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.



  2. Спасибо за ссылку, viesel. Я всё забываю включать в посты ссылки на русскоязычные рецензии, так что спасибо и за напоминание!

  3. I've posted my review. Also, your link for the Ex Libris is dead; here's an archived version.

    1. Thank you for the new link, Languagehat (since you unmasked yourself)!

      I hope others will click through to your post for your reading news about this and other reading.