Monday, January 21, 2013

Popov’s Dance to Death

Valerii Popov’s Плясать до смерти (Dance to Death or To Dance to Death or Dance to the Death), a 2012 Big Book finalist, had a stronger and stranger effect on me than I thought it did when I was reading: if I were a publicist or merchandiser choosing a clichéd one-adjective description, I’d pick something like “searing.” A warning: it’s awkward to describe the book without revealing its topic, which I’ll do without providing too many details, though the term “spoiler” sounds frivolous in the context of Dance to Death.

Fiction & Non. Dance to Death is a novel based on the life and death of the real Valerii Popov’s real daughter Nastya. The book’s narrator, Valerii Popov, begins by seeing his wife Nonna off to the birth house; he and a friend celebrate with a drift along the Neva and some vodka. The first notion of trouble for Nastya comes at birth: the doctor mentions trauma. Nastya’s whole life, which ends early because of alcohol, is filled with emotional and physical traumas. Timewise, the novel’s setting coincides with the geopolitical trauma of the demise of the USSR. Though Dance to Death reads to me like something in between creative nonfiction and a documentary novel—publisher AST’s blurb on even refers to it as a confessional novel—and Popov includes lots of unpleasant details, I wouldn’t quite categorize the book as heavily naturalistic or voyeuristic. That may, however, be because I’d expected more naturalism than Popov provides.

Goya's Burial of the Sardine
is perfect for the cover
Theme & Language/Stylistics. Which means Dance to Death feels unusual, too, because Popov doesn’t focus exclusively on trauma. Though he mentions that a pet bird pecked Nastya’s cheek when she was small, he seethes when an old friend slights her in her short adulthood, and there is plenty of other assorted madness, the book is often relentlessly, almost surrealistically, upbeat, filled with exclamation points, optimism, and, less surprising, love. In a brief review for, critic Lev Danilkin says that if Dance to Death weren’t based on a true story, it might be described as a “literary experiment,” an attempt at a happy narrative about something horrible. I think Popov’s stylistics do feel like an experiment, though, as if he’s trying to find an appropriate, adequate language for mourning his daughter—his language allows him to combine positive and negative. The exclamation points and short sentences often irritated me, particularly early on, but I think Popov found a decent balance that fits his topic and perspective.

Indifference. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator blames Nastya’s death on genetics rather than Nastya, who had always been willful. He has also mentioned, in passing, Nonna’s drinking, about which he wrote separately, in Третье дыхание (A Third Wind). Citing genetics squares well, I think, with the narrator’s reaction to an exchange with Nastya toward the end of the book, in which Nastya tells him he’s indifferent to everything. The next lines, which are a bit awkward pulled out of their environment, are written for the reader, not spoken to Nastya: “Да. Теперь – безралично. Ниаче – пропадешь.” (“Yes. Now I’m indifferent. Otherwise you’re lost.”)

The Effect. I think that one word—indifference—is why the book stuck with me. It’s not that I think the narrator was, literally, indifferent to his daughter’s death: I saw his indifference as a layer of protection, a Chekhovian case of sorts that’s a survival mechanism. The blogger known as Заметил просто writes about this from a different angle, noting that the narrator’s father has a fighter’s character, something the narrator tells Nastya she has, too. But Заметил просто writes that, by keeping a distance and seeming indecisive, the narrator doesn’t seem to be much of a fighter, leading ЗП to wonder if he has the correct impression of the narrator. I wondered about that, too, and that’s what still eats at me, several weeks after finishing the book.

Reading Mikhail Zolotonosov’s review of A Third Wind in Moskovskie novosti helped me understand why. Zolotonosov concludes his piece (I’ll summarize) by citing Popov as an example of a problem he sees in contemporary Russian literature: too much case history and naturalism, not enough focus on moral problems and choices, leading to a lack of artistry. He also wonders about the wisdom of writing about the sufferings of one’s family. Much of Zolotonosov’s criticism could apply to Dance to Death: though Dance to Death wasn’t my favorite type of book—I like laconic but this is an extreme example, plus the balance between truth and fiction felt a bit too uneasy—it certainly got to me, so I have to say it works on some level, if I accept it on its own terms. But Zolotonosov’s review got me thinking… about moral drift, which got me thinking back to the narrator’s float on the Neva at the beginning of the book, which got me thinking about moral decisions, which got me thinking about the absurdity of horrible choices we all have to make in life before we die, which got me thinking that Dance to Death’s open-endedness might inspire, intentionally or not, more thinking about moral decisions than a stance on how to handle a difficult child like Nastya or the complex and intractable problem of alcoholism.

Up next. Translations coming out in 2013: send me a note if you’re a translator or publisher with a new translation scheduled for this year. Then maybe Elena Katishonok’s family saga Once There Lived an Old Man and an Old Woman. “Indifference” sums up my feelings about that one: I don’t think it’s ever a good sign when I think of reading a book and then think, Hmm, I have some blouses to iron… More likely: Mikhail Butov’s Freedom


  1. Your review of Dance to Death makes me want to read it. I will have to reread your post or do separate research to see whether or when it will be available in English. Thank you for posting.

  2. thats is a new book to my wishlist..
    great review.. I always have a passion for the local history ..

  3. Thanks to both of you for your comments! I'm glad to hear of your interest in the book... it will be interesting to see if any translations appear!

  4. Would be interesting to read your thoughts about Katishonok ... Here are mine (in Dutch ...).

  5. Thank you for your comment and links, Egbert! I don't read Dutch but Google Translate tells me you enjoyed the book far more than I did: it just didn't quite come together for me, as a novel, so I stopped reading after about 40 percent. I don't know how to explain my dissatisfaction and indifference, particularly because I recently lent the book to a friend so don't have my notes.

    I can say, though, that I found the writing cloying (a bit too cozy and obvious?) and often felt Katishonok didn't use all those wonderful details, vignettes, and characters you mentioned as deeply as she might have. Then again, I had high expectations after hearing and reading so many good things about the novel. In any case, I'm glad you enjoyed it!