death, which I’m especially curious about after hearing many good comments… Now that I seem to be back and settled in for the winter, I’m hoping to finally (finally!) get back to my usual reading and writing pace! 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dmitriev’s Peasant & Teenager Win Russian Booker

Another week, another big Russian literary prize... Today the Russian Booker went to Andrei Dmitriev for Крестьянин и тинейджер (The Peasant and the Teenager), a book I wrote about last month, here.

I’ve only read half this year’s finalistsSlavnikova’s book, Stepnova’s book, and Dmitriev’s winner—but have to say this choice surprised and disappointed me, and not just because Dmitriev already won a Yasnaya Polyana award in October. The Peasant and the Teenager is a decent enough novel about city and rural life, and I can understand enjoying it. Still, as I wrote in my previous post, I think the book lacks something. That something is, at least for me, intangible and difficult to describe: the book doesn’t manage to give me much new, either thematically or aesthetically, leaving me moderately satisfied but shruggingly indifferent. Despite the cow, my favorite character.

I’ll leave the commentary at that for now and add notes later if I find any interesting reactions. Two days later, these three articles seem to sum up what I've read:

Addition 1: An article from RIANovosti with comments about the award. (NB: They got Stepnova's first name wrong at the top: she's Marina!) I'm posting this because I agree with writer and critic Alisa Ganieva's comment that Dmitriev's book was a safe choice; Ganieva said she would have chosen a winner from the Stepnova, Slavnikova, or Terekhov books. This article also includes a comment from Booker committee chair Igor Shaitanov expressing his pleasure with the choice because the Booker's goal is to try to make serious Russian literature competitive; another article, on, has Shaitanov hinting that Dmitriev's book was noted by the prize's English partners and may be translated into English.

Addition 2: A thorough piece from Izvestia by critic Liza Novikova, who (as always!) fits a lot into a brief article. Among other things, Liza calls Dmitriev's novel a continuation of the Soviet-era "village prose" tradition, noting that Dmitriev manages to create a positive character in Paniukov, a rarity in contemporary literature. I agree and think it's one of the book's best aspects. Liza also includes some interesting quotes from finalists Slavnikova and Terekhov, with Slavnikova discussing how her book might have been different if written now and Terekhov saying that if readers see his Germans as social satire, then it must be social satire.

Addition 3: Anna Narinskaia's piece for Kommersant. Among other things, Narinskaia mentions the Booker's apparent trend of moderation (after those scandalous (!) Elizarov and Koliadina wins...), 2012 jury chair Samuil Lur'e's comment that Russian literature died back around, uhm, 1949 sending readers to foreign detective novels, and (writer and jury member) Roman Senchin's response that, essentially, all is not lost. Phew.

Up Next: Moscow trip report with more about the Big Book award, then Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, and Margarita Khemlin’s Investigator. Then who knows… the bookshelf is wonderfully, ridiculously full after this fall’s Moscow trips!